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John Brierley - Obituary

Peter Hore who has made the pilgrimage to Santiago is an author and Obituarist. His obituary of John Brierley appeared in the Daily Telegraph on July 2023. Peter has been kind enough to produce a version for pilgrim associations.

The photograph of John Brierley outside Santiago Cathedral is by Patti Silva.

© Peter Hore. A shorter version of this Obituary was published in the Daily Telegraph in London on 26 July 2023.

John Brierley, who has died aged 75, was author of best-selling guides to the Camino across Spain and a philanthropist motivated by faith.

Last year almost 450,000 people visited the tomb of St James the Greater in Santiago de  Compostela, having followed one of the several pilgrim routes, collectively known as the Camino, across Spain. Numbers are up six-fold since pilgrims began to use Brierley’s handy, pocket-sized guidebooks, which have sold a million copies and been translated into German, Hungarian and Korean.  Many other guidebooks have cribbed Brierley’s methodology and facts, but few have rivalled Brierley for their usefulness and for the clarity of the maps which were the product of his surveying skills.

Though some on the Camino might have wanted only to know about the route and where to eat or stay, Brierley believed that all were on a pilgrimage and he filled his guidebooks with notes on what he called the inner or mystical path, encouraging self-review and contemplation.  For him researching the guides was the best job in the world, but he left empty spaces in his books for pilgrims to reflect upon their own journeys.

William John Martin Brierley was born in Wolverhampton, but his family moved to Ireland when he was a boy.   Brought up in the Church of Ireland and educated at St Columba’s College, Dublin, he qualified as a chartered surveyor, and set up practice as Brierley & Co in 1971, later merging with Jackson-Stops and McCabe.


By the mid-80s he was successful but had become “materialistic and chauvinistic”, and in 1986-87 he sold his house, packed the family into a camper van and went travelling.  While in St Jean Pied du Port, France, he chanced upon pilgrims setting out over the Pyrenees, and, wanting to know more, he followed them by road to Roncevalles and Pamplona where he quizzed them about their motives and learned for the first time about the millenary routes to Santiago de Compostela.


Then, aged 39 and persuaded by his wife who had spent some of her youth at the Sivananda Ashram in Quebec, he formally resigned from work, and they moved the family to Findhorn, an eco-village and spiritual community in the north of Scotland. 

It was two more years before Brierley set out on his own camino. He quickly discovered that none of the existing guidebooks gave him the practical information he needed and that at the end of the day’s walk “an unexpected extra two or three kilometres is a nightmare when you are exhausted.” In Brierley’s guidebooks, the distances are always accurate:  “I measure them on maps and wear a GPS device on each wrist,” he said proudly. 


Nor did they satisfy his sense of making an inner journey.  He told fellow author and peregrino [pilgrim] Johnnie Walker that on this first camino: “I got a sense that I was searching for something. I spent a week in silence, avoiding contact with others. Lost in thought as I walked the route. There was a lot of rain, and I was soaked through most days. I climbed the mountain to O Cebreiro, and I went into the little chapel. I was cold, confused. I was aware something big was happening to me, but I didn’t know what it was. I knew that the parish priest of this church, Don Elías Valiña Sampedro, had been responsible [in the 1970/80s] for much of the modern revival of the Camino and as I knelt beside his memorial, I got a huge sense that I was being called. In that moment a rare ray of sunshine shone through the little window in the wall high above me and bathed me in sunlight. In floods of tears, I committed myself there and then to write the guides.


“I spent more days in silence but when I stopped in the rain at an ancient cross outside of Portomarín [in Galicia] I met two pilgrims I had encountered much earlier on the route. We embraced each other and there was a wonderful sense of joy. I had friends. I had a new sense of purpose. Above all I had a great sense of affirmation that everything was going to be ok.”


Brierley had walked the 789.1 km from France in 33 days, “one day for each year of the life of Christ”, but when he arrived in Santiago “it was so disappointing, I couldn’t cope with the crowd, it was so oppressive, I retreated from the cathedral in tears. In that moment I decided to keep walking and so I immediately set off for Finisterre.”  There, three days later, “I got an overwhelming sense of death and resurrection,” and he realised with utter conviction that the spiritual journey he was on would not end but would continue for the rest of his life.


In 1996, before it became topical to talk about downsizing and mid-career breaks, he convened an international conference at Findhorn, Business for Life, when he advocated sabbaticals as an antidote to burn-out, and pilgrimage as a way to reappraise life's purpose.  In 2000 he walked up through Western Nepal into Tibet to complete the renowned Mount Kailash pilgrimage sacred to Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism.


In 2003 he published his first guide, to the most-trodden route, the Camino francés.  It was not immediately obvious that this would a success, but he persisted and was backed by his publisher, Thierry Bogliolo of Kaminn Media.


He became a regular donor to pilgrim associations around the world, funding fledgling projects, and when the roof leaked while staying at the albergue in Alpriate, his cheque topped up the fundraising by the Via Lusitana [the local pilgrim association]. The commercial success of guides to the camino from France and Portugal allowed Brierley, assisted by his daughter Gemma, to write guides to other routes with less footfall.  Latterly he became concerned that the crowds on the route from France would turn into a horde and made a significant donation towards a new international organisation which would develop the alternative pilgrim route from Lisbon to Santiago. 


His faith was paramount: speaking in his soft Irish brogue with his winsome, smiling eyes Brierley would explain: “We need to be careful of the hard-won space which pilgrimage gives, if we are not to end back in a life of bored indifference. That is why I find the idea of life as pilgrimage so exciting. What higher purpose could it have than to remind us of our divine origins and our sacred contracts?  We live in a spiritual vacuum [and] the busyness of our lives spins us ever outwards away from our centre. Pilgrimage on the other hand slows us down and opens us inwards. In one direction lies illusion, the other truth. Thank God, I stumbled onto a pilgrim path. The route may still have its ups and downs, but the overall direction is set, the waymarks clear and the destination assured. The only choice I have left is how long it will take me to arrive.”


In the year before his death, having been told that no further treatment was possible for his cancer, he walked the Camino three more times.


In 1977 Brierley married Jill Hollwey who survives him with their son and two daughters.

John Brierley, born April 2, 1948, died July 2, 2023.

© Peter Hore. A shorter version of this Obituary was published in the Daily Telegraph in London on 26 July 2023.

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