Saturday 22 December 2007


We’ve just completed a different annual pilgrimage: spending a couple of days in Whitstable on the north Kent coast to celebrate David’s birthday. It’s a trip we’ve made for the last seven years or so, and over the years have seen gales sweeping the waves onto the roads, frozen sea, hail and crisp sunshine that brought out the marsh harriers and partridges to play on the walk to Faversham. One year we collected bagfuls of Whitstable oysters off the beach after the storm, and took them home for a free Christmas Day starter.

This year, we had a second motive for the visit: beach combing for scallop shells for our hats and rucksacks next year. The throw-outs from a restaurant on the beach were a treasure trove that yielded many colours and sizes for us to choose.

Friday 14 December 2007

Picture this

In the past weeks, and rather late in our planning, we’ve huddled with consultants over the Raynaud’s situation. A shadow that might have spelled the end of the big adventure – or at least the first half. The consolation prize? Extended over-wintering in Barcelona.

But the consultant gave his blessing, within the bounds of due sense and precaution. Yet was I elated? No. Almost regretful. I ask you: a lazy winter in Barcelona or struggle and burden?

Stepping out into a brightly crisp morning (“a perfect winter’s day,” said Radio 4), I realised how firmly I had reverted to the deep distrust of the elements we modern humans have. From house to car to destination, we spend scarcely five minutes outdoors. In the sedentary indoors, we look out to rain and wind, with no way of judging what it would feel like out there. We haven’t let ourselves grow to know it.

Now more than ever I view the walk as an accommodation with the elements. A personal confrontation of my own fears. Like starting a new job or school, when you hope that all those unknown people will become familiar and friendly; so I hope that each shade of weather will come to be understood and – dare I believe it – a friend.

Despite the medical uncertainty, we’ve been completing our preparations. For three days I wielded a highlighter pen over maps and guidebooks, tracing the line that will lead us through those 2,500 miles. I’ve peered God-like at the bends of rivers and coastal wastes. Stretches near Rouen where the path follows the base of steep bluffs over the river, then zig-zags up wooded banks. I pictured the greens and the browns. From Compiègne to Laon old royal forests stretch for hundreds of miles and we’ll meander in and out of them for days.

The neat vines in the Champagne region to the rising crests of the Morvan mountains: where will we see the first snowdrop, the first violets? At what point will a shimmer of brightness on the branches let us know spring has come? And where will summer finally force me to unpeel my protective layers, long after everyone else?

I imagined ourselves into these landscapes, feeling the slip of mud and the tangle of tree roots from the lines on the paper; the unshaded straight roads.

Alongside me David has created an overview map. It shows clearly how foolish we are, how the straightest route would have saved 1000 miles and led through only gentle lands until the Roncesvalles pass.

Why, oh why?

Thursday 6 December 2007

Worldly possessions

With the slide into December bringing waves of Christmas frenzy to submerge us, I realise how much I’ve already shed my ‘worldly preoccupations’. The shops which press me to buy gifts – STUFF, things not needed, probably not wanted and certainly not worth their weight in a rucksack – seem obscene.

It’s hard on the people we’ll be giving presents to, I know. A certain lack of glitz in the stockings this year. But a comfort, surely, for them to know there’s no need to give us anything either. A year, if ever there was, to give goats and rainforests, if only it wasn’t so last year.
And as for parties.

Without meaning to, I find I’ve adopted the three-outfit routine spoken of in hallowed tones by pilgrims. Three jeans, three sweatshirts, three jumpers in constant rotation. My new boots need breaking in, so why wear anything more fancy? Contemplating party clothes scares me. Dig out a frock and flimsy shoes? Absurd! Jewellery? What for?

Reviewing my appearance, I realise I’ve almost stopped wearing make-up. Almost. I’m still to be convinced mascara is not worth its weight in a rucksack…

Thursday 29 November 2007

Roots and branches

Till I was eighteen I lived in just two houses – whose gardens were close enough to call across – in a south Derbyshire village where schools, churches, Scouts and Guides wove the 1960s blossoming of families into a community.

During the next twenty years I moved house thirty-five times; once every seven months, on average. Sometimes within the same town if a landlord proved fickle, sometimes to the far ends of the country; and once it was only three doors down. And sometimes everything went into store as we set up home in some foreign city.

But I’ve never thrown off my early years, when people committed themselves to something more than family. Stepping from my front door, I moved within a story that those around me already knew – and were only too happy to predict the outcome. A yearning to mean something to the people around has stayed with me, which occasionally takes me into Easter services in strange churches. It makes our walk together to the Polling Station each election day an inviolable ritual.

When we moved into the heart of London, I rediscovered the sense of belonging. In the constant churn of the city we have the stories and the stimulus, the changing scenes, the best of national culture and the cultures of every country of the world, often just a bus-ride away. Yet we have, too, community. Once again I leave my door believing I’ll be more than a passing extra in someone else’s scenery. My ambitions are known to enough people who are happy to comment on them as I buy my pound of apples or queue for aspirin at the chemist’s. In the café on the corner, I’m guaranteed to always see at least three people whose news I’m eager to share.

I’ve even joined the fundraising group for the local children’s playground. It’s not yet a school governorship or trustee of some local arts venue – our inconstant years act as a warning against so much commitment. But it’s a start.

As we prepare to say goodbye to our neighbours and friends here, I wonder if our plans to return really will happen. Will this community still be ours or will we once again be passing strangers, part of those masses who lubricate London? This is a new feeling, the hope of return.

Friday 23 November 2007

An echoing silence

Seventy-five miles of flat path over seven days, with way-marks so clear the brain is redundant, were never going to be a gruelling test. Still, we were quietly smug that the daily miles on our Thames practice walk seemed so slight to our bodies. The weight of our packs – ‘burdens’, as a friend more poetically described them – though daunting at first became less so; and anyway we quickly picked things to discard.

What we hadn’t expected was the extent the weather affected not just our enjoyment but our very consciousness of the walk. If the sun shone we gazed on beauty and stopped often to comment. In the evening we looked back and could realise the day as a continuum; the commentary had committed it to memory.

But if the sky was at all overcast and chill, we pressed on with increased speed and decreased halts. At the day’s end we were left with a grey blur and little to tie us to where we had been or what had evolved in us or in the landscape.

And how long the afternoons and evenings were without a computer or TV! If I chose to write, I depended on David to be out with his camera; otherwise shouldn’t we be entertaining each other? Faced with the requirement to converse day after day when we have shared exactly the same experiences throughout, silence falls. A passing visit to my aunt in hospital gave us welcome subject-matter; and occasional conversations with third parties were stewed till every scrap of goodness fell into our eager mouths.

Is conversation usually so hard-won? Probably not: it’s rarely fought for. TV, radio, music stand in at home, and theatre and cinema outside. Since couples infrequently spend their days together there is always anecdote or gossip to pass for conversation.

Then, right at the end, we broke through. Just as day three had made my body long for a day off but day four was fine; so on day six, without knowing how, we found ourselves thrashing out the psychological tipping points in Macbeth. Perhaps conversation has its own natural gestation period, too.

Saturday 17 November 2007

As for accommodation

So far, so scary. We want to log details of a large number of places to stay along our way, so we can walk as far as we want each day rather than race to beat nightfall. Our intention is a slow, considered look at the land and the people, and have chosen a generous timescale.

Stanfords in Long Acre sells many Topo Guides of French long distance walks. But not all. A trawl through the IGN and FFRandonees websites (the miracle of internet shopping) plug the gaps, while the National Trails site and our gorgeous Tourist Information Centres offer up enough B&Bs to sprinkle over the English part of the route. We plunder the Michelin, AA and Logis de France guides for their offerings.

Our divergent approaches to research are where the problems lie. I start broad-brush and fill in the details later. David’s plan is methodical and structured before he even opens a book. Amid long sighs and old-fashioned glares, we devote previous hours to agreeing that both approaches have their merits; but if we don’t come up with a third way, pronto, we won’t be going anywhere.

So armed with all our documents, we put up the picnic table in the middle of the flat and spend suddenly peaceful afternoons trading place names, distances and page references. A directory that can be read from our mobile phones is born.

Friday 16 November 2007

Arguing the route

You could say we’ve been planning this for two years though it has, naturally, taken looming departure dates to make us concentrate. Our air of harmony and unity has been rattled in the wind of panic.

First, the delay in deciding which route exactly to take us to Le Puy-en-Velay, start of the recognised Camino trail. Which of the many Gothic cathedrals in France would David judge worthy of study? His choice has added around 1000 miles of meander – but what’s a thousand footsore miles in a marriage…?

We’ll head west from London to Winchester and Southampton, then curve back east to Portsmouth and the ferry to Caen. A side-trip to Bayeux before heading east again through Normandy, Picardy and south into the Champagne region. Then over to Vézelay, where another traditional route starts, and straight south through the Massif Central.

With a route in place, we move to the detail – stringing together as many grandes and petites randonnée paths as we can. I squinted and marked them up on our decaying road atlas of France; and thanks to a day rustling very large-scale maps of the Royal Geographic Society in Kensington Gore managed to convert the distances of a 1:200,000 scale to a more accurate 1:25,000. And thus concluded that Woburn Place, London to Santiago de Compostela, Spain is 2,500 miles as the road wanders. Give or take a Cathedral or two.

Thursday 15 November 2007


Maybe the urge was born very young. Aged 10 or so, as well as nurse and missionary, my career ambitions included ‘Pioneer’s Wife’. Striding westwards over the prairies beside a covered wagon, I would be capable, adaptable and brave. I must have just read Children on the Oregon Trail or Little House on the Prairie. Whatever.

As my ambition subsided into that of travel journalist, I grew more cowardly. The realisation of death as a possibility was sobering. And before I’d had time for any real, rip-roaring adventures, I’d developed Raynaud’s: for the last fifteen years I’ve watched for my fingers and toes to go white and brittle and snap off at the least cool breeze. When we were very little, Dad made up bedtime stories for my sisters and me about “the Pobble who had no toes”. Maybe that’s to blame.

So I fret when the thermometer dips towards 10ºC and take thermal gloves for a summer holiday in Tuscany. Going for a walk, however, sounds like a domestic-scale adventure, just right for me. You open your door, put one foot in front of the other and keep doing that until you arrive. How hard can that be?

But why, exactly, are we setting out in January?

Encouraging signs

© David Steel, 2007

Encouraging signs from our training walk in November 2007.

© David Steel, 2007

Sunday 21 October 2007

Preparing for the Camino

The preparation phase of our 2,500-mile walk to Santiago de Compostela in Spain is getting serious. We spend hours leaning over maps and lists of accommodation, aiming to log every possible stoppping place along the way to avoid being caught out with blisters, aching bones and still another 10 miles to the next bed.

Worse, we've told so many people about our plans and given up so much (our flat, our client projects, our possessions) that we really do have to do it this time. Next week we will step it up a gear - we plan a 7-day walk carrying the full packs for the first time. Everyone in the Camino community warns that it is one thing to walk on consecutive days carrying a raincoat and a picnic, and entirely another to weigh your body down with everything you might need for months on the road, and then expect it to get up and carry on walking then next day. And the next. And the next. But we've chosen to test ourselves on part of the Thames path. Not many hills to cope with there.