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…