Sunday 27 January 2008

Go with the flow

We first felt our characters shift and slide across the surface of our world when a man in chef’s checks opened the locked door of a restaurant in Le Home Varaville to speak to us. It was a quarter past two, and we were too late for lunch. At home, we would have assumed the man was about to tout for our business and we would have haughtily walked on, hungry though we were.

But his first words showed he was more taken by the vision before him. “Vous êtes de vrais voyageurs!” You are true travellers. He was short as full-bellied, with short dark hair that crept around the sides of his face and alert black eyes. “How far are you going?” We gave our usual self-conscious laughs and admitted, “Santiago de Compostela in Spain.” He though this was marvellous, in the purest sense of the word.

For half an hour we talked about chance and of opening oneself up to the people one met. Of taking time to realise when one is happy, whether that meant going for a long walk or being settled and knowing your home very well. He told us about a village nearby, Grangues where “a strange power” vitalised people who went there. Was it on a lay-line, I wondered? But my French wasn’t quite up to the question.

We left “Au Pied des Marais” eventually to wander looking at shells on the beach and to find the manor house where we were to spend the night. Later we returned to the restaurant where – the only customers – we enjoyed excellent service, a beautiful seven course meal, a bottle of Bordeaux and the company of the owner as he nipped between kitchen and table to chat. Before a huge log fire we learned of his years working in restaurants in London, Monte Carlo and in private service. He loved cooking and making people happy, loved living there with his young family. Now he was aiming for a Michelin star to ensure a clientele that would let him continue his chosen life. He said he envied us, but I objected. I did not want to cause envy, which is a negative emotion. We agreed “inspire” would serve. As we left, he said we had reminded him of the path he was on, that was in danger of being forgotten.

The next day, in the venerable but alive town of Dives-sur-Mer to which we had diverted on our restaurateur’s advice, we were adopted in the 11th century church of Notre Dame by a local man, an enthusiast of both the church and photography, who led us on an illustrated story of the church. It was founded after a living statue of Christ was fished out of the seas nearby, and became a place of pilgrimage. He took David and his camera in hand to make sure he captured the details buried deep and dark in the fragments of thirteenth-century stained glass in the East window. Details and knowledge that we would never have gleaned without him.

He made himself late for his lunch, so we walked him back home across the market square, and as we waved goodbye he was still calling advice on the route to take for the best views of the sea.

We too were late, with all the day’s walk still ahead. But we’d learned an important lesson in making room for chance.

How green?

My conscience is already piercing the myth that we are having a green, eco-experience. On the surface, a walking holiday from your front door would seem to be about as environmentally responsible as it is possible to get. But in reality, keeping our health and sanity involves something a little more destructive.

We launder a whole set of clothes each evening. Occasionally we’ve been offered the use of a machine or spin dryer; but although more often we use our shower water to wash the clothes, they do have to be rinsed and to get them dry for the morning can mean running the heating all night.

I try not to use a hair dryer, but if the room is cool or if we are going straight out I opt to avoid chills by blasting my hair for a few minutes.

Then there is the amount we eat. English breakfasts are huge and you are usually served things you didn’t even ask for. So food is wasted. In France, that tendency is less – but we eat more than we would normally. I suppose I could tell myself that cooking en bloc for a large number of people is a more efficient use of cooker power – but often at breakfast, lunch or dinner we have been the only customers in this dead end of the year.

There is the packaging of the individual soaps and shampoos we use at eat hotel in lieu of carrying our own, the little wrapped pats of butter and jam. The batteries that fire the GPS have a short shelf-life, and we re-charge the phone and the camera. In the evenings we have the lights on to read – often several as hotel bedrooms seem curiously ill-equipped for such an activity.

If we go out in the evening we might get a taxi if there are no buses in the remote villages. And at various points of the year we will need to return to England for family or work reasons – sometimes by plane.

Granted, a lot of these carbon uses would have been there in our daily home life. But I’d love to learn if the comparative footprint of this “green” year will in fact be smaller?

January landscapes

Heading south then east from London, we left the centre of tourist attractions and royal parks and were soon among the rows of terraced houses put up to shelter the workers of the industrial revolution and the Victorian expansion. Mile after mile London stretched, barely remembering that it used to be villages. When did Streatham last have a Vale to boast of?

Beneath all these bricks was London clay, but by the time we reached true grass and woodland, on the second day of walking, we were on chalk downs. It used to be countryside; is now more country park, as yet reserved and kitted out for our recreation. Gardeners in these parts have learned to work with chalk-loving plants, and the flints they dig out of the soil have for centuries bulked out the walls of their houses and churches.

As the North Downs ridge headed east, the soil was dark brown and thick where years of leaves had mulched it, but pale and sickly clinging to our boots in the open fields. Then the chalk faded into sandstone hills and the tracks were cut deeper between their soft banks, clean and soft to walk on.

We said goodbye to the ridge of hills and hello to the river landscapes of the Wey and the Itchen. Clear and leaping over sandy bottoms, the rivers nurtured watercress, which though commercially productive in places and at times in history, to us merely lent a vivid green detail like a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

Here and there the rain had made the rivers swell and rise; pouring through weaknesses in the banks to flood the path, and here again we cursed the dark clinging mud that was more than one-part cow shit.

The coast of the Solent from Bitterne Park to Portsmouth is industrial and drab. Even in high summer I doubt it would look anything other than a smudgy brown. The beach is pure pebble and shell, loud to walk along and bruising to the feet. It’s not a place for summer holidays and sandcastles, even before you glance out at the waterway full of cargo ships, naval vessels and pleasure boats, each discharging their share of oil residue.

Whereas Portsmouth looks out to sea beyond the Isle of Wight, half-hiding coyly behind the curve of its old harbour and the marina of Gosport across the bay, Caen is buried deep inland, 15 or so miles down the joint channels of the Orne River and the Canal de Caen. This southern shore of the English Channel has wide, finely-sanded beaches stretching flat and insubstantial for miles down the coast. The sea falls far away at low tide leaving firm wet sands shimmering into the water and the sky – good for horse riding as well as shell-combing. This is the country of the D-Day landings. Not until nearly Deauville, heading west from Caen, do hills rise behind the coast: wooded folds and valleys whose soil echoes the flints and chalk of the English Downs.

And finally we look down the steep slopes above attractive Honfleur to the mouth of the Seine, the wide mud and salt-marsh estuary of one of France’s great rivers with its tiara of the Pont de Normandie suspension bridge over to Le Havre.

January’s weather

January has been mild and gentle towards us. Even though on New Year’s Day the Daily Mail was predicting, in that Daily Mail kind of way, one of the worst winters on record. I admit that gave me qualms.

It was raining, sure, and cold enough, but the 2nd greeted us with bright sunshine and patches of frost. We set out without coats and so long as we paused where the blue sky and sun reached us, it felt warm.

The third day was deeper in frost and a thick grey sky. Christine had to break the ice on the chickens’ bowl before breakfast and we set out into undifferentiated flat cold. The wind cut my ears on top of Farthing Down and by Merstham we had snow – a slick barely a flake thick on the footbridge, which brought a noticeable rise in temperature. A degree or two, at least.

On the fourth of January it was the turn of fog. We were at last onto the North Downs ridge, but you wouldn’t know it. The benches at the viewpoints gazed out into white. The twisted, muscular trunks of the trees in the Buckland Hills woods glistened with dark mystery, waiting for us to pass by before adding their whispered comments on our progress.

We’ve had crisp clear mornings, especially leaving Guildford on the 6th day when grass stalks were individually crystallised and wood smoke from cottage chimneys hung low and mingled with the slight mistiness in the valley bottoms. At the end of the day the north-facing slopes were still rimed with white; but we saw, too the first snowdrops of winter by the river leading into Farnham.

While the north of the UK was deep in snow and winds blew down power lines; and while Wales and the West Country succumbed wearily to another flood, we had a morning of heavy rain – but many more days when drizzle alternated with dry patches so we never quite needed our coats or waterproof trousers. With the wind and rain came the warm temperatures of the gulf stream, rising from 3º or 4 º to 10 º or 12 º almost overnight, so we relaxed and expanded.

Heavy rain fell mostly while we were admiring Winchester Cathedral, rediscovering the strong British 20th-Century art in Southampton City Gallery, or in the dark of the Bayeux Tapestry. And the long, long day from Winchester to Bittern was compensated by bright sun on the leaping, clear Itchen and its water meadows.

The heavy winds people had persuaded us to fear duly gathered for the ferry across the Channel, but Stugeron and a cabin meant we rode the waves as in a cradle more than in a barque.

The sun and clear skies of early January had felt like bright winter days; yet on the last morning before popping home for my mother’s 70th birthday, the sun belonged to the spring. We saw it rise over the hillside, casting its yellow to beautify the ugliness of Le Havre; and even the mud smelled of flowers and grassy sap. Even though temperatures dropped and the gales returned in the afternoon, it had been a promise of what March and April will bring us.

On perception and memory

For the human eye to perceive it requires difference; it needs something to change. A colour or the quality of light, a tone or texture. An event. If two items of identical colour and light- reflecting qualities are set next to each other, the mind can’t see them unless there is a gap or a shadow. Stare long enough at a large, flat area of colour and it will disappear.

But to perceive a difference, it seems to me, we need to be familiar with what was first there.

We all (that is to say, we adults) know that that life speeds by in the years where little changes; when we have followed our routine, week in week out. If we’re asked to look back and pin a date on an event, we fail. At times I have walked along city streets and found myself wondering if it was nearly Easter or coming up to Christmas. I literally couldn’t remember what season of the year we were in.

In contrast, in periods when much happens – a new job, new school, a fine holiday, visits with family and friends – we invariably end up saying, “I can’t believe it’s only a year ago that …” Life seems so long-lasting because we have witnessed so many changes. Childhood appears long and rich because it is packed full of new-ness.

So we assumed that this year would be intensely memorable for us, witnessing the evolving scenery, the changing weather. Strangely, the opposite occurs. Casting back only a few days to where we had slept or eaten, we find we struggle to picture the place, to set it apart from all the others. Churches merge into a single, soaring block of worked stone and the route devolves to three types: a long line of mud between trees; tarmac bordered by hedges; beach.

I think maybe we have skipped over the familiarity stage. Forever passing by, we don’t get as far as knowing a place before it changes. Thus we don’t perceive change. Maybe our perception and memory will operate on a grander scale. We recognise, now, the architecture and agriculture of the Calvados region. In a few days, when we pass into Seine Maritime, will we then start the mark the difference?

In the meantime we’re applying the theory of learning I heard about when training as a tutor: revise a thing after an hour, after a day, after a week and after a month, and it will make its way into long-term memory. So we’ve added a regular mantra to our days “And then we stayed at Clifton Terrace with the enormous bath; last Thursday it was the Manoir de la Marjolaine with the huge, old-style French bedroom. Last Saturday in Bitterne Park the B and B served a wonderful breakfast and greeted us with sweets …”

The visual images conjured up daily are sealing our experiences deep into our minds.

Is this normal?

After three weeks we have perfected a daily routine. We wake, wash our faces and dress. After breakfast everything goes into its rightful place in the rucksack. In France, at the end of January, there is little point setting out before 9am as it is still too dark to sea.

We walk a long morning – 8 to 10 miles – aiming to stop for lunch if we find a restaurant. Ideally we arrive at our accommodation by mid afternoon, where we immediately shower, wash the day’s clothes, wring them out in towels and hang them to dry. We stretch. Time next to write up the diary for the day or to sort through the photos. If we’ve eaten lunch we’ll just snack in the evening; otherwise we find the nearest set menu around.

Then a highlight of the day: a foot rub apiece with Badger’s Foot Balm. And if we’re not asleep after that, we’ll listen to a book on the phone, or write.

Is this now our normality? I guess so – it feels very tranquil and ordered, far from the rush of too many things to fit into the day, which characterises home life. But whereas David has already become hooked on the walking and feels restless after a day without the pack on his back, I’m not yet at that point. I look forward to the evenings more than the mornings.

Thursday 17 January 2008

Beyond 1066

“Notre grand Guillaume,” the guide in the Abbeye des Hommes in Caen called him, and I was struck by the affection in her voice. Was she saving our feelings by avoiding the word “Conqueror”? Or did William, Duke of Normandy and King of England, simply have a significance here separate to his role in English history?

Between Winchester, Bayeux and Caen we have bumped into this tall, blond man a number of times. The first surprise (I didn’t pay attention in school) was that he had his palace in Winchester rather than London. Winchester is so old and small I easily pictured the scenes around his palace on the hill.

The second surprise was that he was actually chosen as King by Edward the Confessor – a good guy, no? It was only Our 'Arold’s treachery in snapping the Crown for himself that led to the whole invasion/conquoring thang.

The third surprise was his tallness and blondness. Attributes I had, since school, ascribed to Harold rather than some pesky little Frenchman.

We debated long whether such far-off events had any importance to us today; modern citizens of Europe and the world. But the fact of my surprise and emotional reassessment in favour of William showed me that our legends, even those served up by school teachers as History, hold fast pieces of the mosaic that is our sense of self, however subconscoiusly. However erroneously: history being written by the winners, after all.

What was the impact of William’s invasion of England? An entrenching of a continental version of feudalism, harsher and creating greater inequalities than that already in place. The rapid and deliberate replacement of Anglo-Saxon bishops and lords with cronies brought over from Normandy. And the equally rapid building of castles, cathedrals and churches in the alien-looking “Norman” or Romanesque style in stone brought over from William’s native Caen. All acts of a conqueror determined to brand his legitimacy on a disgruntled nation. But also a legacy of high intellectual scholasticism in the Church.

The Norman style paved the way for Gothic architecture to also cross the Channel, both of which styles England made its own. So much so that, after the passing of centuries when the Victorians sought a model of an upright, honourable, honest, simpler English society after years of decadence and frivolity, it was to Chivalry and the “Gothic” that they turned. They renovated and rebuilt parish churches across the land in their search for a traditional ‘Old England’; copying styles that had once seemed so foreign, so imposing.

So is 1066 at all important? With a slight re-writing of the tale William would have arrived as the legitimate successor; and the systems of law and society, the grand buildings, the purification of the Church would all have taken place, though more slowly. In Normandy, William is held as great for the strength of his rule and his generosity in founding religious houses, his support for learning. We would have lost our role model, as a nation, for the herioc failure of Harold.

At the time rulers were from a pan-European network of family ties and allegiences. The other great power in the land, the bishops, listened more closely to the Pope in Rome or the edicts of their foundation abbeys in France than they did to people living on the land beyond their walls. They were non-nationalistic in their sensibilities, with wide horizons and a taller motivation. European, in a way we should aspire to.

At least, that’s how I read the legends of my history. Which is why I felt so uneasy at the Union Jacks flying patriotically outside farmhouses in Hampshire.

Thursday 10 January 2008


The scallop shells haven’t yet resonated with people we’ve met. Even in St Martha’s Church on its hill outside Guildford, a pilgrim church in its own right and one for people journeying between Winchester and Canterbury, our scallops caused no comment despite the pilgrim with his scallop shell in their stained glass window.

But the spirit of kindness and care towards walkers has not lacked. Ruddy-faced elderly golfers stop to point out the way and friends take in our washing and lend us items we’ve forgotten.

At Denbie’s Wine Estate outside Dorking, the New Zealander manager of the accommodation not only took our clothes to be washed and dried and gave us a lift in the rain to the pub – but, star of all hospitality, offered to clean our very muddy boots! We limited our acceptance to using his utility room to clean them ourselves.

Many spin-dryers and airing cupboards have been proffered, and Mrs Johnson in Winchester took on two loads of washing and made over her son’s bedroom for us when we begged to stay an extra night.

In Winchester Cathedral, Elizabeth, a volunteer guide, has just spent a leisurely and fascinating two hours showing us round, with a conversation that touched on many religions and philosophies, as well as David and she debating what the stones of the Cathedral revealed. Elizabeth “wished it was her place to bless our journey” and her colleagues came up with a lovely entry in our Pilgrim record.

Now, there’s a message from our tenants, who are French, saying their mother would love to welcome us into her home near to Le Puy later in the year. Such kindnesses overcome all the wind and lashing rain that is around us at this tail-end of our second week.

Sunday 6 January 2008

Peeling off the layers

There was not a single moment when we felt “our walk starts here”; more a slow moving through layers of association.

We closed our front door and said goodbye to the porter. But the first three miles were a stroll through London streets wholly familiar to us. Not until Chelsea Bridge did we move beyond range of our usual meanderings, and still we could recall the layout of Battersea Park from out Thames Path trip.

Beyond the park we were in unknown lands and not entirely sure if this was the south London of knives and gun crime. We needed the pages of the A-Z to pick our way through. But the natives were friendly; New Year’s Day and the world was smiling at strangers to wish them well.

At Purley, of course, the memories multiplied. In the house where David grew up and where we lived for many months between travels, we were at home again. We laid the table without needing to search through drawers and we snuggled into the boys’ old beds in the attic, like children. Chatting with Ann the next morning we might simply have been calling in for lunch.

Between Purley and our friends’ home in Chipstead, and out through Chaldon and Merstham, we described a looping route away from roads through ancient downlands and commons. We chose the route because we could – because we know the area intimately. Every bend and hedge called up memories. The golf course where David scavenged lost balls. Kenley Aerodrome, site of roller-blading and walks with our dog Jack. The field where we launched rockets with Shaun and Michelle; the slope that Owen and Bryn raced down. A drink at The Fox recalled Boxing Day rendez-vous. The path where bees burrowed into the earth on a summer walk with Kathryn and Dylan. The pub where we had lunch with Sal and Abdul.

Leaving Chipstead was hard. We had told Charlie and Amelia that they might join us for a few days in France. But how much does a five-year-old grasp of a long walk and a year’s absence?

As we went to the front door, there was Charlie in boots, jacket and a backpack with his torch and hat inside, holding short sticks and convinced he was coming with us. It was painful to make him turn back and to pretend that four months will be a short time before we see them again.

And now we’re on the North Downs Way, once again on tracks that we have walked before, though less often. Box Hill, where we stop to sponsor a kissing gate in the boundary fence the National Trust plan to build, is familiar to David from childhood – a memento of all our walks together.

Yet all the time we’ve been aware that a train station is just down the road which could have us back in our flat in an hour. Yet we resist the pull of home.

After Farnham we will at last be on paths new to us, where our forward image of each day will be drawn from the map only. But as long as we are in England there will be the comfort of knowing what a B and B is like and what a pub lunch might offer.


Our warm family Christmas was filled with noise and teasing. Too much news to share – conversations started and never quite completed before another story came leaping by. The luxury of afternoons playing games together. When, besides Christmas, do adults play?

We talked a little about our departure, just a week away, and received some thoughtfully nifty little presents. We couldn’t conceive of not picking up the thread with these people again in a few days or weeks. We had planned such little fanfare for our leaving that we forgot we were leaving at all.

Which is how come New Year’s Eve was spent defrosting the fridge and watching the machines at the local laundrette, as it finally dawned on us we couldn’t leave sheets and towels festering in the laundry basket for a whole year.