Thursday 28 February 2008

Winter packing list

Which brings me to the full packing list for winter walking:

Rucksack - Lowe Alpine Tucana ND 65 +15 L with Torso fit system, with built-in rain cover
1 Mountain Equipment rolltop waterproof bag with air valve
3 Exped waterproof compression sacks size S for clothes
2 Life Venture showerproof lightweight drawstring bags size 8
Large plastic bag for wet clothes
3 spare plastic bags
Pack Mate AnyLock Freshness Bags
Plastic carrier bags normal
Plastic carrier bags heavy duty
1 Onya bag

Berghaus Extrem Goretex Packlite shell jacket size 14
Terranova Equipment Ltd pair of goretex Extremities waterproof overmittens with wrist strap and drawstring
Dents mohair beanie hat
Berghaus Windstopper gloves Size M
Snow & Rock silk spare liner gloves size M
Kama thin skiing balaclava
Peter Storm Stormtech waterproof overtrousers size 12R with side zips to knee and pocket slits
Paul Smith cotton headscarf
1 Icebreaker Body Fit 200 merino wool long johns size Women M

3 Icebreaker Body Fit 150 slimfit boxer shorts size Men M
3 Shock Absorber bras size 34
3 North Face base layer short-sleeved vests, smell-resistent size W M
3 Oakley long-sleeved vest size W M layer 2
1 Helly Hansen layer 3 long-sleeved top, zip-neck slim fit size W M
1 Spyder layer 3 long-sleeved top, zip-neck slim fit size W M
1 Snow & Rock layer 3 long-sleeved fleece, zip-neck size 14
2 x North Face sip-off trousers Meridian ??? size women medium with stow pockets

1 Patagonia jumper fleece with popper neck
3 pairs thin socks
2 pairs Snow & Rock walking socks
1 Karrimor boots
1 glove liners
1 pair Lowe Alpine fleece mitts with slit for finger and plastic grip
1 North Face Polartec fleece hat with ear flaps and drawstring neck size M
Muff in plastic bag

Evening-only clothes
Northface goretex boots in plastic bag
1 Icebreaker Body Fit 260 merino wool long johns size W M
1 North Face Flight Series zip-front fleece with zip pockets size W M
Fleece bootees
Looped polyester bed socks

Pair of Goretex Extremities waterproof over mittens, size small
Mobile phone in waterproof carrier
Lightweight glasses case, cloth
Glasses keeper band
Contact lenses and carrier

Lightweight Julbo Alti Spectrum sunglasses in plastic case
1 shoe insoles
1 lipsalve
2 Paul Smith mens cotton handkerchiefs
spare contact lenses
contact lens cleaning (30ml) and soaking (50ml) solutions
protein tablets (12) and disinfecting case for contact lenses
small mirror

2 spare lip salves
6 hair grips
6 small hair bobbles and 1 scrunch
10 cotton buds
1 hair slide
1 sample size mascara

1 bar Kendal mint cake
1 Lightmyfire Spork
Anylock resealable plastic bag with dried nuts and fruit (c.500g)
Other food & fruit as needed
small bag nuts and dried fruit
Camelbak: 2-litre capactity generally carrying 1/2 to 1 litre

1 sealable plastic bag with fruit infusion sachets
1 sealable plastic bag with up to 6 cup-a-soup / minute soup sachets
travel kettle with 2 beakers in plastic bags

1/2 roll toilet paper and small plastic bags in a plastic bag
1 child's plastic spade in a plastic bag
Anylok resealable plastic bag with varying amounts of sanitary towels & tampons
small packet handwipes

1 - 2 months supply tablets for raynauds, colitis, oesophagitis, joints, circulation
3 sachets lemsip
Synodol - 12 tablets
nail scssors
compeed – 5 pieces
6 inch strip of plaster
2 cotton wool pads
small piece lamb's fleece
Canasten cream – 30ml tube
Tea tree essential oil - 10ml
Chamomile essential oil - 10ml
1 small tin vaseline with aloe vera
100ml tub of foot rub
2 Boots reusable handwarmers

Some sheets of newspaper
2 silica gel sachets
1 packet dextrose tablets

4 small aluminium carabinas
toweling wrist band
125ml Plastic bottle of NikWax conditioner for leather
Pilgrim passport

Thin cardcovered Moleskine notebook for blogs
letters from doctor
headphones for phone, memory sticks & UK sim card for phone

spare pen, pencil, highlighter pen
small wallet with English money, spare credit cards
1 small wallet with Euros and credit card
1 passport in waterproof bag
1 small notebook & pen in waterproof bag
small roll packing tape
small roll sellotape
small sewing kit
spare plug adaptor
Lightmyfire flint fire lighter
3 elastic bands
1 Black Diamond head torch in sealable plastic bag

Travel hand towel
towelling waist band
Kohla Alpen Compact Absorber Pair walking poles with rubber spike covers
Sigg bottle 1 litre
Florescent strip
Scallop shell
2 small sachets drawer freshener
silver foil survival blanket

David carrying for both uf us:
Plastic comb
Moisturiser with UVA abd UVB filter – 50ml
2x 30ml bottles dandruff shampoo
150 ml bottle hair conditioner
50ml tube toothpaste
Gillette deodorant
Lightweight Shower exfoliating mittens
Small plastic nail brush
Razer and spare heads
2 elastic clothes lines
2 small plastic nail brushes for boots
Small square boot cloth
5 nappy pins
GPS and batteries
Camera, spare battery and charger
Phone charger
Maps for section
Accommodation list print out for section
Overview map
Camelbak sterilzer tablets – 6
Bar of chocolate
Other food and fruit as needed
Opinal knife
Mini Leatherman tool

Wednesday 27 February 2008

A few of my favourite things

Among pilgrims and long-distance walkers there is a lore - a regular competition - to reduce the weight one carries on one's back. The advice to saw off the handles of toothbrushes is widespread; people calculate the weight:value equation of each T-shirt and each sock. We met a couple once who rotated three socks (socks, not pairs) so as to have one on for a first day, one on for a second day and the third washed and drying. These were the same people who read in turn each page of their single book before throwing it away as they went.

There are things that no self-respecting walker would ever give pack-space to. Therefore I must be a walker with no self-respect. For anyone who feels a similar pull towards the Grand Tour style of pilgrimage, here are my secret treasures you might want to consider taking with you:

* Ankle-length bootees with fleece outers and fake-fur inners. Mum saw them on a market stall and bought them for me. They're lime-green with big pink and orange flowers, and I love them. They keep my feet warm while padding around on bathroom tiles and bare floorboards, but are a relief in the evenings after the stiffness of boots. Any they're better ventilated than walking socks.

* The violent-pink looped-cotton bedsocks that Helen sent for Christmas - such a good combination of warmth and ventilation that I've worn holes in them and have sent for another pair.

* A little, lightweight plastic tub from Muji that I fill with Marmite as and when I can. How people can stomach jam at breakfast time, I know not!

* Badger foot balm (or Body Shop as a substitute). A bonding and healing experience.

* Another Christmas present, this one from Sarah. Two Onya bags from, apparently, Newport Pagnal. Super-lightweight but super-strong, they're made of parachute silk. They pack away to nothing but mean we can leave our rucksacks behind while we do the tourist thing.

* And another: the smart mohair beanie hat from Ann that gives me a stab at looking stylish in towns.

* My mirror and tweezers - already lauded elsewhere, but it seems I can excuse the tweezers as medical - for pulling out ticks in the summer.

* Some neoprene toe-covers designed for ski-ing. They slip on over my socks for extra warmth if the temperatures plummet.

* Another suggestion from Sarah: a one-litre Sigg bottle that can be filled with boiling water for warmth, but is of aluminium so weighs almost nothing when empty.

* This is one for the girls at Tate: my muff. My HAND muff. An old friend I bought from a stall in Leeds years ago, it is a tube of fake fur inside and out that I slip my hands into until they're toasty warm. For use on slow winter days, in emergencies and in the inside of French cathedrals.

* The crowning folly: a small travel kettle with two plastic beakers that fit inside. Yes, I know. But honestly, it's worth the weight! With sachets of fruit teas we can recover and rehydrate in the evenings, and make cup-a-soup when food is scarce. It give boiling water for the Sigg bottle and guarantees to reactivate my hand warmers if need be. I may relinquish the kettle in summer. But for now I cherish it and pack it away carefully each day.

18 February 2008

Grandpa David

Do you remember the film "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"? Not the recent version but the one from the seventies: full-on colour and surreal midgets singing bad-tempered ditties at every turn.

And can you picture Charlie's grandparents, lying top-to-tail all day in a big bed in the living room? Well, that's us, in the evenings in the countryside, lying snug under the covers against an evening chill, all our entertainments to hand to save us moving our aching bodies.

I look across at David, his glasses perched on his nose, raising his eyebrows like a satyr above them to comment. He has a big bag of walnuts in his lap, donated by one of our hosts, and he is contentedly shelling them with a twist of the knife, while chatting in the peace of the dark woods.

12 February 2008

Friday 15 February 2008

Memorable hosts #1

Since Honfleur we have mostly stayed in Chambres d'hotes, and the character of the people who are our hosts has become key. Often we will have walked between people's homes deep in the countryside and not seen anywhere to eat or even to buy food at any point in the day - so have fallen on the generosity of their 'table d'hote' in the evenings.

The hosts can affect everything, and can redeem an unpromising lodging with their memories, humour or kindness. So here is a paon to some memorable hosts along the way:

- Julian Wood, the then-new owner of
The Bell in Alresford, was great fun, chatting long about our adventure and sharing his experiences of recently cycling all the way to Istanbul through the Balkans. He has plans to make an already good menu and wine list even better; and was a lovely, engaging person.

- Chrissie Johnston and her husband at 5 Clifton Terrace in Winchester served up grand breakfasts and made sure all the guests got to know each other round their large dining table. They had lived in many places, she said, including Papua New Guinea - where their gardener was a canibal! Thanks Chrissie for the laundry and for squeezing us in for an extra night.

- Odile Anfrey at La Ferme du Pressoir in Conteville juggled raising calves, making cider, and all the needs of a kitchen garden with the demands of the guest bedrooms in converted barns. Out of kindness when she heard we were on foot she served us an evening meal snuggled around her big log fire, while she chatted about farm life.

- At Les Sources Bleues in Aizier, Yves Laurent was voluble in the massive old bourgois house that had been in his family for decades. He was a source of information on just about everything and his wife, too, was charming and humourous. Together they were perfectly natural with guests, bickering and finishing each other's sentances like in all families. The meal was a delicious secret recipe and afterwards Yves gave us many tips for our walk through the forest the next day - all invaluable - and insisted that if we got into difficulties we should phone for him to rescue us and take us to Jumièges. We didn't; but for the offer I'm deeply grateful and thank them also for sharing their old family home and memories.

- Marie-Lys and Jean-Yves Aucreterre of Sweet Home in Martinville-Epreville had given up their busy jobs as purchasers to take up a life where they actually saw each other - and now the rooms keep them more than busy. Jean-Yves spoke with regret that he has no time anymore for journalism, his passion; and Marie-Lys has had to stop going for long hikes for the same reason. They had given us shelter despite having a big family party to prepare, so we were doubly fortunate that they found time to chat and get to know us over breakfast.

- At L'Epicerie du Pape in Vascoeuil Karine, Nina, cats and dogs spent the most leisurely breakfast yet - and the most family-feeling since we'd left our friends' house in early January. Nina could count to ten in English and was keen for her mother to know the word 'lollipop'. She drew us a picture for our record book, full of angels and butterflies, while Karine unembarassedly quizzed us on how we got our clothes clean along the way.

- Alain and Liliane Javaudin of Le Clos de la Normandière near La Hallotière run an almost permanent house party from their five chambres d'hote. They offer lunch as well as evening meals and organise parties and festivities for groups. For them it's all about spending time with people. We were part of the family: they ate with us during a long, delicious and well-thought-out meal. Great company, we shared a lot of laughter and learned many things from them and their eclectic house in its south-facing valley garden.

- Anne-Marie and Claude Tirel of the Clos des Avettes in Espaubourg are like a favourite aunt and uncle. Within minutes they were joshing us about getting lost and we were teasing them back. They used to run restaurants in Paris and had this cottage for holidays and for produce for the kitchens. The chambres d'hote and meals became a semi-retirement, though they're planning full retirement soon. They were both lovely and talkative: we now know the lore of cider- and calvados-making and of keeping bees - and much more besides. They're possibly descended from the first person to write a recipe book in French, in the 14th century, so good cooking is in their genes. In the morning they contacted the daughter and son-in-law of friends who are also about to set off to Santiago de Compostela. Then Anne-Marie, Claude, José and Josette and we sat round the table all morning, drinking coffee and talking all things pilgrim. And we all drank to chance encounters and new friendships.

14 February 2008

Sunny days and frost

The frost was thicker than ever as we left this morning. Water from the stream had been sucked up by the extreme cold of dawn and left on each blade of grass and each twig. They were thickly crusted, but the sun - itself still white with cold - had just risen above the hill and already the hedges and treetops were beginning to steam.

Chiffon coated the water in the valley bottom and above it the white Charolais calves stood with impassive mystery. This was the most beautiful morning of all the mornings this week. A millstream meandered between lines of poplar trees, creating ever stranger geometry as the sun gained confidence.

The weather this week has justified our decision to start out in winter. Each morning has begun cloudless in freezing air and each day has warmed to unseasonable sunshine. Two mornings ago as we set out into open farmland on top of the plateau, a farmer's wife, wearing four cardigans and boots at each corner of her skirt, waddled across to see the cows in to breakfast. The noise of dogs bounced harshly along the lanes and even though the sun quickly turned the frost to water, it needed only some chance coincidence of hillside, wood and barn to retain a wall of cold into which we slammed, as our feet suddenly stumbled again on the solid ruts of mud.

This countryside - the 'Pays de Bray' - is perfect for this weather. The huge skies above the slowly decending plateaux make evey village spire sharp into the distances. We feel we can see almost to the sea, the air is so clear. Clear enough to out-stare two deer across an open field, before they race away.

12 February 2008

Cleanliness is not quite godliness

Despite the proverb, I suspect my bathroom fetishes might be a step away from spirituality. No matter how sweay with exertion or soaked from the rain or covered in mud we are when we arrive at our lodgings, a hot bath or shower transforms us. Civilisation apparently resides in a pair of clean socks. The act of propping a pillow to balance my sliver of mirror and pluck my eyebrows returns me to the ranks of femininity. When we take a stop-over in a city, the first priority is to find a laundrette where we can sit among grandmothers and students, contentedly folding our tumbled clothes.

I'm writing this after a luxurious bath in a large claw-footed tub, in a slate-grey, muslin-fringed bathroom in a beautiful little B and B in Vascoeuil. The owner, her six-year-old daughter, two dogs and three cats greeted us, served us juice and macaroons and left us to our frothy pleasures. I contemplate having a leg wax in Beauvais. Is this the point at which the devil breaks through?

10 February 2008

Things have changed

There has been a change. As we came through the woods south of Hénouville, the flat plains beyond Bardouville across the Seine's meander opened to us. The river was wide and south-leading; and I suddenly felt that we had left the coastal reaches behind us. The journey ahead was definitively turned towards Rouen and Paris. The metalic sky which reflected brightly in the water spoke of a more industrial heritage to come as we left the maritime heritage behind.

In other ways, too, our stop-over in Rouen was a tipping point. As we approached the city, the half-timbered, often thatched cottages within their small orchards and steep-sided paddocks started to fall away. The first brick-built house that came among them had been an oddity, used by people as a landmark. But east of the city brick is the dominant building material, topped by flat roof slates. Like the thatch and wattle-and-daub, however, these houses use local materials. The 'Pays de Bray' is a wide depression in the landscape, born of the slow erosion of rock layers dating back to the birth of the Alps. Well-watered and smooth, it is an area of clay and slate beneath the soil; of fields whose straw, allied to the clay, made the bricks for the houses.

Farming is more business-like here. There is little mistletoe and few orchards. The wide skies and open plains under arching blue skies feel like the top of the world. Small fields have long since been ploughed into large ones and the farms are more prosperous, the village houses bigger and confident-looking. But they are still only one room deep, so you can see the sky right through them.

There are hedges, too, another element that makes this area feel English, as do the paths which now take a muddy line through crops. At the approach to a fence I glanced up and for a second could have sworn there was an English stile awaiting us.

With the settling of an anticyclone over France and the lifting of spirits, Rouen also marked the moment at which spring apparently arrived. Not the half morning of warmth we'd had as we walked into Honfleur. That had been merely a promisory note for spring. This anticyclone is bestowing day after day of sunny, frosty mornings and afternoons reaching 12°C. Fleeces and hats are discarded; headscarf and sunglasses adopted. We turn our faces to the sun like the drifts of snowdrops that no longer surprise us. Like the primroses and celandines, the speedwell, the bees and a single butterfly. Like the daffodils that are only a day or two from blooming.

Today we had our first proper picnic lunch, sitting on the ground in the sun with our backs against a hedge. Pate, bread, apples. It may not have lasted long, but it was real.

9 February 2008

Thursday 7 February 2008

The bourgeoisie on its uppers

For the first time in the thirty days of our trip so far I have been brought to tears, low enough to genuinely wish to go home and stop all this nonsense. And it was our accommodation last night that brought me to this point.

We've had cold or disappointing places before - every other night this week, in fact. But though the vision of home has surged in my mind at those times, I didn't really mean it.

This was different, because it ought to have been wonderful.

It was a charming, mid-nineteenth-century farmhouse built around a courtyard next to the farm which brought the family its wealth. It had been in the same family for generations, and now they offered a single guest room - spacious, furnished with heirloom antiques and quality fabrics. There was a separate salon for us to use, a little kitchen and a candle-lit dining room where we were served a delicious evening meal and the usual light breakfast.

It ought to have been wonderful: that's the point. I've come to learn that the French landed gentry, proud of their inherited houses and furniture, are niggardly. Their houses are expensive to run, so they lock the heating down low and are blind to the concepts of tea and coffee, hairdryers, soap or spare towels. They put plastic matress covers under the sheets, like a geriatric hospital. In another such house this week we'd been forbidden to draw the curtains or close the shutters to keep out draughts, in case the sixty-year-old fabric gave way.

Last night it was the thwarted promise of so much that defeated me - and the ungracious way it was all delivered. The manic jollity of our jack-in-a-box hostess, her "Bon appetit!"s and "Bonne nuit!"s lasted a bare few seconds before she disappeared from view, leaving us to sort things for ourselves. We had wanted to ask for some old newspaper to dry our boots, and for the weather forecast. But pooof! she was gone, in her sagging track suit and good haircut, leaving only a large bill.

In defence of the establishment's ability to reduce me to tears, it must be said that later in the day my period started. Such are the additional scourges we female pilgrims have to overcome.

5 February 2008

Pure white stone

"C'est la plus belle église de l'Europe," beamed the woman in the woods. She and her friend were the first French hikers we have met, out on an afternoon walk.

"Le Dalai Lama a dit que c'est un des lieux les plus serens." The woman had striking blue-grey irises rimmed in black. She had been to Compotela in stages from Le Puy; remembered most the eucalyptus forests just before Santiago.

As we approached St Martin de Boscherville, the abbey church of St George rose above the village; Its straight white walls and slanting slate roofs made it look smugly complete. An air of almost industrial well-being. But in the heart of the village, standing before the heavily patterned Norman arches flanked by perfectly paired slender towers rising into the blue, its beauty was calm and joyous. It welcomed us into its warm whiteness.

This church struck me as the apogée of Normandy Romanesque architecture, lifting my head and spirits to its heights. After Gothic ebullience it is simple and unadorned. Honest. It suddenly made all the Gothic architecture appear as a pretentious, fashion-ridden female. Romanesque splendour is clearly male - an aesthete certainly; pale and possibly undernourished through so much thought.

The previous night, the towers of ruined Jumièges had risen, unilluminated, against the stormy night sky as we made our way to the restaurant. With dark, wheeling seagulls the towers brooded on their ghosts, less welcoming than St George's church; more demanding.

Inside St George's, I wondered how the architects of the Gothic could possibly have imagined that what they were creating was a proper way to worship God. This Norman Romanesque version was indeed serene. Welcoming and soothing, like an ever-understanding but undemonstrative grandparent.

4 February 2008

Wednesday 6 February 2008


People who know us well enough to care ask, after a suitable gap, “And how is it going between you?” or, in Dad’s words, “Are you still pals?” As though one of the greatest challenges must be for two people to get on well in such close company.

Our reply is invariably breezy. “Fine!” we smile, thinking of the majority of the time filled with laughter or engrossed conversation. Totally forgetting the frequent explosions of frustration between us, that flare quickly and die, or just occasionally explode internally and smoulder awhile.

I resent having to stop and start always at the rhythm of his photographic urges; he hates that I carry on walking when he’s taking a picture, making him rush and mess it up. I get narked that he talks always so positively, crowding out my own thoughts, especially when I’m going uphill and have no breath to reply; he despairs of my constant negativity and silence.

Visiting the Eglise Abbatiale de Saint Etienne in Caen, I had grown bored of viewing Gothic stones. I like to read the history of places; and finding a morsel of print I thought would interest David too, began to read it out. He cut across my words with, “It’s rare to get so close up to medieval misericords.” An outright tangent, I felt, and stomped off.

By the time David discovered me hiding behind a pillar deep in the nave, I’d risen above the temptation to swear wildly at him. A plain statement of facts and feelings would be more powerful. But when I claimed “It makes me feel despised to be cut off, able to speak only when given permission,” I was astounded to hear the counter-argument: “But you were interrupting me in what I was doing, that’s what I said. It was a rare opportunity for me.” In the spirit of facts, I had to concede he might be right.

“Well, the polite approach would be to say, “Do you mind saving that for a while till I finish off here?” I couldn't resist concluding.

We spoke in determinedly level tones, reining ourselves in – realising that a year would be a long, long time if spent in anger and hurt. So we skipped straight to an agreement that there had been a lack of communication between us. Assumptions in place of a full explanation of meaning. For the time being we should take the trouble to state clearly our grievances. In the same level tones, of course.

Still, a useful outcome has been that the single word “misericord” is henceforth available to stand in for “butt out, I need space for my own interests just now, thank you!”

1 February 2008

Family landscapes

On our return to Normandy after an English few days to celebrate my mother’s seventieth birthday, we quickly recognised the pattern of half-timbered thatched cottages in shallow valleys against their wooded hills. This was the landscape just as we had left it a week before.

We held Mum’s party high in the Malvern Hills overlooking the Vale of Evesham and the wide spaces of the Cotswolds. The clear skies we enjoyed on Saturday, when we sat round the dining table of The Cottage in the Woods; and on Sunday when we walked on the ridge and picnicked on a sunny bank, set us picking out landmarks from our childhoods and those of our parents, elaborating the memories that we’d begun to rediscover the day before, over the photo book Cathy had created.

The thought occurred that although we are walking far to see new landscapes, the most important ones are the memories of family and friends. Seeing them, catching up with the news, hearing the concerns of some, the ambitions of others, I glimpsed wide panoramas, steep ravines and sudden clouds, sudden clearings. These are the intricate patterns we have spent years learning, though they constantly change. They are so deeply ingrained in us that we can tell when someone’s tree has been cut down, or another’s is flowering. I felt like clinging ivy being torn down when we said goodbye to them all in the car park.

Perhaps this is the real lesson of the walk, that the landscapes we should pay attention to are the branching and reconnecting paths of those close to us. And, going home, perhaps I’ve learned it already.

30 January 2008