Thursday 31 July 2008

Messing about in boats

Our paddles snagged in clinging brambles and we forced ourselves free of the bank. I wondered if this had been a mistake: just as I'd come to terms with the mountains of the Auvergne, I found myself a whole new comfort zone to fall outside.

The cloudy water with its orange tints of iron hid the small rocks on which the canoe immediately beached. A technique somewhere between pole-vaulting and pogo-ing propelled the boat further into the stream, so with burning muscles – those arm muscles which are rarely used during a year of walking - we began our next section of St Jack's route: boating on the Loire between Retournac and Bas-en-Basset. Just a couple of days' walk from Le Puy-en-Velay, we had reasoned that going by canoe still classed as going under our own steam; and with advice from the giggling tourist office staff in St-Bonnet-le-Chateau, we turned the idea’s germ into reality.

Less than a minute later, flowing freely now with the current, the first boulders appeared from nowhere and hurtled against the pink plastic prow in front of me. We were pitched sideways, but a memory of canoeing was lodged in our hips and we instinctively leaned upstream till the canoe steadied and we could push and heave at solid water till we once again pointed downstream. Time for a quick assessment: rather too much water sloshing around our feet but otherwise no damage.

But already we were rushing into the next rapids and my arms were acting like slinky coils - great at stretching out but wobbly on the return. It crossed my mind to phone the canoe company to say we'd changed our minds and could they please pick us up next time they were passing?

Then deeper, slower water came just in time and we let the boat drift while we rested. To our right the high russet cliffs of the Gorges de la Loire rose free of their skirts of pine forests. To our left, on the concave bend, silt had formed meadows where, on this steamy Saturday, weekend fishermen stood silently.

The sun broke through the early river-birthed fog and flashes of blue revealed, at long last, a French kingfisher at work. There were herons too, adults and juveniles, who stood chiseled against the water until at the last minute they dragged away like reluctant teenagers. Later, where the Gorges closed around us and all was forest, a bird of prey - perhaps a Milan Royal or Red Kite - remained petrified on its lookout as we passed underneath, gazing up at his pale throat and cocked eye.

The river didn't stay calm for long, of course. Every silent interlude pierced only by the mewling of the buzzards was followed by the rising chatter that turned to thunder as we came upon the next rapids. We remembered to paddle slowly as we approached, raking the view for hints of the line to take. Where did the reflected light seem to create the 'V' that would point the way? While looking for the farther boulders that just broke the surface we too often missed those lying under the near water, which threw us off our best-planned approaches. After choosing our line and steering - wonkily - towards it, we mostly ended up scraping the side of the biggest rocks and bucking violently in their lee. Which was how we learned to just go with it. Once you've lost control, the next best tactic is to let the canoe decide the line to take. Soon we were running the rapids like pros; my yelped swear words when I saw the size of the drop ahead seemed to help. Waves broke high over the front and into the boat; and twice we had to pull over to empty it. But the exhilaration was reward enough.

By the end of the day we had covered the twenty-one kilometers slightly faster than we would have walked them - but only slightly. So it was a relief we had decided on only one day of canoeing - our shoulders, lower backs and our bottoms are honed for just the one form of exertion this year.

28th July 2008

Tuesday 29 July 2008


We couldn’t help a sense of triumph approaching Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The final few days were in the roundly green rounded hills of the French Basque country, where we lodged in gîtes d'étape like "real" pilgrims and ate our evening meals at long tables of people all heading in the same direction. Although those Pyrénées that we would have to cross were now in close focus, with a clear blue sky I felt that the enthusiasm and companionship of those whom we had come to know over the previous fortnight would surely float me up over the mountains without a care. But we had decided to bring forward our next visit home in order to have a clear run, later, at finishing the missing French section in the Massif Central. So rather than check into the hostel with the others we slept in crisp white sheets with a crisp white bathroom attached at the Hôtel des Pyrénées. And the next day we went home.

After deciding to go, the thought of home came in strongly and with it the urgent desire to see my parents. Traditionally, when a pilgrim set out for Santiago de Compostela or one of the other far-flung destinations, he or she would receive a blessing from their parish priest and be accompanied to the edge of the village by friend, relatives and neighbours. The pilgrim should also first have asked permission from their spouse or close family. Permission to be away for so long and to abandon their affairs to the care of others.

Before we set out I never got round to going to the local church, St George's in Queen's Square, to ask for a blessing. Too embarrassed, since I’ve only set foot there twice, although we're friendly with the staff. Nor did we ask permission of our families. We simply announced our intentions and basked in the interest it aroused. Once or twice during the year I have been to church services, some specifically for pilgrims where those continuing on their way are blessed and sent with prayers. I remember the glorious singing at the midday service in Vézelay. The hesitant manner of the village priest in the tiny hamlet of Las Cabanas as he washed the feet of all present and read out the names of those who had passed through in the previous week, so we could join him in praying for their success. I remember the happy timing of reaching the remarkable Romanesque church of Chamalières-sur-Loire just as one parishioner was clearing up after Mass. She welcomed us and wished us "bon chemin", then added a simple "the prayers of Chamalières will go with you."

Although by St Jean I had been enjoying myself, I have over the year grown wary of failing again. Being home had removed me from the place where I had to face that truth about myself. Then just before we left - bless those pilgrim gîtes d'étape - David was besieged by bed bugs and by the time we arrived in London he needed antibiotics, antihistamine and cortisone in multiple doses to offset his allergic reactions. So now it was David's morale that wavered and for a while he questioned whether to carry on. It wouldn't be me pulling out this time.

The latest newsletter from the Confraternity of St James was waiting for us in London with a book of reflections by twenty five pilgrims about the journey and what it meant to them. Given my thoughts, three articles struck me strongly. A pagan wrote of the pilgrimages undertaken by all faiths and of his own Camino as a way of keeping a connection with the earth. A Methodist minister said that he had been called to be a minister - which he found immensely difficult - but had by accident discovered his vocation as a pilgrim. The testing and times of reflection on the walk helped him deal with his ministry more clearly as a journey. In a third article a woman questioned what was a "real" pilgrim? She worried that she was distinctly unreal, staying in hotels and having her bags carried while walking only short stages each year. But her words revealed she clearly is a pilgrim, as real as any other, facing her own challenges and problems and learning how to deal with them; and growing in herself as a result.

But still there was a hole inside myself and I knew that I needed to see my parents and to receive in some sense a blessing from them. It was a very flying visit, and beautifully exclusive. Talking about the year, I realised how much I would let other people down, not just myself, if I didn’t finish what we had started. I also realised that I can do it. Probably. When it came time to leave I asked Mum and Dad to pray for me to help me over the mountains still to come. The request took them by surprise but they responded instantly and, I think, with pleasure, in a group hug that left us each wiping away an embarrassed tear and laughing sheepishly.

18th July 2008

Sunday 13 July 2008

Another update

Just to let you know that after a long absence from technology I've just been able to upload about five little missives and photos - enjoy! And take a look at David's latest selection too ...

Designed to be friends

There are moments that glow. An astral alignment of place and time and people that come to represent the things we dreamed of from this journey.

Like the movement of the stars there’s perhaps less random chance in these moments than we might like to believe. The hand of design is at play – an intelligent designer, you might say, setting the scene with care and understanding, laying out the props for their own corners of paradise.

Lasserre de Haut in Gascony Joelle Pfeiffer bought a big house with a few old barns on top of a hill. She imagined a beautiful family home for herself and her new husband. But people kept knocking on the door on hot days asking for water, or on rainy days asking to shelter in the barns. That was how she discovered her home was right on the route to Compostela. She invited these people in and talked to them, and so learned what it is that walkers need. Then she opened up her dream home into a dream resting-place for them.

We arrived on her hilltop in a baking mid-afternoon. All day the group of eight who had met the evening before had passed and re-passed each other as is the rhythm of the road, alternating rests and surges and with each passing learning a few more things about each other. We arrived with Adrian, the sixteen-year-old Swiss lad on holiday with his aunt and uncle. Adrian was hot and even more tired than us, but he had struck out ahead with the gleam of a promised swimming pool in his eye. As we got close, we thought the same thought: “It can’t be here; this is way too sophisticated for pilgrims!”

But for pilgrims it was, plus a few stylish bedrooms for holiday guests or self-indulgent walkers. The big, grey-stone farmhouse dominates the bamboo-shaded terrace, the wide gardens and the low smooth valley of vines and pastureland where we first heard sheep bells. The solid barns have been converted, on one side to dormitories and boot- and clothes-drying hangars; and on the other to secluded private bedrooms with their own terraces for lounging, hot showers and cool shutters and a soft bed with oil paintings to gaze on. Sweaty clothes were taken off to a washing machine and returned dried and folded, and those unlucky enough not to be staying there could buy drinks and sandwiches and sit slowly before the view like the rest of us.

For it was the garden and the valley that made this most closely resemble a paradise. The shaded swimming pool – where Adrian was already floating in his own world when we went to explore – wandered down to a terrace of wicker sofas and sun loungers with deep-coloured linen cushions under the bougainvillea. Beyond the flowers and young trees the wide lawn offered the temptation of hammocks or strolls to look over the vines. There were family pictures and books to borrow. But it was at dinner that the spell took hold. An afternoon of swimming, snoozing and gossip had made us into a group and round the long table under the reed canopy the simple meal with fresh southern-tasting flavours was laced with hilarity over absurd European outlooks. French, English, German or Swiss, none of us had before seen flat peaches when the world was quite happy with round ones. It was a puzzle that the two kittens, carefully placed to charm, distracted us from. Every few minutes someone would break off, gaze out into the valley that was hazy with an apricot sunset and marvel that we had been allowed to live such a Vogue life, even for just one night. And we would all fall silent in agreement.

At the end of the meal we drifted away, 1930s house party-style, to table football in the outdoor sitting room, to a stroll round the wild flower meadow, to a hectic ride on borrowed bikes the four kilometres to Montréal and the nearest TV set for the Euro 2008 final.

Six days later the tone was very different but the touch of a considerate stylist was again evident. The
Gîte du Cambarrat in the Béarn from where Isabelle and Nicolas Champetier de Ribes farm and work as a fabric designer and landscape gardener respectively, is the farmhouse dependent on their old family domain of Cambarrat, which means “enclosed field”, for the clearing surrounded by forests where the chateau and farm stand, close to Maslacq. This is a pilgrim hostel in a more basic style. For self-propelled pilgrims only, staying in small dormitories where the deep wood walls make a nest and the bunks are like berths in an old ship, in the glow of their individual lamps. Here the toilet is out in the garden, near the washing lines. No machine, but as you arrive Isabelle contentedly points out where to do hand washing and has left a full bottle of detergent to help. You can cook your own supper in the long kitchen built into the end of the barn – or you can, as we did, accept the offer of demi-pension and a relaxed four-course meal prepared and left for us to heat up and eat in our own good time.

From the moment we stepped into the cosy bedroom, a deep restfulness came over us. Nothing seemed too precious or demanded unnatural behaviour. There were three of us that afternoon: a German man called Klaus, whom we had met the night before, had arrived early and was already rousing drowsily from one snooze as we arrived. It wasn’t long before we followed his example, and in the extended, overcast but warm afternoon three oddly tired pilgrims cuddled into their bunks and slept or read the hours away, rising renewed and freshly optimistic into the evening.

It was then that we started to notice the care behind the style of this gîte d’étap. Its atmosphere of old, unimportant family bric-à-brac, easy to live with and unassuming, has been created with items selected for their beauty. Duvets and pillows made from the rich linen fabrics Isabelle designs; an old, rough-stone sink with a charming curve is just the right shape for the zinc bucket to stand in. Earthenware jugs catch the low light by the window, Vermeer-like. A hat stand welcomes our hats and a stove-top kettle invites us to brew tisanes or coffee as we want.

It is small and personal. When Isabelle came to take payment and to stamp our pilgrim record books, the ‘stamp’ was carefully hand drawn for each of us, as she explained the symbolism of the banjo for her husband’s passion, the stripes of the Basque country for the linens she designs, the enclosed field. As we finished our meal, Nicolas appeared to clear away and we got talking about his banjo playing – then he returned to profit from our interest and grab some extra playing time from his busy day. Not banjo like I have ever heard before. Five-stringed bluegrass music and arrangements of Vivaldi’s harpsichord music, and Nicolas’ own classical compositions that sounded like running streams.

Perhaps little of the setting or the behaviour that night was left to chance; the “design eye” of this cultured pair was evident once you had woken up to it. But because of it, we and Klaus became friends during one of the most memorable evenings of the trip and each of us received the deep rest we needed, in our different ways, at that particular moment of that particular week.

10th July 2008


The stone rose above the water line like the crest of a mountain, the peak of an iceberg. It would be a good resting place, on which a white layer of quartz described a crisp cross in the grey granite. A good omen.

The nymph swam towards the rock and grappled with the smooth slopes, leg after leg hauling its muddy carcass into the blue air. Its mother would not have recognised it in its low-lying state, its armour spiky and defensive, sludge-brown with ages. It stepped awkwardly and uncertainly into the sun.

There it rested and was vulnerable. The heat shuddered through it like anguish, rending the armour. A beauty stepped forth, shivering with the excitement of pale green wings and a needle body that felt the breeze and knew its meaning.

Knew it too soon, for the fresh-born dragonfly embraced the breeze while it was still a tender innocent. The breeze took its fledgling wings and lifted it, up to the bulrushes and down to lie gently on the water. And a trout, in a midday doze, saw the flash of green and snapped it, and the dragonfly could never know the beauty of its iridescence.

4th July 2008

The devil came too

I’ve never before considered myself badly menstrual. A few hours of stomach ache that a couple of pain killers and a snooze will deal with; a morning of taciturnity and bumping my head on cupboards, and that’s it. But this year has revealed the devil that lurks inside. I suppose it’s the sheer physicality of the undertaking that brings bodily drama to the fore. I’ve said before that this long walk is much more a study in the physical than the spiritual. And I’ve come to see that for a walking woman, her body is in a much more direct relationship than for a man. Forget all that stuff about women being naturally more of the mind, more spiritual or intellectual. Ok, so that comes too, but our bodies have a way of bringing our minds right back into the realm of the physical – and with a bump. It’s no wonder ancient superstitions link the monthly cycle and labour pains with the devil.

A body stripped down and balancing daily muscle fatigue, heat, thirst, hunger, beating sun or shivering rain does not conserve energy to plump the buffers of civilised constraint. We walk gently and steadily, enjoying the views and laughing with new-made friends and then – POW! – the cycle turns. The world and I turn black. I curse the bed I sleep on and the floorboards under my feet. I curse the green grass and the stony track, the mud of the forests. I spit hatred on David and his guilt for the walk and I remain silent to the comments of our companions. I glare at the road as if glaring would flatten the descents and the rises and suck the moisture from the sky. For in the devil-drawn blackness of my mood I alone have called down the night-long rage of thunder and torrents from a previously clear sky. It swirls around us in our wood-cabin bedroom and sends the farm dogs howling to the safety of their master.

Nothing will appease me or my devil. The walk must end now; never will I tolerate such an undertaking again. I avert my eyes from the black-shadowed mountains in the distance, knowing that to acknowledge them will spread depression and suicide across the land. David has learned not to speak to me, to let me stalk into the distance without a thought for him. I walk until I get there, wherever there is, ignoring the scene.

And then it is over. The devil bleeds away and the morning sun rises cloudless. I smile and David smiles back. Flowers again dare to blossom in the verges and birds to try out a song or two in my presence. The Pyrenees shassey their silver shoulders and coyly smooth their pale green skirts around us. It may only be the seductive, treacherous face of the serpent – but it is a lot easier to live with.

7th July 2008

The hare and the tortoise

“Ach, you came from London! When did you leave?”
“1st January.”
“And when will you arrive?”
“End of September.”
“Ach, so long….” But you can tell from the face opposite that they’re thinking, “How can it possibly take six and a half months to get from London to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port? Martin and Cathérine and Klaus and all those others set out from Geneva or Munich, and they only left in May…”

So we hasten to explain our tortuous route and the self-indulgence of days off to visit towns. Sometimes, under cross-examination, we’ll attempt to explain the stops and starts, the jumping-over and going back to recoup the Auvergne, the visits with friends. In the sunshine it makes less sense, when all the long-distance ones faced and overcame the same rains.

Tortuous. Tortoise-uous. David says I’m a reptile: I cease to function in the cold and come alive when a patch of sunlight falls on me. That’s fair: the tortoise has long been my totem. I thought it was because tortoises seem wise; they watch the world carefully and quietly, seeing all sides and weighing things up slowly before arriving at fair-minded decisions during a long life. But now I realise otherwise. Reptilian and sun-loving, the tortoise wants to sleep in the warm all winter. Yet, as Aesop taught all children, the tortoise starts slow but gets there in the end.

“I aim to do thirty-five kilometres in a day,” say the hares, “sometimes maybe forty. If I get up at 5.30 in the morning I can do that. I must be in Santiago by ….”

We gasp and marvel, appropriately. We admire their strength and determination, especially as hares are solitary creatures and can be seen running on the horizon alone, shunning moral support. So it’s odd, then, three or four days later when we thought them far out of range, to recognise a sack or a stick in a village café and to greet with pleasure these hares whom we admired. The reasons vary. Blisters or tendonitis; sometimes an overwhelming weariness holds them back, or those moments of congestion in the hostels that pushed them beyond even their stamina. Or maybe even a moment of curiosity to stop and look around.

30th June 2008

There must be a reason

“So why are you here?” The question draws looks of rapidly concealed panic followed by a sly narrowing of the eyes and a glance off to the distant horizon. Or else by a blank stare then a frown while the person thus confronted struggles to remember.

“Euuh … I heard there were some pretty places to see,” we might eventually hear, or “I lost my job.” Sometimes it’s “I saw an exhibition in the Cathedral.”

What we don’t hear, ever, is that the pilgrim is making for Santiago because he or she believes that proximity to the relics of St James will provide a miracle cure for some illness or will speed their souls through purgatory towards heaven. Or at least, not in so many words.

One of our more naïve preconceptions about walking the Camino de Santiago (right up there in naivety with thinking it would be easy) was that each of our fellow travellers would have strong and specific reasons for undertaking the challenge. It hadn’t occurred to us that most would have the same woolly rationale that we had for setting out. Now that we are many days into the easy if short-lived intimacies among people undergoing the same privations we have the chance to pose the question. But the answers are far from compelling.

First, to be equitable, I should state our own excuses – or at least as we present them in exchange for other people’s revelations:

We have wanted to take a year off for some adventure for a while now; it had always been part of our long-term plans. The intention had been to travel in the Americas, north and south. But with David’s grandmother being of a great age and unsteady health, we didn’t want to be so far away in an emergency. Then three years ago, on a holiday in the Auvergne, we went for a walk and kept criss-crossing some strange scallop shell signs and got curious … The next day, visiting Conques, we saw hikers enter the monastery buildings behind the church as if it were a youth hostel. It was so mysterious and beautiful, and we wondered what we would have to do to, to be allowed to sleep there too. And so we discovered the St Jacques route, which fitted with our liking for those slow travels through a country that gradually reveal the evolution of its topography, climate, agriculture and architecture.

And so for more of other people’s reasons:
“I’ve been bringing up my children on my own and now they have both left home. It’s destabilising. I need to time to find myself again.”
“Because it’s cheap.”
“To see if my body can be relied on that much.”
“To have time to think.”
“I wanted a long walk to challenge myself but on this route I knew I would often have company. My parents were relieved about that.”
“It’s a holiday with exercise.”
“Thirty years ago I met a man walking home again from Santiago. I thought that was wonderful and promised myself I would go there. And an old friend agreed to come with me. We leave our families behind – it feels a little guilty.”
“To visit other parts if France I don’t know.”
“Because so many of my friends have already been.”
“Because I read a book.”
“I had a few weeks to spare before harvest,”
“Because when he walks with his friends it is too steep and I can’t keep up. This walk we can do together.”

Given that these days the “get out of purgatory free” card is rarely played, it’s wondrous how many human beings put themselves – voluntarily – through rituals and rigour. Not just the hundred thousand and more who travel to Santiago de Compostela each year but all those other thousands who go to the Ganges, to Mecca, to the Barabar Hills, to Jerusalem or Rome. And all those secular tests of marathon runs, pentathlons, mountain hikes or cycle rides for charity. Given the costs, the perils, the discomfort and often the boredom of it, why do we do it? What in our psyche seeks such ritualistic pain?

It seems the need for ritual testing must be part of our makeup. Tribes both ancient and far-flung have or used to have rites of passage marking the transition to adulthood, and they mostly involved fear or pain. The games of “chicken”, the drinking contests at University all fit the same mould. Just because more modern religions have transmuted their rites into mere symbolic or intellectual tests doesn’t take away the need for a ritual. Nor does it seem to take away the need for pain and difficulty. When baptism by total immersion was replaced by a token wetting of the forehead, it wasn’t long before a pilgrimage or a stretch living as a hermit came to be the ambition of all Christians. And I bet there’s a similar progression in other religions too. Medieval Christian pilgrimages may have been elective (or may not: many were prescribed by church or criminal courts to atone for some sin) but they were clearly answering to a deep-felt need. There’s some kind of validation that we’re all after – of ourselves and our bodies, perhaps, but mostly it’s a spiritual urge to be tested and to pass the test that is within us, whether we recognise it as such, or not.

Of equal interest to the reasons for starting the pilgrim route, if not more, are the reasons why people stop. These are harder to track down. If people give up they are likely to flee, so we have to rely on the hearsay of the accommodation owners or “hospitaleros” for information. We hear of broken ankles from slipping in muddy tracks in the rain. Broken arms after falling off a bike in a steep lane. There have been foot-engulfing and infected blisters with which some pilgrims manage to stagger on for days before conceding defeat. There is the occasional heart attack or hip operation tested too soon. Bed bugs. And then there were those who simply couldn’t stand the rain a day longer. A Japanese man who has three times walked from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago decided to give up on the French path because it wiggled too much. One woman admitted she had walked successive sections for a few years, but life was too short, she wants to do something different next year. A German man was leaving the road to enter a retreat in a Buddhist monastery.

But my favourite reason came from the woman who left us at Nogaro to go and pick cherries on a friend’s farm in Switzerland. Now that seems perfectly reasonable to me.

23rd June 2008