Crossing the meseta, a rant that isn’t really a rant, and a status update

The meseta

The meseta

The film The Way follows a baby boomer dentist, played by Martin Sheen, and some acquaintances he picks up along the way, along the Camino Francés to Santiago de Compostela.

I am the worst person with whom to watch it – well, me and every other returned pilgrim, I suppose – because I find it difficult to restrain myself from giving a running commentary on every building and geographical feature I recognise. And, at a little more than half way through, screaming, ‘Where’s the meseta gone?’

The meseta is the plain that takes up a lot of Castile and a significant distance of the Camino – nearly two weeks, at the speed we went. It is day after day of flat, grinding, almost featureless, path. It’s either hot and dusty, as it was when we walked it, or bitingly cold, as it will be when my brother cycles it in November. There is an awful lot of it, and it goes on, and on, and on.

You wouldn’t know this from The Way. Oh, there are some shots of cornfields and what have you, but they come nowhere near conveying the sheer thirsty tedium of the meseta. In The Way, you get the mountains at the beginning and the hills at the end, but you don’t get the long, long plain in the middle. It’s like one of those greetings cards that pulls out from both sides to reveal as much again in the middle. It’s an oddly truncated pilgrimage.

Of course, a hundred kilometres of nothing would have made The Way a very different film. Havi Brooks talks about the slow motion montage, how practice (or any repetitive activity, really) feels like you’re not getting anywhere, and how in a film it would be over in a flash, except you’d still have the sense of time passing.

In terms of the current book, I am in the middle of the slow motion montage, half-way across the meseta. Slogging away. Cranking out another hundred words, another page, another five hundred words. Catching sight of a snippet, and thinking it’s terrible. Re-reading a page, and thinking perhaps it isn’t so bad. Re-reading a chapter, and counting the holes in the fabric.

Filling the holes.

Another hundred words. Another fifty words. Another sentence.

I am beginning to see a line of hills in the distance.

I want to do that

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Unexpectedly, I had lunch with two of my brothers last Thursday. If I’d thought about them at all when I got into London on Thursday morning, I’d have assumed they would be minding their own respective business on the Isle of Wight, but I got a text message at about half past ten asking if I had any plans for lunch.

It turned out that one of them had come up to London to get ski boots fitted and, while he was in the area, to visit the Confraternity of St James and see if they had any advice on cycling the Camino de Santiago.

Why do the Camino?

When one arrives at Santiago de Compostela, one is asked to give one’s motivation for doing the Camino, choosing from religious, sporting, cultural, historical, spiritual, and so on. Well, I am a fairly religious/spiritual sort (often coming down more decidedly on one side of the balance or the other, depending on my mood), and so, when offered a choice by the pilgrim office at the cathedral, I went for that, and got my certificate in Latin. But really, I can’t claim that religious and spiritual reasons were what sent me off down that road.

Why do the Camino?

Because it’s there.

But it’s more than that – at least, it is in my experience. The Camino isn’t pure nature, pure challenge, the way that Everest is. The Camino is a human construct, human roads leading to a human city, and it’s often the human connection that draws us to it.

My brother wants to do the Camino because I did the Camino, back in 2007.

I wanted to do the Camino because a group of family friends did the Camino, back in 2000. The postcards, in Andrew’s spiky or Heloise’s scrawly handwriting, arrived over the course of several weeks, bringing with them the sense of space, of adventure, of time, and leaving me with a tiny seed of a wish.

I wanted to do that.

I did it.

The way I get into most things is by hearing somebody else talk about them, and thinking, I want to do that. I bet I could do that.

My brother wants to do the Camino. He knows about the Camino because I did the Camino, and because Andrew and Heloise and John Murray did the Camino.

I want to do the Camino again because I did the Camino before, and my greatest regret is that Anne, my companion of my last Camino, is not well enough to join me again: my best friend, who, when I said, ‘I want do do this,’ said, ‘I want to do that too,’ and came with me.

As for my other brother’s reason for coming to London? He just thought it sounded fun.

100 untimed books: steps

92. steps

92. steps

I’m going to walk the Camino Inglés to Santiago de Compostela next year. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, so they say. The Camino Inglés isn’t anywhere near that long – it’s less than a hundred miles, in fact. Last time round I walked five hundred miles of the Camino Francés, but these days I have a full-time job.

Anyway, I reckon the journey starts with a decent guidebook.

100 untimed books

All roads lead to Santiago

Buen camino!

Buen camino! (ignore Falconer’s Lure; it just happened to come in the same batch of post)

Over the next few months I’ll be writing about my preparation for walking the Camino Inglés, from the north coast of Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela. I’m planning to do the walk in May next year, fitting it in between my stepsister-in-law’s wedding and my father’s seventy-fifth birthday party. We’ll see how that works.

I walked the Camino Frances in 2007, between university and the real world, and have been wanting to do it again ever since. However, taking eight weeks to walk it isn’t really compatible with having a full-time job, and so I’d assumed that I’d have to wait until retirement – which is a way off, and maybe even getting further away. It only occurred to me fairly recently that I could fit the Camino Inglés into a fortnight.

As always, the things I most need to work on are physical fitness and the language. Living in Cambridge, I don’t get much practice with anything steeper than the bridge over the Cam, so I’m thinking about nipping down south to stay with my parents and walk the Isle of Wight Coast Path. As for the language, I suspect that the (Castilian) Spanish that I learned last time around will come back to me, but I’d also like to learn some Galician as well, since my pilgrimage will be entirely within Galicia.

I’ll write more about this as my plans crystallise. In the meantime, my friend Jo is cycling the Camino Frances, along with her husband and another friend, as I write, and so I’m going to send you over to her blog, Wheels Along the Camino, for some stunning photos and thoughtful reflection.

St James’ Way 4: in my end is my beginning

Alresford to Winchester, 25 July 2015

St James’ Way 1: Ultreya

St James’ Way 2: the way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns

St James’ Way 3: the rain it raineth

I promised myself that if it was raining I’d take the bus. It wasn’t. I walked. It hurt.

It was a fantastically beautiful walk. I’m glad I did it. I just would have liked my right leg not to be hurting.

I joined the Itchen to the south of Alresford, first crossing the Watercress Line and walking around the bottom edge of the town. The hotel, and the church of St John the Baptist at which I stopped on my way out of town, were bustling with wedding preparations. As good a day as any to get married, St James, pilgrim through this barren land. And the weather turned out nice for them. I passed the bride’s parents and the wedding dress as I was going down to check out, and wished them well.

Waymark on the wall of St John the Baptist church, Alresford

Waymark on the wall of St John the Baptist church, Alresford

Out past the watercress beds, everything very fresh and green after the day before. My leg hurt a lot while walking, but more when I stopped. I joined St Swithun’s Way; it had been St Swithun’s day only last week, and whatever the weather had done then, it clearly wasn’t going to keep it up for forty days. Crossing the main road, and off down a lane into Ovington. I met a confused and frightened sheep coming the other way, herded accidentally by a confused and unwilling cyclist. I could only hope he managed to overtake it before they reached the main road.

My father had recommended the Bush at Ovington, but at that hour in the morning it was closed. I turned right instead and crossed half-way over the Itchen. The path continued down a narrow strip of land in the middle of the stream. It was delightful: the water ran fast and shallow over a pale bed, and speckled fish basked in the sun, twitching their fins gently to stay where they wanted to be.

After a little while another footbridge took me across to the far bank of the river, and I walked on up to the road in Itchen Stoke. Here, my father had told me, I should look out for the Angry Red Eye of the Almighty. ‘Is that a Jowittism?’ I asked.

‘Sort of,’ he told me. ‘It was some neighbour, I believe, but it got taken up in the family.’

The Angry Red Eye of the Almighty

The Angry Red Eye of the Almighty

But what is the Angry Red Eye of the Almighty? Having looked at the thing, I’m still not entirely sure, but I can see exactly what that neighbour meant. It’s a lump of red glass caught in the pierced opening – not even a window – at the top of the west end of the church of St Mary. This is another one that’s under the protection of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, and it’s well worth their attention; it’s an unlikely homage to Sainte-Chapelle in the middle of the Hampshire countryside. The original may have been Louis IX’s over-the-top reliquary, but St Mary’s, Itchen Stoke, has evangelical antecedents as well, and there are no pictures in the magnificent stained glass.

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The east end of St Mary’s, Itchen Stoke

Next I crossed back over the river, through some very boggy fields and past some farm buildings (some converted to offices and studios, some still apparently used for their original purpose), heading west all the while. I stopped at the top of a very steep slope to eat some of my brioche rolls, spreadable cheese and chocolates, and then headed on across a golf course. Then I had to get down again, to the level of the river, following a lane. My leg complained. Still, I was in a better mood than the previous day, as evidenced by the fact that I looked into the church at Itchen Abbas.

The next item on the list was my grandparents’ grave at Martyr Worthy. Blessed are the peacemakers: they met working for the local branch of the League of Nations. I promised not to light a candle for them at the cathedral; my grandfather in particular didn’t go in for popery.

My grandparents' grave: Blessed are the peacemakers

My grandparents’ grave: Blessed are the peacemakers

The other Worthys lie west of the motorway, and the Itchen splits itself off into a tangle of little streams. I followed both, or all, of them south, into the suburbs of Winchester, and finally into Winchester itself. I passed the pub, the King Alfred, where I was booked in to stay that night. I hadn’t realised, when I’d made the reservation, that it was the birthplace of Friends of King Alfred Buses, another significant presence in my life. Should I go in and drop off my rucksack? No, of course not. I pressed on to the cathedral.

Now, when you’re walking the Camino de Santiago, every bar, hostel and church will have a sello, or rubber stamp, and the prudent pilgrim will collect at least one every day. It’s like collecting stamps in your passport to heaven. Anyone who has got this far in this account of this walk will not be surprised to hear that I didn’t collect any along St James’ Way.

But Winchester cathedral has a sello. Or so I was assured by the guidebook, before I threw it away in disgust at its sopping unreadability. I asked at the desk. No, they couldn’t find it, but the vergers had one in their vestry. I should go in and look around, and see if I could find a verger.

I did that, wandering around and finding a more or less acceptable balance between the plaints of my knee, the desire to get my money’s worth from my free entry, and the bliss of having finally got here, to a holy place. When I got tired of that I found a verger.

‘It’s a good day to arrive,’ he said. ‘St James’ Day.’

I didn’t say, well, yes, I knew that. I asked him to stamp my map, which he did, along with a passport for the Pilgrims’ Way, which I may complete some day.

Afterwards, I hobbled outside to buy an ice-cream and people-watch in the sunshine on the green until it was time for Evensong. I’d made it: foul weather and dodgy knees had failed to daunt my spirit; it was St James’ Day, and I was back in the city of my birth on the eve of my thirtieth birthday. As overambitious plans go, this one had gone rather well.

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St James’ Way 3: the rain it raineth

Basingstoke to New Alresford, 24 July 2015

St James’ Way 1: Ultreya

St James’ Way 2: the way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns

I ate breakfast at a café on a trading estate on the way out of Basingstoke for half the price of the hotel one. Then I retraced my steps of the day before. It wasn’t nearly so soul-destroying as it might have been, because it wasn’t the same day and it wasn’t due to a mistake. It was just part of the plan; I knew I was going to have to anyway. I rejoined the route back in Worting. The path climbed steeply away from the main road and took me across another annoying brambly field – the more so because it turned out that I didn’t actually need to go through the brambles – and over the railway. I got slightly lost in a residential area and finally found my way onto the route of a Roman road, with a field on one side, and what I described in my diary as ‘boring houses’ on the other. (‘They’re all homes, Dorothy,’ someone told my grandmother, when she was being snobbish.) Kind ladies with dogs redirected me when I got confused.

It had been drizzling all morning. Now it started raining properly. The route led me into beech woods, where tree roots bulged up in the chalky path. I saw glimpses of brightness through the gloomy trees, and almost thought the sun had come out, but it was just stubble of wheat fields throwing white-gold up towards the grey sky. I came out of the woods, through a farmyard, and back onto the road.

The next challenge was crossing the A30 – confusing and terrifying, like getting from the bottom right hand corner of a letter X to the top left hand corner, if the letter were made of a major road. I walked through more woods, crossed a bridge over the M3 and proceeded up a conference centre’s service road in ever-heavier rain. My mother texted me to see if I had any ideas about songs we might sing at my birthday party, so she could write the music out for the band. I started making a mental list. At the next pub, I told myself, I’d get my notebook out and write them down. The thought sustained me through a tedious stretch of road walking.

The church at Dummer, as seen from the hospitable lychgate

The church at Dummer, as seen from the hospitable lychgate

The next pub was in Dummer, and was not yet open. A couple of squares of chocolate in the comparative shelter of the church lychgate had to suffice. I pushed on towards Preston Candover down a concrete path between wheatfields – meeting, as one of them remarked, far more people in the rain than were to be seen out in the sun the previous day. It was another four miles, and it was really, really raining now. I retained enough sense of my purpose to look into a disused church and admire the floor tiles, but my interest was ebbing.

Floor tiles at the disused church of St Mary the Virgin, Preston Candover

Floor tiles at the disused church of St Mary the Virgin, Preston Candover

On the bright side, the Preston Candover pub was open. Even better, it had started serving lunch about ten minutes before I got there. Spanish menu; Aussie barmaid. Clientele: wellingtons, gin and tonic, and spaniels. Grilled mackerel, new potatoes, fennel and watercress salad, pistachio sponge sundae. It was expensive for a pub lunch, and more than I’d meant to spend, but well worth it both for the food and the chance to sit inside and drip gently.

Sadly, I couldn’t sit inside all day. I set off again. Wetter and wetter and wetter. One utterly obnoxious field that left my boots caked three inches thick, a hole in the hedge that ripped my rucksack cover off, mud mud mud. The great thing about being out in weather that no sane person would be out in is that you can scream as loud as you like without fear of people hearing. So I did. Too much road walking. I decided that I was too wet to care about the 12th century church of St James at Upper Wield, and stomp stomp stomped along the Oxdrove Way, which goes on for ever. FOR EVER. Four miles, apparently. Anyway, when I finally got out at Old Alresford I’d had enough. I abandoned the guidebook, which should have been a huge mistake. Certainly it meant that I had to follow the main road into Alresford, which was slightly terrifying in the gathering gloom and the pouring rain.

I’d booked to stay in the Swan Hotel, which had seemed to my teenage self to be the height of luxury when my godfather had held a birthday party there about twelve years previously. Fortunately, it wasn’t so luxurious that I got kicked out for being soaked to the skin. In fact, it was a perfectly standard country coaching inn. I couldn’t help but feel that the kitschy red paint and monochrome photo wallpaper décor was a mistake in a country coaching inn with exposed beams, but I wasn’t going to complain. There was a bath.

When I’d had a bath (I couldn’t possibly get any wetter, this was at least warm, and when I’d finished washing myself I washed my socks in it) and dried off, I took myself, my diary and my map down to the bar, and ordered a pint and a burger. Then I phoned my father, and discussed party logistics and how to get from Alresford to Winchester, assuming that I could actually walk the next day.

My father is very good at maps, and spent most of his early life in Winchester and its surroundings. He found his own Ordnance Survey Winchester, New Alresford and East Meon, and we worked out a sensible route that would take me past my grandparents’ grave, and also the Angry Red Eye of the Almighty. And you’ll just have to wait until next time to find out what that is.

St James’ Way 2: the way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns

Little London to Basingstoke, 23 July 2015

St James’ Way 1: Ultreya

In further evidence in support of the theory that Giorgia is actually an angel, she also washes horrible sweaty pilgrim clothes. She brought them back along with the breakfast. I took my time repacking and adjusting my rucksack, brushing away further flakes of the decaying lining, pulling almost everything almost as tight as it would go, and finally left at about a quarter to ten.

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The first patch of nettles came about a quarter of a mile in. Had I but known it was the first patch, rather than the only patch. This was supposed to be the easy stage, the lazy six miles to let myself recover a bit. Well, the route itself was easy, but the paths in two places were so overgrown and scratchy that my legs became a criss-cross of scratches.

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After the first patch of nettles I’d thought it wasn’t worth zipping the legs back onto my trousers, and yet I kept coming across more and more impassable paths through which I had to force my way, beating aside brambles and nettles and all sorts. Not to mention the plants that propagate their seed by means of adhesion. One of my socks ended up so thick with grass seeds that you could have toasted it, spread it with jam and eaten it for breakfast.

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One of the day’s more passable stretches

Along those six miles, I saw: yellow-and-black striped caterpillars; several ladybirds; the remains of a priory church, still a church through the sheer pig-headedness of the parishioners over several centuries. I saw a golf course. In fact, I saw far too much of the golf course and its hawthorny hedge, through which the footpath was supposed to run, and didn’t. I saw a field of poppies apparently grown as a crop – far too much of that field, too. The drying seed-heads of the poppies were viciously abrasive on my poor scratched legs. I ended up scrambling over a hedge (a very solid hedge, it was) to get out of that damn poppy field, and bought a very satisfying hot dog and coffee from convenient burger van in the layby on the other side. I crossed the road to proceed down a ridiculous nettly path alongside a potato field. At points I had to walk on the potatoes.

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Priory Church, Pamber End

After that I had a respite from brambles and nettles, and walked down a pleasant, leafy path towards Worting. Reaching the village, I left the route and walked east into Basingstoke.

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Proper Doctor Who alien planet landscape below the golf course

I ate at the drive-thru Costa at Basingstoke Leisure Park. I didn’t drive through it, or even walk through it; I sat down at a real live table. It made a change from my room in the Premier Inn. There is nothing like the actual hard reality of pilgrimage for dispelling any romantic notions one might have about pilgrimage. You live and walk in the real world, and the road shows you everything. Including Basingstoke Leisure Park.

But I had a bath. I washed my clothes and dried them on the heated towel rail. Spiritual enlightenment is one thing, but on the physical plane the one thing that you need to make a pilgrim really, really happy is a heated towel rail.

I’d meant to go straight to bed, but biology had other ideas (living and walking in the real world, remember?), and I had to cross the Leisure Park and a roundabout to a service station to buy tampons. I picked up a vastly reduced box of All Gold at the same time – by no means the most efficient way of carrying or consuming chocolate on the road, but I wasn’t going to argue with a quid. I had another bath and went to bed.

It took me ages to get to sleep. There was a noisy generator or something right outside my window, which I therefore couldn’t open, so was hot. So I watched a programme about Paula Radcliffe and dropped off eventually. It only occurred to me the next morning that I could have asked to change my room.