I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve had a story published today over at Enchanted Conversations. If you haven’t come across it before, the site is an utter delight – a treasure trove of stories new and old, essays, poems, and other material related to fairy tales.
Wings Over The Plain is a story that was inspired by the Camino de Santiago – specifically, the long drag of the Camino Frances across the meseta, the plain that forms much of the province of Castilla y Leon. It’s inspired by the landscape, and the skyscape, the longstanding association of the Camino with the Milky Way. But most of all it’s inspired by the storks who build their nests on any elevated corner they can find and who, for me at least, were one of the loveliest sights of a lovely journey.
Winter is harsh out on the high, broad, plain of Castile. There’s nothing to stop the wind: it blows in cold from the sea, and becomes colder still as it crosses the mountains. Sometimes it brings snow; sometimes it just sweeps bitingly around every hunched tree and huddled building, and the people get through the winter as best they can. And on those long, cold, nights, the sky breaks into stars, more of them than you could count, brighter than you can imagine, showing a westward path that only the very devout or the very foolish follow at this time of year…
that’s the way of it: you meet them
over and over, evenings, lunchtimes,
along the road,
at cafés, fountains, benches,
along the road,
you meet them, wish them well,
you move on
or they move on
along the road
you meet them, over and over,
along the road,
along the road,
you move on
or they move on
along the road,
you don’t know
the last time you meet them
was the last time you met them
along the road
The last day of the Camino Inglés: Sigüeiro to Santiago. It was a pleasant enough day’s walk, especially in the early stages: a cuckoo in the woods above Sigüeiro; gentle slopes; gentle sunshine.
Sixteen kilometres according to the book, but the yellow arrows departed from the book at a left turn (book)/right turn (arrows).
We followed the arrows.
The diversion (if such it was) was tedious: it took us through a bus stop and along a very wet and muddy path, though fortunately not so wet that it got through my boots. The worst thing about it was the fact that there were no waymarkings, so I was constantly worrying that we’d got ourselves lost. The sign for Hotel Castro was a real relief, and the coffee was as welcome as the assurance that yes, we were indeed still on the Camino Inglés, but we then spent much time discussing whether it was a change to the route, a reversion to a previous route, or a scam by the Hotel Castro to drum up more trade. (They got €2 out of us for coffee. I suppose it adds up.) Hotel Castro had set up an ‘enchanted forest’: it was a silhouette of a witch on a white umbrella. It was a little bit underwhelming.
We worked our way gradually downhill into the suburbs of Santiago, getting hotter all the while. Actually it wasn’t so bad as it could have been: the arrows had rejoined the guidebook, so at least we were no longer worrying about being led astray.
On the Camino Inglés the cathedral creeps into view gradually: you see the tops of the spires peeping out above the rooftops, and only if you know what to look for. We knew.
And we found the way there with no trouble at all, but there was no obvious way in: the front was covered in scaffolding.
We went to the pilgrim office instead, and found a massive queue. John recommends going in November. I recommend going ten years ago. Still, we got our compostelas and went to find lunch – after which I felt much happier.
John booked a hotel via Booking.com, and I felt happier still. We then wandered around most of the old town trying to find it, and eventually had to ask in a tat shop, by which time I was feeling thoroughly sick of Santiago and all the people in it.
A feeling which, I regret to say, persisted on and off all through that Sunday and Monday. There were moments, but really it was such a shock after the quiet of the Camino Inglés, and it has become such a tourist/pilgrim trap even compared to the last time I did it…
Which I knew. This is why we chose the Camino Inglés. It just hadn’t occurred to me that Santiago was bound to be packed, regardless of where we started.
Getting away from the old town helped quite a lot. We found another fairground, and ate chips from a booth and looked at second hand bookstalls.
I dragged John to the pilgrim mass on Sunday evening – in Spanish; if one has to feel that one’s a heretic, it’s less galling in a foreign language – though we had to stand through an interminable sermon (and they take the trouble to remind you in English that heretics can’t receive communion). After that we picked a pleasant bar and had a drink. Tapas appeared, in the form of an empanada. We shared it: I had the tuna, and John the bread.
15 May 2017
We went back to the cathedral early on Monday morning and it was quite a lot better. I was brave enough to give Saint James a proper hug this time, as opposed to the gingerly pat on the shoulder I managed in 2007, and I found that there was a sense of holiness around the crypt, never mind the fact that I don’t believe that his earthly remains are there, no matter that I don’t believe his matter matters any more.
On Monday we went around the cathedral museum, and sprung for the tour of the roof as well. And this was worth doing, for the views over the city rooftops and for the nooks and crannies that one never normally sees. We were also charmed to find in the museum an altarpiece given to Santiago in the late fifteenth century by a man named John Goodyear from ‘Chal, Isla de Wight’ – or, as we know it, Chale, a couple of miles down the road from where our parents live.
We also returned to the café next to our hotel several times during the course of the day, so that I could get into wi-fi range and see whether I was famous yet. Because this was the day that the Society of Authors was meant to be announcing the Betty Trask shortlist, and this would mean that I was finally able to tell somebody other than John.
I was not famous yet. We walked down to the station to buy tickets to Palencia (€26 apiece, which wasn’t bad at all), and spent the rest of the day writing postcards, drinking coffee, returning to wi-fi range to check Twitter again, and going rather overboard in the souvenir shops. (A cycle jersey for John, an extravagant selection of sew-on patches for my camp blanket, and a model horreo for our father to put next his model railway. And more postcards.)
Then, on John’s suggestion, we went to a bar that the internet said would have live music, except instead it had stand-up comedy in Galician, possibly being rude about pilgrims. It was difficult to tell, for obvious reasons. Though stand-up comedy in Castilian would have been just as unintelligible to us. There was live music, in the form of a couple of cor anglais solos. Also a musical box, though that was part of a card trick.
When I went to bed I was still not famous.
Next time: we like Palencia a lot, and then go home. And I get my fifteen minutes of fame.
The next day’s stage was much less ridiculous. My boots were still wet – of course – when I put them on, and my blisters were still present. All the Compeed was the wrong size, so I’d had to fasten it down with standard Elastoplast over the top. But the profile of the day’s route was considerably flatter.
The weather started out rather lovely, a moody sunrise, though with something of a headwind even then. The first hour’s walk took us through a village with an impressive array of sculptures. One was a huge stone Santiago – it wasn’t the four metres that the guidebook claimed, but it was still pretty imposing. Others were huge dinosaurs, or made from reclaimed farm equipment, and were just plain bizarre. We couldn’t linger and take many photographs, however, because our presence seemed to be upsetting the village dogs. Or so we thought at first. After a little while we decided that perhaps they were more interested in barking at each other than at us.
There was off-again on-again mizzly rain through the first few kilometres, then a proper downpour after we’d stopped in A Rúa for our first cup of coffee. We promptly ordered a second…
After that it drizzled a bit harder, and I put my waterproof on, and got Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes stuck in my head. I observed that this wasn’t necessarily a desirable state of affairs, because surely the diamonds would wear through the soles and start digging into the feet? These and other pointless conversations got us to the bar O Cruceiro (the book said that Carolina, the owner, speaks English; she does, and with an English accent) and had the first and last boccadillos of this Camino.
We were perhaps five hundred metres down the road when the rain really started coming down. I attempted to explain to John why it is funny that Stephen Fry elected to name one of the characters in his The Stars’ Tennis Balls ‘Portia’… Because the equivalent character in the original is called Mercédès, that’s why… Maybe you had to be there.
It rained steadily and hard for about an hour and a half, or however long it took us to go five kilometres. Maybe it wasn’t as long as an hour and a half. Anyway, my boots soaked through to my socks and my waterproof soaked through to my T-shirt, and I was going to have to wear at least some of it again the next day.
The rain let up at long last, but the wind kept on going. We slogged down a very broad, straight, forest track that felt like it went on forever. That’s the thing with a straight road: unless you’re travelling very fast, it seems as if you’re not making any progress at all. On a twisty turny one you do at least get frequent changes of scenery.
This scenery changed after about four kilometres, and we sat down in yet another handy bus shelter and watched the wind ruffling the crops in the field opposite. Having recovered our spirits, we plodded on into Sigüeiro, around the edge of an industrial estate and then through a pleasant park.
On the way out of the park we passed several fairground stands and marquees. One seemed to be a beer tent; our Spanish pilgrim friends waved as we passed by. There was obviously some sort of local festival or fête going on, which we weren’t quite in the mood to appreciate. We booked in at the first albergue instead. And when I say ‘booked in’ I mean ‘walked in and had a bit of a sit down until someone turned up’. We didn’t mind. It was a very nice albergue.
The sun and wind coming into Sigüeiro had gone some way to dry everything off again, but I still felt pretty clammy and horrible, and once I’d had a shower and John had worked out the tumble dryer I retired to my bunk dressed in pants, trousers, sports bra and fleece and read Four Quartets until I’d warmed up a bit.
We went out into Sigüeiro to have a look at the fair and get some food. The fair was mostly shutting up for the evening, so, after wandering up and down the row of stands, we moved on to the ‘food’ part. For reasons that I now can’t remember, we settled on a pizza place.
It was at this point that my Spanish failed. I’d been doing most of the talking all the way along, and my skills had improved along with my confidence. But at this point I was tired and hungry and I absolutely could not remember the Spanish for ‘four’ – which made ordering a four cheese pizza a little difficult. So John did it, and it was fine, and there was pizza.
Then we decided that, since we were in a town, we might as well go out for a drink. We fixed on an establishment named ‘Folk Cervexeria’, which was not at all folky; it had Beatles and Queen memorabilia all over the place. It also had a slightly odd atmosphere. We stayed for one drink and then retired to the albergue.
In the morning we were the last out of the albergue, for no particular reason beyond the obvious, that everyone else had got up and dressed and breakfasted before us. My boots were still a bit damp, though two pairs of clean, dry, socks disguised that fact.
We were both rather daunted by the prospect of this day. We knew from the book that it was long, it was steep, and that there were very few places to stop. There was nothing; then there was Bar Julia, which might or might not be open; then there was a long, long climb up to the highest point of the Camino Inglés.
Still, there was nothing to do but to set out and start walking. The path went downhill for a little, and then uphill quite a lot. While the day was not particularly warm, the air was humid, and I found it difficult to breathe. From time to time it got its act together sufficiently to become real rain. Once again, we were dodging the motorway – though at least there was a rainbow over it at one point.
After that it was road walking, which was hard on the feet. At Cos, we caught up with the Italian pilgrim from Betanzos; we greeted him with a wave. Then we sat down in a bus shelter, ate a large packet of crisps between us, and he got ahead of us again.
At Presedo, twelve kilometres in, we were both thoroughly fed up with the whole thing, though wouldn’t have admitted it for anything. Presedo had an albergue, according to the guidebook, so we hoped that it might have a bar, too. The book did not mention a bar, but all the same we left the path and went down into the village. No luck. We returned to the path and set our faces to Bar Julia.
Sometimes, when you have resigned yourself to the idea that something is going to be awful and you are just going to have to get through it, something surprising and welcome pops up in the middle of it and makes it all considerably less awful. We’d known that the day was going to be twenty-nine kilometres of horrible gradients. We’d accepted the possibility that Bar Julia would be closed and, now that there had proved to be no bar in Presedo, we were resigned to the fact that we were going to have to go all the way to Hospital de Bruma with only such breaks as we could contrive for ourselves.
And then we saw a sign. Red. Meson O Museo on the right in one hundred metres.
We would have been glad to see it even had it been a fuggy little hole jammed with hostile dogs and more hostile locals. But it was wonderful. A shady courtyard with plenty of chairs and tables, an elegant but friendly cat sniffing her way around our rucksacks, a lovely woman behind the bar, a baby in a highchair, and a charming medieval theme. The Spanish trio had already found it, and seemed just as pleased with it as we were.
We got pop to cool us down, and then coffee to perk us up, and got our credenciales stamped, and I glanced at the contents of a glass case that made a tiny museum. It was a lovely place, all the more so because we hadn’t been expecting it at all, and after a couple of minutes there we were able to admit to each other what a relief it had been to find it.
After that the prospect of the rest of the day seemed less daunting, although the damp was slowly seeping from my boots through the double layer of my socks…
The way led us through a little wooded dip, and out and up again between paddocks. A little row of houses stood on the ridge. One of the inhabitants was waiting for us. What language did we speak? English. No good. She spoke Italian or German, but not English. We went for Spanish, and it was in that language that she offered us our pick from a basket of hard-boiled eggs. It was with some difficulty that we came away with as few as three…
We walked on another hour or so, through farmland and woodland. When we came across a children’s playground with a picnic table, I suggested that we stop for lunch, on the grounds that there might not be another spot as good. John agreed, a little reluctantly. We divvied up bread and cheese, and I took boot and socks off to find that what I thought might be a blister was indeed one. I applied Compeed, ruining a couple before I was satisfied with the way it lay.
After that there wasn’t much to do but push on. So we did.
The rain came once more without warning, sudden and drenching. We hastened to put on waterproofs, but we were already wet.
A few hundred yards further on, we found Bar Julia. Open.
If we’d been only a few minutes earlier we’d have stopped and waited out the rain; as it was, we were already wet, and if we sat down we’d be cold too. We set our faces to the climb and walked on past Bar Julia.
The road was quite new, smooth tarmac, and the water ran down it in sheets. We proceeded up it in a slightly less determined manner. The rain stopped coming down after a few minutes; aside from a halt to take advantage of a church with toilets accessible via the outside wall, we kept going up. The path left the road and dived up into woodland.
After a little while I remarked, ‘Now, Jones had left his new-wed bride to keep his house in order,’ and remembering the rest of the poem took us a fair way up the slope.
We didn’t know any other poems well enough to get us any further, however, and it was a very long way up the hill. (A Code of Morals was pinned up in the kitchen for years.) And the combination of the steepness of the gradient and the humidity of the air meant that I had to stop at almost every hairpin to get my breath back.
That was the worst of the day; the worst of it was, there were still another seven kilometres to go. They were tedious. The most tedious part of it was a stony field. I grumbled all the way across it; John nobly refrained from abandoning me in the middle of it. It gave way to what would ordinarily have been a pleasant woodland path that crossed a couple of pretty little streams. The guidebook had promised us a waymarking at one kilometre to go. We kept not seeing it, so that meant that we still had more than a kilometre to go. Of course, when we came to the albergue, we no longer worried about that…
There’s not such thing as the authentic pilgrim experience; there are only pilgrims, and experiences. What I will say of the albergue at Hospital de Bruma is that it was the one that matched most closely my memories of the Camino Frances a decade previously. And this was largely down to an accident of geography: there was no mobile phone reception. It was also the fact that this was a Galician municipal albergue, and all of these have a similar feel to them, no matter that they are housed in a very diverse variety of buildings. And then there were a lot of pilgrims, some of whom we hadn’t seen before; this sense of shuffling the pack felt much more like the Camino Frances.
The Camino Inglés is short enough, and its logical stopovers far enough apart, that you meet the same people over and over again. On the Camino Frances, with its abundance of accommodation (not that it always felt like that) it’s much easier to lose people just because they’re walking slightly faster or slightly more slowly than you are. But at Betanzos we found everybody from Pontedeume, and then a few more; and at Hospital de Bruma, everybody from Betanzos (except the American woman who’d had to give up and go home) plus a few more who had come from A Coruña.
The kitchen left something to be desired, which also seemed typical of Galician albergues. We dined on instant noodles and the hard-boiled eggs. John’s turned out not to have been cooked thoroughly, so he put it in the microwave.
‘I don’t think you’re meant to put eggs in the microwave,’ I said. ‘I think they explode.’
This greatly amused the one other pilgrim in the kitchen, a man in his sixties with an impressive moustache. I tried to explain in Spanish, but he turned out to be Canadian. We talked quite a lot about pilgrims and pilgrimages.
John and I had bunks on the top floor, and I was on the top bunk. At my elbow I had an opening that looked down onto the kitchen, which had the whole height of the building. This meant, of course, that I could look down on the kitchen table and hear everything that was going on. That evening it happened to be the Japanese and Italian pilgrims discussing (I think) twentieth century history, with the aid of one or more bottles of wine. All very amiable, but a bit loud.
Next time: a flattish stage, at long last, and some very weird sculptures.
The Camino Inglés delights in taking you from sea level, up uncomfortably steep gradients, and back to sea level again. Sometimes this is repeated several times over the course of one day. The route from Pontedeume to Betanzos is a case in point. We started on the waterfront. The bar where we ate breakfast (coffee and cold churros) was on the next street along. (The Japanese pilgrims, incidentally, ate their breakfast in the albergue at ten past six.) After that, we joined the route and it went straight up.
And it’s not as if either of us is unfamiliar with the concept of ‘up’. Our parents live in Ventnor, which is about as close as Britain gets to those Mediterranean seaside towns where the streets are arranged in higgledy-piggledy lines up a cliff. This was something else. (It was also raining.) Within about fifteen minutes (give or take a diversion to look at the church of Santiago, which was shut, and several breaks for me to catch my breath) we’d climbed one hundred and fifty metres and were looking down on the town and the bay.
Once we were out of the town, the gradient became less punishing. The rain, however, continued to fall, and I gave up on any hope of my boots drying out. I kept my waterproof trousers on all day – even after it stopped raining I couldn’t be bothered taking them off, and anyway, they were snug enough to compensate for my walking trousers being a size too big.
We were up and down all day. The first downwards gradient was a gentle one, taking us down through scrubby woodland (a nature reserve, I think) towards a golf course. That was deserted, of course, in this weather. The path led straight across, and then into a copse and across a little brook.
After that there were some fairly tedious bits over and then alongside a motorway, leading at last into Miño. This was a reasonably sizeable town, and had a choice of bars. Sitting outside one of them were three pilgrims we didn’t recognise. We stopped for a cup of coffee in the next one along, and then kept on going.
Downhill, again. Heading out of town, the path led gently down all the way down to sea level, and after that up, and up, and up, above the level of the motorway flyovers. 20%. One in five. At least the maths was easy.
We sat on a bench in a dilapidated children’s playground at the top to get our breath back and eat Naked bars. (Naked bars are very good if you’re hiking with a vegan, or hiking as a vegan. They don’t melt, and they don’t crumble too badly.) Then there were lots of single track lanes. We met two dogs (one a very friendly puppy) on one of them and, a little further down the hill, looked back to find that a dapple-grey horse was following us. We had no idea what to do about a loose horse; fortunately it got fed up with the idea after a hundred yards or so, and turned off into a field.
A rural bus shelter made a decent spot to stop for lunch. More of the same followed: narrow roads, little hamlets. I was surprised to find the road surface not too hard on my feet, but I was still very tired by the end of the day. Then, at last, a field of allotments (and a briefly interested cat), and we proceeded into the walled town of Betanzos.
The Betanzos albergue was big, and well-appointed. There were two floors of dormitories, laundry rooms (yes, plural), boot racks, sitting rooms, a kitchen and dining area, plenty of showers, and wi-fi. Also the heights of joy and depths of despair that come with hearing, and then believing that one has misinterpreted, the word ‘secadora‘. And the joy that returns when it does in fact turn out to mean ‘tumble dryer’.
Granted, there was a very odd mark on the ceiling above the shower that I used (mould, I thought) but generally speaking it was all that one would wish. We bagged bunks, unpacked, went off to take showers, and, as our father would say, ‘went and died for an hour or so’.
There were more pilgrims here than at Pontedeume. The trio we’d seen earlier had turned up here, and turned out to be Spanish; apart from them, there was an Italian man in his sixties, and, of course, the three Japanese men.
The churches and streets of Betanzos
I looked at my boots to see how far the line of damp had receded (not as far as I’d have liked) and dragged John out to see the churches of Betanzos and their fabulous Romanesque architecture. I liked the houses, too; as in Ferrol and Pontedeume, many of them were magnificent affairs of three or four storeys, with graceful glazed balconies on the upper floors.
After that we set off to look for O Pasotempo, and food.
The CSJ guidebook described O Pasotempo as –
‘a sort of rural Spanish Victorian theme park erected in 1893 by a couple of local men who made their fortune in South America and came home to share the wealth and cultural excitement with their home town’.
So of course we had to look at it.
It was a gloriously eccentric nineteenth century pleasure garden, dilapidated in a way that was just the right side of the boundary between ‘charming’ and ‘public health hazard’, and filled with all sorts of weird and wonderful sculptures. Shells set into the walls. A relief map of the Panama Canal. A panel of clocks – the usual London – New York – Paris set-up, except not, because it was made of plaster, and there were about 25 clock faces in total, and the central one said Buenos Aires. Half mermaids. A mandarin duck. A mallard duck with ducklings. (These were real.) Plaster figurines of intrepid explorers on camels. Caves! With fake stalactites! And dragons! We agreed that it was like Blackgang Chine, only considerably weirder. We loved it.
I had mismanaged my blood sugar to the point where there was no question of holding out for food until we got back to the albergue. But the supermarket that we had passed on the way to O Pasatempo had a café. The café provided sugary drinks and snacks. The supermarket provided longer term sustenance. We stocked up for the next couple of days, then walked back to the albergue to cook and eat some of our purchases. ‘Cook’ in this context meant ‘heat up in the microwave’. It made a change from bread and cheese.
Afterwards, we sat in the sitting room upstairs, reading, and talking to an American pilgrim who was doing a little mending. This was more in resignation than in expectation, as she had been waiting for so long to recover for an injury that her visa had run out, and she was going to have to fly home without completing her Camino. But she was still going to do her sewing.
For my part, I wondered morbidly if I was coming down with a cold. But I embraced the power of denial, and went to bed.
Next time: the most wonderful surprise of the whole Camino. And some eggs.
The first thing was to get around the ría de Ferrol; it took twenty-eight kilometres and all of the first day. We started at the naval museum – well, we started at the hotel, really; that was where we got our credenciales stamped – and then worked our way around three, or four, or perhaps five, sides of the bay. We were to see the big Navantia arch in the docks from several different angles over the course of the day.
Which was not to say that the scenery was uninteresting, simply that it didn’t seem as if we were getting very far. For the first hour or so we were very close to the water, and walking past cranes and ships – and a lonely little red-roofed chapel. Then we started gaining height and walking a little way inland. An avenue took us to a path alongside a major road, and then we crossed around the edge of a roundabout into a trading estate.
A series of short showers brought out lots of scents. Eucalyptus, fennel, seaweed. Some more evasive action around some more major roads, a faintly surreal stretch down an ordinary residential street, and a medieval monastery… Then we went further uphill, finding a path through a eucalyptus forest and under a motorway. The Camino was already demonstrating its variety.
The path went along the top of a grassy dam, part of a disused tidal mill, and then led us into the town of Narón. We decided that here was as good a place to stop for lunch as any, though it wasn’t quite twelve. This seemed to puzzle the proprietor of the bar we happened across, as did John’s vegetarianism, but neither problem was insurmountable. Not for the last time on this camino, we went for the items on the menu that looked to be the least heavy on the meat, and then I picked out the unmentioned sausage chunks.
The route crossed the Ría Xubia and almost felt as if it turned back on itself along a pleasant, riverbank path. But we were heading away from the water again, past a cemetery and then a church, and along what the guidebook calls ‘a street called Paraíso’ – which sounds as if it should be a film. Paraíso became the Rúa Real, and the whole thing was one of those streets that manages to be well-preserved yet still very much lived in.
Soon the buildings became less interesting and we crossed under another stretch of motorway. The route went steeply uphill; the sight of an emu in someone’s back garden went some way to compensate for the climb. We could have done without the sight of the Navantia arch. Nearly twenty kilometres and we could still see the wretched thing. We ambled on through this residential quarter.
The rain was sudden and intense. We had just enough warning to get our waterproofs on. We stopped in someone’s driveway to do it, much to the fury of their neighbour’s dogs. Within a few hundred metres it became clear that repeatedly putting the wet guidebook and taking it out again would reduce it to a pulp; so, too, would keeping it out. Fortunately John had brought a transparent plastic wallet to keep his credencial in: we put the credencial in with mine (in a waterproof bag deep in my rucksack) and repurposed the wallet for the guidebook.
We followed the path downhill and sorted ourselves out in a bar, spreading our waterproofs out over the backs of chairs, getting our credenciales stamped, ordering a coffee apiece, and waiting for the rain to stop. Waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers… It was already becoming apparent that my boots were no longer waterproof. It wasn’t entirely surprising, given their advanced age, but it was annoying.
A little way beyond the bar, the houses gave way to countryside again, and the path headed back uphill, straight up towards the motorway. Looking at the guidebook to refresh my memory, I find myself slightly surprised to discover that this all happened on one day. But then it was one long day. The route had been diverted around some roadworks, which meant that we bypassed the motorway service station that the guidebook had promised us. We ate some date bars instead, and grumbled about the habit of other pilgrims of cluttering up the waymarkings with ineffectual little cairns of stones. This was a particularly egregious example, with the stones in a plastic flowerpot.
That was probably the most trying point of the day. Once clear of the motorway gubbins we were onto a track through trees and then narrow country roads, empty of traffic, winding downhill, leading us to a pleasant green path and at last down to sea level again. Now we were walking along what I could only call a promenade, with wide pavements and beach cafés and all the rest of it, alongside a band of sandy soil with the water visible between the pine trees. And at last we’d lost sight of that arch.
The route took us over a long bridge that spanned the whole inlet, and into the town of Pontedeume.
The albergue was on the waterfront, a few yards off the route. It was closed when we arrived, and had a notice on the door with instructions of who to call to get it opened up. Feeling rather daunted, I did. ‘Somos dos peregrinos. Queremos rester aqui esta noche...’ It wasn’t brilliant Spanish, but it did the job; after about ten minutes the hospitalera showed up, unlocked the door, and issued us with disposable sheets and pillowcases. This was a new development since my last camino. I knew from Confraternity newsletters that bedbugs were an increasing problem along the route: this was an attempt to deal with it. There were plenty of bunks to choose from, even allowing for the fact that some had been reserved for what (judging by the notices on the beds, which I didn’t read all that closely) seemed to be an organised group on some kind of sporting excursion.
Safely booked into the albergue, we went off the explore Pontedeume. We sat at a tall table outside a bar and drank beer while I tried to write my biography and John found his way onto the wi-fi. At the end of the beer we moved on, and, seeing a shoe shop, thought we might as well see if they could supply a new pair of insoles for John’s ailing boots. My Spanish was nowhere near good enough to cope with this task; we eventually got the message across by dint of John’s taking his boots off – and to pieces – to demonstrate. The shopkeeper was of the opinion that really new boots were indicated, and we tended to agree. I hadn’t realised how inadequate the old ones were. It would be expensive, but it would be worth it.
Boots purchased, we moved on in search of some food. We picked a bar based on the versatility of its menu, and dined entirely adequately on chips and padrón peppers – though we had some little difficulty persuading the woman who took our order that no, John didn’t want any ham. We were the only customers in the place, which had a slightly incoherent décor of bare stone walls combined with rock’n’roll heroes. Previous patrons had amused themselves by balancing coppers on the protruding edges of the stones; we added a few British pennies to the euro cents.
Returning to the albergue, we found that the Japanese pilgrims had propped the door open, and, having obviously found a supermarket somewhere, were enjoying a makeshift supper. There was no sign of the group with the reservations when we turned in. I couldn’t see how to turn the lights off; besides, the others were still up.
I woke some hours later to find that the lights were still on, but that the sporting group had arrived. I didn’t fancy getting down from my bunk to turn the lights off (and I still didn’t know how to) and I drifted off to sleep again.
Next time: the only way is up. And then down. And then up again. And then down again… Also, a surreal theme park.
It’s at this point that I apologise to those readers who are here for the walking, because I am mostly going to talk about ferries and trains. If you aren’t interested in train journeys, then you should definitely avoid my series about my Grand Tour, which is coming up in six months or so. For the moment, however, you can skip this post and come back next week for the actual Camino Inglés.
On the catamaran back across the Solent I realised that the pain in my foot was not due to any injury; some part of the structure of my boot had cracked across the top, and was digging in with every step. I had no time to get new boots, let alone walk new boots in, so I resorted to the pair I’d bought in my first year at university.
My stepsister-in-law was getting married in Leighton Buzzard. My father was holding a 75th birthday party in Itchen Abbas. In between the two my brother John and I were walking the Camino.
I constructed an elaborate packing plan across my rucksack and a suitcase, and smiled at the contrast between their contents. Walking boots versus kitten heels; waterproof rolltop bags versus satin clutch; thick socks versus white gloves. My husband hired a car to get us from Cambridge to Dunstable, and from Dunstable to the church, and back to the hotel for the reception (at which I tried a grapefruit-flavoured gin, and didn’t think much of it). And in the morning he took me to Luton station, and I took the train to St Pancras, and then another one from Paddington to Plymouth.
I met John at Plymouth station, together with a friend of his who at that time happened to be living in a camper van on Dartmoor, and we walked down to the port. At this point we had well over an hour to spare before we had to check in to the ferry, so we stopped for lunch at a yachtie place called The Dock. This was appropriate, as the service was laughably slow. Also appropriate was the item on the bill that read ‘BAD/HOUMUS’. The boys, being vegan, both ordered bread, houmus and taramasalata without the taramasalata. They were given the option of double houmus. The order took a very long time to arrive and then it came with taramasalata.
We were five minutes late checking in, which wouldn’t worry me at all on an Isle of Wight ferry, but which made me a little twitchy given the need for passport and security checks. It was fine, really.
The Pont-Aven was the sort of ferry that wants to be a cruise ship when it grows up, and we felt a bit scruffy with our giant rucksacks. The last time I’d done the Camino we’d crossed from Portsmouth to Caen, and skimped on such luxuries as bunks. This time round, a decade older and richer and wiser, I’d booked a cabin and everything. We sat in the bar and listened to a jazz band who were travelling to a festival in Santander, as the sun set over the sea.
And when they sell rum called Saint James, there is really only one possible response. Mojito.
We retired at a relatively early hour, but I went up on deck at about 11pm to see if I could see anything of France. Not from the port side I couldn’t, but the lighthouse on Ushant was very visible, a double flash every four seconds, the very last flush of the sunset above it, and the moon waxing over the other side.
The next morning I woke up some time before John, and got up to see if I could find breakfast and see dolphins. I spent breakfast eavesdropping on my fellow Britons and thinking that the Brexit vote wasn’t such a surprise. They were whingeing about the breakfast, the price, quality, and quantity thereof. But I forgave them when they pointed out my first dolphins.
I saw three separate groups of dolphins in the end: the first through the ferry window at breakfast; then three side by side quite soon after we went up on deck to look for them specifically, and then, after a very long time in the wind staring at the sea and seeing nothing beyond the rainbows in the spray, just as we were about to give up and go down to pack up, one of the other people watching pointed out a group of six or seven, travelling at right angles to the ship and leaping right out of the water. They seemed quite small and almost luminous in the morning sunlight.
In Santander we put our watches forward, which was ridiculous given how far west we were intending to end up, and ate lunch at Café Royalty, where I’d last been ten years before with Anne. The translation of the menu had improved somewhat in the meantime. Then we wandered around the town, poking our noses into shops and covered markets, and looking at street installations meant to show the devastation caused by the fire of 1941. There was also a monument to a ship explosion of1893, and a preserved air raid shelter from the Civil War. We would have gone to look at that, but it was closed. Eventually, being hot and tired, we brought some provisions for the train and went to wait at the station.
We’d previously stopped there to buy the tickets, where my first proper Spanish conversation in a decade had amounted to ‘You know it doesn’t leave until ten past four?’ We did know, and we got the train at ten past four. But I wasn’t really in the right frame of mind to understand about the rail replacement bus service between Llanés and Ribadesella, and, once we’d worked out that was what the guard was talking about, I spent some time in a state of nervous panic before seeking clarification.
Between what the guard told me, logic, John’s memory of the train he’d been on last time, and some signs along the way, we worked out that the reason for the bus was the electrification of that stretch of line. The bus took us through some spectacular coastal villages. I was struck once again with an impracticable desire to walk the Camino del Norte. The bus driver clearly knowing everyone, telling one passenger to give his regards to his mother, and stopping at another point for a through-the-window conversation with an older man.
We ate bread and cheese once back on the train (electric, this one). John had downgraded his veganism to vegetarianism for the duration of this Camino. On his previous trip along this stretch of railway he went all the way from Ferrol to Santander in a day, and didn’t bring anything to eat. We stopped for the night in Oviedo, staying in Hotel Favila, blessedly close to the station. After checking in we wandered around the city, and found very little going on. We concluded that either we’d been lied to all our lives about the Spanish nightlife, or that nothing happens on Mondays, or that nothing happens in Oviedo.
The next morning it was more lively, and we got further, too, into the old town and the university quarter. They were setting up the market when we went there; the night before all the cafés were clearing up, sweeping the floors and stacking the chairs. After the market we worked our way back, through a park with mighty and dark trees. Where Santander does memorials to tragedies, Oviedo does sculpture. Every other street, every other crossing, a statue or a concept piece or a fountain.
We walked out towards the suburbs and back towards the station. We checked out of the hotel and drank thick, rich, hot chocolate from little cups in holders shaped like scallop shells.
We kept finding ourselves on the Camino, mostly by standing on the pavement being indecisive for too long. Locals saw our rucksacks and directed us in what they assumed was the right direction. In Santander, we’d been accosted by a woman handing out business cards for a hostel on the Camino del Norte. Now, in Oviedo, having an hour or so to spare before our train, we thought we might as well go with it, and we followed the Camino Primitivo for half a mile or so. As far as a bridge over the FEVE line, at which point John saw a bridge a little further down that interested him, a sort of suspension bridge-cum-roundabout, so we went to look at that, and then turned back – and had to explain that no, we weren’t lost, we were going to catch a train to Ferrol.
We found our way back and drank coffee in Café Uría (because it was opposite the station and had a picture of a bicycle on the window) – then caught the train.
Two hours into the second leg, and the scenery was a sequence of tunnels and steep valleys, eucalyptus trees, viaducts of various ages, hairpin bends a long way beneath us, horreos, houses with shallow roofs of red tiles and yellow plaster walls; maps of the Camino in tiles on the walls of the station buildings; shells here and there. Very occasionally, we glimpsed the sea out to the north.
The second rail replacement in as many days (a car this time, not a bus) took us from Navia to Ribadeo. A few kilometres east of Galicia, it started to rain; then a yellowish mist rolled down. I read Four Quartets, and decided that I was growing tired of fog and eucalyptus trees. We could go back the other way, via Palencia.
Checking into the hotel at Ferrol, we found ourselves behind three Japanese men in their sixties – obviously pilgrims, and well-organised ones at that. They had plastic folders with step by step (not quite literally) instructions. As the week went on, we would discover that they rose early, walked fast, and enjoyed themselves when they got to the night’s destination. For the moment, though, we were mostly concerned with getting the key to our room.
There was wi-fi. There usually is, these days. The last time I did the Camino my phone had a screen of three square inches and if you wanted to get on the internet you had to hope there’d be a public access computer in your albergue. This was, no doubt, an excellent spiritual discipline, but in the year of Our Lord 2017 it turned out that daily internet access was a blessing.
Because when I connected my phone to the wi-fi in that hotel and my emails started rolling in, it turned out that Speak Its Name had been shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize, and the Society of Authors needed a biography, a photograph, and six copies of the book, all of which would have been very difficult to organise without the internet. Not that I did any organising that night. We went down to the bar and drank beer and red wine, and I was very glad that I had one hundred and sixteen kilometres of walking ahead of me to keep me distracted through the embargo.
Next time: we start walking the Camino Inglés. I promise.
Any illusions that I might have had about being the sensible one (who knew when to stop) were shattered by the third day. This was a day that would have been much improved by my stopping at Shalfleet for lunch. I didn’t, and I was miserable, although I did see some interesting things. Consequently, the first half of this post is mostly pictures.
I started out with a bus trip, of course, back to the Round House where we’d caught the bus home yesterday, and found my way back down to the seafront at Gurnard. The coast along this first stretch was not spectacular, with low earthy banks sloping gently down towards the sea, but there were interesting things to see: woolly black sheep; a fox; dwellings made from railway carriages. It was when I went inland that things got tedious.
The trouble with the north-west coast of the Isle of Wight is that there’s a lot that has to be got around. There’s the Ministry of Defence land at Porchfield (which meant interminable road walking for me) and then there are all the creeks and swamps that go into the Newtown River. In between the two there is Shalfleet, where I should have stopped. Instead, I pressed on along paths and duckboards towards Bouldnor, hating everything. Particularly myself.
I’d meant to lunch in Yarmouth. And so I did. At half past four. I considered going on to the Needles, but thought it better not to take my bad mood along one of my favourite stretches of path. So I wandered around the town a little bit and then took the bus home.
It occurred to me that it was possible that on my previous Coast Path walk I’d managed a five-day walk in six days, rather than (as I’d thought) a four-day walk in five. This being so, I was unlikely to manage the whole thing in four days. I decided that this didn’t really matter. I’d already walked the entire circumference before, and this was really an exercise in knowing when to stop.
The westernmost tip of the Isle of Wight is always beautiful, and on a sunny day it’s glorious. I got the bus back out to Yarmouth and set out westwards. After a quarter of a mile or so alongside the beach the Coast Path heads up and a little way inland into Fort Victoria Country Park. Wide paths slope upwards through woodland, and eventually a narrower one pulls you up above the tops of the trees, and the Solent is there, now with the context of Hurst Castle and the Hampshire coast on the far side.
I pressed on along a shore that was always changing and would always change, through sleepy Totland and down to the sea again, past the sad remains of its pier; up, along the springy turf and the gorse bushes of Headon Warren. The gorse was out in exuberant bloom and alive with bees: no question about whether kissing was in fashion at the moment.
At the Needles Park I stopped for an ice cream, feeling sweaty and unkempt and wildly out of place among those who had come to ride on the chairlift and fill jars with coloured sands, although of course it was unlikely that I was the only walker there that day, or even that minute.
I kept going westwards, still higher, climbing the road where only the buses and the pedestrians go, and seeing the sea blue far below me, and the white crumbling chalk of the path, and the grass dotted yellow with cowslips.
I went as far west as you can without paying to get into the Needles Old Battery, and took a superficial look at the rocket launch site and the coastguard station. Then I turned east again, climbing a steep path up past the coastguards’ cottages and towards Tennyson Down.
I heard, and then saw, skylarks rising up from the long grass: the first time that I could remember. I kept on up towards the Tennyson memorial. The grass was very short here, by contrast, cropped close by cattle. Up and up, and over and down the other side: it was a lovely walk, but for the lingering spectre of the Last Bus. I didn’t really want to have to cut things short at Freshwater Bay, but if I went any further along the south-west coast and the Military Road then I’d be off the route of the regular service buses and would have to time things carefully so as to be sure of catching the once-daily-in-each-direction Coaster.
All the same, I stopped in a café for a sit down and a cup of coffee and a chocolate bar before I committed.
At the eastern end of the beach I met a whole party of walkers coming the other way. I had to wait for them at the bottom of the steps. 19, they said. I didn’t count them. After a sharp climb up, I was walking parallel with the road and watching the coast unfolding in front of me, bay after bay.
I did my best to ignore a dull pain in my toes. There were other things to think about. An adder, slithering out of the way before I reached the bottom of the steps down from road level. Cows. (I was more worried by the cows.) And where to stop. I thought about pushing on to Isle of Wight Pearl, but there are public lavatories and an ice cream van at Compton Bay, and both were worth stopping for.
I got the bus home, and left the southernmost points unwalked. In fact, I’d walked around about as much of the Island in actual size as I had around the paddling pool. Coincidence, of course. Wasn’t it?
Next time: a family wedding; we actually set foot in Spain, crossing it in two trains; and what’s going on with that pain in the toes? Probably more photos, too.
I went down to the Isle of Wight to walk the Coast Path over the long weekend of the May bank holiday. This was cutting things a bit fine, and I didn’t really have a plan for what I would do if I discovered that I wasn’t up to a long walk. I didn’t think too hard about that. The Isle of Wight is, quite literally, home turf; I know its footpaths and byways better than I know those of any other county. It was where I first discovered the sanity-saving practice of walking, and the combination of a familiar landscape and a moderately challenging parcours would make the perfect warm-up.
I took a train straight down from London on the Thursday evening, and started out walking from Ventnor the next morning. My mother accompanied me as far as the seafront. I walked around the edge of the paddling pool, which has a concrete map of the Isle of Wight in the centre. Perhaps I was setting an intention on the micro scale to work through on the macro scale or some woowoo like that. I didn’t walk all the way round, which, considering how things worked out, might suggest that there’s more to the woowoo than I’d first thought.
I set out eastwards along the sea wall; I’d decided to go anticlockwise around the Island, as I had on my previous Isle of Wight Coast Path attempt. Some public benefactor has set up a scale model of the Solar System along the coast between Bonchurch and Ventnor. I counted off paces between planets. The sun is about the size of a football, an orange-painted sphere springing up from the end of the railing. Shortly afterwards the path heads away from the sea, up the cliff, over a delightful little stream with wild garlic blooming on its banks, and past St Boniface Old Church. I looked in. It’s a lovely church: ancient, tiny, and set apart from hustle and bustle, even more than the rest of the Isle of Wight, even more than the rest of Bonchurch.
The sun was trying to break through as I kept on eastwards, and managing it in selected patches on the sea. I lost sight of the sea when I plunged into the tangled vegetation of the Landslip. I don’t think I’d ever walked through there in spring before. It was lovelier than ever, erupting in green, with intensely purple bluebells – possibly they weren’t bluebells at all. I followed the path up and down and up again, picking my way through tree roots and flights of worn steps, emerging at last between brick walls at Dunnose. I headed on past sprawling Victorian hotels into Shanklin.
The great thing about going anticlockwise is that at Shanklin one goes down the steps that run between the clifftop and the beach, not up them. I stayed on the seawall all the way to Sandown out of sheer laziness: I couldn’t be bothered to find where the route goes inland. Besides, I thought, if one’s walking a coast path one might as well stick as close to the sea as possible.
I bought and ate Turkish Delight ice cream from the children’s activity centre on Shanklin seafront, which didn’t seem to be doing a huge amount of business otherwise. When I got into Sandown it was just about lunchtime, so I sat in a café and waited for their fryer to heat up, then ate chips before heading off on the long climb north-east to Yaverland and Culver. All day it had been getting steadily brighter, and by the time I reached the top of Bembridge Down there was brilliant sunshine.
This took me about as far east as it was possible to get; now I turned the corner of the island and went around the edge of the harbour at Bembridge, picking my way across the causeway and then moving a little way inland along the edges of fields. Unlike the last time I’d walked the Isle of Wight Coast Path, I managed not to get lost around the Priory Bay Hotel: there was some sort of organised run going the other way and lots of little pink flags marking the route. I had to stand out of the way of runners every so often.
I ate another ice cream – rum and raisin, this time – in a stiff breeze at Seaview. After that I thought I might as well push on to Ryde, where I had a better choice of buses, so I followed the sea wall around the edge of Puckpool Park. That meant more concrete, and my knees and the soles of my feet didn’t like it much. But the bus home to Ventnor was a nice forty-five minutes’ sit-down.
I ended up setting much later than I’d meant on the second day. I was just about to leave without John when he got up and wanted to come, and then we were about to miss another bus so delayed another half hour…
We messed around a bit buying snacks (vegan for John) in the Sainsbury’s at Ryde, then got going properly. We admired the magnificent Victorian houses on the way out of town, with their cupolas and their barge boarding and their fish scale tiles. We admired the lodges and the more modern houses on the way into Quarr, and debated a bit as to whether one of them had been on Grand Designs and, if so, which.
We talked to a jolly old buffer working in his front garden; he told us that at one point in the 19th century house prices in Ventnor outstripped those of central London. We stopped in the grounds of Quarr Abbey to look at the pigs; the previous time I’d done the Coast Path there were piglets as well, but not this time.
It started raining at Wootton Bridge. This was at least an excuse to try my new waterproof trousers. John had the sort of poncho that’s basically an oversized binbag. On the way up through the housing estate above Wootton Bridge we met one of John’s colleagues, who was rather horrified by the state of his face and then caught him up on all the workplace gossip.
After that it was a long, long descent towards Whippingham, walking on the road all the way. A little way down the road I lost the vision in my right eye so stopped to take my jumper off and wait to be able to see again. This had been happening intermittently ever since I trapped a nerve in my neck the previous summer, and seemed to be associated with overheating. (Some months later, I took it to the GP, who had never seen anything like it, and referred me to a consultant, who had, and told me that it is fairly common in, I quote, ‘young people’. It had been a while since anybody had called me a young person.)
We met many cyclists coming the other way, some coping better with the hill than others. This was the beginning of a long tedious traipse into Whippingham (no pavement, a lot of criss-crossing the road to be on the safer edge of blind bends) and then East Cowes (pavement alongside main road). It was boring and, given the unforgiving surface, painful. I promised myself that I never had to do it again, and that I wouldn’t.
We stopped for lunch at one of the fish and chip restaurants in East Cowes. The floating bridge was out of action, so we were ferried across the Medina in a little launch called the Jenny Lee. It had stopped raining by this point but was still pretty gloomy. Having taken my waterproof trousers off, I managed to sit in a pool of leftover rain.
West Cowes seemed yachtier than ever. We went on along the sea wall as far as Gurnard, at which point we got the map out, engaged in some posturing about being able to go on if the other wanted to, and I finally called it in favour of giving up. This was, I thought, a useful data point for the Camino. I hoped there would be less road walking. We called on John’s local bus knowledge (he has driven a lot of Isle of Wight buses, on and off over the years) and walked up to the nearest bus stop and went home.
Next time: the rest of the Isle of Wight Coast Path – or is it? Will the paddling pool woowoo be too strong? Have valuable lessons been learned? How many more photographs of the Channel and the Solent can there possibly be?