Camino Inglés 2: Isle of Wight Coast Path (eastern half)

Previously:

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

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The English Channel, looking moody

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.

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Hartstongue and ivy underfoot at the Landslip

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.

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Extreme blueness

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.

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Black-headed gull on the beach at the foot of the Shanklin steps

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.

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Looking south and west from Culver

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.

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Bembridge Harbour

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Also Bembridge Harbour

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Crossing the causeway

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.

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The magnificently appalling Appley Tower

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.

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A Quarr lodge

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.

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Quarr Abbey

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A Quarr Abbey pig, reclining

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.

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Aboard the Jenny Lee

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?

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

The first time I heard about the Camino Inglés was when I was about to set off on the Camino Frances in the early spring of 2007. The credencial – pilgrim passport – issued by the Confraternity of Saint James had on the inside back cover a map of the various pilgrim routes across Spain. At the time, of course, I was interested in the one running due east all the way across the map from the French border. Almost a decade later –

‘What’s that little short one?’ I asked.

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‘That little short one’ was the Camino Inglés, and there was a reason for its being short. The English pilgrims would take a ship to the ports of Ferrol or A Coruña and head south. Considering the conditions of medieval ships, this would probably have been just as penitential as doing the whole thing on foot, the way that continental pilgrims could.

These days, the Camino Inglés is one for the connoisseurs. Short – too short (if starting at A Coruña) or only just long enough (if starting at Ferrol) to get the compostela, the certificate of completion and ticket to heaven – but none the less intense. I ordered a guidebook from the Confraternity and looked at the profile and distances with some horror. On the Camino Frances, we’d aimed to walk between fifteen and twenty kilometres every day. The Camino Inglés would call for days of up to twenty-nine kilometres, and steep with it.

When I walked the Camino Frances, I was twenty-one, had finished university with some of my student loan left over (that was just about possible, back then) and hadn’t started work yet. There was no reason on earth why I shouldn’t take seven weeks to walk five hundred miles. A decade on, and gainfully employed, seven weeks was out of the question: anything more than a fortnight required special permission from my line manager.

I’d considered the idea of walking a long Camino in stages, and discarded it again. It hadn’t worked for me on the Pilgrims’ Way (in fact, I’ve yet to make it any closer to Canterbury than Hollingbourne) and the complications of all those extra transfers out and back were too daunting. Plus, I suspected that for me it wouldn’t feel like a Camino. But the five days of the Camino Inglés had definite possibilities.

My brother John volunteered to join me on the walk. This was equal parts reassuring (while I’m not scared of travelling on my own, I wasn’t going to turn down the company) and daunting: John was a lot fitter than me, and had cycled the Camino Frances all the way from Mont-St-Michel the previous autumn. I was worried about keeping up with him, particularly after I, along with half the country, went down with a debilitating and depressing virus in January. I spent a lot of time lying on the sofa bed looking up at the scallop shell which I’d suspended from the curtain rail, and teaching myself more Spanish from Duolingo.

As I recovered, I assigned myself a regime of walks, increasing distance and increasing weight carried. To compensate for the notorious flatness of the Cambridgeshire terrain, I included an optimistically daily climb up the stairs to the top floor of my office. I actually managed an average of three times per week or so. I planned a circuit of the Isle of Wight Coast Path to get some more gradients into my legs, and then over-committed myself and postponed it.

I made kit lists and compared them with what I actually possessed. I considered the relative merits of the two rucksacks in my possession, and compared them both with the third option: buying a new one. There was the one that I’d taken when I walked the Camino Frances and St James’ Way, which fitted like a dream (at least once I’d got the straps adjusted correctly) but whose lining was collapsing into flakes; there was the one I’d got at university, which I’d never taken on a serious walk and which didn’t have anything impressive in the way of support; or there was the off-putting hassle of going to a shop and making a decision and spending another seventy quid. In the end I invested in a whole lot of waterproof bags and went with the one I knew I could carry.

I booked train tickets and ferry tickets and hotel rooms; I made the whole thing fit around my stepsister-in-law’s wedding and my father’s 75th birthday party.

Meanwhile, John was cycling home from his winter job in a ski resort in the French Alps. His Strava updates showed long distances and hours in the saddle, crossing off swathes of France. I worried some more about whether I’d be able to keep up with him.

Then he came off his bike. A very gory photo on Facebook told part of the story; a phone call from my mother supplied the rest of the details. He’d made it all the way to Lisieux before a stick got caught in his front wheel and brought the whole thing to an abrupt and bloody stop.

‘Will he still want to do the Camino?’ I asked, when we’d established that the only lasting damage would be cosmetic.

‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘I should think so.’

He did.

 

Happy St James’ day, to anybody celebrating it! I’m going out for tapas tomorrow.

This is the first of a series of blog posts chronicling my experiences on the Camino Inglés in May 2017. Next time: part of the Isle of Wight Coast Path, and a lot more photographs.

Always just enough

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Another post about the Camino Inglés that isn’t really about the Camino Inglés. It’s about railways and languages and pizza. And I’ve been thinking about all this quite a lot over the past few days, because I’ve just booked myself an InterRail pass.

To begin the Camino Inglés you have to get to either A Coruña or to Ferrol, and, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, my brother and I chose to do this by means of the overnight ferry from Plymouth to Santander and then the narrow gauge railway east to west along the north coast of Spain. This takes two days whichever way you slice it, and on both days we found the trains afflicted by service alterations.

The first was due to line upgrades, and resulted in a very enjoyable rail replacement bus journey through a string of beautiful coastal villages from Llanés to Ribadesella. The second was due to a train failure, and resulted in a rail replacement car from Navia to Ribadeo. (In the picture above you see my brother waiting at Ribadeo for the train to Ferrol.)

All this was communicated with some difficulty, given the fact that the key players were:

  • railway staff – no English
  • a cyclist at Ribadeo who was trying to go west-east – no Spanish
  • my brother – no Spanish
  • me – some Spanish

And sometimes we could just follow everyone else, but that didn’t work so well when we were the only passengers going to Ribadeo. And having to explain to the conductor on the subsequent train that the reason that our tickets had been franked was because the previous train had broken down… that was a challenge. But we managed – because, I thought, I had just enough Spanish to manage.

I’ve always felt quite strongly about learning a bit of the language of any country I’m visiting. I’ve told myself that it’s about politeness, but I think it might also be about confidence, about control, about knowing what’s going on. Anyway, I spent the three months before our departure brushing up on my Spanish, and I was glad I did.

(Castilian Spanish, that is. If Duolingo had given me an option for Gallego I’d have taken it up!)

I did most of the talking all along the route – to the hotel proprietors, to the waiters and bar staff, to the lady handing out boiled eggs to pilgrims (who spoke Spanish and Italian, and I think German). And all the way I had just enough Spanish to manage.

But at the end of the fourth day of walking – we were less than 20km from Santiago at this point, and tired – I suddenly found myself unable to remember the Spanish for ‘four’, and therefore unable to order the pizza I wanted. So my brother did it. And of course he managed. He had just enough Spanish to manage.

So did the cyclist at Ribadeo. He didn’t speak any Spanish, and the stationmaster didn’t speak any English, but between them they transmitted the idea that the train was terminating and the cyclist would have to come back in the morning. When we arrived they asked me to translate, but in fact they’d already managed it. They had just enough, even though neither of them had any.

I’m hoping that I’ll be able to carry this forwards into 2018. I’m planning on brushing up my German, but even with the best will in the world, I’m not going to be able to learn enough Hungarian to reach my standards of this time last year – and I would quite like to see Budapest. I’m not going to be able to learn enough Danish or Swedish – and I’m planning to start out with Copenhagen and Stockholm. I’m just going to have to trust that what I know is going to be just enough.

2017: the year I won a Betty Trask Award

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I was in Spain when I got the news, on the way to Ferrol to start the Camino Inglés to Santiago de Compostela. My brother and I had spent all day on a very slow train from Oviedo: along the north coast, through mist and eucalyptus trees, eating bread and cheese. We’d spent the previous day on a very slow train, too, and the day before that on a ferry from Plymouth. I’d turned the data off on my phone to avoid roaming charges, and there probably wouldn’t have been any coverage anyway.

So when we were checked into the Ferrol hotel and I connected my phone to the wi-fi, all my emails came in at once. Most of them were boring. But there was one that was from Paula Johnson, and it had the subject line Betty Trask Prize.

I did not have my author hat on. I had my pilgrim hat on. I’d sent the latest draft of A Spoke in the Wheel off to my specialist editors and put it out of my mind, and so far as I was concerned Speak Its Name was minding its own business. I’d been using the literary part of my brain for reading T. S. Eliot and translating between English and Spanish. At that moment I did not know what the Betty Trask Prize was.

Then I read the email about it, and I remembered. I remembered that it was awarded to the best debut book by an author under the age of 35. I remembered putting my book in for it. And now, it seemed, my book had been shortlisted for it.

I said, ‘Holy fuck,’ and showed the email to my brother. He was equally impressed, but pointed out that the email said that this was strictly confidential. So, rather than tell anyone else, we went downstairs and had a drink in the hotel bar.

There followed six days during which I could not talk about it with anybody other than my brother, who, obviously, already knew. It was just as well that I had a walk of 116 kilometres to keep my mind off it.

We’d reached Santiago and begun our journey home again by the time the news broke. I spent a scorching Palencia afternoon watching the Twitter notifications roll in and understanding that everything had changed. I hadn’t realised what a big deal it was, what big names had won it, what big names had said very complimentary things about my book. I hadn’t realised that I would come away with an award whatever happened.

I’d brought Four Quartets with me thinking that Little Gidding would have the most to say to me (‘We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started from/and know the place for the first time’), but really The Dry Salvages seemed much more apposite:

Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think ‘the past is finished’
Or ‘the future is before us’.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.

When I returned my life was different, and so was I.

*

Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.

I’m not quitting the day job. (I like the day job!) Sales have settled down to where they were before, and I’m still self-publishing. No contract has materialised as a result of the award, and I have to say that I’m really quite relieved about that. Going back through journal entries from the last couple of years, I’ve found at least three instances of ‘they turned me down… and it was a massive relief, because the longer I went without hearing from them, the more I knew I wanted to do my own thing!’ You’d think I’d have learned by now.

Finishing the next book has been difficult: I’ve had to keep clambering over the conviction that this one won’t and can’t be as good as the last. Perhaps it would have been difficult anyway. Second novels are notorious, after all. Certainly all the palaver around the prize slowed up the publishing process for A Spoke in the Wheel. I’d meant for it to come out in July, but I’m glad it hasn’t. The extra few months have helped me get some perspective – and get several more edits in.

Being shortlisted for the prize gave me a credibility that I hadn’t had before. But I’d already had to move beyond worrying about credibility. I had to develop a strength of belief in the quality of my own work before I was able to self-publish. Having said that, it’s been a massive ego boost. The last lingering doubts that whispered maybe Speak Its Name wasn’t as good as I thought it was… they’ve been dispelled. Gone.

And it’s made it easier to talk about being an author. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience very little scepticism or hostility regarding my self-published status, but it’s always been at the back of my mind as something that might happen. These days I can introduce myself as an author, secure in the knowledge that I’ve got one hell of a comeback if it does.

So I’m going to keep on doing my own thing. I always was going to. But it’s very good to know that my decision to do so has been vindicated.

100 untimed books: slim

12. slim

12. slim

After posting a poem about taking three ‘slim volumes’ walking with me, it seemed only appropriate to include the third (the other two are here and here).

And while I’m on the subject, I’d like to wish all pilgrims a very happy St James’ Day, and hope that anybody currently on the road has ready access to plenty of shade and water.

100 untimed books

On top of the world

Santiago de Compostela

Well, on top of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, to be precise…

 

We made it to Santiago, we had a great deal of fun along the way, and I’ll tell you all about it when I’m typing on a proper keyboard.

And I know I said that you wouldn’t be hearing much from me until I got home, but I’ve had some immensely exciting news. In fact, I’ve had to keep it quiet all the way from Ferrol, but I’ve had plenty of other things to keep my mind off it. 1 in 5 gradients, leaking boots, ordering meals without meat in Spanish. That sort of thing.

Today, however, the press release has come out, and I can tell you that I’m the first self-published author to be short-listed for the Betty Trask Prize. I’m absolutely delighted.

Off on Camino

In a couple of hours I’ll be off to a wedding. Tomorrow morning I’ll be off to Plymouth to catch a ferry to Santander with my little brother, from which we’ll catch a train to Oviedo and then another train to Ferrol, and then we’ll start walking to Santiago de Compostela.

I warmed up for the Camino with an attempt at the Isle of Wight Coast Path. I’ve done this before, in six days. I think I could have managed it in the four I had available if I’d been a bit more efficient about getting out of bed and onto a bus every morning. As it was, I managed to get about three quarters of the way round, starting at Ventnor early on Saturday and giving up at Compton Bay at half past four on Tuesday afternoon.

I’m not too disappointed that I didn’t complete the circle. I did demonstrate to myself that I can sustain a sensible pace over a period of several days, I got my rucksack to settle into a comfortable position, and I reminded myself of some valuable lessons, for example:

  • knowing when to stop
  • knowing when to stop for lunch. (If you pass a pub at 12.30pm, you damn well stop for lunch. You don’t tell yourself you’ll push on to the next town.)

Irritatingly, my boots – in which I can barely have walked a hundred miles since I bought them in the summer – broke in an invisible but uncomfortable manner at some point during the last day, resulting in a weird and worrying pain across the big toe of my right foot.

I didn’t work out until I was on the ferry back to the mainland that the problem wasn’t with my right foot, it was with my right boot. This is, on the whole, preferable. And if they had to break, I’m glad it was at the end of a practice walk and not mid way through the real thing. So I’ll be doing the Camino Inglés in a pair of boots that I bought in my first term at university, rather more than a decade ago. It was annoying to have to throw away what feels like a new pair, but walking boots in which one can’t walk are pretty much pointless, no matter how much they sound like one of the wonders of the Isle of Wight.

I’ll do  a full write up – of both walks – when I get back. In the meantime, the 100 untimed books posts are queued up for the next couple of weeks. I may or may not be posting on Instagram, depending on how good the wi-fi is out there. And my army of editors and specialists are reading A Spoke in the Wheel and checking for inaccuracies and infelicities. At least, I assume they are. I haven’t heard back from any of them yet, but then I did say I wasn’t going to be thinking about it until the end of May.