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.