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.

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.

The hoopiness of this frood is in doubt

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In two weeks’ time I shall be on the ferry to Spain, and I have to confess that I still don’t know where my towel is. I’ve taken everything out of the airing cupboard, the hall cupboard, the various boxes of cycling impedimenta, the suitcases and holdalls under the bed… And put it all back again, obviously. But no towel. At least, not the towel I was looking for. The airing cupboard was, of course, full of the things, but they were all the gigantic cotton bath sheet version, which won’t do at all. I did find two other microfibre camping towels. Neither of them are mine, but I’ve been offered a loan of one of them. I weighed them both on the kitchen scales to see which to take.

I also thought I’d lost my very lightweight fleece, but it turned up at the very back of the top shelf of my wardrobe. (It’s that shapeless brown object in the photograph.)

I found my hat and my waterproof (hmm, well, but it’ll do) and my Swiss Army knife and the bandana I bought in the cathedral shop in Santiago de Compostela the last time around. (This was easy. I knew where they all were.)

Also, I tried on all the walking trousers I’ve accumulated over the years. I have one pair that fits perfectly. Everything else is either too small (the ones I wore last time I did the Camino) or too big (the ones I’ve bought since). I’m going to take the ones that fit perfectly and the ones that are too big but don’t actually fall off.

And yes, one of the objects in that photograph is not like the others. Yes, that shoe box does contain shoes. No, I’m not planning on walking 110km in kitten heels from Hobbs. But I am setting off straight after a wedding, and I thought I might as well get everything down off the top shelf of the wardrobe at once.

Two tins of tomato soup, two bottles of water, and the Oxford Companion to English Literature

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Three and a half kilograms. I’m practising for the Camino Inglés by gradually increasing the weight I carry with me when I’m out walking. That was today’s load, and the first time I’d been out with the rucksack I bought at university, which I’ve never taken on a long walk. Previously I’ve used my godmother’s rucksack, which alas is no longer in a usable state. (If anyone reading this has ever experimented with re-waterproofing the inside of a rucksack, I’d love to hear about your experience!)

There are other bits of kit on my mind: sleeping bag; socks; sticks. Do I buy new walking poles (I have no idea what’s happened to my old ones) or do I take the more picturesque but less foldable hazel staff? But the question I really need to think about at the moment is: boots? Do I use my old ones, veterans of my university years, and trust they won’t fall apart on me? Do I use the current ones, which were meant to be a stopgap and feel a bit insubstantial, and trust they won’t fall apart on me? Or do I buy a new pair? If I’m going to do that, I need to do it soon, so that I have a chance to walk them in.

At the beginning of April I’m going to spend a long weekend walking the Isle of Wight Coast Path, to get some practice in on gradients. We are severely lacking in hills in Cambridge; I’m currently making do with climbing the stairs to the top of the building I work in. Meanwhile, my brother, who’ll be joining me on the walk, has spent the last few months working at a ski resort and is probably disgustingly fit. He was disgustingly fit before he left, after all. I can console myself with the thought that my Spanish is probably better than his.

It’s been good to think of Spanish as training, too; it’s meant that when I’ve found it difficult to get out of bed (this winter, with the boomerang virus; this morning, with depression) I can do five minutes of Duolingo on my phone and still feel that I’m making progress. I can also take small, practical actions that don’t take much physical energy but that still need to be done.

On Thursday, for example, I booked the ferry tickets. And that’s a momentous proceeding. All my practice walks, all my Spanish learning and my dithering over boots; all that could just be in the interests of general self-improvement. But a ferry ticket, now, you can’t argue with that. It’s going to happen!

December Reflections 7: five things about me

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Five people I am:

  1. the Fairy Godmother. I’ve been the Fairy Godmother on and off for years, mostly at work. She’s the one who knows the answers, the one who gets things done on surprisingly limited resources.
  2. the Queen of Hearts. This is a very new persona and I’m still finding my way into being her. She’s the one who lives by love and not by guilt; she’s the one who’s managed to find a balance between living with integrity and not burning out.
  3. Black Pen and Red Pen, Writing and Editing, go hand in hand. I love them both and I’m counting them as one.
  4. the Pilgrim. Always on the way to somewhere, or looking at a map, working out where the next somewhere will be.
  5. the one who looks fantastic in hats, and bright red, and bright red hats, and knows it, and also doesn’t care what anybody else thinks.

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

The meseta

The meseta

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filling the holes.

Another hundred words. Another fifty words. Another sentence.

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