Camino Inglés 10: you are not the same people (the journey home)

Previously:

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

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

Camino Inglés 3: Isle of Wight Coast Path (western half)

Camino Inglés 4: fare forward, travellers

Camino Inglés 5: Ferrol to Pontedeume (day 1)

Camino Inglés 6: Pontedeume to Betanzos (day 2)

Camino Inglés 7: Betanzos to Hospital de Bruma (day 3)

Camino Inglés 8: Hospital de Bruma to Sigüeiro (day 4)

Camino Inglés 9: Sigüeiro to Santiago (day 5)

16 May 2017

At the end of Monday I was still not famous. On Tuesday morning we had a train to catch, so didn’t check. We ate breakfast in the café in the station, and then boarded a train headed eastwards. It trundled along at 80km/h for the first couple of hours, then slowed and crept along the sides of steep wooded valleys, following a river. Then it went through Astorga and out onto the meseta, and I sat watching intently out of the window for landmarks I might have seen ten years before, walking the other way. I couldn’t swear to any particular landmark, but I saw some storks’ nests for certain, and was glad.

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We came out into Palencia in the early afternoon, and found intense heat, and pale stone buildings, and a park with a retired steamroller mounted in it, and old men sitting on benches. ‘This is what Spain is meant to be like,’ John said, not entirely joking.

It was siesta hour. I’d been the one to resort to Booking.com this time, and had found us a room in a rather quiet, tired, hotel. We found it and checked in – and found the wi-fi.

Now, it turned out, I was famous. The Society of Authors had put out a press release, and I learned that I was the first ever self-published author to be shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. I had emails, Twitter notifications. I sent text messages to my parents, linked the story on Facebook and my blog, and watched the notifications roll in for a bit.

Then we went out to look at the cathedral.

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Palencia immediately went to the top of my ‘favourite Spanish cathedrals’ list, knocking Burgos down into second place. It was cool and quiet, with far more stained glass than any other I’d visited, beautiful ceilings, and an actual sensible system for keeping the frivolous out of the way of the devout (or vice versa) – separate doors, sending the latter to a chapel right in the middle of of the cathedral, rather than shoved in a (tiny) chapel opposite the main doors as an embarrassment, as at St Paul’s in London. We came in as tourists, and didn’t have to pay because it was a Tuesday. For us, too, there was huge, silent space, and brightness through high windows.

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In the evening we ate at a table under a canopy in the square, with too-sweet white Rioja (which I suppose I should have expected, with a name like ‘Diamante’), and liqueurs on the house, and talked about how to spend my winnings. ‘If I win the whole thing,’ I said, ‘I’ll go to Brazil, and if I don’t, I’ll go InterRailing.’

17 May 2017

The next morning was cloudy and considerably cooler. We explored some more of the city, looking at an exhibition about the Spanish air force, walking by the river, going into normal shops (I came away with pyrite beads and owl-shaped ceramic beads; John, with a fidget spinner), drinking coffee and watching storks in their nests on the corners of church belfries.

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Afterwards, we sat in the cafeteria in Palencia station watching the rain and waiting for our train. The incoming train from A Coruña and Santiago got later and later, and we became increasingly thankful that we hadn’t attempted to do the whole journey in one day. Eventually our train to Santander turned up and the Coruña train still hadn’t come, and we felt very thankful indeed.

The Santander train was much quicker, of course; it was a much shorter journey. A documentary about Coco Chanel was being shown on the screens overhead. I was quite interested, but the file had some glitch that kept sending it back to the beginning.

Once more in Santander, we returned to Café Royalty for a quick supper before boarding the Pont Aven and investigating all its questionable delights: the duty-free shop, the bars, and the cinemas. The choice of films was, of course, fairly limited: the choice that evening was between the live-action Beauty and the Beast and some action movie I now forget. John and I, possibly compensating for our television-deprived childhood, went for the Disney, and, at the appointed hour, we duly filed into our seats.

Then somebody said my name. ‘Kathleen?’

It turned out to be Father Paul, who had been the Catholic chaplain at my university, and who was walking the Camino del Norte in stages. I introduced John. We attempted to catch up on ten years worth of life and several hundred miles of walking in three minutes before the film started, which didn’t really work.

He was not interested in Beauty and the Beast, though, so he withdrew to the other cinema to watch the action movie. John and I quite enjoyed Beauty and the Beast, and then went to bed.

18 May 2017

I got up earlier than I needed to in order to see the tip of Brittany as the ship passed close in to the shore; but it was good to have the sea to myself for a couple of hours; well, me and the woman hoovering the carpet in the bar, and the rep from the whale charity, and a few other early risers. It was a big ship. John appeared somewhere between ten and eleven and was still in time to see France pass by.

I couldn’t get onto the internet, which was probably good for my peace of mind. I read Madensky Square (acquired from the duty free shop) instead, just sitting there with the sea outside the window and a book and a cup of coffee and no work that I could practicably do. There would be plenty of it when I got back to dry land.

When I packed Four Quartets, I’d expected ‘Little Gidding’ to be the one that had the most to say to me, to be thinking about roses and yew trees and the end of all our exploring. And yet, from the fog-choked eucalyptus of the FEVE, to here, taking the voyage of ten days ago in reverse, my identity as a writer rewritten, it had been ‘The Dry Salvages’ all the way:

You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.

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Camino Inglés 4: fare forward, travellers

Previously:

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

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

Camino Inglés 3: Isle of Wight Coast Path (western half)

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.

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These shoes were not made for walking, really.

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.

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Sunset from the Pont-Aven

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.

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From the station at Santander

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.

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View of the railway, from the rail replacement bus

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.

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Oviedo bendybus

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Spiritual succour, 24/7

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.

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Oviedo breakfast

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Exploring Oviedo

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.

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Hot chocolate

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.

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North Spanish coastline, seen from 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.

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Waiting at Ribadeo for the train to Ferrol

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.