I’ve been wanting to post more on this blog, and also wanting to record more of what I’ve been up to and what I’ve enjoyed. So this is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of weekly… check-ins? reports? I like neither of those terms. But I know what I want to do, even if I can’t describe it. So I’m just going to start doing it. Expect varying length, disparate headings (stolen from various people across the internet), and weeks where nothing happens at all.
Ely Pride. This started last night with a talk at the cathedral from Rev Dr Charlie Bell. I am not sure that I can convey how very good it is to have one’s church say in so many words that LGBT+ people are welcome, so you’ll just have to take it on trust. The main event was today, and it was joyous.
Gorgeous flowers from my in-laws, extending my birthday a little further.
Sad to see a great colleague go, but her leaving do was brilliant. A couple of ex-colleagues turned up, too: good to see them again.
The difficult and perplexing
A load of internalised biphobia (this has been going on for a while, and nearly stopped me going to Pride today; I’m glad it didn’t succeed). And a stubbed toe. And an hour of (unfounded) family panic.
Dragonflies whizzing around the green spaces. Sunflowers in the allotments (you can see the Royston ones from the train). Starlings.
Wanderlust: a history of walking, Rebecca Solnit. This was one of the two books I got from the Book Bus. (I am, this year, a model of restraint.) I’m enjoying this: Solnit talks about walking as a political act as much as anything else, and she talks about all sorts of walking. Some things I did know already and a lot that I didn’t.
Rough Music, Patrick Gale. My mother’s been recommending this author to me for ages, largely on account of the Isle of Wight connection, but I finally got around to reading him in this book from the sale at Ely library, and it’s mostly set in Cornwall. Very readable; one of those dual timeline narratives. A potential entry for The Reader’s Gazetteer – B for Barrowcester. Reading the notes at the end, it’s based on Winchester. I didn’t pick that up at all despite having been born in Winchester, but then I’m usually there to look at buses.
Husband Material, Alexis Hall. Well, this was where my Tuesday evening went. I lounged on the sofa, chuckling away. Delightful. It felt a little strange, because it felt very, very familiar. Hardly surprising: when I was writing The Real World I spent quite a lot of time wondering if after all Richard Curtis hadn’t said it all better in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Husband Material is very much riffing on that seminal romcom. Anyway, it is refreshing to see something else that really digs into the question of marriage. Even if it did get me thinking that it is as well that Issues in Human Sexuality has nothing to say about lemon sorbet. (There’s one other person in the world who’ll find that funny. Oh well.)
Patchwork. Secret project.
Pickled plums. And an improvised sort of pie made of plums and very old filo pastry from the freezer. The rest of the plums got frozen, though I should probably go and see what else I can harvest before the wasps get it.
Summer Open Exhibition at Babylon Arts. This was fascinating for the sheer range of artists and styles on show, and my reactions to them. I like bright textiles but not bright acrylics. I like moody pastels of Fenland skies. I dislike the self-consciously quirky except where it was made of steel. I am fascinated by the intricate. I am predisposed to like linocuts. It takes a lot to impress me with a photograph. I did know that @smolrobots is based somewhere in the vicinity, but I’d forgotten. And so on. Eavesdropping on other people’s reactions was also fun.
I’ve been to Evensong three times this week (another of those things that I could do far more often than in fact I ever do). There’s been a visiting choir, and they really got into their stride today. Jackson in G (used to sing it at Guildford, but haven’t done it for years) and then something called Song to bring us home by Tamsin Jones.
Sidecars. Or, as they somehow ended up getting called, Sidehorses. Don’t ask, or, at least, don’t ask me. I also had a strawberry slushie today, the first in a very, very long time.
Line of the week
This is from the Rebecca Solnit:
Imagine it doing seventy on the interstate, passing mesas and crumbling adobes and cattle and maybe some billboards for fake Indian trading posts, Dairy Queens and cheap motels, an eight-cylinder Sistine Chapel turned inside out and speeding toward a stark horizon under changing skies.
One of my great comforts this past year has been travel writing: reading it, and visiting in my imagination all the places that I can’t visit in the flesh. But it’s also made me appreciate where I am. And that made me remember that in fact I live in a city that’s a popular tourist spot in ordinary times.
Actually, I don’t believe that’s necessary. No matter where we live, we can approach our streets,gardens, kitchen tables, with a travel writer’s eye (and perhaps an attitude of self-parody, if need be). Take a look at this: Travel and Food Diary: Quarantine Edition.
So, if you’d like to jump in and share your hyperlocal travel writing, please do. (#HyperlocalTravelWriting ought to do it.) We can visit each othervirtually, travel the world, see the sights, taste the food, smell the scents, from our computers.
At the same time, it felt a bit like cheating to go straight in with the cathedral and Oliver Cromwell and all the rest of the attractions on my doorstep. They’ll come later, I’m sure. But I thought I’d start with something more ordinary: the path I walk most days.
Start at the north end. Immediately, there’s a choice. Left or right? Left, the path is narrower and the trees are closer. Right, the wider path is split down the middle: red for cycles, grey for pedestrians. They clasp between them a broad green space. There’s probably a dog or two bounding across it: a black labrador, maybe.
Left or right? It doesn’t matter. This wasn’t so much a fork as a spoon, and you started at the very tip of the bowl. If you didn’t dip down to the subway under the main road, drawn by the allure of a takeaway (not, in these times, a film or a swim) at the leisure park, or follow one of the little paths off to the left to find yourself somewhere at the end of a cul-de-sac, you’ll be where the bowl meets the handle. Now the two paths join, split the difference, become a sinuous strip of tarmac self-consciously meandering between the houses on the left and the trees on the right. The cycle track ends, but the cyclists continue: a lad on a paper round, sporty-looking people on mountain bikes, small children wobbling on stabilisers or whizzing off on balance bikes. Scooters, too. Dirt tracks, made by children or dogs, lead off into the trees and emerge again a little further on, for the pleasure of going nowhere in particular.
Beyond the trees, the A10 roars on. Somebody’s going somewhere, even if it isn’t you. South, towards Cambridge and London. North, towards the sea. The birds keep singing regardless. Thrushes, sparrows, pigeons. You might even hear a cockerel.
Now the path dips, loses a couple of metres in height. You notice it, out here in the Fens. The path broadens a little, becomes concrete, passes a small water processing plant, is barred by a gate (easy to walk round, and a particularly good blackberry spot in the autumn), meets the road. Not the main road, but the one that takes the traffic into the city from the north west. The cars (it mostly is cars) coming from the south whose drivers wish to do this veer into the middle lane, slow rapidly, and wait for the southbound lane to be clear. From the north, it’s easier. Meanwhile, the main flow of traffic – cars, white vans, grimy lorries, huge tractors in primary colours, hauling gleaming-bladed implements behind them – keeps on going.
Cross the road, and pause on the other side. Look up the hill. There’s the cathedral, effortlessly imposing. You’d have to climb a bit to get to it, more than you’d think from looking at it from here. You’ll have to climb anyway, following this path.
Again, the planted tree barrier has grown up on the right, recently enough that you can still see the plastic guards around the trunks, long enough ago that some of the trees have swelled enough to push them off. Hazel, silver birch, blackthorn, wild roses, brambles. Even in winter, the rosehips make the hedges bright. The houses are a little further away, but every so often a path branches off to take residents off into the maze that only they have really got their heads around.
Still it continues, an artificial path winding through artificial bumps and mounds, little bridges crossing little drains. Chunky plastic benches are provided at decent intervals. This is a path for people. Keep on climbing, and you come to a wide, open green. Look at the houses, spot which ones have been made to the same pattern as each other. Watch the dogs joyfully chasing balls. There might even be someone with a kite. Some new trees were planted this winter, filling in some more of the space between the path and the road: try to picture what it’ll look like when they’ve grown up. At the top end, there’s another little bridge, and then you’re back on this same climbing, tarmac path, tucked between the houses and the road, except now the road is quite a way beneath you.
At the top of the hill the path gives onto a square of houses with an impressive playground and a majestic horse chestnut tree, older than anything around it. Keep on past it.
If it’s been dry, or very cold, or if you’re not too worried about your shoes, you might as well leave the path and climb up to the top of the little mound which really is as high as you can get. Look down on the road, look west across the fen, look at the morning sky. Follow the hedge line or walk the ridge, sloping down southwards. Or you can keep on along the path, which has its own rewards: huge variegated ivy leaves; snowdrops and crocuses, or, later, cherry blossom; or later still, the orange balls of buddleia globosa, thick with bees; a bush full of opinionated sparrows; a copper beech hedge; a bright-beaked blackbird.
And then you’re at another road. Look left, and there’s the cathedral again; right, the roundabout to sort the Ely traffic from the northbound traffic from the southbound traffic from the westbound traffic and the traffic that wants the filling station or the Travelodge. And straight ahead, a tranquil field, ploughed or green, and another lone chestnut tree, its branches sweeping downwards, hazy in the morning light.
A rather trying morning. It began yesterday evening, when I forgot to buy milk, and continued when I remembered that one isn’t allowed to post things like power banks to France.
But then, cycling back from the post office and the supermarket, I happened to look up, and I was struck by the cool, clear, blueness of the winter sky.
I postponed my plans of ‘getting on with things’ and went for a walk alongside the river. Sometimes I find living in such a flat area uninspiring, but today, with a huge dome stretched from horizon to horizon above me, I hummed ‘The spacious firmament on high’ and had no complaints.
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.
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?
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.
‘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.’
Happy St James’ day, to anybody celebrating it! I’m going out for tapas tomorrow.