Thursday, 27 August 2009

Keeping best until last

Castromonte - Medina de Rioseco - 19 km - Villalon de Campos - 30km

What a couple of final days this has been. Yesterday the route into Medina de Rioseca was very straightforward including the first road walking of any significance. That continued today for a few km but the roads were quiet and a path was available adjacent to the road.

In Medina de Rioseca we visited the most stunning Church of Santiago I have ever seen. Now a national monument it bears witness to the old devotion to St James on this route.

From a temperate start the afternoon got hotter and in the town centre the thermometer clocked 34 degrees. We visited the Oficina de Turismo to collect information for the new guide and the lady there was very friendly.

The restaurants kept traditional Spanish hours and the earliest opening we could find was 9pm. The Menu was very ordinary but for 3 courses including wine and bread at 11 euros who could complain? But the indifferent food and service was the opposite of a couple of days before when we headed towards the noise in a little pueblo to find it came from the one room bar/social centre. It was full of older men chatting and playing cards. Two women behind the bar were obviously in charge.

We ordered a couple of ice cold cokes and glasses of water. "Do you have anything to eat?" We enquired. Starving. "Tenemos peregrinos'' (we have pilgrims) we heard an older man announce in a stage whisper.

The woman behind the bar asked, "what would you like to eat? We don't do food here?". "We'll have whatever you can do.". We replied.
"We have to wait for the bread." She said solemnly. We waited.

A boy emerged through the curtain which covered the doorway with sticks of bread in a sack. Within 10 mins we were presented with the softest, freshly baked bread filled with an omelette. I know hunger can determine these things but this was one of the best things I have ever tasted.

After the pedestrian fare in the restaurant we were asleep by 10.15! 9 hours later we rose to breakfast at 8am. The thermometer read 14 degrees. Cool.

Breakfast was a very quick coffee, orange juice and piece of cake and soon we were on the road.

The lady in the Tourist Office had given us a little map which indicated two routes out of town. Proudly she had advised that we should take the new route which follows the canal. It was slightly longer, but she said it was worth it.

This turned out to be an understatement. We turned to the canal and the view was beautiful. We could smell the cool of the morning as a breeze rippled the water. Birds sang in the trees which shaded the path. We strolled, carefree for 10 km beside the water. What a start to the day.

Along the way we met the young pilgrim from Madrid again. Pablo is 27 and was walking this route "because I live in Madrid". His rucksack was heavy and he was walking in his regular trainers and socks. "But I only have one blister", he reported in broken English. We had seen him before over the days and lost sight of him frequently. "That's because I take the siesta in the shade every afternoon before walking to the destination". He explained. He was finding this route quite tough with its longer stages and lack of drinking fountains but he was enjoying the solitude. We discussed the dangers of walking alone on these long etapas and he said that he texted home every morning when he set off and every night when he arrived. A sensible measure.

We left Pablo to sleep under a tree in the afternoon and pushed forward into town. It was 34 degrees.

After showering and beering we went for a stroll.

We found the church door open and we followed the sound of baroque organ music inside. The church is a huge and magnificent edifice and there was an organist rehearsing for an upcoming concert. Alas the music stopped when the Mass began at 8pm and we heard the organist leave.

The priest didn't mess around and he gave the final blessing 17 minutes after saying the opening prayer! He looked a forbidding character but we went to the Sacristy for the sello as usual. "Pilgrims!" "From Scotland!" He positively glowed with welcome. "Musicians!" he declared half way through the conversation. He shouted a few instructions and soon we were shown to the organ loft. There was a visiting group of young people from Burgos who followed us up the stairs. One or two were musicians and soon one after the other we were playing our party pieces.

We thanked the priest profusely as he handed back our stamped credenciales. He had turned out to be the opposite of my first impression.

A little later the same priest arrived in the bar with a few worthies. He beamed across at us and then continued on his way.

A little later we called for the bill. "The priest has paid" said the barman.

I'm not often taken completely by surprise these days but a priest paying the bill for a couple of strangers was memorable.

It was a fitting end to this stage of our trip exploring the route from Madrid. Later today we visit Rebekah in Moratinos.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Change for the better

Coca - Alcazaren - 25 km - Valladolid

The 25 km or so yesterday to Alcazaren would normally have been an easy and attractive day. The route is substantially on sandy forest paths. But as the day progressed so too did the heat and by afternoon it felt extraordinarily hot. Although we had ample water supplies I've showered in cooler water than came out of our bottles. Lone walkers would have to treat this route with caution in winter and the height of summer. More of that another day.

As we had planned, after arriving we made the short 15 min bus journey to Valladolid. For the life of me I can't understand why the Amigos didn't plan the route to pass through this town. Perhaps they just continued their objective of creating a series of country walks and by passed it.

It is a lovely city with parks, fountains, the Cathedral and many museums and restaurants. There's plenty to do including a visit to the Church of Santiago pictured above.

Whenever I've stopped to enjoy a town or city on a route such as Merida or Caceres on the Via de la Plata I've thought of these days as "days off". I also hear other pilgrims using the same description. I think what we mean is breaking the momentum of walk - eat - sleep which day upon day forms the routine of most pilgrim journeys. Many pilgrims don't stop until they get to Santiago and plan their flights home according to the number of days to get there.

I also think that the pattern of albergues which has emerged particularly on the Camino Frances can also mitigate against visiting towns and cities along the way. I recently read a comment by a pilgrim that they "always just walked through Pamplona to get to that lovely albergue several km outside".

Pilgrims' accommodation was always meant as infrastructure, support, for pilgrims on their way. And yet nowadays moving from albergue to albergue has become the done thing.

It seems to me that this was not the case with the original pilgrims in whose steps we follow. Theirs was an essentially penitential journey and so they stopped to pray at cruceiros and shrines along the way or nearby and they certainly visited the Cathedrals, churches and shrines in towns along the route.

Pamplona, Burgos, Leon on the Camino Frances, Sevilla, Merida, Caceres on the Via de la Plata, Valencia, Toledo, Avila on the Camino Levante. These are the great cities of Spain. It is inconceivable to me that a medieval pilgrim making the once in a lifetime journey to Compostela would hurry past those great places they would probably never have the chance to visit again. So why should we? Rather we should stop and drink deeply of the rich spiritual and historical heritage of these places. It is also an opportunity to clean clothes, attend to blistered feet and prepare mentally and physically for the next stage. And we should ditch notions of doings so being a "day off" as a false application of a modern work ethic.

We could also try to thoroughly enjoy these visits - fun is also food for the soul.

When we arrived last night the thermometer on the wall read 41 degrees. The same thermometer this afternoon read 26 degrees. There's been a significant change.

So too it has been a journey of change for companero Esteban. I can testify to the fact that from St George's Hospital in London and that lecture from the doctor not a slice of Tarta de Santiago has passed his lips. Liquor de Cafe usually drunk in significant post prandial quantities has given way to thimblesfull of cerveca diluted with soda and he's now proclaiming that salad is his new best friend. I'm hugely impressed.

Over the next two days we will walk the last of two etapas before meeting Rebekah Scott with whom we will stay in the Peaceable Kingdom in Moratinos before heading to Santiago. Let's hope the weather stays cool until we get there.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

The arrows have it

Segovia - Santa Maria la Real de Nieva 32km - Coca - 22km

The Madrid members of the Amigos of the Camino to Santiago have never claimed that this is an historic route. Common sense tells us that pilgrims must have passed this way over the ages and the authors of the 2000 guide found some evidence of this. We know that the Amigos charted this route as a kind of representation of what might have been.

And so this route feels different from others. It has taken me a wee while to work out what that is. Other routes follow the description laid out in the medieval Codex. Therefore if an industrial estate has been built across the route we pilgrims try to follow faithfully where the route would have been - through the industrial estate.

None of that on this Madrid Route. It has become obvious over these last 6 days that is has been designed for walkers by people who are themselves walkers. This is truly a "no roads camino" and each day has been a joy. In fact each day could stand on its own as a brilliant walk. Although albergues are popping up so that pilgrims can walk different distances if they wish I'm beginning to sense the personality of this route. I think it may have been conceived as a series of one day walks which run together - each beautiful and complete on their own. What I have been trying to do is identify where the cadences are.

The last few days are good examples. The stage over the mountains is arduous and long. But it felt right to arrive in Segovia. For me, whilst convenient, an albergue in the middle of no where en route just wouldn't make sense.

Yesterday to Santa Maria was also 31 km. The same distance as the previous day but totally different. It was smooth, gentle walking along some forest paths and miles of meseta surrounded by vast open areas, clear as far as the eye could see. Walking the long lines of the meseta brought that rhythmic pace which is almost hypnotic. What a contrast to the previous day. It was a long day as we tool plenty of breaks. Also we are coping well with the heat as our kit is less that 5kgs so we are carrying lots of water.

Today (and tomorrow) are shorter days at just over 20 km or so. The seem to naturally follow on. We set off this morning in glorious sunshine. The skies were cloudless. It was warm. Walking through some fields frequently led to miles of walking through shaded forests on white sandy paths. The blessed breeze followed us. Walking on sand can be tiring and Coca came at the end of a long stretch. 22 km today felt just right.

This Camino has been thoroughly and thoughtfully waymarked. The arrows have been painted and repainted. The experience of the arrow painter shows - they are right where they are needed. It is entirely possible to walk this route following the arrows. This raises the question in my mind whether with a route as well marked as this the Guide style of, " turn left at the oak tree and KSO for 1.5 km and turn right at the red house," is necessary or appropriate. Maybe all pilgrims need is a list of mileages between places and details of where to find food/water/bed with some historical information and of course: the arrows.

I need to think about this and get the opinion of others. But today, the arrows have it.

We arrived last night at a very friendly hostal. A man in the bar started talking with us. He said his idea of pilgrimage was driving to Santiago but he was very respectful and bought us a drink. "What are the three things pilgrims should avoid?" He asked with a twinkle. We shrugged. "Barking dogs, preaching priests and sore feet." He laughed.

Amen to that!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Up the rocky way

Cercedilla - Segovia - 31km

I woke up in the dark at 5.45am thinking about death. Specifically I was recalling my Aunty Maggie who would proclaim at every funeral, "ah well, we're all born to die". At the time I was young enough to believe that there was lots of time laid up in store and so I thought this was most peculiar. "Not so odd now, John," I thought to myself. No doubt the thought was inspired by the Mass in the Iglesia del Carmen last night. The Church was packed and the priest explained that the mother of the family present Maria Angeles had died a few days earlier. As is the Spanish custom they had buried her almost immediately. This was now the funeral Mass. I watched the faces particularly of the women. Stoic. As if set against the inevitable hurt that nature brings to everyone.

My mind was drawn then and this morning to another family in London who had lost their mum and buried her only a week ago. This is the loveliest of families made all the more painfully beautiful as they stood together, dignified and etched with grief.
It was an honour to be with them at the funeral and they remain very much in my thoughts.

Strangely though these weren't melancholic thoughts just some of the surprising array we experience walking these pilgrimage routes.

A breakfast we had prepared last night was consumed and we set off at 7.30am. It was fully light, the thermometer read 18 degrees and there was a light breeze. Perfect walking weather.

It took us about 2km walking gradually but steadily uphill to reach what appears to be the start of the measurement of the 31km to Segovia. This additional 30 mins walking doesn't really matter at the start of the day. It sure does at the end!

We ascended 650 metres in about 8km - steep but able to be walked at a steady rate. As we rose higher so did the sun. We were on forest paths then the old Roman Road. By 9am the path and the new day was bathed in sunlight. The mountain air was clear and cool. A final push and we were up. YES!

The sign confirmed we would walk a further 23km to Segovia. The route then proceeded to take us down gradually and gently through pine forests and open tracks. Then the final straight stretch right into the heart of Segovia.

The whole route is well waymarked and this is a stage to be enjoyed if a long day is planned as rests are needed.

And I never thought again about Aunty Maggie until I wrote this. She's still around of course!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Breezing through the valley

Mataelpino - Cercedilla - 12km

Today was relaxed. Only 3 hours or so walking and a stop for lunch after 7km in Navacerrada.

The route passed through lush valleys with cattle grazing. The sky was clear and the temperature hovered around 30 degrees. But there is change in the air and there was a balmy breeze all day. With plenty water we were very comfortable. This led the Big Man to invent a new verb: to breeze. He uses it the same as his other verb: to beer. So after a day of calling on the weather to "breeze me" he's now instructing me to "beer me".

The route was flat and very pretty today. This is all the more welcome as tomorrow we rise at dawn to cross the mountain with a rise of 650 metres in 8km then a further 23 into Segovia.

Today we also met a lone pilgrim who had also walked from Madrid. "Poco agua" was his only comment on the route so far referring to the lack of bars or fuentes. More ideas for the revision of the Guide.

Wish it was tomorrow :)

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Sol y calor, las dos protagonistas hoy

22 km - Colemar Viejo to Mataelpino

"Sun and heat, the two central characters today", boomed the TV news commentator. Such was the unexpected spike in temperatures country wide bulletins reported Weather Alerts.

Yesterday was very hot. So much so after 15 km a cyclist in distress begged for water. We had little left but shared what we had. We could have walked on to buy more but the heat was breath stealing and the Guide told us we had 3 more hours to go in shadeless open countryside. When a bus came, we got on! I'll walk the stolen 12kms another time.

Arriving in Colemar Viejo the heat was worse. 42 degrees. Walking along the street to the hostal an elderly lady just collapsed in front of us. She went down with a crunch and lay there with blood flowing from a gash in her arm. We went to her assistance and fetched a shopkeeper who with some local women took charge. I hope she is ok, but I fear not.

With dinner and 8 hours sleep the world seemed better this morning. We set off at 8am having breakfasted well. We loaded up with 7 litres of water between us and set off in the relative cool of the morning.

The Guide, written in 2000 is proving to be remarkably accurate. As it predicted we were shortly into the countryside following frequent yellow arrows along pleasant country lanes. The weather was temperate and we drank liberally.

The Guide told us to look to the mountains ahead. We would eventually cross them. The weather forecast hadn't discouraged the joggers or sports cyclists and throughout the day they occasionally passed with a warm greeting. They were probably thinking "mad peregrinos" in the same way we were certainly thinking the same about them.

We were very touched when a man stopped his 4 wheel drive to make sure we were ok and had plenty water. He accepted our thanks but turned down my invitation to walk with us!

We stopped for lunch after a straight 4 hours walk to Manzanares Real. The thermometer in the Square registered 28 degrees. So, it was much cooler today.

We had thoroughly enjoyed the walking so far. Wide expanses of countryside lay in the shadows of the mountains. We left Manzanes Real with families paddling in the reservoir and set out again.

The route continued to be beautiful but poco a poco we noticed the temperature rising. As we walked uphill to Mataelpino it seemed as hot as yesterday. We stopped in the little main square. 40 degrees.
Time to stop.

As ever on these little used routes plans are dependent on the availability of accommodation. Our original intention of walking on either a further 7 or 12kms was ditched. Not in this heat.

We went into the bar. As we sat with an ice cold Coke the men at the next table struck up conversation. "Where were we from?", "where had we walked from", "where were we going?' When they heard we were undecided about next steps the four of them offered suggestions. Then the guys at the bar joined in. Then the barmaid shouted her opinion. Many alternatives were examined critically. Eventually a consensus emerged. We would get a taxi forward 12kms to a hostal and return the next morning.

We arrived in a jiffy. The room has a bath! A sight which gladdens every pilgrim heart. A long bath this evening and only 12 km to stroll tomorrow. Heaven.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Live from the Camino Madrid: The best laid plans of mice and men...

I quite like to plan ahead but my walking companero Esteban takes planning to a whole new level. At 6'4" he's the first of the three musketeers mentioned in a previous post a wee while ago. He's also got the sweetest Irish tenor voice and I've accompanied his for many years. Those musical exploits are another story.

I've discovered that having an obsessive planner involved in guide writing is invaluable. For a new guide in English we both been preparing. For me researching the original guide, contacting Javier in Madrid who is active in the local Amigos. Esteban planned the flights, where we would stay in Madrid, the route out of the city, the length of stages and accommodation. He also, as ever, checked the weather forecast many times. It will be a temperate 32 degrees max", he reassured me.

Then 2 days before departure he phoned me from hospital - "in for tests, told to take it easy, time for a life style change" is a summary of the conclusion.

So we've sensibly decided this trip will be a thorough recce for the new guide rather than step by step dictation of every arrow and hostal.

Just as well:

The flight was delayed 2 hours, we didn't get to sleep until after 2am then up at 7.30 am. Then it became clear that the 32 degrees was speculation - when we stopped after about 15kms at Tres Cantos the temperature was registering 42 in the street!

But already it is clear that this is a route full of promise. It is well waymarked and today was entirely off road. We started in the Plaza de Castilla then passing three huge fabulous modern buildings which followed us as we looked back throughout the day.

Then after only 6kms into open countryside. Beautiful. The route follows the wall of the huge walled estate Monte el Pardo, former royal hunting ground and residence of General Franco. It is vast.

As we passed Esteban remarked with typical Glaswegian understatement, " See that Franco guy, he was good to himself."

Well, quite!

I am now about to press "send" and I have no idea if this will work. If it does I'll try to post more in the days to come.

Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Final decisions

Today is packing day. The socks are washed and the gear is laid out. It is like the photograph in the last blog: Thanks to those who posted comments and e mailed me. The point I was making is that we all find our own things which are light and comfortable and through trial and error we know what quanities of toiletries etc to take.

For those who asked for specific information. For the bigger items I use:

Osprey Atmos 50 rucksack - light and comfortable

Rab Top bag - lightweight sleeping bag - fantastic even in deep winter conditions. Use with a bed or mat.

Patagonia R1 Jacket - doubles as a fleece or worn on its own for early mornings. Multi purpose.

Patagonia rain shadow jacket - excellent with full armput zips.

North Face waterproof trousers - full leg zips.

I experimented with boots and shoes and three years ago settled on Salamon Mid ankle shoes - from the Sensifit range. They have a gortex lining and are very comfortable. I was considering changing them recently but the shop had the same pair in my size at half price. I didn't resist.

But today I have made a decision.

I've worn these boots over a couple of thousand kilometres but I know they aren't the best in the hottest weather. I've looked at the 10 day forecast. There is no rain predicted. It is sun all the way.

Therefore I have decided to take a new pair of Merrell Ventilator shoes instead of boots. They are the lightest I have ever worn and with lots of mesh they should be cooler.

Teva sandles will be my backup/evening wear.

I've taken a huge decision to leave the rain gear behind too. It isn't going to rain! Being Scottish this goes against the grain. It rains in Scotland. Particularly in Summer! You know what they say, "How can you tell it is summer in Scotland?" answer "the people wear sunglasses and carry umbrellas."

But I feel quite strongly that kit should be taken appropriate to the route. The weather looks good for the 10 - 11 days walking from Madrid. I'll take the risk.

The sleeping bag is replaced with a silk liner. I'm going to use hostals mostly and if I'm cold I'll use the merino wool base layer which I always carry.

Whilst this trip is purely to scout out the route as the basus for a new guide in English the notebook etc has been replaced with a digital recorder which is featherlight and records 1000 hours of dictation. That's what I use to record the route as I go along.

I've discovered through experimentation that one charge of my camera battery let's me take 300 photographs - I'm sure time would be an issue but I already know the charge will last for two weeks. I'm not taking the battery charger.

Also because I am only en route for 10 or 11 days I'll only take 1 razor which should satisfy the more observant commentators.

All of this plus 2 pairs of socks and liners and 2 pairs of underpants instead of the traditional three. Two quick drying tops, one to walk in the other sleep in plus hat and sundries make up the list.

So there it is. I'll soon be off. I got an e mail from a pilgrim the other days saying, "this is the lovliest route I have ever walked." We'll soon see...

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The wanderlust is on me

I’ve known for weeks that on the Saturday the 16th I’ll fly to Madrid and the next morning set off to walk the Madrid route North to Sahagún. But still the excitement is mounting.

I’ve walked thousands of miles in several countries. But still the excitement is mounting.

Recently I’ve been working in the Pilgrims’Office in Santiago for a few weeks. Living and working in the medieval city and dealing with pilgrims every day was hugely rewarding and great fun. But I still miss walking.

Then over the last couple of days the tune of a Scottish song has been rattling around my head as if it has been recorded on a loop. Over and over. The truth is that I don’t like Scottish music. It is in the same category as tartan dolls and shortbread. And whilst I am fond of haggis I certainly wouldn’t talk about it in public. As for the bagpipes, I have long believed that the definition of a musician is someone who can play the bagpipes but decides not to. Worst of all is listening to a bunch of Scots expats anywhere in the world talking about their “but and ben” and offering to buy each other a “wee doch and doris”. Errrrr, excuse me, NO ONE in Scotland speaks like that.

But here I am being driven insane by the tune and words of the song:

Oh' the wanderlust is on me
And tonight I strike the trail
And the morning sun will find me
In the lovely Lomond Vale
Then I’ll hike it through Glen Falloch
Where the mountain breezes blow
And we'll drum up in the evening
In the valley of Glencoe

Then swing along to a hiking song
On the highway winding west
Tramping highland glens and bracken bens
To greet the Isles we love the best

I have two excuses for this behaviour. Firstly I have walked in all of these places in Scotland and they are incredibly beautiful. (Loch Lomond above)

Secondly somewhere in my head the definition of the word “wanderlust” as a “very strong, irresistible urge to travel” is the most accurate description of how I feel. Especially when walking through a remote area like Glencoe (below).

I have also been looking out clothes and messing around with kitchen scales again. (I realise this post has a somewhat confessonial tone to it) So while I’m at it I might as well also admit to considerable joy in Marks and Spencers the other day to find underpants which are not only 2 ounces lighter in weight than my usual underpants but they also take approximately 2 hours less to dry when washed.

By Saturday I intend to have a rucksack which when packed weighs no more than about 6kgs. Maybe less.

When I walked from Seville to Santiago in 2006 I was returning to walking after a gap of many years. My previous experience had been packing an old rucksack with my gear: a heavy winter sleeping bag, cotton underwear, tshirts and woolen jumpers, cutlery from the kitchen and a towel from the bathroom. A billy-can and tin mug tied to the outside completed the array. Weight didn’t seem to matter on short day walk through Glen Falloch. (below)
I learned that it does matter on long distance walks. When I prepared to walk the 1000 kms of the Via de la Plata I listened to all of the wise voices – “keep your weight down”, “don’t carry any more than 7kgs”, “remember in addition to what’s in your pack, you’ll carry food and water”.
I listened to them. I understood the point. I made a genuine effort to minimise the stuff I took. It just didn’t work out like that.

I used a basic packing list – rucksack, sleeping bag, three pairs of socks, three sets of underpants, base layer, middle layer, rain shell. Boots and sandals. Travel towel and toiletries etc. So how did I end up with 13kgs?

I now know it was those “extras” which I thought at the time were essential. With this memory I start to blush:
I was walking in winter, it might be freezing, so I took a thermos flask and a box of dried soup.
I was walking alone on a isolated route, so I took a shortwave radio to listen to the BBC world service.
I might not be able to speak enough Spanish, so I took a comprehensive phrase book and dictionary.
I might have great thoughts as I walked so I took a notebook to write a journal
The little torch I had with me might fail so I took a second torch.
The batteries for the radio and the torch might run out so I took spare sets of batteries.
I worried that some unknown tragedy might happen to one of my three pairs of socks, so I took four pairs.
Enough. You get the picture.

I discovered:
I needed to buy sunscreen instead of carrying a thermos flask.
I wasn’t interested in listening to the radio, I was either too tired or enjoying the walking.
That if I wrote on one piece of paper the key phrases I needed to find a bed, get directions and order food I could ditch the dictionary.
That I had great sleeps instead of great thoughts.
That one torch was enough and, lo and behold, in Spain they have shops! I could buy spare batteries if I needed them.
I have still have the socks. No one stole them. I never lost them. They have not self destructed despite being put under considerable duress from time to time.

It took me some time to realise these things. And considerable pain.

Although I had done considerable walking in preparation for the first journey there is a big difference between walking around Clapham Common in full kit a few times or even doing day walks along the canals and walking an average of 27 kms all day every day for 30 or so days.
The extra weight I carried turned from reassuring friend to blister causing enemy. As I had listened to the advice I clearly thought I was the exception to the rule. I could carry extra weight and not get blisters and pain. I wasn’t and I did.

Since then I’ve also realised that it isn’t necessarily what you take but the weight of what you take. I’ve built up a small collection of “technical” clothes and a rain suit– they are the ones that are reasonably cool when it is hot and warm when it is cold. I invested in a decent lightweight sleeping bag and a silk liner which is sufficient for summer walking. But I also paid next to nothing in 99p Stores for thin nylon tops which are great for walking in summer and which virtually dry when you shake them after washing. I’m very proud of my new underpants and I have ditched every single extraneous item. Small truly is more comfortable.
For those who read this and know me. One more thing. I only cut the toothbrush in half to fit it in the bag. Honest!
And after writing about all of this I am going to have to go and check the gear. Again. Oh nooooooo …its starting,

Oh' the wanderlust is on me
And tonight I strike the trail
And the morning sun will find me
In the lovely Lomond Vale
Then I’ll hike it through Glen Falloch
Where the mountain breezes blow
And we'll drum up in the evening
In the valley of Glencoe

Then swing along to a hiking song
On the highway winding west
Tramping highland glens and bracken bens
To greet the Isles we love the best
Islay, Jura, Scarba, Lunga
And the islands o' the sea,
Luing, Mull, Colonsay, Staffa,
Coll, Iona and Tiree,
Sgurr of Eigg and Rhum and Canna
And the Minch waves rolling high
And the heather tinted Cuillins
Of the lovely Isle of Skye


Then I'll bivouac and I'll slumber
Till the dawn gives place to day
And I’ll wander by the river
That inspired old Ossian's Lay
Then I’ll do some mountaineering
On the Bidean's snowy crest
Just to view the Hills o' Derry
And the islands o' the West


When the wanderlust has left me
And I grow too old to roam
Still the memory will linger
Of my lovely highland home,
Silvery streams and mumbling rivers,
Verdant vales and glorious glens
And the pride of Caledonia,
Heather hills and bracken bens.


Sunday, 2 August 2009

A life in the day of Christine Pleasants

Christine Pleasants has worked in the office of the Confraternity of St James for the last three years. She deals with the administration: from membership subscriptions to payments to the bookshop. Christine always impresses me as the “still small voice of calm” in what can be a very busy office. I thought I should write a profile of Christine so that we could see inside the workings of the CSJ. I didn’t realise that I would discover the tale of such a committed and adventurous pilgrim. This is Christine’s story.

The day begins at 6am when Christine gets up in her home in Bedford. After breakfast she sets off by train to London. The journey lasts 1 hour. On arrival the jobs to be done are many. Dealing with internet orders for guide books and other publications, preparing cash for banking, planning the Practical Pilgrim Days which the CSJ has been running for a long time and dealing with telephone enquiries.

Although Christine’s association with the CSJ began 15 years ago her interest in pilgrimage is life long. She recounts vivid memories from her childhood of pilgrimages to Walsingham. There she learned about walking the Pilgrim Mile barefoot and felt compelled to do it. This is a re-enactment of a pre-reformation tradition when pilgrims reached the “Slipper Chapel” about one mile from Walsingham they removed their shoes before walking on.

From this start at the age of 11 the idea of pilgrimage was planted in Christine’s mind and never really left her. Like many people the idea took some time to germinate assisted by events such as having her wedding on St James’ Day then only realising it had been the Feast Day when she was on honeymoon in Spain. There she heard about the pilgrimage to Santiago, read some books and suggested to her new husband that they return the following year to celebrate their first anniversary by walking to Santiago. But they only had a week’s holiday from work so she contacted Marion Marples the secretary of the CSJ and attended the AGM in 1993 to get more information.

Christine decided to walk in stages from the Pyrenees. But she had no intention of ever receiving a Compostela. She thought of it as a sponsored walk and simply wanted to raise money for charity. Her husband accompanied her in the family car and he quickly decided that walking was not for him. The bargain was struck that if Christine continued to walk this route in future years she would do so on her own!

Over the next 2 years Christine completed the Camino Frances in 3 stages arriving in Santiago in 1995. There were few albergues and few pilgrims. However the Camino had taken further grip and with a walking friend Christine began walking in stages from Le Puy.

One day Christine heard about a sea trip being organised by a group of pilgrims in Cornwall. They planned to sail from England to Spain then walk to Santiago following the sea and land route of the medieval pilgrims. After considerable planning and preparation all was ready by 1999 for a Schooner and a Tall Ship each carrying 15 pilgrims to set off for Spain. In the footsteps of their forebears the pilgrim group walked from Padstow to Fowey on the Saints’ Way. The boat met then in Fowey, sailed to Falmouth and from there they set sail for Spain. The weather was foul but they hoped to reach A Coruña where they would disembark and walk the Camino Inglés to Santiago. However it turned out the Captain had little understanding of what pilgrimage is about and no understanding of the attraction of the destination. To him a port was a port.

They sailed over to France and then round the coast of France because sailing across the Bay of Biscay was impossible. As would have happened in medieval times after 7 days sailing plans changed and the boats docked in Santander rather than much further along the Spanish coastline at A Coruña. By a circuitous route by bus the pilgrim group eventually reached A Coruña and set off to walk to Santiago in three days of “perpetual rain”. This had become a pilgrimage of many trials and there was a feeling a huge satisfaction when they reached the Cathedral in Santiago.

Christine brings all of this experience to her job and gives words of advice to prospective pilgrims who telephone or call into the office. It is busy and lunch is a sandwich at her desk.

One of the most interesting things about the job, says Christine, is seeing the pilgrimage develop with pilgrims coming from farther afield. Over the last couple of years there has been an increase in enquiries from the Eastern European countries now she is seeing an increase in bookshop orders from Finland.

In her spare time Christine is a volunteer footpath warden with the Ramblers Association and she looks after the footpaths in her home parish. She likes to put on walking shoes at least once a week!

Christine keeps in touch with lifelong friends she made on the Camino such as an American lady and a Spanish chap she met in 1994. As it happens they walked with Shirley MacLean whose book helped to popularise the pilgrimage.

At home Christine listens to modern jazz and is currently reading the Art of Fiction by David Lodge. A favourite dinner with her husband in the evening is roast duck.

Christine still wants to walk the other arm of the Camino Inglés from Ferrol and she says she would go back anytime to walk that section of the Le Puy route around Conques.

For Christine sleep usually comes easily. If it doesn’t she simply walks a route in her head and soon drops off!