Chemin Q-Z

Does it matter to anyone else? Has anyone noticed that I haven’t finished my A-Z? I doubt it, but in the spirit of Mastermind – ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ – I’ll draw a line under the walk (which I didn’t finish) today.

That’s the problem with blog posts: you need to do them while your mind is fresh with ideas and humming. Otherwise they go stale and become arduous and dull to write and probabIy duller still to read. I  can’t imagine how it must feel to have an idea for a novel, or any book really, start all fresh faced and enthused with plot and characters a-buzzing and to then settle into the routine of writing everyday whether you like it or not. Whether you like the characters or feel the plot holds together or not. That’s when it becomes work. And things take years to write and rewrite and how gruelling that must be, (and that’s even before editing and submitting it to be published).  A bit like marriage really. You start off all dewy eyed and hopeful and then after a few years, a few kids maybe, a few quarrels and differences, some not quite resolved, you realise that it’s all an act of faith. That you are building something which is bigger than the sum of its mundane parts and hopefully it all hangs together somehow. But if it works for you both, then great.

Well that was a tangent. Where were we?

Q – you can do without quite a lot. And quote of the day.

Eg “I am not sleeping in a bothy even if it would make a good blogpost.”

“I’d rather be following Jesus than Rasputin.” Which refers to two young men on the chemin. One of saintly beauty who was suffering with his rucksack and the other who looked his evil twin. And one from last year which has stayed with me: “I’m a pilgrim, not a martyr.”

R – Randonnee as opposed to pilgrimage? This walk did feel different. The French have cleverly integrated the chemin into a long distance walk GR65. And lots of walkers were doing just that. It did change the feel of it for me and there wasn’t the attachment and pull onwards that happened last year. Almost everyone booked accommodation ahead, so that meant you had to too. It changes things. More security but less spontaneity, less choice in a way. It was just different.

S – Stuff. Lots of people we spoke to were doing the walk just to see if they could:not just as a physical challenge, though it was that. To see if they could live more simply. And not as a penance, but as a toe in the water experiment. It was for many a time of refreshment  and opportunity to reconnect with the natural world. To have a break from the news and mediated experience we are force fed – if we allow it. It helps me understand fishing and caravanning a little more.

T – travel. Yes, it broadens your mind. I am a homebody and reluctant to be sociable, but I enjoy the snapshots of the lives that intersect for a moment with mine. Last year on O Cebreiro I saw a tiny wizened woman, probably no older than me, in the pouring rain and sleet getting her animals into her farmyard, thick with muck. Tumbledown fences held together with rotting rope. She was wearing an old dress and overcoat and built up wooden clogs. I would like to have taken a photo of her, but it felt impertinent. This is how she lives.

Tired jollies. Better than ‘panger’ – pre dinner anger. When Helen and I get tired it all gets a bit silly and we start making fun of place names and people and all of it, and I expect it saves us from devouring each other … you had to be there.

Underwear. Three pairs of pants and two bras. Not always dry when you put them on, but clean – ish. Seeing other people in their underwear is  – can’t think of a suitable adjective – an education. The three French ladies we met near the beginning had a complete set of night clothes. They performed an extensive toilette. And after vespers they buttoned up their pyjamas to the very top and turned on their sides and started snoring.

Our last day walking began very early with a surreal breakfast. It happened in an underlit kitchen. The coffee had been made the night before and had to be reheated in a kettle. The bread we retrieved from a paper sack like one we buy large quantities of potatoes in. Toothbreakingly stale. And at the table was a man wolfing  down couscous – his own – in a red t shirt and tight pants. Through a gap in the doorway we could see his wife, still in bed. You don’t get these experiences everyday.

Vaseline. Despite much lubrication I still got a blister. Next time, I’ll wear trainers and change my socks more often.

W wifi. What did we do before it? And offering a Welcome. It’s such a gift and so simple. Of course hosts need to make money from the walkers but some do it with grace and some without. Eye contact doesn’t cost anything.

X – can’t think. Y likewise.

Z – we met Zen boy last year who was pretty gorgeous, though we never spoke to him. He consumed a tiny cup of strong coffee with one cigarette slowly and thoughtfully and could make it last an entire Helen and Verity meal . This year we met Zen man – Racing Snake. He was lean and lovely too. Walked in sandals. Surprising what you remember 🙂

But the final Z goes to Katrin of Asperge fame who was telling a horrified roommate that she had set her alarm for 6.15. “But,” she said, ” It’s very Zen.”

Chemin E – P

So many pretty towns beginning with E: Espalion, Estaing, Espeyrac. We enjoyed them, and they are indeed listed as some of the loveliest towns in France, and I remember each according to their washing arrangements. In Espeyrac we asked two elderly ladies, who had a nice little dog and were doing a wordsearch / sudoku / IQ test on a bench, if we could use their washing line. We admired their dog and appealed to their female fellow feeling.

Seems a shame to waste the lovely sunshine was their take on it. This line was in full sun and on the main road, such as it was. Lucky locals got our smalls and bigs on show for pretty much a whole afternoon. And we got our washing properly dry, (And the sun kills bugs, my microbiologist companion assured me.)

Figeac – jolly nice small town. And we stayed at a Best Western overlooking the river. It was Sunday when we arrived and I’d broken my glasses. I was squinting through the heat haze and making complex plans to have some posted on. Everything was closed. There appeared to be nothing to eat, but we found a fast food outfit which sold spinach and goat’s cheese quiche. Yum. And the next day we found a lovely optician who mended my bins for free and before 9.20 am. We called him Gerard. He was my hero that day. And I told him so. It was all Helen could do to stop me kissing him.

Food. We talked about it pretty much all the time.
France – the most visited country in the whole world.

Gerard – my hero.
Gite d’etapes. Often twinned with a chambre d’hote. Think youth hostel bed fitted out with granny’s lamps and bedding. Ok if the company/food/weather is good. Tricky if too many factors fail to deliver.
Graffiti. There was loads in Spain of variable quality but much of it was encouraging. Buen Camino. Ultraeia. Don’t stop walking. You can do it Duffy Moon. Not much in France and I missed it.

H – Humble. Reverses, small aches and pains, keep you (me) humble.

I (still) loved the walking, the simplicity, only carrying what you need, lack of distraction and being in the moment.

John and Kevin: exceptional men both. Thank you xx

Laundry – totally preoccupying. Second only to showering ourselves and checking the beds were clean. In Cajerc we found a launderette – yippee – but were defeated by the signage. Two reasonably bright women with 70 years of independent laundry experience between them managed to make the machine go but could find no way of adding powder. Couldn’t find powder even.


N and O is for ‘normalement il y a un orage’… I had asked about the meteo – weather forecast – and this was the cafe owner’s reply. We were bewildered too. It wasn’t like we were in the tropics.

P is for Puy lentils. Dressed with oil, vinegar and onion were surprisingly good. And a welcome part of our five a day, which took some planning and finding. It made me appreciate the variety and plenty of my normal diet.

And it’s the contrast with our normal lives which speaks most when walking to Helen and me: having a week or two with few choices, no status, little chance of making this more comfortable with the outlay of a few euros. We appreciate our privilege, not because we are playing poor – we could pull out at any stage and did – but because for a few weeks we choose to simplify and see what really is necessary, and what we can do without.

Quite a lot.

A-Z of our chemin

Last week I enjoyed the train journey up from Cahors: very pleasant and quiet and none of the antisocial behaviour we have to endure on our trains here in the UK. No beer cans, no public/private/business phone conversations and no leaking hip hop noise from bad earphones. I got home at 10pm and hit the ground running next day as Thompsons young and younger still were staying at ours while their new home took shape in the village. The contrast of complete independence and autonomy with a revisiting of the joy and bedlam of babies and toddlers has been exhausting but a lot of fun nonetheless. We are lucky to have a bolt hole in which to regroup and that’s where I am right now.

So looking back on the fortnight we had in France I thought I’d do a short review in note form.

A is for ampoule. This means blister. I’ve not really had them before and don’t want them again.

Aligot: never again please.

Asperge: a charming frenchwoman looked me up and down one morning in my walking gear. She raised her index finger and said “Asperge.” Asparagus. Lean bean perhaps? Needless to say I was thrilled.

Asking for help. We got better at it. Part of this journey, inner and outer is about not trying to do it all by ourselves. So asking the way, for help making phone calls, for explanations and then, at the risk of looking foolish, asking someone to repeat it, doucement, doucement.

B is for baguette. Universal bread and of variable quality. Filling but strangely unsatisfying. Also appearing in Bread soup the night before we came home with water and onions.

C is for Conques. Everyone finishes their randonnee at Conques. It’s a medieval town and looks like a film set. It was throbbing with tourists and wasps the day we arrived. We made our way downhill out of town to our campsite did our washing, and sat by the pool, feeling glad and a tad smug not to be tourists.

Cahors. Very large town, 21000 people, set on a dramatic bend in the river. It was a gruelling descent down from the limestone plateau (La Causse) and we crossed a beautiful stone bridge into the city proper to be met by an accueil: an historic welcome for pilgrims maintained by volunteers who offered us a very welcome cold drink, small biscuit and a prune!

Chapelle: one a day was enough. But they were rather lovely in a gentle and simple way, without the lurid ornament of some we’ve seen.

Decazeville. Just after the glory of Conques lies Decazeville. Say it out loud. If you were the town council wouldn’t you moot a new name? Especially as it held the largest open cast mine in Europe. You can visit it. We skipped this town and picked up again somewhere more scenic and pretty sounding, which escapes me now. If I need to see a defunct mine, Helen has promised to take me to Selby, or some such.

Desole: What the French say when they’re not really.

“Il y a du wifi?” Hopeful tone and engaging smile. “Non. Desole” End of discussion.

Derriere impeccable. Not me this time. We met three Aussie women who were great fun and game girls. They had some lovely kit but it didn’t stop them purchasing a little more. The saleswoman got Bronwen to try on some shorts, made her turn round and made her year – and a sale – with the words, ‘derriere impeccable’. So much better than ‘nice arse’.

To be continued.



Homeward bound

I’m coming home, I’ve done my time.
It’s just too darn hot.
So I’m sitting in a railway station with a ticket for my destination.
Actually I am milking the wifi of this hotel next to the station. H and I checked out at 7.30 and hopped over the road to buy tickets home. She got her train to Holland and I am waiting till midday for mine. So I checked back in, ate my body weight in croissants and had another shower re packed my rucksack.
In our bin are Hs boots, a lurid pink technical top of mine – never liked it but it would have saved lighting a fire on a mountain top emergency- my toothbrush, paste, Vaseline etc etc – I mean business I am really going home.
I feel a bit sad but mostly relieved. It’s been a very different experience and lots of things conspired to make it tricky.
Lots of little things:these are all mine 🙂
Recurrent small blisters which almost dry out overnight then get rubbed into existence again by their being pounded in the hot sweaty caves of our boots.
Self generating grit in my socks.
Heat rash!
Bites on my torso. How? I am not naked ex at night. Not a nice thought which ever way you look at it.
Soreness between my teeth.
Petty body grumbles but they add up.
Wrong kit. We could do this walk in trainers, sandals even, not boots but had it rained we would have needed them.
Washing not drying. Huge humidity. 75% today. So despite our various wiles- ever used the cupboard drying technique? ask Helen for details- and taking every opportunity to charm the locals into using their lines, we have damp kit.
And a few more which no doubt I ll go into in another post. But the heat is our nemesis. Last year too cold. This year too hot! Last night we agreed that while we could cope with all the other small annoyances the heat was just insuperable.

So I’ll be seeing you all a little sooner than planned. Just off to catch my train from Cahors to Ashford. We made it nearly halfway: but we’ll be back.


Scottish Holiday take two

Yay! I did it! I bagged my first Munro. Admittedly it was one with a nice clear path up and down and only a bit of nasty scrambling in places.



How about this for an itinerary? Up before 5 in Gatwick Travelodge, having had our curry the night before, (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it). Then the tasty BA omelette at 7.45am. Still good. Arrive, pick up car and be climbing the long steep path up Ben Lomond by 11. At Glasgow we saw some hardcore,
somewhat wild looking and hairy climbers with stacks of gear at the airport which (I think)made John feel wistful for what might have been.

Instead there he is plodding up what is really a very long stumbly hill with his wife, who at the top, sensibly refused the adventure of coming down a different route. Because it was another time when you couldn’t see the path more than three steps ahead and the guidebook said the path was for the sure footed.

Great. Not me then.


Fantastic view from half way back down.


No need to conquer the mountain

Scotland was lovely, despite the weather, and although I walked solidly for four hours on our only bright day – half a day really – I put on 3lbs in three days! How does that happen? I know: it was the booze and the chocolate. I took in a lot of chocolate. And a lot of chips. The menus in the village where we stayed were a tad dull. Cod and chips. Scampi and chips. Washed down with McEwan’s, not me, him. I sipped delicately on a small bottle of Sol.  Then had a Drambuie at the end of the meal. It was cold and wet.


John found a new whisky he liked. Pronounced Boonahaben.

The walking was fine. Steep in places, but so beautiful and I did want to bag a Munro. But I am scared when it comes to mist and cloud, especially when you’re near the top and the path has disappeared into a  peaty mess. The peak plays a game of Now you see me:


Now you don’t.


But that pretty cloud is hovering low over the mountain and can descend at any point, throwing a poor lowlander like me into real or imagined peril. Neither of us can reliably map read.  A course in orienteering beckons.


Anyhow we got within 100m of the top and again the weather changed and again I decided to come down. I was disappointed but I felt some consolation when I saw younger and fitter looking couples turn back. I wanted to complete the walk, but hey, it was still a challenge and lovely in the seeing and the doing. I have no need to conquer the mountain.

Home now and basking in tropical temperatures. A swim at 7.30 this morning was glorious. We swam out to that buoy, then drank coffee from a flask. Modest pleasures. An ongoing theme.


Mountains are not friendly

Today I am in Scotland in the village where John spent four happy weeks whilst I walked the Camino. We left home where temperatures were comfortably warm 23/24*C and drove to Gatwick airport Travelodge. There we had a surprisingly good curry served by smiling staff – not all Eastern European – who cheerfully processed the orders of crowds of excited holiday makers, bringing tray after tray of lamb shanks and cod and chips. No doubt the Peroni helped but we had a cheerful and hygienic experience. It was also ‘tasty food’. My culinary experiences now are measured by Helen’s criteria. “Let there be tasty food” and there was. So far so good. And the room was clean and the bed was big. Yes yes. And despite the ravening hordes the night was quiet. All good.

Next our British Airways flight to Glasgow: we unwittingly chose row 4. Excellent choice. Two wide seats and something for Flat Stanley inbetween. More decent food: a hot breakfast, a well seasoned omelette, bacon, sausage, tomato and mushrooms served in funny foil tray but all piping hot. Ours is not to reason how. Ours is just to get it down.

Because a Munro beckons. We are going to climb Beinn Ime and The Cobbler. Happy sunny climbs he performed with no difficulty in May. However today it’s 10* cooler up here than home. I’ve not been silly: I’ve come prepared with kwik drying trousers and all my Camino kit except Vaseline. And my MERINO BASE LAYER! I got one as soon as I came home having suffered from severe base layer envy in Spain. Got my poles and I am fit! So I set off with a will. But very soon the rain set in. Then the wind, almost gale force and able to gust me off my feet and into a peat bog. Not nice but the path was clear and we pressed on, determined not to let the elements prevail. My thoughts: this feels familiar, damp legs and reaching for my buff to wipe my nose. Head down pressing my glasses back onto my face, wondering if I might be better off without them, all damp and smeary. No I’m not.

Almost at the top and all hell breaks loose. “Have I developed tinnitus?” No it’s driving rain and sleet against my hood which is flapping like one of Scott’s tents. It then occurred to me that if we were separated by the dense cloud cover John is carrying the rucksack and has my lovely purple pilgrim jacket, my phone, the map ( much good it would do me) and all the provisions ( lots of chocolate). I then thought, Which part of this is fun?” None of it. And decided to turn back.

No Munro for me today, but a long slithery scramble back down the mountain John whooping away in front of me gleeful at the descent. Note to self, did I pack ibuprofen? Another note to self: so glad I didn’t get my facial thread veins done. It’s not yet winter but I feel like Greasy Joan red-faced and in need of a pot to keel – indoors.

Made it to the car, in that confused freezing cold and sweaty state that comes from exercise in inclement weather, we drove to our modest hotel where we drained the tank of every ml of hot water and made them put the heating on. Bed by 7.30 pm.

Just looked at the Folkestone forecast for the week. Wish I hadn’t.