A sceptic's take on being human – or should that be virtuous?
Author: Dave Pole
I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun.
When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths.
What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs.
But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more.
Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.
Woke up feeling cold, miserable and pessimistic. My feet had been sore all night and I couldn’t seem to get comfortable. Dragged myself out of the sleeping bag and went for a shower while M slept. Then I had a proper look at my feet and peeled off the pile of three compeed plasters on the ball of my right foot. To my surprise – though the plasters stank – the skin was intact so I replaced them with a new one which was much more comfortable. M woke in a more positive frame of mind and we packed up and blagged a couple of free coffees at the campsite café. Walk was much easier today. Arrived in Sénergues at 12.00 (didn’t leave camp ‘till 9.00 and found 2 pilgrims we recognized eating lunch at a café. It looked so good we stopped too. Green salad, fresh tomato, hard boiled egg, confit duck and hot cooked Puy lentils. We both had a panaché and then sorbet and espresso. Cost 30€ but it made up for yesterday’s privations. Walked on new legs after lunch. Finally got to Conques at about 4.00pm. Town is extraordinary – like a medieval film set – so we decided to take a day off tomorrow and explore then.
Campsite by river – nice place – Pizzas tonight + sleep + rest and do some washing. Only fly in ointment is 50 school kids on adventure camp. Hope they don’t stay up all night.
Surprisingly, perhaps, I didn’t come back from France with a pocketful of recipes – mainly because our diet was so restricted by our budget and although we saw a lot of menus we didn’t really eat them. I wrote last time about the vegetable soup with aligot and local sausages. The vegetable soup has eluded any attempt to cook it myself and although we eat lots of veg soup at the Potwell Inn, I’ve never made anything as good. Maybe it should only be attempted when you’re half starved and completely exhausted. We were living off high energy tinned food that we could eat as we walked a lot of the time. Later on I’ll come to a cafe where I was so lonely I could have proposed to the owner on the spot except for her completely aloof manner (very French) and around a forty year age gap. I was missing Madame terribly.
But this little restaurant in Sénergues looked like the real deal and when we saw a couple we vaguely knew we didn’t hesitate. The main course was a kind of warm salad of confit duck and Puy lentils with a green salad. This one has become a mainstay for us. We buy the duck legs when they’re on offer and brine them overnight before preparing the confit from an enormous jar of duck fat at the back of the fridge and then pack them into our largest and deepest casserole with a few bay leaves and some thyme before we cook them very very slowly for several hours. Then we vacpack them in pairs and bung them into the freezer. We cook the lentil salad fresh each time – a mirepoix / soffritto of carrot and celery and a whole onion stuck with a few cloves, covered with stock (best you can get – preferably homemade) and dressed with a vinaigrette made from red wine vinegar, honey, chopped fresh shallot and chopped parsley. Green salad any way you like it. we defrost the confit duck and sauté until crisp and warmed right through. Then we usually pull the meat from the bones and mix it with the lentils – absolutely lovely to eat and easy to cook. Here begins and ends my Camino cookbook. As for tinned cassoulet it’s better heated up because the layer of cold goose fat cleaves to the top of your mouth in a most unpleasant way. I could retch just remembering it! However real cassoulet, whilst a terrible faff is a thing of beauty that doesn’t cost much more than a day of your life.
The changing of blister plasters became something of a ritual for us. Although I’d prepared and trained, as well as pickling my feet with surgical spirit for weeks, both of us suffered from really painful blisters, and we found that the best way of dealing with them was to dress, clean up and apply Compeed plasters to each others’ feet. An intimate and smelly job but much easier in the end for both of us. I don’t use this blog to promote anything – but I can honestly say that Compeed plasters are the absolute bees knees and can keep you walking with absurdly blistered feet. Perhaps I’d venture the advice that the time to deal with any soreness on a long walk, is immediately.
Last night we watched the moon rise and set behind the hedge on the campsite. Today is a brief period of calm between two blown-out hurricanes, and tonight Nigel barrels in. Does anyone else think Nigel is a bit of let down for the name of a hurricane? Anyway, at the end of last week’s storm Lee gave us 85K gusts without causing us any problems, and Nigel is forecast as a bit of a damp squib down here in the extreme southwest.
I’m a traditionalist when it comes to marking the seasons. I don’t buy the tidiness of the meteorological seasons and much prefer the solstice and equinox schema. These seasons relate to the inbreathing and outbreathing, the sleep and the oestrus of the earth. What’s the problem with that? So we sat on the beach today and soaked up the sun from which we’re slowly withdrawing for a while – because the earth needs rest as much as we do. It seems to me that part of the problem with our rolling ecological disaster is that our culture wants to press the override button on the seasons -in fact on all of the natural constraints that keep us and the environment sane and healthy.
Back on Monday with a pile of autumn work to do on the allotment – mulching, composting and prepping beds for the Spring.
This Celtic cross in Gerrans churchyard, (in Cornwall where we are at the moment) spent at least a part of its life on its side as a coping stone on the wall; which is a fairly ignominious fate for what must be the oldest Christian relic in the village. I have to remind myself that although we like to think that artistic, spiritual or historical value is intrinsic to the objects we treasure, it’s clear that what it’s worth is what we think it’s worth. So there were obviously times when this cross was valued more highly than it is today – and what’s more, by the 19th century it was no more than a handy lump of stone.
But hold on; what goes around comes around. What if objects, like words, accumulate meaning, and like words, also shed them. For instance while we were walking the Camino we found several enormous stone frames standing outside old farm buildings. One of them had an immensely strong looking set of straps, but I had to read some history to discover that these frames were used to restrain oxen while they were being shod by the local blacksmith. I’m perfectly content for the frames to be both redundant for practical use – because there’s not much call for oxen with shoes these days (perhaps there should be but that’s another argument); but now they are charged with meaning and resonate as object metaphors for a lost age.
Looked at in this way, the Celtic cross still resonates meanings from the past and still, if we choose to allow it, carries a kind of accumulated spiritual meaning for us. But it’s important to stress that whatever that meaning is, it will take the form of a dialogue. We take questions to these powerful objects; questions such as “what is your name?” “what was in the mind of your maker?” “what kind of world did they live in? and what were their beliefs? “What is your purpose?” Happily we know the answers to some of those questions; this stone began its life as a wayside cross, perhaps in the so-called Dark Ages after the Romans had left, taking their form of Christianity with them – whilst the Celtic church of an earlier – perhaps 3rd century – period which had been most powerful in the westernmost fringes, continued as before. The two spiritualities were very different and so too were the forms of organisation. The reason I think the wayside cross is significant is because the Celtic church was monastic and its monks were great travellers; setting up cells and monasteries wherever they could. In an age where people travelled on foot or by horse on more or less unmarked tracks and footpaths, waymarkers were vital, and continue to be so on pilgrimage routes.
So much then for their accumulated meanings, but could it be possible that the questioning I just mentioned is, in fact, a two way conversation? Would, or could the stone and other treasured artifacts speak back to us? I don’t think that’s a step too far towards some kind of wooly, ill defined spirituality. It would depend on the quality of the question of course, and the intensity of any meditation on the reply. This can sound a bit religious, but for me, the answers to good questions are almost never concrete but – let’s say – Delphic. The symbolism of the crossroads is crucial, because it involves choosing – the ultimate derivation of the word crisis is the Greek crino – to choose. So instead of answering the question where now? the function of the Celtic waymarking cross is to ask it – where now? All I know is that once I’d seen the 7′ high stone I felt compelled to go close to it and see. The stone called me.
Inside Gerrans church there are other speaking objects. A 14th century font carved from granite – Cornish stone; 15th century pew ends bearing the pineapple crest of Katherine of Aragon; the remains of candleholders from the early 20th century, Victorian floor tiles – and so it goes on. But the church is on its knees. The systematic withdrawal of support from these little parishes towards the centre exactly mirrors the social depredations of successive governments. Oblivious to the cultural and social significance of village churches they are being allowed to close.
As we went into the church I read the notices and after we left, I googled up their web page and it was enough to break your heart. These parishes with their 1500+ years of history are being abandoned. Here there are three voluntary churchwardens, but no licensed lay minister and no priest helping to keep them alive. You might think it seems as if the Romans are leaving all over again – which could, just could, lead to a rediscovery of Celtic spirituality. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our tired and bankrupt churches gave up trailing thirty years behind secular fashions and arguing about challenges long-since settled by the rest of us; gay marriage stops being a “problem” when marriage stops being a property relation; women as priests and bishops stop being a “problem” when women stop being a problem.
So there’s a huge opportunity to rediscover the hospitality, the creativity and the profound love of nature exemplified by a Celtic spirituality that’s open to all and most importantly refuses to define itself in a series of attempts to imprison God into a linguistic cage. There is no theology beyond poetry, song and music.
So where does this all lead me?
This is going to be a hard one to explain ..
I had to give up my futile search for some kind of overarching meaning on 18th March 2017. I know it was that moment because I’d taken this photograph and I just knew it was over. We turned our backs to the river and then I turned back for a moment and said goodbye to God. Then I waited for some kind of catastrophic reaction – the full Kübler Ross experience; anger, denial, bargaining and depression followed at a decent interval by acceptance. No such thing happened because I went straight to acceptance, feeling nothing but a sense of relief that at last I could stop trying to hold the tectonic plates together. What I didn’t realize until this week was that the flooding river wasn’t moving away from me; it was offering me an object metaphor which I could return to six years later with a second piece of the jigsaw – the Celtic wayside cross – with which I could continue the journey in the right direction. The river flows, which is the state of everything in nature. I could go on for ever embellishing and working up the idea but that won’t do because it’s the dreary job of theology to explain, when what the river demands is wonder, that’s all. I filled the ensuing years with the allotment and with learning the plants, and intellectually as well as physically it was absorbing and rewarding – but there was no music in my life; I wasn’t singing any more. My sense of wonder couldn’t tolerate being spread so thinly.
Which was certainly why, on walking into Gerrans church I felt the most extraordinary sense of peace. How strange and how unexpected?
The wayinclines but never compels. (To steal a phrase from the astrologers)
Writing up my notes on the Camino we walked in 2010 has led to some provisional insights among which is the understanding that the full Damascus Road experience isn’t really what it’s about, and also that that once you’ve signed up and set foot on the path, you’ll always be on it whatever happens on the way and however far you ranged in search of an easier route.
For a long while I’ve had a set of photographs taken in Estaing that I couldn’t place anywhere in the walk, and so finally I’ve gone back to the map and figured out that it’s a fairly short walk beyond Espalion, and so we didn’t hang around apart from a coffee, I think, somewhere down near the bridge and the river. Then we pushed on. So having finally got this piece into the jigsaw I could see that – far from leaving the hill country behind we were still in the thick of it. Unlike the Aubrac Mountains, this landscape was heavily wooded and the footpath – marked all the way, I’ve never mentioned before, by white and red posts- balises was mostly easy to follow.
And there we are – I’ve probably tried to say everything and actually said nothing.
27th May 2010 ctd:
Bed at 9.00pm. It rained at night and it was raining when we set off so M was pissed of with the extra weight [the tent weighs half as much again when it’s wet]. Turned out to be a monster day again. Following the River Lot but crossing 3 tributary valleys so climbing maybe 1000 metres. 27K in all. M a bit hypo and cross. Found campsite in Golinhac (650m) very good. Pitched tent and had a couple of coffees before walking down to the shop to buy picnic tea. Sadly I’m too tired to eat so we’ll have to make up in Conques tomorrow. Easier day I very much hope.
Went to bed at 8.00pm last night after a meal of pre-packed tabbouleh (vile) and crisps. Food and drink for 24 hours cost 30€ at a local shop. Up at 6.30 and breakfasted on UHT milk and prune tart and set out at 8.15. Stiff climb through lovely woods and then at the crest of the climb we came to a shed with a communal wood fired baker’s oven where a local farmer had put flasks of coffee and biscuits out with a 1€ honesty box. Had 2 coffees and started to drop down the hill. Lunch and a snooze on a bench at St Come d’Olt (tin of tuna in tomato sauce) and then into different scenery along the River Lot. First rain today. Easy walk into Espalion + decent campsite and 2 ice cold colas when we got there.
Put tent up in rain but now it’s cleared up and we’re off in search of saucisson and aligôt at €6. 80.
As I write this we’re sheltering from left-over hurricane Lee in the campervan whilst waiting for Nigel to show up at the weekend. We’ve had to remove and store anything that could have been damaged by 80+Kph gusts so the interior of the van is a bit overcrowded with the kit that would normally be outside. There’s a bit of a last man standing feel about the campsite because of fifty or so vans at the weekend there are now just four; but we’re used to these storms by now and provided we remove or lash down any blow away bits like the WiFi aerial we know we’ve survived worse – including two totally wrecked tents! So here I am writing while Madame is drawing, all in companionable silence surrounded by a typically sodden Cornish landscape under a leaden sky.
I’m finding this whole exercise both fascinating and a bit daunting. Intellectually it’s like a jigsaw puzzle – maps, journal, exif data on photographs and memories all need to be fitted together for each section of the walk. The reward, however, is real because it seems to me that by writing this account of our Camino I’m understanding it for the first time as the fragmented pieces are brought together. I’m still waiting for the Damascus Road experience, but I’m old and experienced enough to know that those kinds of revelations usually end in tears – mostly other peoples! Why do we suffer the delusion that everything must be understood? Even from the inside, this account is still partial and riddled with contradictions and elisions – the stuff I didn’t, and still don’t want to write about.
This next part, though, I remember so well as a moment of joy.
27th May 2010
Had a lovely evening – found a restaurant run by an elderly couple. She was bent over with arthritis and his hips were gone so he could only shuffle along, but they seemed to alternate between waiting and cooking. Potage du Jour was wonderful – plain big chunky vegetable soup but he put the tureen on the table [when he saw how hungry we were] and we scoffed three bowls each. It was the best veg soup I’ve ever tasted. Then we had the saucisson and aligôt.
There was some kind of exposition (in the French sense) going on in the town – based on an eco/green theme, which was gathering quite a bit of attention. I’ll put some photographs below. I should also perhaps explain Aligot for anyone who might not have come across it. For a long distance walker (or a farm labourer) it’s the most perfect calorie rich food in the world. We’ve seen people queuing for 50 yards to get a paper plateful down in the South East of France. It’s basically mashed potato – and I don’t mean lumpy, I mean beaten into a smooth puree, with the addition of lots and lots of cheese and olive oil. The ultimate combination of carbs, protein and fat which also tastes wonderful – just don’t offer it to your teenage daughters! With the addition of a couple of those spindly but very meaty local sausages, we probably didn’t need to eat for a couple of days.
At this point, 100 miles in, we were almost exactly halfway to Cahors. Espalion is situated on the River Lot – and walking along rivers has one massive disadvantage. When you follow a main river you quickly discover that every tributary has gouged itself a valley – often in hilly country a steep sided valley. So while the unfolded map – minus contour lines – suggests a bosky ramble along the river bank, the reality is one stupendous climb after another – each followed by knee destroying descents. This is possibly my only useful advice on the conduct of the Camino.
Above – the remains of the dam and sluice at Froe Mill
At breakfast today I caught sight of the label of the sliced loaf we’d bought in Truro – it read “Jacksons of Yorkshire – baker of champion bread”; so the full Yorkshire schtick, then. There was a long list of ingredients that lit the foodie lights like a pinball machine and included dried wheat sourdough and vinegar. All of the ingredients could be found, or produced locally – rather than trundling 389 miles by lorry from Hull.
So, unsurprisingly my mind soon drifted on to the subject of tidal mills because here on the Roseland peninsula are the remains of no less than three of them. They’re situated on three easily accessible creeks (one of them by a busy road so not one we’ve visited on foot) . All that remains of the mill at Froe are some heavily worked up cottages and the old retaining wall and sluice. There may be similar remains at Trethem which is now home to a large caravan site, and was in any case fed by a strong local stream and used an overshot wheel and of the others one, at Place, is still visible as the retaining wall of the lawn in front of Place House. The final tidal mill was at the head of Polingey Creek. All of them were functional in the Middle Ages. So my first point is simply that when we point to tidal power as a way forward in this energy hungry era, apart from the window – which is a technological latecomer and only works in the summer – the power of the tide to drive machinery has over 600 years of field testing in this country; probably much more. Think of it – the tides are utterly predictable; don’t suffer from droughts and being salt water driven don’t freeze up, although they might silt up in some places. The force of the tide is truly and strictly elemental and a potential source of awesome energy. Our problem is that we can’t accept that even if all the renewable energy sources reach maturity in the next decade we’re so addicted, we can’t contemplate using less of it.
Anyway, I cheerfully pick up my bread flour, milled from locally grown wheat less than 30 miles away in the same way that I’m content (not exactly happy) to pay over the odds to collect our local milk in a glass bottle from a machine in the market, when it’s working! We grow a proportion of our own vegetables on the allotment – so alone, we’re not self sufficient, but collectively we can make a difference to the earth, to the producers and for ourselves.
Enough, I know, we get the picture so let me add the clincher. Tidal mills on creeks are virtually silent apart from a bit of creaking and grinding – well they would be, wouldn’t they! The problem, as with so many areas of traditional craft skills, is that there are very few people around that could run such a mill. A skill that took centuries to develop can’t be taught on a City and Guilds short course. My old friend Dick England, now passed, learned to mill flour on the heavy machinery at Spillers in Avonmouth, before retreating up the Severn to Berkeley where he milled stone ground flour on a small scale, sang tenor like an angel and refused to mill new wheat berries until they’d matured a bit. As a business I suspect it was hard going, but as a culture it was a fine thing.
Of course I’m predisposed to love these remote and abandoned pre industrial and industrial ruins and traces. Anyone who’s read this blog for any time will know that I’m a sucker for an abandoned pithead or a slag heap – even one heavily polluted with lead and cadmium – because there are wonderful wild plants that risk everything to eke out a life on the bare stones. Of all the gifts of nature; resilience and adaptability strike me as being the key to our future.
But I blame Charles Dickens for my passion for open landscapes and muddy creeks. I can’t begin to describe what an impression Peggotty’s upturned boat/house on the beach at Great Yarmouth had on me as a child. I can see why David Copperfield – as he was being taken there for the first time – would remark that the landscape would be improved with a few hills, and I can see why – before long – he changed his mind. In a city everything is vertical, jagged, aggressive and overpowering. Estuaries, mud flats, creeks and seascapes are horizontal; they invite contemplation and ask you to take a break and sit down. The sound of the wind in trees is good in many ways, but the sound of the wind in grass and rushes and reeds is altogether more lovely. A low murmur in the background, barely perceptible, and then wind and waves dancing filigrees of sound above. The colours of the city and even of the inland counties can be bright and brassy, but the muted browns, greens and greys of a tidal estuary speak more with less effort. As an experiment you might take a pan of Paynes Grey watercolour and make a wash; then take a large brush and run a bold wash across damp paper. Lose yourself in the colour; dive into it.
And then the birds. When we walk down to Percuil there’s only ever one sound that we are hoping for – the Curlew. The bright clarity of her developing song is almost transcendental – a rising bubbling sound followed – though not always – by the full throated cry so poignant that it creates space in empty air. Even the Buzzards overhead defer to her and the Gulls pause their hollering like broken voiced boys. The Egrets; Crows; Jackdaws; Wrens; Robins and cormorants pause respectfully as she hymns the estuary in an ecstatic burst of praise that shatters the melancholy of grey skies.
These restless, liminal places seem empty to us, but to their residents their constant filling and emptying brings food and life. Every day is a harvest festival and the abundance of visible life is matched by an even greater abundance of food beneath the waves and in the mud. Perhaps the draw of creeks, tidal flats and big skies is precisely that they are reticent, withdrawn and quiet places that make space for both wonder and melancholy and provide such a perfect backdrop to the song of the Curlew; because song is – in the end – the perfect expression of life.
Slept late and wandered off to the post office only to discover that today is a bank holiday in France so we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to post stuff off. Dined on cold tinned cassoulet but by then I’d got the raging shits from too much rich food so I’m glad we’re not walking today. PO at 9.00 tomorrow meanwhile we did some washing and lazed about charging phones and cameras. Supper at same restaurant tonight but cheaper menu I think.
“Supper at same restaurant”! Les Sentiers d’Aubrac – remember never to eat there. Andrew found 3 hairs in his salad. The manager was running the service without a waitress so everything was appallingly slow. The pièce de résistance was a bluebottle roasted and sauced on top of my stuffed chicken thigh (along with some tiny mushrooms). I suddenly understood why I had been ill all day. We left refusing to pay for anything except for a bottle of Pellegrino which we gave him 5€ for. Our journey across France is turning us into Bonny and Clyde. We half expected him to get stroppy but he didn’t even apologise. [Later, I] – had a wonderfully surreal conversation with a very old Frenchman who was obviously lonely. I was washing out my water bag and it became clear, when he smiled and tapped his thigh, that he had mistaken it for a catheter and storage bag. So we shared this precious moment of fellow feeling and he went on his way presumably encouraged that there was someone else on the site who shared his problem
There are several missing pieces from this part of the journal. My memory has muddled up several bits in places, but since I mentioned sending off any redundant equipment we had discovered we didn’t need or couldn’t carry any further, I’m clear that this is the place where we saw a market stall dedicated entirely to foraged wild mushrooms. In a better ordered narrative we would have brought a selection of them back to the campsite and cooked the kind of dish you see fêted in the Sunday supplements. However with no cooker and feeling a bit disillusioned we passed by in search of the closed post office and wandered back to the tent. Clearly, by finally crossing the Aubrac Mountains, we were about to reach something of a turning point on our walk and from this point onwards the villages – with their temptations – were closer together but the opportunities for wild camping greatly reduced. I celebrated my grasp of French by successfully buying some Imodium and I managed rather better than I did in Nîmes when I had attracted a small crowd of helpful locals whilst attempting to buy some hemorrhoid treatment for another member of our group. Madame’s helpful suggestion of “little balls” had to be courteously rejected. This was also the place where we came across a bizarre shop that sold stuffed wild animals set in eccentric poses; an extremely creepy shopfront that never made it into the journal.
25th May 2010
Up early. I’d been listening to a nightjar I the trees near the tent. The wildlife here is exquisite – flowers orchids and the happiest and healthiest cattle I’ve ever seen. Post was very helpful (we were sitting on the doorstep when it opened). The surplus gear was packed into 2 boxes and dispatched to Harry’s daughter in Le Houga.
Then we set out to cross the last and the highest part of the Aubrac Plateau at 1300 metres. Dropped down through wooded landscape to St Chély at about 3.00pm. Best day’s walking yet ‘though only 17K.
I think all of my happiest memories of the camino were contained in the walk from Le Puy en Velay to St Chély; around 88 miles in all. It was admittedly gruelling going at times with our heavy loads – but that was more than compensated for by the variety of mountain landscapes, wildflowers and the kind of connection with the traditional ways that you could taste. Where else would you find the towable milking sheds which could be taken to huge flocks of goats and sheep? where else is the huge variety of local unpasteurized cheeses made and sold on the farms we were passing through? I don’t think I ever felt more like a stranger passing through and yet never so happy to be so because here were people whose roots went back many generations and whose stoicism, cynicism towards authority and lack of pretension made our own studiously cultivated freedoms look pathetic. Here is where less was more and the past was written everywhere in the landscape and where the present generation thought there was nothing odd about living amongst the relics of the past – a million miles from the Banlieues of the big cities. I don’t romanticise this kind of life because it’s written in sweat, failure and loss in a way we could never fully embrace; but I celebrate it because it’s a way of being completely human that concedes nothing to the money changers at the temple of neoliberalism.
To get the distance between Le Puy en Velay and St Chély I googled up one of the companies who offer fully organised Caminos with pre-booked lodgings, food and transport. The full route to St Jean Pied de Port would have cost us – this year – £8,400 minimum but you could pay more for more comfort. The question then is this. Is then the modern Camino the 21st century equivalent of buying an indulgence, or building a chantry chapel and funding a priest to say masses for you? and if there is, perhaps, a chance for a lucky few to leapfrog hoi polloi into advanced spirituality level five – what could you do with it? and how could you redeem it?
Next time – with a bit of luck – a reflection on creeks, tidal rivers and their mill pools and for my friend Rose a bit of lyrical thinking about how the nightjar, the nightingale and the curlew can undo us so completely.
Each one of these photographs has a share in today’s post. The first two on the top line are celebrating the fact that we finally finished harvesting our summer seasonal crops on the allotment. So Borlotti and the last of the tomatoes are in the photograph, but outside the flat we’ve got old and new potatoes, and squashes while still on the allotment are peppers, cucumber, beetroot and chard, runner beans and seven varieties of apple; so all in all not a bad year and the stores are full for the winter and hungry gap. It was hard work getting everything ready to come away, especially in the midst of a heatwave but we got it all finished and ready so we could come down here and do some end of season botanizing.
Sadly the campervan had other ideas and so I’ve spent hours crawling around in impossibly small spaces attempting to diagnose three distinct problems – ghost drain on the leisure batteries, bad contacts on the fridge supply and an apparently non functioning battery charger. Apart from the lethal possibilities of poking around in the circuitry hidden behind the wardrobe, I tend to get cramps and my arms are covered in bruises. I found that the grey plastic distribution board had a big boys section (live mains) and a child’s play area for the 12 v circuits. Luckily there was no temptation to do anything other than housekeeping because the fine weather broke this morning with such vengeful and remorseless storms that we spent the rest of the day trying to get two sets of wet clothes dry again. On the plus side I’ve found fuses where I didn’t even know there were places and I’ve thanked Harold Wilson for inventing the Technical School which gave me the confidence to approach these problems rationally and without fainting. Classical education is all very well but it doesn’t understand circuits. I feel uniquely fortunate that in addition to the technical stuff I learned Chaucer, 2 modern languages, 20th century American poets and discovered singing before I discovered hormones.
There’s another day’s Camino lined up and I may try and finish it tomorrow but there’s one place I need to go back to again. It’s our absolute favourite walk down the bridleway from Gerrans to Percuil harbour. On Thursday we sat on the bank of the creek and listened to the Curlew and all the other seabirds and it felt as if I was floating halfway between earth and heaven. These liminal places, on the edges of sea, sky and land belong to no-one and are in constant motion. It’s possible, here, to imagine an earth without me and not feel sad about it.
Transhumance is about as ancient activity as human culture itself, and being so ancient means that it’s encoded with a wealth of cultural meaning. The cattle or sheep and indeed goats are moved up to mountainous grasslands where there are rich wildflower pastures that cattle understand and select from. These cows were the happiest and healthiest I’d ever seen.
Typically unprepared we hadn’t grasped that the late night drinking and music were connected to an event – transhumance – which may be associated in these parts of France with Pentecost, bearing in mind that Pentecost, being linked to Easter, and consequently linked to the first full moon after the equinox has a bit of a six week wander around the calendar from year to year. Pasture, on the other hand, pays no attention to such cultural frills and will burst into life when the weather and daylight conditions are right; so as we are discovering on the allotment year by year – spring is driven by weather and pays no heed to gardeners’ and farmers’ careful plans.
So let’s imagine that there is a solemn congregation of pastoralists in Aumont Aubrac that – after a long meal and a good deal of roughish wine – each year decide when the animals will be moved to the hill pastures whereupon plans are made, cellars stocked and musicians booked for the parties in the local villages. The huge circular stone watering ponds that speak of bigger flocks and better days are checked and the best animals are selected for a bit of dressing up.
Because, of course the transhumance isn’t just about good husbandry; it encodes meaning, history, poetry and relationships . In the way of these things, it’s important because it encodes a whole bunch of stuff that the governments of the day – or indeed the landowners – may not be so keen on. Oliver Cromwell was at least right in the reason he gave for banning music, carol singing, Christmas and dancing which were dangerous to the powerful because they embodied that thread of life-giving energy that gives the marginalised people of the earth hope for better things. And so these ancient festivals are greeted with suspicion by the powerful because they simply don’t get it. On the downside there’s a lot of potential for these ancient festivals to become overwhelmed by extreme right populists who feed on the anger of the marginalized whilst stoking up anger for their own reasons which are rarely to improve the lives of the poor. I remember well the St Paul’s riots in Bristol when the extreme right laid on a coach to take the local Southmead lads – who had a well deserved reputation for flaring up and rioting – down to St Pauls. I was working in Southmead as a community artist and I knew them all well. But they refused point blank to get on the bus because they saw immediately that this was not about St Pauls and neither would it help Southmead but an obvious attempt to use them to stir up trouble. I’m pretty sure that, had they got on the bus, there would have been photographers from the right wing press waiting at the other end to photograph them as they got off it. On another occasion our local community policeman came to see me with an inspector in tow after a flare up on the estate. The inspector – not a sympathetic man – said that it was the worst riot he’d ever seen in Southmead. Henry, the community policeman reprimanded him and said “that wasn’t a riot it was a carnival!” It reminds me of the time a bunch of Hell’s Angels turned up at a local village and behaved themselves impeccably. Then reporters from the News of the Screws turned up and offered them £1000 to kill one of Lord Methuen’s peacocks – an offer which they politely declined. Well perhaps not politely!
Anyway, to return to Aumont Aubrac; aside from the noisy parties and the menacing drunks passing our little tents we had no idea what was going on and so the photographs I took of the herding of the cattle were taken from half a mile away. They’re at the top of this piece and you can – if you inspect the photo carefully -see that some of the cattle are decorated with a French Tricolour (see above) and some with less potent symbols. We only noticed them at all because of the clanging of their bells, and the sound of some kind of band coming up behind, and I’m pleased to say that no government officials were harmed in the course of the transhumance – any sore heads were most likely self-inflicted.
But there was another transhumance going on at the same time; the relentless passage of pilgrims in search of some other kind of rich pasture but nonetheless inspired by the ancient culture of pilgrimage. Some, very few, were doing it the old way but others, and I suspect that this group of walkers is one of them, were making use of the huge infrastructure that’s grown up around the pilgrimage. Transit vans, cheap (not that cheap) beds for a night and basic food every day.
Since I didn’t have any idea why I was there it would have been churlish to take a position on their efforts. One person in particular has stuck in my mind. He was German and with our Serbian translator’s help, we discovered that he was walking from Rome to Santiago and picking up a stone at every place he slept. His wife, in Berlin, was dying from cancer and this was his desperate supplication to save her life. Sometimes crazy and beautiful flow together in the same stream and I hope, against hope, that he was choosing small enough stones to get there and big enough stones to impress God.
Left Aumont Aubrac early. We set the alarms for 4.45 and it was dark when we woke. I had an extremely restless night – hardly slept. We were right next to a main road and the transhumance festival parties didn’t begin until 11.30pm so all night there were drunks outside the campsite shouting and banging the railings. I was praying they wouldn’t see our 2 little tents. We didn’t want to wake Alain and his wife so we breakfasted at the camp gate on dried apricots and yesterday’s apricot pasties + water. When we left – way before sunrise – there was a thick mist over the valley bottom. We climbed and climbed for several hours knowing that this was the last day we would have the heavy (35lb) loads because we had agreed (long haggling session) to shed lots of stuff the previous night.
Big dream during my restless night. I dreamed I was at Severn Bridge railway station* except it looked exactly like an SNCF station like the ones you see in French films (and in France of course). Suddenly this strange and sinister man dressed like the Sandeman sherry label logo comes towards me. He’s all grey, very large with no face. I start to tear at his clothes and in a kind of fast-forward sequence I tear all these clothes, disguises and appearances off one after another – he’s everyone, everything, and all these flash past in front of me until at last I’m left holding a plucked chicken!
After a stiff climb we reached Les Quatre Chemins which was just a bare road junction such as you might find on High Mendip. Gloriously there was a café (Chez Regine) perched on the corner. It was a proper French bar/café with Regine – if it was her – looking as if she had been hot smoked with tobacco.
Previously in Lasbros we’d fond an immaculately clean toilet complete with paper, which made up for the lack of overnight facilities.
Due to the early start we crossed the Aubrac Plateau before the sun got too hot. Unbelievably beautiful wildflowers – including [this is a misidentification I now realize] gentians which I’d never seen before. Untouched pasture and some of the healthiest and happiest cattle I’ve ever seen. In Lasbros we saw a foal that could only have been born an hour before – just standing up all knock-kneed. It was a hard and hilly day and very very hot. Even I drank 3 litres of water but fortunately there were many taps. Finally staggered into Nasbinals mid-afternoon. Andrew had pulled a muscle and was getting grumpy. Found campsite at other end of town, as always, so probably walked 27K. Put up tent, slept , had a shower and walked back into town at 6.00pm passing a restaurant on the way in. So we booked a table or 7.00 and had a couple of panachés in the local bar. Meal was excellent and shared with 2 Germans and 2 French. Young Frenchman reminded us it was Pentecost.
*Incidentally, although the Severn Tunnel (not the bridge) does have a railway station, on the Welsh side, I’ve never set foot on it – so its role in my dream is just one of life’s imponderables.
This afternoon I realized that I’d already mentioned, out of sequence, an evening shared with a nightjar as well as the worst meal ever. Having laboriously checked the previous seven posts on the Camino I thankfully discovered that neither incident was claimed as a component of the walk we’d already done and so I’ll continue gracefully along the Way but very aware of the fact that even with the aid of exif data from photos, a handwritten journal and a pretty reasonable memory it’s incredibly easy to slip up and transpose experiences from one day to another. Why it should be so important to me to get it exactly right is a question I can’t answer except for the fact that as I write this I’m constantly trying to answer a crop of my own questions. I hesitate to describe this exercise as therapeutic but I would love to think that when I press the last publish button on this group of posts, I might be just a touch wiser. Of course, 30 years as a parish priest taught me that life is irredeemably complicated and is very rarely understood by the people having to put up with it, and even less so by the people trying to explain it. That’s why psychoanalysis is so expensive. Not many caring professionals can resist explanations and keep quiet for as long as it takes for the client to hack their own way through the undergrowth.
The day was, as I’ve described it previously, full of wonders. Watching a transhumance take place is like watching a thousand years of history roll back. On a more mundane level, my mention of the newly born foal took me back to the day and the place so vividly I was able to revisit Lasbros in my mind as if it were yesterday.
No energy today. Every step (all uphill) a struggle. Jacqueline caught up with us and gossiped us over the first huge pass. Stopped at a farm and had café au lait + fresh bread and a small cheese made on the farm. Wonderful!
Ctd next day:- No room at Les Sauvages so we decided to press on to St Alban sur Limagnoles – 35K and nearly killed us. Arrived at the church at St Roch and unexpectedly burst into tears. On and on – it seemed even walking downhill was hard. Arrived at campsite exhausted and on the verge of quarreling. Mercifully the campsite manager cooked us a toasted sandwich and some chips. Slept 10 hours and breakfasted on two bowls each of hot strong and sweet black coffee. Left at 11.00am thinking we had an easy (17K) walk but it was 25°C and uphill (2 big hills and their corresponding valleys. [M] had to help carry my stuff as I was about to collapse. Arrived at Aumont Aubrac to find the campsite closed. Broke in and picnicked on sardines and apricot tart + UHT milk. Still tasted heavenly. We were both feeling demoralized as all the campsites we hoped to stay in were closed for the next three days. Discussed sending some stuff home to save weight. Bed at 7.30pm as we want to leave between 5.00 and 6.00am to miss some of the heat. 25K tomorrow. Can’t get fuel for our cooker anywhere in France. Sharing our vagrant experience with Alain and his wife – he’s made a cooker from the end of a beer can! Crazy as a coot!
Well we didn’t exactly break in but we did clamber over a locked gate. It was a weird experience because the facilities were all locked up with the entrances full of leaves – a sight we were beginning to be all too used to. We’d met Alain and his wife a little while earlier. They were sitting at a table outside a cafe and being mercilessly teased by some of the locals. The village was heaving with visitors partly there for the Pentecost holiday – which we’d failed to factor in; and also because the annual transhumance was beginning and locally it’s a big deal as the cattle, decorated with flags and garlands, are driven up to the plateau to graze the wildflower rich meadows. The French are among the most secular of people, but they don’t appear to have given up on the holy days, and there’s a deep sense of tradition surrounding the transhumance. I found it very moving to watch the cattle being driven up the drove roads, but the downside was a good deal of drinking which left us feeling a bit unsafe at times. That was the evening when Alain – a retired tax inspector – showed us the tiny spirit stove he’d made from the bottom of a lager can. Later on in the walk by which time we’d all got blisters, we found him walking in pink plastic sandals with plastic bags on his feet.
The church of St Roche was almost the only church I actually entered on the walk. Inside was the obligatory elderly woman in black and with rheumatic chesterfield legs hobbling around and completely ignoring me. My mother had died two months previously, but as she’d died with Alzheimer’s and hadn’t recognized either me or my sister for several years, any acute sense of mourning had been dissipated over a long period of what we called pre-mourning– or so I thought. So in a rather blokeish way I went into the church, saw the old lady, came out and completely fell apart; howling all the tears I’d had locked away for a very long time. M looked at me and said – “that was a bit unexpected” and the subject was never mentioned again. I didn’t need a therapist to help me see what was going on there, but a long time later exactly the same thing happened in a psychoanalytic psychotherapy therapy session. I was trying to describe how moved I was by the way that Odysseus’ nurse had recognized him by the scar on his thigh and once again I exploded with what felt like a volcano of grief. Grief seems always to be a work in progress.
The way down to St Alban was steep, narrow and rocky, and with our heavy rucksacks much more of a struggle than grinding uphill. It would have made our journey easier if we’d realized how wonderful it would be crossing the Aubrac plateau the next day, but that’s the way of pilgrimage – everyday is a surprise.