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.
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.
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.
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.
According to the Cicerone guide there’s a campsite where we stayed next to the river but I can’t remember anything about it.
Well the reason I can’t remember anything about camping in Monistrol d’Allier is because after looking more carefully at the journal, we didn’t stop there but pressed on to Saugues. The photo was taken on the endless hill coming out of Monistrol where we were passed by quite an elderly man who was admittedly travelling light but making rapid progress. I said something about it being steep, and he replied- “no,Mont Blanc – that’s steep!” So here’s the day in full from the journal. It includes a stretch I’ve already written about.
20th May 2010
Monster monster day. Crossed over a big ridge to Monistrol d’Allier where we found an unlikely Englishman called Peter running a restaurant. Couldn’t stop him chatting. Had a coffee and a triangular toasted sandwich – the machine for which he hopes to sell in Korea (!) –filling was made from last night’s leftovers gratin dauphinoise, bits of dry cured ham and cheese sealed in a kind of crêpe.
After that the going got more and more tough. We laboured up the side of a gorge and climbed upwards and upwards into a new landscape. Dairy cattle, sheep for milking (with bells) and goats too. Very like high Mendip. Pastures completely untouched and covered with spring flowers. Dandelions seem to be at their peak here – a month later than at home. Lady’s’ Mantle and all sorts of stunning wildflowers. We fell in with three women from Nice who were totally shocked at the appearance f a peasant farmer’s wife. One of them said to me with a horrified look – “This is DEEP DEEP France!”
Eventually we reached the top and down into Saugues. Found a good campsite next to the river and in the middle of a sports ground. Walked back into town and found a brilliant restaurant – 4 courses 12€. Met up with Serbian woman called Jacqueline and two Germans. Miss Serbia spoke about 5 languages and just loved organizing us.. Cold night. Slept well and woke up at 6.30. Bananas and orange juice for breakfast.
This part of the journey – aside from being very arduous, as the Cicerone Guide warned – gave us a first glimpse of some of the most lovely countryside I’d ever visited as we approached the Aubrac Plateau. The weather was fine and clear and – being pretty high at approaching 1,100 metres – it was cool enough to enjoy the walk once we’d levelled out. The campsite at Saugues held one further surprise because when we stretched out for a rest alongside the river, M’s bivvy mat was punctured by a sharp stone and we had a frantic time hunting for the repair kit. We had a bit of a barney about the fact that I had a long gossip with Jacqueline which evidently touched a raw nerve with M in the shadow of his ex wife’s infidelity. Anger was constantly simmering not far under the surface and was always inclined to break out without warning.
I wrote earlier about some of the kit we assembled to take on the Camino and you’ll know – if you’ve been following this thread so far – that it was far too much and far too heavy. No complaints, though, about the little Hilleberg tent which was super light, stormproof and very comfortable; nor the Thermarest inflatable bivvy mats which were brilliant too, and the Mountain Hardware down filled sleeping bag. There’s nothing more cheering in the world than feeling safe, dry and warm when you’ve finally found somewhere to pitch up and you’re cold, tired and hungry. I love the sleeping bag so much that when I was driven back sedated from an endoscope exam I preferred to sleep it off in the sleeping bag. As I looked at the kit just now I thought to myself – why on earth didn’t we do the South West Coast Path? or the Coast to Coast?
With a little time for reflection, that turns out to be a pretty serviceable question. What, if anything, is the difference between a pilgrimage and a long walk? I’ve already said that before we left I felt I’d lost my way and that any sense of vocation that I once enjoyed was worn down by conflict and self doubt. I think that, at the time, I just hoped that I might find some kind of illumination by walking the Camino.
But there’s absolutely nothing about going for a long walk that prevents anyone, religious or not, from experiencing numinous moments that could fairly be categorised as spiritual without buying into the whole supernatural apparatus. The sense of the spiritual could derive from the emergent quality of a random conjunction of material factors – the sound of cowbells on a distant pasture, the smell of the spring air, the wild profusion of spring flowers experienced in a strange place that makes us feel how beautiful the earth is, or how small and vulnerable we are; or it could also be explained as a reassuring hug from an immaterial universal force. Does Gaia do hugs? Maybe it’s our attitude to those experiences that frames alternative answers, and perhaps on reflection a walk can turn into a pilgrimage or a pilgrimage into a walk. In the end; does it even matter?
There’s another possible answer to the question what’s the difference between a walk and a pilgrimage? when we look at it through the lens of some sort of virtue ethic. Going for a long and possibly arduous walk might call into play some or all of – let’s say – the Buddhist virtues; generosity; proper conduct; renunciation; wisdom; energy; patience; honesty; determination; goodwill and finally equanimity – but that wouldn’t be the objective of the walk. However reflecting on those virtues as the walk unfolds and deliberately putting them to use, frames the walking differently, allowing us to reflect on bigger questions such as what does it mean to be fully human? how do I distinguish between flourishing and just getting by? Maybe the objective of the walk is not so much simply to arrive at some kind of holy place – although that certainly adds a layer of meaning – and it should never be an opportunity for suffering for the sake of it because that would be a display of ego and self importance, but perhaps it’s the manner of the journey that matters. Perhaps it would be better to keep quiet about it. The one thing I am quite sure about is that pilgrimage in order to gain posthumous benefits – a get out of jail free card to be traded in against today’s willfulness, is just wrong! A pilgrimage, then, pays more attention to inner change and that’s why it’s hard to do well and easy to get wrong.
My first and finest lesson in equanimity came while we were at art school; Madame studying sculpture and I was studying ceramics. Quite in alignment with my personality I took up two ceramic disciplines that demanded spontaneity and risk – raku and salt glaze. I had made a kiln load of pots to fire in a self built salt glaze kiln, and spent 36 hours firing them in the corner of the sports field. When the kiln was opened it was dramatically overfired and everything had sintered together in a lump that could only be removed with a crowbar. I knew, as I stood in front of a month’s ruined work. that this was a critical moment. I could walk away and try something less risky or embrace the failure as a profoundly important life lesson. I chose the second option and ate it up -and it’s fed me well.
But back on the Camino, did we really need the lean-back chairs? No, of course we didn’t and they – along with most of the redundant or unusable kit – were sent later on to a friend in Bordeaux where we hoped to pick them up later. The improvised clothes pegs are free and available underneath most conifers. The giant scallop shell is the symbol of the pilgrimage for complicated reasons accompanied by pretty far-fetched yarns but it serves as a badge of sorts. Oh and the cheese comes later in the walk but it’s a reminder that if you’re actually taking part in a pilgrimage rather than a mobile supper club, you have to eat when you can, and put up with being hungry when you can’t: it’s all part of the process. Our worst ever meal was a shared tin of cold (we had no stove) cassoulet complete with the layer of fat on the top, but if you look at the top left photo you’ll see the two trees above us in which a Nightjar sang (or rather churred) gently all that night. I had never heard it before or since. When it all boils down, the biggest load you carry on a pilgrimage in any case, is the mental baggage.
Monster monster day. Crossed over a big ridge to Monistrol d’Allier where we found an unlikely Englishman called Peter running a restaurant. Couldn’t stop him chatting. Had a coffee and a triangular toasted sandwich – the machine for which he hopes to sell in Korea (!) –filling was made from last night’s leftovers gratin dauphinoise, bits of dry cured ham and cheese sealed in a kind of crêpe.
This is becoming quite a chastening exercise because every bit of the journey I read back in the contemporary notes comes to me with extras I didn’t recall at the time – like the fact that Peter the proprietor of the hotel and restaurant brought out a wooden board with a lump of local sausage, olives and a large hunting knife for us to help ourselves as he (mostly he) talked. I got the impression he was quite isolated and rather lonely since his wife and, I think, daughter were away somewhere. I couldn’t resist this photo – “Poseur,” apart from the English loanword meaning, meant something like installer, and I wonder if it referred to houses built for the workers building the SNCR railway track from Paris down to Nice. If you drive rather than walk out of Monistrol d’Allier, you follow the railway line which looks incredibly scenic. The trains were still running infrequently a few years ago and there was a ticket that allowed passengers to get on and off as frequently as they liked. It’s a journey I’d still love to make. According to the Cicerone guide there’s a campsite where we stayed next to the river but I can’t remember anything about it.
Some years later, Madame and I retraced as much of the route as we could in our little Hyundai i10 and we stopped off at Monistrol to spend a night at the same hotel. Peter the owner was still there and at supper he walked through to the kitchen with a big tray of freshly picked bright yellow girolles. They would have cost £50 at the market. Our room was spartan – like student accommodation – but on checking it just now it seems to have gone a bit more upmarket these days, although I don’t think the Korean toasties had taken off. There’s really nothing much to see in Monistrol; Madame vowed never to return, and I didn’t argue.
You get some idea of the terrain we were getting ourselves into from the photos below. The warning below them , which we hadn’t properly embraced, was in the indispensable Cicerone guide “The way of St James”. More on that tomorrow with a bit of luck.
I haven’t been spending all my time on writing up the Camino; we’ve also been incredibly busy on the allotment and tomorrow we’re back off to the Bannau (Brecon Beacons) to spend a couple of days with our friends. Hopefully we’ll have time to put out the moth trap and see some of the spectacular moths you can find there, even at 1000 feet – and the fungus season is cranking up nicely although a large box of girolles is probably not going to happen. Looking at the Camino photos the Aubrac hills, although they’re closer to 4000 feet, aren’t dissimilar.
This was only the second day of our walk but even by then we were beginning to realize the scale of the effort we’d be needing to make. Our rucksacks were back breakingly heavy and none of the training walks had been anywhere near the level of difficulty we were now attempting. Somewhere on one of my dead laptops there’s a spreadsheet with the weight of every single item we were taking – all neatly added up. On the night we actually packed them we weighed them on the bathroom scales and the rucksacks were around 5 kilos heavier – a powerful incentive to send some of the kit back to the UK. Individually the kit was as close to state of the art as we could afford; all of it – from bivvy mats, sleeping bags to quick drying clothes, overtrousers and raincoats, super lightweight – it rains a lot up there in the spring. Looking back, was it really necessary to take a spare pair of shoes? Two cameras rather than one? – the list of errors went on. But there’s a reason for it all that hid under the radar as I was planning, because I’m a bit of a hobbit – I believe I need my familiar objects around me.
I suppose most people would say – off the top of their heads – that the object of a pilgrimage is to get to the destination; the holy place at the end of the rainbow. But for me the essence of the enterprise is to embrace vulnerability. For me, not knowing where I’m going to sleep or eat each night is extremely challenging. Not knowing what the next day will involve or where I’ll finish up; not speaking the language very well; not knowing what we would do if ( as happened several times) when we arrived at the campsite, it was closed and locked, or all the shops shut. I could never come out of a period of vulnerability feeling smug or spiritual; just exhausted, wary and fearful but strangely exhilarated and open, with all my senses on steroids. There’s a clarity of thinking that comes alongside vulnerability. The dead hand of my scripted future is swept aside. One of the notes I found in the notebook today that didn’t find its way into the typed transcript was this –
My worst fear would be that my life would turn out to be a quotation from somebody else’s
Three questions, then – but not all questions have the same dangerous forensic quality or indeed the same capacity to disturb a night’s sleep. When I formulated them it seemed likely that – at this distance in time – they’d be easy to answer but – well, it seems not. You’d think, wouldn’t you, why then? would be simple; I was due a sabbatical, so who wouldn’t?
The Church can be the devil, and when it thinks it can’t be it is!
Canon Francis Palmer in an ordination sermon.
On the one hand, I was an enthusiastic walker and I’d become fascinated by the idea of pilgrimages. I’d even invented and done a two day, forty mile walk from Malmesbury Abbey to Littleton on Severn, following the most likely route to be taken by monks travelling to one of my churches. An old legend told the story of one of my predecessors being murdered on the way to take a communion service, and having the chalice he was carrying stolen by robbers. It was said that a nearby spring turned red every year to commemorate his death. An alternative legend claimed it was the Saxon anchorite St Arilda who was murdered by a Roman officer called Nuncius when she refused to submit to him. I designed the walk to pass both churches dedicated to her as well as my own, and also the spring named after her – which involved a bit of mild off-route trespass. It is thought that the occasional red colouration of the water is due to a micro-organism.
Much earlier in my life I’d managed to include St Ann’s well in Syston into a cross country run which I invented to keep a sadistic PE teacher off my back. It’s difficult for much younger people to understand that we boomers – apart from all the good things like education – also had to put up with a significant percentage of our teachers suffering from PTSD after war service.
Anyway, aside from my interest in pilgrimage and the availability of the sabbatical there was something else. As Francis Palmer warned on the day I was ordained, the church is a dangerous institution. Bullying is endemic. Both congregations and senior clergy are all too willing to destroy, or encourage the destruction – physically, psychologically and spiritually – of anyone who challenges their authority or orthodoxies. I had to cope with a group inside the church who constantly belittled and challenged me; but also a local head teacher who attempted to destroy my career by making false accusations against me. The accusations were easily disproved but the church legal authorities refused to intervene on the grounds that he was clearly mad. We had church members on the doorstep shouting abuse at me or whoever answered the door. We were about to begin a major refurbishment of the church which was overwhelmingly supported by all but a handful of vocal diehards. Yet I was very close to burning out after approaching twenty years of constant headwind in spite of which we increased the congregation, built up a vibrant music group and extended our outreach into the village. Francis Palmer was right, and so was Dom Edmund Wheat who once said to me “always remember that availability is an ascetic discipline”. I no longer knew what, if anything, I believed in any more – apart from believing in the congregation who had stuck with me. I may have thought, without ever articulating it to anyone, that I might, just possibly, find God again out there in the wilderness.
So I filled in an airily optimistic proposal for some funding without mentioning any of what I’ve just written, and it was approved. I was awarded a few hundred pounds most of which I spent on an amazing Hilleberg two person lightweight tent because I thought that was how everybody else conducted long pilgrimages. Then came the maps, the guidebooks and spreadsheets and time ticked on as I bought essential boots and equipment and carried out long training walks.
So why am I writing this after so many years? I can think of two possible answers. Firstly, and without any provocation from me, the thought that I might try and walk to St David’s Cathedral popped into my head last time we were in Pembrokeshire. To be clear, I would walk to St Non’s Well not the Cathedral which is 3/4 hour walk further on but far too noisy and full of tourists – and I would do it in short sections, over a period of time and preferably with Madame somewhere close.
The other reason is because I’ve been worrying that the wheels are increasingly wobbly and may fall off before I’ve accomplished a couple of goals. Nothing immediately life threatening is happening but I seem to be taking a lot of medication and visiting the hospital more and more. Bless them, they’ve done wonders, but it seems to me that it’s time – and this is a lovely euphemism – to get things straight; and the Camino is one of those life events that I need to straighten out while I can still put one foot reliably in front of the other. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but I’m still post-Christian and I’m still hoping, still looking for an answer.
The second goal – and this is pure hubris – is to finish writing a million words in this blog, about being human, or being virtuous I’m 80% there now.
Well why not? However most of my life has felt as if I was being called to do or be something but I never found out what it was! Vocation is exactly that kind of thing which happens when you go for a job interview and protest that you haven’t seen a job description. At the risk of sounding psychotic, words sometimes land in my heart that are incapable of doubt. There’s a form of utterance in grammar that’s called performative. So these performative statements land without warning and because of their nature, what is spoken just happens. Mercifully they’re vanishingly rare in my experience, but it’s odd when the words “It’s alright” plop into your heart and immediately everything is alright and all melancholy and doubt fly away. There was another one – a bit cryptic but I knew instantly what “clear the decks” meant for me.
So moving on we’ll come to day one of the actual walk:
20th May 2010 Yesterday – bit of a slog (that’s an understatement). We seemed to be climbing all day – could only get a coffee in St Christophe because the (food) service was finished. Got to Montbonnet and decided to push on to St Privat d’Allier – which turned out to be all uphill. Arrived at the Camping Municipal (very good) at 6.30pm. Feasted on the weirdest and thinnest cheese omelette ever + chips and lettuce leaves. Bed at 8.30pm. Up at 6.00 and faffed about until 8.00 so we could stock up on pain au chocolat at the boulangerie.