30th May 2010
Woke to pissing rain – so glad we’d ordered breakfast for 7.30. Packed tent wet and put on all our waterproofs to leave at 9.00am. We’d inadvertently exchanged trousers so I was wearing M’s extra large ones and his looked extremely slim and tight! Flogged up awesome track out of Conques so we were wet with sweat by the time we reached the top. Miserable cold, windy and very wet. Hard walking all the way. Decazeville looked like Blaenavon on mogadon. Dropped down 300m and the straight back up the other side. Arrived at Livinhac le Haut at about 3.00pm, knackered again. Found campsite on river but couldn’t face wet tent so we rented a caravan for the night and paid 60€ for dinner bed and breakfast. So we could dry out all our stuff in the caravan. My rucksack leaked badly at the bottom so my shoes were wet through. Slept on a bed this afternoon – bliss! Own shower own toilet. Bed 8.45
31st May 2010
Still cold, windy and pissing down at 6.30 so we discussed our options. Me very pessimistic. M (as so often) practical and positive. Shower out of gas too – so got cold and wet while I struggled with the controls and then gave up. We were the only customers at breakfast. I think the campsite has fallen on hard times. Only about 8 diners from the nearby gîte d’etape last night. Onion soup (I was so hungry I ate it) Salad of grated carrots (that’s all) chips, duck and the ubiquitous haricots verts – the French cook these with real hatred like my mum used to cook sprouts. M noticed a burned out caravan and a similar tent just left there. I expect if you looked in the orchard you’d probably find the previous owner’s body still hanging there. Anyway I negotiated with the owner and he offered to drive us to Figeac for 50€ – so 118€ for bed breakfast evening meal and transport for 2 – deal!
Figeac on a wet Monday made Haverfordwest look cosmopolitan. Everything shut except a couple of rainswept cafés. Thought for a moment the whole town had a crack cocaine problem – certainly saw some edgy looking people around. Just about lost the will to live when we noticed 2 bedraggled pilgrims carrying shopping bags so we went back into the centre of town and found a LeClerc open and several other signs of life (3.00pm) Bought food and a Guardian Weekly went back to the campsite, nicked a couple of chairs from an empty chalet and read.Journal
Of course anyone with a grain of common sense will be asking me how I have the nerve, after all I’ve written about the church, to put on a frock and say things I’ve apparently long since stopped believing. My answer would be that I have always believed that Christianity can only be accepted as a practise rather than a rosary of written propositions about unfathomable mysteries. My biggest difficulty with the day was taking on the persona – Rev Dave – even for a few hours – after laying him to rest for eight years. I don’t believe for a moment that my blessings would twist the arm of any conceivable non material being; but I do believe in grace
13 years later
I swore I’d never do it, but when Harry’s daughter asked me I couldn’t say no; and so yesterday, for one day only, I came out of retirement and agreed to bless his grand daughter’s marriage. I owe him too much to do any other; however I named my price – that I would insist on wearing trainers – and the deal was done. It was – as I’d always known it would be, totally exhausting – but spending a few hours with Harry (96) and his family was pure joy. A haircut and beard trim were obligatory on my part- Harry is an ex soldier and retired surgeon and the man I’ve looked up to for more than thirty years; a true role model and inspiration. He was also my Churchwarden for much of that time and saved my skin more than once from a small contingent of members who wanted me out/dead/whatever …..
Of course I was absolutely running on empty by the time we drove home, and all I could think of was a glass of wine – but having poured it out I took a sip and flaked out in an armchair. I woke almost ten hours later dreaming about David Attenborough driving children off the beach at Severn Beach (where there isn’t one) – waving a radio handset and shouting dark threats against trespassers. I’ll leave you to work that one out because I haven’t a clue. I was, however feeling unsettled and flat because I knew I was about to write about Decazeville. But Madame had a cunning plan, and – as ever – it was a good one. “Do you fancy driving up to Mendip” she asked casually after a very late breakfast.
The sun was shining, it was unusually warm and we walked in T shirts around Stockhill Plantation where last year we found dozens of species of fungi but today almost none. All of the mycology websites have been lamenting the late start of the autumn flush of fungi and they are entirely correct. It was spookily fungus free – BUT – today I found one I’ve been looking for, for ages. It’s beautiful, delicate and unusual for a fungus with a cap it lives up trees – particularly beech trees. Here it is: Pleased welcome the Porcelain fungus – Oudemansiella mucida
But there’s an irony in this excursion on to the Mendip Plateau but although I grumble about the depressing ugliness of Decazeville it shares an origin with high Mendip because they are both former mining areas and still bear the scars. Mendip was mined for lead and copper, and Decazeville for coal – an industry concurrent with the industrial revolution. I can think of walks nearer home where you experience the same disjunction between two adjoining landscapes; empty hillscapes and semi derelict industrial areas. Walking south from the Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) you might take the Beaufort road and, crossing the empty hills, walk downhill past an opencast coal mine and into the Welsh valleys which once powered the industrial revolution here. The same slightly depressed feeling hangs like a miasma over these post industrial towns. Our walk yesterday was through a plantation that has now pretty much covered about 24 acres (12 hectares) of what’s known locally as gruffy ground; covered in shallow exploratory pits where miners from Roman times onwards have prospected and mined surface deposits of lead ore.
The great advantage of writing up the Camino journal is that these parallels constantly crop up. Obviously being wet and miserable I failed to do justice to a little town that has fallen on hard times. I just checked the local statistics and discovered that the town has only existed for 150 years; the sole raison d’etre being the extraction of coal which ended in the 1960’s . Population about 1500, just 26 two star hotel rooms (and no others at all) and no campsite – so by inference, the Pelegrins don’t stop and spend their money here. The Transit vans and crew buses full of paying pilgrims pass quickly by to more attractive places. My strongest memory of Decazeville is the smell of dog poo wetted by the rain and the continuous procession of gigantic Renault lorries – oh and one of those very thin pilgrim ponchos abandoned in a hedge like a giant pink condom.
But why should pilgrimage be an endless sequence of more or less beautiful places and memorable stops. Life really isn’t like that and I guess I’ve waited 13 years to allow that thought to emerge into the light of day. I feel slightly ashamed of my negative reaction to Decazeville. On a sunny day and with time to explore more fully I’d probably be praising it as I regularly praise all sorts of heritage industrial remains. I don’t think Madame will be wanting to join me on that expedition, though!
Finally – to complete our afternoon on Mendip a few shots of a very beautiful Scaly Male Fern, Dryopteris affinis and a tiny lichen, British Soldiers Cladonia cristatella. Maybe the Rivers of Babylon aren’t so bad after all?