Walking the 1066 Country Walk

A month ago, I received a message from Jonathan (from In Which I). We’ve been in touch regularly via our blogs but it was the first time we’d chatted through e-mails. His message went something like that:

’Are you a walker? We’re planning to walk all of the 1066 Country Walk on 10-11 September over two days.’

I did not hesitate when I read that line and replied that I would be more than happy to tag along. Ever since coming back home from my recent cycle tour, I have been meaning to go on a walk. I had gone as far as cleaning up my walking boots. They were still dirty from the Lyke Wake Walk. And that had been almost a year ago. I had missed the slow pace of my feet and the amount of details that come to life from this mode of transportation.

1066 directions

river

On Saturday 10th of September, Jonathan, Dan and me departed from Pevensey train station, quickly exciting the village to venture into the flatlands of Pevensey levels. The sky was hidden behind a cover of grey clouds choked up with rain but I did not worry. The weather people had assured us it would remain dry until mid-afternoon. Our stride was light and eager as we followed the green line on the map more than the signs. We talked a lot and without us noticing a couple of hours had passed. It was easy to walk.

But soon the hills began. We stopped on a bench in a churchyard for a break, filling ourselves with snacks to power us on. Above the field by the cemetery a crow and a kestrel engaged in an air pursuit, the bigger of the two intent on chasing the other one away. We watched them until they became two ball points in the distance, and we couldn’t distinguish which bird was which.

cemetery

map checking

We rose from the bench and went on. We passed Herstmonceux castle, the Observatory Science Centre, and a lone trig point, an odd sight at such a low altitude. We entered a forest, our bodies shadowed by a canopy of leaves and emerged by a very orderly brown field.
‘It’s like a zen garden,’ Jonathan commented.
I had to admit it was impressive. Tidy lines zigzagged throughout, the patterns changing at regular intervals. I couldn’t even spot a wheel track anywhere. I let my eyes rise to the top of the field where the earth stopped and the clouds began. I knew there was a slope on the other side but from the bottom of the rise, I could easily ignore it and pretend the field stopped where my gaze did. I smiled at the simple vision. I would have never found it if not for this walk. I snapped a picture, backing up my mental memory into the digital one of my camera.

zen field

The hills became steeper and I was surprised at how well my legs were taking it. I knew walking and cycling did not engage the same muscles but my body seemed to fair well. I silently hoped it would remain so. There were still many miles to go. But first we stopped for tea under the watchful eyes of cows.

tea time

curious cow

Lunch followed soon after. We were over halfway into our route for the day. As we packed away what we had not eaten, I braced myself for the afternoon dip I usually encounter when walking. But it did not come. Instead of my world narrowing down into pain and boredom, it expanded and I noticed every details of our surroundings. A bee was nestled in between John Dowie apples. Blackberries sprouted on bushes everywhere, their juices melting in my mouth as I pressed them against my palate. The breeze sent ripples through the high grass, their blades rubbing my black trousers. Flowers still shone defiantly in spite of the turn of the season. And we were walking in the middle of it all, words and ideas easily flowing between us.

apples and bee

flowers

And before I realised it we had crossed a road and found ourselves by Great Park Farm shop and café, a couple of miles from Battle, our end point for the day. We sat down for tea outside. And the rain began to fall. We huddled closer, trying to fit under the sun shades that were now used as umbrellas, and drank our teas safe and dry. But one of the sun shade had other ideas in mind and dropped a puddle of water over Dan.
The waitresses came around to clean the tables and it was time to go. The rain had petered out into a drizzle but still we put on our rain coats and climbed one last hill for the day before taking off our boots. My legs were still good but I knew better than to trust my body and began to stretch my muscles. There was still 15 miles to walk the following day.

tree trunk portal

The next day I awoke with the sun. I rolled over in my bed and glanced out of the window. There was a blue sky. I got off bed and eagerly made my way downstairs. My legs felt stiff but I ignored them. I hoped that once we got going, the muscles would relax and forget the miles of the day before. Boots on and snacks packed, we met up with friends and set off to Rye.

group walking

We excited Battle via the Great Wood and soon found ourselves in the middle of a golf course. Balls flew to the clacking sound of metal against plastic, but I paid them little attention. I was too busy chatting away with new friends, getting to know one another. Conversation flowed and it felt great to be sharing this walk with other people on such a beautiful day. It was summer again and my worries about job hunting, interviews, and money melted away.

grass and tree island

lone tree

A lone swing hung from a tree. ‘You want a go at it, don’t you?’ Jonathan said looking at me. I couldn’t resist the smile growing on my lips. ‘Oh yes.’ I admitted and climbed onto the seat sending my legs in the air and leaning into the air flow. There was nothing to do but enjoy that simple moment of joy. So I did.

jonathan swing

We left the sheltered footpath we had been following for an open field. The sun heat fell on us and we took a break to hydrate and shed some layers of clothes. I could have easily taken a nap but there were many more miles to go. I took another swig at my water bottle and marched on with the group. The hills began and we promised Peter that they were all actually flat or downhills rather than uphill. I wished that had been true. My calves began to hurt as we ascended and I found myself stretching at every opportunity hoping it would help the muscles. It mostly didn’t but it wasn’t difficult to ignore the pain. The sun was shining bright, I was in good company, and summer felt like it would never end.

many paths

going uphill

Paths spread out in front of us as we climbed down yet another stile. We poured over the map trying to find the right way. Everybody seemed to have their idea as to which route to take and we spread out over the hill, all trying to find the next way marked post. Jonathan had picked the right path and we all converged towards him, past a farm, past a pub, and into a field where we stopped under the shade of a line of trees for lunch.

lunch time

More hills followed and led us to a trig point. It still felt too low for one but at least we had climbed a hill and the view spreading out in front of us was worth a stop and a photo. Square of greens joined yellow ones, with the occasional brown and white dots of cows and sheep. And everywhere trees clustered in small woods or borderlands between the fields. Above it all, the sky was baby blue, trails of translucent clouds like paint brushes on canvas.

view

view

The afternoon slumber didn’t come that day either, and it was with high spirits that we approached Winchelsea where we had promised ourselves a pub break. But before entering the town, Jonathan got stung by a wasp, sending a ripple of panic through our group with his cries of ‘Get of me! Get of me! Get of me!’. Luckily, he wasn’t allergic and the sting hasn’t been deep. He was able to walk on.

We stopped at the pub for a well-deserved break and sipped our drinks with relish, their freshness a welcome relief from the hill climbs, and the alcohol soothing to our aches and pains. I could have happily remained on the bench watching the light of day dim into night but we were not at our final destination yet.

pub break

We strapped our backpacks on once more and walked out of the village and met up with Dumb’s Woman Lane before leaving it for the gentler ground of a footpath. The sun was at our back, its warmth fast disappearing. I gave it a silent thanks for the day it had given us and walked on. Houses began to appear and it hit me that we must have reached Rye. ‘Is that Rye?’ I asked Jonathan unsure of myself. I couldn’t quite believe that the day was already coming to an end. There had been two miles to walk from Dumb’s Woman Lane and somehow it didn’t feel like we had done two miles since then. ‘Yes, it is.’ He confirmed. So that was it. We had walked the 1066 Country Walk and it was time to go home.

sign

A cycle tour in Kent – Part 02

Catch up with part 01 here.

I stopped the bike as the first hill came into view and dug in my pocket to get my inhaler out. I breathed in the small particles hoping for the best before climbing back in the saddle. My leg spun as fast as they could while the wheels of the bike slowly turned and made their way to the top. My breathing intensified and my heart pumped harder but I remained able to breathe freely. On top of the hill, I dismounted for a moment and looked down smiling. I was still out of shape but at least my chest wasn’t constricted anymore and it was impossible to deny that the climb had been fun. I put my feet on the pedals and pushed the bike forward, the descent carrying me closer to Ashford. The wind blew against my ears, roaring and deafening all other sounds but I didn’t care. I was freewheeling down the road, propelled on the flat at speed, and I had forgotten that I had ever thought of stopping this cycle tour at Ashford. I cycled in and out of the town before lunchtime, barely sparing a glance for its structure of steel and glass.

The sign pointed to a dead-end. I raised an eyebrow but followed it nonetheless, expecting a shared path would appear at the end of the street to take me away from the traffic. But Sustrans had other ideas. Before I could reach the first houses, the familiar sign pointed up a hill. I looked doubtfully at the path. This was not a road. This was a steep muddy footpath. I checked the sign but there was no indication that it had been dislodged. I pushed the bike up, carried it through two kissing gates and found myself at the edge of a wood, fallen leaves littering the undulating ground.

‘This is not a bike path Sustrans,’ I stated a little apprehensive of what was to come. I was not in the habit of taking to muddy footpath with a bike, especially not when the land wasn’t flat and I only had the front break partially working. ‘Oh well… let’s do it.’ There was no point in turning back. A forest path would always beat a busy road, even if I had to walk most of the way. I climbed on the bike and went on. The wheels turned surprisingly easily on the leaves and I gained confidence that this path would be alright. I stopped at Catha’s seat for a while and admired the views. Green fields were surrounded by brown skeletal trees. I could only imagine what this view would be like when everything was in bloom. I made a mental note to come back and check in springtime.

Back on the saddle, I was soon confronted with my first real downhill. I breathed in deeply, checked the brake a couple of time and let go. The bike went down and my adrenaline shot up. It was going fast, too fast. I applied pressure on the brake as the first bend appeared in the distance but the wheels slipped below me and I barely avoided a fall. I released the brake and focused entirely on the path in front of me, hoping nobody was walking their dog as the bike kept shooting down and I was utterly out of control, unsure of how I remained on the saddle through all the bumps and bends. But I did and eventually the road flattened out. My heart was pounding as I rejoined the road but I was grinning from ear to ear happy to have made it in one piece.

Canterbury came and went, its cathedral looming in the distance, as the Sustrans signs numbers changed from 18 to 1. I had no interest in cycling towards John O’Groats although the signs told me I was on my way. I was after the Crab and Winkle way. It had been a route I had often thought about, its name creating a whirlwind of pictures in my mind. I smiled at the sign and took a picture of it, proof that I had finally met up with this path. I must have looked odd among the other walkers and cyclists that day. They were all on a commute back home and I was excited like a child at Christmas. The way left traffic behind and took me between fields on muddy paths and forest trails. I considered stopping for the day but there was still daylight in the sky and I wanted to hear the sea. So I cycled on and rejoined the road at the outskirt of Whitstable. I headed straight for the beach, sparring no glance to my surroundings until I was sat on a bench by a small pebbles beach. The sun was falling fast below the horizon and I started to think of bed again. Sleeping on a beach has long been an item on my microadventure list but my body was aching and I was still undeniably very tired. Maybe I could find a hotel or B&B before settling for the beach. This cycle tour wasn’t about spending 24 hours outdoors but about fun. And I didn’t want to start the third day in a haze, pedalling only for the sake of it. So I went to the tourist office and found myself a warm room for the night.

It was just before 10am when I left the B&B and got back on the bike. As I found the cycle path that would lead me to the Viking CoastalTrail, I was happy with my decision not to have wild camped the night before. I felt refreshed and ready to tackle the sea wind.

I pedalled onwards on the concrete promenade by the seaside and reflected on the oddness of British people. It had always struck me as odd to meander so close to the beach and yet not to enjoy the clink of the pebbles under your shoes, and a paddle in the water no matter how cold. I quickly forgot the thought as my gaze got lost at sea, watching massive ships standing still in the water. There was a long line of them and I couldn’t help imagine a traffic light some miles off showing bright red. I was glad to be on solid ground with a path mostly to myself and no red lights in sight.

I continued on, feasting my eyes on the landscape and quickly reached Reculver where the Viking Coastal Trail began. Huge cliffs rose to my left and I was left alone with the sea. I slowed my pace to better watch the waves crash on the wall on which I was cycling knowing that soon the sea would not be my own any longer. The seaside resorts of Margate and Broadstairs were looming around the corner and I knew they would bring their share of houses, high-rise buildings, and mansions. I ignored the resorts, their shops, restaurants, and amusements parks desolate under the grey sky of December. The wind picked up and I battled my way into Ramsgate. I was surprised not to be greeted by arcades and tacky shops. Instead it looked like a normal town and I felt compelled to stop. There was still plenty of daylight left but this ride had been good enough. I was content, my stress completely shed away, and I was now happy to go back to my flat in London. But there was still one thing to do before finding the train station. I wanted an ice-cream. There was something about the seaside that demanded of me that I eat ice-cream. So I hunted the streets for an open shop, got myself a scoop of vanilla a scoop of pistachio before going back to the beach. I pushed my bike to the water’s edge and sat in the sand, ice-cream in hand.

A cycle tour in Kent – Part 01

‘Great,’ I uttered in annoyance as a strip of red on the computer screen told me the train I needed to catch to Kent would be delayed. I had planned to be in Tunbridge Wells before lunch time so I could have cycled out of it and be in the countryside to eat my sandwich. But this was obviously not going to happen. Frustrated, I shut down my laptop and finished packing my panniers as slowly as I could. Daylight was getting scarce and I didn’t really want to cycle at night but this train delay was giving me no choice. Panniers closed I brought them downstairs to the bike. I was ready to go. I looked at the bike. I have been riding on it for a few months now and it had lost its new shine. It was my bike with its scratches and dirty light reflectors on the spokes. I smiled at the idea of riding it for another destination than work in a long time and felt my annoyance vanish. I had three days cycling ahead of me. What did it matter if I was going to arrive in Tunbridge Wells a couple of hours later than planned? Eating my lunch in a train carriage wouldn’t be as scenic as on the top of a Kentish hill but then eating lunch on a hill was hardly the point of this small cycle tour.

The last time I had been on a microadventure had been almost two months ago. I had let November slip by without going out and enjoy the outdoors on the pretext that I had been too busy with work and other travels. I now realised how rubbish that excuse had been. I had just been too lazy to take a train out of London bound for the English countryside, and I was paying for it now. That previous week I had been on edge, work had become little more than a chore, receiving people had turned into a burden, and I was feeling tired all the time. I needed time out, time for myself traipsing about in the countryside.

I disembarked at Tunbridge Wells station two hours later than I had planned and headed straight for the hills. Within twenty minutes, I had left the busy roads behind and was cycling along small lanes that couldn’t fit two vehicles side by side. I rode past empty orchards, deserted farms, and private mansions. With each hill my breath caught in my throat and I felt my heart pumping too fast as I tried to familiarise myself with the bike gearing system. I cursed myself for not having done more exercise those last few weeks. I was out of shape and what should have been a relaxing ride was turning into an uncomfortable burn in my chest.

As dusk fell, I was happy to find myself at the edge of Bedgebury forest. It was the perfect excuse not to ride through the dark and set camp early. I freewheeled between the trees, my heart and breath resting for a while. On my right giant pine trees rose above a small lake. It looked idyllic from the road but somehow this part of the forest was fenced off. I pulled on the brakes at the sight of a gate. There was a sign announcing that this was the Pinetum at Bredgebury. I pushed the bike through the muddy path behind the gate and laid it to rest against a small toilet block. I locked a wheel, more out of habit than fear of theft. There would be no one to steal my bike in a deserted pinetum. I scampered down to the lake guided by my head torch and thought of setting camp by the picnic table. I could have breakfast with a view. But for the moment I meandered further in this tree refuge, the effort of walking on a flat terrain resting my lungs.

P1050709

Houses appeared in the distance and I could see lights behind glass windows. I went back on my steps not wanting to attract any attention. I walked past the lake and again thought of setting camp by it but when I reached the toilet block another idea occurred to me. It was supposed to rain that night and although I had my tarp with me, it would be infinitely easier to just sleep in the toilet block. I checked the time. It was only five o’clock. I decided to give it until six before unpacking everything. If there was a warden, surely they wouldn’t tour the pinetum after that time on a dark winter evening. I settled among the trees with some nuts to nimble on and began to read.

A couple of chapters later I found it difficult to ignore the grumbling of my stomach and decided it was time to empty my panniers. I pushed the ladies’ door open, pushed the bike in and one by one I unclipped the panniers. I laid out the sleeping mat, shook the sleeping bag, and began to sort out some food for the evening. As I dug into one the pannier’s pocket for my plastic spoon, my fingers came to rest against my inhaler. I took it out and shook my head. This had been why the climbs had sent my heart pumping so hard within the first pedal stokes. I had known my asthma had grown worse this past year, but I still had the same careless attitude towards it. It had never been so bothersome as to make riding a difficult affair in the English hills. I put it away in my jacket pocket so I wouldn’t forget it the following day and went back into the pannier for the spoon. I was too hungry to dwell upon my stupidity.

Dinner eaten and dishes washed, I settled into my sleeping bag with my book but I only managed to read a couple of pages before falling asleep. I awoke to the sound of rain hitting the metal roof and the wind sending leaves and twigs against the concrete floor outside. I felt glad to be indoors on such a night and went back to sleep. The next time I opened my eyes, it was morning. It was still dark outside but most people were already out of bed. I ate a quick breakfast and packed everything as quick as I could, not wanting to be discovered in the toilet. My body ached with tiredness and I barely managed to suppress a yawn as I climbed on the bike. Riding away from the pinetum I considered stopping my cycle tour early that day, the memories of the previous day’s pain still vivid in my mind.

Read part 02 here.

A year of microadventure comes to an end

Earlier this month I completed my Year of Microadventure – a year of enjoying the outdoors. Here’s how it went:

January
Start small
01 January

Starting small was a good idea, especially in January. I had a warm dinner at home before tucking my sleeping bag and sleeping mat in a unconspicous bag and headed for my local park. I slept relatively well but was woken up a few times by the cold. It was only in the morning that I realised it had been much colder than I had thought. The vegetation, my bag, my shoes, and everything else around me was glittering under the headtorch. It was mesmerising and in spite of being frozen, I couldn’t help but smile.

February
Of backgardens and birds
02 February

I had grand plans for my second microadventure but I sprained my ankle at the end of January and found myself unable to trek very far. So I opted for a night in my backgarden. It was like being a child again when your garden is a world of its own. This time I took the tent but still got very cold.

March
A foray into the woods
03 March

This was my first proper microadventure of the year. I planned my location in advance and had to take a train out of London to reach the woods. This was the month I truly got addicted to wild camping. I was not far from the city but I was still able to submerge myself in nature, forget my worries, and wake up to the songs of birds.

April
The Vanguard Way: words and photos
04 April

By April I knew I was going to walk a bit of the Camino de Santiago later in the year and I wanted to do some preparations. After some googling, I discovered that the Vanguard Way would take me from London to the coast. So I made the most of the bank holidays and wandered south. Although the weather and scenery were very different between this walk and the Camino de Santiago, the Vanguard Way prepared me well for what was to come in July.

May
The Vanguard Way: audio diary and soundscape
05 May

The previous month I had suffered the beginning of an injury on the Vanguard Way and had to give up before the end. So in May, I went back to the trail and walked to the coast. It felt like coming back to a friend, one that had blossomed into life. The vegetation was overflowing on the paths and everything around me was green.

June
A 5 to 9 microadventure
06 June

June has some of the longest days of the year so I decided to try a 5 to 9 microadventure in the middle of the week. I headed out of town after work and walked for a long while before settling in under the shade of trees for the night. I felt I had left my normal world behind and had entered a world of fairytales and wanderers.

July
Camino de Santiago: on the Via Turonensis
07 July

This was it, the Camino de Santiago. I had waited months for this trip to finally arrive and it did not disappoint. I meandered in the paths of France with a friend and together we suffered the heat of the sun but mostly we had a lot of fun catching up on our lives, gossiping and discovering an unfamiliar part of our birth country.

August
Moment of zen
08 August

I didn’t actually wild camp that month. I had been spending so much time outside already that when the end of the month arrived, it was a shock to realise I had not gone wild camping. I did however try my hand at making a video for the first time.

September
Deserted Dungeness
09 September

I met up in Rye with Pete (with whom I’d been chatting on Twitter) and we cycled to Dungeness. We discovered a surreal landscape made of pebbles, black houses, and nuclear power stations. It was odd to be lulled to sleep by the engines of a nuclear station but wonderful to witness a sky full of stars.

October
Walking the Lyke Wake Walk
10 October

I joined Jenni and Zoe from the Outdoor Blogger Network in the north of England for a crossing of the North Yorkshire Moors. Once again I did not wild camp (we had booked a B&B) but didn’t feel like I’d missed a microadventure. We trudged through the moors, clocking 20 miles each day in unfamiliar grounds, and were treated to the brightest fall colours.

November
missed
11 November

I missed this month entirely. The best I managed was an hour walk in the Irish countryside (on small roads), and a walk around a village in France. I used business as an excuse not to get out and paid for it in stress.

December
A cycle tour in Kent
12 December

I went out to explore Kent along Sustrans routes from Tunbridge Wells to Ramsgate. I ended up spending three days grinning like an idiot, and found out that in between motorways, Eurostars, ferries, and seaside resorts Kent has a very peaceful and beautiful countryside.

—*—

All in all it has been a successful Year of Microadventure. It got me out of the door and built a habit of escaping London at least once a month. But most of all, it allowed me to meet like-minded people, start new friendships, and build a confidence in my outdoor skills I didn’t have. I still have a lot to learn but I no longer fear bivvying (I can even sleep reasonably well most times) and I can read maps again. So thank you Alastair Humphreys for starting such a great challenge. I am very much looking forward to another Year of Microadventure in 2016.

Camino de Santiago: on the Via Turonensis

Map

Last July, I set off for France to walk part of the Camino de Santiago with my good friend, Abi. After endless changes of mind, Abi settled on the Via Turonensis and I tried to find a suitably flat and easy to access section of the route for us to explore. Had I been on my own, I would have chosen a hillier terrain but Abi had not done any sport since leaving high school ten years ago. This trip was not about getting her into shape. It was about us, two childhood friends spending time together.

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So it was that on the 14th of July, I found myself at the foot of Saint Jean d’Angély’s abbey with Abi and our two backpacks – mine rugged and its colours faded from years of use, hers unscathed and still its original fluorescent blue. We glanced at the abbey before looking at each other, both of us grinning and impatient to have the monument to our backs. We took our first step, the grand building overlooking us as we departed the sleepy town.

When our stomach grumbled, we spread our kitchen in the forum of a deserted village, feeling we had hiked far. In truth we had barely done 10 kilometres but the scenery had already been quite varied. After the town, we had entered a forest, exited it between wheat fields, seen vineyards in the distance and been shadowed by sunflowers fields. We didn’t know it yet, but those and the chalk under our feet would become our daily views under an endless blue sky and burning sun. But on that morning we were lucky, the clouds were grey, the air was cool. The Camino was easing us gently into its arms.

Our stomach satiated we went on at an easy pace, our bodies and mind still fresh and fuelled by the novelty of the experience. I forgot the time and was happy to keep on until dinner when we could set up camp and fall asleep under the stars. This wasn’t the case for Abi. She became worried as the hours went by. She wanted to find shelter for the night but there were none in sight. According to our guidebook, we were halfway through an official stage and there were no accommodations available near us. We did spot a few signs advertising B&Bs but they all remained out of reach.

“What about wild camping?” I had broached the subject several times in our planning stages but Abi had remained reticent at the idea. “I’ve spotted several good spots already and the village is deserted,” I added before she could reply.
“Let’s go on. I don’t want to retrace our steps.”
I agreed and let her mull over my proposition. I had mentioned it earlier today and although she hadn’t refused, she hadn’t agreed either. We carried on silently for another five minutes and stopped by the council offices to refill our bottles at the water pump. Just behind the main building was a large field of grass with picnic tables, tennis courts, and a pétanque area.
“This looks good. Should we rest here for a while? There’s even tables for dinner.”
Abi agreed.
“This would be nice to wild camp. I can even set the tarp like a tent here.” It was not ideal as it was far from sheltered from view, but I knew Abi would be reassured by the familiarity of the environment and the pretend safety of the buildings around. I looked at her pleadingly.
“Okay.” She smiled, resolved to the idea of wild camping and almost eager to try on this new experience.
I nodded and we opened our bags, ready to unpack for the night.

We cooked and ate dinner before I set up the tarp. She was intrigued at how I would manage to turn a flat sheet into a tent and observed the proceedings carefully.

“Tadam,” I exclaimed as I hammered the last peg into the ground. “Want to try it?”
She hesitantly crawled inside. “This is actually quite big!”
“We can even cram the bags between us,” I added. And that was it. She was happy with the idea of wild camping. We laid down our sleeping mats and bags, slid in, opened our books and within minutes we were asleep.

We awoke to the distinctive stereo thumb, thumb, thumb of a tennis ball hitting the ground. I emerged from the tarp half awake, the sunlight blinding me for a moment, and looked towards the tennis court. Two early risers were enjoying a game, unconcerned by our camp a few metres from them. Abi got out of the tarp and for a moment we enjoyed a private match.

When we finally took to the roads the sun was already high in the sky, the clouds having deserted us at some point in the night. Our bodies found their rhythm, slowly getting accustomed to this new life, and we fell quiet. I paid more attention to our surroundings and what had appeared very familiar at first sight, grew stranger. I had been raised in France but not this part of the country. My territories lie in the north where the red brick rules over white stone, and where vineyards grow on slopes and not flat terrain. If I closed my eyes, the smell of freshly cut straw sent me back to a time when I would join my uncle in his tractor for the harvest. But when I raised my eyelids, I was blinded by a sun too bright, too hot. In this moment, I felt like going back north and slowly meander from my home to the south to discover my birth country in its entirety and get to truly know it.

We stopped for lunch in a bakery, the appearance and smell the same throughout France, and shared a frugal meal under the shade of the church opposite. As we were ready to depart, the owner came to bid us farewell.

“May God be with you,” she said as she pressed our hands hard between hers.

I was taken aback for a moment. I had dismissed the Camino as a religious pilgrimage because it wasn’t for me. I was after a good time with a friend on the trails of France. But the truth was, the people we met on the way were all on a pilgrimage, carrying a bible in their bag and stopping in churches for mass. As the baker’s wife released our hands, I made a mental note to remember that and to be more aware of the significance of this path I was treading.

We left under the shade of forest trees and ambled towards Saintes. The city welcomed with a pungent recycling centre but soon the streets became residential and opened up into large avenues leading to the city centre. We collected our stamps at the tourism office and set off to the pilgrim’s hostel. I was reluctant to go, wishing we could have finished the day in a field by the river, but for this trip I wasn’t the only one making decisions. We followed the signs through narrow lanes that led us to a big church. A small door at the back invited us through the vicarage and we found the entrance of the hostel tucked under a pillar. We peered in tentatively and were greeted by an older man waving us in energetically.

“Welcome! Have you come far?”
“Well, we started in Saint Jean d’Angély yesterday,” I tentatively answered as we crammed in the small entrance with our bags. On the early stages of a trip, I always find this question difficult to answer. I have the feeling that people expect me to have come far and are slightly disappointed by my meagre apology of “I’ve just started”. But the man at reception seemed not to mind.
“My name’s Didier. Let me show you around.” He rose from his chair and took us to the adjacent room. The hostel was located in an old outpost of the church. The modern polished bunk beds and table looked odd against the bulging stone walls, as if someone had placed them in a basement for storage. But to our eyes, especially Abi’s, this was perfect. We would have shelter for the night and a bed to rest our weary bodies in exchange for a few euros that would help keep the hostel open.

We set out early for the first time since we had began this walk, both of us wanting to make the most of the cool hours of the day but also to reached Pons, our next destination. This stage of the Camino was not set to be fun. According to our maps we would have to follow roads for a good part of the morning before joining a long straight chalk path parallel to an A-road for the rest of the day.

“Are we at Berneuil yet,” I moaned for the third time in fifteen minutes, my feet trailing through the dust. Abi handed me the map without even a glance in my direction. I grabbed it. “Thanks,” I mumbled. I didn’t open it. It would have required that I stop and look at the features around me to find our spot, but I was afraid that if I did I would not be able to start again. It wasn’t midday yet but the heat was already hammering us down. I slid the map in my pocket and resumed staring straight ahead, hoping that the next intersection would bring a sign proclaiming the entrance of the village.

A while later, a road crossed our trail with a sign perched at eye level pointing to Berneuil, one kilometre away. Our hearts sank. We had had vision of stopping in the bar our guide mentioned for a cold drink and a nap on the grass by the church. But all of this was one kilometre away from the Camino, in the blazing sun. We looked at each other, a mirror of disappointment. Under the sign stretched a small expanse of grass. Three young trees lining the tarmac provided some streaks of shade. I fell in one of them, Abi followed suit in another. Our lukewarm water would have to do.

Refreshed after a long nap, we set off for the afternoon, determined not to let the heat drag us down for the rest of the day. We took to singing at the top of our voices and made up a few songs to amuse ourselves and ignore the growing discomfort of our feet. But as we approached Pons, Abi had had enough of the constant pounding of our shoes against asphalt and chalk. I cheered and encouraged her until we finally reached the pilgrim’s hostel, where we were able to enjoy a cold drink and release our feet from the tyranny of the ground.

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The following day we fell back to the same pattern, singing at the top of our voices to battle the heat, and drenching our heads with water every time we reached the end of one of our bottles. When we fell silent, I would immerse myself in our surroundings, tracking a bee heading for a sunflower and trying to spot the crickets we could hear so distinctively but never see. I would dance a little jig as we passed stone markers and deposit my offer of rock alongside the ones from previous pilgrims.

It was a relief to finally reached the edges of a forest. The fragrant smell of wood, dirt and decomposing leaves revived our spirit, while the shade under the canopy of trees propelled our bodies onwards. We laughed and almost ran on this new trail soft under our boots. The afternoon promised to be a delight and I was eager to enjoy the act of walking and let my thoughts roam free, far from the numbing effect of the heat.

“Do you remember when…” I found myself unable to finish my question as a fly found its way into my mouth. Abi looked at me questioningly for a second before swiping her hand in front of her face frantically. We had entered a cloud of black flies. I tried to wave them aside with my hand and hat, thinking we would soon pass through and be able to resume our reminiscing. But the insects seemed to be following us and I began to wish for the fire of the sun as I hurried on to rejoin the chalk path.

By the time we escaped the forest, I had forgotten what my query had been and was in no mood to talk. “Let’s find that hostel,” I grumbled before marching off, keen to shelter under a roof and wash the sweat away in an attempt to repulse the flies with the smell of soap.

“Are you the pilgrims?” The boy who couldn’t be older than six asked when he saw us enter his courtyard.
“Yes, we are. Is your mom around?” We had phoned earlier and were expected.
“She’s somewhere yes,” he answered but made no move to call for her. I smiled and dropped my bag to the ground. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Matthieu.”
“I’m Allysse and this is my friend Abi,” I said pointing in her direction. “What have you been up to?”
“Playing.”
“With this ball and racket,” I remarked, spotting one near the wall.
“Yes.”
“Do you have another racket?”
“Sure,” he replied excitedly and was off running inside the house.
I smiled, the black flies quite forgotten at the speed Matthieu had taken off as he realised he had a playmate for the first time in a while. When he reappeared, he was closely followed by his mother who showed us to our room, Matthieu trailing closely behind and monitoring our every move. It was only after we assured him we would come out to play after a shower that he left us alone. Half an hour later, I emerged in a world free from flies and joined Matthieu in the courtyard while Abi remained on the bed nursing her feet. We played games of tennis, football, and frisbee accompanied by the sun gently setting over the horizon.

We left early the following day, having learned that we needed to make the most of the soft morning sun. We were silent, both lost in our private worlds. I looked at the views and wondered again how it could feel so similar and yet so foreign. I longed for the green fields of England and the right of ways that let me cross fields and merge with a place as I couldn’t here, constricted to the roads and paths. I wanted to be back among the grass and mud of a countryside I had come to love, see the familiar bricks and pubs that were always there at the end of a walk. I didn’t understand this country I was hiking in, supposedly mine and yet still unwelcoming and sending me on hinge whenever I dwelled upon the matter. Was it still the memory of old ghosts haunting me? Or was there something else, a profound break and discontent between me and France? I let my thoughts wander along those questions but couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer. I felt I needed to give France another chance. I had been angry when I had left but this feeling was gone. Once again, I felt the urge to go back north and start ambling south to get to know France and its people.

My thoughts were stopped as we approached Mirambeau where we had planned to have our lunch. We settled in the shade of the church and fell into the routine of our meal, soon falling asleep while the sun turned into a burning beast.

Waking up from our slumber, we looked at each other and grinned. In a few hours we would cross the border of two regions. This had been something that had particularly been on Abi’s mind. The Camino had become increasingly difficult for her as blisters kept growing on her feet. She was pushing through the pain and every mile was like a victory, a proof that she could do it and make it beyond the pain. So this regional boundary was an important beacon, an assertion to herself and everyone else that we had made progress and that her suffering was not in vain. We walked on, the roads regularly shaded by patches of tree, making me forget about the heat, and in a shorter time than I realised, we were standing in front of the river Guirande which marked the border.

We stopped, dropped our bags and screamed with joy as we crossed the bridge dancing and jumping. We had made it to a whole other region. It didn’t matter that we had not began our journey at the start of the Charente-Maritime. It didn’t matter that we were not going as fast as the guide writers advised. We had walked almost a hundred kilometres in five days and we were crossing a border.

Our euphoria eroded as we distanced ourselves from the river and we saw the landscape being transformed. The trees that had provided shade and variety disappeared, overtaken by miles of vineyards. They stretched free as far as we could see, only interrupted by a few houses and villages in the distance.
“Hot…” I whispered to myself.
“What?”
“It’s going to be hot…” I repeated, all excitement gone from my face.
“We’re almost there. Come on, let’s just walk,” Abi pressed me on. It was true, we weren’t far from the pilgrim’s hostel we had chosen for this day. There was just a long stretch of unshaded road to follow first. I dropped my gaze to the ground and went on, focusing on making progress.

I brought the bottle to my lips. The warm water flowed through my throat, hydrating my body but not relieving its warmth. Beads of sweat were dripping under my hat and landing on my eyes, taking with them chemicals from the sun cream. I blinked repeatedly, trying to chase the tears away but it only seemed to make things worse.
“I’ve had enough,” I screamed as I threw one of my walking stick in front of me. “I can’t see a thing and it’s too HOT.”
As soon as the words were out, I knew how stupid they were. “I’m sorry,” I uttered turning to Abi before she could react. “I’m just tired…” I offered as an apology.
“It’s okay. We’re almost there.”
I attempted a smile and picked up my stick from the ground. I knew she meant well but it didn’t matter that we were close. I was too hot and my eyes stung. I wanted to stop right here, fall asleep and wait for rain. But I held my tongue, there was no point in arguing. I took a step, lowered my head and trudged ahead to put some distance between Abi and me, and resumed my moaning and grunting far from her ears.

‘Saint-Palais’ the village sign announced.
I dropped to the ground at its sight, my bag still on my back. We had made it. I slid my arms free from the straps and rolled to the side under the shade of the sign. In a few minutes, I would be able to take a cold shower in the pilgrim’s hostel.
“Allysse, there’s a cemetery just there.” Abi was still standing. I followed her arm to where she was pointing. I could see the top of tombstones over a low wall. I brought myself up and without a word headed for the cemetery, leaving everything behind. I rushed through the entrance, using what felt like the last of my reserve and stumbled upon the gravel in front of the hose. I turned the water on and poured it over my head. The coolness sent a shiver of relief running through my body. Soon I was standing upright, a smile on my face.
“Let’s find that pilgrim’s hotel,” I said as Abi entered the cemetery.

“They said you need to go past the supermarket after the church,” Abi told me as she hang up.
“The supermarket,” I repeated raising an eyebrow. This village was too small for a supermarket. Besides we had been past the church two times already and there definitely wasn’t any supermarket nearby. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, it’s what they told me.” Abi was becoming impatient. We had been searching for the hostel for the last half hour and there wasn’t any signs of it, and after a phone call to the place, we were even more confused and lost.
“Pass me the guide,” I asked. I browsed the list of accommodation hoping this one would provide an address we could look up online. It did. I burst out laughing as I saw it. “We’re looking for a place in the Pyrénees. That’s why we can’t find it.”
“What?!”
“There,” I pointed to the postcode still laughing.
“I’m so stupid,” Abi commented in despair. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
I stopped laughing as I heard the strain in her voice. She had been looking forward to this hostel even more than me and I hadn’t realised. “Hey, it’s okay… There are other accommodations nearby, aren’t they?” I scanned the guide once more and called a couple of B&Bs. No one picked up. I tried again but still the phones rang endlessly. I frowned, trying to find an alternative to wild camping. I would have been fine with another night under the stars but I sensed Abi really wanted a bed and shower. I looked up, hoping that a sign would suddenly appear pointing me in the right direction. There was nothing but the lone tree under which we had found refuge. I stood still for a moment, mentally retracing our entrance through the village, and I suddenly remembered the old ladies we had seen gathered in a car park.
“Let’s go to the church!”
“What?” Abi demanded confused.
“Remember all the cars? There has to be a mass on,” I added before she could reply. “Let’s go.” I had no particular desire to go to a mass, but the freshness of the church would be welcome and Abi needed to clear her mind. A mass would be the perfect opportunity. She looked at me dubiously but I pushed her on. The doors of the church were wide open and we could hear the voice of the priest echoing through the building. We left our bags outside and quietly went in.

The ceremony carried on and I got lost in the architecture of the building. I could still discern stars on the faded paint of the ceiling. It had been a long time since I’d been in a fully painted church. As people started to get out, we joined the crowd. It wasn’t hard to strike a conversation as we were immediately recognised as pilgrims on the Camino.
“Were are you sleeping tonight,” one of the church goers queried.
“Probably somewhere in a field,” I replied before explaining our misadventure with the hostel and missed calls.
“The owners of one of those B&Bs are here,” she exclaimed. “Let me find them.”
“Hi,” I beamed enthusiastically as the owners approached. “I’m Allysse and this is Abi. Do you have a room available for us?”
“Of course,” the man announced as a matter of fact. “Come on, we’ll drive you there.”
I turned to Abi and smiled. We had a bed for the night.

“Thanks again for your hospitality,” we said as we waved off the B&Bs owners. They were on their way to an early walk and we could only approve. We watched their car disappear on the same road we were about to take. We lingered a while longer in the kitchen, drinking the last of our coffee before we couldn’t delay any longer.
“Just five kilometres to Etauliers and we can treat ourselves,” I commented to Abi in an attempt to motivate her. The night hadn’t soothed her feet this time and she was only packed and ready to go because we had no other choice. She nodded and I let her sit a while longer as I dried our dishes.

I looked behind me to see the small figure Abi cut into the distance. Our end point was only twenty kilometres away and I was hoping that adrenaline would carry us there but she was trailing behind, barely moving. I reminded myself that this was not a race but I was eager to leave the main road. It was Sunday and there was very little traffic but I missed seeing something else than tarmac. I sat on the pavement and waited for Abi to catch up.
“Break,” I asked as she approached. She shook her head. “If I stop I won’t go on.”
“Okay.” I got up and followed her quietly. I could see how her teeth were gritted against the pain. Words would be of no use, we just had to reach Etauliers.

A couple of hours later, I was sitting by the roadside again but this time the small figure of my friend was far ahead of me. I knew Etauliers was only three kilometres further but in that instant it seemed impossibly far. How could three kilometres be so long? The sun wasn’t even beating down on us yet so why did my bag suddenly felt like a dead weight upon my shoulders? I heaved myself upright and leaned against my walking sticks, putting as much weight as possible on them as I went on to catch up with Abi.

The first houses of Etauliers finally appeared in our line of vision at noon. Abi and I shared a look and knew instantly that this would be our finishing point for the day. It was early but it had taken us five hours to complete five kilometres. This was as far as our bodies could go that day. We headed straight for the supermarket, packed our arms with salads, crisps, and cold drinks, and proceeded to the nearest hotel. It was more expensive than our daily budget allowed for but none of us cared. There was a bath, air-con, and even a television in the room. So we paid, took the lift, and indulged in a long afternoons of naps, snacks, and bad television.

“Ready?” I asked with a glitter of excitement in my eyes.
“Ready,” Abi grinned at me.
The inactivity and hours of sleep the day before had done us good, and as we clasp our bags shut we were set for the last fifteen kilometres of our trip. That day we would reach the estuary of the Gironde river at Blaye and carry our bags for the last time. We left the hotel by the fire exit and sneaked out-of-town through its still quiet streets.

“There it is, the cycle track to the end. Let’s go!”
We almost broke into a run, but thought better of it. We still had fifteen kilometres to go and we were not going to be able to sustain a run for this long. Instead we took a hurried step, stopping every five kilometres to snack on the last of our biscuits and sweets. It was effortless to advance under the trees sheltering most of the track and without realising, we entered the outskirts of Blaye as the church bells called people to lunch. We rushed on, piercing through the suburban houses until finally the Vauban fortifications appeared before our eyes. We spared it a quick glance before heading to the end of the road. The tarmac ended, the grass ended, and there we were on the edge of the river bed, at the end of our journey.

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