In the sound poem which is part of my No Birds Land installation, I mourn the death of increasing numbers of British birds and list some of the reasons we are causing their demise. In Clipp’d Wings, I celebrated the Carrier pigeon and pigeon feathers in general, giving them our wish-messages to keep safe during these Covid times. On the day of remembrance for lost species 2021, it therefore made sense for me to spend some time with the spirit of the Passenger pigeon.
Ewan Davidson and I met at the National Museum of Scotland to listen to Luke Jerram‘s Extintion Bell which sounds at random intervals, just once, approximately 170 times a day, indicating the number of species lost worldwide in every 24 hour period.
Occurring in huge numbers in North America in years gone by, Passenger pigeons were extinct in 1914. They had been hunted for meat and as pests, and their habitat was destroyed. Martha was the last of her species, and she died in captivity.
The Passenger part of the pigeon’s name derives from the French passager, to pass through, referring to its massive migrations. It connects to the Peregrine falcon, where ‘peregrine’ is said to come from pèlerin, the French for pilgrim, also on account of its migratory habits. It’s a description I sometimes give myself.
[the Peregrine falcon is] the world’s most widespread raptor, and one of the most widely found bird species. In fact, the only land-based bird species found over a larger geographic area is not always naturally occurring, but one widely introduced by humans, the rock pigeon, which in turn now supports many peregrine populations as a prey species
Before that, these birds lived en masse. They fed, swarmed, perched and roosted in large groups, and in their absence, I spent some time in Nicholson Square in Edinburgh. I sat and watched the antics of the Common pigeons / Rock doves and Wood Pigeons (Columbidae family). I observed them stepping fast, balancing on each others backs in what I might term excitement as they ‘fought’ each other for the seeds which the kids were feeding them. They flapped off at the slightest human gesture, though individuals were clasped and carried carefully by one child when he could manage it.
Their movements could mostly be described as ‘nervy’ and ‘agitated’. (It’s interesting how easily the vocabulary of human behaviour comes to mind when I attempt to describe them. It’s a symptom of our tendency to refer to others (other people, and other-than-humans) through our own eyes, using our own terms. In one way its inevitable, after all I only know me, and if I’m being generous, I could say that I am trying to identify with them, but if I caution myself to describe, rather than liken, then I get some distance, can see more clearly beyond my own realm.)
So, I will start again, to help you see what I saw more objectively. They make short, forward and backwards, staccato pecks, with their necks; sometimes they waddle, the fattest part moving side-to-side. They take fleet running steps, gently bump into each other, but don’t seem to mind, and they do sudden take-offs. They flutter a few feathers occasionally, change direction often, and have their heads, their eyes, down most of the time. Every now and then they make a quick exit.
Collective escapings happened several times when I was there: a great, almost but not quite simultaneous, lifting and clattering. (I keep returning to this word to describe the noise of a pigeon quickly leaving a copse or pavement. Though it’s not the metal saucepan kind of clatter, it is a more irregular, continuous noise and rhythm made by wings batting the air down. You can sense the effort and impetus behind the action.)
Then they are whirling above, and I’m less aware of individuals and more of the group shape, shifting and coordinating seamlessly. They sweep around and around, their elipse becoming a sphere, really like bees swarming, the spaces between them widening, closing. Sometimes their mass is raggedy and I fear they will come right apart, but somehow they gather back in before settling on the roofs of the tenements opposite. One, two, three, five, seven, eleven, hundreds. In a second they’re still, perhaps jostling, a little preening between vanes to put everything in order. And they wait until the coast is clear before reversing the whole process to resume their feeding frenzy on the ground.
The Sixth Extinction… has accelerated massively since the start of the industrial era, when our ability to wreck havoc on the non-human lifeforms that share our planet has reached awesome proportions.
Roll call for the pigeons and doves which are now extinct
Tanna ground-dove 1800
Norfolk Island ground dove 1800
Lord Howe pigeon 1790
Spotted green pigeon 1820s
Norfolk Island pigeon 1839
Mauritius blue pigeon 1840
Réunion pigeon 1850
Rodrigues pigeon 1850
Choiseul pigeon 1904
Thick-billed ground dove 1927
Ryukyu pigeon 1936
Red-moustached fruit-dove 1950
What must it have been like for one, solitary Passenger pigeon to be singled out, captured and die in a small cage alone? The flocks of these wonderful birds were said to measure 4 miles by 1 as they flew, to take two hours to pass overhead there were so many. They were massacred and trapped for commercial reasons and to, apparently, protect crops. Ironically, shortly before there were none of these birds left, the Lacey, then the Weeks-McLean Acts were passed in Iowa to prohibit trade in wildlife. They marked the start of conservation as we know it today. In 1918 the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed which protected the eggs, nests and feathers, as well as the birds themselves. (source: Barry Yeoman audubon.org 2014).
Our English word ‘bell’ comes from the Saxon bellan, meaning to bawl or bellow. Spending quiet time with other members of the Columbidae family resulted in some bawling in grief, a fitting response I think to the whole-scale extermination of Passenger pigeons.
You might also like this article from the Smithsonian Institute
Celebrating the small; grown from a Twitter series (@WalkNoDonkey) early 2020 during lockdown #one.
I was with my mother in Kent and she has a wonderful garden. She has always loved to allow her plants to seed themselves, finding little places they can inhabit. Here is evidence of the resilience of nature, of which we are a part. Much has been written about that attribute during this past 18 months, and if you look with an eagle’s eye, you will find that some of these are once again popping their heads between stones, a year and more on.
Resilience is the ability to withstand, to stay healthy in the face of adversity to bounce back. It is borne out of a stable environment and it can be eroded by continued stress. Someone who shies away from noise and horror, senses that their resilience levels are low. Perhaps they never had the stability they needed.
Grief affects our ability to be resilient. Almost all of us find that our sense of resilience is affected by bereavement (whether due to the death of someone, or losses such as moving house, leaving home, divorce and other life changes).
On the 4 April 2020 the BBC reported:
‘A five-year-old child with underlying health conditions has died of coronavirus. The latest figures showed 4,313 people with the virus have died to date in the UK – up by 708 on the previous Friday’s figure. There are now 41,903 confirmed cases, according to the Department of Health.’
We will not forget those people.
Resilience means that we can be strong and are able to stay that way, even in distressing situations, however, we notice that we cannot necessarily do this all the time. This implies that it is a specific trauma which affects our ability to maintain a level of calm at certain times, and with particular people. Moreover, it can be unpredictable. Being less resilient is not a weakness, nor anything to be ashamed of. It is real and can cause a raft of symptoms from the physical through mental and emotional to the spiritual.
Posting a photo of pulmonaria in early April was rather apt, sadly, given the high numbers of people suffering lung issues as a result of Covid-19 in April 2020. This is in memory of those who lost their lives.
The same occassion can be one of joy to some and stress to others. If empathy is not felt with the one who is feeling stressed, acceptance must nevertheless be the response, at least if we aren’t to cause a re-traumatisation.
Peace and quiet and being amongst plants and wildlife is often a place where people can build up their resilience. In general, these places offer the opportunity, less of a threat, and so give our heart the chance to rest, but not always. For some people it may be the opposite. We can only listen to find out, not make assumptions.
How many of us have a habit of trying to keep things inside, buried?
Mum and I were two people living together who were not used to doing so. Not since I was 18 and leaving home have I lived so long with her. However much love we had between us, there were a few cracks and out came the niggles, some serious, some not. There were weak places in our relationship where things leaked out. We didn’t argue about leaving the lid off the toothpaste tube, but often it turned out that I was acting on expectations and assumptions. I didn’t realise, but I was falling back into following rules of behaviour I thought I had learned as a child, daughter with mother, thinking they still stood, that I should do x or y in a situation. It turned out that no, that wasn’t expected of me. It transpired that the many years that have passed since then, meant we have changed. Of course we have, obviously, but old habits die hard!
We managed to talk about the difficulties afterwards, painful though they were, and we apologised to each other, and managed to keep on going together with love. The pandemic meant that we had to, we couldn’t get away from each other – thanks, pandemic. That’s the way to build resilience in a relationship and every now and then it was tough going, however I think we learned more about each other in the process, and overall, I look back on that 5-month period as a wonderful time, a way of getting to know each other as adults in a different way. We had fun together.
This flower is thought to be named because part of the flower resembles the talons of an eagle (aquila). Eagles are far-sighted and powerful and they have talons with which to grip fiercely. Tenacity is something which has also been talked about with regard to the pandemic. The tenacity to keep going when so much of life’s normality is threatened, tenacity to see what is important – maintaining contact (even electronically or from the garden gate), and random acts of kindness (like getting in the shopping for someone, or sending a thoughtful note).
When I look at these photos, I think of life between tower blocks and plants growing between paving stones in cities and towns, whether welcome or not, sometimes weed-killed, more recently near my home, allowed to flourish. Thorny brambles sinew between railings onto the pavement, and tree roots break through concrete. In Chinese Medicine, it’s the upthrust of Wood energy.
Then I imagine my nerves threading between vertebrae in my spine, linking the central nervous system to the periphery. I think of broccoli between the teeth – isn’t that so annoying! Of hernias, pockets of our internal organs escaping through openings, like the stomach poking through the oesophageal sphincter, for example, a hiatus hernia.
In April 2020, so many people were struggling (and still are) with isolation and the various difficulties brought on by restrictions in movement (then, it was recommended that we stay within a 2 mile radius in order to stop the virus spreading). I used lemon balm because it is refreshing and restorative as a herbal tea, and sometimes I just rubbed the leaves gently between my fingers and had a good sniff!
It was at this time that we were standing outside our houses once a week clapping the stalwart NHS ‘warriors’ who now , in 2021, need support more than ever after such a long slog without a break and the emotional strain. Many are exhausted and I know that I, and my fellow Shiatsu practitioners, are hoping that we can support them in hour-long, gentle touch sessions for relaxation, stress and rejuvenation.
According to legend, the Feast of the Appearing of the Archangel Michael (a Christian event) took place on Mount Gargano, Apulia, about the year 492, and immediately the mountain became the site of pilgrimage.
Float some blue borage flowers in your Pims or lemonade and see what happens! *
Though actually celebrated on 29 September, this is another flower named after St Michael and one of his festivals – Michaelmas, again part of the Christian calendar. It also includes the angels Gabriel, Raphael and sometimes Uriel. Close to the equinox (when the sun is directly above the equator 23 September and 20 March), in Medieval times, it was the harvest, the end of the fishing season, and the start of the hunting one, time to settle bills and count the livestock for planning the winter. stores
In August, in the UK, we had our first respite from the Covid limitations on movement and so I travelled back home to Edinburgh. The open nature of these blooms captures the feelings we had when it was warm enough to socialise outdoors and everything seemed more positive again.
In the past, I tried to hide my concerns and put on the smiling face that I thought others deserved, that I thought I should if I was going to be a good mum and work colleague. It didn’t work for long. If I have something important to say, worries that need to be expressed, they just come out in other ways. Otherwise I wander towards a fault line in my mental health, start to ‘crack up’.
Anyway, it didn’t take long to recognise that the people around me knew me well enough to sense when I was uptight and holding onto something. I am not sure that any amount of anger or resentment can really be hidden if we are in close proximity to people we love or work with. It is always about finding ways to put my feelings into words, let them out in a constructive way, or accepting when I flare with anger, apologise, and finding support from a friend or counsellor to try and work out why I did that.
These plants all have invisible roots, they thrive in the bleakest of situations, in mere grains of soil or even the substance of the stone wall itself. They are evidence of resilience and tenacity, and photographing and thinking about them gives me strength and supports me in understanding myself better.
Chitra Ramaswamy is @chitgrrl on twitter and she wrote about nature being allowed to bloom in the corners of urban Leith, Edinburgh at a similar time.
The Royal Horticultural Society is a great resource for plants. They are @THE_RHS
Gardenista are worth following on twitter @gardenista for their sometime focus on plants like
This is a film of care, a cleansing ritual of body and place.
Using the elements of fire, water and earth, She scours, washes and smudges with sage, preparing the ground and clearing the air above it. She buries the white seed, and lays the path for a walk through the spiral of life. The walk leads to the centre of things and She goes barefoot as pilgrims do.
This film is inspired by the part of every day life in a convent, anchorage or hermitage when prayer, prostration and chanting is paused for cleaning, sweeping and planting. This backyard ritual seeks to bring the mundane and the sacred together. Meditation in a beautiful temple, silent and still, is a long way from the basic movements of everyday life, particularly for many women. To carry out these activities with mindfulness is a challenge, though there can be a beauty in them, and they are an essential part of walking the spiral of life.
Today I walk an imaginary line around my house. My feet don’t leave indentations to show I have done it, not since the recent snow, and when that melted, the trace was gone. Home and back, I pace and pound my boundary line, a pathway that returns to itself, reconnects, reattaches, brings me back to the garden gate.
Terminalia is a one day festival of walking, space, place and psychogeography on 23rd Feburary. Terminalia is the festival of Terminus, Roman god of boundaries and landmarks so if there was ever a god and festival for psychogeography this would be it!
They say that people walking somewhere can change a place, that the land alters because of us. Of course, it’s clear if we wear down the mountainside or trample wildflowers underfoot, if we make a desire path, flattening the grass just enough that the next person who comes by can see it and tread it afterwards. But I’m talking about the idea that the nature of a place adjusts as many people cross it for a specific reason (such as pilgrimage, religious or secular), that an ordinary location becomes imbued with a special significance after it has been walked upon by people with a shared aim or sensibility. If that’s true, do my streets, the streets which bear my weight daily, still feel me when I’m gone? Do I rub off on them somehow? Can I say I belong there?
Or is it the air above a path that is disturbed by my body moving through it, affected by my presence, retaining a whiff of me? Then, what happens when the wind blows and displaces it – have I been whisked away, or am I still there? How exactly does it work, this treading of Terminus, deity of the marking of our territory?
A crow breaks the quiet with a piercing caw on the turret, the wind finds crevices in my clothing, the odour of fish and chips invades my sense of propriety. Someone has etched into the tree’s bark and graffitied the bridge’s stone. A trickle finds a way through, waves breach the breakwater and ride roughshod over rocks. We must leave a gap or the wind will blow a solid fence over, a river bring down a protective wall. In so many ways, boundaries seem to be there to be broken – at least that’s when we notice them.
A few of us meander along the ribboned edge of the bay, the constant interruption of land by sea. We talk to no-one, we stand and watch the water. I feel sad and the waves sound melancholy too. Only the other day it was like satin, now the surface darkens and shifts as the wind messes it into mackerel patterns. Sand clouds rush past me in such a hurry, disintegrating as they haste towards Fife. Uncharacteristic ripples sweep out to Inchcolm island where the disappearing rainbow arcs (between real and unreal). While I was there I had that golden luck and the rain never reached me, I who have hot sun on my calves. One by one, we stoop and pick what catches our eye. I chase dry seaweed as it billows across the beach.
Psychogeography describes the effect of a geographical location on the emotions and behaviour of individuals
I am concentrating on my own boundaries of time (too little for my own projects) – noticing how they get eroded, how I let them, allowing myself less. And on the amount of space I have (too much room in my house now the children and lodgers have gone) – somehow ending up with more than I need. As I pace the liminal wetness, the seam, I mourn the freedom I didn’t have (I was raised to think about others before myself and it has stayed with me) and the shells I am inadvertently crunching underfoot. The sea doesn’t stick to its limit. I see it constantly pushing them. I stand close by until it unexpectedly breaks the rule and surges at me. I have to stumble back out of the way or get wet.
There are fewer birds than usual on the strand, though later I see them swarming, their blanched bellies catching the sun as they swoop en masse. Over the blue they go, alighting on the pontoon quickly, one after the other, then taking off just as swiftly, an avian Mexican wave.
I muse on how everyday habits break down fear by reassuring us what will happen; then equally how they cause it, how we become nervous about being spontaneous and managing sudden change. I have been at home so long now, moving steadily around my immediate area – 5 miles in each direction – that I wonder how I’ll manage to go further afield. Will we all spread out across national borders again, back and forth over timelines and zones, or will we be more circumspect, stay closer to home, on our own territory? I have no plans.
Incidentally, Terminalia is also a tree genus (upwards of 200 species) including the Terminalia catappa. Found in Madagascar, tropical and subtropical Asia and the Pacific (http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/171034-1), the leaves are to be found at the very end – terminus – of the branches. Types of the tree (bark) are used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat heart conditions and diarrhoea.
Time has turned and days have passed. We can barely remember January now. It is no longer March, it is December. The old year will end tonight, and 2021 will be there on the other side.
This year has not been the same for everyone, but for many, it is too long since we have seen our loved ones. Relatives and friends have died. Business has boomed or collapsed. We may not have worked for months, or perhaps our time has been full to bursting with home-schooling, zooming and on-line meetings. Maybe we have been alone when we wanted to be with someone else, or in closer proximity with them than is healthy. We have walked through empty streets, donned masks, and cleaned our hands more than ever before. With our backs against the wall, secluded behind closed doors, we have been locked in, and these things cannot be undone. There is no going back.
However, I hear that you might want to return to normal, get back to the way things were, and live your life the way it used to be before Covid. I am tempted to will that for you too, to make you happy. But I know that there is no old ‘normal’ to be found, no ‘way back’ now, no ‘what-was’, again.
I also know that because of what we have seen and touched, and because we have heard unfamiliar sounds and thought new thoughts, read, drunk, bled, coughed, sloughed off old cells and re-grown new ones, spotted a white hair, cut our nails and thrown away the clippings, that we have learned from this.
We know more, we are wiser. By dint of living, and of living through what has happened, we have a new perspective. That’s the way it is. We are a bit older (wrinklier? longer in the tooth?), we are sager, we have insight.
We have new opportunities.
It is true that we have heard ourselves say to each other before: ‘Here we go again’ and ‘But, but, we’ve been round this corner already’, however the ‘we’ who are going and being are not the same we. We have changed.
Some things will be familiar, it is true, they will smell and taste almost the same, but they will not be identical. The next breath doesn’t match the previous one, no following step moves in exactly the same direction, no already-given-kiss will be bestowed again.
And, if we think about it, we might say, ‘Thank goodness for that!’ For, surely we would rather not repeat mistakes that we have made, not say, again, words which were spoken in hate or fury, or cry as much, or go through the same pain. We wouldn’t really want to go back, would we, imagining it was all best then, and that’s what we need again?
So, what now?
This is our chance. We can salvage what was great from then, note what was best from that normal, and remember the before, decide what we liked about it and focus on that, letting the rest go.
We can ask each other:
What do you value, love and cherish? Where do you want to spend your time, and who do you want to spend it with? What places are good to be in, what work satisfying to carry out, and what food most delicious to eat?
Let us ask ourselves:
Will we take our fear and face it?
Can we shelve our anger and forgive?
Is our love worth following?
Is life so precious that we promise to do something valuable with it?
Is the land we live on important enough, and is the air we breathe vital enough that we are prepared to change our habits to try to preserve them?
If this makes sense to you, shall we do these things together, so that we aren’t alone? That is, together, in person, if we can be and if we prefer it (not everyone does); otherwise, with others, in another way?
I want to say: Know that you aren’t alone, that there is at least one other person, animal or butterfly, which cares for the same things you do.
And even if you cannot, or do not want to do anything with another person, remember: your thoughts are energy, and your private actions disturb the air around you, they bring about some sort of change. I want you to know that this change can, and will, be felt.
Let’s acknowledge what has happened!
Let’s move forward, not hope to go back!
Let’s make our lives, and the life around us, better!
I am delighted that the Walking Artists Network have published a blog about this project here.
During the first Covid-19 period of Spring – Summer 2020, I walked and collected feathers. This collection has grown into a mixed media project, Clipp’d Wings.
The severe travel limitations imposed by the governments around the world affected many of us from March onwards, and I had received a number of foreign invitations to lead and co-create Shiatsu projects on death and life. Although I had booked a flight to go to Athens, I planned to return home overland: walking and meeting with people in seven countries including Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. Later, my events in France and Portugal would have involved journeying across Spain. None of these have yet taken place, maybe they never will.
As someone who has been travelling in Europe extensively during the past four years, this period was really very different. Moreover, I usually live in Scotland, by the sea, where flocks of gulls and oyster catchers wheel and glide over the harbour, crying and peeping as they settle and paddle on the shore. By contrast, the part of Kent where I was living is landlocked, and I was only able to visit the beach once in 5 months.
Many of the feathers I picked up were from pigeons. The Persians, Romans and Greeks all used pigeons to convey messages. These post pigeons were taken in cages (not planes) to where the sender lived, had a message attached to their legs, and were then released to fly home – something they did naturally.
I was surrounded by birds in Kent. White doves flew above the garden in great circles, repeatedly returning to their attic homes nearby. When I walked in the early evenings, the air was full of the cacophony of rooks, congregating and preparing for night. Pheasants ran in and out of copses as I explored the public footpaths, and swans sailed along the River Medway, elegantly oblivious to my admiration.
Through the ages and in divers cultures, feathers have symbolised spirituality, prayers, wisdom and truth. They were, and are, worn as part of ceremonial headdresses. Feathers have been used to flee reality, as transport to other realms, and to weigh against the human heart to see if it was ‘as light as a feather’ and therefore full only of goodness. Yours will join 49 others, gathered together in response to the frustration of lockdown in a flight of collective fancy.
While walking around the lanes of Kent, I came across a number of dovecotes. These avian homes have always inspired me, from the circular Corstorphine dovecote in Edinburgh which gave its name to the tapestry workshop and gallery in Infirmary Street, to the beehive structured Dunure doocot in South Ayrshire. Pigeon and dove families would each have their own wee cubby or pigeon-hole to nest in. Mine is a sort of display case for the feathers and their important messages.
In Clipp’d Wings, I have been asking people – on Twitter (obviously!) – to complete this message:
If I had wings, I would…
I invited them to shut their eyes and dream of a place they could go if they had wings, could be transported somewhere for a moment. The internet carried their messages to me and I wrote them down on tiny pieces of paper. I folded, rolled and made them into tiny scrolls which now encircle the shaft of a feather, an agent, a symbol of flight.
People I knew and did not, completed the sentence, telling me what they would do if they had wings during those Covid times of restricted movement and lockdowns. I transferred them to one of the waiting feathers where they remain to this day as testimony.
The photos and concept of Clipp’d Wings is copyright Tamsin Grainger and should not be reproduced in whole or in part without permission. Thank you for your respect in this matter.
“In today’s twitter-centred terms, ‘ Exits to Edinburgh’ could be described as a hashtag that walkers used to refer to the type of walk I guided: one which would meet at Edinburgh castle, choose a location at the periphery of the city, and then walk an unplanned route in order to reach that location. A fourth stage might include sharing our creative responses to the walk afterwards.”
The walks I make have a beginning and an end, but I get lost in-between. I ‘lose myself’ in my thoughts and sensations, I ‘miss’ the signs and ‘find’ myself somewhere else. I start out with an intention, a stone in my hand perhaps, and I end up with a living plan(t) inside.
Having discarded the prompt-stone at a prominent juncture, it has served its purpose, I have turned towards a new East. (Did I take a ‘wrong’ turn?) I ended up who-knows-where in my quest.
What was related, tangentially, to what I started with, has metamorphosised and ‘become’. Appeared. Taken shape.
it reminds me of
that connects with
and before I know it I am in a new here
I feel the thrill, I recognise it has to be done, followed through with, communicated.
Then my task is to ‘find’ my way back to the path and continue until I arrive at a place of safety for the night.
I sleep on it, like a mattress of new endeavours under which is a pea that cannot be ignored. It sprouts while I dream. In the morning, I discover that my subconscious has fertilised that small plant and when I step out again onto the continuation of that route the next day, it leads me somewhere else and the shoot inside continues to grow with the next set of new.
‘The pathways get stronger with repetition until the behavior is the new normal.‘
If I go ‘my way’, take the “unplanned route to reach the periphery” (which by its nature is just outside my forward-seeing vision), there I am in an unfamiliar “location”, the sort which contains new possibilities. New neural tracks are trodden and remembered, forging unexpected links which lead me in directions not previously imagined.
‘and like many of them he ceased to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else.”
What to take with you (and more helpful info.) for beginners.
Just to give you an idea of the context: I walked the Camino Francés (Spain) in October/November 2016, two thirds of the camino Via de la Plata / Sanabrés (Spain) in December 2016 and May 2017, and some of the randonnée GR223 (Normandy, France) also in May 2017, so you will deduce that I have walked in temperatures ranging from 20 to 41 degrees, in a relatively small area of Europe. I am under 5 foot tall (1.524 metres) and 7-and-a-half to 8-and-a-half stone (50-55 kilos). Take into account that I am female, just over 50 years old, and pretty fit with no injuries.
The basic recommendation is 10 percent of your weight, but given that many women’s weight varies according to time of month / day etc, and that you will undoubtedly lose weight as you walk, this is just a general guideline. It does not include water (1 to 2 litres depending on the weather and the route), nor food (only snacks are really necessary for a basic 6 hour walking day, except on a Sunday).
What sort of rucksack? I took a 44 kilo one which is easily big enough. Buy the strongest and lightest one you can afford, and you will need a cover for it. (Some people travel with nothing, or a laptop case with a toothbrush, but that’s extremely unusual.)
‘Each object a person carries represents a particular fear: of injury, of discomfort, of boredom, of attack. The “last vestige” of fear that even the most minimalist hikers have trouble shedding, he said, was starvation. As a result, most people ended up carrying “way the hell too much food”. He did not even carry so much as an emergency candy bar.’ M.J.Eberhardt, see below for link to Nimblewill Nomad.
So these are the ‘I absolutely cannot do without’ items:
Boots or shoes: The first time I walked long distance, I wore second hand boy’s boots which a kind friend gave to me because her son had grown out of them. I did have blisters for a week or so, but after that my feet got used to the walking and I was mostly fine. They got very wet very soon after it began to rain, and took a long time to dry.
For my second trip I bought light-weight, waterproof, Columbia shoes, and they were wonderful except that they went into holes after 3 months. Not a blister in sight.
When I went to colder climes, I wore heavy-duty Vibram (with gortex) boots, suitable for snow and big stones. One of the little metal bits on one side, which the lace goes around, broke off on the first day, but I was already many kilometres from the shop and when I phoned they said I had to bring it or send it in, even though I sent a copy of the receipt and a photo. The boots have been supportive and comfortable pretty much from the start, with the right socks (see below).
Foot cream: maybe antiseptic or anti-fungal, but definitely creamy cream is an absolute must. I was taught by my guardian angel of a companion on the Camino Francés to massage my feet every day before putting on my socks and shoes, and to do it again and air them well at night or when I stopped along the way. Vital!
Plasters (for blisters): preferably the special ones for all parts of your feet (heel, toes, balls), and I recommend the brand ones as the others come off after one day. A needle and thread – yes you heard right. Here’s why: thread the cotton through the needle and pierce the blister carefully with the needle. Draw the thread through the blister releasing the fluid (sorry!) and leave it there, removing the needle. Then tie a small knot and it should remain for a few days. The build-up of the fluid is the painful part, and this way that drains away whilst the skin remains almost in tact, allowing a new layer to grow underneath with the minimum of discomfort.
Passport and/or identity card, health card (to get free treatment in the EU, make sure it is up-to-date), and money: you may want one credit or bank card for emergencies (see below). I took a post office money card which, once I had worked out how to do it, I was able to quickly top up on my phone with euros.I also used it in big supermarkets and to pay for things over the phone/by internet like travel tickets. Paypal is also very useful if you have money in your account. Once again you can pay in £s or other currency. There are lots of cash machines on the Camino Francés and some on the other caminos. Banks are tricky because you have to be there when they are open and usually you will be walking during the morning and exhausted / too hot in the afternoon if they are open then, which they are not always.
Money: the Spanish caminos are cheap compared with France: allow 10 euros per night if staying at a hostel; coffee and tea are 1 euro each; the pilgrim menu is 6-10 euros; and supermarkets are basically cheaper than the UK. You will probably visit the supermarket every day as you will not want to carry food unless you have to (except for Sundays when everything is shut), and they are mostly geared to sell you one piece of fruit, one piece of fish, even eggs one at a time (watch the clever way they twist paper to make a carrying flute!).
By comparison France is really pricey, particularly accommodation, with the ‘auberges de jeunesses’ (youth hostels) being the cheapest. The ‘randonnee’ I walked was divided into stages but, in my experience, there were no cheap places to stay at the ends of those stages, not for backpackers.
Useful tip 1: for hostels/hotels make sure you research in advance for France and Norway.
Useful tips 2 and 3: Do not change money at the airport as it is very expensive, so take some currency with you from home. Neither should you use your ordinary bank debit or credit card unless you have checked before you go that you do not have to pay exorbitant charges for withdrawing money or paying in local currency. Many Spanish hostels will only accept cash.
Something to carry your important things in: I had a bum bag and liked it, but when it poured with rain everything got wet. My friend had a thick, flat plastic pouch round his neck, under the outer layer, and that was safe and stayed dry.
A ‘credential’, otherwise known as a pilgrim passport, which you can have stamped at every stop and will then present to the authorities in Santiago de Compostella so you can get your certificate of completion, your ‘compostella’.
A smart phone: I would suggest that you get the best phone you possibly can. One that
fits in your pocket
has as much internet capacity as possible (in the UK see ‘3’ for international packages and beware other companies who offer similar but which are geared to ‘normal’ holidays so are only valid for a month at a time)
has the best camera you can afford (back up your photos eg with Google which is free and easy)
has a torch
has maps (also useful for bus and train times etc)
has lots of space for apps (think guidebook app instead of a heavy Lonely Planet book, or specialist maps, airplane boarding passes, bus and other tickets, booking Bla Bla cars or accommodation, getting you out of trouble, making contact with home (or rescuers, or even new lovers)
has a translation app
has the capacity for writing notes as long as it is backed up (I write notes as I walk because I would not remember if not, but have been known to delete by mistake which is terrible ). You think you will remember everything but you probably won’t and so a notebook and pen or phone version may be invaluable
has Spanish or other language lessons on it eg Duolingo
is ‘big’ enough for downloading a film or book if you want.
A smaller, cheaper, old-style phone: I recommend you also take one of these, especially if you don’t have a contract on your smart phone which allows you to communicate outside your own country. You can buy a SIM card wherever you are and this will enable you to phone or text within that place. Also, if you lose it it isn’t the end of the world. The only problem I encountered was that one shop wanted a local address so my friend who lived there used his which caused problems when I wanted to top up. I suspect this wouldn’t always be the case.
A charger: I have had a great deal of luck with people lending or giving me a spare charger, and not much in buying cheap ones. You can charge your phone at all albergues (hostels) but if it is busy there will be a great deal of competition for the sockets, and although they are often by the beds they can also be in the kitchen or hallway instead. This means that you either need to stand beside the phone or trust that no-one will steal it – I didn’t hear of anyone having their phone stolen.
Useful tip 4: In Madrid you can get phone accessories in vending machines so you do not have to wait for shops to open. The quality seems to be good.
Useful tip 5: Always set a password or pass pattern on your phone so that others cannot open it.
Useful tip 6: You can charge your phone while waiting at bus stations. The sockets are at elbow height in the semi-outdoor parts of the buildings. You can also charge and get wifi on all intercity Spanish buses (eg Alsa).
An adaptor for 2-pin plugs: depending on where you are coming from and are travelling to, there are expensive international adaptors which are good if you are going all around the world, otherwise it is cheaper to get a 3-to-2 pin. You will only need one if you only have one gadget!
A wrap: I would not be without this large pink piece of cloth which doubles as a scarf, something to sit on, something to wear when visiting churches or at the mass in Santiago out of respect, a pillow, a cover-up…invaluable.
A sleeping bag or sheet: it depends on the time of year you will be walking and where. In the summer on the Spanish caminos you will not need a sleeping bag, but do take a sheet bag (I doubled over a single sheet lengthways and sewed the edges together), or buy a silk one. They stop you getting bitten in the hostels and keep you warm in the early hours or if the windows are open. In the late Autumn you will need a proper sleeping bag and if you can afford it, get a light-weight but warm one as they pack very small.
A light-weight travel towel: it dries really easily and is worth investing in if possible.
A torch: a head one is very useful if you walk in the dark, ie you might want to leave before sun-up in summer to avoid the heat of the day, and it leaves your hands free. You might manage with a phone torch to avoid the weight though.
Useful tip 7: You can buy replacement batteries easily, so don’t take them with you from home as they are very heavy. Or you could use an eco- wind-up one.
Camera: one person I know buys a cheap one before every trip so as not to carry a big heavy one or risk losing it or having it stolen. I would rather have one piece of equipment so my preference is to get a phone with the best camera I can afford, but I accept that often real cameras are better quality.
Pockets in my shorts: – one for water, one for phone and toilet paper. If you choose to have a water bottle attached to your rucksack with a tube to souk on, you would have a pocket free (see below). If you wear shorts without pockets, well, you decide, but if you take as many photos as me you will be wanting to have the camera on hand.
Useful tip 8: when you are on the path you will not want to keep taking your rucksack on and off unless you really have to because it is unwieldy. You would have to undo and do up, and then probably readjust all the straps, and you do want your hands free for the baton(s), or to swing your arms to keep the circulation going, or to hold hands with someone special.
Poles, batons or walking sticks: I walked the whole Camino Francés without one. Then I was gifted one and used it for the more tricky terrain of the end of the Via de la Plata / Sanabrés and was very glad to have it. BUT. Then I lost it and although I bought another one for the next trip, I also lost that one. SO…
Useful tip 9: Tie your baton(s) to your rucksack or boots when you stop, and at night so you do not leave them anywhere. I bought a children’s one from Go Outdoors for £5 which was fantastic, but then again, I am very short.
A map or guide book: well, it depends. The Camino Francés is very well signposted and whatever time of year you walk it there will be plenty of other people to help you find your way. Some people use theirs for a record, write notes in it and keep it for posterity. Others ceremoniously tear out the pages each night, as a sign of completion and to lighten their load. It is useful for albergues and other places to stay, and many are very well researched and have lots of interesting information. On the other hand there are also fantastic apps. Or you could wing it. As for the other caminos in Spain or elsewhere, in retrospect I would say get a book or app, but you will manage, especially if you speak some of the local language. People love to help even if they do not really know or understand you, so be prepared to be sent in the wrong direction sometimes!
Your specs and/or contact lenses and cleaning fluids if you use them. Sun glasses (whatever time of year).
2 x knickers or boxers (cotton, easy-dry material)
2 x bras if you wear them – it is nicer not to, many don’t
3 x socks double layer ones come highly recommended but they are expensive. Or wear one lovely soft, easy-dry pair underneath with a second pair on top which won’t need washing every night. You will need others in case your usual ones are still wet in the morning, and another pair if it is cooler in the evenings or for bed.
Useful tip 10: Do not wear wet socks!
1 x easy-dry T shirt and one other light top for evening that doesn’t need ironing and doesn’t crease.
1 x fleece, preferably light but warm with a hood to avoid the need for a warm hat. Note that walking by the coast along a linear walk (eg along the Normandy coast or the Camino del Norte) means that there could be a strong breeze in one ear day after day.
1 x sun hat or cap (it is better to have a hat so that the back of your neck as well as your ears and face are shaded). Also a warm hat if you do not have a hood.
1 x light, easy-wash and -dry trousers if you don’t want to get sun burn, bitten or scratched. 1 x other pair of trousers – not jeans as they are normally heavy and even heavier if wet. A belt because you will get smaller!
Useful info: even if you don’t wear your jeans to walk in, your whole rucksack may get soaking wet and then you will still have to dry them and they take days.
1 x rain trousers and 1 x rain poncho / jacket. Make sure they are not just for light showers because if it rains all day everything will be wet through. Hopefully they will pack up very small.
Gloves: you might not need them but they are very small and light. I did wear them in the mornings in late November / December and once at night.
Useful reminder: if you are arriving by air and planning to take your rucksack on the plane, you can only take 100 ml per tube, bottle or pot, and all that has to fit in one very small plastic bag which seals, about the size of a small freezer bag. This includes all sorts of foodstuffs such as marmite and tahini. Neither can you take sharp things, so this also goes for nail clippers or scissors, pen knife and body hair razor.
You may also want:
a cream for between the buttocks /thighs or in the groin if you are male. All that chaffing…!
Sun tan lotion. Toilet paper or tissues. Toothbrush and toothpaste.
Condoms. The ‘pill’ if you are pre-menopausal and that’s what you usually use.
Hair ties are very small and light and you will probably want to keep your hair off your face if it’s hot.
Panty liners, sanitary towels etc. You can buy certain brands along the way.
Find a joint shampoo / conditioner / soap (there is rarely soap in hostels).
First aid: Antiseptic, sprain and bruise cream. I recommend natural calendula for cuts and rashes which also covers sun burn, and arnica (bruises, bumps), or Rescue Remedy cream for the same as arnica plus bites. Rescue Remedy for emergencies for you and others. Mosquito stuff. Any medications you usually take (order more before you leave home), and bring a repeat prescription just in case.
Utensils and food stuffs: A pan which doubles as a carrying pot, a tupperware for left-overs and freshness (bread, soft fruit, opened packets of biscuits, chocolate which might melt), knife/fork/spoon, salt/pepper/spices, water bottle(s), and green tea bags (obviously!).
Talking about rain, I happened to have a newspaper in the bottom of my rucksack (quite heavy in the scheme of things, but fortuitous) the day it rained and it soaked up the worst, whereas my friend’s things all got very wet.
A carrier bag or a small light rucksack: for shopping/evening or sightseeing when the big one is in the hostel but you still need something.
Notebook and pen: if you are not using your phone, and /or a sketch pad and pencil.
‘Shaving down one’s pack weight, he said, was a process of sloughing off one’s fears.’ M.J.Eberhardt, see below for Nimblewill Nomad link.
The thing I forgot and wish I hadn’t: a small plastic bottle to fill with delicious Spanish olive oil.
And you will probably be happy to have these with you:
Earplugs. Some dormitories are vast and in busy periods they are therefore noisy.
One of those half circular blow-up cushions for plane / bus / car journeys when you might want to shut your eyes. And some like an eye mask.
Clothes pegs – very light and easy to find little tiny spaces for.
A corkscrew (or just buy screw-top wine and ring-pull beer), and a cup.
A swimming costume – there were several times I wanted one. Even when I remembered it on my second trip, I sent it back and then wished I hadn’t!
Think very carefully if you really need these:
A book or kindle: It depends on you. Both weigh quite a bit and personally I have not read much while on the road or seen others read. Many hostels have shelves of free books which you can pick up, read and then swap for another further along the route.
Please note that I have no experience of tablets or other phone alternatives, but do try to keep the number of appliances to a minimum.
A wrist watch: your phone will probably do, and your tissues / flesh swells as you walk, plus there’s the sun and sweat. I found it was a nuisance.
Same with jewellery, especially rings – they all came off and then had to be stored carefully to make sure they didn’t get lost.
Make-up, hair straighteners, drier etc – I would say unnecessarily bulky and inappropriate but you know your self. If you need these things you might prefer to be in a private hostel as they have more amenitities for a slightly higher price.
1 x long skirt for walking: stops you getting your legs burned but I would recommend that you wear light shorts or boxers underneath. You will have to hitch it up for steep climbing eg Galicia on the Camino Francés.
A coat, jeans, woollen jumper or cardi: they are all heavy and hot (even if the weather isn’t great, you will get very hot when walking), they get sodden and are then extremely hard to dry, plus bulky in the rucksack.
Washing powder or liquid for clothes: you can easily use soap. And a clothes line.
You can send things home relatively cheaply, many people do: I met an English man who had bought his guitar to Spain with him, and he was on the way to the post office to send it home!
Before you go, write down what you know of your itinerary, especially if you will be in the wild or possibly without phone signal. Leave it with someone – just in case something happens and they need to know where you are.
Don’t get attached to your belongings! You will probably leave things in the fridge, or forget them in cafés, or want to swap them for a bottle of wine. They are only things. Walking the caminos can help you with perspective.
Finally, always remember that you will not be very far from shops most of the time. Do some research of your route before you leave, but the caminos in Spain and the randonnées in France are near civilisation, at least every few day, so you can buy most things. You will be surprised what you can do without, source from other walkers, substitute, or find lying around.