Camley Street Natural Park; St Pancreas Parish church and gardens; and Goldington Crescent Gardens, Camden London.
As I wander through European cities I find myself attracted time and again to the green spaces. Indeed a few days ago, at the advice of my walking guru, I traversed most of Paris from the Bois (woods) de Boulogne in the far east, to the Pont (bridge) Bercy. I did not manage all the way the the Bois de Vincennes in the west due to time constraints.
Today I arrived off the Eurostar at St Pancreas London, weary in body and of spirit but the sun shone so I googled parks and gardens in the area. I made my way to the St Pancreas gardens, narrowly avoiding being run over by a London taxi due to the lack of a pavement, and came across a community garden I had tried to enter twice before, Camley Street Natural Park – this time it was open.
A slice of sylvan pleasure between railway, canal, and high rise buildings, I discovered that this London Wildlife Trust funded oasis is an ideal place to picnic. Flower beds are constructed from railway sleepers and hunks of stone with bordered pathways lined with bark pieces.
There is an extensive pond with a green membrane pierced by rushes, and a wild flower meadow with rose bay willow herb. It constitutes a very brief, windy way to the other side if you use it, as many suit-clad workers obviously do, as a thoroughfare; but you may also make a circuit and take in the bug-finding, log-pile place; the ‘fairy glade’ (where if I was not mistaken a counselling session was happening); and pond-dipping where a quiet volunteer was carefully cleaning the sign.
There are rustic benches in private nooks, and luckily a few tables in the cafe clearing because it was so densely wooded that there was almost no sun this September noon.
Bring your little ones and they will have hours of down-to-earth fun – inside if the weather is inclement (there is an activities room and exhibition with nests and pine cones) or out, learning about bats and birds, recycling and natural landscaping. I saw willow, birch, brambles and cherry, and there were tourists in the Visitor Centre being helped by the member of staff.
This old coal yard is located by the waterway which once transported the fuel to Yorkshire, where incidentally the next-door sliver of a bridge was formed before being placed in its current position in 2016. Unlike the Park’s paths which absorb any sound (do not try with buggies, bikes nor suitcases), the bridge’s smooth surface resonates with and amplifies joggers’ footfall and cycle wheels.
Just down the road is the St Pancreas old church and gardens, today shining in the sun and showing off its higgledy-piggleddy stones, working mortuary, royal blue water fountain (at least I think that is what it is), and unusual monument “especially dedicated to the memory of those whose graves are now unseen or the records of whose names may be …(could not read this word) obliterated”.
They have done a great job of bringing interesting facts and people to our attention in the wee church: the relationship of Thomas Hardy to the ‘consecrated burial ground’, and memorials to Mary Wollenstonecraft, female activist, and John Soane, architect of the Bank of England whose main residence is in the area and whose ‘country’ house in Ealing (Pitzhanger Manor, see above) I coincidentally visited last week.
Under the trees sit study groups, lunching pairs and individuals reading or on their phones. What a contrast with the welcome smell of warm wax which filled the holy interior. I enjoyed the plaque ‘in memory of my dear husband Earnest Wiggins d 1975’ before drifting into my third bout of 60 winks sitting on a proud wooden chair at the back listening to the ponderous ticking of an unseen clock.
Making my way towards Mornington Crescent tube station, with its faint hints of Mary Poppins and WW2 popular songs, I come across Goldington Crescent Gardens. In the Autumn sun, causing the fallen leaves to glow and throwing strong olive green and top-hat grey shadows on the grass, there is a public sculpture. It is in three parts: one resembles a silver pile of unmentionable; the second an ant eater with its snout in the ground; and the third I know not what. It stands out starkly beside the pink and red brick 1903 Goldington Buildings opposite, its edges elegantly wrapping around whatever is in its heart. Interesting fact: in Vienna they have a word for these buildings which conceal a space behind the facade which is ‘Hof’.
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 have to have 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 absolute 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 they said I had to bring it or send it in, even though I sent a copy of the receipt and a photo. They 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.
Pontorson 10.5.17; Brittany circular, coastal walk / ‘les balades’ (rambles) / ‘les randonnées’ (hikes) – La Bernière to Port de Pornic 11.5.17, both France.
Journey via Bla Bla Car to Zaragoza, Spain 12.5.17.
On the Camino Francés in Spain, the hostels are where you meet other backpackers and exchange tales. Up until today, I had ￼not encountered anyone in France, but the two women I had seen the previous night were breakfasting when I got down to the youth hostel kitchen. After being initially engaged in (French) conversation with a rather interested man who told me he did all sorts of work, anything he was asked to do, and then kissed me goodbye (yes, the dangers of being a single female traveller!), I was invited to sit with them for a while. They asked me what I was up to and after explaining, I was enthusiastically given a piece of paper by Lysiane, with her name and address on it, and told that if I ever visited Brussels I could stay with her in return for Shiatsu. Almost everyone I meet and talk to knows what Shiatsu is and likes it; it really is quite notable compared with the UK.
Myself and a number of others arrived at the station before it opened. It was unclear to us all how we should get tickets and where to go, until a brusque woman came to open up. We waited in the gorgeous sun before realising we needed to cross the tracks for the stopping train to Rennes which I had booked online the day before. A Japanese couple regaled us, as we waited, with a comparison between the efficiency of French signposting and the contrasting confusion in Britain.
My day’s walk on the Brittany coast began in the rain at La Bernière-en-Retz, a small town where a lot of street work was being carried out, but that was otherwise deserted. The sea was well out, revealing broad sands with low stone walls. I felt immensely light-hearted, as happy as I was when walking in northern Spain in the Autumn of 2016.
The path was easy to find and varied. Sometimes it was on cliffs, at others beside dwellings. Always there was the expansive view of the water, with miniscule collectors of seafish in the distance. After a while there was a series of platforms from which hung voluminous lift-nets. I was told that when the tide is in, these fill with fish. These traditional ‘carrelets’ are expensive apparently, but bring high yields and are found all along this coast.
The low stone walls are also demarcations related to fishing, left over from many years ago, and easily seen at certain times of the day.
Grassy paths wound up and over the rocks, seagulls shrieked, and the fresh breeze bought welcome fragrances of the cypress trees.
Picnic lunch was taken (illegally, it transpired) under ancient stones to shelter from the wet.
Port de Pornic with its gentle harbour, silver grey turrets, and small yachts came as a surprise. Rather quaint and sophisticated by turns, it is quite a centre but I did not investigate. Instead, here I turned and headed back the way I had come, stopping to divest myself of waterproof trousers as the sun started to show itself, seeing things from back-to-front and in a different light, literally.
The next day I took a Bla Bla Car from Bordeaux, via Bayonne, Irun, and Pamplona to Zaragoza to stay with the genial Yvonne.
Bla Bla Car is generally unknown in the UK. It is a fantastic system, originally set up so that someone who is making a long-distance journey has company while they drive. Nowadays some complain that it has become a sort of glorified taxi service, but on the whole I found it to be a social thing.
It operates in France and Spain, and there is a website where you search for the setting-off point and destination, and then identify who you might like to go with. Like air bnb, the drivers are vetted and reviewed, and you can guarantee that the cost is less than the cheapest mode of public transport for that same journey. Sometimes the driver reserves the right to choose, and although you have paid (I used PayPal for safety), you can be rejected, and then the fee is repaid immediately.
In fact, it was often tricky to find a train or bus which goes went a to b at the times I was searching, whereas it was always possible to find someone who was driving, once you got the hang of the site. And of course I met fascinating people. On the first leg, from Bordeaux to Bayonne, I sat in the back with a young woman who told me all about her life, parents, health and loves, showing me photos and shedding a tear now and then.
At Pamplona we said good luck to two gentlemen who had both injured themselves on the Camino, been home to recover, and were re-joining it there. Then Charles, the car owner, and I made the final leg to Zaragoza, arriving at the radio station with messages flying between myself, my expectant host, and the driver. I have found all the drivers this month to be courteous and obliging. It was good that I had my daughter’s old Nokia with a topped-up Spanish SIM in it as we were late and so I was able to communicate by text and phone.
I had been asked several times why I was bothering to go to Zaragoza. It seems to have a poor reputation with tourists as a predominantly industrial city. My reasons for going: Yvonne kindly invited me when I met her at her father’s funeral and that was my plan – if I am invited somewhere I go, that’s how I choose between all the possible amazing places in Spain. Result: it was a fascinating and enjoyable place to visit, made considerably better I am sure by being shown around and treated like a queen by a resident!
Bas-Courtils to Mont Saint-Michel to Pontorson 9.5.17.
In this part of France I would suggest that it’s always better to go by the randonnées, Sentier de Littoral (coastal path), than by the road, as there are rarely pavements.
I left Bas-Courtils at 8am on a gloriously sunny morn. Beside the sea, the land stretches level affording a distant, nearly unbroken view.
What a racket! Sheep: many, one after the other, having been let out (perhaps after the winter?) moving slowly in single file across the field, over the grey clay. A female and her lamb were leading, with not a human in sight, and yet they were reminiscent of the group of us who crossed the bay yesterday, though we did follow a guide.
Unlike the walks I had been making in the days preceding this, the path crossed numerous obstacles. To be honest it was a trial to have to climb and clamber over fences with a huge backpack. What with that, gates which do not open, and crossing deep, wet grassy fields, well, really this way is not pilgrim-friendly.
Mont Saint-Michel is clear in the distance. My human eye (rather than the camera) can see the shuttle buses, like black and white caterpillars on the horizon, the place I walked along 14 hours earlier. They are in contrast to the luminous spring green of the fields.
￼It is cold, exposed like yesterday, but still I have bare arms. I did not even think about it. It was more that I moved instinctively towards the Mount.
I crossed rivers by planks, sidled round deep pools, and struggled to follow the way which did not seem clear to me.
Another surge of black-headed sheep ma maaa-ed their way from their farm onto the plains.
I arrived at the M S-M service buildings: restaurants, shops (though I followed the signs and found none), toilets (equally hard to locate), and so on. And then having completed the ‘Chemin de la Baie’ I launched straight, alongside the River Cuesnon, a new ‘randonnée’ in the direction of Pontorson.
After the hubbub of the tourists, the peace of the river was potent. Birds quietly mentioned, incongruous chariots raced silently round the track nearby, dogs were carried patiently in the backpacks of two cyclists, and just me making my way along a hard path beside a swollen river with butterflies blue.
I was continuing to take care of the way I walked, the parts of my feet on which the weight landed, and minute details of my posture. This walking provides ample time to pay attention to long-practiced bad habits.
Hush reeds in the wind, like witches whispering. It was a very short 10 kms to the next town, so I gave in and lay down, with my mind all but clear and just the sensation of the sun on my back.
My feet were throbbing, my ankles had felt quite unpleasant for a stretch. Now I listened lazily to the ducks, the farm machinery moaning, and felt the grass dampen me. Seed pods sailed down and piqued my thigh. I was not exactly pushing myself. There was no need to be in Pontorson before 5pm when the youth hostel opened.
Random thoughts passed through me: When you wait, you see more around you. There was no signal so no sending or receiving. It was the hottest day so far, and I needed a hat and sunglasses for the first time!
There was nothing to do when I arrived at 1.30 – all was closed. So I had a peaceful beer and sat in the main square opposite the Hôtel de Ville. It is a comprehensive town with a thoroughly helpful tourist information: there was free wifi where I could wait as long as I wanted in order to book trains and send messages. The only down-side were two men who would not leave me alone as I picnicked so I had to move on.
It was 22 degrees. I was impressed by the pharmacy because it sold herbs and homeopathy too. I was surprised by conversations in English at the next table. In fact it took me a while to realise, while I sat and wrote, that it was the English language I was hearing; about dogs and living here in Normandy; believe me, it was about the M25!
There were a couple of women with rucksacks at the hostel: the first time I had seen other trekkers since I started walking. They did not stop and exchange despite my smile. The very young man in charge of the hostel was welcoming and helpful. All was clean, and I had a room with bunks to myself and space to do my t’ai chi.
Genêts to Mont Saint-Michel (13 kms across the sand) to Bas-Courtils 8.5.17
‘As I left home that morning and walked away from the sleeping village, it never occurred to me that others had done this before me.’ Laurie Lee, London Road chapter.
Yes, me too! Several people had recently enquired, on hearing I was going to visit Mont Saint-Michel, if I was planning to walk or not. It is an island in the bay which forms a maritime corner of southern Normandy. I had replied that I was walking around the coast and crossing the boardwalk to get there from the south. Until, that is, I realised what they meant: these people had already been to the Mount before me and they had crossed the sands on foot from Genêts. Then I knew that was what I had to do this bank holiday Monday.
The day began with 25 minutes of fast walking from the youth hostel to the set-off place. (Note: If you want to do this too, and I highly recommend that you do, and if you are not just making a day-trip from home, you must book accommodation in advance (see below)). It was the track I would have taken last night had I not been distracted by the beach and tiredness, and consequently missed the markers. I rushed cross-country, through soft grass and pale powdery sand, as the day heated up. As always, everyone was really helpful, and I made it just in time.
It is impossible to make the journey to the isle from the east without a guide as the sands are treacherous and the tide must be at the right turn. There are two companies which offer to take you as part of a group (see below for details), and it was busy, busy, busy, possibly the busiest day of the year. As a result there were groups leaving every 30 minutes or so, and I had to wait. No problem, I whiled away the time in a cafe with wifi and the most generous waitress. I know I have ‘brass neck’, but it comes in useful in certain situations, such as when you need to send a well-translated message in French but do not know how to do it yourself
I watched the others who were massing: men, women and children; old and young; some who had clearly been many times before. I was the only one with a ‘serious’ rucksack (by which I mean I had clothes, sleeping bag, cooking utensils etc on my back – stuff for a month’s travelling), and I too removed my footwear, dangling them from a strap so I had both hands to steady myself as we negotiated the sinking sands.
What a wonderful and moving experience! Layers of time seemed to concertina, and I felt as if I was simultaneously myself and a medieval pilgrim, arriving at last from afar, at the culmination of an arduous journey and full of spiritual expectation.
Trekking across the sands like that takes two and a half hours. Be prepared for cold feet, lots of mud, and finding yourself in seawater to mid calf or knees (depending on the weight of what you are carrying).
There is a large rock, very similar to Bass Rock off the coast of East Lothian in Scotland, called La Roche Tombelaine, which you stop at on the way. The guide gives continuous commentary (in French) about the fascinating history and wild-life, together with stories galore.
In 1423, Tombelaine was taken over by the English because it was close enough from which to attack the Mount. Luckily it was unsuccessful. In actual fact, no-one has managed to damage M S-M, not during the war, before, or since, so it is easy to understand why some Normandy folk believe it has divine protection.
As we got closer and closer, the grandeur, the sheer size of the Abbey on top of such a small base, was awe inspiring.
The Mount is made of granite, like our own Aberdeen, from the nearby Chausey islands. Rising 80 metres above sea level, it was quite some task, in the past, to bring the rocks up.
Many ‘workers’ trod this wheel to do the job of raising food, tools and building materials in 1880.
When I arrived, there were long queues for the foot fountains for washing so I did not bother, and I had to pay to get into the toilet. Then the woman in the tourist office told me I would not be allowed into the Abbey with my back pack due to terrorist threats. I reckoned differently, not having come all this way on foot, with this weight, only to be refused admittance. Barefoot, I continued my winding way up the back street to avoid the crowds.
Today I made an exception to my own rule and bought a ticket. I do not usually pay to go into places because I do not have the money for the expense, and because it encourages me to go to different venues and see things from different angles. But I knew I needed to go into this one, and I discovered later that the entrance ticket hall was the place the very poor pilgrims of the past were received to be given alms and admitted for a blessing. If I did indeed come here in a previous life, I was surely one of this group.
We waited for our English speaking guide (he was very entertaining and knowledgeable) on the terrace before entering. As it turned out, no-one looked twice at my pack so I did not have to plead or prostrate myself to be let in. Once again my age, sex, and perhaps skin colour seemed to be a bonus. It was well worth it, but a long tour. I left after 2 hours because I was very cold and getting tired carrying the weighty luggage around with me, but it was still going strong when I peeled away.
There is so much to say about this place, and many photographs available elsewhere. I listened and looked at chamber after chamber, conscious of the cold stone under my soles and imagining myself as one of the nuns he was describing, silent and worshipping through the ages.
The cloisters were being rennovated so I had to take this through the railings.
I was moved by the dark, Romanesque Crypt of St Martin with its eight pillars where sinners awaited sentencing;
And fully engaged by the tale of a 1000 years of construction stimulated apparently, originally, by Saint Michael (as in the archangel) speaking not once, but twice to Aubert, Bishop of nearby Avranches, before he took heed and started construction; and, finally, with the building of the Gothic-style choir (chancel).
It was sumptuously hot once outside again, and I wound my way down between souvenir shops and restaurants, sampling a small red wine to warm my cockles. There I spied a picture of a man on a donkey, the grandfather of the owner, held up by his son.
By the time I walked out towards the northern coast of Brittany, under a baking sun and along the sun-bleached wooden walk-way, I was not a little dazed by the special energy of the place.
I found my way to the bus-stop, ate a snack while I waited, sailed eastwards right through Bas-Courtils, making a mental note that there was somewhere I might eat later, and alighting some 5 kms further on in Courtils, not knowing they were two different villages with almost identical names.
I had booked a bed, but when I went into the first shop I could find to get wifi so I could look on my phone for the address, I realised I did not have it. I started to panic (I rarely worry when I am away walking, but have noticed that it can happen when I am tired). The kind proprietress came to help and suggested I look on my list of received calls from 2 days ago. That way I managed to phone and get the address, only to then discover my mistake. Of course, I planned to walk, but no, the same woman insisted that she take me back there in her car – what a sweetie, such kindness.
A double bed, in fact the entire place, all to myself for 11 euros (no breakfast but a place to hang my washing).
I have discovered that I am the sort of person who wants to know why things happen. Walking has taught me that when I pay attention, if I am very quiet inside, and I listen in a very relaxed way, the reason for everything is simply there. But it does require me to be calm, to really stay in this exact moment. It means that the anxious parts must go to the back, and trust or acceptance must be in the foreground. (Although trusting can be a conscious act, and this other thing simply happens while you are living.) Perhaps it is an undoing rather than a doing. Undoing the learned concern, questioning, and fearing.
I could still see the Mount from where I stayed the night, almost the same size as it was on another horizon when I left earlier that morning (see photo above).
It is proven to me by a tiny thing like forgetting to eat the orange and discovering it days later when there’s nothing else except hunger; larger things, such as not planning accommodation and then it rains so you could not have walked anyway; and even larger things, where you meet the right person at the right time, and although it can seem completely unfathomable then, it results in a major life change. That phrase comes to me: ‘mine is not to question why’.
That night I felt blessed. Truly.
I stayed at the youth hostel in Genêts on the mainland (http://www.hifrance.org/auberge-de-jeunesse/genets–baie-mont-st-michel.html). You may be able to book there at the last minute if it is not a bank holiday or high season, but if you want to stay on the Mount (it is an island), you definitely have to plan ahead as it is one of the most popular visitor attractions in France.
La Manche tourist site (English language version) with details of walks, maps etc. http://www.manche-tourism.com/gr223-coastal-path
One company with whom you can walk across the bay. Cost: 7 euros one-way (you can walk back (or go by bus, or in a horse and cart) via another route). You can also go and return in one day, with time there to sight-see. And there are other alternatives. https://www.decouvertebaie.com/42-traversees-traditionnelles-traditionnelle–depart-genets-point-a.html
Mont Saint-Michel tourist site http://www.ot-montsaintmichel.com/index.htm?lang=en
Granville to Genêts, Normandy coastal walk GR223. 7.5.17.
1.5 days walking. The longest walk at 9.5 hours and more climbing than any other étape (stage). 40kms
My last walk was in Spain at harvest. Now it is spring, and time for sowing.
I pass through the coastal edges of villages and along promenades, with a wide range of fresh-air art and information points. Of course I am not 19 years old as Laurie Lee was, but this part of ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ resonates with me. I am lucky not to have back ache when I walk, only tired feet after a while: ‘The next day, getting back onto the London road, I forgot everything but the way ahead. I walked steadily, effortlessly, hour after hour in a kind of swinging, weightless realm. I was at that age which feels neither strain nor friction, when the body burns magic fuels, so that it seems to glide in warm air, about a foot off the ground, smoothly obeying its intuitions. Even exhaustion, when it came, had a voluptuous quality, and sleep was caressive and deep, like oil.’ Yes, that is exactly what sleep feels like at the end of that sort of a day.
A man in his pyjamas, dressing gown, and slippers assured me there was no bar/câfé in this village at 9.30am. I had no breakfast before I left which was an obstacle – silly -it was too early in the day to be hungry and thirsty.
There were more hills and valleys than any of the previous days, and my rucksack was feeling heavy, but I forget that in the lovely countryside. Narrow paths split the greenery, while tough grass and golden gorse wrap around the sharp-edged cliffs.
I briefly ask myself ‘Why come away from home to walk?’ and immediately the answer is clear: because it is so very beautiful and peaceful.
There is a man with two wives and a dozen children, or so I fancy. The kids scrape past me from behind on their bikes and give me a shock. No-one says hello. The bright green ferns with their heads curled over, stand up like meerkats.
￼Down a picturesque flight of steps I go, into an historic dell. Anyone who does what I do knows that after 4 hours of walking, going downstairs is hard work, especially when it is slippy from the previous day’s rain, so I take them gingerly like a toddler.
It was quite magical down in Painter’s Valley, once a haunt of famous artists. I imagine them with their easels and floppy hats, just glimpsing each other through the foliage, brandishing brushes.
OMG! then 200 steps up again, followed by a rest to breathe and pull my socks back up after they had slid into my shoes.
I take two minutes for a pee, drink of water, and view of Jullouville beach with its glorious view of huts and horses. A loud male voice interrupts my musings. Round the corner, it turns out to belong to someone trying to impress the girls.
I ate my banana, bread and chocolate for lunch on a bridge. All filling the air was birdsong. There was sun on my legs, and real contentment, despite the slightly slimy seat. For a minute I thought I might see Ratty and Mr Toad of Toad Hall.
At this stage I am further 3 hours from Genets and I am about level with Bouillon, where I was supposed to be 2 days ago. There are simple roads, simple hedgerows, and I take regular steps, my thoughts rich with the wild flowers.
It is utterly wonderful, my favourite sort of countryside.
Footsore, I remind myself to take it step by step, ‘poco à poco’ so I can manage the distance without injury.
Just above my head I spot someone coasting on the wind in a hang glider. I could not tell if it was a man or woman. I watched and watched as s/he hung there, coasting on currents at a gentle pace, and I imagined what that view must be like.
The sweetest smell of earth, grass and flowers; raggedy white campion and curled up ferns. Runners thanked me as I stood aside to let them pass and was rewarded with a backlash of heady body smell. The slow roller-coaster slalom rocks are ahead of me, the oaks alongside, and hot waves of birds in meadows are on my left.
I reached a high point with more abandoned stone remains and exchanged brief French with a father coming in the opposite direction, who asked, what is the lie of the land beyond? Turns out he had a ‘poussette’, a push chair, with a baby in it. As I walked on I wondered how they had managed that far with either no path at all, or huge rocks to clamber over.
I continued with a light heart. If you look carefully you will see how often nature intertwines plants of contrasting colours.
At 2.30 I started to think about a cup of tea again, and St Jean le Thomas was my reward.
Then at 4pm, oh, the first sighting of Mont Saint-Michel in the distance.
I began to ask ‘How far to Genets?’ which was a mistake. Either my walking pace was slow or they did not really know. It was just frustrating to think ‘just 20 minutes’, only to discover it was actually a full two hours later that I arrived at the Auberge de Jeunesse. I do so by the road from the beach at Bec d’Andaine, even though a kind beach-surfer type stops his car and kindly suggests I take the path. I think I was too tired to risk taking the wrong way. As Laurie Lee puts it, I was walking ‘in a mirage of solitary endurance’ by that time.
I shower, change, wash out my dirties, settle in to my ‘private’ room with wonderful crisply ironed white cotton sheets (as usual I am the only single woman, so I am again lucky with accommodation). And then I walked, well limped a little, into the immensely attractive village. There are streets of brown/grey-stone houses, all with climbers and gardens full of flowers. They have white-rimmed windows with lace curtains, and there are 3 restaurants which all fill up quickly.
The votes are starting to come in, and the man on my right is checking his phone every few minutes, arguing with his wife, and updating the rest of us round the restaurant. It is very tense with folk scared that Madame Le Pen will win, but as the evening goes on Macron seems to be the victor.
Food tastes so delicious after a walk! A very salty, ‘gallette’ (pancake) with chips, salad and cider is 15 euros. Almost all the bars and eateries I have been to have played songs in English. Is it for tourists? I am not sure but this evening I think I was the only non-French speaker.
When I get back I fall into conversation with the host. Inevitably Brexit (so embarrassing), and ‘Don’t you celebrate the end of the war on 8 May?’ I tell him that many of our school children (my daughter and nephew for example) come to Normandy to see the beaches and the mass graves and find it very moving.
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, by Laurie Lee.
Granville 6.5.27 Rain – the only walking I did today was around town.
Granville is a seaside resort in Normandy, on a rocky promontory, and once a renowned cod fishing town. I arrived on foot yesterday and, due to the holiday weekend there was a lack of beds in the places I was moving on to. The tourist information were very helpful, as was the woman at the Auberge de Jeunesse where I was lucky enough to find a bed. This morning it rained heavily so I stayed longer than planned.
I visited an internet cafe (see below for details) for breakfast: croissant, tea, wifi, and the use of a computer for my writing, which was most productive.
Later I found a creperie but ordered an omelette by mistake. One couple both had buns, two couples were each in matching black and white. Everyone drank cider, so presumably we were all tourists! I was the only one alone, and there was no wifi, nor salt and pepper!
Most bars do not seem to serve food. Some have bought croissants and have them in paper bags behind the bar to sell to customers, and I think, from observation, that you can get a take-away or have your own food and eat it there if you buy a drink.
By then the wind had died down and it was only drizzling. In the old town, I spotted Vennelle de Saint Michel, just like Edinburgh vennels (narrow pedestrian streets) quaint even in the drizzle.
There are some nice shops in the Old Town and I enjoyed the one with artisan makes by a range of local crafters.
I returned to the Modern art museum again and rather cheekily managed to get in for free (there is a ticket which allows entry for both the Modern Art and Christian Dior museums, and as I did not visit the latter I asked for two visits to the former!).
I wanted to see the photo exhibition, Jeux de Construction by Jaques Faujour again as it made quite an impression on me yesterday.
Faujour takes photos of people set against a variety of interesting backgrounds. He uses lines, broken lines, brings things into perspective, and above all, tells stories.
On a second viewing there is more to them than I had originally seen: he is always looking for a story. I see a photo which could have been of me when I was in Paris 35 years ago, before my ‘proper’ adult life began.
You can get some stunning views of the port from this end of town.
Internet Câfé Picorette, 24 Rue Saint-Sauveur 50400 Granville.
Saint Martin de Bréhal to Granville 5.5.17 11 kms 2.5 hrs
I left the Camping de la Vanlée before 8am to find breakfast. I had given no Shiatsu and hoped that that would give me time to write the night before, but I was too tired after the walk and all that fresh air.
After the howling wind interrupted my repose, now there was the soothing sound of the waves, a man trying to start his boat motor after tractoring it backwards into the water, and the odd seagull. It was cold though.
Grey pointed rooves and white walls are typical of the architecture along this part of the coast. There are huge rocks along the landward edge of the beach and I can already see Granville, a much bigger town, coming into sight. Hmm, hungry!
￼￼’Attention un viper’ said a hennaed woman with an alsatian. ‘I want to see one’, I thought, eyes to the ground, but no.
Soft grasses, swooping swifts, watching the horses on the beach, and hearing the tiny chuck chucking bird sounding the alarm as it hovers with wings going 100s of flaps to the minute.
On I walked, my knee complaining again. What does it do, I ask myself? It makes me pay attention to how I step, how my weight is distributed.
People warned me it would not be the same walking the second time (after the Camino Francés, Via de la Plata, and Sierra Calderona in Spain), and they were right of course: I have changed; I have reflected; written about my experiences; and integrated many of them. The pleasure is equal, however.
Kids are rock-pooling, there are colourful beach huts, and many people stop and ask about me and what I am up to, as I enter Granville. I regard a man taking advantage of the breeze, and flying a kite in figures of eight.
The swimming pool amongst the rocks on the edge of the sea is deserted at this hour. There are steep green cliffs with a beach at the bottom. As I climbed, I inadvertently entered a cemetery with great views across the bay. Huge mausoleums and ancient crosses are all crowded together.
I turn right on the outskirts of the town, getting accustomed to the traffic noise, and a house straight out of ‘Madeline’, a book by Ludwig Bemelmans (and film), which I shared with my daughters when they were young.
Then I saw a sign which I spontaneously followed to the Jardin (garden) de Christian Dior. I sat in the sun (and wind), shut my eyes and listened to the water, and to a particularly tuneful chanteuse (bird!). I smell the roses, and imagine that my walking baton is an elegant cane and I am strolling in my couture garments in the 1950’s.
Dior had a life shorter than mine has already been, and this gorgeous place captured my imagination. (See below for ticket information).
It turns out that the walk I am on, ‘mon chemin’, actually passes through the garden, though I had lost it and only come on a whim!
Back down at sea level there is a hideous casino – how do town planners allow these buildings?
The Hotel de Jeunesse is hard to find and shuts for a long lunch. The woman was brusque, but kindly phoned through to other places for me as it was a holiday weekend, though everywhere was full.
I had a room to myself, and was forced to stay a second night, which of course turned out to be propitious as the next day it poured with rain.
There are no shortage of municipal toilets here – I could have relieved myself at every corner!
I recommend the Café Pulperia in an attractive row of shops etc very close to the hostel – the crab salad was in a plastic pot but it, the wine, and the fresh fruit salad were all delicious (€11) and I sat for ages with the wifi. There is also an Internet café next door which I spent hours in the next day (writing out of the rain).
I wander up to a church I can see. A nice woman walks up the hill with me and tells me walking is good for the heart. Unfortunately the Eglise Saint Paul is, like many I tried to visit this month, shut for repairs.
You can buy anything you want here in the busy shopping steets, with so many cars, and pretty corners. I find a public park, Les Jardins, with llamas, peacocks, chickens, goats, and 2 black swans each on one leg, all happily coexisting.
My late afternoon walk takes me to the old town at the far side and up steep steps. The buildings are worth seeing as is the Modern Art Museum, a collection of books and art work with visiting exhibitions.
I walked back via the port.
And here are a few extra photos to persuade you that Granville and the surrounding area are well worth visiting.
I was walking GR223 Normandy coastal walk.
Camping de Vanlées – Rue des Gabions – 50290 BREHAL Tél. : 02 33 61 63 80 / Mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
If you want to visit Dior’s garden, it is free. If you would like to see the house (and there is a charming tea garden), you can get free access to it if you pay to visit the Modern Art Museum, or vice versa.
Regnéville to Saint Martin 4.5.17 19kms 6hrs. Part of the GR223 Sentiers des Dounaniers (see La Manche tourist website).
I relished the good political talk with Sophie last night by the fire, admired the pretty beams and attention to detail in her interior, and loved the simplicity of unrolling the futon for Shiatsu on the sitting room floor – it is such a great way to communicate with kind others. I slept in another comfy bed, with a great shower, and we drank wine together.
Outside the cottage window there is a blackbird’s nest, and we spied on them in the morning before I left to walk to Saint Martin. Regnéville is a very pretty village and I traversed it twice because I left my baton behind the first time!
It is 8.25 and all is soft and verdant in the morning, misty light. The places which were rubbed yesterday (mostly my shoulders where the rucksack straps are) feel tired. There are lots of fleeting pains as I begin. Ah yes, I remember that happens as I begin day 2.
Cuttlefish are daubed amongst the detritus from the sea; birds are collecting bits and pieces for their homes; stationery, white cows are initially silent.
It is really calm: there are so many distinctive bird voices, one or two cars, and now the cows are lowing, but no people. Instead I am having conversations with loved ones in my head. It is when there is external quiet that I can hear their voices answering my questions.
A cuckoo calls, a blue tit balances sideways on a reed. Birds of prey instead of airplanes, hovver with their magnificent eyesight. There is the ‘chack chack’ of the chaffinch, and then I remember the prediction of the Tarot before I left: a person about to walk on sand – of course, a beach, not a desert, although then it comes to me that I will visit a ‘desert’ in a few days time.
Around the corner is the beach and a dog rolls happily. School kids draw circles and collect seaweed, stones and shells to decorate them with. I realise that 99% of the joint pain I had when I left Scotland has gone.
There is the yummy odour of hot coffee and bread as I pass through Briqueville sur Mer, and a sweet, sweet smell as I then enter an avenues of trees.
Fields of potatoes are on one side, and banks of wild flowers, not unlike those I am familiar with in Kent, on the other.
I enjoy the long, sandy drives, the oniony leeks growing, and the ripples of white fleece lifted by the breeze protecting a crop I cannot see.
I make quite a big mistake then, walking on without seeing any way-signs. I went back to ask a man working his plot, and he confirmed I was right, but at the next junction I was pretty sure I was not, so back I went again. Bless him, he came after me, thinking I had misunderstood his French, but in fact he had told me where the road was and not the ‘chemin’. I stopped then for lunch, disappointed and frustrated, but the spot was so beautiful, and as I restocked, I knew that that attitude is useless: when I walk I get there when I do. That is just that.
In the caravan place I pass I glimpse a couple through the window. He reads the paper and she writes postcards. There are questions from others as I go on my way: ‘toute seule?’ ‘Without your husband?’ I think I must be quite unusual walking like this on my own in these out-of-the-way places.
A beach stretches into the distance, and there are more children, this time pushing each other in go-karts. A horse rider trots past, speaking on his mobile phone. I spot a white heron, or at least I think that is what it is, and later there is a sign, ‘heronerie’.
I really struggled to find somewhere to sleep that night. It is surprising that the La Manche tourist board recommends stages / études which have no hostels, only hotels and expensive (though lovely looking) bed and breakfasts. Reader, it is, sadly, twice as expensive to walk in France as it is in Spain. I considered bringing a tent, but was assured camping was forbidden and was not confident enough to chance it.
So I found a very expensive bed (€30) at a campsite that had no cafe, shop, kitchen, or laundry facilities. I was not impressed. I walked quite a way into the village, on the advice of the kind receptionist, but there was no food to be had anywhere in the evening, so I contented myself with lunch left-overs. The wind howled all night, and tried very hard to lift the tent off the ground.
La Manche website http://www.manche-tourism.com/gr223-coastal-path
Agon-Coutainville to Regnéville 3.5.17 22kms approx. 8 hrs.
I leave Agon-Coutainville at 9.15am and it is quiet as I make my way along the promenade. There is the sound of my feet, and of the sea in the distance. It is low tide and there is a smell of seaweed.
The air is cool on my skin, and I am getting into a rhythm, with a dull, white-grey sky overhead; and swirls of brown, shining water with almost yellow sand to my right. In contrast are the massive stones nearby where they are fortifying the sea wall. It is ‘home from home’ really, reminiscent of Edinburgh / Scotland.
It is the beginning of this new walking meditation, with lighthouses on both edges of my peripheral vision. There’s a man with a cigar between his lips, his dog trotting along in a blue harness; clear instructions on a municipal sign not to collect too many shellfish and to beware of the right season / size when you do; and a bike cycling over the do not cycle sign.
‘Doucement’ (gently) says a woman to her wolfhound. There are 100’s of child sounds, like a grounded flock of seagulls, who turn out to be from a sailing school, with its neon orange and white sails.
Now the thumb of one hand is hot and the other cold. I think it is something about the details I notice when I am walking.
Snippets of my bad dream come in and out of my head. Worries: Will my knees hold out? Is my backpack too heavy? But then it is like someone is holding my hand once again, and I remember this.
I wasted 10 minutes looking for someone to ask the way. Note to self: look with more care and if in doubt, keep going forward!
As I cross the dunes, a horse and rider cross my path. It’s the first time I have seen someone on his mobile while riding! It is slow walking on deep sand with the smell of the cyprus (or cedar?) trees, and the sounds of crows cawing. The sun is trying to come out, and it is windy. Once again I am reminded of home, this time the links at Gullane.
More detail now I am getting into my stride: a snail precarious on a stalk of grass; swifts or swallows darting across my vision; hearing a cuckoo. There are so many familiar flowers from hillside and garden: brambles, buttercups, veitch, and the sweetest smelling hawthorn, which I suspect is the scent that, in years to come, will take me back to Normandy.
There is a bird with equally sweet tweets, intermittently, above my head; and very very loud crickets (or grasshoppers?) which are competing with the chattering mini birds.
At the Pointe d’Agon, one rather slow hour later, there is a soft brown bird with white stripes which flies 360 degrees around me at eye level – you know, those birds which do little, repeated, staccato swoops.
Tightening the straps to stop them chaffing my shoulders, I stride on, fire-engine-siren bird calls to my right;
neat turf, wet to kneel on; and uneven pits of soft-sand bunkers. The world seems to be all a-tweet and I think to myself, I could walk along here like this forever.
The sweet almond scent is continuing to surprise me if I am looking down. A bird whistles at me, challengingly, through an avenue of pines. I can feel my tummy relax.
There are not many insects compared to all the birds: a wispy white flying something, a stubby black fluffy caterpillar, but not much else.
When I am amongst the trees I can hear the wind, but not otherwise. Here begins the long sweep around the bay, and I could do with a cup of tea.
The tide is way out, so there are beached boats balancing on their rudders; sharp marine grass; and broken shells underfoot. Buttercups totter in the cold windyness. I hear a distant church bell and smell the sheep as they say ‘huh huh huh’.
Here are the first group of fellow ramblers/randonneurs coming in the opposite direction. In all my walks to Mont-Saint-Michel I do not see a single other backpacker.
Washes of miniature, dead crabs, and piles of oyster shells litter the path. Fields of broadbeans are beside me. At noon there is finally sun and butterfly #1.
Now there is a gorgeous odour of cow parsley, scuttling spiders on the clay, and pods of empty cells the size of my hand -dry and papery. Ah, I am stiff now, tireder, and assailed by the smell of dung!
Crossing La Sciene river, after 3 hrs, and a most welcome cuppa (I will come clean: I had to go back for my baton), I then realised my beloved Coquille Saint Jaques shell had broken off and gone forever, but I was given an alternative by the kind hostellier at La Bonne Auberge at the same moment.
I cross and skirt around the mouth of the Est. Pass Tourville sur Siene, and there is a stretch of long wet grass with a very narrow gulley to walk in. Here I suffer my first fall – I think I topple because I am hungry.
Flat, white-ended little birds are bounding through the reeds like rabbits. Carla’s delicious sourdough pizza is a welcome mid-day lunch in the sun.
Now it is time to get the pole out and I hope there are no tics. Yes of course I am lying in my bra – there is no-one for miles around and I am sure I need the money vitamin D.
After my sunbathe when I watch the art-deco black and white butterfly (symbol of transformation), I feel re-energised, taste some wild garlic, help myself to a leaf of wild mint, chew a sprig of fennel (to remind me of last year’s Camino), and enjoy the church with a cock in top.
The lilac and honeysuckle are both out, but the map showed I was actually in the sea, and I started to feel lost. It is now extremely wet underfoot. The smartly coutured ducks cheer me up, but there is a lot of improvising having to go on on these wetlands.
Nature is wonderful isn’t it? I spot urea coloured dungflies blending in. And there’s time to reflect: it turns out I forget what I have said quite often, though I hear myself denying that I have ; and of course, I realise once again that I have absolutely no idea of the future and how it will turn out.
By 4.30 I am so stiff and glad to arrive at Regnéville. Last night I searched Shiatsu practitioners in Normandy. The lovely Sophie Blondel was at the top of the list and miraculously lived at my next day’s stopping place. I phoned her on the off-chance ( in French btw!) and not only did she pick up the phone, but she immediately said yes I could come and stay with her in return for Shiatsu.
So that’s what I did. What a star. How amazing to be the sort of person who just says ‘yes’! We had the best evening, what with the session, chats about our work (turns out we share the same teacher in Suzanne Yates), and her adorable cottage.