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The Young Ones?

One of the most memorable encounters of my journey was with Jorge and Alfonso, who responded with generosity to a Couchsurfing request that I made before I set out. When they heard about my stolen gear and passport in Ponferrada, they were the first people on the phone to me. They offered all they had to help me. These two people have shown me more beauty than the great cathedral of their city, the snow-dusted Picos de Europa or all the art in the Guggenheim at Bilbao. This post is dedicated to them.

The Lads in Leon

The Lads in Leon

Jorge met me in the big cathedral square in Leon. I’ve spent a little time since I encountered him waiting in public squares or bars for hosts I don’t know. In Bilbao I sat for maybe half an hour, wondering if the long winter shadow which preceded the next arrival would be that of a generous soul who had offered me shelter that night. Guessing that it wasn’t from the gait, pace and deportage of a shadow was perfect entertainment for a people-watcher. A insistent but unhurried arrival, with openness in the shoulders is a good clue. In Bilbao I had a better one- Pintxa arrived on an unloaded touring bike, commanding the streets with aplomb.

Jorge and I arrived at a fairly central flat, and secreted the bike in the basement. Living arrangements seemed fluid. My arrival rang more changes, as I was to take Jorge’s usual room, and he would take the couch. So perhaps he’s the couchsurfer, then, I joked. Though I couldn’t have been happier to be there, Jorge was full of apologies. The place is small, your room is cold, it’s not so clean, there is no hot water… In fact the modest nature of the place made me more grateful, not less. I loved it, but ‘lived in’ is a euphemism too far. Knowing it was guys sharing a flat, I chose my welcome gift well. As the beers were passed round out of my pannier, everyone seemed to relax.

With flat mate Alfonso acting as translator when needed, Jorge explained his life to me as we sat in the smoky front room on comfy, well-worn sofas. He found what work there was in Spain as an occasional swimming teacher. But his passion was clearly poetry. His gestures were magnified, his narrow facial features animated whenever the subject arose. We talked of my songwriting, and of looking for meaning in the seemingly mundane. I mentioned my poet friend Seamus Kelly’s blog Thinking Too Much, an affliction shared by Jorge and I.

(Though this ride promised so much time for reflection, I found that the bike is a better tool for quieting the mind than opening it. Practical tasks of finding food and shelter, and so many new stimuli from the environment have led me to satisfied slumber at the end of each day, not creative energy. So I’ve not written much since I’ve been out here, though I thought I would.)

Jorge’s Magnum Opus is a work of love for his girlfriend, which comprises a verse of poetry for every kilometre which separates their respective homes in Leon and San Sebastián. I’d ridden each of those kilometres. I felt their distance, and mine, from home. Each short verse paints a deep image, some of hope, of loss, or of love. Love beyond distance, time, or even death. Jorge’s work had inspired an artist friend to create some of the images the poems inspired, and in the true spirit of art for all, fly-posted some around the city. Please, visit the collection here, to see them all.

I am grey, and you have all the blue of the sky.

I am grey, and you have all the blue of the sky.

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We beat as one.

Alfonso seemed the more brash and streetwise of my two companions that night. He’d lived in Ireland, spoke with easy humour and had an excellent command of English. He walked his big old dog around the streets of Leon as if he owned them. He and Jorge made a good double act. I can’t help thinking that the world Jorge inhabits is a little harsh, given his gentle nature. With Alfonso around though, I think he’ll be ok.

It turned out there were more than two guys sharing the flat, but one was away at his stall in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, at the seemingly famous Christmas market I’d passed through a couple of days previously, selling his artisanal soaps. It’s likely I walked past his stall. I’d been enchanted by the costumes, music and juggling. I was even invited to join the piper with my penny whistle at a gig that night, when he’d exchanged his local pipes in the key of C with Ulilean ones in D to match my whistle. Sadly I had more distance to cover, so I declined.

When I thought back, the itinerant, bohemian occupants, the lack of hot water and the ‘lived in’ feel (I felt I must rise earlier than the residents just to clean the kitchen…) all gave the place the feeling of a squat, and it did feel like I’d stepped into a Spanish version of The Young Ones. But lazy caricature says nothing of the warmth and generosity of these people. In this little place, amongst the spilt tobacco, and in the local bar, I never felt more welcomed, or at home.

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The parable of the stone.

A funny thing happened on the way to Compostela. It was either a perfect storm of coincidences, or a biblical parable played out before my eyes. If anyone would like to interpret it, as Joseph of the Technicolor Dreamcoat did for Pharaoh’s dream then you are welcome to.

I pulled up my bike at the village green at Relegios, a place named for religion, when a scene more akin to biblical times played out before my eyes. I’d stopped to phone my girls, as I do every Sunday, and my mobile phone appeared anachronistic against the vision before me, that of a shepherd grazing his sheep on the green. The gentle sound of the sheep bells filled the air, and two thin dogs patrolled the sheep. The old, weather-worn shepherd seemed to be shouting instructions directly to the sheep as much as to the dogs. (The sheep  know my voice…?)

A couple of other dogs approached, in curiosity as much as anything, and with a word from the shepherd, the sheepdogs saw them off, leaving the sheep free to graze some more. Then, the funny thing happened…

…a dog took a rock from a ditch, walked past me and placed it gently and poignantly at the foot of a statue of a pilgrim, recently erected in the green. That morning, my companion for a day Eyke, from Germany had showed me a photograph from his guidebook, that of a tall cross, surrounded by stones which pilgrims had taken and left there, at the highest point of the Camino, as a symbol of leaving behind baggage, things that hold us back and stifle our dreams. It’s a concept I’m familiar with, I’ve used it it may work with young people over the years.

So I took the rock and put it in my bag.

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Today, as the sun rose above the mountains amongst which I slept I left the rock at the famous cross, some 1500m above sea level. I know what the act meant to me, but the mysterious circumstances which led to it remain a puzzle. I’m making this pilgrimage not as a fervent believer as I once was, but as a questioning soul. And here I have another enigma with which to engage on my journey. All part of life’s rich carpet, as an old friend often told me.

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Patrick of the woods.*

I awake just south of Soulac sur Mer on the Medoc peninsula in the dense pine forest which separates the sea and its dunes from the rest of France. The forest in Gironde and Les Landes stretches for 200km, punctated only by quiet roads and cycle paths. At this time of year it feels like I have the whole place to myself. It seems I might- whole seaside villages are closed down for the winter. There’s something sad about an out-of-season resort. In one a lonely proprietor stood forlornly outside  his Australian themed bar, hoping for custom. To say it felt a bit like Morecambe would not be unkind… to Morecambe!

I sometimes like to seek out empty spaces, but those back home which I love, the North Pennines for example, tend to be bleak, difficult places hemmed by steep gradients, their vegetation stemmed by harsh winds. This place is the opposite: lush, verdant and flat, and it feels instantly homely and welcoming. The sea proves elusive. Though I hear waves born half a hemisphere away roar and crash against the coast, I rarely glimpse the ocean. The forest hugs the coast so closely that the trees protect the beauty of the beaches from all but an intrepid few. The sight of frost on the sand dunes is equally startling and beautiful, and impossible to photograph, so will be in my memory alone.

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Frosty start.

The ice shaken from my tent is the only litter I’ll leave behind. Naturism seems to be popular here, with resorts dotted along the whole coast, but if anyone is practicing on the beaches today, all I can say is “Brave naturists!”

After my little rant about Velodyssee route 1, she has redeemed herself here. At times it feels like there’s a steamroller up ahead, laying a path through the woods just for me. At times shallow roots search for water in the sandy soil, underneath the Tarmac, which is perfectly understandable. But my favourite section is an old one I find, not part of the route at all. It’s a narrow ribbon of old concrete mere inches wide. The joins are cracked and there are pieces missing, and I bunny hop my behemoth over the gaps. Parts are almost invisible and I keep expecting my front wheel to disappear into the clingy, soft sand. Where it’s been repaired, it’s been done badly. Effectively its a 7.5km long trailcentre skinny. I love it.

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imageMy heart leaps as I see my first Camino di Santiago sign, and I am transformed from a traveller into a pilgrim, unwittingly and perhaps unwillingly…

Eventually I reach an old wooden jetty for the boat across the oyster-rich lagoon to Arcachon, and the tiniest ferry, even more rickety than the jetty, chugs into view. As the handful of us embark, the wind and the tide conspire to throw the boat up and down. Mine and another Brooks saddled bike are dumped on the little bow, and we stagger aboard. Even the seasoned passengers look nervous. As we turn to leave a wave tips us sideways. People swear in French. I check where the lifejackets are. But our young skipper soon has us bouncing over the breakers and into the relative calm of the bay. As we unload I count my bags to make sure none have escaped overboard. A quick “Chapeau” to the skipper and he chugs off into the gloom.

Pretty Brooks, on a soon to be salty bike.

Pretty Brooks, on a soon to be salty bike.

Desperate to calm my nerves I find a bar and order an espresso. A double bass and a couple of guitars are strewn across a small stage. Cables and boxes on tables betray a sound check is imminent, and soon skiffle style riffs fill the air, the guitar playing unmistakably French, the lyrics of swing classics in English. I’m invited to a corner of the bar where a quintessentially moustachioed man hears my story in broken French and pores over my maps. If he wants to make the tourist comfortable, he could do better than to rearrange the sparse notes in my wallet and whisper in my ear, “Be careful.” From further along the bar my mild discomfiture is noted, and multilingual David rescues me. He commands Russian, German, Spanish, Basque, Portuguese, French and English, along with a great attitude and curiosity, and the generosity to buy me a drink. The swing band return in monochrome suits with narrow lapels turned up. They look impeccably the part. But, as the lead singer points out, “It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.” Thankfully they sound the part too. So as the band played, I was in great company, and my first drink has been bought for me, I stayed a while. And whereas yesterday’s camp was certainly Mrs. Right, this one is much more Mrs Right Now. Still, I melt into the woods once more, wrapped in silence and sleep’s embrace. Another day on the road.

*The title of this post is how my Warmshowers host addressed me when she sent me directions to her home. Seems to fit, so I’ll keep it.


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Pour mes belles filles.

I write this for my three beautiful girls back home.

Dear N, M and E,

I’m having a wonderful time, and when you read this I will have ridden my bike all the way across France and into Spain. Mostly I’ve been staying in my little tent. It’s been just big enough and just warm enough for me every night. I’ve ridden through a huge forest on long, straight paths as far as the eye can see. It took me two whole days to cross it! Tonight the stars are amazing, and I stopped my bike to look at the Milky Way.image

I think of you all every day and imagine what you are doing. I expect you are all ready for your Christmas plays and concerts. I know you are all going to be fantastic, and E will count her sheep perfectly.

Every morning when I wake up I make tea in the cup you gave me for my birthday. I love doing this because not only do I get a hot drink on a frosty morning, I also get to think of you and remember how kind you are to me.image

The one thing I miss most about being away is your hugs. If there was a World Championship of Hugging, you three would win gold medals. So make sure you practice your hugging while I am away, because I’ll need extra special ones when I get back.

I went on this trip because it is a dream I had for a long time. An ambition to do something big and exciting. And now I am doing it it is like one of my dreams has come true. I want you all to realise that if you have dreams that each of you can make them happen. You can have adventures as big as your imagination. You can achieve things that no-one has done before. You are so, so special- please remember this always. You are not ordinary. You are amazing. I love you.


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Hope for humanity, and a warm shower.

I’m just having a browse at Warmshowers.org and I posted this. Somehow it captures a bit of what the ride’s about.

Well it’s getting ever nearer. On Friday I take a train south from my home in Newcastle, UK, to Portsmouth, then an overnight ferry to St Malo in Brittany where my adventure will begin. Sleeping in a tiny tent by the roadside, I hope to eek out an existence cheaply and sustainably as I go, perhaps busking in villages with a travel guitar. I’ve been on quite an emotional journey to get to the start, as my fledgling blog will show, and my updates from the road will document the journey of a lifetime. 2500km in 26 days will keep me honest, and busy- I’ll need most of the daylight and all of my stamina to make it. I’ll need strength I don’t yet have, and determination I don’t yet know. I’ll discover as much about myself as the places that I’ll visit, and I’ll return to make an uncertain future my next adventure.

Warmshowers is one of those perfectly simple yet fantastically useful little sites for the travelling cyclist (another is crazyguyonabike.com). It’s a robustly non-commercial way for the adventuring rider to get in touch with like-minded locals on her/his route, and benefit from reciprocal hospitality along the way. That such a community even exists is a great encouragement for me. Humanity, as a whole, is warm and generous and safe to be around. While explosives are flung and devastation wrought between communities, I’m reassured of the goodness of people. If I’m able to find a host along my route; if I can leave their company warmer, drier and cleaner, but more importantly wiser, gentler and more grateful than I arrived, the value of my trip will have been so much more.

Tallulah. Isn’t she beautiful?

Andromeda (see what I did there..?)

P.S. I took the bike out fully loaded the other day and it rides like a dream. The handling, settled by my lovely new front panniers is true and predictable, and it seems to just roll and roll with minimal input from me. It almost seems to ride itself and take me along with it, a bit like my fixie, Tallulah. They both need a little persuading up hills though!


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Not so easy…

With only a few days to go, I’ve been feeling really nervous about the trip today. You know, lots of self-doubt, procrastination, a bit of insecurity, taking it out on those around me, that sort of thing. Horrid little questions I wish would go away.

“It’s too far, you’ll never finish, the miles will get on top of you, you’ll be a cold, wet, lonely failure.”

Here’s me looking anything but cold in a snowfield at minus 10. Yes, my kit is frozen solid.

Well I might have bitten off more than I can chew, with 2500km in 26 days; what, with the kit I’m taking,  my propensity to get lost going to the corner shop, and my desire to curl up into a ball when things get difficult. But there’s a chance I’ll make good progress on the flat of France and ride myself into form for the hills of Spain. That I’ll encounter fair weather and following winds. And that I’ll roll into Santander with a day to spare, wondering what all the fuss was about. But if I fail, on who’s terms will I fail? On the brilliant CTC Trail Leader course I did recently, with the inimitable Craig Walmsley, we spent a bit of time mapping out shortcuts; alternative routes and escapes back to base if things go differently to the plan. And I’ve planned such routes for this trip. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I took so many interesting detours, accepted so many offers of hospitality and thought, wrote or photographed so much that I had to ride straight to the ferry terminal or miss Christmas? Would my trip be of any less value if its destination was other than the westernmost tip of Spain?

“You’re irresponsible. It’s such a big risk for the future.”

Ok, Ok, I return home as an unemployment statistic. Jobs will be advertised and posts filled while I am away. But this trip is space for really good decisions about my future and deciding how I want to spend my days. Might my redundancy provide so many opportunities at a time when I’m able to take them? Can I convince people the skills I love to share are worth paying for, and make my passion my career?  Is someone who’s proved themselves self-reliant, determined and creative more or less employable? Why not read the intrepid and highly readable Travelling Two’s answer.

“You’re a bad dad for doing this.”

Yes, I’ve heard it in my own mind and even from others. I’m worried about my girls. Just now I want to shower them in love and never let them go. But there is absolutely no good time to do this from their perspective. They want their dad like they want ice cream before dinner- but if it’s good it’s good enough to wait for. I can’t wait to write them special messages. The eldest has asked me to write a letter. That’s great. In an age of email my child values the physical, written word. But I hope to befriend the technology to share stories face to face, or at least webcam to webcam. I’m determined that the dad they get for Christmas will be an improved, relaxed, calmer, more fulfilled version of the one they love now. And I’ll be the best beard in the playground at school. Except the terrifying headmistress, Miss Whiskers.*

If this was easy for me, it’s likely I wouldn’t be attempting it. I’ve planned something which takes me as far as can in the time I have. Long nights and short days add to the difficulty, as does the need to make and break camp each day. The weather will whisper threats of snow and ice, and silently deliver her promise. My journey will require my best and test my resolve to its limits. For how else will I find out what my best is, or where my limits are? I’ll be cold, wet, hungry and scared at times, but equally I’ll be warm, safe, energised and excited. Emotions will undulate and moods will swing. But I will do this. And I will do it well.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent…


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Keeping the home fires burning

Here’s a wonderful guest post from my partner Christine, about what it’s like being the one left behind. Needless to say, without her support I wouldn’t be making this trip. With it, I know that anything is possible. She showed me what adventure is by jumping into this river when I wanted to stay on the bank. Her boldness inspired me to make this journey. Christine, it’s all your fault.

So about 4 weeks ago Patrick asked me my ‘opinion’ on his plans.

“Sounds good.” I said holding back the tears. But what can I do? Because as I thought about it the more I admired his determination to do this, and I would probably like to do the same given the opportunity. (there will be time… Pat)

So I decided to be supportive and, given Patrick’s loveable forgetfulness, try to get him as well equipped as possible. We settled on a on a ID bracelet as I can’t guarantee that he won’t get his hand caught in a crevice for 127 hours, and my idea of taking him to the vets to get him chipped did not go down well. Then there was the obligatory Trip to Go Outdoors where I asked the bloke for small long johns (for myself of course) a sports bra (definitely for myself) and then tried on a number of silly hats. Although we did buy dry bags, a water pouch, a red plastic blanket thing, oh, and some energy bars… Dear me, it’s starting to sound like a 80’s games show.

Then, of course, there are the snippets of information that Patrick keeps telling me.

“I don’t want to plan my route too much.” I must  have gone pale as he has now at least looked at a map and decided on which way he needs to point the bike.

“It’s going to be really cold this time of the year.” Erm, exactly how good is your sleeping bag?

“They close the passes cos of the snow sometimes.” You’ll need that titanium spork to dig yourself out then, I say. And today… today!

“They have bears.” What am I meant to say? Pack a few tins of John West salmon, start growing a beard (he already has) and they’ll accept you as one of their own!? It’s ok, they are all called either Pooh or Paddington depending on clothing. Just don’t get them mixed up; it pisses them off.

Obviously I have extensive knowledge of all these things, so it’s just as well I’m staying home. That and the fact that I need 6 layers and 2 duvets just to stay in a caravan.

No, I’ll be waiting at home for Patrick just hoping that he has remembered to eat.

Thanks, Christine. I’ll try.