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from Littlehuan


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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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One fine day.

It feels like a big day, so I thought I’d share it.

It began in a mezzanine bed space in the artists’ workshop of Couchsurf host extraordinaire Ilaria. Sleeping amongst her sculptures was inspiring. Some of her stuff exaggerates the female form in quite provocative ways. I feel it has something to say, and I was sad to see some pieces unsold, broken and gathering dust in there.image

This second night was entirely unplanned, but the impromptu day off in La Rochelle was enjoyable and useful. There are some amazing buildings to see. The harbour is especially beautiful, but I also needed to pedal up to Decathlon for some bits and bobs. If Go Outdoors back home took nandrolone and EPO for a year, it would struggle to match this place for scale..

After a very comfortable night playing cards with the kids and talking cricket with the exiled Ian, I set off south, hoping to reach the Royan ferry shortly after lunch. But it wasn’t to be, and as usual navigation was the issue. I’ve also discovered that cycle paths seem to be the same the world over, and Velodyssee route 1 south of La Rochelle matches the worst of Sustrans anywhere for directness and surfacing. Anyway, I’m not on a Velodyssee, I’m on a mission- so give me Tarmac!(take note one well connected European reader of this blog!) So despite the sunshine and the following wind, I found my mood getting lower, and had to resort to a bit of Rule 5. Certainly finding that my petite amie back home has been posing for French road signs cheered me up no end. But trying to work out if this bridge at Rochefort was worth a categorised climb was not on the top of my list. Nor was finding myself in Middlesborough!image

imageimageEventually the ferry for the short hop across the Gironde steamed (dieseled?) into view, and the relaxed crossing calmed my nerves. Finding myself surrounded by forest and knowing I could slip invisibly between the trees for an undisturbed night added to my chilled outlook. Finally content, with fresh, plump mussels bubbling on the stove, eaten to a full moon, and to rest in a perfectly pitched tent.image

A woman in the post office told me that Medoc wine is the best in France, so if you find me even more relaxed tomorrow, you’ll know why. Goodnight.


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Finding my way.

Despite not wanting to be the sort of tourist that stares inanely at my iPad while pretty churches and grand vistas go unexamined, I’ve found myself staring at the map a few times too many already on this trip. I’m a bit too closely wedded to my carefully plotted path, which joins blue dots on an electronic map. The intense emotional upheaval which accompanies, at least for me, a “route barre”* or a missed turning (too many to count, I’m rubbish at wayfinding…) is perhaps a signal for me to slow down and enjoy the ride.

My route choice has been so far so good, an excellent balance between direct and quiet. It reminds me that this whole trip is a balance between a pure journey, and one with a destination.

The trick to finding seems to be to stick to D roads, but this can be misleading, since some are dual carriageways. I’ve found that the lower the number the better the road for cycling. I’ve spent many happy kilometres on the D1 in the Loire, and the D7 in the Vendee. Higher numbers seem to be the newer roads which have superseded the old ones, leaving them for me to enjoy. Please avoid the D105 into La Rochelle if you can though, the only place in France I’ve felt at risk of being removed from this life by a two-trucked HGV.

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One thing which has struck me is the number of roadside crosses and crucifixes you see, which are sometimes large and ornate. I even passed between an Our Lady Crowned Queen of Heaven gazing helplessly at her crucified Son from across the road. But the one I stopped to photograph was this, a really simple one from just outside Les Brouzils. I expect it flowers in the summer, too. As I was crossing to get the picture, a near-peleton of road cyclists went past, relaxed and chatting, perhaps three abreast, one of many I’ve seen. I wonder if such a group would be tolerated on UK roads? It confirmed for me I’d made a good choice of route and I carried on.

The lure of a warm bed tonight has been overwhelming. I thought I would miss my Couchsurfing host in La Rochelle for one more night, but just by pedalling along I found myself with daylight remaining and a couple of hours to go to my host. One more embarrassing text, to confirm the bed-space I’d postponed hours earlier, and here I am with the gracious Ilaria, and her charming children. I hope to take some time to see the city tomorrow, then it’s back to my little tent, parked unobtrusively at the roadside between dusk and dawn.

*The socialist French seem to be spending their way out of this recession with big capital works. I’ve seen a railway line being electrified, and every village seems to be getting their roads done. I hope it works for them.


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The first of many.

I’ve learned lots today. For example:

If you’re pedalling into a headwind, and suddenly there’s a tailwind, it’s unlikely that the wind has changed. It probably means you’ve taken a wrong turn and are heading back the way you came.

Navigation has not been my strong suit today, and as a result I’m not too far from St Malo. My brain has been so busy taking it all in that retaining directions for even a pedal revolution has proved impossible. But today, my first day has been a day of firsts.

First French conversation with a delightful woman outside the boulangerie. She wanted to talk about the Queen, and about her son, who travelled the world in a VW camper van. She also said “Chapeau” to me, the racing cyclist parlance for “Good effort” or literally, “Hat” for “I tip my hat to you.”

First (and second) of many espressos in the PMU. It’s effectively a betting shop with a cafe. They’re ubiquitous, and put the opening hours of every other French establishment to shame. Tomorrow’s Sunday, so I’m looking forward to Rennes being shut when I get there.

I spotted some ruins in Hede, but despite the urge to sleep in an ancient monument, I left it, on the account of it also hosting a basketball court. If young people hang out there of an evening I don’t want to interfere. As it happens I’m in the corner of a wood, next to a quiet road. A gale is blowing up, but I’m cozily hoping it passes before dawn. The newness is tiring, but the excitement I feel in small things, like a buzzard sitting unflinchingly on a post as I pass, is a privilege I hope to retain.

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Ferried away.

What a day. I woke this morning to a favourite sound: the happy murmurings of my children. Knowing I wouldn’t hear their contended voices for a whole month was a tough realisation. They will miss their daddy, and however wet, cold or aching I become, this trip will be hardest on them. And I’ll not forget the debt of gratitude I owe those three wonderful little people.

It was all a bit of a rush, really, but somehow they got to school kissed and hugged, and I gingerly made my way to the station atop 35 kilos of quivering steel and stuffed panniers. Christine and I shared a tearful platform goodbye, hearts touching through train windows, but it was all a bit much and she needed to be hugged by a passer by, the first of many acts of kindness that will surely characterise this trip.

I’m pretty sure I spotted the Red Arrows practicing in the distance as we sped through Lincolnshire. Time passed swiftly as the good luck messages arrived, and soon I was perched once more on Andromeda, my Super Galaxy, amongst the taxis outside King’s Cross for the transfer to Waterloo. And bless, her, she’s not the most nimble of beasts. In tight London traffic we wobbled and weaved, but my acceleration at the lights must’ve matched the ferry on which I sit as I write this.

I’ve bumped into two touring cyclist couples on the ferry, but neither is venturing south of Brittany, and one has only empty panniers to fill with wine for their return tomorrow! The seas are gentle and all is well.

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