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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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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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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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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.


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Reasons… Part 1

I’m surprised that not many people have demanded to know why I’m doing this. Some have asked “Why now?”* but it seems most people who know me know what I’m like, and that this is simply something I need to do. Cycle 2500 kilometres to the edge of Spain in 26 days with only my tent and the Atlantic for company. Typical stuff. But despite the persona I like to portray, (that of a grizzled outdoorsman and expert cyclist) ’til now I’m merely an armchair expert. I really have never done anything like this before. And that is one reason in itself.

The challenge of the elements, coupled with the terrain appeals and frightens in equal measure. If I was making this trip in summer I’d start from Amsterdam, and cycle through Belgium and across northern France. As it’s winter, I start in Brittany and hug the Atlantic coast to avoid the severest cold and iciest roads. Yes, I know this means I’ll get wet. I’m fine with that. As my Dad says, (precious morsels these- he doesn’t say much…) “It only goes to the skin, then it runs off.” And there’s always the Human Condom to climb into at the end of the day.

The Human Condom

But it’s the Cantabrian Mountains which have me a little nervous. I plan to skirt them to the south on the way west to Cape Finisterre, and follow the coast back to Santander for the ferry. But there’s no doubt- there will be hills. One author at the highly useful Freewheeling France suggests parts of the Camino Di Santiago route I’ll roughly follow are closed November-March. Not to worry, I’ll leave the true mountains to the bears (yes, really, there are bears!) and ride round anything I can’t ride over.

The solitude of a long bike ride punctuated by stealthy wild camps really appeals to me. Time to think. Time to write songs (more of that in a later post)  Time not only to ask the big questions of life, but perhaps to answer them too. The luxury of so much time to replace that of a warm bed or the arms of a loved one. Time to go.

* Why now? It’s the time I have available. Between episodes in my life and my work. At a crossroads. On the bike, as in life I’m awful at crossroads. Indecisive. Instictively knowing the way, but lacking the faith to take it. Self-doubt wins again. I check the map with cold hands and a heavy heart. I tell myself that next time I’ll roll through with confidence and trust myself. Trust the road. But I never do. Now it’s time to learn.

Reasons… Part 2 is here.