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Posts tagged ‘Travelling’

Following autumn paths

The river paths are a bit neglected these days; wooden bridges hang by a thread, fallen trees need to be scaled and the bracken and heather have started to encroach. But I’m drawn to that sense of decay, the knowledge that they’re slowly being reclaimed by nature.

There are no barriers, no signs, no people; just generations of history and memories.

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Memories in a bottle

Denmark was smørrebrød, bikes, bacon-wrapped dates, Carlsberg, chocolate-covered liquorice, green fields, grand architecture. And great people.

Our camino memories came flooding back; the laughter, pain, churches, pilgrims, bedbugs and blisters  – enhanced, perhaps, by the Spanish vino tinto on the table and a dram of Benromach, the malt from my “home” distillery in Moray.

No matter where in the world you are, everyone is prepared to try whisky at least once and this one evokes memories.

I grew up near Speyside and when I was little I’d sit on my father’s knee as he drove a tractor and trailer the five miles from our farm to Benromach distillery to collect draff, the distillery by-product that’s used for cattle feed. And as we waited for the trailer to be loaded a half glass of clear liquid would be poured out by the distillery manager for Dad.

Back in those days a bottle would last a year in our house  but Dad drank this full-strength  alcohol neat every time. And then back on the tractor and on his knee, driving at 20 mph up the road to home, he would  be so happy!  It took another ten years before I equated that merriment with the liquid that looked like water.

Benromach closed down for a few decades but has re-entered the market with whisky that’s distinctive amongst the other  Speyside malts. That’s why I always take it as a present on international adventures.

Well no,  if I’m honest, it’s all about the memories; it’s link to the best of times in a blissful childhood.

North by north

When it takes not one but two ferries to reach an island the feeling of remote otherworldliness is intensified. When the culture there speaks more of Norse history, of viking longhouses and longboats, and when rocks are all that break up a sub-Arctic desert landscape, you know you’ve travelled a long way from the familiar in your own country.

So it is with Unst.

I drove as far north as the road would take me, past wild Shetland ponies, freshwater lochs and the bemused-looking native sheep and lambs that freely roam, then walked a long way out across open peaty moors to a wildlife haven to sit, buffeted by the relentless Shetland wind, above the high Hermaness cliffs on the northernmost edge of these isolated  islands.

In the near distance, just past the frantic nesting colonies of gannets, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmers was the reassuring solid white form of  Muckle IMG_6773Flugga lighthouse, built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s father in 1854. And then, north by north to the Arctic Circle, nothing but white-topped grey waves breaking turquoise over the rocks. The birds whirled in the gusting wind then the rain changed its mood from gentle to battering, driving me to find shelter in a hollow near the cliffs.

I met a German photographer there who shared his hot tea as we huddled against the banks and watched the weather develop . We had both been up here before, had developed impressions, images and ideas in our imaginations, and were returning after IMG_6690many years in search of the atmosphere and conditions in which to create new work. As the weather worsened I figured my job was easier than his and retreated back over the moors in search of a bed and a dry place where a pen would work.

The bonxies, the notorious Pirates of the Sea, were brutal beasts; bigger, beefier and much more prolific than I had imagined. They didn’t attack as I walked through their nesting grounds along the path to the cliffs, but wanted me to know they could if they felt like it and had a sinister glint in their eyes as they carried out arrogant reconnaissance missions just above my head. They looked as though they could do serious damage if provoked, or maybe even just for random  fun on a day when too many twitchers dared to disturb their far-flung garrison.

I’ve run out of roads, ferries and even moorland as Muckle Flugga is the very last, most northerly rock in the UK . I can now only turn round and travel south.

In the land of the Simmer Dim

My head is full of clouds. And that’s not a metaphor.

After two days in Shetland my eyes are reeling from the clarity of the light and the intensity of a vast, rapidly changing sky. There’s a never-ending cloudscape drama playing out here between the wind, the sun and the weather and it’s set against a backdrop of turbines, gravestones, rocks and ruins. As I travel I’m constantly stopping to take photographs then to stand still and just watch the movement cross the sky.

Up here on the far northern edge of Europe there are no trees or shrubs to soften the bare starkness of the islands so every feature stands out, defined sharply against  sea and sky. I’m no fan of wind farms and oppose their unchecked development throughout mainland Scotland yet here their cold linearity somehow seems to fit the landscape and add to its drama. And they’re efficient here too, the most productive in the world.

I’ve done a lot of wandering round ancient brochs and buildings and spent hours reading gravestones. On the outskirts of Lerwick there’s a IMG_6557graveyard on the hill tiered down to the edge of the sea so that every grave has a view of the islands and cliffs. A beautiful place.

When it rained I visited the new museum in Scalloway with its captivating exhibition on the “Shetland Bus”, the small scale wartime missions masterminded here and conducted by sailors who took small fishing vessels between these islands and Norway, fuelling the Resistance there and rescuing people from the tyranny of German occupation. The stories of bravery, of boats lost with no survivors and voyages made in horrendous weather make for powerful reading.

Tomorrow I’m tempted to head further north to the island of Unst, and its most northerly point at Hermaness to see the puffins and Bonxies. And I’ve been advised to take a stick to protect myself from attacks by these Great Skuas which dive-bomb and attack as you walk across the moors.

Ah Shetland, whether it’s birds, landscapes or men, you’re not for the faint-hearted.

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Highland Gypsy?

I test drove one of these today, in a fetching shade of blue.

It may not have the kudos of a vintage VW camper but it’s cool. And sleek. And you can stand up in it.

I told the salesman I would be living in it full time and he said I was mad. I suggested that was an unusual sales pitch.  He insisted it just wouldn’t be big enough and made me  look at others which were cumbersome, cheap and oh so ugly.

But this baby has everything I’d need, including room for my tent, walking gear and a bike, which would all fit under the fixed bed at the back. There’s a mini wardrobe, space for books, my camera and possibly even a couple of pairs of shoes. It has a loo and shower, a tiny little kitchen with a fridge and ICE BOX and a table with a revolving armchair (the driver’s seat) where I could sit and write. And there would be a very strong incentive never ever to put on any weight or I wouldn’t fit into my home. Ticks all the boxes really.

It does cost a lot of money though: too much probably. So I’ll need to ponder on whether or not to upgrade my nomadic life to such luxurious levels or to stick to Plan D (or possibly F or G)  … anyway, the one where I use a combination of my tent and Youth Hostels for the summer.

That’s very appealing too.

A solitary voice and tears at the Pilgrim Mass

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Without breaking our stride we walked straight up the steps, out of the sunshine and into the Cathedral.

It was noisy and busy which made it difficult to concentrate on the enormity of the moment. I had been 31 days on the road, walking towards this place.

I unhooked my pack, sank into a pew, undid my boots and waited…

For what, I wasn’t sure. I was grateful to be here of course; for the strength and fitness that made it possible to walk 500 miles; for the friends made along the way; for the story and tradition of the road we had walked and for the special gift of Robbie’s company over the last week.

We wanted to share the experience with his brother so we called him in New Zealand.  Robbie went to find water and still I sat there, gazing at the extravagant gold altarpiece built to glorify St James. Waiting.

It was only 10.45am but already people were filling the 1000 or so seats. Friends and familiar faces from along the way arrived, wandering dazed down the aisles, and we greeted one another and hugged. It was emotional. Visitors, pilgrims, nuns and locals packed into every space and still more arrived and crammed in around the walls. The chatter and sense of expectation grew louder. Then we were hushed.

And the nun sang.

IMG_0766The pure sound of a solitary voice echoed round the ancient walls. We listened, captivated,  then tried to copy her as she taught us to sing alleluia to the beautiful cadences.  The magnificent organ heralded the arrival of the priests. And the mass began.

At the end the huge incense burner, the Botafumeiro was lowered to the fanfare of the organ then the tiraboleiros – the red coated attendants – took up their positions on the ropes and began to pull downwards. The choir sang. I hadn’t dared hope we would arrive on a day when the Botafumeiro was swung. Scores of people rushed up the aisle to watch and photograph it as it picked up speed and rocketed over our heads, drifting streams of smoke as it flew.

P1000638And then it was over. We laced up our boots and loaded on our packs.

We still had to find beds for the night.

Sharing the last steps

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With just 20km to go I was finding it hard to distill how I was feeling about the whole experience of walking the Camino.

The physical challenge had been relatively easy and the camaraderie and communication with people from varied backgrounds all over the globe had been the best fun I’d had in years. I’d made firm friends and laughed with them in the evenings, improved my fitness, compared feet and blisters, become more tolerant and had time to reflect on what to do, where to go, next.

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And yet … old habits and attitudes die hard. I’d given myself a deadline to reach Santiago in time for the Pilgrim Mass at noon the next day so that I could share the experience with Robbie. And that meant getting up at 5am and finding our way in the darkness through the eucalyptus woods.

We got lost and I got anxious. Maybe I hadn’t learned anything after all!

Finally, after so many days on the road, we caught a glimpse of the spires of the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela.

I felt nervous rather than exhilarated: unsure and unprepared. Our feet were sore and for the first time my back was aching. Walking through the suburbs was P1000621relentless and we were pushed along by a growing stream of day pilgrims, tourists, schoolchildren all focused on the 12 o’clock mass. Everyone seemed to be walking urgently.

The scallop shells led the way, the narrow streets were drawing us through, the excitement was palpable. We kept turning to one another and smiling. And then a square opened before us and magnificently, gloriously the cathedral steps beckoned.

We had arrived.