Saturday, 31 August 2013

Down at the farm

Around 5.30 I heared the first movements and slipped out of the room trying not to disturb Anavery. I put the coffee on and settled down to a large bowl of cereal while Tim had a cigarette and Carolina did her final packing. At 6 I said that I would wake Anavery but found him sitting in bed reading his texts. Carolina and Tim left at 6.10 she thanked me warmly for what she and I had shared. Tim said that he hoped that we would meet again on the Chemin. After they had gone I made my final preparations. Anavery said that he had really enjoyed our conversations and wished me well.
Starting today really felt like a new stage in my pilgrimage and I felt that the day off had served me in so many ways.
Dawn had not really broken as I set out. I tarried on the Pont Louis Philippe enjoying the cool air and the quiet of the town. As I walked along the banks of the Lot I said first the Angelus and then Ps 94. I wondered whether I would meet Tim on his way back from the station. It was wonderful to have the Pont Valentre to myself and I made sure that I spotted the devil! Since I had checked out the ascent I knew what to expect. It was nothing compared to Conques! I was soon on a wide path in a rocky valley leading away from Cahors. I reflected on the experience with my friends and wandered happily on.
At my second stop I met Yves and Marie Martine from Provence. Yves spoke very good English and told me that the path was much quieter now on. Apart from them I only met one other person today. Strangely the  two churches on the route were both closed. As the heat of the day built I passed a delightful village qnd I knew that my lodging for the night were between it and Montcuq. The only problem was that I didnt know where! About two km beyong the village there was a sign saying Monastere. At the acceuil I remember that the two ladies had mentioned a Monastere which would be a good place to stay. I followed the signs for 20 minutes but couldnt find either the monastere or a gite!
I retraced my steps. I was reconciled to finding somewhere to stay in Montcuq when I found a stone with an indecipherable name but with a telephone number which coincided with the one on my list. A short distance further on there was a second stone which said Ferme de Bouysse 1.5km. The first 0.5 was on the route and then I had to turn off down a very steep hill for what seemed an interminable km!
Eventually I came out of the woods and found myself in front of a beautiful farm. Two dogs approched me barking loudly. One of them seemed a little threatening. As I watched them a lady made her way down the steps: 'vous etes Gerard' she said and ushered me up the steps. You must need a beer! I put my things down and entered a wonderful farmhouse kitchen. Gisele sat at one side of a massive table and spoke with me as I enjoyed my beer. She explained that neither she nor her husband spoke a word of English! She showed me where I could do my washing and then took me to my room. It was enormous containing a huge double bed, two single beds, and space for a party. There were real sheets on the bed and towels in the bathroom!
Gisele left me to shower and then I did my washing. I returned to the room and promptly fell asleep for half an hour. Eventually when I went outside to read Gisele was pottering in the kitchen. I met her husband Jean Pierre outside. I offered to pay Gisele and she commented that It was dangerous to do so before I had eaten! She took my money €28! and stamped my pilgrims passport. I had the curious thought that so far the most expensive place to stay had been the Monastery of Conques!
Supper was served at 7. When I arrived I discovered that there were only three places set. Basically it was Gisele, her husband, and I. Jean Pierre arrived with aperitifs and then we settled into a banquet of soup, beans tomatoes eggs and melon, deliciously tender steaks, cheese and lettuce, and creme caramel! I would lie if I said that the conversation flowed but we had a great time for nearly two hours.
We agreed that breakfast would be at 6.30 and then there was a delighful touch. Jean Pierre reminded me that my socks were still on the line and suggested that I bring them in to air inside! I was taken aback by both the thoughtfulness and graciousness of these two people.
Needless to say I had a wonderful nights sleep. I was up around 5.30 getting my things ready. Around 6.20 I heared movements upstairs. Jean Pierre was busy making toast when I went into the kitchen. There were five different types of home made jam, home made yoghurt and the Creme Caramel from the night before! I noticed that the remains of the melon had been wrapped up as Gisele had suggested that I could use them on the way! During dinner Gisele said that Jean Pierre alays has soup for breakfast and, sure enough, he sat down with a bowl full. I noticed an inscription over the fireplace : 'Il n'y a pas le chemin vers le bonheur, le bonheur c'est le chemin'!
We chatted away and, just as I was going to make my final preparations Gisele appeared. I filled into the visitors book and noticed that it was more than 10 days since their last guests. When I returned to the kitchen with my pack on my back Gisele was coming in with four tomatoes for me. She carefully washed them, wrapped them in kitchen towel and stuffed them into my pack. As she watched me put on my sandals she asked whether I wore them in England. Doesnt it get a little cold in winter she asked. As I took leave of her the final word she said was 'ultreia'.
There was a another gesture to their overwheming generosity. The previous evening I had asked whether I had to return up the path. No there is a shorter alternative they said. This morning Jeqn Pierre was ready with a map. He took me round the back of the house until a shaded lane was obvious. He warned me that when I came to the first road I should go straight across. He then shook my hand warmy and wished me a good chemin. The dogs ran down the lane with me but, when I looked back, Jeqn Pierre had already gone. They were both an object lesson in hospitality.


 Having bumped into Carolina and Tim at the Accueil I spent the next twenty minutes arranging my accomodation for the next three days. I wandered back past the Cathedral to the bar which had taken my fancy the night before but which Daniel had found too expensive! The €14.50 menu was still available and I was given a table right on the street. I ordered salad and a crepe and a half bottle of Cahors wine.
I noticed something about my attitude to Cahors compared to Fijeac. I stayed in pilgrim mode dallying in the street and not rushing about. It made a huge difference! It soon became obvious to me that I had inadvertently come across one of the sort after eating places! People were coming by with their D and K guides and it was not long before the outside tables were all full. A party of six brits turned up and were disgruntled to be placed inside. Eventually people were being turned away. I savoured my food and wine. Before I knew it an hour and a half had passed by! When I went to pay the bill I noticed that two people had taken my table even before it had been cleared.
I wandered off to the tourist office to write another blog and then to the supermarket to buy bread for the evening and soap (I had left mine at Cajarc!). As I was leaving the supermarket I met Tim who said that the gite was closed until 3.30. Since I knew that there was a place to sit outside I sauntered back. It was not long before Tim joined me. The gite opened promptly and I rested for 20 minutes before returning to town to buy the food for the evening. In the market I met Carolina and Anavery. I suggested a supper of Kiche, Pate, Salad, Potatoes, and Fruit. Carolina said that she was off to the railway station to buy her ticket for tomorrow but would be back to help with the preparations.
In fact it was a simple supper to prepare as the potatoes were the only thing that needed cooking!  Tim was around and Anavery soon appeared. When Carolina returned everything was nearly ready.
We had a delightful evening and both Carolina and Anavery wanted my blogspot. Over the meal they quizzed me about a whole variety of things. After supper Anavery was already connected! I did ask him about the waymarkers and he said that they are done by volunteers!
We talk a lot in the Church about evangelisation. I reflected on the long conversation with Marion in Espalion and her comments: I can't believe that I am having this conversation with a Catholic priest, and I dont know what my grandfather would think as he is a communist! In my conversations with Carolina and Anavery over a number of days I reflected that evangelisation only begins when we meet people and share with the, reflectively. On the Chemin that happens spontaneously!
Carolina said that she would have to leave just after six and I said that I would put on the coffee. Anavery grimmaced at this but then admitted that he had to meet someone around 7.30. You can be my alarm clock he said. I went to bed around 9 but didnt fall asleep until the lights were put out around 11. It didnt matter as I felt that I was resting.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013


On the 7th day God rested and on the 14th so did I!  I am now in Cahors. I identified this as a likely stopping place before I set off. Yesterday began a magical day with sun and mist. The mist created strange patterns. At one point it caused the sun to focus on the metal on a telegraph pole creating the shape of a cross. Later as I descended a shaded lane behind me the mist created an impression of fire. Both mist and fire are appropriate symbols for the pilgrimage . The mist is a symbol of our lack of clarity and our failure to attune ourselves to God's way of doing things . The fire is one of the archetypal symbols and reminds us of our need for purification.
I noticed that my shadow was elongated in front of me. As the sun grew higher in the sky my shadow was more its normal size and closer to me. It struck me that a pilgrimage is about walking with your shadow. Daniel came along at one of my breaks and I didn't see him again until the end of the day. I was tired when Cahors came in sight and had developed a pain in my back . I had another detour in finding the gite which Daniel and I had  to ourselves. We went over to the wonderful Cathedral to have our credentials stamped and to attend the mass. There was a pilgrim' site blessing at the end and one of those blessed had started in Geneva!  Over supper Daniel surprised me by saying that he was heading on tomorrow . He had been my companion for over a week and I had enjoyed his calm presence.
The following morning I saw him off having exchanged addresses and I settled down to read the Psalms. I planned the day carefully. It began with a visit to the pharmacy, aptly called the St George! The pharmacist was most helpful but also said that a day' site rest would do me a lot of good. I then went to see the impressive Pont Valentre and the path for tomorrow. I then headed for the tourist office to find where I could get wifi. To my surprise I found that they offered this service free in the office itself!  I spent over an hour doing my blog and oblivious to what was going on around me. Around 11.30 I decided that lunch beckoned, and then at a whim decided to go to the accueil of pilgrim's to book some gites for the coming days. As I entered the office the first person that I met was Carolina!  We greeted warmly. She and Tim are in the same gite and so I suggested that we get together for supper. A pilgrimage is full of wonderful encounters!  I spent 20 minutes while the ladies booked three nights for me and then retired for a delicious lunch. Three cheers for Shabbat! 

The rough places

Cajarc on Monday morning was a dismal place!  Nothing was open and the sky was heavy. I set off without breakfast since there was none provided by the Gite and nothing was open. After a gentle walk to Gaillac you enter the Causse. The guidebook warns about the dangers even today and on this morning it looked particularly foreboding. I was reminded of The Lord of the Rings a book that I believe is full of great symbolism. I was also reminded of Isaiah's ' making the rough places smooth' For me the pilgrimage is about making the rough places of our heart and soul smooth.
 Even when there was a brief parting of the tree cover a mist had descended. After 2 hours I stopped for chocolate and water. I toiled on and reached Limorgne around 11. Just before the village I noticed a lady watching me . When I reached her she asked me if I was a walker. I said that I was a pilgrim. She asked me if I had come from Velay. I thought that she meant Vezalay but obviously the locals refer to Le Puy in this way. She wished me well. Ominously the small supermarket at the start of the village said' ferme lundi'. The next shop that I went to was also closed. I retreated to the church where I discovered that the tabernacle had an image of the Rublev Trinity on the door. I reflected that only a few months ago I had stood in front of the original. Back outside the church I noticed a shop that was open. When I entered it was a smart deli. There were a number of customers waiting to be served and an impressive array of products. I saw some cheese and waited . As I got closer to the head of the queue I noticed some delicious looking individual quiches. An old lady who was waiting with her friend offered me a seat!Who said that a pilgrimage is not about learning humidity?I retired to the nearest bar and ordered a coffee. While I was drinking it Daniel appeared. He asked me where the shop was but eventually reappeared muttering that he could not find it. I suspect the truth was that he found it too expensive!  He asked at the bar and they said that there was a supermarket at the end of the village. Daniel set off as I finished my second coffee. I noticed a couple weighing me up. As I prepared to leave I asked them if they were English. They were from Ipswich. They had been helping celebrate the 80th birthday of a friend. They said that they were going to Figeac. I said that I had walked from there over the last two days. They were most solicitous and wished me well.
I caught up with Daniel at the supermarket and added tomatoes, bread and chocolate to my rations. At a bench we had our lunch. Leaving first I wandered down the track singing Taize chants. About two km out of the village there was a sign to the Dolmen of Joncas. Both here and on the Aubrac plateau there is much evidence of ancient civilisation. We are a tiny part of the long procession of humanity. I wandered down a beautiful avenue to see the Dolmen. When I returned to the main path I thought that Daniel might have passed by. In fact I could see him in the distance. As he approached I could hear that he was also singing. This time it was Ulreia.I directed him to the dolmen and headed on.Today's gite is an exception as it is right on the path. The owner is French but her husband English. They are newly opened this year and have finished the Gite to a great standard. It only has capacity for 10 . Over dinner I was fascinated to hear the stories of others and to see the common thread.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Around and about.

Armed with a map of Figeac I set off in search of the Gite. I crossed the bridge and wandered down the street as it threatened to rain. There was a man in a bus stop and I asked him whether I was in the right street. He said no, but had no idea where I should go,! I retraced my steps and realised that I should not have crossed the bridge. I found the street and, at a double gate found the name of the Gite. Beyond looked like an allotment and I passed chickens, vegetables, an outside loo and arrive in front of a slightly dilapidated house. Since there was no bell I went up the stairs and tried the door. As it opened I realised that there was a dog inside! I closed the door quickly and soon a young man appeared who said that he would put his shoes on and show me my room. At first he showed me a sort of studio flat, but then the owner told him that I was in the other room. He led me back down the garden to a squat bunkhouse which had four beds in it. When he had gone I unpacked my things and went for a shower where I proceeded to flood the room!  I dried things off and set off to write my blog. As the rain had come to nothing I decided to visit the town. It has a wonderful medieval heart but I soon realised that being a pilgrim and a tourist don't mix! It was only when I entered the magnificent church of St Saviours which had been a benedictine Abbey that I found any peace. After a happy visit I wandered up to the covered market in the vain hope that I would meet my Dutch friends.  After half an hour I bought some vegetables and fruit and headed back to the Gite. By now it was clear that I was the only person staying there. Supper was served in the garden with an over friendly dog and a delightful little boy who got very excited when I was served pasta. I was told that breakfast was left for me to organise for myself. I had a good night with the impression that I was sleeping in the open air. In the morning I was on the road before 7.00am. The lady had assured me that it would not rain nevertheless it was a threatening day. At my first stop where I munched my tomatoes and greengages I was passed by two French people who said that they had met various foreigners but I was the first English person. Another opinion over here is that a priest from England must be Anglican!
It was a long and hard day and as I approached Cajarc the rain began.I found the Gite easily and optimistically did my washing. (I managed to lose my detergent in the process! ) At this point Daniel appeared. I wandered off in the drizzle to view the town and then returned to rest. Daniel suggested that we went out for supper but was not too happy with the recommendation of the Gite. I was amused that when we did go out he proceeded to have an argument with the waitress because the cheapest dish was not on the menu. By now it was raining steadily.
Between Cajarc and Cajors there is an area called the Causse. Even the modern guidebook warns that it is a dangerous place. How must it have been to the early pilgrim? It is scrubland with knarled trees. It seems most appropriate for the second phase of the pilgrimage. The mood is one of quiet waiting. 

Some thoughts.

I want to return to two things that I referred to in a previous posting. The lovely pilgrim prayer which I printed in an earlier post refers to the Exodus.  It is good to remember that the Exodus was a resounding failure!  It went on for 40 years because the people would not get the message of God. By the end almost all of those who left Egypt were dead. Even Moses died before the journey ended. Perhaps the most succinct summary of the experience is found in the final lines of Psalm 94 where the words are put on God's lips:Then I took an oath in my anger. These people do not know my ways. Never shall they enter my rest. "
Knowing God's ways is our challenge here on earth. A problem we have in English is that the verb 'know' is usually seen as an intellectual assent. In other languages there is a second word for knowing which connotes intimacy. That is the way that we are called to know God. The idea of entering God's rest is a wonderful symbol for heaven. The alternative is an eternity of toil. The choice is ours.
I also want to return to the Eliot quote which I misquoted!
What I wrote was: Not less of love but expanding of love beyond desire and thus liberation from the past as well as the future.
In fact Eliot has a different progression:
Not less of love but expanding of love beyond desire and liberation from the future as well as the past.
On this pilgrimage it is clear to me that we can only be liberated from the future if we have been liberated from the past. In the steadiness and the routine of the walk much liberation takes place. 

Saturday, 24 August 2013

A quieter day.

Carolina and I had a look round the village and then headed off to our gites. At the blue Shell the door was open and there was a message to leave your sack. I was just doing this when Claire the owner appeared. She offered me juices and water.
She explained where I could do the washing and booked me into a place in Figeac for tomorrow. I rested and then headed into the village since I had arranged to meet Carolina at 6.00. On my way up I met a young man whom I recognised from Conques. He greeted me warmly and said that Carolina was in the square. I also saw Daniel. Carolina and Tim told me that they wanted me to have supper at their gite which had a lovely garden. The young French man was called Anavery and originated from Finisterre in Britanny. He is now an engineer working in Paris and learned his first English at Kenmore on Loch Tay. As well as Daniel there was a woman who originated from Franche Compte but who now lives in Brussels. Since the weather had improved we had a lovely evening in the garden. It is amazing how a pilgrimage throws up so many chance encounters.
This morning dawned damp and breakfast was in Claire's sitting room. Donned with my cape I was on the road just after 7.00am. It was a gentle walk and I had a huge salad and charcuterie at 11. I later met Carolina. At Figeac I called at the tourist office to locate my lodgings. I seem to have them to myself. A lovely quiet day.
On the road near Figeac
The tympanum at Conques

Entering the second phase.

The walk to Conques was one of the hottest and there was a sense of expectation amongst the numerous pilgrims. As we began the descent I noticed something unusual in a tree. I was sure that it was a raptor and sure enough as I watched it took to the sky in search of prey. The descent became quite precipitous and reminded me of the paths above Dulce Nombre. I was soon alongside Carolina and I recounted how the entrance to the museum at Copan is through the mouth of the serpent. For the Mayans this signifies entering a new reality. Arriving at Conques was quite like that. Amazingly you only get the first view of the Abbey when it is less than 50 metres away!
I took Carolina to see the tympanum before we checked into the Abbey guesthouse. As they were not ready for us we went off for a beer. Having checked in and discovered that there was no wifi I had a rather hot and restless afternoon. For the first time I questioned why I was on the pilgrimage. I felt very disenchanted.
At 6.30 there were Vespers and it was incredibly moving to be in such a holy place where prayers had been said for over a thousand years. Before supper the community came to welcome us . After supper I made a vain attempt to book somewhere for tomorrow. Compline was at 8.30 and was followed by a pilgrim's blessing and then we processed to the medieval carving of the Virgin to sing the Salve. As we did so we sung Ulreia the pilgrimage song which I had first met on the second night. The tranquillity in the Abbey after Compline was tangible. Frere Daniel then took us outside to lead a reflection on the Tympanum. As I was heading to bed I met the two men from Normandy who were at the Gite where I was thrown out. They were still very embarrassed and told me that there had been two empty beds. During the night I heard an owl and it reminded me that the owl is a symbol of wisdom. Reflecting on my dark mood of the afternoon I realised that I would need both wisdom and the help of others to complete this pilgrimage.
Next morning something significant happened. I had gone downstairs to fill my water and found Carolina ready to go. I love the early morning, she said and I want to make the most of it. As I returned to my room I decided to imitate her. I was ready for off before 7.00am. The ascent from Conques is a veritable Via Crucis- an hour of unremitting climbing punctuated once by a view back to the Abbey. It allowed me to reflect on the mood of the previous afternoon. Firstly I realised that it was caused by hunger. A number of people have warned me to take care to eat well during the day. Secondly there is a real sense that the pilgrimage is entering a new phase. The section from Le Puy to Conques is very focused and there are two great sources of refreshment in the Churches. Beyond Conques the route is less travelled. I reflected that the Pilgrim prayer refers to the archetypal journeys of the Old Testament. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says of Abraham that he "journeyed to an unknown land" I am soon learning that walking the Camino is the same. Getting to Santiago soon becomes irrelevant. The pilgrim has to face their own unknown land which is the dislocation of their relationship with God. The physical journey is the medium for the far deeper journey. Eliot puts it like this: "Not less of love, but expanding of love beyond desire and thus liberation from the future as well as the past. "
I can vouch for the fact that there is much liberation from the past when you are walking at less than 2 miles per hour!  The second biblical journey is that of the Exodus which has been described as "wandering in the desert" Again the Camino involves a lot of wandering. By now I was at the top of the hill and my dark mood far behind me. After two hours I came to a village and hoped that the store would be open. I was heartened to see Carolina come out of it. I ordered a coffee and bought some fruit. Carolina gave me a yoghurt. Since there was a phone box across the street I decided to phone a Gite only to discover that the box only takes cards! I wandered back into the shop and asked for help. Of course there was the usual hilarity about my surname. The first gite did not answer and then the man tried one called the "Blue Shell" When it was all done I asked how much it would cost he said nothing. As we prepared to leave I bought some bread and cheese remembering my experience of the previous day.
Carolina and I set off and soon reached an ancient chapel. Many of those that we have passed have been beautifully restored, often with remarkable stained glass. There were two windows in this chapel. The first reflected on life and eternity, but it was the second which took my breath away. There was an exquisite crucifixion with a naked Christ. I don't think that I have ever seen this before but this is precisely what would have happened. Crucifixion involved the total humiliation of the victim. Again there analogies for the pilgrimage. The pilgrim has to be stripped of everything that separates them from God. "A naked intent unto God" as the author of the Cloud puts it. I was also reminded that the "covering of nakedness" is one of the first symbols in the book of Genesis for the dislocation of our relationship with God.
I did tell Carolina two stories about Michealangelo's Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. When it was first shown some of the Cardinals were incandescent with rage since Michealangelo had put them among the damned. A few decades after the fresco was completed the Pope had many of the naked bodies covered over.
Today was the first time that I walked most of the day in the company of another Pilgrim.
We had two picnics on the way and arrived at Livinhac- le-Haut just before 2.30. On the final stage we saw a large snake It was quite long and lay at the side of the path. When it did dart away we both agreed that we were happy that it went in the opposite direction to where we were standing.

Friday, 23 August 2013

The eighth day (cont' d)

After a slightly restless night there was a general sense of focus on the journey to Conques. For the medieval mind the church building has a real significance. It is a foretaste of heaven. When you enter the building you are in the presence of God. Medieval churches were so big so that they could be seen for miles. I reflected that during my training the two buildings which were often present were Gloucester Cathedral and Tewkesbury Abbey. In my time at Ampleforth one of my favourite walks was up the hill to see York Minster 23 miles away seeming like a great ship in the plain of York. Going to Conques was a reminder of the significance of the journey.
Despite this observation one of the characteristics of Conques is that it is hidden from all directions . The only sense that I was getting close to it was the increasing number of walkers.

The eighth day

The eighth day has a huge resonance for many spiritual writers. It is the day out of time, or the day of the new creation. This is vividly illustrated by the magnificent baptistery at Florence which is octagonal. The newly baptized enter into a new reality. Paul puts it this way :"When you were baptized, you were baptized into the death of Christ so that you might have a share in His resurrection. ' He also speaks of a new creation. " This is easily accessible on the Chemin. Baptism ceases to be a moment in time but an invitation to a new relationship with God.
In many ways it was appropriate that the 8th day had Conques as it's destination. The day before from Espalion to Golinhac was very tiring and very hot. During the morning I walked along the Lot. In the intense heat of the afternoon there was a very amusing incident. I had booked a Gite named in the Cicerone guide as the' Hameau de Saint Jacques. On arrival at the village there were many Gites signed but not mine. I looked for someone to ask but everyone seemed to be having their siesta. I saw a Gite called Le Petit Saint Jacques. I followed the signs and arrived just behind two men that I had seen on the way. They were talking to the owner who broke off the conversation when he saw me: 'Vous etes le anglais' He said and led the three of us to a couple of rooms. I settled in and the older of the two introduced himself as being from Normandy. He also said that he was going to the shop in case I needed Anything . I went through the usual routines and then settled down to read the Psalms. I heard Frank return and, about an hour later the patron reappeared. His attitude had totally changed Apparently there was another Englishman who had now arrived, and I was in his room The patron stormed around berating me in English and French. He then stormed off . The two frenchmen could not have been more helpful and tried to phone the number of the Gite which I had on my sheet. The patron reappeared and said that he would charge me 10 Euro for using the shower and lying on the bed. I said that was fine and he said that he would wait for me in the house. When I was nearly finished the wife of the patron appeared and demanded the money. I wandered down to the campsite and enquired about the Hameau. It has not existed for more than 5 years, I was told. (So much for Cicerone! ) She did say that my reservation was with them and I was soon installed in the familiar dormitory. What is more there was wifi!  I was writing when Daniel appeared. I said that I was going to the Auberge in the centre of the village for supper. He said that he would join me and we had a delicious meal washed down with a bottle of Estaing wine. Daniel is from Burgundy as is justly proud of its wine but he declared that this wine was excellent. Since Daniel speaks no English we communicated in French. He shared some very personal experiences of his walk so far. 

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

More photos

The start! 

The distance

Leaving from Gloucestershire on 12th


At the well 

En route for Conques o

Quite a lot of Lot

Dawn broke still and cool but I sensed from the lack of wind that it would be a hot day . Yesterday I discovered that my sun hat had fallen from my pocket,luckily I could replace it in the town. Daniel and I had to wait for the bread to arrive before we could have breakfast. Daniel commented that it would be a long day. Our route wound its way along the Lot. There is a leapfrog effect on the road where you pass and re-pass each other. In the early morning there was a real sense of the approach of autumn. The meadows were drenched with the dew. By 8.30 the sun was already hot. The day got hotter and hotter. Above Estaing the route climbed steadily as the river dropped away . There was a young French family enjoying the glorious weather . It was easy for them to outpace me!  Around 1pm I emerged from the woods with spectacular views back over the route of the previous days. Over a stop by a well the Dutch quizzed me. Most people here don't think that there are any Catholics in England! They were fascinated about Salvador. Part of the pilgrimage experience is to share stories. It was an intensely hot day but,as I reached Golinhac the views were quite overpowering.


The via Podiensis begins in the department of the Haute Loire. Le Puy is only 75km from Claremont Ferrand. It is very much the Masif Central. Very quickly you pass into the Lozere but the ambience is still high mountain plateau. By the 3rd day you are in the Aveyron which covers 100km of the route.  In the guide book I had noticed mention of a local delicacy called Aligot. I thought that it would be good to try it.  On Sunday night we had finished our salad when the hostess appeared with an enormous saucepan and an equally large wooden spatula. She proceeded to dollop large quantities of a creamy coloured glutinous substance on our plates-Ali got. It is a mixture of potato and cheese. It was actually delicious.
In the 1970s when I was learning to kayak one instructor said that the key is to regard the kayak as part of yourself. On the chemin I feel the same about my rucksack. It becomes an extension of yourself and repays you if you give it meticulous attention.
During the day today the two words which I have used are - waiting and stillness. We have to graciously wait on God.   (The prophet Isaiah says that God waits on us). In the early part of the day I  was walking just behind another Pilgrim for more than an hour. Competitiveness is not part of the experience.
After a long walk through woods the town of Saint-Come d'olt appeared in the valley below signalling the end of the Aubrac and the beginning of the Lot valley section of the walk.
Saint-Come is a lovely town with delightful medieval streets . Since it was nearly noon I asked a man who was arranging his bar what time lunch would be available.He clearly had his eye on more 'up-market' customers as he directed me away! Passing the Romanesque chapel de Perse I arrived at Espalion around 2.30. It is a delightful  town in the Upper Lot with an an ancient bridge. Our Auberge was a very old house just over the same bridge. There was a notice at the entrance saying that if you had a booking you should just find your room and settle in. I was soon joined by two delightful Dutch people and later by Daniel from Cluny who had set off from his home. The Dutchman,called Tim, had set off from Vezalay. We were later joined by a German who I had met previously.
I wandered into town for a beer. Over supper I fell into a profound conversation with Marion who is from Tours..It was a lovely evening. Today was the first time that I experienced the fellowship of the pilgrimage.

Monday, 19 August 2013

'Gigantic solitude'

Today began at 7.00am. During breakfast-which included Apricot and Mint jam- our hostess advised us that rain was forecast. Immediately outside the Auberge was a plaque to a man who had been born in the next hamlet. The man was Louis Dalle. Only in his teens he was interred in Buckenwald for over a year. After the war he became a missionary to the Altiplano of Peru. He ultimately became the Bishop of Ayaviri in Peru which,at 4000m, claims to be the diocese at the highest altitude in the world. Bishop Dalle  died in a road accident at the relatively early age of 60. To find a plaque in such an isolated part of France was though provoking. One of the motifs of the Camino is about spreading the message of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Louis Dalle certainly did that!
Quite soon our hostess' prediction proved correct and a light rain began to fall allowing me to try out my poncho. It is far from elegant, but most effective. Throughout the day we were walking over the Aubrac plateau. The first section was very reminiscent of the border country South of Peebles.  For the first time I had a sense that I was walking an ancient path which had ensured for millenia. I was reminded of the advice that we were given at the Pilgrim's day in London about taking care to look back. Yesterday Matt had commented that looking back made him feel satisfied since that was land that had been covered. Today I am reminded of Eliot:
'At the still point of the turning World . And do not call it fixity. Neither from nor towards . At the point the dance is'.
Being on pilgrimage is about tarrying at the still point and becoming absorbed in it . Here in the Aubrac it id not just the prrsent but also theblong procession of humanity. At times the obvious antiquity of the rocks inspired even deeper reflection.  After more than two hours I came to a small town. I visited the church and then, as the rain was heavier, I retired to a bar for a coffee. The next two hours were over a moor very like Northumberland. Not surprisingly two images from that part of England came to mind. Early in his Ecclesiastical History Bede compares the life of man to a bird which flies into the hall of an earldorman and out again without any one noticing. The same image is used by Kathleen Raine in her Northumberland Sequences IV:
' Let in the nameless formless power that beats upon my door. .. the banshee howling on the moor.
The bracken bush on the bleak hillside....
How can my fearful heart conceive gigantic solitude'.

 On the Chemin it is easy to conceive gigantic solitude. It is not loneliness but an intense sense of presence. Presence to God, to self and to others . These were my thoughts as I wound my way slowly across the moor. Today the flowers were different.  There was one which attracted my attention. It had five petals. The top four were like two sets of wings and the fifth made a tail. The petals were intense purple . The top two with a border which was almost black. I called it my butterfly flower
After nearly two hours I reached the village of Aubrac. At the entrance to the village was an Alsatian cross with the following inscription: In the silence and the solitude the only thing that you notice is the essential. I was amazed at how closely this matched my reflections. In Aubrac there were some lovely touches. There was an elderly couple sitting on a bench by the path. When she saw my poncho the lady said that I would need it as rain was on the way. Another man wished me 'courage'. On the road out of the village a couple of the occupants of passing cars waved enthusiastically. Below the village the raspberries re-appeared. After 7 and a half hours I was at the Auberge

Perspectives and chance encounters

Each year that I was at St Edwards  I accompanied the members of the art department on a residential art workshop to the Forest of Dean . Over 4 days the art students were opened up to a wide variety of techniques. One which fascinated me involved them creating a tiny square in a woodland setting and making the detail the centre piece of their painting. It was an object lesson in perspective.  In many ways a pilgrimage is a similar object lesson.  Your perspective is often focused on the next half kilometre. As a result the attention to detail is remarkable-changes in wind direction, presence or absence of cloud etc . Today I was looking at a bee and a butterfly together on the same beautiful flower.
I am reminded of the story of how one of his confreres at Stonyhurst once found Gerard Manley Hopkins observing individual snowflakes with a magnifying glass.

'Though mastering me God, giver of breath and bread. World's strength, sway of the sea, Lord of living and dead. Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fashioned me flesh and after it almost unmade what with dread thou doing. And dost thou touch me afresh over again I feel thy finger and find thee. '

Feeling the finger of God is at the heart of the pilgrimage experience. For me this gives rise to wonder and gratitude. Wonder at the glory of creation, gratitude that I am part of it. Those who know me well would be amazed at my dawdling pace. 'Tread softly and tread carefully' is my mantra. Today, like yesterday, the sides of the path abounded in wild raspberries-Delicious!  The abundance of God made freely available!
Towards one o'clock, in the heat of the afternoon I came to a crossroads. There was a café with three or four tables. Unhitching my rucksack which I have now christened Oscar I went inside to find the owner- a lady of a certain age- eating her lunch. I asked for a sandwich and was told that there was only cheese so I ordered that and a coke. At the next table three youngsters were speaking in English. I asked them where they came from and the girl answered Spain! I recognised them from the Pilgrims Mass in Le Puy on 14th. Since the other two in the group did not speak Spanish we reverted to English . I asked them why they were going to Santiago and then remembered that the girl had told the Bishop that she is Galician and was walking home! Matt, her husband, is from Peterborough and I commented on the connection with the Camino since Catherine of Aragon is buried in Peterborough Cathedral.
I noticed another raptor and they said that it is a Red Kite . After lunch we walked together as the path entered the Aubrac. I noticed that there were ancient standing stones at the edge of our route . It was a cloudless afternoon but the heat was tempered by the fact that the Aubrac plateau is around 1000-1200metres above sea level.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Saturday 17th August

After a couple of days without wifi I can now make a post. Each of the first three days have been different.  On Thursday I set off from Le Puy in glorious sunshine. Leaving the city was like climbing out of a saucer with spectacular views in all directions. The views  back to Le Puy were particularly impressive. Despite my apprehension about the enormity of the task ahead I was pleased to be actually on the road . At this early stage I simply concentrated on the next hour and not on the extraordinary distance which I am endeavouring to walk. The first day there were a number of chapels along the route. I stopped in each one and offered a prayer especially for dead relatives and friends. A delightful touch in each chapel was that  there were glasses and water. On both the first two days I had a raptor circling around me in the heat of the afternoon-quite appropriate since my rucksack is called a kestrel!
I arrived at St Privat d'Allier before 2.00pm only to find that the gite did not open until 4.00pm! There is something frustrating about walking for over 6 hours only to find the place closed! (Fortunately this would prove to be a rare occurrence.) My first companions were three frenchmen . Two of them said that they planned to walk the whole way . After that first night I never saw them again.
On Friday I had a daunting day with 30km and a massive climb up the Allier gauge. The walk was 8 hours but it was worth it for what came at the end. My destination was an Auberge run by 2 former pilgrims. The welcome gave me a huge insight into the spirit of the pilgrimage . I was welcomed by Lucette the wife of Jean-Louis Bouffar who insisted that I drank plenty of deliciously cool water before she showed me my room which had five beds and its own bathroom. No rucksacks were permitted in the room as a precaution against the spread of bed bugs! There was a comfortable terrace and ample space to dry washing . I also noticed that there was no alcohol on sale. The two Belgians who were carrying their luggage on sledges also turned up.
Before supper I met Jean-Louis.He asked about my plans and declared that I would be in Santiago in just over 60 days . It was only later that I realised just how accurate he was . On the second evening 60 days seemed like an eternity.
Nothing really prepared me for what happened next. Around 7 we assembled for supper.There must have been about 25 of us.Jean-Louis began by offering each of us an aperitif. He then took up a guitar and taught us the song Ultreia. We then sat down to a hearty supper washed down with ample quantities of wine . At the end of the meal Jean-Louis spoke about the philosophy of the pilgrimage and the meaning of Ultreia.He said that every pilrim who makes it to Santiago has a choice . They can either return home with a sense of achievement or with a sense of responsibility . The true pilgrim attempts to live out in their daily life what they have experienced during the pilgrimage . It was a message which resonated throughout my own pilgrimage. Ultreia really refers to this challenge: 'above and beyond'.
Having served digestivos he opened the floor to all for a general singsong. When I finally retired to bed the singing still continued.
After breakfast I took my leave of them. Today dawned cloudy and the walk was along a valley and through woods. Towards the end the vista opened up to a wonderful sky and rolling hills. Tonight I am in a tiny hamlet . The evenings assume a routine-shower, washing the clothes, and then rest with supper at 7. I am praying the Psalms and reading Eliot-especially The Journey of the Magi and Little Gidding. I feel amazingly privileged to have set out on this journey and I feel surrounded by support and prayers. 

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Ready to go

Many months ago when I set Le Puy en Velay as the starting point for my pilgrimage I was clear that it should begin on the Feast of the Assumption. There were two reasons for this: one of the earliest known pilgrimages to Santiago was that undertaken by the Bishop of Le Puy -Godesalc-who completed his pilgrimage in the first half of the 10th century. This established Le Puy as an ancient pilgrimage centre under the protection of Mary the Mother of God.
The second reason was more personal. One characteristic of my late father was his devotion to Our Lady and, from the outset, I saw the pilgrimage as a tribute both to his memory and to the profound influence that he has had on me.
My original intention was to attend the Pilgrims Mass at 7.00 am on the 15th and then to start walking. My first night in Le Puy gave me a rude awakening to one of the hazards of the Camino,namely snorers! A disturbed night's sleep saw me awake long before 6.00am on August 14th . On a clear morning I made my way up the hill to the Cathedral. By 7.00am there must have been more than 60 pilgrims as well as the religious community . Bishop Brincard personally presided at the mass and gave a thoughtful homily. Even more remarkably, after the Mass, he assembled all of the Pilgrims around the statue of St James. For more than half an hour he spoke at length about the spirituality of the Camino. (It struck me as an object lesson as to how a Bishop should exercise his pastoral ministry). Referring to the Camino as 'the first long distance path in Europe', the Bishop also made the extraordinary claim that the Camino 'gave Europe its heart'.
He challenged us to see our enterprise in the 21st century as a way of giving Europe new heart by eschewing the values of consumerism and secularism. It was an exhortation which I would return to many times in the subsequent days. The Bishop personally blessed each pilgrim and offered us a 'friendship medal' to carry on our way. We were also invited to carry the petitions of those who had visited the Cathedral.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Pilgrim prayer

O God, who brought your servant Abraham
Out of the land of the Chaldeans
Protecting him in his wanderings,
Who guided the Hebrew people across the desert,
We ask you to watch over us, your servants,
As we walk in the love of your name to Santiago de Compostela  .
Be for us our companion on the walk
Our guide at the crossroads, our breath in the weariness
Our protection in danger,  our albergue on the Camino
Our shade in the heat, our light in the darkness
Our consolation in our discouragements
And our strength in our intentions
So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound
At the end of the road and enriched with grace and virtue
We return safely to our homes filled with joy.
In the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord.  Amen
Mary, Mother of God. Pray for us.
Saint James.  Pray for us.

During the pilgrimage I would encounter various versions of this prayer . I tried to pray it each morning before I set out. The use of Abraham as the paradigm is significant . His journey which was both physical and spiritual is what each pilgrim tries to imitate.

En voyage

Just had supper in Tavistock Square. Arrived in London after lovely weekend with friends in Gloucestershire. It is a strange feeling to know that all of the planning is over. Now it is just me and a rucksack!  Tomorrow Euro star.
There is a sense of aloneness and apprehension . And yet I have waited 18 years for this opportunity.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Hair cut for the journey

Training over

Yesterday was my 85th day of training (only one to go!). I walked South from Cheltenham and ended up in the village of Slad where I had dinner with friends. My destination was, perhaps, appropriate since Slad was the childhood home of Laurie Lee and it was from Slad that he set off on the walk which became the basis of his book: 'As I walked out one summer morning'. I am off to stay with friends tomorrow and, on Monday, the journey begins.