Early on the morning of July 5 the wind was a south easterly, which meant that we would have it behind us literally all the way to Milton Keynes where we would stay overnight before boarding the European Bike Express. This coach operates between the UK and France in the summer months, and is a viable alternative to the ferry and planes. When I phoned, there were only two tickets unsold and we decided to take them. The idea was to reach Spain, do the ride, and then think about getting back home. A bit foolhardy perhaps. But we really hadn’t a clue how long the ride would be, or even if we would make it to Santiago. “Trust in the Camino” is one of the Pilgrims’ sayings and we were well and truly embracing it.
And now we were off! Bikes fully laden, our first stop was just 11 miles from home, where we met our daughter, Kathy at our local Wyevale outlet. She handed over five tiny stones plucked from her garden. This was a request from me as I also had some stones given to us by other various family members and our job was to see they reached Cruz de Ferro safely. Why? I hear you ask. And why stones? While researching the Camino, I found that people often leave a stone at this particular point as a way of lightening your soul, leaving your burdens, problems, and challenges at the foot of the Cross. The stones are an expression of faith, and a hope for the future. I also like the idea of leaving stones from those who are significant in my own life and as a mark that, even as we are unable to be together in person, at least we can be together through an act of symbolism.
Munching on cake and coffee and discussing our plans, Kathy said that she couldn’t believe we were about to undertake such an epic journey. I asked her for her mobile number but she did not have it with her so I gave her mine and asked that we keep in contact. Then we jumped on the bikes, said our byes, and we were once more on our way.
The ride to Milton Keynes isn’t arduous at this time of year as the winds are almost always a southerly wind. Our bed for the night was to be in a hotel on the outskirts of the sprawling city. Exhausted but happy we both slept very well that night, and the following morning we set off early for Newport Pagnell, a suburb of Milton Keynes, near the M40.
Milton Keynes is, I have been told, a cyclist’s paradise with paths everywhere. Well, perhaps that’s only the case when you’ve lived there for a while. As outsiders really struggled to find any tell-tale signs showing us which direction we needed to go, and constantly found ourselves off-track.
After what seemed an age of going around in circles, we met another cyclist who was able to point us in the right direction. And so we arrived with enough time to smarten ourselves up (as the Bike Bus is a regular feature at this motorway stop, someone had thoughtfully added a few shower rooms). We even had time to loosen the handlebars on the bikes so that they could be turned sideways for storing in the trailer pulled by the bus which, when it arrived, was almost full. We were met by our Host “Mike” and boarded the bus. Our seats were at the top right at the back, which showed that we had, indeed, been given the very last tickets for the outward bound journey.
Sitting on a double-decker bus, often for days, can be pretty mind numbing but we found the time passing quickly as it sped along motorways and on towards the coast. From time to time, we stopped to pick up more passengers and refuel. The sea crossing passed quickly, and before we knew it we were hurtling through French countryside, as day turned into night. Sleeping was a very on/off affair and it was good to get out and stretch our legs when the bus stopped to refuel. As I have never stopped at a Motorway services in the UK during the early hours of the morning, I really have no idea how busy it might be. Yet when we stopped at a service station in France, well past midnight, cars were pulling up or driving off, and the shops were as busy as you would expect them to be during the day. I did wonder if perhaps people in France ever slept!
When we arrived in Bayonne, it was still early enough that the sun hadn’t made its appearance. It felt so good to finally alight from the Bike Bus, and get our bikes out of the trailer. With some trepidation we checked them over, secured the various bags, then set off in search of somewhere to have a quick bite to eat. By mid-morning we had found the city centre and were eager to have a look around – our holiday had well and truly started.
In the run-up and during the preparation stage, we had ordered two Pilgrims’ Passports from the Confraternity of St James, in London. We had hoped to get the Passports stamped at one of our local churches but each time we had gone nobody had been available. Now that we were in Bayonne, getting our first stamp was the priority and we headed straight for the Cathedral, which wasn’t difficult to find as it towers above the surrounding buildings.
This time we were lucky. A service was about to begin. Entering the cool interior of the rather imposing building we sat down to enjoy some “quiet time”. As the service was a full-blown Catholic affair, we were treated to the delightful smell of incense. I am a (lapsed) Catholic and the service pulled me back to my childhood years. Nevertheless, we both enjoyed the service and afterwards followed the priest through to a small back room where he willingly stamped the Pilgrim’s Passports.
By the time we left the Cathedral it was getting late so we decided to stay in Bayonne for the night. Unfortunately, the only hotel we could find turned out to be badly in need of refurbishment. The carpet in the bedroom was threadbare and the wash-basin churned out brown water which looked very uninviting. To be honest, even these drawbacks were not enough to put us off enjoying the experience, and our excitement, coupled with a happy exhaustion, helped both of us to settle down for the night. Not the most comfortable bed, it was nevertheless a welcome relief after the narrow seats on the Bike Bus.