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After spending eleven of our married years in Africa, we arrived back home in the UK with three young children. That was back in the 1980s and things were far from ideal so, because we couldn’t afford to buy a car we invested in bikes – five bikes.

And we’ve never looked back. We used those bikes to get everywhere, work, school, shops and so much more. After some years we even joined the local cycle touring club (CTC in those days, it is now known as Cycling UK).

Often our youngest would join us on Sunday rides. When he was 15 however, he like his older brother and sister, decided that he found the rides too “boring”. I guess he had outgrown us.

Now grandparents and happily retired, we still get out on our bike, with annual rides reverting to week-long trips to Europe, mainly France. We go alone these days and never plan ahead. We love the spontaneity this gives us.

Hmmm, That Smells Good

Lockdown, Week 11 in England. My son and his three teenage daughters were arguing amongst themselves about who was the better cook. Each professed themselves as being much better than the other. My daughter-I-law, relishing the idea of a few days’ free from having compete domain of the kitchen, said “Why don’t you all cook a meal one night and we’ll see who wins”.

Our 19-year-old granddaughter decided to make vegetable lasagne with salad and garlic bread.

Our 17-year-old granddaughter produced a delicious spicy sausage with vegetables and rice. They almost forgot to take a picture before it was all gone.

Granddaughter three (15-years-old) then presented the family with her slow cooked pulled pork and home-made chips.

Finally, their father couldn’t resist adding bit of spice wit is Katsu Curry.

I wouldn’t mind being presented with any of these dishes, although I do have a particular penchant for my daughter-in-law’s Yorkshire Puddings which always look like they’re trying to escape from the kitchen! Absolutely delicious, especially with gravy drizzled over them.

Through The Looking Glass, Lockdown Style

Early January 2020, my son’s entry on Facebook reads: “Third of January and so far we have had air-strikes on prominent Iranian bases, general further destabilizing in the Middle East, apocalyptic fires in Australia, a potential terrorist stabbing in Paris, ethical veganism now a philosophical belief and the introduction of a fake steak bake by Greggs! Going to be an eventful year.” Little did he know…

Poem by Laura Ding-Edwards, Rainbow Roots

Looking back over the past few months the feeling I still get is one of disbelief. How on earth has this happened? Every year there seems to have been one threat or another that the world has had to fight against. Viruses are not new, and it seems that we were, at last, winning the fight every time yet another threat surfaced. Zika, a mosquito-borne infection is by and large contained. SARS and MERS, both similar viruses to Covid-19, caused a lot of problems in some countries but never really got off the ground to invade most of the rest of the world. And this is what we thought would happen with this new Covid-19. Just another virus, right. That it could be contained in a small area and eventually eradicated. How wrong that information turned out to be. Unlike the more recent ones, this little brute is very difficult to diagnose that many cases often went unreported.

In February 2020 the world began to sit up and take note. Rumours began to circulate that the Covid-19 (short for Coronavirus Disease 2019) epidemic playing out in China was about to spread across the world and turn into a pandemic. Fast-forward to March and the rumours refused to subside. Sitting in a cosy pub one Saturday lunchtime, a drink in hand and a roaring fire a few feet away, everything seemed idyllic. The murmur of voices from neighbouring tables usually lulled us all into a false sense of security. But this time conversations seemed to have taken on a new quality. A sense of quiet panic pervaded the warm air. One young man to the right of me said that he’d just taken his parents to the supermarket to pick up a month’s worth of food. He was worried because the government was talking about people in certain vulnerable groups – those over 70, or with underlying health problems – being forced to self-isolate for at least 12 weeks. I recoiled in horror as his voice drifted over to our table. John is 79, and I am 72, so this put us in that category. We certainly didn’t relish having to self-isolate for 12 weeks. My daughter-in-law, who had joined us with our son and three daughters, patted my arm reassuringly and said “I’m sure it won’t come to that”.

But none of us knew what this new threat might mean. Speculation was rife, tinged with a little fear for what was to come. I had heard just that morning that people had been spending huge amounts of money in the supermarkets and filling their trolleys with as many goods as they could find. It brought to mind those horror films we had seen on our TV screens over the years. Pandemic, Outbreak, The Living Dead. Oh God, were we about to be overrun by such scenes in reality? And we needed to be ready. If Wuhan was anything to go by, we will all be stuck indoors without access to basic shops for a very long time.

Over the next few weeks most discussions swirled around the virus. At our local Bowls club, on the buses, during our weekly cards meetings. A few of our friends were returning early from their cruises because some of the cruise ships had been infected. Both John and I hoped they hadn’t brought it home with them. At first we didn’t let this worry us, although we live in a very busy part of the UK, with a train station not a mile away, and a major hospital on an easy bus route. All year round our region welcomes tourists from all over the world. They keep our shops busy, our hotels full and our public transport on the move. They use the trains to and from London, catch the same buses we do, and spend money like there’s no tomorrow.

For some reason, here in the UK – I do not know about in other countries – toilet paper was high on the list of people’s priorities. The mind boggles as to why these might feature more than other things. Little was known about the virus yet – I had visions of people bent over in agonizing poses while sat on the toilet with an attack of diarrhoea. Joining an overcrowded supermarket the week before Lockdown was to be enforced, the rumour of empty toilet roll shelves was confirmed. Other things were missing from the shelves – pasta, rice, flour.

On 24th March we were officially in Lockdown. It was soon became evident that we were in for the long haul. Almost overnight, shops shut their doors; businesses arranged for their employees to work from home where possible; doors slammed shut – and stayed shut. A quiet hush permeated the air where once the general murmur of busy traffic and overhead planes had held court. Now, only the occasional piercing wail of an ambulance’s siren could be heard in the distance.

Visits to my mother and sister who live in a block of flats a short distance from us was now out of the question. Even if I had wanted to visit them, the building was like a fortress. Busy signs appeared around the perimeter forbidding anybody but those who lived there from entering. Besides, the last thing we wanted to do was put my 95-year-old mother in danger. I set up a plan with my sister, who is our mothers fulltime carer, so that we could try skyping. But the experiment wasn’t a success. My mother is almost blind so although she could hear me, she can’t see me very well. She soon gave up and insisted that she wanted to get back to watching “Golden Girls” on the tele.

A few days into the Lockdown, a neighbour stopped John as they were both putting the bins out. “You shouldn’t be doing that. You need to stay indoors”. John asked him why “Because of your age. Don’t you know everybody over 70 is in danger of becoming very ill if they catch the virus?” Another neighbour had slipped a note through our door with her phone number, asking if she could do any shopping for us. Their concern, while touching, was a shock to us, because we were suddenly seeing ourselves through other people’s eyes. In 2013 we had cycled over almost 600 miles from Bayonne in France to Santiago in Spain. And every year we would spend a few weeks either cycling in the New Forest in the south of England, or in France revisiting old haunts. We had never thought of ourselves as either old or vulnerable.

Not quite into the first two weeks and John was ill. A few days later I went down with what I thought was a nasty bout of flu. Except that flu will usually have you too sick to get out of bed. This was different. We both spent nights sweating profusely. Added to this, I was freezing cold, but thought nothing of it because I’ve always felt the cold, no matter how warm it is indoors. My delirious mind worked through the symptoms of Covid-19 – could this be it? We weren’t showing the typical symptoms of a sore throat and high temperature. But we were both coughing uncontrollably. John did not mention having aching muscles but perhaps that was because I was doing enough complaining for the both of us. I wondered if we had caught the virus. And if so, where.

I remembered that the week before Lockdown John had insisted on going down to the bowling club. We discussed him using the car rather than public transport. It was raining lightly so cycling wasn’t really an option. But, as I stood at the window watching him leave the house, he walked straight passed the car and headed for the bus-stop. He’s never been good at listening to me, that man. While sitting on the bus a woman sat in the seat behind him had begun coughing loudly. He decided to go upstairs (it was a double-decker bus) and as he was climbing the steps he heard the woman remarking, to nobody in particular, that perhaps he was afraid of catching the virus. We agreed that it was probably just a badly thought-out stab at a joke. At that stage, it did all seem like a huge universal joke being played out on humanity. None of us had really appreciated the seriousness of what was about to happen.

We spent the next few days trying to get through each hour. I was afraid to spend too much time in bed because we had heard that lying down could make breathing more difficult. Sitting huddled up and nursing copious cups of tea and hot water seemed preferable. My eyes felt weird, taking on a quality of their own, almost as if I’d been staring endlessly at a four inch screen with a black background. Focusing was a battle. I put this feeling down to hayfever which has always plagued me around this time of the year. That is, until John mentioned that he had the same problem. I idly wondered how we would have coped if we had young children to look after.

The worst thing was the fear – a feeling which could not be suppressed by talk of a 98% recovery rate. Indeed, at my lowest point I contemplated writing letters to our children, remembering that it has been some time since I have told any of them just how much I love and appreciate them.

Another worry was our food supply. Now that we were in enforced isolation for real, shopping was going to be a problem. We had at least three week’s of food, but that would soon go. I have always recoiled from online shopping, yet this was exactly what we needed to be thinking about. I was already registered with a local supermarket, although I have rarely used their service. I tried to contact them, rather in hope than expectation. Of course, there was no reply. Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, I got through! The young man on the other end sounded bored and disinterested. He told me that if I wasn’t on the government’s list of “vulnerable people” then I couldn’t register. I explained that we were self-isolating and both over 70. “Well, if you’re not on the government’s list, all I can do is point you to a link on our website”. In frustration, I decided we’d just not bother.

But the following day I did register through the link he had given me and eventually managed to persuade them that we were a “needy case”. The aggravation of seeking online delivery did not end there. Filling the virtual basket with goodies took some hours. And then booking a delivery slot proved almost impossible. I took to checking the site as soon as I was out of bed and miracle of miracles I found a few days with available slots. I checked my cart then realised that many of the items (flour, eggs, toilet rolls, fresh fruit and vegetables) were no longer showing. I was reminded of the “Little Britain” TV series, “the computer says no”.

Our three grown children took turns phoning to check up on us. We thought it best to keep quiet about our own personal battle, knowing that they had enough to worry about themselves. Never before had we realised how easy it used to be to simply pick up the phone, invite ourselves over to theirs, or invite them to visit us. Now that this privilege had been so rudely snatched away from us, we craved even more to be near them, touch them, cuddle them, spend hours talking about everything and nothing. But now it seemed the only way we could show our love for them was to keep away. We were relieved to hear that our youngest son was to be furloughed so that he would at least be receiving 80% of his monthly salary from the government scheme. Our daughter was also furloughed although her husband had to carry on working. Our oldest son worried us because he’s self-employed and, like so many in the same position, his work dried up almost overnight. But he’s extremely resourceful and found things to keep himself busy until the government scheme set up to help was in play.

Listening to the daily reports on deaths was hard. Our medical staff worked so hard to try and keep people alive, while knowing that not all could be saved. They were battling against an unknown enemy and themselves being put in danger. In the meantime, we were fighting our own private struggle. It never occurred to either of us to phone the doctor, but just get through it. Besides, we’d simply be told to self-isolate and contact them if either of us got worse. Although tests were available, they were only for Key Workers. There must have been hundreds of people in the same boat as us and it was likely that most of us would get through the illness without needing the services of the hospitals. I desperately clung to rumours that people who have had the BCG vaccine for tuberculosis wouldn’t get a bad case. Something both of us had many years ago.

Days turned into weeks and soon we were both feeling more like our old selves. There were still times when one of us would feel pretty rotten and weak. But now that we were both feeling stronger, the new-found freedom was greedily snatched. The rules for Lockdown allowed us to leave the house once a day (if we were no longer self-isolating), either for exercise, food shopping or getting medical supplies.

We found a comfortable routine of combining a walk with a visit to our local supermarket, just a mile away. We soon had to revise these plans because it became clear that no matter what time of day we arrived at the supermarket, there was always a long queue. Mid-mornings were the worst, as queues appeared as if by magic. We have never enjoyed queuing, especially now, and will only do it when strictly necessary.

We belong to a cycling club but, of course, could no longer get together in groups. Besides, our usual cafes and pub stops were all closed. Furious discussions between members of the group online had been ongoing for weeks. Some of us couldn’t see the harm in getting out for a ride. Others argued that we might spread, or catch, the virus if we left home. Then we started hearing rumours of cyclists coming across signs in a few villages demanding that they stay away – some even came across nails and tacks placed in their path.

We decided to get out on our bikes for the first time since we had been ill. But as I bent down to tie up the laces of my cycling shoes, my head began to spin and I clutched at a nearby chair. I felt like I was in a washing machine working through its spin cycle. I staggered up the stairs towards the bedroom where I collapsed in a heap onto the bed. No bike ride for me today then. After checking that I was ok, John reluctantly agreed that he would go. There was no sense in us both missing out. It was only the following morning that the dizziness subsided. If I needed a reminder that I had not long been quite ill, I certainly got it in spades.

We started watching the nightly reports of daily deaths caused by this insipid virus, and recoiled with horror. Obviously the virus was still spreading. It soon became clear that people in our Care Homes were dying from Covid-19. We clung to the scraps of good news interspersed amongst the bad news. Many of our most eminent scientists were working on developing a vaccine. Surely, by the end of the year there would be one in circulation. We could only hope.

The Federation Federale de Cycling Tourisme e-mailed us. Apparently the event which we had hoped to enjoy this year was postponed until 2021. The Semaine Federale is an annual week-long celebration of cycling organised by the FFCT, the French equivalent of Cycling UK. Held in a different region every year, we were thrilled to discover that this year it would take place in the north of France – a ferry-ride away. Registration had opened online on 15th January. By 16th January we received confirmation of our booking. Now our money had been reimbursed and we will have to go through the same process next year if we intend to go. We were surprised that we did not need to even ask for the money back. This was not the case with our ferry tickets and insurance policy. First the ferry company, then the insurance company said they were not prepared to refund the money but suggested Credit Notes instead. In a way, we understand because if everybody had asked for their money back these companies are unlikely to survive.

Apart from the occasional ride now, I managed to persuade John to join me in an exercise video for a “Two Mile Walk” that I had found on Youtube. I had used this video constantly during the long cold, windy days when my other half would be out on his bike. I love the discipline of following the instructor as she puts us through a regime of knee lifts, kicks, side steps, and so much more. All in the privacy of your own home.

Thoughts turned to my sister who is also our mother’s carer. The appointment for an anti-inflammatory injection for one of her feet which constantly causes pain had been cancelled because of the virus. This, coupled with having to cope with my mother, who needs full-time care, had made her very depressed during the first few weeks of the Lockdown. Before this, I visited almost daily, sometimes helping with our mother, or just being there for long chats and card playing. But all this disappeared overnight once we were expected to follow the rules and keep away from each other. I felt guilty as well because my sister had to keep reminding our mother why I had stopped going round. It is very frustrating for us all and I felt impotent because there is nothing I could do. Only when one of the residents in the building asked my sister if she would like to help with sewing “scrubs” and masks, did she manage to put her depression behind her. The change in her was almost instantaneous. We donated some money towards the material that had to be purchased for the scrubs and masks. As a thank you, my sister made masks for both of us.

Into Week 6 of the Lockdown and I was thrilled to have an excuse to go for a walk to pick up the masks. Standing at her window, my sister threw a bag with the masks in and I deftly caught it. We talked for a while because I was desperate to know how she and mum were coping. Our mother was still spending most of her days in bed or sat in front of the television watching her favourite channel “Challenge”. They both seemed to have accepted the situation.

Our daughter phoned to tell us that her husband had the virus. As he has diabetes we were naturally very concerned for his welfare. Everyone in the house was having to self-isolate for two weeks along with him.

We have family living in South Africa. It has been horrendous there. Their Lockdown was much more stringent than ours. Family living there told us that the sale of cigarettes and alcohol was banned so people became expert at perfecting the craft of moonshine. Pineapples, a necessary staple for making a cheap, tasty drink, disappeared from the shelves almost overnight. The sale of cigarettes had simply gone underground – people desperate enough to get their hands on them were paying ten times the usual price.

Part-way through May we were told that the UK might have an antibody test available soon. In my haste, I phoned our local surgery but was told that they have not been informed about supplying tests for their patients. I knew it was a forlorn hope but somehow I felt that if I could prove that I now had antibodies to the virus, I could take off some of the burden my sister was carrying in caring for our mother.

The virus does not stop other illnesses from carrying on with their carefree destruction. If anything, it was stopping people from seeking help for other conditions. We were touched personally. At the beginning of week 8 the whole family was sent into a spiral of grief at hearing that my brother’s second daughter had just died. She had been bravely fighting cancer for about eight months. After the Lockdown in Canada began her chemo was put on hold and she was told to stay at home for as long as possible. She shared a house with her parents, husband and 12-year-old son. Consequently, without treatment, she was rushed into hospital at the beginning of May. After chemo to help with the pain, she was told that she should go home to be with her family. My brother and his wife were contacted by her specialist who broke the news that their daughter only had about three to four weeks left. Sadly, she did not even manage to get that. Some four days after being admitted, her husband was by her side when she took her last breath. Sadly, my brother and his wife, both in their late 70s, were unable to visit her in the hospital, because of the Lockdown and the danger visiting the hospital might have put them both in.

Shortly after the very sad news of my niece’s death, my daughter confirmed that her husband was over the worst of his illness. Only one of their five children still living with them had caught the virus, and she was soon on the road to recovery.

Deaths from Covid-19 here in the UK were slowly coming down although, at the time of writing, there are still too many people becoming infected. The authorities seem to have realised, at last, that people’s patience was beginning to fray and the police were finding it difficult to keep control. Aware of a possible backlash by the public, the government relaxed some of the rules and at last the amount of time spent on exercise and getting outdoors was extended. In the early weeks of the Lockdown we had only been allowed to use the car if absolutely necessary, but the easing of these rules meant that we could travel more freely. The weather had been steadily improving and of course, given this very welcome freedom, everyone wanted to get out and about. I was not surprised to see reports on the News each night of crowded beaches and overrun beauty spots.

Into June and I phoned our surgery again to ask about an antibody test. Again I was told that the government has not directed them to carry out testing yet. We could, however, buy a private test from a few selected pharmacists. But at £70 a time, we decided to wait. Besides, the urgency of knowing whether we had had the virus or not seemed to have melted. Restrictions are constantly easing and we are slowly getting back to normal. There have been no new cases in our own county for a while now. One morning, our youngest son turned up with his three daughters and we all sat in the front garden, keeping social distancing of course, and had a delightful half-hour all talking ten to the dozen.

These days, I wake up in the morning and ask myself if it had all been a nightmare. Foggy recollection would give way to resigned acceptance that this is the reality. Right here, right now. It is true, and we are still living through it. We still can’t hop onto an overcrowded bus, or walk straight into a supermarket without having to queue and wait our turn. No spending a happy half-hour sitting down to a cup of coffee before the shopping spree. No visiting the library and walking out with numerous books, sometimes returned without having been read.

I know we still have a long way to go and there are still issues that need addressing. The response to this monumental catastrophe here in the UK, as in most parts of the world, has been very badly handled. But these are unprecedented times and in my opinion, nobody really has the answers. We have a “new normal”, although we have yet to know and understand just what this is, to embrace before we can move forward.

Oxford, My City of Dreamy Spires

Hertford Bridge, known as The Bridge of Sighs

My first memory of this beautiful city was back in 1966. I had taken a train from London, where my future husband was waiting to meet me. He had secured a job in Oxford, having moved down there himself from the north of England. We walked from the train station excitedly chatting and not really taking any notice of our surroundings. Then we reached the corner of an iconic landmark which depicts the centre of Oxford – Carfax. Cornmarket and High Street meet up with Queen Street and St Aldates at this point. Looking left, I had the weird sensation that I had stumbled into Alice in Wonderland’s world. Quaint little shops ran down each side of the road. Turning again, I found myself in front of a tall tower that I later learned is called Carfax Tower. Walking along the whole of Cornmarket Street was like walking through a scene from Alice’s “Through the Looking Glass” written by Lewis Carroll. This most famous author had attended the University in the mid-1850s. Many of the scenes described throughout his books can be found either in Oxford’s parks or along the riverbanks of the River Thames that runs through the centre of this beautiful city.

Delightful gift shop

Over the years, a lot of the old building in the centre of Oxford have been renovated and updated. Visitors over the past twenty or so years will have often remarked, and not always politely, on the scaffolding and boarded-off areas. However, the essence of the city is still here. Long-standing listed buildings have been left untouched and it is still possible to imagine the world of some famous personages, such as Oscar Wilde, Charles Darwin, even Edmond Halley who discovered the Halley’s Comet. This was last seen from earth in 1986 and only appears approximately every 76 years so we have some time to wait for the next citing.

Stone plaque in New College Lane, Oxford

Many of our own Prime Ministers have attended Oxford University at one time or another, along with some very well-known people from other countries. Indira Gandhi and Bill Clinton spring to mind. Actors like Hugh Grant will have enjoyed the long lazy summers punting on the River and reciting plays in Oxford’s South Park. It is easy to visualise yourself walking through the same side streets as the Stephen Hawking, J.R. Tolkien, Margaret Thatcher, to name but a few, once did. Once we were walking along a narrow path somewhere north of Oxford. Either side of us was a canopy of weeds, wildflowers and bushes, dotted around tall, thin, gnarled trees. Our walk had been solitary until we suddenly noticed a young man some distance in front of us. He looked furtively around before planting what appeared to be a large plastic bag under a shrub. As we approached to inspect it, fully expecting to find it full of rubbish or, even worse, a body, the same man rushed up from an adjoining path. It turned out that the bag was a prop in one of the Morse series, and was waiting to be discovered by an actor playing the part of a dog-walker.

Old prison is now a private hotel

When I arrived in Oxford, the Oxford prison was very much a working institution. At the time, it was housed in the remains of the Oxford Castle, which had been badly defaced during the English Civil War during the 17th century. The prison closed in 1996 and the internal structure is now a private hotel. Visitors pay to be taken on escorted tours and get a feel of what it must have been like to have been incarcerated for some misdemeanour or other. The walk includes a tour of the deep dark recesses underground to follow the footsteps of prisoners destined to spend time incarcerated in the most appalling conditions.

Many an actor’s favourite pub

Oxford is, indeed, steeped in history and every year people flock here to take guided walking tours along its narrow streets and alleys once said to be haunted by ghosts. Many authors have written screeds of stories woven around its streets and surrounding villages. Anyone who has seen ‘Inspector Morse’, or ‘Lewis’ will find it easy to recognise landmarks found in the tales of murder and mystery. More recently, Harry Potter fans would recognise some of the areas that appear in his books. Or join in a tour along the Bodley Staircase and Hall of Christchurch College, check out the Great Hall which provided the inspiration for Hogwarts’ dining hall.

Christchurch from the East side

Oxford was very lucky to escape the wrath of Hitler during the second world war, while other cities, such as London, Coventry and Liverpool were all but obliterated. Speaking to one scholar in Oxford recently, I was told that the reason was simple. Hitler had planned on making Oxford his headquarters once he had conquered England. Had this happened, we would all be living in a different world now.

City of Oxford

We have seen many changes over the years. Being a small city, there was a problem with pollution caused by cars trying to get from one end of the city to another. Accidents between vehicles and pedestrians or cyclists were common. Our councillors racked their brains to come up with a solution. Nothing seemed to work and even now, although pedestrianisation of much of Oxford’s centre means less traffic, a new shopping Mall invites people to think they can drive straight into the centre. Sadly, this has led to long queues along all four major routes into Oxford.

Recent changes include a new train station almost four miles outside the city centre. From here, you can hop on a bus, visit Blenheim Palace, or enjoy a 45 minute train ride straight into London. Since the station has been built, the increase of cars on the roads has, unfortunately, increased exponentially through our villages and surrounding areas.

14th century Timber-framed building

This is “my Oxford”. Where I have spent the last few decades bringing up three children and now live some five miles out of the City with my husband. While we have always enjoyed cycling – which, being a University City, Oxford has always encouraged – the increase on our already clogged up road system puts its cyclists in grave danger. My children were lucky because they learned to cycle in a time when our roads had less cars competing for space. These days I worry that we are raising a generation of young children who are being encouraged to cycle on narrow pavements – rather than on the much busier roads of today. While the battle between our cars and cyclists still rages on, when these youngsters have grown up, they will still feel safer on the pavement than on the road.

It saddens me to think that, while I love Oxford, I now cannot wait to sell and move to somewhere quieter, and with less cars. Oxford has always been a ‘young’ city, enjoyed mostly by young people, as it should be.

A Gallery of more photographs taken on one sunny walk during the 2020 Lockdown.

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Books I Wish I had Written

They say there is a book in everyone. Well, I have yet to find mine – and it’s not through lack of trying. The second-best thing might to be recommend a few of my favourite choices. 

Implicate Order


By Tracey Domalik

I know Tracey personally and was thrilled when she told me about her venture into the publishing world. The basic idea of her book was taken from her gran’s (my mother) memoirs of a life in London before and during the Second World War. Of course, as the book is a work of fiction, and dabbles with time travel in a very imaginative way, many of the facts given in her gran’s memoirs have been changed. And Tracey has taken what might have been a very normal part of a young girl’s life and turned it into a series of exciting events. There are many twists and turns to keep the reader involved and wanting more as the story closes.

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

Jonas Jonasson

My son first introduced me to this book. Not his normal choice, I was pleasantly surprised. Originally written in Swedish, this little gem is a must for anybody wanting a light and enjoyable read. Equally enthralling to turn the pages on those cold wintry, rainy days or sunny summer sojourns on the beach.

Sitting quietly in his room in an old people’s home, Allan Karlsson is waiting for a party he doesn’t want to begin. His one-hundredth birthday party to be precise. The Mayor will be there. The press will be there. But, as it turns out, Allan will not …

Lights Out Liverpool

Maureen Lee

This book started me off on a long journey through a small part of the history experienced by so many women living through the Second World War. It was my first introduction into the many books that Maureen Lee has written on Liverpool during the Second World War. It centres around the families left behind by their men folk who were off fighting. Then later the terrible bombing the area endured, often for days on end, as Liverpool was home to some very strategic Docks. You cannot help but be touched by the determination of the families to stand up to the hardship and heartbreak with courage and humour.

Camino Ride

Introduction to the Camino de Santiago, 2013

Setting out from home to Bayonne

Day 1 – Bayonne to St-John-Pied-de-Port

Day 2- St-John-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles

Day 3 – Roncesvalles to Cizur Menor

Day 4 – Cizur Menor to Estella

Day 5 – Estella to Logrono

Day 6 – Logrono to Azofra

Day 7 – Azofra to San Juan de Ortega

Day 8 – San Juan de Ortega to Burgos

Day 9 – Burgos to Fromista

Day 10 – Fromista to Sahagon

Day 11 – Sahagon to Leon

Day 12 – Leon to Santa Catalina de Somoza

Day 13 – Santa Catalina de Somoza to Ponferrada

Day 14 – Ponferrada to Alto do Poio

Day 15 – Alto do Poio to Portomarin

Day 16 – Portomarin to Arzua

Day 17 – Arzua to Santiago

Last few days in Santiago

Introduction to Camino de Santiago, 2013

Two weeks into our ride, we were both exhausted and at that time, pretty disillusioned. I had sent off a quick message to my son, my sister and one of my grandchildren. Only my granddaughter replied:

You can’t give up now, you’ve reached your halfway mark. Please don’t give up, you can do this. Just because the temptation is pulling you away, doesn’t mean you have to give up Abigail

Her encouraging words galvanised us both and we decided to carry on. If you would like to know how we got on, let’s start at the beginning.

Rosemary

Rosemary sat on the park bench and looked over at the children, playing on the swings and slides. She felt alone, even surrounded by so many other women and children. But none of the children were hers. She wondered why she punished herself like this. As if by being here she could pretend that she had brought Polly to play with her friends. There was a time when she would do that. But not now.

She sighed and decided that enough was enough. It was time to accept that she didn’t belong here. Besides, other mothers were beginning to notice her. She’d been aware of their sly glances, their whispers as they huddled together. And who could blame them? She must have looked completely out of place. These days, she hardly even dressed to look nice, like she once would have. Her clothes were un-ironed, her coat wrinkled and her hair had hardly seen a comb in days.

Perhaps they thought she was a stalker, waiting to see if she could grab one of the smaller children and run off with it – that bothered her. And yet, oh, how she wished she could do just that. If only to fill the hole in her aching heart that Polly had left behind. She should leave, she knew that. But instead, she looked down at the book perched on her lap and pretended to give it her attention. Even when she felt the bench move slightly she tried to ignore the intrusion. But that would make her look rude, so she shyly glanced up and smiled at the older woman perched on the far corner of the bench. She turned her attention back to the book but then the woman spoke.

“Hello.”

Rosemary smiles again but didn’t answer.

“You’re new, aren’t you? I mean, I get the feeling I’ve seen you before but can’t place where. I’m surprised as I pride myself with knowing everybody in this neighbourhood. Here with your children, are you?”

Rosemary shifted slightly in embarrassment. “No.” She said “I don’t have children. I just like to come here to read”.

“Well, I would have thought that was impossible, with the noise the children are making”.

“Oh, I like the noise”. That, at least, was true. In a bid to stop the questions, she turned to study the intruder. Quite a classy older woman really. Well dressed, with neat brown hair swept back in a bun. Rosemary put her at about 50 or even older so hardly one of the mothers. A grandmother perhaps? “Are you here with your grandchildren?” she asked.

“No. I’m Anita and I live just opposite the park – in that block of flats over there.” Anita waved absent-mindedly towards a huge building that was beginning to cast a shadow over the park as the sun slowly lowered into the horizon. “And I’m watching my neighbour’s little boy for a few hours”. She sighed, “I never had children myself. And, to be honest, I’m not even sure what I’m doing here because Tommy’s a bit of a terror and I’m not even sure I know what to do with him. Bringing him here gives us both a bit of peace. What’s your name, by the way?”

“I’m Rosemary. Children can be holy terrors sometimes, can’t they. Polly often drives me round the bend with her incessant questioning”. Rosemary gasped and couldn’t stop a few tears from rolling down her cheek as she realised what she had just said. “Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I’d give anything right now to have my Polly nagging me.”

Anita’s brow wrinkled as she fought desperately to recall where she had recently heard that name. Then her willingness to understand what could make a grown woman cry in the middle of a park slowly turned to concern as she suddenly remembered. Polly, one of the five children who had drowned just a few weeks back. Headlines in the newspapers had screamed out ‘murder’ and ‘homicide’, and the accompanying pictures were of grieving family members. But one has caught Anita’s attention especially. A lone woman walking up the steps of the Court Chambers, crouching slightly as if ready to take flight, her eyes wide with shock as she realised she was being photographed. Underneath the words simply said “Rosemary, mother of one of the dead girls”.

The accident had happened late one Friday evening. A young woman, one of the girl’s mothers, had been driving her daughter and four of her friends home after a birthday party jaunt to the local cinema. Anita recalled how sad she had felt when it had first come to light and the circumstances discussed at work. Although not dealt with by CID, they nevertheless would end up having to investigate if anything untoward arose from the initial autopsy. It was actually a relief when the results of the post-mortem exonerated the driver. A thorough examination of the car had also drawn a blank. No need to look for a scape-goat here. No homicide in need of further investigation. Contrary to the many accusations played out on the pages of just about every newspaper in the city, the autopsy could find no cause for the accident. The Coroner’s conclusion was “death by misadventure”. But this did not bring back the fact that five young children’s lives had been snuffed out in an instant. No future for these bright young girls now. Such a tragedy.

But Anita knew, more than most, that these things happen. What she had never expected was to come in close contact with anybody who had been personally involved in the resultant mess. Anita had a sharp mind, which was why she had been sent to join CID. Ever vigilant, it slowly dawned on her now that this would explain just why she had been sent to the park by her super and she sighed with relief. She could report back that the calls from concerned mothers about a lone prowler spending time watching their children wasn’t anything to be concerned about. This woman wasn’t hoping to run off with one of the children. Right now, the look on the young woman’s face was that of loss and bereavement. All those hours spent pouring over text books in an attempt to train as a counsellor could come in handy right now. Here was one woman she could help.

“Rosemary. I’d love a cup of coffee. I can see Tommy’s mother has returned to pick him up” Anita waved into the distance and Rosemary wondered just who she was waving at. “She will take over now. Would you like to join me?”

E-bike mayhem

A real bone rattler

I’d been thinking for some time about buying an e-bike (bike with an electric motor). At first it seemed just a silly, impossible dream. And it might have stayed that way except for two things that changed helped me my mind. At 71 and have started developing arthritis in my knees. My doctor said “Cycling is a wonderful way to keep healthy, but with your knees giving you problems, I would suggest that if you want to keep on riding, get an e-bike. Better still, get an e-bike that’s also a recumbent”. Pretty radical thought as the only recumbents I’d come across always remind me of dicing with death as they battle for space on the roads – you have to put a lot of faith in the driver because they don’t always see a cyclist perched on a seat so low from the ground you might as well be shuffling along on your bottom. No, not for me.

A few of my cyclist friends now have e-bikes and this was another reason for me to look at them. One of them, a man who is younger than me, is now the happy owner of a brand spanking new three-wheel recumbent. It’s an e-bike and he loves it. He can be forgiven for opting for this metal machine that looks more like a comfortable couch than a bike, because last year he was hit while cycling home by a car which didn’t stop to check if he was alright. Instead he was left unconscious at the side of the road. Our friend was lucky. He suffered concussion and a few broken bones, which necessitated a lengthy stay in hospital. The healing process took a while and even today he still has residual problems from the collision. An offshoot of the accident means that he can no longer ride his beloved motor-bike either so, with the money from the sale of that, he was well set to buy a new bicycle.

Not our friend’s new bike, but an example of the first recumbent.

When he first came out on his new recumbent we all admired it jealously and it prompted another of our cycling group (two year’s older than me) to buy herself an e-bike as well, although not a recumbent. Within a month she was well on the way to completing her first 300 miles on it. Now I was interested!

I decided to do some research of my own. A friend who belongs to the same bowling club I do would often arrive on her natty second-hand bike with its electric motor which does only 12 miles before it needs recharging. She’s happy with the low mileage as she seldom does more than 10 miles a day. But I was going to need something which will take me much further before it needs recharging. To be honest, I’d love to be able to get back to the 50 mile plus rides I used to do back in my youth.

My son-in-law had a bike which he had attached an electric motor to. It looked like fun and he enjoyed zipping up to the local shop. And my sister who bought herself a small, very exclusive and very expensive, Gocycle e-bike. As someone who had probably only cycled in her youth, she could never get used to sharing the roads with other vehicles so, after having used it only twice, she sold it on. Sad really, as I had visions of getting out on long rides with her but it was never to be.I soon found out that electric bikes, by their very definition, are still very expensive. Of course, I could have gone for a cheaper make and model – some sell for as little as £600. I decided not to get one as cheap as that because most really good long-lasting motors will cost that much by themselves, before they’re even attached to a bike. Another consideration I had to take into account now that I’m older is that I’d much prefer a step-through because I’m finding it increasingly difficult to lift my leg over the saddle like I once could.

I, together with my husband, spent weeks trawling through websites and visiting various bike shops in search for “The One”. We were in our local town centre one Saturday and had a few hours to kill before meeting people for lunch. I suggested we take a walk to a well-known bike shop at the other end of town. “You like wasting your time, don’t you” my husband quipped. But we had nothing better to do so he fell in step with me and before long we had arrived. This shop is better known for the high-end bike and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d find what I was looking for. But we were both in for a surprise. I explained what I was looking for to a very nice man called Jason, and he led me straight to what was to become my very own pride and joy. Now I was happy.  The next few sections are based on information I have managed to find when searching on-line, and may help anybody thinking of purchasing their very own e-bike.

 A few good things that an e-bike has going for it include

  • Less wear and tear on knees and joints
  • You won’t get hot and bothered when riding up hills, and battling into a head wind becomes a thing of the past
  • You don’t need a driver’s licence to ride a conventional e-bike. While you need to check for whichever model you decide on, most e-bikes will not go faster than around 15.5 mph. It simply cuts out. But then who’d want to have the motor on when you’re going downhill anyway?
  • E-bikes generally have a more upright seating position than traditional bikes which can help reduce back and neck pain
  • Oh so much cheaper than a car, and better for the environment
  • Look for one that has an installed locking system
  • Check if the ebike has puncture-proof tyres which I’ve seen on some.

And now the cons

  • More expensive than most conventional bikes
  • Heavier too
  • You may get more flat tyres because the bike is heavier than a conventional bike. And when you do, tyres are harder to change, even on a quick release wheel because of the weight of the bike
  • Definitelyheavier to pick up and  harder to get up and down stairs
  • The expensive battery needs replacing after some time because it (even if placed in a cupboard and not used) only has a shelf-life of a few year’s for the older style battery. A report written in 2017 stated that a lithium ion battery won’t fair much better at three to five years. Manufacturers might claim that the life of a battery is much more and of course the batteries are evolving all the time. But bear in mind that the more expensive the battery, the longer it should last. This is a crucial question and not one to be neglected
  • When it comes to servicing, motors and upkeep will generally cost more than a normal bike. Still want one?

Finally, how to take care of your e-bike battery

  • Only use the charger and adapter supplied with your battery. This will avoid overcharging and it protects the battery against damage due to short circuits
  • Let your battery cool before charging it. Also, do not use it directly after recharging
  • Avoid completely draining the battery, but always charge it to 100% if possible
  • If you cannot use the bike for prolonged periods of time, make sure to partially charge the battery every few months to keep it topped-up
  • Always disconnect the charger from the battery and the network after charging
  • Avoid letting it get too hot. If you leave the battery out under a hot sun for any length of time, you are asking for trouble. Keep it in a cool and dry place when not in use
Courtesy of Englishforum.ch

  • Do not leave the battery by a heat source
  • Always remove the battery before cleaning the bike
  • Never use a steam pressure washer as you might on a conventional bike for either your e-bike or the battery
  • Of course, never immerse the battery in water. Simply wiping it down with a damp cloth should be sufficient. This goes for the motor as well – immerse it in water and you’ll be looking to buy a whole new bike
  • E-bikes can be stolen, specially the high-priced ones, so locking is still necessary. It may be a hassle to try walking off with a heavy bike, so many “opportunity thieves” should be put off, but there’s no stopping some-one really determined to nick an e-bike unless you take avoiding action. So, get that lock. Better still, get two, or three, or even more
  • Finally, a friend mentioned that you should try to remember not to be pedalling as you change gear when the battery is in use as it could shorten its life.

 

Last few days in Santiago

Sadly, we were to wake the following morning, not to festivities, a special church service, or parades through the streets. On the evening of the previous day, 24 July, there had been a horrendous train crash with many losing their lives. It transpired that the train had taken a corner too quickly and caused it to flip over.

We did not know this until the following morning when we were watching the television in the restaurant and realized that something horrific had taken place. We made our way into the city in light rain. The streets were deserted, and few shops were open. A complete contrast to the previous day, it came as no surprise to learn that all festivities to celebrate St James’ Day had been cancelled. While this was a fitting tribute to those who had lost their lives, it seemed a little harsh as at least 10,000 people had flocked to Santiago to take part in the festivities.

In total shock at this unexpected turn of events, and against our better judgment, we decided it was time to go home ourselves. The magic and uniqueness of the trip has been temporarily lost.

We did stay in Santiago for another two days because we could not organize shipping of the bikes as all the shops had closed temporarily in light of the tragedy. Once opened again, we enquired at a bike shop if they could arrange for our bikes to be transported back to the UK. After spending a further night at Monto do Gozo, we packed our panniers and headed back into Santiago.

Here we found a private room and spent the early part of the evening listening to melodious music being played just outside our window by a solo artist with a guitar – it matched our downhearted mood. The next day we bought two cheap backpacks for our belongings before taking the bikes and panniers to the shop for shipping back to home. Then we boarded the first of three trains, averting our eyes as we passed the earlier crash-site and sat back to help our minds and bodies heal over the next 36 hours and silently send our heartfelt sympathies to the families of those who had been killed in the train crash.

As the train gathered speed we both found it cathartic to sit quietly and reflect on the wonderful sights and sounds we had encountered over the past few weeks. Looking out of the window, we were being transported through regions that we had been riding through only a few days before. Under the iron bridge near Astorga, through vine-filled fields, wind mills grinding silently in the distance. So many memories came flooding back.

The first train stopped in Henday (just over the border between Spain and France) in the early evening. We boarded the second train (after a hurried bite to eat) to Paris and tried to get some sleep, although both still filled with thoughts of the sights and sounds we had experienced. Finally, still dressed in the our cycling longs and jackets – which had kept us warm on the train – we reached the terminal for the Channel Tunnel and our final train. Preparing to board this last train, I handed my passport over to a customs officer who grinned broadly (I didn’t know customs officers could do that) and said in a strong British voice “well, you’re not trying to conceal yourself are you” – I was wearing my high-vis yellow jacket used to keep me warm.

I replied proudly “We’ve been cycling through Spain”

Day 17 – Arzua to Santiago

Waking up the following morning, we found that our bikes were still locked in the enclosed outhouse so we had to wait until 8.00 before we could get back on the road. Although we would often start off before having had anything to eat, this morning breakfast before leaving seemed like the best solution. Specially when we soon found a small, very busy, café opposite the albergue. Feeling excited at being to close to our destination, we were suddenly finding that the closer to Santiago we got, the further away it appeared!

Monto do Gozo (Mount of Joy)

Eventually we were back on the road. A nice quiet road which took us through row after row of smartly kept houses, then suddenly we had reached the top of Monte do Gozo. We stopped to inspect the awe-inspiring monument that marks the final hill before pilgrims make their way into Santiago – some 3 kms away. From this point, if you look carefully over the line of Eucalyptus trees and suburban houses, you may just make out the three spires that grace the Cathedral of Santiago de Compastela.

Setting off on this last leg, we almost rode passed what turned out to be a holiday complex, and John asked if I would like to see if they have a bed for the night. This turned out to be a brilliant chance encounter, and for us personally a good choice. The entire park is made up of various single-storey buildings and each building houses rows of self-contained rooms with en suite. We soon located a large restaurant where we could eat any time of the day or night.

Monte do Gozo had been built in 1993 to celebrate a Holy Year for St James’ Day. This only happens when 25 July falls on a Sunday. The next one will be in 2021 so if you plan to go then, book well in advance.

Once in our room, we treated ourselves to a quick shower each and change of clothes before riding into Santiago itself. Oh the relief of having no panniers on the bike – I had forgotten how liberating it can feel. Although it was still relatively early, the city was already crowded.

Beloved yellow arrow.

By a happy accident we had arrived in Santiago on 24 July. As this was not a Holy Year, celebrations would not be as big as they might have been. Nevertheless, preparations were underway for fireworks and all-day events to celebrate the following St James’ Day.

Personally I was feeling very emotional as we made our way to the pilgrims’ office where we joined the queue before eventually making it up a short flight of steps and into an office area to pick up our Compostelas. This is when we handed over our Pilgrim’s Passports, duly stamped along the way, to prove that we had managed to reach the Cathedral under our own steam. The small group of volunteer officials who sat behind the tables were kept very busy as each pilgrim was treated to a handshake and grilling as to what they thought the pilgrimage had meant to them. We were individually dealt with and each asked why we had undertaken the Camino. That was a tough question and I wished that I had known it was coming – just so that I could have prepared my answer better.

We eventually returned to the square immediately in front of the huge Cathedral, took some more photos, and again bumped into Miguel (the Spanish cyclist) who had arrived the previous day. We also came across our young Belgian friend. She remarked that she still had not had a puncture. Neither had we. Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from the Cathedral and get back to the hostel for an evening meal so retraced our steps and left the centre of Santiago for a while. Lazing in the café area of Monte do Gozo, we examined the few leaflets we had picked up while in Santiago and discuss what we might do the following day. We were both full of alternative suggestions.

Proudly holding the Compostellas

Should we carry on to Finisterre, or stay longer in Santiago? Or reverse our route at least up to Santander where we could catch a ferry back home? Neither of us were ready to go straight home that’s for sure. I noticed two rather dilapidated computers, and decided to see if I could send a text to the family. I had to give up after a while because both computers kept cutting out, and it proved to be very frustrating trying to get logged on, send emails, and check my Facebook page.

After such an emotional day, we decided to retire to bed early.

Looking for the Shell ingrained in the ground

There were to be fireworks later that evening, and perhaps it would have been nice to go back down into Santiago to join the mingling crowds but, to be honest, all we wanted to do at that time was sleep.

Finally, we both settled down for the night. No doubt the fireworks would wake us up at some early hour of the morning, and perhaps then we might even get up, dress, and make our way down to the city centre to join in.

We both decided that, although we could go home from here, we needed to consider just how, when and where. Tomorrow was another day.

Last few days in Santiago

Day 16 – Portomarin to Arzua

Now the route was becoming pretty crowded the closer to Santiago we got. As we only had 98 kilometers (60 miles) to go before reaching Santiago, this was hardly surprising.

The current distance required for a pilgrim to achieve a Compostela is 100 km for walkers, 100 km for those on horseback, and 200 km for cyclists.

Grain silos dot the horizon along the route.

Being so close to our destination (something which we would easily have achieved in one day 10 year’s ago) it was with a heavy heart that we set off the following morning.

The closer we got to Santiago, the more we didn’t want the trip to end. Ok, so it had been tough at times, but there were as many highs as there had been lows – we simply didn’t want the adventure to end. The idea of carrying on to Finisterre, and even riding to Santander from there suddenly seemed very inviting.

John noticed a sole from a shoe hanging from a tree branch and quipped “someone must have discarded their soul along the way”.

The worst of the hills were now behind us, although the route still presented us with some challenges as it became undulating once more. Short steep ascents, and slow downhill gradients. At Ventas de Naron, for example, we were at 700 metres and the ride down was once again accompanied by thick mist. In part, the walkers’ trail looked inviting, so we rejoined it for a while, although it was quite narrow in parts.

Crowded little stop where everybody could get a free coffee and hug

Occasionally we would come across groups of young people singing and shouting to each other. They were determined to enjoy the experience with gusto. The going was quite slow in these sections, often bringing us to a complete stand-still because many people simply weren’t watching what was going on around them. I’m sure I would have been the same if I was walking, rather than riding, the Camino. We both had bells that would give out a low, apologetic ring as the last thing we wanted to do was startle people. But these were often either ignored or not heard, and it was with some relief that we stopped by a small make-shift hut where we were presented with a free coffee each.

A young family with a donkey sauntered by. Everybody clambered around them, interested to hear about their adventures. The young man, his son and wife were from Australia and had walked all the way from St-John-Pied-de-Port. Rejoining the track, we found ourselves again riding slowly and stopped occasionally because the scenery was stunning enough to take your breath away. A road coming into view, we decided, rather reluctantly, that it would be better for us to rejoin it. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a very busy N547 which we followed all the way into Arzua. We found a private albergue and booked beds in the dormitory. Here we met up again with Leslie, our cyclist friend. A small group of people arrived by bus, and were fresher and more energetic than those of us who would have been travelling for some days.

So, while all we wanted to do was settle down for the night, they had energy and pent-up excitement to get rid of. Even when eventually everybody had managed to curl up in the bunks, it was not to be a restful night. John was in the bunk above me and whenever someone was snoring I would prod his mattress with one of my feet. That was, until I realized that he was as awake as I was and definitely not one of the offending snorers! Our earplugs proved to be totally ineffective.

Day 17 – Arzua to Santiago

Day 15 – Alto do Poio to Portomarin

It seems we weren’t the only ones reluctant to leave Alto do Poio at this point

We had learned to respect the weather in Spain which can change very rapidly and the marked difference between the early morning temperature and that later in the day was striking. Having already ridden in excess of 650 kilometers (404 miles) from our original starting point at Bayenne – we had experienced bitter temperatures (the type that crept into your bones, necessitating an extra layer, or two); followed by intense heat later in the day. Along the way there had been some amazing sights, especially from the uppermost recesses of the mountains as we made our way through them; we were continuously bombarded by the various sights and smells, although the climbs were challenging at times.

However, as we set off from Alto do Poio this morning, we were to encounter yet another phenomenon. We were 1330 metres above sea level at this point – above the cloud line, which had not been evidenced the evening before. Once we began descending we were engulfed by a damp foggy mist only to be greeted by an amazing panoramic view as it cleared. I stopped to take some photos before catching up with John who had, as usual, set off in a rather cavalier fashion – one that I am always loath to copy. While the climb up the previous day had been long and tiring we were to descent to 665 metres in a matter of minutes.

Resting after the frightening descent

At times I felt as if my hands were about to fly off as the strain of constantly applying the brakes took hold – I definitely wouldn’t make a Tour de France competitor. Totally unaware that I was being slowly followed by the local Policia, I was very relieved to reach the outskirts of Filloval, where John was waiting on a bridge. Only when the car sped passed did I realise that it could have overtaken me at any time, so I wondered just how long it had been behind! Much of the rest of the day the road consisted of easily manageable ups and downs.

We had meant to reach Palas de Rei by evening but instead opted to get a room in Portomarin as it looked interesting enough to explore.

As we reached the outskirts via a large bridge spanning a wide river, we were greeted by a long line of steps. Deciding that we didn’t fancy carrying the fully-laden bikes up them, we turned right and kept to the road until we noticed a hotel with a very welcoming sign outside saying “pilgrims welcome”.

Looking for an Albergue at this point went out of the window. Instead, we booked a private room and negotiated with the proprietor where we should leave our bikes for the night. Both exhausted, we were happy to rest for a while before showering, then taking a walk around the very beautiful town centre.

Portomarin has a tall imposing church which is definitely worth a visit although it was closed when we were there. Some time ago, the area where the original village of Portomarin stood was needed for a new reservoir. Its main historic buildings were rescued stone by stone and moved to its current position, where the Romanesque church of San Pedro and the monumental church fortress of San Nicolas now reside.

Driven only by hunger, we went in search of a restaurant for omelette followed by chocolate pudding.

Day 16 – Portomarin to Arzua

Day 14 – Ponferrada to Alto de Poio

Early the following morning, as we were loading the panniers onto the bikes we noticed a young man leaving the hotel and he came over to speak to us. We discussed the Camino and he asked us how we were getting on, where we had come from, and so on. We had a lovely discussion, if not brief as his wife was waiting for him by their car. He mentioned that he came from Cebreiro, which was our next destination, and he wished us a “Buen Camino” before we all left.

The hotel had looked so welcoming the previous evening but I couldn’t help but be amused when we rode passed an official Albergue a few miles further down the road. We were discovering that sometimes if you could force yourself to carry on cycling a bit further, you usually came across somewhere just as suitable, if not better – than you had picked on (price-wise certainly).  A bit like life, really.

Breaky in Villafranco

As on previous days, the morning had begun on a cool note and we made good progress using the pilgrims’ trail before stopping at Villafranco for a quick breakfast of toast and coffee. Then we search out a cash point and found that our card was still very much useable and we were able to withdraw money without a problem.

Shortly after leaving Ponferrada, we came into a village called Columbrianos. Unremarkable in itself, we couldn’t get out of it fast enough as we rode along the N711. Then suddenly we saw a delightful little image of San Felix y San Roque and I had to stop to take a picture.

After the previous day’s strenuous climbing, we were glad to find ourselves riding along undulating roads, through village after village, most seemingly pretty empty. After making steady progress, however, the climbing started again, much of it along the walkers’ trail. At one point, we rode through a tree-lined area to the heavy scent of conifers, all the while being serenaded by a chorus of bird song.

The noise of these birds, delightful in their own way, was deafening. Indeed, we hadn’t realized just how loud they were until we emerged from the area where the road once again became barren of trees and we were greeted by an eerie silence. I had to stop myself from turning the bike round and retracing my steps back into the trees! I think my legs had become used to the hills because the climb up towards O’Cebreiro started off quite easily and it wasn’t as hard I had expected.

Sometimes it’s good to walk.

Reaching Pedrafita de Cebreiro it didn’t take much for John to persuade me to stop as it was almost time for some lunch. Already that day we had ascended almost 800 meters (874 yards) from Ponferado and we toyed with the idea of stopping here for the day. However, we were keen to carry on although,  if I had thought Pedrafita de Cebreiro was the summit, I was soon to discover that I was sorely mistaken. Once again, we set off and stopped a little further on at a rustic farmyard. I was not sure that this even was an albergue, and can only admit to being more than a little relieved when we were told that it was already full. A few other Albergues that we came across were also almost full to capacity. All the time we were aware that the walking pilgrims who have managed to make it to this point would be in no fit state to walk much further so places must be reserved for them over cyclists.

You always knew you were high up when you saw those dreaded poles.

Although there were other places advertising rooms, we decided to carry on. Surely the descent must come soon? Stopping for a rest, two pilgrims walked passed. They stopped and one told us that they had already walked 24 kms (almost 15 miles) and still hadn’t been able to find a place. One suggested that we needed to get further down the road because, it being the height of the season, people were being charged more than the usual rate in many of the albergues. We agreed, particularly as it was still quite early in the day (around 4.00 o’clock). Oh bliss, not much further and we had reached Alto do Poio, where we found two albergues on opposite sides of the road. We opted for the one on the left, and were lucky to find, that although the dormitory was full, they still had a few private rooms. We were very thankful and immediately booked one.

This albergue had its own small restaurant so food was no problem. We ordered their speciality paella (plain for me, chicken for John) then sat outside with a few other people, both cyclists and walkers, for a leisurely evening. One of our companions was a young Spanish woman from Madrid. She was unemployed, having lost her job a few months before, and was walking with a friend. We also met another woman cyclist Leslie (not her real name), who lives in France (having moved there from the UK after her husband’s death some years before). She told us she was having trouble with her bike so John checked it over and applied some oil. She very kindly treated us to coffee and we ended up chatting for some hours before retiring for the night.

 

Sunset in Alto do Poio, and time for a well-earned rest

Day 15 – Alto do Poio to Portomarin

Day 13 – Santa Catalina de Somoza to Ponferrada

For some time now, we had been slowly climbing, having left the Mesita behind. However, this morning we found the terrain much steeper, and we made a slow pace until we reached Rabanal de Camino. We had to stop here because the albergue has direct links with the Confraternity of St James back in the UK, from whom we had bought our Pilgrims’ Passports. As we hadn’t ridden far, and it was still quite early, we could not have stayed that evening. But we wanted to get the Pilgrim Passports stamped here and were lucky enough to find that the albergue had not yet shut for the day. We were met by a lovely lady and we had a long chat about the route we were taking, and how we were managing. She was very happy to stamp our Passports.

Not a bull, but just as scary.

Once back on the bikes, we began to climb yet again, and I found the pace heavy going and the distance between John and me began to widen. As I reached a sharp steep bend I got off the bike before noticing a lone cow meandering across the embankment towards me. I reached quickly for my camera to take a picture, which got her attention. She paused, looked straight at me then began to advance, at quite some speed considering her bulk. Adrenalin overtook as I shoved the camera back into my front handlebar carrier, and proceeded to run up the hill. There hadn’t been time to get back on the bike, specially as I was on a slope, so all I could do was push it while fear spurred me on.

Eventually, I glanced back to find she’d lost interest. And as I turned another corner, I noticed John waiting by a small café attached to a large albergue. I never breathed a word about being almost trampled by a cow! We sat at a table in the front of the building and John went in for two coffees. A lovely valley view from this vantage point helped my all too beating heart to calm down once again. The café proved to be very popular, and, no doubt everybody who passed this way would feel the necessity to stop and have a breather here. I went in to pay for the coffees, and noticed the variety of postcards on the surrounding walls.

We could have spent the rest of the day simply sitting here soaking in the atmosphere, but we knew that we didn’t have very far to go to reach Cruz de Ferro – where we could legitimately leave the stones. Back on the bikes, we hadn’t dispensed with the climbing yet, but both revived by the coffee break, we plodded on. We were very high now and this was confirmed by a row of red and white poles placed in strategic positions along the roadside. When I pointed them out to John he said that they were for marking the depth of the snow in winter.

Finally, the huge mound made up entirely or stones and small rocks left behind by passing pilgrims came into sight – Cruz de Ferro. There were quite a few pilgrims gathered around and we had to wait our turn before we, too, could climb to the top of the mound to deposit our small collection of stones from home.

Cruz de Ferro.

The trip had been quite emotional for both of us and at this point John confirmed that he, too, felt that it had been worthwhile as it was significant that we could leave the stones from so many family members together in such an auspicious place. Shortly after leaving Cruz de Ferro, we came across a delightful little smallholding with several flags from all over the world. This was Manjarin.

Manjarin

Only one person lives here year round, joined occasionally by friends and pilgrims. His name is Tómas, and he claims to be the last of the Knights Templar.

Here, there were numerous signs showing the mileages for various destinations. One said that we were 222 kilometers (138 miles) from Santiago at this point. While we were there, a young woman who I thought might be of American–Indian origin walked passed and stopped for a second to give me a hug and my shoulders a quick massage. Slightly bemused, I was, nonetheless, delighted by this spontaneous gesture, which did help to relax me. Perhaps she did it because she realized that I had no idea of what was to come! As we left we still climbed a bit before encountering what was to turn into a very long, steep descent.

A sign warned us of strong winds and to be careful as the incline would drop sharply. John rides downhill (and, indeed, uphill) much faster than I do although he occasionally stopped to wait for me to catch up. Another reason why I sometimes find it hard to keep up with him is that I always get the urge to stop and take yet more photos, particularly when at the top of hills where the panoramic view can be so stunning. Now I found myself simply trying to keep upright on the bike as the road twisted and turned at an alarming rate. It was all I could do to keep my hands firmly on the brakes, although John had reminded me not to keep the brakes on continuously. Bike tyres have a nasty habit of bursting under the constant friction of brake to tyre in such high temperatures as we were experiencing on that day, and we were soon to both witness this in action.

While I was concentrating on taking it easy, especially on the tight corners, I heard a massive bang in the distance – unmistakably the sound of a rubber tyre bursting. I prayed that nobody had been hurt. Eventually, as I cautiously turned another bend, I caught up with John and three very lucky young men who were in the process of fixing a burst tyre. After checking that they were all ok and didn’t need any assistance, we set off towards El Acebo.

This tiny village (if you could even call it that) has a rustic charm, with narrow streets, stone houses and slate roofs. But all I could do was flop into a chair while John went in search of some cool drinks. Just about everybody who sauntered in, whether walking or on bikes, looked as though they had stretched themselves to the limit. We must have all looked a sorry sight to the casual onlooker. John and I were to spend a long time here, if only to recover from the heat and horror of the steep descent. A small plaque nailed to a wall tells of the death of a Germany cyclist who had over-compensated on one of the bends near here and crashed.

El Acebo.

A very welcome rest which recharged both of us, and we reluctantly remounted the bikes to make our way into Ponferrada, where we decided to spend the night. Temperatures had been climbing all day, reaching 38°C by 4.00 o’clock. After a short stop in the centre of Ponferrada, where we bought some earplugs in the hope they might drown out any loud snoring during the next dormitory stay, we came across a lone hotel. A bit upmarket, but there did not appear to be anything else in the immediate vicinity. Our  trusty little booklet boasted that it had good rates for pilgrims. At 40 euros this was a bit more than the usual private albergue room would cost.

I was surprised that this hotel advertised itself as a haven for pilgrims as many of us would, inevitably, turn up pretty bedraggled and untidy. Whereas its other clients certainly appeared to be much more “upper-class”. Indeed, there was a group of Spanish people dressed up to go out for the night – I would hazard a guess at a wedding – and we felt quite out of place next to them. Although we had been using cash most of the time, at this hotel I wanted to pay with the card because our resources were diminishing at a pace. The card was refused (twice) and that had me worried that we’d run out of cash, have a useless card, and be stranded for the rest of our lives. Was it possible that the manager simply didn’t want to take the chance of us using our card? Did we really look that shady? Hadn’t the sign outside given us the impression that pilgrims were welcome? I reluctantly handed over cash.

However, the room all but made up for this mishap as it was light, airy and very cosy. We sat on the edge of the large double bed and spent much of the evening looking out the window where there was a lot of activity going on. We were woken up at around 1.30 the following morning as a crowd of overly noisy and drunk patrons made their entrance, and none too quietly.

Day 14 – Ponferrado to Alto de Poio

Day 12 – Leon to Santa Catalina de Somoza

The following morning, we left the monastery while it was still quite dark and rode through sleepy streets to find somewhere we could have a spot of breakfast. We eventually came across a café near the river bank which had just opened, so we were their first customers of the day. We ordered croissants and coffee, and watched as the street outside began to come alive with the usual hustle and bustle of such a large city. We left along a small bridge that spanned the river, and were soon to find ourselves on the LE441 which eventually led us onto the N120.

It didn’t take us long to reach Valverde de la Virgen, then San Miguel del Camino. The whole area seemed to be quite built-up and commercialized but at least there were tracks on either side of the busy road, keeping us away from the main thoroughfare of traffic. Mile after mile of soulless towns with, surprisingly, a few isolated houses on large plots of land. This was a more salubrious part of Spain obviously, as many of the houses were enclosed by large fences and gates.

Even this, however, eventually gave way to a much quieter area. Although still busy with cars, at least the industrial areas and houses had disappeared. Eventually we found our way off the N120, onto a wide well-kept section of the trail and heading for San Justo de la Vega. Almost there, we came across Cruceiro Toribio, a small cross. When we arrived, there was nobody around and we stopped for a rest. I asked John if we should leave the stones (given to us by our family) by this cross because there was already a small pile there. He agreed that it would be ok, but as I got off my bike and proceeded towards the cross, a cyclist rode up to us – and stopped.

Cruceiro Toribio

It was our friend Miguel from the Monastery. He remonstrated with me and kept saying that “the stones belong at Cruz de Ferro” so I eventually had to admit defeat, put the stones back in my pannier, and carry on. Laughing at ourselves, we realized that, yet again, we were being “directed” as, until this point, on the few occasions that we had run into Miguel, we were usually eating his dust, not the other way round.

Eventually, we left the cross and began a steep descent towards Astorga. We were delighted to come across what can only be described as one of the “wonders of the world” when it comes to engineering feats – a large green iron bridge that traverses in a zigzag fashion – up, over and then down the other side of the railway track. It was so ugly that it was actually quite beautiful. I couldn’t help but wonder what the locals thought of this monstrosity, which is picture on the Introduction page. Shortly after the bridge, we were greeted by a large shell perched on a roundabout with the words “Astorga”. )

Once in the town centre, we hailed a cyclist as she was riding passed, and asked her if she would like join us. She put her bike next to ours and joined us on the veranda of a small hotel. We spent a welcoming hour chatting over lunch, then spent some time together exploring Astorga. Our new friend’s name was Clara, a young Belgian who we had seen occasionally along the route. It transpired that Clara was travelling without a puncture repair kit or even a pump. She added that she was putting her trust in the Camino and, indeed, she had not had any punctures since leaving her home some weeks before. She kindly took a picture of us outside L’Hotel de Ville, D’Astorga.

Astorga city centre

Having said our farewells to our new friend, we still had quite a bit of the day to get through at this stage, so set off once more. We decided not to return to the N120 (admittedly, much of it runs parallel to the walkers’ trail), as we were desperate to get away from noisy lorries for a while, so were relieved to come across the much smaller LE142 road, almost certainly part of the walking trail. This minor road led us towards a particularly stunning village called Castrillo de los Polvazares. It is famous for its location and is well known for being used as a backdrop for Spanish films. This was easy to believe if only because of its aesthetics and building materials. The roads, houses and shops are made of local stones and slates typically in the Maragato style – low, humble buildings of one- or two-storeys clustered tightly together around winding cobbled streets.

We left our bikes in what was obviously a parking area and walked towards the narrow streets (not comfortable to ride on). There was a small church, Santa Maria Magdalena, a simple structure with a crude but attractive facade. You could walk around the whole village within 45 minutes. I was told later that the restaurants and bars do not open here on Mondays, although today was Friday anyway.

Castrillo de los Polvazares.

We certainly found it difficult to leave before turning our attention to reaching the next village where we were to stay the night. Santa Catalina de Somoza is an upmarket version of the little village we had just visited and it was easy to find a charming little albergue. The dormitory was particularly small, and almost full by the time we arrived. But there was an upstairs area with some private rooms where, for the princely sum of 35 euros, we were happy to use.

We were both tired and delighted to discover that they sold evening meals so we settled in for the evening with a Dutch priest and some German pilgrims for company. A young Australian man joined us at the bar after supper. I asked him where his valuables were because he did not appear to have them on him. He replied that he had left them in his backpack. When I mentioned that this was, surely, rather foolish, he said that he “trusted in the Camino”. Having recently been given proof in Leon that leaving things in your backpack was perhaps not a great idea, all I could say was that I hoped he was right.

Today had started out with a lot of cycling on main roads, with nothing but cars and heavy trucks to keep your mind from wandering, and ended up with cycling through some delightful areas, full of character.

Day 13 – Santa Catalina de Somoza to Ponferrada

Day 11 – Sahagon to Leon

After a quick breakfast of croissant and coffee, we dressed up warmly because it looked cold outside. This was not to last for long as the temperature soon reached 30 C – we were getting used to riding in the heat. Now we were meeting other cyclists travelling in the same direction. Indeed, the closer we got to Santiago itself, the more walkers and cyclists we came across.

Found these
in the middle of nowhere.

I was determined to enjoy today’s riding, specially as I knew it would be relatively flat although, once again, it was sometimes difficult to find any trees to shelter from the heat if we became too exhausted. Some of the villages we rode through appeared to be empty. I’m convinced that it was all a front, and that if we had investigated further, we’d probably have found somewhere to stop for a drink. It was curious that, when we did find a small shop cum bar, and I insisted we stop to get some more water and maybe a Snickers bar (my favourite) but were to get no joy here. The proprietor showed definite signs of being either drunk or on drugs as he was acting very strangely. Perhaps it was because he realised that we weren’t Spanish and thought that if he shouted at us in his own language, we would understand what he was saying – which we didn’t but got the general drift that he was telling us there was no food available.

And a café with not a soul in sight.

We left with nothing and it was with a huge sense of relief when the outskirts of Leon came into view. Better still, the Monastery was open for those making their way to Santiago. The Albergue de Monasterio des las Benedictinas was to be our home for the night.

I loved this Monastery (not the only, or main, Monastery in Leon), although John was not amused with the long queue which had already gathered. By now, it was late afternoon and both of us were hot, tired, and hungry. Neither in a mood to be standing in a queue waiting to sign in and be allocated a bed. Still, this didn’t put me off being fascinated by the inner sanctuary, and the nuns, who were very helpful.

Our night’s accommodation.

I was told which dormitory I would be in and I rushed over to put my pannier and hat on a bottom bunk. This was to be a novel experience because until now John and I had always been in the same dormitory. This albergue kept men and women strictly apart so John was on the first floor. Appearing back in the enclosure to wait for him to join me, a nun approached and suggested that she could see if one of the private rooms (usually reserved for important personages) could be used by us as we were a married couple. I was happy to keep to the current arrangement and said as much.

One surprise was waiting for me, however, because when I inspected the ladies washroom I was appalled at the state it was in. No pretence to keep water off the floors, with bits of paper everywhere. Is it something to do with women knowing there were no men around to impress? There was a short note on the dormitory door which said: “To the thief who took our money. We hope you are happy because you stole from students who have nothing”. That was awful, and I was not surprised when I walked into the dorm to retrieve something from my panniers, and realized that I was being watched like a hawk by another pilgrim perched on the edge of her bed. While I would always be wary of keeping my money and Passport with me I had, for some reason, thought that like-minded people (in other words, pilgrims walking the Camino) wouldn’t do such a callous thing as steal from another. We certainly hadn’t come across anything like that so far – that is, until now and it’s very sad because people put their trust in others and feel let down when it is not observed.

Ancient walls in Leon

Dinner in the Monastery was at 7.00 so we had time to explore the city centre. I think if we were to take a full day off this would be the place to do it – although the albergues don’t like you staying for more than one night unless you are ill. While waiting for 7.00, we decided to explore. We were extremely lucky because the part of Leon the Monastery was situated in was surrounded by what can only be the older part of the city – it was like being back in a lost era. The narrow lanes still relatively untouched by modern-day changes with much of it not having been touched for centuries and all a very short walking distance from the Monastery. We were delighted to come across yet more evidence of Roman occupation when we found the remains of an old Roman wall.

Hunger eventually drove us back to the Monastery where we waited eagerly outside the dining room with a few others. By the time the doors did open at ten passed seven, there was a nice long queue forming behind us. John and I were directed to a long table and sat down next to a shy young German obviously not looking for company. However, there was also a Spanish man who was happy to talk to us in halting English. We recognized him from previous sightings along the way as he was also on a bike. He was delightful company and the evening passed very quickly. Miguel was unemployed “I am riding the Camino because there is not much else for me to do at the moment” he told us.

The staff were obviously enamoured by him and saw to our every wish simply because we were associated with him. He was, in the true sense, a real pilgrim as he was having to rely on the kindness of others. We eventually retired for the night and I slept soundly. At least there was no snoring to contend with (which says a lot), although loud voices tended to drift in from the street below – we were, after all, in a large city.

Day 12 Leon to Santa Catalina de Somoza

Day 10 – Fromista to Sahagon

After a blissfully quiet night’s sleep, we set off, riding on an almost traffic free P980, and still running parallel to the walking path. Still on the Meseta the roads were again flattish with precious little between the small villages that dotted this area. Many of them seemed to be almost deserted and certainly no new building had been taking place. Most of the villages had an air of hopelessness to them. If there were people living there, they were certainly keeping out of sight.

Villalcazar de Sirga.

We did, of course, come across the occasional pilgrim, usually on their own. Precious few other cyclists seemed to be doing the route at the same time as we were that’s for sure. Then we reached Villalcazar de Sirga and things were looking up. We stopped to explore and have a well-needed rest. Even sat down with an ancient pilgrim, who was strangely quiet. Taking off once more, we carried on until we reached the outskirts of Carrion de los Condes where we rejoined the N120.

Again, a pleasant, if not rather treeless, ride straight through to Sahagon, but not before stopping off occasionally to investigate the ruins of the monestary at Antiguo Hospital de Sta Maria de las Tiendas.

Taking a leap of faith.

The night before had been spent in semi-luxury, so this time we were determined to crash out in dormitory accommodation. As we reached the outskirts of Sahagon we noticed a gaudy building, decorated with a colourful mural and headed for that. It was opposite the local Bull Ring, which was fortunately shut. The cool of the open foyer made a refreshing change from the heat we had been riding through and, when the receptionist asked if we wanted to book a private room or beds in the albergue section.  I told her we wanted the dormitory but on reflection this was definitely a grave mistake.

Just glad to not be cycling.

The dormitory section of this hotel consists of an old open-plan barn attached to the main building. There are some 40 or so beds in the room, but only six, of which we took two, were used that night. We quickly picked beds and left our panniers on to claim them. I inspected the showers which turned out to be nothing more than separate alcoves with loose shower heads and nowhere for the water to flow away. As for a place to hang clothes – that just was not going to happen. If I had known how very basic this was going to be, I would definitely have opted for a private room. After voicing my thoughts, John put things into perspective once again “at least it’s a room over our heads”. I marvelled over the accuracy of his statement and told myself off for being such a prima donna.

If you stay here for a night, and want a bit of pampering, remember to ask for a room rather than a bed in the dormitory.

For all the fact that we seemed to have been riding for ages, we had arrived in Sahagun relatively early and decided to have a drink before getting changed. We had noticed a small garden as we had wheeled the bikes through the large red-marbled outer wall and, still in our riding  gear, quickly found a table where we could sit quietly with a few drinks. John had his cycling cap with him and this soon peaked the interest of one of the hotel visitor’s. He walked over and asked John if he could have the cap. It is a particular favourite of John’s as it has a logo “Café de Columbia”, so he laughed and told the man that he almost certainly wouldn’t want it a sweaty and more than a little grimy piece of headgear.

Later, after a quick wash – the showers were too basic to take seriously – and a change of clothes, it seemed like a good idea to forego any investigation into Sahagun itself as both of us were by then exhausted. Instead we decided to have some supper in the hotel’s restaurant. The staff were very pleasant and suggested various dishes while we mused over what to have, and when another pilgrim entered the restaurant, we invited him to join us. He had had the foresight to book a private room, and I wondered if he had been this way before! Fortuitously, we both slept well as with so few other pilgrims sharing the dormitory everything was very quiet and the following morning were soon up and ready to continue with the ride as dawn broke to yet another beautiful, sunny day.

Day 11 – Sahagon to Leon

Day 9 – Burgos to Fromista

A restless night, and only when heavy rain in the early hours of the morning had chased the revellers outside back to their homes did we eventually drift off. As I got out of bed I realised, with a heavy heart, that it was still raining. Not many people about yet as nobody was in a particular hurry to dress and leave the albergue.

Still, we had to make a move sometime and by the time we were both dressed and ready to make a move, the rain cloud had miraculously disintegrated. It seemed safe to go outside, and John suggested we see if we could have a bite to eat in the café opposite the Albergue before we left Burgos.

Delicious-looking chocolate covered palmera pastries for breakfast!

Retrieving our bikes and wheeling them into the street, we secured them on a wall near the café and then found an empty table inside. There were a few others already there who were not particularly keen on setting out on their walk just yet. We all watched as a few stragglers began the trek up the hill which would take them out of Burgos. A wise move on our part it transpired because suddenly the heavens opened once more and it started to rain again. Not light rain. Oh no, that would be asking too much. Within minutes the street resembled a quagmire as a stream of rainwater gushed down the slight incline turning it into a small waterfall.

We noticed a few of those who had left earlier running back down the hill to take cover in the albergue, and those of us inside the safety of the cafe watched in amusement. Fortunately, the storm was short-lived, the street soon dried up, and once again people were moving, eager to get back on the road. It was with some relief that we left Burgos cycling in a light drizzle. Although we would have both liked to stay another night in Burgos to explore it some more, the prospect of another sleepless night spurred us to move on.

Today, we were to reach the Meseta which runs from Burgos to Astorga for approximately 215 kms. The Meseta is the central plateau of Spain, and known locally as the high plains of Castile. The terrain is largely flat. Up to this point, we had been riding through some challengingly hilly areas, more ups than downs and were eagerly looking forward to some “flattish” riding – the hills had proven to be very real and somewhat relentless and we had learned to respect them. My knee problem had been relieved by the Voltarol cream and I knew that the slightly flatter route would help it even more. It felt good to be just riding and taking in the scenery, which seemed to be barren of trees and the occasional welcoming streams. Large groups of wind turbines spun away serenely perched high on the hills in the distance.

Spain appears to have embraced the realities of global warming and thought out new ways to harness their energy; I read somewhere that these wind farms generate 18% of the country’s electricity – that was back in 2013, so no doubt they have a lot more now. 

Riding parallel to the walking path much of the time, we had the road almost to ourselves. Traffic had all but dwindled, probably preferring the much faster A12. Trees were conspicuous by their absence. We both stopped to drink some water, and John noticed a small bird which was circling just above our heads, all the while tweeting loudly, before taking off in another direction. A tiny clump of trees came into view and we both headed for that to stop for a short while, relieved to be away from the relentless sun, even if it was just for a short while.

Monastery of St Antony at Castrojeriz.

Setting off once again, we seemed to ride mile after mile before we eventually came to a bend in the road we suddenly we came face-to-face with the ruins of the Monastery of Saint Antony at Castrojeriz. What a strikingly beautiful ruin, which appeared to be deserted at the time. It was once extensively used by both monks and pilgrims alike. There is an albergue but we decided to carry on ride as it wall still too early to stop. The beauty of this monastery can be seen in its architecture and I understand when people say that the aura of the many souls who have passed this way, whether for a few hours, or a few days, still resonates through its walls.

Before we left, we noticed a small alcove with numerous small stones and paper messages. We found some of these messages very poignant and interesting. I was particularly stuck by a large grey stone with the words “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”. As John said “that is so true in our case right now”. It was difficult to tear ourselves away. But we had to, making our way through the formidable Arch before riding alongside a long tree lined avenue until we reached Castrojeriz. Then onto Fromista, a large, almost soulless town, but here we were to spend the night.

Having just ridden through some of the more treeless areas of the Camino, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for those walking the Meseta.

Until this point, we had been staying in dormitories. We were becoming used to sharing the sleeping space with other people, both men and women. [The only time I’ve ever done that before was when I rode the London-to-Brighton annual bike ride with our daughter who was then 14-years-old. We had asked to be put in the family room then found ourselves sharing with a young father and his two children.] Perhaps it was because of the experience of the Burgos albergue that put me off for a while, but the thought that we could actually spend a bit more money and be in a small private room was suddenly very appealing. So this time we decided to go for it.

As it was my turn to complain of a stomach-ache, it was bliss to have a room all to ourselves, if only for one night. Sitting in our private room, we examined the overall route and I realized that we were, at this point, closer to Santander than Santiago. “Should we call it a day?” I asked John. “It’s up to you” was the reply. I was reluctant to make a final decision. I was tired; indeed, exhausted would have been a more apt word. But still at the back of my mind was the thought that we had wanted to ride all the way to Santiago. Even now, people we met up with were asking if we intended to carry on to Finisterre, which would add 70 or so miles to our original intention.

I rattled off a quick text to our eldest son Peter, granddaughter Abigail and my sister Pat, who I did not get a reply from. Peter’s curt reply was just what I could have expected from him “Don’t be such a wuss”! It was Abigail’s reply that made me reconsider that, yes, we had indeed ridden a long way already, and that it would have been a shame give up now. We decided to carry on.

Day 10 – Fromista to Sahagon

Day 8 – San Juan de Ortega to Burgos

We had managed more than a week’s riding. I couldn’t believe it. When we were both younger, we’d joined our local cycling group in Oxford, England. Apart from the Sunday rides, we’d occasionally head for mainland Europe, in particular France. We have fond memories, but these holidays were never more than seven day’s at a time. So now we were proud of ourselves for taking on what was proving to be a more daunting task. Having only each other to rely on was also a novelty.

We couldn’t resist stopping to view the fields of sunflowers.

Today we decided to take it easy and perhaps not go very far – an easy day’s ride. This bucked me up no end and I found myself enjoying riding along roads with cultivated fields of corn and occasionally vibrantly coloured sunflowers on either side of us. The road was quiet and narrow and it was good to be feeling more like our old selves once again.

A hop, skip and jump from San Juan de Ortega.

The morning found us riding only 30 kms (some 16 miles) and arriving early in Burgos, a beautiful city and certainly not overrated. As we walked through the town centre searching of some lunch, a waiter hovered just outside a café and, I kid you not, literally pulled us into the dark confines of a small dimly lit room. Slightly amused, and reluctant to argue in a foreign language, we settled down and ordered a Spanish Omelette each.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the narrow streets and exploring a few of the older churches and checking out the Gothic architecture so peculiar to Burgos which has a unique character all its own.

Burgos Cathedral

Eventually tiring of so much walking, we relocated our locked bikes. I noticed a young bearded man carrying the tell-tale backpack and asked him if he could give us directions to the municipal albergue. He pointed to the top of a nearby hill where we found a delightful building with a group of bedraggled-looking pilgrims stood outside. We joined the long queue to wait for the doors to open, which wasn’t very long fortunately. This building was one of the highlights of our trip so far.

Run by volunteers, it boasts numerous facilities and has a cosy, welcoming atmosphere. We were told we would be on the third floor, and I have a suspicion there was even one more floor above. The whole building is very spacious, with a welcoming area of long trestle tables and seating and even a vending machine on the ground floor in a common area.

Anybody who has stayed in Burges’ albergue will remember this.

In any other place we would have been turned away for arriving so early. But we were assured that the hostel had plenty of room and wouldn’t run out of beds.

The large dormitories were partitioned off into individual areas, each containing two bunk beds with individual lockers. Having claimed our bunks, showered and changed, we went in search of something light for supper. We didn’t have to go far as the café immediately opposite the albergue did a fair meal for a good price. This was also the first time we had seen any sign of rain as dark clouds began to loom threateningly.

John with his inevitable coke, and me with my inevitable coffee.

Relieved to find that we could catch up with our washing, it came as no surprise that the washing machines were in high demand. We waited patiently until a machine became available and so that we could throw the dirty clothes into one before hanging them over a washing line we had spied earlier in a small alcove. The alcove was a sun trap and it wasn’t long before everything had dried out.

We seemed to have walked more in terms of sightseeing in Burgos than we had ridden today, and were certainly ready for our beds. While most pilgrims would go to bed early, specially as they’d want an early start the following morning, it was easy to settle down relatively quickly. One downside of staying overnight in a large city is that the locals come to life sometime after about eight o’clock and don’t seem to go home until the early hours of the morning.

Burgos has a lot of iron statues for people to enjoy.

Burgos’s nightlife in the summer months can be as busy as during the day. Voices emanated from the streets below and could be heard even on the third floor. They only vanished at about three in the morning when a sudden downpour must have emptied the streets. Neither had we banked on the partitions separating us from our neighbours being so thin and nothing could stop the sound of heavy snoring reaching our ears. A restless night indeed.

Day 9 – Burgos to Fromista

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