Sunday, 21 August 2016

A Capital Idea - Part 1

Capital Ring

Day 1 - Wimbledon Common to Richmond

7.00 miles

Isn’t it funny how it’s often the little things in life that give you the most pleasure?

You know, those little happenings or events that are pretty minor in their own right but that take on a bigger-than-expected meaning in your life?

Choose one path, and life trundles on much as before. Choose another, and you experience something new that brings unexpected reward – a parallel universe where life is much as it always was, but slightly richer.

The start of our Capital Ring walk, entering Wimbledon Common

This time last year, we had only the vaguest notion of a walk circumnavigating the capital, but a get-together with friends last summer in Bushy Park had introduced us to the London LOOP, a project we went on to complete in stages over the winter months of 2015/6 and enjoyed very much.

Details of this circular walk were to be found on the Transport for London (TfL) website, and it was while planning our attempt on the LOOP that we came across details of a second circumambulation of the conurbation – the Capital Ring.

With Nick & Celia

Because of its circular trajectory around the outer fringes of London, the LOOP is considered by some to be the M25 of walking routes. If so, then the Capital Ring equates to the North and South Circular, describing a smaller circle closer to the city centre – around 80 miles compared to the LOOP’s 150+.

However, the raison d’etre for its existence is much the same, connecting green spaces and interesting places as it goes.

Queensmere Lake

So once again we found ourselves with an early morning tootle on the train, crossing the city by tube and rail to Wimbledon to meet up with our friends Nick and Celia, who had kindly agreed to walk the first couple of miles with us.

A short bus journey later, we alighted close to where the Capital Ring enters Wimbledon Common and took our first steps along the route amidst the finest of mizzle.

How wide do you want the bole?

Now readers of a certain age will probably be thinking “Wimbledon Common, eh?” And indeed we did see hundreds of short, fat, furry creatures in funny outfits shuffling around in the undergrowth.

But enough about the competitors in the Wimbledon Common Half Marathon, we wanted to see Wombles.

Mind you, if the Wombles were about and wanting to make good use of the “things that the everyday folks leave behind” they’d need a lot of ideas for things to do with empty plastic water bottles.

In Richmond Park, near Spankers Hill Wood

After a lovely couple of miles ambling across Wimbledon Common, it was time to say goodbye to Nick and Celia. They went off to catch the bus while we continued along the Capital Ring, entering Richmond Park via the Robin Hood Gate.

We climbed a gentle incline past the indelicately-named Spankers Hill Wood, and stopped for lunch on a bench overlooking the open grasslands. Richmond Park covers 2,500 acres, is a national nature reserve and SSSI, and is one of the largest urban parks in Europe. Plenty of room, then, for the herds of deer we were watching to roam freely across the Serengeti-like plains.

Deer in Richmaond Park

Moving on, we followed the track between the two lakes of Pen Ponds. Away to our right stood White Lodge, now the home of the Royal Ballet School.

Looking back to Pen Ponds

Coincidences and connections intrigue me. The initial reason for our visit this weekend was to see an evening performance of Swan Lake by the Bolshoi Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Swan Lake and Pen Ponds, the ballet school and the best-known ballet company in the world – symmetries thrown up by a random choice of activities on one particular weekend.

Old oak tree

Passing an old, hollow oak, we crossed Queen’s Road by Pembroke Lodge, one-time home of former Prime Minister Lord John Russell and of his grandson, philosopher, logician, writer and historian Bertrand Russell.

Pembroke Lodge stands on a ridge overlooking the Thames valley, and you can see the logic behind the location of this historic house. The views from here are splendid, and we could see Twickenham stadium, Ham House and the river.

Descending into the Thames valley

Nearby Henry’s Mound (a burial mound so named because Henry VIII is said to have waited here for news of the execution of Anne Boleyn and the freedom to marry Jane Seymour) offers one of London’s protected views – a view which no tall buildings are allowed to obstruct – which stretches to St. Paul’s Cathedral 12 miles away.

Cattle grazing in Petersham Meadows (after John Constable)

After a steep descent, we crossed the road and entered Petersham Meadows, where a tarmac path led us on to the Thames towpath (part of the Thames Path National route – now there’s an idea!). Needless to say, on a warm, summer’s weekend in the school holidays, it was busy with families and tourists strolling and picnicking beside the river.

Beside the river

Richmond marks the end of this section of the Capital Ring. Having arrived in good time, we decided on an impromptu river cruise along the Thames – something neither of us had done before – around Eel Pie Island (a famous venue for jazz and blues music, where acts such as The Who, Genesis, Hawkwind and The Rolling Stones performed back in the 1960s) and back.

Richmond Bridge

A performance of a different sort beckoned in the evening. Covent Garden was busy and buzzing as we shoved our way through crowds and past street entertainers en route to the Royal Opera House.

Street entertainers, Covent Garden

Although not our usual choice of gig, we were familiar with much of Tchaikovsky’s music and the traditional choreography. Like with much “live” entertainment, you get a far more visceral sense of the performance seeing it on stage, and in this case the effort put in by the orchestra and the physicality of the dancers really impressed.

Inside the Royal Opera House, waiting for the curtain to rise

The journey home was a late affair, and it was no surprise we were sleepy after a long day. A good day it was, though, and we look forward to more of the Capital Ring over the winter of 2016/7.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Le Puy Route - Part 3

A Lot of What You Fancy - Saint-Chely-d’Aubrac to Conques

Day 7 – Saint-Chely-d’Aubrac to Espalion

25.18km / Ascent = 848m / Descent = 1314m

Overcast but humid conditions greeted us this morning, and the climb out of Saint-Chely proved to be a bit hot and sticky as we rapidly gained height out of the valley.

We'd enjoyed a plentiful breakfast of fruit salad, yoghurt, juice, coffee and croissants before setting off – just the job to fuel us for the full day we had ahead of us.

Crossing the Pont des Pelerins

Our guidebook split the day into 4 sections, but to be honest the divisions were moot and more because the first 16 kilometres of the day needed to be split somehow, rather than given as one long description.

Looking back over Saint-Chely d'Aubrac

Saint-Chely lies at about 800m above sea level, and by the time we had reached the fourth hamlet of the day – L’Estrade – after some 6 kilometres of walking through woods and along a ridge with fine views to all sides, we must have been back around the 1000m mark.

From L’Estrade, we began a stretch of over 10km to Saint-Come d’Olt – almost all downhill as we descended some 600m over the distance, mainly on clear tracks through woods and pasture. Once again, we played “Spot the Bull” – like a cross between “Spot the Ball” and “nearest the bull” – as nearly every group of cows has one, it was useful to know where the bull was when entering a field in case one got a bit feisty and we needed to make a hasty departure (the other alternative would be “nearest the ball”, which on Monday night had, of course, been Iceland).

Having a break

View from our picnic spot

Anyway, after a stop part way down for a piece of cake and a drink, we eventually arrived at the road. A short uphill section followed (we didn't even consider the “just walk along the road” option) followed by a dip and rise to a farm in the hamlet of Grezes where we stopped for real lemonade, cool, sharp and refreshing.

Nearing the end of the descent, Saint-Come ahead

A further 3k of descending paths brought us to Saint-Come d’Olt (Olt being the Occitan name for the Lot, the river on which the town sits). Reaching the Lot valley had brought us to the third distinct landscape the route would take us through, and after the highlands of the Margeride and the Aubrac plateau, this lowland river scenery was a big change.

At around 385m in altitude, Saint-Come d’Olt is around 900m lower than the Aubrac. There were some notable changes – as well as the fact that the walking now switched to riverside paths and wooded valley slopes, it was noticeably warmer without the mitigating breeze of higher levels.   

Church with crooked spire, Saint-Come d'Olt

We took another break, this time in a small park beside the main church with its twisted spire (like Chesterfield or Cleobury Mortimer) and ate our lunch of pizzas and nectarines. We popped into the church for a quick look, glad of a few moments of cool against the rising heat of the day.

Saint-Come and the Lot river

By now, it was about 2.00pm. We crossed the River Lot by the main bridge, and followed a narrow road beside the river. Again, two options were available – stay by the river or climb the valley side for broad views and a chance to see the Vierge Notre Dame de Vermus.

Looking back to Saint-Come

No contest, really – despite the muggy heat and sweaty climb involved, the high route it was. A steep mud path, still wet even after all the dry days we'd had, led zigzagging up through woods (now deciduous) to finally reach a high level track near an unnamed hamlet where we picked and ate wild strawberries.

Espalion from the Vierge Notre Dame de Vermus

Next, a mix of sandy tracks and footpaths led us out along a rocky promontory where the statue of Vierge de Vermus stood high above the valley, with Espalion laid out below and the Chateau clearly visible on the dome-shaped summit behind. This section offered different walking – perhaps the most dramatic of the trip so far – on narrow, rocky paths more mountainous in character than anything we walked at higher altitudes.

River front and bridges, Espalion

After a steep descent to the edge of town, we followed a path through the local park, once more beside the river. The two bridges – one old, one new – came into view, along with the old riverside houses, quite a dramatic approach to this historic town.

Thin houses and still waters, Espalion

Our hotel was on the main street. We checked in, and had a wash a brush up before dinner – an unexpectedly high level of cuisine given the general air of the place was more “business visitor” than “gastro-tourist”. We both had a generous and varied charcuterie plate to start with, whilst I had duck and Missy G had steak for main course, accompanied by a glass of rose wine. Pudding was a yummy strawberry sundae, and we rounded the whole lot off with coffee afterwards.

Later, we went for a quick stroll round town by way of a digestif.

Pilgrim bridge, Espalion

Tomorrow, we had a lengthier day in prospect. In fact, the combined stats for distance, ascent and descent for today and tomorrow are quite revealing – the walking is not difficult because it sticks mainly to good paths, tracks and lanes, but is rather tougher than might first appear the case, with a total of about 33 miles walked and a cumulative height difference topping 2000m for both ascent and descent over the two days.

Day 8 – Espalion to Golinhac

28.12km / Ascent = 1154m / Descent = 750m

A long and quite tough day began with breakfast and a walk round the Friday market for things for lunch – cheese, bread and fruit. It was fun wandering the stalls, almost like the natives do, eyeing-up the produce, mulling over the choices and picking our preferences from so many options.

Then we set out on trail. It was a bright morning and warming, the early mist having burned off pretty quickly. It was about 9.00am as we walked the first stretch beside the river and worked our way through the suburbs to reach the main D556 road that we followed towards the Eglise de Saint-Pierre-de-Bessuejouls – one of the oldest churches on the route, according to our notes.

Eglise de Saint-Pierre-de-Bessuejouls

After a relatively flat first hour, we then made the steep climb up and out of the valley to reach the high ground above. After a short stop for food and water, we first followed the road through the hamlet of Griffoul, then took a stone track which led into an earth path descending into the valley again near Tredou.

Church, Tredou

More roads and stone tracks followed, as we headed for the village of Verrieres where we stopped for first lunch – bread, cheese, fruit and half a pain au raisin.

Lunch, French style

Although the description so far has been quite short, time-wise it was already late morning. So, as we passed the “beaux village” of Estaing, we decided to pause only for photos, as exploring the town would have added time to what was already looking like a long-ish day.

Estaing #1

Estaing #2

Beyond Estaing, we took a quiet lane beside the river Lot. It was getting quite hot, and felt like one of those lazy days where most things are just too much effort. Even the river could only just be bothered to flow: the section here is wide and slow, artificially broadened by the Golinhac barrage, and I am strongly reminded of Rupert Brooke’s poem, Heaven:

Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant, if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.
We darkly know, by Faith we cry,
The future is not Wholly Dry.
Mud unto mud! — Death eddies near —
Not here the appointed End, not here!
But somewhere, beyond Space and Time.
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent, and kind;
And under that Almighty Fin,
The littlest fish may enter in.
Oh! never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.

Climbing up to Montegut

As the route began to turn away from the river, we took another stop by a low bridge for second lunch. Then began the second main climb of the day – out of the valley on to the top again, rising steeply through woods to emerge at Montegut.

We hadn't packed much water when we set off (my fault) and were slightly worried about running short on this hot afternoon. However, we came across a wayside “water and wee” stop, provided for walkers by the trail patrons, which came in useful on both counts.

Wayside scene between Montegut and Golinhac

Quite a long afternoon ensued. After another long stretch of road walking, we cut up through woods again on an undulating footpath. Missy G had a good view of a deer (I just saw it disappearing into the undergrowth) - we reckoned these quiet, beautiful woods would be a haven for wildlife, so it was nice to see some!

Between Montegut and Golinhac was reckoned to be about 11k, but it was difficult to assess exactly where we were as the little hamlets we passed through were often not signposted, and the lanes and paths lacking in landmarks. But in a way, this is what we came for – peace and quiet and a chance to experience real, rural France.

Roadside memorial to Pepe, who used to sit here
every day, wishing pilgrims well as they passed

Eventually, though, after more road and woodland path walking, we came to the hamlet of Massip on into the edge of Golinhac. Our digs were on the far side of the village, so we followed the route past the church and up a narrow, walled lane to a road on the ridge where we made for the last house in the village – La Landette.

We got a nice welcome from the hostess, who showed us to a small apartment – quite simple, but very nice – where we installed ourselves for the night.

After a wash and brush up we went for dinner, served by the host. He spoke good English, so we discussed everything from Brexit to schooling to how busy (or not) the Chemin is at the moment (they are doing OK, but cheaper camping options are slow).

Interestingly, although we set of slightly later than usual in the morning – by half an hour or so – we didn't see a single other pilgrim all day (over 17 miles and 8 hours of walking) which must be something of a record!

We were also able to talk about the food we were having – homemade vegetable soup, local charcuterie, braised beef (that took two days to prepare), garden potatoes, local cheeses (including the blue ewe’s milk cheese Roquefort – quite well-known to English cheese lovers, and made in the Aveyron) and a homemade fruit flan. All delicious, and with hardly any food miles at all either! Oh, and we had a bottle of good local Marcillac plonk to go with it!

We felt very full as we trundled along the road for a five-minute stroll before retiring, but we'd had one of the best evenings of the trip – good food and interesting chat – so we went to sleep tired but happy.

Day 9 – Golinhac to Conques


And so to our last morning, which was dry but rather overcast. In contrast to our pilgrim-free yesterday, walkers were already passing even as we went for breakfast – a feast of bread, jam, ham and cheese, coffee and juice. Just like dinner, simple but nice.

Nearing Espeyrac on a cloudy morning

Strrets of Espeyrac #1

Streets of Espeyrac #2

We were away in reasonable time, heading first on paths and lanes high on the valley-side, before dropping down to cross the river at Espeyrac. The walking was similar to the last couple of days, a mix of tarmac lanes, stony tracks and woodland paths. We fell in with a Frenchman, Laurent – originally from Paris but now living in Toulouse – who we would walk with off and on through the day.

The café was shut when we arrived in Espayrac, so we carried on, climbing out of the valley, through Celis, and on to the next village, Senergues, where we stopped for coffee and ice cream, and got lucky finding batteries for the GPS (which had run out earlier, hence the lack of ascent/descent figures for today).

Just at that moment, there were pelerins everywhere, and the little village was suddenly inundated with walkers looking for food and drink. In that sense, it was probably the most similar lunch stop to those on the Spanish section of the Camino – briefly buzzing as another pod of pilgrims passes through before moving on.

"Wee and water" stop, Senergues

After a short break, we continued to gain height before levelling out again for more high-level walking, mostly on roads, through more hamlets. A gentle drizzle fell.

Roadside shrine on the way out of Senergues

Cornflowers in the hedgerow

A little beyond Saint Marcel (where we popped into the church) we left the road for a gravel track, stopping for lunch before a steep descent that ran on into a woodland path that brought us to another road on the outskirts of Conques.

Entering Conques - sign both in French and Occitan

Conques is a beautiful, olde-worlde town, justly famous for its architecture and history. We arrived to find some odd things – tourists! And a wedding!

Abbey Saint-Foy

We wandered briefly through the streets, and found our hotel quite quickly. We had a beer and a cool down before checking in, then – after a wash and brush up – we went out to explore a little, and get something to eat and drink. 

Narrow streets

Conques is another of the "beaux villages". The medieval streets are very narrow, so the centre is more-or-less pedestrianised. The Abbey of St Foy (Santa Fe in Spanish) is a large structure for such a steep valley-side, and contains the remains of St Foy, a martyred woman from the 4th Century, that has drawn pilgrims to Conques for centuries.

Abbey frontage, with sculptured tympanum
above the doorway

The current building dates from the C11th, but it’s origins are from the C8th. Think about that: that’s 1300 years ago!

Abbey view #1

Abbey view #2

Abbey view #3

To me the Abbey, with its high ceiling, ornate Romanesque sculptures, galleries and large dimensions, demonstrates just how important a site it was considered, as it would have taken a tremendous effort to build something so big on such a steep slope.

Close up of tympanum above Abbey doorway

There is no doubt the town is beautiful, deserves its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site and warrants a good look round. But despite a slightly shorter day’s walking today, we were still ready for a good sleep, so returned to the hotel to get a few things ready for tomorrow's departure. We would have time for another look round in the morning, and all being well we will be back sometime in the near future to continue the Route St Jacques.

Room with a view

Conques had proved to be a great place to break our journey, and before leaving for the airport we had time for a lazy amble around the cobbled streets, catching up with Laurent and a bunch of other pilgrims who were in the enviable position of being able to continue.

We’d thoroughly enjoyed our 9-days on the trail, but it is quite a different experience to the Camino de Santiago through Spain. Several things had struck us about the differences, not least the fact that the path was far less busy than in Spain (although busier than we expected) and the route connects hamlets, villages and small towns, not large cities (after leaving Le Puy, the largest town we passed through had a population of just 4000, and many other towns and villages had far fewer inhabitants than that).

Inside the Abbey, with reliquary containing Saint
Foy's remains strung high out of reach

The route is also much less direct, with a lot more in the way of height gain and loss on a day-to-day basis. And, by and large, the walkers were mostly just that: walkers, and not pilgrims, just out for a few days’ walking rather than aiming to reach Santiago. Also, those walkers were nearly all French, whereas on the Camino there was a much more international roll-call.

Another difference was the food – obviously different between France and Spain, but whereas in Spain meals were often cheap, plentiful and repetitive (fuel, in other words) the food we had enjoyed over the last few days had been a showcase for the produce of the area – locally sourced, proudly typical of the region and treated with love and respect. 

View of Conques

For those that have done the Camino, it is a worthy precursor to that trek, But it is different, and it would depend on what elements of the Camino each individual felt they gained from as to how much enjoyment they would glean from this route. For example, the walking, scenery and food are great, the camaraderie just as fulsome but much less frequent than on the Camino, simply because there are fewer pilgrims en route.

We loved it, though, and plan to be back next year.