Thursday, October 30, 2008
In the meantime, it seems to be an opportune time to write the first of what will be an occasional series of posts about other big walks I have heard about and read about during my life, which may have played some part, conscious or otherwise, in giving me inspiration for VBW.
Recently I bumped into an acquaintance at a café in Limoux. When I told him about my planned walk and some of the matters I was having to consider, he said, “So you will be just like Dr Barbara Moore.”
In 1960, the British press carried daily reports about the progress of Dr Barbara Moore, who was walking from John o’Groats to Land’s End. For those who do not know, this is from the northern point of Scotland to the southern tip of England. She accomplished this feat in 23 days. The distance is 874 miles.
She went on in 1961 to walk across the USA from San Francisco to New York City, a distance of 3,387 miles, which she completed in 85 days.
One of the reasons the press were so interested in her was that she was a vegetarian. In those days vegetarians were even rarer than they are now, and most people believed that it would be impossible to live a normal life, never mind to undertake such a huge task as this, without a regular intake of good red meat. So the idea of this woman charging such a long distance on such a freaky diet really fuelled the public imagination, or at least that of the press. They probably spent every day waiting for her to collapse, needing a meat infusion.
But no, she walked with only nuts, honey, dried fruits and vegetable juice for her fuel. Even more startling were tales which seeped out of her actually being a breatharian. If you look up that word you will find that breatharians claim to do without food entirely and to assimilate what they need from the air.
Barbara Moore herself later claimed to have cut out food and to live only on flavoured water. More about this and other breatharians can be seen at the following website.
She said she would live to be 150. She did not, partly because she died as a result of a car accident during her travels in America.
She was not the first to walk from John o’ Groats to Land’s End, or the other way round. But the publicity which followed her turned the walk into a virtual industry. In 1960, not many months after Dr Moore’s effort, the holiday camp entrepreneur Billy Butlin organised a walking race to follow her route. There were more than 800 entrants, although rather less finishers.
There are at least two organisations catering for those wanting to make the attempt. Thousands have now walked this “classic” journey (which is now so common that it has its own acronyms – JOGLE or LEJOG, depending upon the direction), not to mention those who cycle it or use all sorts of other strange forms of locomotion, including skateboards. The walk has even been completed by a naked man.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Well, we are off to America tomorrow, via Gerona in Spain and a couple of days in UK. Rather than New York – the first city I visited in USA, more than 50 years ago, and several times since, we are heading to Evansville in Indiana, via Chicago and Nashville.
I don’t think we shall have any trouble with nourishment. Lorenzo, who together with his wife Jane, is our host, is a baker and former proprietor of an Italian-style restaurant. He loves to cook, he is good at it, and has no trouble matching our dietary requirements. Jane and Lorenzo are pictured above.
No, it’s not the availability of the nourishment, it is the quality and quantity of it. It is hard to resist good food, especially when living in the home of a food connoisseur, enthusiast and chef. If you wake up in the morning to the aroma of specially-baked muffins, bread, and other goodies, it would take a strong will and a degree of churlishness to say nay. Similar smells at lunchtime and dinner, accompanied by us having witnessed the effort going into the next meal, make it impossible to refrain.
The problem is counteracting this bounty, not to mention just keeping up some of our normal degree of fitness. In other words, how are we going to get enough exercise? It is out of the question, both because we shall be in an urban environment, and because of good manners, to disappear for 3, 4 or 5 hour walks. And we would be missing such good company!
I have asked Lorenzo to plan out a walk of 6 kilometres or so which I could do before the household is awake and functioning. Also, there are the famous “Lorenzo’s Ropes” (famous to us, anyway, and instrumental in our meeting this very good friend) to be used (more about that in a later post). We also have Masterclasses scheduled, from Lorenzo, in his dungeon, in the use of another form of exercise equipment new to us, or at least to me.
Our reason for going to America at this particular time is so that we can experience a presidential election at first hand. This is an interest of mine anyway, but this time the election will be historic, not only in seeing the end of the frightening Dubya era, but because, whoever wins, there will be either a black man as President, or a woman as Vice President.
Much as we would like to see Obama win, I have severe doubts about the willingness of Americans to put someone of his race in the White House. It is only just over a hundred years since Theodore Roosevelt lost the South, and a great deal of social and political clout, because he, the President, had invited a very distinguished black man - Booker T Washington - to dinner and discussion. Senator Benjamin R Tillman uttered this:
I am sure the US nation has moved on from there. But how far? We shall see.
Friday, October 24, 2008
The other day I walked again from Mirepoix to home. Not accompanied by Gay this time. Although she is now walking erect and not feeling like an old crone, her back is still very sore and she has to be cautious. She didn’t even go to her beloved yoga this week, never mind the aerobics.
I was walking on the Voie Verte again, which is the old railway line. This section of the way covers more than two thirds of the total journey of 30 kms. In 21 kms, before I stepped off the Voie Verte at Chalabre, I saw not a single person.
This morning I was again walking the VV, this time the rest of it, from Lavelanet to Chalabre, on my way home. I saw rather more people, two teenage girls jogging, and two post-teenage women walking their dogs. The temperature of 1 degree Centigrade may have had something to do with the number of people about.
I was struck by the peacefulness of walking on tracks like this as opposed to walking on the roads, although I am committed to doing the latter during VBW for reasons previously given. As you know, I would prefer to walk the whole route through France on the Grande Randonnées, but it would take too long. It would not be possible in the timescale I have set myself.
It’s not just the peacefulness, the quiet – apart from the blasts of gunfire which I would prefer to do without. But it is much better for the body, especially the joints, to walk off-road.
This Voie Verte is known to me because I live in the area. A stranger would not know it is there. And yet it is pretty much parallel to the roads and the distance for these particular walks would not be much different if I walked on the tarmac.
I am sure that on my way North there will be many instances where I could walk on a track without adding much to my distance, if only I had the local knowledge.
Now I know that there are many people in France who log on to this blog. Surprisingly, there are also very many in North America, but it’s the French viewers, or rather those living in France, or with knowledge of France, to whom I am about to appeal for assistance.
If you know of such tracks, intended for pedestrians, cyclists or horses, you can help me.
You don’t know my exact route? Neither do I yet. But if you draw a pencil line on a map from Caen to Puivert – if you can’t find Puivert on your map, draw the line from Caen to Mirepoix (Ariege), my intention is to go through my maps, planning a route on white D-roads which run as parallel as possible to that pencil line. I am hoping they will be quiet roads but I will not know until I try it. And of course it is always a good idea to get away from the danger of traffic if possible.
So you could not only give me peace or relieve my knees, you could save my life. If you know of a track which also sticks closely to the pencil line, I would like to hear about it and would be grateful to hear from you either via a comment on the blog, or as an e-mail to me at:
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
I was certainly glad of that jacket during the remaining 11 kms of the walk. I also wished that I was wearing trousers rather than shorts. But what struck me forcibly, especially after I lost it, was the amount of protection, from both wind and cold, afforded by trees.
I am talking here about forests, not the roadside man-hunting trees referred to the other day. I was also reminded just how much of this area, and of France generally, is covered in trees. This is a big logging area, one of many in France. I read a few years ago that there is now four times as much forest in France as there was at the end of the Second World War. That is very impressive. And much of it is deciduous, although there are plenty of the faster growing conifers, as elsewhere.
I don’t know whether I read that figure before or after the big storm of 1999, which felled colossal numbers of trees, as well as doing much other damage, of course.
Read this and weep, those who talk about the so-called “hurricane” of 1987 in England.
A few days before the turn of the Millennium (I acknowledge here, before I get lots of comments, that I am talking about the false Millennium which was generally celebrated worldwide on January 1, 2000, rather than the real Millennium a year later), on December 26th 1999, the hurricane Lothar hit France, Switzerland and Germany.
Lothar was the strongest hurricane for 1,000 years. It reached wind speeds of 150 kph in lower areas and 250 kph on some mountains. 92 people were killed in France and power was disrupted to 3,500,000 homes. 60% or roofs in Paris were damaged.
In France a total of 140,000,000 square metres of trees were felled by the storm. I read that the number of trees involved was 29,000,000. Or was it 290,000,000? With numbers like these, does an extra zero matter?
10 years worth of forest production was lost overnight, preventing access by foresters and hunters for months in many areas. Some resort towns did not open for business the following summer.
We experienced some of the aftermath of Lothar. Having heard nothing of it, because we had been in Mexico when it happened, a few months later we were staying at Brantôme, in the Dordogne, a favourite place. We were running in the woods, with which we were familiar, but which looked strangely different. As if a comet had landed, for instance. There were fallen trees everywhere. The interior landscape of forests known to us had changed markedly. And it was not just off the beaten track. There was much evidence of tree stumps by the sides of busy roads, giving a faint idea of the number of trees which must have fallen into and across roads. It must have been a terrifying night to be out in a car. Or anywhere over a very large area. People who had already been primed with dire predictions of what would happen a few days later, as the Millennium arrived, must have really believed that it had all come a few days early.
And their health and tempers would not have been improved much when the storm carried on the next day. Actually, it was another huge storm, name of Martin, which was continuing the work of Lothar. Two for the price of one, and no doubt even more dire tales about it being the beginning of a build-up to Millennium catastrophe.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
There is a wonderful Dire Straits song of the above name in which Mark Knopfler sings about a man who walks 30 miles with a sack on his back. I am pretty committed to the 30 miles bit - or rather kilometres, but have always been wary of sacks on my back. I have a lurking lower-back problem which at times has resulted in complete paralysis. I also have damage to cervical vertebrae which means I once examined the immense Chartres cathedral only from ground level to a height of about 5 feet. Somehow, I think my back might revolt at carrying a full sized rucker.
I have made various attempts with smaller daypacks, in fact as a result, we have quite a collection of these. But I have not been comfortable with any of them, especially when cycling on hills.
However, early this year I made the acquaintance, in fact I made a purchase, of a daypack which does not continually remind me of its presence. Whether walking or cycling, I forget it is there, which is surely the ideal. It is the Deuter Speedlite 10/300. I think those numbers mean it will hold 10 litres of goods, and when empty, weighs 300 grams. I am so attached to the one I bought and used in New Zealand that I left it there for future use and bought another one when I arrived home. I have used one or other of them virtually every day since February and am convinced.
In it I normally carry a waterproof poncho (or 2 if Gay is with me) a small camera, a water bladder (not supplied), one or two water carriers in the side pockets if it is a hot day, a pack of sandwiches if I am going to be out over lunchtime, keys, identification (a legal necessity in France, as well as a sensible precaution), and a mobile telephone (similar sensible precaution for emergencies). There is still room to carry an extra layer of clothing, or to take off a layer and put it in as I heat up.
If you prefer to carry more, the range includes 15, 20 and 30 litre models
There is an excellent description and review at this website:
I bought mine on the web (web price £26) from:
Regarding the song "Telegraph Road", if you have often wondered what the masterful lyrics are about, see this for two very good explanations:
If you have never heard it, you have missed some marvellous guitar work, including a very long solo at the end (the track is about 12 minutes) and, as with most of Knopfler's song-writing, very clever and meaningful lyrics.
You can catch some of the solo (from a mature Knopfler) here:
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
An hour before taking this photograph I was sitting at a café overlooking the tiny market in Chalabre. Reading the local paper while eating my breakfast and preparing for the walk. Front page news was that almost a thousand plane trees are being removed, at the rate of 20 a day, on the admittedly dangerous, or at least accident-ridden, road from Carcassonne to Castelnaudary, the home of the Foreign Legion and Cassoulet.
Several other areas nearer to us, such as Limoux, also have planned tree-removal programmes. This is because, according to the newspaper, trees are involved in 7 out of 10 vehicle accidents.
This has been going on for some time, all over France, and many fear that it will ultimately result in the disappearance of this distinctive feature of the French countryside.
The trees were allegedly planted by Napoleon Bonaparte, or rather at his instigation, to provide shade for his troops as they marched merrily along to invade and subdue all the other countries of Europe. This is very likely a myth as the trees are known to have been prevalent before Napoleon was even a twinkle. Not to mention that, brilliant general though he undoubtedly was, it would have taken extraordinary foresight and planning to have ensured that the trees were up, mature and casting shade in time for his soldiers to benefit. Did he really plan his campaigns 30 or 40 years in advance?
I can confirm that there is a great benefit to the walker from the platanes, especially in the hot months. When I am driving along the same roads, I do not feel threatened by the trees. How can anybody in his right mind think that if a car hits a tree, the tree is to blame?
Of course there are campaigning groups trying to prevent this wholesale destruction of innocent trees. Bodies with names like “Arbres et Routes” and “Amis du Terre” (Friends of the Earth) have had some success in gaining the abandonment of some planned tree removals. Of course these groups claim that the answer should be in changing driver behaviour rather than destroying trees.
But there are other opposing groups, such as one called the Anti-Plane Tree Commando, who one night in recent years sawed down 66 trees on a minor road not too far away from here. The same group, believed to be composed of motorcyclists armed with chain saws, were already believed to be responsible for summarily executing 96 plane trees on another stretch of the same road.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
OK, so we have had Sausage Fingers and Fish Fingers – what now, I can hear you asking – more fingers? But this is something altogether more serious. Perhaps I should have called this post Planning For The Unexpected. I know you can’t do that, but you should constantly be as ready as you’ll ever be for something to jump up and wreck your plans.
Not that my plans have been wrecked yet but I think that my attitude generally is that you should go for your dreams, large or small, in the full knowledge that an unplanned factor could prevent the achievement. The corollary of this, which some people never seem to grasp, is that you can prevent the achievement yourself by totally negative approach and dismissal of the dream. Or, just as bad, postponement, which is the same thing in the end. Put simply, you won’t achieve if you don’t try.
So what has brought about all this navel-gazing? Three things:
My wife Gay is hobbling round like an old person. This is as a result of bending to pick something from the floor a few days ago. The back went "ping" and the hobbling commenced. When we went to our village Afghan restaurant on Thursday evening, the proprietress said, “But you are sportive, you must be elastic!” Wrong – athletes are usually very inflexible, as well as being prone to catch everything going because they constantly deplete their resources in training. And at least as prone to injury as couch potatoes – more so.
My baby brother Paul – a mere stripling of 63 – is totally immobilised because, fresh from a wonderful holiday in the desert lands, including Petra and Jerash, he tripped over a Hoover and has seriously injured his knee. Vast quantities of fluid have been drawn off but he has to wait for the swelling to subside before it is known exactly what damage has been sustained. Anyone who knows Paul will understand how bad this injury is when I tell you that he is unable to attend a concert tonight by one of his guitar heroes, a concert for which the tickets have already been bought.
Either of the above could have happened to me before or during the walk and obviously this would have affected the achievement of my goal to a greater or lesser degree. There are some known areas of damage to my back and legs/feet, which are constantly at the back of my mind and which could activate to my disadvantage. I hope not.
But there is always the possibility of something more alarming. This morning a great sportsman, Severiano Ballesteros, lies in intensive care with a very serious illness, his family around him. A few days ago he seemed to be fine. I hope he soon will be fine again but the indications are not good.
My point is not that one should go around expecting to have an accident or to fall terribly ill. It is that, while being aware that something like that could happen, you should try to achieve your goal. You should prepare for it and make the attempt. If fate intervenes, so be it, but you will have tried.
I am a great believer in “going for it”, whatever “it” is. At the earliest opportunity. My heart sinks when I hear somebody say “one of these days I am going to …” or “I would love to but …”. You know these people will never start.
Martin Luther King had a dream. He said “I may not get there with you,” and he was right, but this did not deter him.
So, like Martin Luther King, even like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, dream your dreams, aim for the stars, glory in it if you succeed, be satisfied, if you fail, that you at least tried.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
We visited Quillan market this morning, not to buy anything (just as well, because it was so wet that by the time we left, not a single stall was erected), but in order for me to walk back. The road climbs that 300 metres in just 5 kms – if you think that is not steep, try it on a bicycle sometime. Believe me, it is quite a climb, and the road twists and turns a lot on the way up. Traffic cuts the corners a lot, as is the custom in France, which forces other traffic to the very edge of the curves. The road is lined with concrete walls, which leaves nowhere for a pedestrian to go if he sees a car coming at him. It is a dangerous place to be on foot.
As dangerous as walking round a race-track. In fact it is a race-track – for one weekend a year the road is closed so that cars can race from Quillan to the Col du Portel at the top. Some cars, or rather their drivers, do the racing without waiting for the official weekend. So altogether, it is not a place I like to walk.
Fortunately, I recently found a traffic-free bypass, a walking track, part of the Grand Randonée system. I think I have mentioned before that this track climbs to over 650 metres - even higher than the road. The track is narrow and the surface for much of the way is rough, including many loose stones. It is to be walked with care. For the last couple of kms the track winds steeply through woodland.
When it is raining, the stones are slippery. Where there are no stones, the ground is greasy. Combined with steepness, this makes it difficult to keep one’s footing. Fortunately, with the track being so narrow, it is usually possible to hold on to a tree or a projecting rock. I hope this is not something I will have to do so much during VBW.
By the way, on the way down that racetrack this morning, a lovely big red deer (cerf) stag - full set of antlers - crossed the road in front of the car (not in a place with concrete walls). Stags? Aren’t they something to do with investment? Are they part of the system which got us into all this financial mess?
Monday, October 6, 2008
On Saturday we were supposed to be going for an organised walk. Our friend Valerie had invited us across to her village of Bugarach to take part in the Course des Cimes. This is a 17 kms mountain race which we have previously done as runners, before we became more sedate. It seems there is a walking version, which covers only the last 10 kms – the walkers are bussed to the starting point.
Well, it’s a bit of a short walk for us these days, but we haven’t seen Valerie for a while and we thought it would make a bit of a change to walk with other people. So we said we were up for it.
Saturday morning at Chalabre market, we were sitting there, munching and drinking our breakfast and reading the Independent, French Midi version, not the UK paper. An item in there about the Course des Cimes said that to enter, one had to produce a medical certificate or a club membership card. We know this is the case if you want to run, because we have been there. By the way, to get a club membership card, you have to produce a medical certificate.
Not having either of these pieces of documentation available, we didn’t go to the walk. Valerie says the paper was wrong, but clearly somebody’s right hand didn’t know what somebody else’s left hand was doing. We didn’t want to spend over an hour driving to Bugarach on the off-chance that we might be dealt with by the wrong hand.
And it was plausible. It wouldn’t surprise us at all if we did need a medical in order to go for a walk. It has to be admitted that France is a very bureaucratic country. But so are a number of other countries of which we have experience. Italy and Cyprus spring to mind. Britain is fast catching up.
We recently found out that you have to jump through the same hoop in order to learn to dance! Always eager to introduce variety into our exercise, we went along to a line-dancing class. We have always been impressed by how much line-dancers seem to enjoy what they are doing – they stay on the floor for hours on end.
I have to admit that I was not very good at it. I’m sure I could get the hang of it over time, but it was all going a bit fast for me – I don’t mean the dances, I mean the teaching, the moving on from demonstration, to trying it yourself, to assuming you have got it, to learning something else.
But what put us off going again was the bureaucracy. If we wanted to become regulars, we had to produce the following:
2.Name and number of insurance
3,Two copies(each) of photographic identification
4.Stamped addressed envelopes
5.Completed application forms
6.Signing up fee
7.Fees for first trimester
Can I remind you we just wanted to dance!
Friday, October 3, 2008
Today I chickened out on my scheduled 19 kms walk, when I saw how cold and wet it was. I know I won’t be able to do that during VBW, when I need to get 30 kilometres per day under my shoes, come rain or shine. But at the moment I have the luxury of refusal.
Not just cold (8 degrees when we went out to market in the car this morning), not just wet, but for the first time since the summer, we have visible snow on the Pyrenees. We can’t see the mountains from the house because the 1000 metre hill in front of us is blocking the view, but we don’t have to travel far before we can see the higher peaks. From the market in Lavelanet I could clearly see a great deal of snow – I would estimate above 1500 metres – even though the higher reaches of the mountains were obscured by black and threatening cloud.
The rain is welcome. We have had a most peculiar summer but not much quantity of rain. In fact, our whole year has been odd, weather-wise. We were in New Zealand for 3 months, during which it rained twice. We left NZ on April 16th, went to Australia for a week and watched it rain every day – in fact it rained for 14 days. Then Singapore for a couple of days – of course it rained there, but then it rains in Singapore every day. Then UK for a week – rain every day. We arrived home on May 6th and saw it rain every day until near the end of June, when we had, for the first time in 63 days, our first day completely free of rain.
Since then, although the weather has been subdued, we have not had much rain at all. The normal weather pattern here from May to September is that the temperature goes up to about 36 degrees, we have a thunderstorm, it cools down, then builds up again to the next thunderstorm, on a cycle of about 7-10 days. Not so this year. The temperature has been over 30 degrees only for one 3-day spell. Same last year, except that on only one day did the thermometer creep over 30.
Is this global warming? To me it seems not.
Earlier this year I read a newspaper article by Phil Chapman, a geophysicist and astronautical engineer, who was the first Aussie to become a NASA astronaut. He said that in 2007 average temperatures around the world went down, not up. He also said that if last year’s trend continued we would find ourselves, in an amazingly short number of years suffering, not from global warming, but from an Ice Age which would see the whole of Europe and equivalent northerly sections of the other continents, under a vast sheet of ice. He emphasised that he was not predicting this, but that it could happen and that if it did, it would merely fit in with historical cycles, and that under said historical cycles, we are long overdue for an Ice Age.
We are not talking a bit of cold here, we are talking ice several miles thick, much of the civilised world becoming uninhabitable for hundreds or thousands of years (depending upon whether we have a Little Ice Age or a real one), and immense displacement of populations.
It seems that if things go that way, it will happen very quickly. Hopefully I will reach Blackpool at the end of my walk before it succumbs to the ice.
I have managed to trace Phil Chapman's article. If you want to read it, click here:
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
You will note that long ago, the barrage holding back the waters of the great lake at Puivert burst, sending the torrent rushing, probably along our walking route, to flood Mirepoix. We still have some of the lake in Puivert, about which more another time.
Only two days before our Monday walk, Gay and I had cycled the same route in both directions. At one point our eyes were caught by what, at first glance, I thought was a miniature Fylingdales, complete with radar domes, or possibly a miniature listening post. This is a field in which I have some experience but I had never seen the like of these objects (but I am not very clued up about all the recent miniaturisation in the electronics world). Neither have I ever seen such gigantic mushrooms, which is what they really were. Above are a couple of pictures to prove it.
In France one of the duties of a pharmacist is to help mushroomers to identify whether what they have picked is edible. As there is a great variety of types, and the French are great mushroom eaters and pickers, this is a good thing. Some of the most innocuous looking fungi are poisonous and some really horrible looking ones are edible. So much for nature's warnings.
We didn't want to disturb these giants, but wondered if they were eatable, so Gay took the above photographs. When we arrived in Mirepoix on the cycle ride, she took the camera into a pharmacy. The pharmacist refused to even look at the photographs. If we took the mushrooms in he would pronounce on them, but not on the basis of a picture. The compensation culture at work? Or maybe he was trying to protect us. I'm sure he was.
When we walked the same route on Monday the giants had been smashed down. So presumably they were inedible after all.