Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Are You (Th)ready, Boots? No Sign of That

Columbia Trailmeister IV walking shoes

Steady rain all day Saturday washed the snow away. No sign of anything which might justify an orange alert. Although people at our nearest coast may not agree with that, many having suffered severe damage from a storm which was described as a mini-tsunami. Boats destroyed, people homeless, having lost everything.

So, Sunday morning, snowless at 500m, we set off for the market with me togged up with the intention of walking home. The route to Espéraza, like all roads out of Puivert, climbs a high pass, and we had not risen far before the snow conditions reasserted themselves. I seem to remember something about a drop of 1 degree centigrade for every 200 feet of elevation, which would give 3 degrees for every 200 metres, enough of a difference in temperature to make a big difference to whether snow lingers. The snow was limiting the width of an already narrow road so that walking would be dangerous, so another write-off.

Monday morning I managed to fit in the 30 kms walk from Mirepoix. Steady rain for most of the way, which made life a bit uncomfortable. For a change, I saw another person on the track before I reached Chalabre. He seemed as surprised to meet me as I was to see him. No sign of M. Partout in Chalabre.

I mentioned in a previous post that I am very attached to Columbia Trailmeister IV shoes, which have a wonderful combination of lightness, comfort and durability. Indeed, I stockpiled some of these shoes during our recent trip to America, to be used for VBW.

I am currently testing a pair to destruction and on yesterday's walk they crashed through the 1000 kms barrier. There is still plenty of wear in them. The soles are obviously depleted after hitting the ground more than 1,000,000 times, but they still have some distance to go. The tops show no sign of age at all. I now know that I shall need only two pairs for the walk. More importantly, the combination of these shoes and the Decathlon socks I have previously mentioned, have resulted in not one blister and no sore patches on the feet. Well done, Gert.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Blue Christmas

Well, it has certainly been a blue Christmas, until today. Not for the same reasons (a blue Christmas without you) that Elvis was warbling about in the song of that name, but because of blazing blue skies. For the past few days we have had brilliant sunshine during the day, with temperatures even into the teens, and brilliant starshine at night, with temperatures well below zero until the day really got going.

So, after a very disappointing and restricting few weeks, I have been able to get several good walks in. Even on Christmas morning, Gay and I were out while it was still dark and by just after ten, we had completed a walk of nearly three hours. The mulled wine and mince pies were well-earned.

We were out in the dark again this morning, driving to Lavelanet so that I could walk back. Snow was forecast, but had not yet shown itself as we went to the car. On the way to Lavelanet the flakes started to fall, but only in a lazy sort of way. We went to the boulangerie, where I bought a croissant aux amandes made by my friend and fellow guitarist Jesse. Took it into the bar next door and, together with the coffee I ordered there, it was my breakfast. A smug indulgence, when one is about to walk over 21 kms.

As usual, whle eating breakfast, we perused the morning paper. I was quite surprised to find my name in there. A bit of a late report on the concert which took place two weeks ago. I, "Vic, d'origine anglais", am reported as having added an international flavour to the concert.

A quick bask in this fame, a quick trawl with Gay round a very truncated market, and I set off on my walk (Gay was driving Spot home - yes, our car is called Spot!) as the snowfall began to look more serious and the sky was looking much more threatening.

In the first picture above the snow is decidely beginning to stick and I am still 15 kms from home. By the time the second picture was taken, walking is becoming a little more difficult, and my shoes are getting rather wet, but I have only 3 or 4 kms to go.

As she drove home, Gay heard on the radio that the Ariege (where I started my walk) and the Aude (where we live) and three other departements in the Pyrenees are subject to an orange alert (that sounds dramatic, but I don't know what it means exactly) today and tomorrow, with heavy snow promised, or at least threatened. It is still snowing, 2 hours after I reached home.

But spare a thought for our friends Margaret and Jim in Alberta. Earlier this month Margaret told us that, after a November in which, unusually, the temperature had not fallen below zero, they had started December deep in snow and at a temperature of -30 Centigrade. But, she said, they and youngest daughter Helen would be going to visit elder daughter Claire in Vancouver over Christmas, and there would definitely be no snow on the Pacific coast. Yesterday, Margaret, Helen and Jim were still trapped in Edmonton because there has been so much snow in Vancouver that the airports are virtually closed. Christmas is on hold for them.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

When In Rome

Just back from Italy. The weather was kind to us. In fact it was blazing sunshine every day, cold at night and first thing in the morning, but warm during the day. Don't tell anybody, but the same applies here at home in the Pyrenees today, and the forecast (one forecast - it's amazing how they vary) is for several days of the same.

We didn't get much walking in, partly because we were there to spend time with our family but also because Italy is not the best place for walking, running or cycling.

Nicola's new home is at Formello, about 20 kms to the north of Rome. I must say that, from many points of view, including exercise, this is much better than the first place she had, an apartment in the very busy suburbs. In those days, nearly 20 years ago, both Gay and I were keen, competition-oriented runners, with a burning need to run 60 kms every week.

In the city, you could take one look at the traffic and forget the whole idea. Every Roman driver is a turbo-charged charioteer. His whole attention is centred on being in charge of one of four cars abreast, three inches behind and another three inches in front of other quartets, all racing towards an arch in an ancient aqueduct, the arch being designed to take two legionnaires marching shoulder to soldier, both having just completed six months of slimming exercises against Vandals and Visigoths. There is no room for modern pedestrians, particularly those of the jogging or walking variety, in this set-up. I am full of admiration for Italian runners because I know it must be so much more difficult for them to fit in their training.

There are a number of other difficulties. The Roman authorities seem to have forgotten about pavements in most of the residential areas, probably because of one of the other problems - parking. If there were any pavements, they would be covered with cars. Roman parking has to be seen to be believed. If you ever wondered why so many Italian cars are small, it is so they can be fitted into any two foot gap you might luckily spot between two other cars. We haven't worked out how they do this, but part of the secret is to go in at right angles to the others, using the pavement if it is there. We think they also breathe in very severely and shut their eyes. They are also very skilful drivers, who ignore insurance and, it would seem, consider a car without a few dents and abrasions to be not worth a Euro.

However, this lack of pavements, or constant obstructions if there is one, forces you onto the road and back to the mercy of the charioteers. These seem to be completely incapable of seeing any other road users, be they in a vehicle, on a bicycle or on foot. All very alarming.

It is not much better out in the country. The planning, Italian driving, the lack of understanding by the population and the attitude of drivers do not help the pedestrian, or give him any confidence in his survival prospects. The roads are somewhat quieter, but although there are less drivers per square inch, they are still Italian - every one a potential Formula 1 driver. Another major problem is the lack of verges and prevalence of high hedges. There may be nowhere to go when Ben Hur and Massala come racing down the road at you, taking up both carriageways. A true Italian pedestrian would probably go between them, as he would while driving, but we are not up to that.

The main road between our bed and breakfast and Nicola's house is a canyon. Just road. No pavement. Sheer grass banks on each side. The road surface awash with speeding commuters. Death Valley. This, and family commitments, meant that our walking was restricted to an amble from the b&b into Formello for breakfast (amazingly cheap in Italy), then back down a side road (which Nicola had kindly found for us) to bypass Death Valley. Then back again at night.

There will be much more action this week, if the weather holds to its promise.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lay Down Sally

Every time I hear that song, the title translates in my head from "Lay Down Sally" to "Get Under, Sam". When the world and I were young, I was in lodgings on a farm in Staffordshire. It was a big building with many rooms, most of which were occupied by young men like myself. Mostly we were new to the area and were staying on the farm until we found some more permanent accommodation. We were all very well looked after by the spinster daughter of the family, the very amiable Eunice.

But there were one or two longer term residents. One of these was Tom, a man of a certain age, probably a friend of the family, who was what they used to call, in those days, "simple".

Tom was quiet and unagressive but obviously felt that he was pretty much the bottom of the heap. Every now and again he would rise up to demonstrate that this was not so by asserting his authority over the dog, Sam. Sam was usually doing nothing to offend, but would calmly stroll under the table, as instructed by Tom. And everybody was happy, especially Tom, but Sam as well, who probably thought he was doing a great public service by helping Tom to feel good.

In the previous posting I said the band in the picture was playing "Take Me Home Country Roads". As soon as I turned up for my guitar lesson on Tuesday, Santiago told me that he had seen the blog and that we were not playing that song at that point. He could tell by the configuration of players on stage at that time (there were 20 or more guitarists involved in the concert, in total). So I am happy to post that correction, if only to let you know I can play more than one tune.

On Monday, the day before my lesson and a couple of days after the concert, there was a knock at the door and a woman from the local authority delivered a cardboard box, addressed to me. I opened it to find that I am now officially an old codger. It was a food parcel, delivered to all people of in the commune aged 67 (the official French retirement age) or over.

So there I was, basking in the youthful afterglow of playing in a country music concert, planning and preparing for a very extensive walk which would at least tax most of the much younger people I know. Suddenly, there is a solid reminder that I am in many ways not at all a young man.

But are we downhearted? Only by the fact that the food parcel consisted almost entirely of such items as foie gras, rillettes, cassoulet and other very expensive but also very meaty items. I am sure that all the other old people of Puivert were delighted - as in some ways I was - by the gift. But they will also relish the consumption thereof, while I have to confess to being a vegetarian.

The last week has been a total wash-out, walking-wise, because of the continued awful weather. Yesterday was the first fine day for a long time, but we were in transit to Italy, where we shall now be for a few days. Better weather here? I think, if anything, they have had more rain than we have in the past few weeks. We are just outside Rome, where a few days ago, for the first time in 75 years, the River Tiber burst its banks. There has been much flooding in the area and in the rest of Italy. Much of it is still visible. The forecast is not good.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Take Me Home Country Roads

That's the tune the band is playing. A band which includes me! Far out, as John Denver, who wrote the song, would have said. It certainly amazes me that last night I played the guitar in public for the first time in my life, at the age of 68. Actually, you will probably have to take my word for it. The picture isn't brilliant, as it was mostly dark on the stage and the flash camera did not reach those at the back, which is where I am. If you have a good magnifying glass, and if you are bothered enough to look, I am the fellow near the back, in the middle, with a red Mark Knopfler Stratocaster guitar. Actually, if you click on the picture, it will enlarge.

This has not been a good week for walking. Very wet, in brief. If it wasn't snowing it was raining. Which gave me lots of time to practice for the concert. The show was due to start at 9 pm. We were playing 34 songs (I was involved in 6 of those) for a line dancing exhibition. The line dancers were also doing some of their rehearsed moves to their own CDs, so there were well over 40 tunes in all. Clearly this was going to go on into the early hours of the morning, there were forecasts of further snow, the road from Puivert to Lavelanet goes over a high pass, prone to much deeper drifting than at lower levels, there was a danger of us having difficulty getting home, so we booked into a hotel overnight. Despite the plea in the song, the country roads may not have been able to take us home.

I had to be at setup and rehearsals in the market hall from 5 pm, so we checked into the hotel and Gay stayed there to read and await concert time. At 7.30 pm rehearsal suddenly stopped and line dancers and musicians trooped upstairs for a full-blown meal which miraculously appeared. I went to the hotel for Gay so she could come to join in - we had been wondering how we would be able to feed ourselves during the busy evening. We arrived back at the market hall to find that the doors were locked. After half an hour of futile banging on the windows (downstairs windows, and everybody was upstairs), during which a drunk asked us if we were looking for Chantale''s party, we repaired to a nearby small bar/restaurant for an omelette. The only two other people eating were two more drunks, but they were all very pleasant. By the time we had eaten our meal, it was nearly 9 pm and the doors were open.

The concert went well. It was strange, when Santiago was thanking all the musicians, to hear him say, in French "Mr Vic Heaney, from Blackpool, England." It reminded me of one of our first French (running) races, which was in the same town, Lavelanet. We had won a trophy each, in fact we still have several from races in Lavelanet, but we were delighted to receive a short speech from the stage, thanking us, as foreigners, for coming to grace their race. We never understand where the people are coming from, who say the French are unwelcoming - we have rarely experienced anything but friendliness.

Coincidentally, Randy Lofficier has a posting about that very subject on her blog Possumworld today. Click on Possumworld, under "Recommended blogs" on the right hand side of this page.

We were right to be cautious about the snow. When we got up this morning it was already making the road back to Puivert interesting to drive. Down at the Puivert level (500 metres) there was not too much snow on the road so we decided to unload the musical equipment at the house and proceed to Esperaza market as we normally do on a Sunday. Again there is a climb over a high pass, where the snow was bunching up again. Down in Esperaza there was nothing. Same in Couiza, where we attended the Christmas Fair, and in Quillan, where went to our normal coffee shop. Not a sign of snow. Back up the Col du Portel towards home, and we were above the snow line again.

A day for lighting the fire, bringing in a stack of logs, and forgetting any thought of trying to walk.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

In Harm's Way

There is a 2-kilometre section of road between Quillan and home, starting at the top of the big climb, at the Col du Portel. This bit of road was closed for several weeks recently while they dug to replace the foundations, improve the drainage down there, and hopefully stop the road erupting so that in some places it more resembled the surface of a rough sea than a habitat for moving vehicles.

The same bit of road has again been closed for the past few days, forcing motorists into a diversion into higher territory. I walked along the closed road on Sunday but there was no evidence of workers, equipment or new work being undertaken.

There was evidence of hunters. They and their vehicles (closed road?) were scattered at intervals along the whole two kilometres. Perhaps the public highway was blocked off for their sole benefit. On the left (as I was walking) the wooded hill rises sharply, on the right it falls into the valley containing the lovely village of Brenac. From that valley I could hear the excited barking of dogs on the trail of their quarry, probably a wild boar or a deer. The sound was quite near, and rapidly approaching.

I had already passed some of the gunmen who were standing by the roadside every fifty to a hundred metres, when they all seemed to get very excited, clutching at their guns and becoming very anticipatory. The commotion was even nearer by now and from the attitude of the hunters, they were expecting their target to come bursting up the hillside and on to the road. Just behind me, as it happens. Looking over my shoulder I could see a rifleman running towards me and obviously ready to shoot the animal when it appeared. In front of me was another man, also running in my direction and equally ready to fire. Perhaps I was the only one who noticed that I seemed to be in the field of fire. What do you do in this situation? Fortunately the hunted animal came to my rescue by changing course and the tell-tale barking of the dogs moved away somewhat.

A little further along my walk, I was on a track which runs parallel to the road and a few metres from it. On my right was an open field. On the other side of the field I could make out that something was happening but I didn't know exactly what, because as it was raining, I had taken off my specs. I hoped it was not another hunting party. Especially when I saw something running very fast across the field in front of me. It turned very sharp left onto the track I was on, and raced straight at me. It was a hare. I stopped walking, hoping it would not see me and would run close by. Unfortunately it spotted me - possibly helped by the vivid yellow Goretex jacket I wear for safety when walking the roads - and swerved off again over the field. I still don't know whether it was being hunted, but there was a lot of dog noise in the blurry distance. But boy, could it run!

A couple of days before, while Gay and I were driving into Quillan along the road diversion previously mentioned, we had to slow for a couple of deer in the road. These were smaller than the usual type we see here, which are the same as red deer. A week before, Gay had seen a very similar pair of smaller deer in the woods while we were climbing the hill. I saw nothing, having fairly recently moved into blind-as-a-bat mode.

We have yet to see the animal described to us by Frank, a Yorkshireman who has a stall at some of the markets hereabouts. He lives in Quillan and told us that, while he was driving to Esperaza market one Sunday morning he saw a creature effortlessly climbing the bank at the roadside. It was a cat, but not as we know them. He insists that it was huge and like a black panther. I hope we don't meet that in the woods one fine day.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Route 70(days), not Route 66

When I was a lad, before the invention of rock'n'roll, some of the biggest names in popular records were Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell, Nat King Cole and Johnny Ray. Frankie Laine had a big hit with "Rain, Rain, Rain" (behold the ark is made), while Johnny Ray used to cry (literally, he was a very emotional man with a hearing aid, collapsible legs and well-supplied tearducts) "Walking In The Rain" (just a-trying to forget).

Well, Johnny, I have been doing quite a lot of walking in the rain lately. And Frankie, if we could only get hold of a joiner round here (I have tried, this very day, to get one to come to do a small job for us, but he is booked up to the eyebrows), that ark would be taking shape in our courtyard.

We just do not remember having this sort of weather here in previous years. Normally we eat our lunch outside on most days, right up to the end of the year. Not last year, as it happens, because it was just so cold in November and December - again a departure from the norm. And certainly not this year.

Yesterday we read in the local paper that this November has been the wettest here for 50 years. Before you yawn and go to put the television on, I should say that this is not another rant about the weather. It is just by way of explaining how I have had time to do a bit more forward planning on the route, and even some preliminary searching for a mobile VBW HQ.

Given a certain amount of houseboundness, occasioned by the dreaded word beginning with "w", I have more or less finalised the broad outlines of my route for the big walk.

The French leg will take me from home in Puivert, more or less in a straight line to Cahors, then Sarlat le Canada (with its famous market), bypass Poitiers to the East, bypass Tours and Le Mans, both to the West, then to Caen and Ouistreham for the ferry to Portsmouth. I shall be walking in 30 kms stages, so for example the first night's stop will be in Mirepoix.

I have been immensely pleased to find that Multimap now gives a choice of walking route between two points, so I am using this to give me directions for the whole of the French section. Until quite recently Multimap would only give walking directions for up to 20 kms, which made the usage of it for a long walk rather difficult. It does seem to give mainly D-roads and to avoid the busy roads which are suggested for vehicles, so I have high hopes. Nevertheless, when we drive to Caen in a few weeks, on our way to a short round of visiting in UK before we head to New Zealand for the customary three months, we shall be driving the suggested walking route, to ensure that it is suitable.

For the UK bit of the walk, I shall be using Multimap again, but only for part of the trip. Walking in Britain, on roadsides, is a dangerous business. Pedestrians, like cyclists, seem to be invisible to the single-minded, must-not-lose-a-second drivers. France is much more user-friendly, especially to cyclists - not perfect with walkers, but much better than UK. There are other countries as bad, but they do not concern me as I shall not be walking there. In UK, to avoid roads wherever possible, I shall be walking on canal towpaths.

So Multimap will guide me from Portsmouth to Oxford. There I shall head north on the Oxford Canal, then the Coventry Canal, then the Trent and Mersey to Middlewich, a place where I lived at one time. The Trent and Mersey will have also taken me through Stone, another previous abode. From Middlewich I shall rely on Multimap again, although there are points where I may use the Liverpool Canal and also the Lancaster, before striking out for the sea, keeping Blackpool Tower in sight until I reach the house of my birth, ideally on my 70th birthday.

I had expected the planning of the route to take much longer. If the Multimap suggestions come up trumps it will have saved me a tremendous amount of trouble and I shall recommend them unreservedly. You will find them at:


This morning we went to Lavelanet, hoping against hope that the weather would improve so that I could walk home. Instead it became worse. I did not look forward to walking for three and a half hours in that volume of rain, with a temperature just above freezing. So that plan was abandoned and we drove instead to Pamiers. Pamiers is 50 kms from home and has a number of bigger stores where we can find things not available to us locally. We needed a few such things, so off we went.

While in Pamiers we called in at our nearest battlebuse - motorcaravan - RV - dealer and examined a few vehicles. One in particular we were very taken with. We are currently pondering. We shall use it for other trips, of course, but during the walk and also of course during our return home, it will be our home for at least 3 months. This one seemed about the right size for that purpose. Gay will be doing the driving during the walk so she has to be comfortable with the size as a vehicle. Watch this space.

The dealer would keep it for us until our return in May. We shall get some use out of it next year, and also familiarise ourselves with it. Because of the walk starting in May 2010, we shall not be going to New Zealand next winter but may feel inclined, especially if the winter is anything like this one, to head down to Spain or Portugal for a few weeks, for some warmth. Then in May 2010 it will come into its own and while I am doing VBW, Gay will be doing GBD - Gay's Big Drive.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Lost and Found

There is a persistent reader of my blog in New Jersey, who came to the blog by searching on my name. This is obviously somebody who knows me, possibly the long-lost Chris Kelly.

Whoever it is, if you would like to get in touch, look at the section saying "About Me" on the right hand side of the blog. Click on "My complete profile". Then click on "e-mail" and Bob will be your uncle - you can send me a message.

I look forward to it.

This also applies to the mysterious visitor in Ledbury, or, as they say on radio request shows - anybody else who knows me.