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Saturday, 18 June 2016

Let's get theological

Wednesday 15th June

I spent a good 45 minutes in the church. In part, because I'd arrived too early to check in to my hotel room but mostly because the place absolutely captivated me, set my emotions on a precipitous edge. For a start, just the feel of the place: it's stunning altarpiece and ornate side chapels. 

 Then, due to the presence of a host of Virgin Marys (is there a collective noun for this?). I counted six: Our Lady of Salette, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of Victories, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Montserrat and Our Lady of Guinea.

Four were too pale, too Anglo-Saxon and/or too straight but Our Lady of Guinea and, of course, my patrona for this trip, Our Lady of Montserrat are, in their own way, quite queer.  

Finally, being in this beautiful church made me think about the queerness of my own theology and Catholicism. The French Catholic Church, though much reduced in number, is still a powerful institution, deeply reactionary and conservative. The church of St Pere undermined that paradox; I was overcome by the sheer beauty, an affect which, one could argue, opens up a conduit to the Virgin Mary and/or God.

You pays yer money and you makes yer choice.

When I was a teenager and found mass desperately dull and boring, I used to while away the time imagining the church as a concert venue: perhaps this was the origins of my rock 'n' roll theology. The choir makes a perfect stage: the vocalist - centre stage at the altar, obviously, the priest; the lead guitarist, the deacon, to her/his right hand; the second guitarist and bassist, the altar servers, to the left. And at the back, the drummer. To be honest, I'm not sure where the drummer fits in ecclesiastically but there you go. Before the altar, in the pews and the nave would sit (and stand and kneel) the worshippers, hanging on every word and chord. 

With its backlighting and illumination, the church of Sant Pere would have made a rocktastic setting for a couple of hours of nineteen-eighties, big-haired, bubblegum pop-metal. But here the queerness of my Catholicism reached its limit. I couldn't countenance the fantasy becoming reality; would have considered it sacrilegious, even conjuring up the image in my head made me feel uncomfortable.

It's a weird one, full of paradox and inconsistencies but such is life. I can't help thinking my visit to the church of Sant Pere was pre-ordained. The perfect place to start the Summer of Sweat.

Santiago/Sant Jaume/ San Jacques in the church of Sant Pere, Prades. This man follows me everywhere and I don't even like him!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

TransCatalunya Day 1

Paris in the spring; Paris in midsummer; Paris in the rain, the swollen Seine.
Paris in between stations on a grey Wednesday morning, only a week from the solstice. A murky dawn thick with diffused light, the clock tower of Gare de Lyon a beacon amidst the hubris. I come homing in - the lady's on the road again, wearing different clothes again ... actually, they're not. Same old jumper, leggings and boots: the ubiquitous garb of the itinerant. 
The TGV lumbers out of the station, an athlete reluctant to get into its stride. South of the city the landscape opens up and it feels grim up north. Blue-grey scudding clouds, endless fields reaching out to a flat horizon, and everywhere standing water.
On journeys such as these it's my wont to watch from the window at the flashing-by countryside and imagine myself moving in it, through it and across it, with all the zeal of a middle-aged nun hurrying to Sunday mass. I think of my spiritual landscapes: these flatlands, like the Spanish Meseta to which I'll return in six weeks time, are purgatorial landscapes. Every step you take puts another metre between oneself and the devil; draws you closer to the edge of heaven.
The TGV slips into its stride and picks up the pace, slicing through the showers and silver curtains of rain. It is a train with single-minded trajectory, hemmed in, ploughing its own, purpose-built furrow. It broaches no obstruction: nothing stands in its way. No level-crossings, no lumbering freight trains, no overgrown sidings where time sits idly, all dressed up and no place to go.
Sister Sian, the apostle of slow travel, hurtles across central France at over 200kmh, not quite the speed of sound but fast enough to put the weather behind her. The land begins to unfurl itself, as if God had taken hold of her tectonic fireside rug and given it a gentle shake. Shallow, wooded folds and a smattering of settlement now. 
Looking out of the window of a passing train is an acquired taste. For most, watching the grass grow would be more captivating but do you know what? I am the sort of person who could sit in a sun-drenched field and watch nature creep up and over me: day after day, month after month, year after year. Into eternity. I am the land, the land is me: together, we are God.
Summer 2016. The colours of France are all wrong: grey and green and splattered with mud. It's only close to Nimes that nature begins to get her act togther, with the cypress trees and Mediterranean scrub, olive groves, craggy scarps and lavender. Journeying south in the TGV is a bit like travelling in a time machine, speeding up the seasons such that the sodden barley of the Ile de France is ripe for reaping in Languedoc Roussillon. Beyond Nimes the fast tracks are still under construction and the train slows into steady trot through the hinterlands of the Mediterranean coast. It feels good to take it easy. Up at five to catch the TGV at six, the mad dash from Paris has taken its toll. By the Canal du Midi I sat back and slept.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

2016: The Summer of Sweat/El Verano de Sudor

It was fellow blogger and landscapist, Eddie Procter who pointed out the inverse relationship between studying the landscape and actually getting out, into and across it. Books, dear reader. So many of the effing things they seem to breed overnight, and copulate with the myriad of papers, articles and theses on pilgrimage and the Camino de Santiago.

Enough already! Just another six weeks of teaching the sons and daughters of the Wessex Bourgeousie how to pass exams - as opposed to actually 'educating' them, now there's a radical concept - then it's the train to Spain for a long summer of ambulatory onanism on and off the Camino, doing - and not doing - fieldwork for my PhD.

Not doing? Who am I kidding. Fieldwork is permanent and never-ending; I've been at it since I popped out - feet first - from my mother's womb and I shall not cease till I've uttered my last words. Which will be geography-related, natch. Sex, love and death? Sex, lust and geography more like.

It's a summer of three halves. First up, a TransCatalunyan north-south hike over the eastern Pyrenees along the GR83, from Prades to Olot in the Alta Garrotxa before turning eastwards to follow the old railway line - now a via verde, La Ruta del Carrilet - to Girona. The highlight of this trek, I hope, will be the ascent of the sacred Catalunyan mountain, Pic du Canigou. I've had my eye on this shapely protuberance since a family holiday back in the mid-1980s when, as my mother never ceases to remind me, I negotiated the family car and folding caravan around the Parisian equivalent of the North and South Circular whilst parents and siblings were safely snoozing in the back: seems like I slept for the following 48 hours. 
During that holiday which, by dint of having taken place in the 1980s, must obviously have been idyllic, my father and I set out to climb Canigou. We were hopelessly under-prepared and fortunately the heat got the better of us long before we could get close enough to the mountain to put ourselves in potential danger. Fifteen years later I spent a hiking holiday in the French Pyrenees many years later but a crocked knee prevented an ascent: in more recent years I've taken to travelling to Spain by train and whenever I take the eastern route Canigou looms on the horizon, taunting and tempting - unless I'm misreading the signals and it's giving me the finger. The final straw came when I spent the Christmas of 2014 fart-arsing around in the Pyrenean foothills, on every hike Canigou watched and followed me like the eyes of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow that hung over my childhood bed. 
The GR83 Camino del Canigou ( It's tempting to follow it all the way to Mataro but I have business to attend to in Girona - like looking for a place to live next year.
It seems appropriate that in this summer of pilgrimage I preface it with a personal perambulation. My mother and father introduced me to hiking from a very young age, climbing the dazzling limestone of Derbyshire's White Peak; following treatment for prostrate cancer and a stroke, my dad, though still sound of mind, is increasingly immobile so I shall climb Canigou in a thoughtful, unhurried manner and the remember the hills we did - and didn't climb.

You know what they say: pray for the dead, but walk like hell for the living.

La Ruta Carillet (
When I first came up close and personal with the Camino de Santiago, in 2012, it was along that pedestrian motorway that is the Camino Frances; it was a mixed experience, much of it spent in glowering anti-pilgrim mode and I swore I'd never hike it again. Talk about famous last words, in mid-July I'll be plodding along it once again, not just to Santiago but all the way to Finisterra, the end of the world.

Once again, working out where to begin's been harder than actually walking the effing thing. Indeed, this summer's perambulations have gone through as many permuations as a Rubik Cube and what started out as a TransEspana expedition has had to be reshaped for academic purposes. I shouldn't complain, I've still got a good seven-and-a-half weeks on the road and I've spent so long reading about the Camino I can't wait to set foot on it again: I'm already dreaming of the ubiquitous yellow arrow.

Or maybe hallucinating's a better description. 

Via Podiensis: Arthez-de-Bearn to St-Palais

Via Podiensis: St-Palais to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

I'm not quite sure why I finally opted to start the Camino on the final stages of the Via Podiensis from Arthez-de-Bearn in the French Pyrenees-Atlantiques rather than the traditional departure point of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foot of the mountains; St Jean is, after all, only four days down the road, what's one hundred kilometres between old friends? Something about wanting to delay encountering the crowds or my inner anti-pilgrim making herself known already? I have to speak with my fellow peregrinos and peregrinas as part of my research; I do hope she's not going to embarrass me.

The Camino Frances: The Road to Perdition or Highway to Hell?
Don't get me wrong, I do understand how fortunate I am to possess both an inner Catalan and an inner Basque but at times I feel like Mary MacGregor who, back in 1976 - the summer of dry heat and dust - found herself torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool. And I know full well that loving both of them is breaking all the rules.

But this is the Summer of Sweat and that's exactly what I'm gonna do. 

I've managed to convince my PhD supervisors - for they are indeed plural, a geographer and a theologian - that I'll be returning from my Camino sojourn weighed down with a rucksack full of data so heavy I'll need to take a break before I come back and crunch it. And do you know what? They bought it! 'No need to rush back, Sian', they said with a smile. Anyone would think they didn't want to see me again. 

I am, dear geographically-inclined reader, a victim of cruel and hapless circumstance. Not content with pissing about with my gender and sexuality, the gods and goddesses of fate have taken great pleasure with toying with my academic leanings. Knowing full well that I am, by nature, a woman with a lusty, physical disposition, they promptly plucked me from the comfort of my earth and dumped me in a discipline labelled 'cultural geography'. I still haven't got a clue what I'm doing but I've worked out that if I say the right words - i.e. Deleuze and Guattari - I get a knowing nod and everythings alright with the world.

Well, do you know what? This summer they can do one. I'll be zippin' up my boots, going back to my roots. Yeah. To the place of my birth, back down to earth. Anboto, Alluitz, Txindoki, Untzillatx, Udalatx; it's only been a year but I miss you so much. I'm coming back to your kaarst and sparkling limestone. I'm coming home.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Liberating the Landscape?

We began to climb. A long continuous ascent through fields of freshly mown hay, great swards of pasture that had retained the richness of their pigment and supported flocks of newly shorn sheep. If the gloom above deepened, then the light around shone with renewed growth and vigour. Up here there was an airiness, an unrestrained sensation of liberty. I suddenly thought of Simone and realised what she had been trying to explain for the sumptuous roll of the hills and the unfettered flow of form lead the heart and mind into a voluptuous, day-dreamy haze.
 María Inés de la Cruz, Our Lady of the Orchards (Liberty Press, 1996)

Although, during the past three years, I seem to have spent very little time hiking in England, amidst the simmering volcanoes of Central America, the dazzling white limestone sierra of the Cordillera Cantabrica and hot, sticky plains of the Meseta, there reamins one place, in Wessex, that is very dear to me, and for reasons I still don't understand: Castle Neroche in the Blackdown Hills (see &

The Neroche Herepath (
My visits to this sacred space normally take place in the summer but living in Bath is doing my head in so, in early February, I decided to take in a brief visit to Neroche and the Blackdowns en route to my fortnightly supervisory meeting at Exeter University. I spent much of an exhilerating but sodden and wind-blast weekend following the part of the Neroche Herepath. Depending on which version you prefer, Herepaths were either 'people's' or military tracks and date from the ninth century. The Neroche Herepath, part of the Neroche Landscape Partnership Scheme, was opened in 2008 and comprises about 40km of trails, some of which are wheelchair accessible, that circle the Blackdown plateau and the vale of Taunton Deane below. With Liberating the Landscape as its clarion call, the Neroche project sought to enliven the landscape through a variety of local projects and workshops including art and natural history. It might have made an excellent research project but since Lottery funding came to an end in 2011 the impetus appears to have dried up (though I'm happy to be corrected if I've got this wrong). An report on the scheme, Enabling Positive Change: An Evaluation of the Neroche Landscape Partnership Scheme, can be found here and here (shorter version). If you can cope with the ineitable jargon and frequent references to the 'Big Society' (which makes it already feel outdated), it's worth a read.
The project might have petered out but the Herepath is a great legacy and, even on a winter weekend of gales and driving rain, still attracted a good number of walkers, drew people out into the landscape. It's therefore depressing to report that a good couple of kilometres of the trail, on permissive paths rather than public rights of way have remained closed since August 2013 and, caught in a bureaucratic rights-of-way no-mans-land, show no sign of being reopened as none of the agencies involved in the Neroche Project appear prepared to stump up the necessary funding.
The problem section, near the village of Bickenhall, was constructed in 2008 from tyre-filled wire gabions to provide a safe, solid surface for walkers, horseriders and cyclists. An innovative idea but one that has ultimately proved unsatisfactory, at least in the view of Somerset County Council who have deemed it unsafe and tried to fence it off, try being the operative word.

Needless to say, for me and, apparently, a good few others, a footpath closure notice is like a red rag to a bull and, on foot, I was able to circumnavigate the obstructions with relative ease but cyclists, horseriders will find it more difficult and many less-confident ramblers will be put off. And what we have, after two and a half years is a self-fulfilling prophecy as parts of the path, particuarly along the riverbank, are becoming overgrown and, in the summer, brambles will make it nigh on impassable. The authorities will squabble and pass the buck, that much is to be expected, especially in a climate when both money and imagination are in short supply. What concerns me more is that someone from officialdom has seen fit to condemn the surface of the offending path as unsafe when to anyone with an iota of hiking experience it's clearly not. Did he/she actually put on his/her boots and walk it? Or did they just take a cursory look? Paths are, by their very nature, uneven and irregular, even, in adverse conditions, precarious. Is the protuding rubber of the exposed tyres any more of a risk to a rambler's well being than a rutted steep and stony track? 

Above and below, the 'problem' surface

I love the Neroche Herepath, it's a great concept and a great path through one of my favourite landscapes. PhD fieldwork permitting, I plan to return on a monthly basis to watch the landscape come back to life. And I love the Herepath all the more because it's the sort of project that will encourage more people out into the field; back in Bath I might be a curmudgeonly misanthrope but there's nothing I like more than not being alone in the countryside. From what I've read, I think the Neroche Project, with its focus on learning and creativity, could be construed as at least attempting to liberate the landscape from the shackles that bind it. Yet the current state - and status - of the path, troubles me, hints at something rotten within the nation's collective psyche. It speaks of a deep fear of the unforeseen and the unpredictable; it wants to pre-emept every move and govern every footstep, to account for every possible eventuality and remove from even this most mundane and quotidian of activities the pleasure of risk and uncertainty. Take, for example, the notice in the photograph below, found wherever the path encounters a road. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those obnoxious, right-wing knuckleheads who considers 'Health & Safety', alongside political correctness, migrants and the EU to be the greatest threat to human civilisation - such as it exists - but there are times when stating-the-bleeding-obvious can be not only tedious but downright dangerous.
No shit, Sherlock!
If I were an equally obnoxious conspiracy theorist I might be tempted to add 'that's exactly the point': they are trying to turn us into compliant and docile followers, always in thrall to the order and the instruction, incapable of making decisions for ourselves, without the guidance of the ubiquitous 'leader'. If they were blessed with imagination and intelligence I might be tempted to agree but I think it's more of a case of the land of the blind and the one-eyed king. 
'Liberating the Landscape'; like education and democracy it is, in theory, a great idea but in the wrong hands it's just a glib and meaningless phrase trotted out by those who wouldn't understand the notion of liberation if it stood up and punched them in the face. The sort of people who talk about 'service delivery' and 'logistical solutions'. 
Or, worse still, when it's reduced to consumerist banalities by those who desire to turn liberation in on itself, for whom it remains a dirty and dangerous world. 
Where do we go from here? Back to the Herepath, of course. Care to join me? Somebody's got to keep the paths open.