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Saturday, 28 June 2014

Calm down, Siân Lacey Taylder, it’s only a yellow arrow

If only. It’s not just an arrow, not just a symbol and sometimes it’s not always yellow: sometimes it’s red, for heaven’s sake! The arrow has ceased to be a mere tool that guides me along the camino, that does my navigating for me and saves me having to carry a wad of maps in my rucksack. Oh no, the arrow – yellow or red – has turned into a metaphor that’s wandered free from the confines of materiality; it’s an icon out of context and out of control.

You don’t believe me? You think the crazy middle-aged pilgrim’s had a bit too much sun and pyschogeography? You think that all those hours on the camino, alone and aloof, have given her too much time to think? To analyse and concoct geographical fairy tales? Who’s to say you’re wrong? The ritual, the liturgy, of walking day after day, step after step after step can do strange things to the psyche – can do even stranger things to the soul. But who’s to say I don’t want that to happen? Perhaps, rather than remaining permanently wary and prudent, I might want to throw caution to the wind; to make a Kierkegaardian leap in to faith. I am the land, the land is me; what is there to fear but fear itself.

To follow the yellow arrow is to make that leap into faith: it’s all or nothing, no time for wavering or pussyfooting around. You can’t follow the arrow half-heartedly, you have to throw in your lot and trust it to the nth degree, even when it seems to be leading you astray. The arrow says turn left – you turn left; the arrow says turn right – you do so without a moment’s hesitation. You’re standing alongside the CA-185, the road that winds tortuously up from the pretty town of Potes to the glacial austerity of Fuente Dé. For the tired pilgrim it’s a highway to hell: BMW drivers sniff pedestrian blood and drive like petrol-head Beelzebubs. Then you catch sight of the omniscient yellow arrow and it’s like all your Christmases have come at once.  

The arrow whisks you away from the tedium and banality of the road and, with its long, elegant digits giving you the come-on, lures you back onto the path, the not-so-straight and the not-so-narrow. Do not think the yellow arrow will lead you to self-righteousness; it is deviancy and deviousness personified. It will take you from Alpha to Omega; eventually, once it’s run out of juice.

The yellow arrow points up. You follow, cursing at every uphill twist and turn. Gasping for breath you find yourself badmouthing the arrow and before you know it you’re both engaged in dialogue which, yesterday, went something like this (believe me, I’m not making this up):

The yellow arrow: ‘Calm down, Siân Lacey Taylder, there’s no need for that sort of language. Certainly not from a pilgrim who’s just touched the wood of the One, True Cross[1].’

The pilgrim: ‘I’m tired and I’m hungry and I’m very, very angry. I just want you to take me to Espinama, with minimal effort and distress.’

The yellow arrow: ‘Then take the road, it’s simple and straightforward; it’ll get you there before me. Nobody’s making you take this path, nobody’s put a gun to your head and told you to go walking in Spain. I’m neither demagogue not despot but an agent of liberation. You follow of your own volition.’

The pilgrim: ‘That’s as well as may be, but can’t you, just now and again, cut me a bit of slack?’

The yellow arrow: ‘Why should I? You wanted deviance, I’m giving you deviance; you wanted to throw caution to the wind, I’m blowing a gale to scatter your prudence across the four corners of the globe. But you have to believe.’

The pilgrim curses under her breath. ‘What’s that?’ asks the yellow arrow. ‘You heard’, she replies. Strange how, from that moment on, for the last three kilometres through the woods and alongside the Rio Deva, the arrow is suddenly absent and I feel like a spurned lover; I traipse into Espinama in a fug of guilt and shame. Tomorrow I’ll have to find the arrow again, I need it to take me over the mountains; without it I am lost.

I hate the arrow, I love the arrow, like pleasure and pain they’re just extremes of the same emotion. And boy, do we love extremes? Pain and pleasure, white and black, there’s nothing that lies in between.
Well, nothing interesting, anyway.

[1] Indeed I had. At the Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana. But that’s another story ….

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

News from the Cantabrian Countryside

Monday 23 June

Anyone who’s walked the Camino Frances will recognise the scene: between five and six o’clock in the morning in the crowded dormitory of an albergue. It starts with the flashing of a torch or headlight which is soon accompanied by a fumbled rustling as the guilty parties try to smother the sound of their packing. In doing so, of course, they only manage to exacerbate the situation, it’s a comedy ‘shush’ that merely serves to waken anybody who hadn’t already been disturbed by this madragudal fracas. If I were to draw up a top-ten list of the things I really hate about the Camino Francés – to be honest, I’d struggle to find more than five – this would be probably be number one. It’s not a fucking race!

Really? The way I hacked along the penultimate 50k to Santiago two years ago you’d have been forgiven for thinking it was the Galician marathon.

But there’s none of that malarkey this time around, mostly because on the Ruta del Ebro there aren’t any albergues. The only one I came across was fully booked which means I’ve been ‘forced’ to stay in pensiones, hotels and hostales; it’s a cross I’m learning to bear, with great sufferance, obviously.

Needless to say it brings out the gyrovague in me. You enter your room and as soon as the door’s safely shut you overturn your rucksack and tip its contents onto the floor. Bliss! Yes, I know full well what the Bible says, that cleanliness is next to godliness but I’m a feminist, postmodern, queer theologian and I operate under a hermeneutic of suspicion so anything goes. Well, more or less.

In the borderlands of Catalunya and Aragon, hotels and pensions are cheap but they’re also thin on the ground; in Fabara there were precisely none, the Pension Ca Oliver having given up the ghost and closed down. You can hardly blame Oliver, if, indeed, that was the proprietor’s name; Fabara’s not quite a one horse town, there’s two bars, a supermercado and a dancing school but that’s about it. Apart from the pigs.

Over breakfast Sofía, a vet from Zaragoza, tells me that the area’s economy – and probably her job – is based on pig-rearing. Teresa has the only rooms for rent in town, but at 20€ a night including breakfast it’s exceptional value. Travelling vets and pilgrims walking in the midday sun, we’re all itinerants under the skin, and we rely on the likes of Teresa to keep us nourished and safe from the elements.

Five days later and everything has changed. Same country – just about – but a different camino and a different climate: España verde, green Spain. Here it rains, de vez en cuando – from time to time; the forecast for the next few days isn’t great, and I’m supposed to be heading into the mountains. I didn’t time that very well, did I?

But for the moment, in the well-to-do seaside resort of Comillas, on the Cantabrian coast, I’ve thrown in my lot with my fellow pilgrims. I didn’t really mean it to happen, a week of isolation on the Camino del Ebro where I didn’t meet another pilgrim and then a gentle immersion into the more convivial ambience of the Camino del Norte. In Santander I came across my first pilgrims – I suppose I really should say fellow pilgrims – loitering outside the FEVE station, since then my integration back into the curious social oeuvre of the contemporary pilgrim has been gentle and pleasant.

A curious social oeuvre, a world of its own, a culture to itself. A culture that exists only in albergues – little towers of Babel – and the paths inbetween; not just multilingual by default but multilingual by desire. On the Camino del Norte there are far fewer pilgrims than on the Camino Francés so this multicultural, multilingual hubris is, paradoxically, at the same time more intense and relaxed.

Tuesday 24 June
What do you know? Twenty kilometres along the coast, in the village of Serdio, to precise, and I’m shacked up in the municipal albergue ready for tomorrow’s foray along the Camino Liebana/Camino de Santo Toribo. Doesn’t take long for a dozen of the pilgrims I met yesterday to turn up. The beginnings of a Camino ‘family’ are already in place, maybe most of them’ll stick together till Santiago but that’s still 400km away. It’s at moments like these that I regret having only three weeks to walk, and at times I wish my itinerary wasn’t dictated by academic requirements. It’s at times like these that I just want to walk for the sake of walking, without having to analyse ever step I make and every footprint I leave behind.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Day Four: Batea - Fabara

In this heat and aridity every kilometre seems doubled, the climate and the landscape suck the energy from failing legs. You set out on what you think will be a routine stroll, even though you're already well aware that there's no such thing as a 'routine stroll' on high summer days like these.


The camino out of Batea is well signposted and soon the path is out of the town and following a minor road to Nonaspe. A kilometre further on, at a glorified roadside cross, the camino departs the ashphalt and follows rough, sandy tracks for the remainder of its course to Fabara, through scrub, pines and olive groves.
Scrub, pines and olive groves: a litany for this part of the Camino del Ebro. And bare rock. Evidence of human engagement with the landscape but not settlement in it, best keep to the towns which are few and far between. With every stride lines from 'The Wasteland' reverberate around my head:
Here is no water but only rock 
Rock and no water and the sandy road 
The road winding above among the mountains 
Which are mountains of rock without water 
If there were water we should stop and drink 
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think 
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand 
If there were only water amongst the rock 
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit 
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit 
There is not even silence in the mountains 
But dry sterile thunder without rain 
There is not even solitude in the mountains 
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl 
From doors of mud-cracked houses


And so it goes on, and on and on until the land seems to begin to resent the pilgrim’s presence. At every twist and turn you peer ahead, desperate for a glimpse of a roof, aerial or church tower but at every twist and turn there’s just more of the same. Then, two or three kilometres out of Fabara, human presence manifests itself in the shape of pig farms, the gravel-strewn track turns to asphalt and there is water and shade.
Ya basta! Enough already. Time to rest and rehydrate.

At what point does the body become accustomed to this change in routine? A change that’s both drastic and sudden, and which has allowed no time for acclimatisation. How does it feel to be plucked from the relatively sedentary routine of tutoring, writing and imbibing too many G&Ts and dumped on arguably the loneliest, hottest and driest of Spain’s Caminos de Santiago? It’s been sitting on its swelling arse for most of the past six months, what does it do now? How does it respond?
Well, in many ways that’s a rhetorical question because it doesn’t have any choice. Unless, of course, it decides it’s had enough and chucks its toys out the pram. I’ve seen it happen, pilgrims who are younger and fitter than me falling victim to a body that’s given up the ghost and decided it no longer wants to play ball. I’ve cooked lunch for a crocked Spanish sports student half my age in the albergue in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, her knee swollen to the size of a small balloon. Ruptured tendons and ligaments, stress fractures, general wear and tear, now and again pilgrims limp off the Camino like injured footballers, shaking their heads and grimacing, as if there were no justice in the world.
Well there ain’t, obviously, but that’s beside the point. Not so much the Grim Reaper calling to demand what’s rightly hers but the Angel of Consequence reminding you of what she said before you left home: ‘somebody’s going to get hurt; it’ll end in tears, you mark my words’.
Jesus, Angel. Nobody likes a smart arse.
Note how it’s normally the body that surrenders, not the mind: the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. A gambler who’s studied the form book might have laid a pony on me cracking within a couple of weeks and expected a return despite the short odds but even now my resilience and determination – if I were selling the Camino del Ebro as a Hollywood movie I might call it ‘true grit’ – never fail to surprise me.
Won’t give up? Can’t give up, more like. On the Camino Francés one has that option, save for the traverse of the Pyrenees and one long endless haul over the Meseta. If you’ve had enough for the day there’s normally an albergue in relatively close proximity. Or even, God forbid, an hotel!

No such luxury on the Camino del Ebro, or, I suspect, most of the other less-frequented routes to Santiago. I suppose, deep down, I must have chosen it to sound a bit ‘hard’ as well as to appear ‘different’. You can bet your last Euro that I wasn’t sounding so smug at two o’clock this afternoon when, dehydrated and suffocated by a dry, dusty heat, I thought my destination – the windswept town of Fabara constantly evaded me.
It’s easy for me to sit here now, bottle of Estrella Damm to hand, and pontificate. I’d been cursing the Camino and my decision to take the road less-travelled until Fabara suddenly materialised and then all was well. Isn’t it ever this? We spit and curse under the heat of the afternoon sun, condemn ourselves for falling victim to caprice, of having eyes bigger than our bellies. ‘You’ve bitten off more than you can chew’ says my alter ego, every time I’m flailing on the road to Santiago. And then, at the end of every day, it’s me who turns round and gives her the finger. Oh ye of little faith.
Tomorrow it’s a 21km hike to Capse, another five hour trudge through dry sand and bare rock with no shade or water. But there is no choice; once you’re five or six km down the road there’s no turning back, you have to go all the way.
The path shapes you, not vice versa.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Gyrovagues: Camino Jacobeo del Ebro, Camino Catalan and Camino Castellano-Argaones June - July 2014

Tortosa Station: the end of the line and the start of the trail. Somewhere in this photo a lost guidebook is flapping around.
On Friday 13th June I set out from Bristol to travel, by train, to the Catalunyan town of Tortosa; via London, Paris and Barcelona. The SNCF strike nearly derailed my plans but I arrived the following Saturday afternoon. After a quick coffee and tapa – and after losing my guidebook before I’d even left the station – I  set out on the Camino Jacobeo del Ebro, one of the many ways to Santiago de Compostella.
So! Up the Ebro without a metaphorical paddle. My plan was to post at the end of every day’s walking but you know what they say about good intentions – I’ll have to play catch up.
What I'm actually here to do is, like the paths ahead, uncertain and subject to change on a whim and a prayer. First and foremost I want to walk. No, let me rephrase that, I need to walk; I'm like a junkie desperate for a fix. And, for reasons I hope to articulate over the next couple of weeks, I need to walk in Spain. Beyond that my broad remit - and when I say broad I really do mean a vast amplitude - is to start piecing together a narrative for my research, the relationship between landscape and spirituality/religiosity. It's a tall order, easier to ruminate over in my mind than set down on a piece of paper but at some point it has to be done. For this particular 'pilgrimage' - I started off calling it a hike but that didn't seem appropriate - there are two concepts upon which I'm trying to focus: the idea of the Gyrovague, which I've mentioned previously, and the notion of a 'Catholic gaze'. That is, how we perceived and are affected by the landscape from a particular cultural-religious perspective. That is, I think, the main reason, I came to Spain - again - but there are other themes at work: language being one, the network of caminos being another.
When I arrive at my destination - and as yet I'm unsure where or when that will be - I should have the outline structure of a nascent thesis.
Some hope!

Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Lull before the Storm

In three weeks time this ...

... will look like this
And this ...

... will look like this

The summer of 1986. The summer of lust and procrastination, the summer of glorious inconsistencies. The summer of cider, the summer of sweat. A young person, of indeterminate age and sex and looking uncannily like Joey Tempest’s younger sibling, is running wild and free. In between brief bouts of employment he drifts in and out of love. He’s at the height of his … well, I was going to say ‘powers’ but that would be making a vice out of a virtue. 

The 1986 Pilton Festival – that’s the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts to you ‘outsiders’ – represents the sum of all those parts; a metaphor for stasis and decay. At this point in time all permutations are possible. From the backstreets there’s a rumbling, smell of anarchy. No more nice time, bright-boy shoe shines or pie-in-the-sky dreams. Trouble’s brewing; the centre cannot hold, something’s got to give. 

You say Glastonbury, I say Pilton, let’s call the whole thing off. That’s more or less how I felt, lying alone in my tent under a stultifying sun during the hot and sticky summer of 1986. Madness were entertaining the drunken, loved-up hordes on the Pyramid stage, several kilometres away. A dull thud-thud pounding through the dry earth; a million tiny tremors to the tune of Baggy Trousers, Night boat to Cairo and The Prince. ‘An earthquake is erupting, but not in Orange Street’; those nutty boys never did quite grasp the difference between seismicity and vulcanology. 

I was fresh out of college with a third-class degree in Geography and Landscape studies to my name; I might as well have had ‘FAILURE’ writ large across my forehead. Somewhere else, later – or possibly earlier – The Psychedelic Furs took to the stage: ‘He’s walking around in this dress that she wore/she is gone, but the joke’s the same’. It’s like irony just staggered out the pub and vomited onto my grave.

Fast forward twenty eight years, to the summer of 2014. In the intervening period, let’s say the summer of 1996, the mother of all earthquakes changed forever the contours of my own landscape, toppling mountains and carving deep declivities in their place. It’s time to go back.

As the crow flies, Worthy Farm is as close to the cloisters of Wells as it is to the hippie-strewn streets of Glastonbury; it’s even closer to Shepton Mallet but nobody would countenance naming the festival after a town that’s famous for Babycham and pallet distribution. Back in 1986, unemployed and penniless, we cadged a lift up the A37 from sunny Weymouth and, like thousands of others, jumped the fence.

Or what passed for a fence. Comparing today’s two-metre-high steel erection to the Berlin Wall would be overdoing the hyperbole but that was the first comparison that came to mind. It is, logistically, a truly impressive construction. Circumnavigating the festival site yesterday took me a good four and a half hours; the gates don’t open for another three weeks but already the barrier is practically complete.

Until the mid 1980s the perimeter fence only enclosed half of the site, so anyone not wanting to pay merely walked around the edge! There was also no professional security team to safeguard the bands and the stages at the Festival. Vigilante style gangs would often turn up and take control of parts of the site. A group of Hells Angels forced their way into the festival for two or three years in the mid 80s as there was no real way to stop them. The festival organisers decided the best way to tackle the problem was to attempt to strike up a rapport with their leader. But their demands were often difficult to manage. Main stage organiser Mark Cann remembers one difficult instance when the Hells Angels were demanding to go on the Madness bus because they wanted to "say hello to Suggs"! Perhaps an early example of Madness’s extremely broad fan base!

1986. Politics was so much more sexy back then. Right or left, you knew your place and you stuck to it religiously, even in the face of unfortunate reality. The Tories had been in power for seven years, they would remain so for another eleven; just as well we young, idealistic lefties had no access to crystal balls. And the most important thing about Glastonbury was, of course, the ideology, not the music – or so we said to anyone who was sufficiently compos mentis to listen. Glastonbury Festival was the Glastonbury CND festival and the organisation’s logo topped the famous pyramid stage. That surely made jumping the fence a heinous, possibly sacrilegious act. Back then tickets were £17 for the weekend: I’m not sure how much that is in new money but a pint of Royal Oak in Weymouth’s Park Hotel cost 72 pence – I’ll leave you to do the mathematics.

It’s easy to see the modern festival as a controlled, corporate event that’s long since lost touch with its roots but let’s not allow nostalgia to blind our vision. Yes, it’s expensive, lost much of its spontaneity and free spirit but the excellent ‘Retro-Madness' website offers a pertinent reminder of how the festival really operated in the not-so anarchic nineteen-eighties:

The Glastonbury Festival of the mid-80s was rife with conflict between rival factions. Drug dealers and security guards, local farmers and landowners, festival-goers and travellers. Melvin Benn of Mean Fiddler remembers the festival of this era as having "… gangs from Bristol effectively running parts of the site. And anarcho-travellers. Decent hippie travellers didn’t get a look in … there were no-go areas … it was a free for all." Stonehenge Festival had been closed down in 1985 and the ‘anarcho-travellers’ that it used to attract then flocked to Glastonbury. Consequently this led to a massive increase in attendance levels in 1986, with lots more travellers than normal arriving at the site for their summer celebrations and a huge increase in 'fence jumpers.' Convoys of travellers from across England would converge on Glastonbury, all assuming they could attend without paying. Michael Eavis described it as being "very difficult to control and quite dangerous". The convoys were blasted by government ministers and broken up by police and made national headline news at the time.

Time to hit the fast-forward button again. June 6th 2014, this year’s Festival will open for business on Wednesday 25th. I’ll not be going, won’t be traipsing through the mud to see if there’s a plaque declaring ‘Siân Lacey Taylder once camped here'. But it won’t be generational pique that keeps me away, the notion that the festival can never be what it once was. Time and space, dear blogista, time and space: the essence of geography We move on, give the past its due but, after many tears and recriminations, we let it go.

At the top of Pennard Hill I turned my gaze from the Festival site and let it rest on the gentle contours of south Somerset. It was warm, increasingly humid, from the west cloud was building; the Spanish Plume was extending itself northwards, over the continent storms were brewing. The Glastonbury Festival of 1986 was, as far as I can recall, blessed by dry weather and warm sunshine, this year’s may well be a more soggy affair but by that time I’ll be striding over the arid Spanish Meseta. Times and space; there was a moment, yesterday, when I almost felt a tinge of grief, a passing memory, a fleeting vision of what might have been. 

Almost. In the early hours of this morning the storm broke: thunder and lightning and torrential downpours. Better to bury the past and make peace with its ghosts. Pray for the dead, but fight like fuck for the living.
... and it's already ominously we