Normally, en route to the south of France and Spain, I hurtle through the countryside in a Train de Grande Vitesse at speeds of up to 300kmh. This time, though, it's different, and it feels quite appropriate: in space and time, within me and without. It feels right to travel tentatively, tip-toeing down the Atlantic littoral.
Step by step, little by little. From Bath to Weymouth, Weymouth to Poole, Poole to Guernsey to St Malo. From St Malo to Rennes then Nantes before taking a good old-fashioned train for a five hour slog to Bordeaux which lumbers through the landscape like on a ox. Diesel, not electric; a steady, staccato beat, easy and mesmerising and for a while I'm on the railways of my youth. Ageing coaches lugged along by an equally ageing diesel locomotive from Bournemouth, where the electricity petered out, to Weymouth, the bucolic bastard child of sedentary, responsible Dorset. Almost wasted years. Almost, but not quite; if I hadn't frittered away my undergraduate years on a diet of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll I wouldn't be where I am now, on the 12:10 Nantes to Bordeaux, en route to Santiago de Compostela.
* * *
I'm a landscapist, from my tousled, blonde, bandana-ed head to my beat-up, blistered toes. I'm forever immersed in the stuff, can't get enough of it. I might 'do' landscape, estimable reader, like you 'do' the Guardian, Times or Independent crossword at the breakfast table, over your cappuccino and eggs Benedict. To be perfectly straight with you, I can't take my eyes off the landscape which is one reason for taking the train and the ferry and eschewing the mundane mobilities of air travel.
On a journey from, for example, Bath to French Catalunya I'm obsessed with the desire to observe, in minute detail, the landscape evolving: in content, composition, shade and hue. I simply cannot bear to be plucked from one and deposited, untimely, in another as if, like Hutton's unconformity, the origin and destination share no relation with one another.
But the other reason, of greater significance when it comes to pilgrimage, is my notion of 'inserting' myself into the mindset of the long-distance walker. Of getting into the groove, not just physiologically, but emotionally, too. The world of the pilgrim, as Rousseau suggests, revolves at three miles per hour; four on a good day, with the wind beneath one's sails.
Everything slows down to this speed: mind, body, spirit and soul. Even, dare I say it, the libido though I've not put that to the test - yet.
To uproot oneself and, in the space of a few hours, insert oneself in a quite different environment, culturally, linguistically etc etc, is, it seems to be, inconducive to the project which is to create a sense of enchantment and wonder. A time and place where strange things can and will happen. I'm the sorceress casting my hex: I will become the land, the land will become me. Subject, object: fused.
* * *
So here I am, in Orthez. It's 21:30, I left Weymouth yesterday on the 06:55 train, arrived here about 20:00. According to my calculations that's 37 hours and 5 minutes of travelling, including an overnight in St Malo, but every moment has been savoured; drawn out and lovingly indulged.
Tomorrow begins the Camino, to Santiago and on to Finisterre. 42 days and 1000 kilometres - I made sure of the distance to satisfy my inner, rarely-heard quantitativist.
And I'm ready. And willing. And raring to go. There will be tears at the start but in the name of which emotion I'm not entirely sure.