Camino Primitivo, Day 4

Walked from: Campiello

Walked to: Berducedo

Distance: 29.6km

When: 15 October 2019

My guide book warns that the ‘Hospitales’ route I walked today is one of the most demanding days of any on the many caminos that crisscross Europe, bound for Santiago de Compostela. It’s often shrouded in mist, in which case you’re urged to take the alternative, easier route (which still sounded quite challenging, based on the stories of the people I met this evening). Oh, and there’s no facilities on the way, except for a bar some 3.5km before the end which turned out not to exist. I spent those last 3,500 metres plaintively muttering ‘pub, pub, pub’ to Rosa, the good humoured young German woman who I hiked much of the day with. Whatever gets you through, eh?

Anyway, my luck was very much ‘in’ today. Thomas, a German man I’ve been hiking with, noticed I’d left my rain jacket behind and carried it with him until he caught up with me. He saved me the extra hour of walking that would have been involved in going back to retrieve it and is officially my hero of the day, and possibly for the whole trip. Rosa lent me one of her sticks for the steep decent after Puerto del Palo, which was a huge help – think I may need to rethink my ‘no stick’ strategy. The visibility was excellent. The rain stayed away until the final kilometre or so. And the views were abso-bloody-lutely spectacular, new vistas opening up in all directions with every new crest climbed. The skies got in on the act, determined to compete with the landscape in putting on a show we wouldn’t forget in a hurry. Wind aside – and boy did it blow; it was safe, but a few more miles an hour and it wouldn’t have been – it was perfect conditions for experiencing an extraordinary route. The Cordillera Cantábrica is stunning. Come. But make sure you bring wet weather gear… and a sense of humour.

Views aside, the route also takes in the ruins of a number of medieval ‘hospitals’, where the hardy pilgrims of old would stay when they were walking to Santiago de Compostela some 800 year ago. One, Fanfarón, had a roof, providing some much needed shelter from the howling wind while we quickly wolfed down lunch. It was an altogether more relaxing experience this evening, sitting in the hostel post-hot shower, talking about adventures past and planned, and sharing my bottle of €1.15 ‘no label’ wine. I’m living the high life in altitude, if not attitude!

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Camino Primitivo, Day 3

Walked from: Bodenaya

Walked to: Campiello


When: 14 October 2019

I left the hostel (albergue) reluctantly this morning; it had been such a fun, cozy night and the weather forecast for today didn’t bode well. Luckily, the aforementioned forecast seems as unreliable in the north of Spain as it is at home in England, and I found myself whispering to Lee, a friendly Korean man who I walked with after lunch, that I was grateful for that.

It did rain eventually, making for a wet final 2-3km, but by then I was so buoyed by the sheer bloody brilliance of the day’s scenery and a wonderfully random encounter we’d just had with a farmer that it didn’t matter a jot. Lee listened patiently as I kept exclaiming about the landscape (I even clapped it at one point) and we had the sort of interesting – at least for me – cultural exchange about our respective countries that underlines how important travel is.

About 4km before the end we had just finished a descent along a rocky, moss-lined, stone-walled footpath when we were accosted, in the politest possible way, by a farmer in the hamlet of Villaluz, and asked if we wanted a sello (stamp) for our pilgrim passports. ‘Of course!’, said I. So he plucked a white flower from his garden, placed it on my backpack and led us to a small shack that abutted his cow shed, producing his stamp and ink pad with a flourish. It was a Camino first for me – farmers are usually pretty taciturn, but Jouimo was friendly, spoke some English AND gave me a second flower on the way out of his farm – Lee got a sprig of mint, for a mojito! Sadly, about two minutes later the wind picked up, the rain arrived and my beautiful flowers flew away. Another Camino friend told me she passed them on her way, but for a brief moment in time, I was living the 60s flower power dream, albeit in quick-dry clothes.

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Camino Primitivo, Day 2

Camino Primativo, Day 2

Walked from: San Juan de Villapañada

Walked to: Bodenaya

Distance: 24.6km

When: 13 October 2019

(Image: dawn with a hint of rainbow!)

Another evening, another out of the way hamlet to call home for the night. And what a lovely, welcoming home the Alburgue de Peregrinos in Bodenaya is – its friendly hosts and cozy atmosphere make it an especially nice place to shelter from the rain that is currently pouring from the sky.

(Image: traditional grain store as the day dawns)

Today’s walk undulated its way through the hills of the Cordilla Cantabrica – there were lots of forest paths (alternating between heading steeply up AND down), a handful of tiny villages, and cafes to stop in at at both Cornellana (very nice tortilla sandwich… I’m not going to be losing any weight on this trip) and Salas. And although there was a bit of light rain from time to time, it was mainly dry. The people who arrived at the hostel after me have a different tale to tell. I had 10 minutes of heavy rain at the end. Some of them were walking in it for hours (as I expect to tomorrow).

(Image: double rainbow on the approach to Cornellana)

The countryside I passed through today was lovely, even though the dull day didn’t make for good photos. But the morning… what a magical start to the day. It was 7.30am and still dark when I left – which would explain why I wandered into a farmyard at one point. The dogs quickly let me know I shouldn’t be there, and I reversed direction, heading uphill as the dawn began to break. The colours were spectacular – and within the hour I was in rainbow heaven – for about 30 minutes, variants of them seemed to fill the huge skies of Asturias.

(Image: approaching Bodenaya)

I’ve had the nicest of evenings at the hostel, talking with the incredibly welcoming hosts and my new Camino friends as we ate our communal meal. We’re representing Spain, Germany, Korea, Japan, Italy and England tonight, but our similarities far outweigh any differences. The people you meet on Camino are the greatest pleasure of all – and it’s the element, along with the weather, that you can’t plan. The Camino (as the saying goes) provides.

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Camino Primitivo, Day 1

Walked from: Oviedo Cathedral

Walked to: San Juan de Villapañada

Distance: 28km

When: 12 October 2019

(Image: View from tonight’s hostel)

What a stellar start to my third Camino route. An overcast morning gave way to a beautiful sunny afternoon and a really fun evening.

I started late. I had a poke around the Cathedral in the morning, waiting for the tourism office to open at 10am so I could buy (although it turned out to be free – result!) the all important credential – basically a passport you get ‘stamped’ as you progress along the Camino. It gives you access to the municipal hostels, sometimes gets you huge meals for a low price, and is needed for your completion certificate at the end – the one that absolves all your sins.

(Image: back on the Camino again!)

Leaving Oviedo took concentration – the way marking is always harder to follow in towns – but just one hour after leaving the city centre I hit countryside and the not-so-sweet smell of manure, as provided copiously by the local cows. I saw a few people as I was leaving, but walked on my own for the first few hours.

The route got really interesting, and much more sociable, after Gallegos, when a steep drop down a conker-strewn path into a ravine was quickly followed by a stiff haul back up it and towards Venta del Escamplero – which was around the time I met my first group of fellow walkers. A few chats, a quick lunch stop along the lovely Nalón river, a much needed lemonade at the cafe by Peñaflor’s Romanesque bridge and suddenly the various chats and the really lovely landscape had got me up quite a few hills and within spitting distance of the municipal hostel (albuergue) in the hamlet of San Juan de Villapañada, where I had one of the most fun evenings I’ve ever had on the Camino, thanks to the gracious hosting of Domingo and the friendliness of my fellow guests.

(Image: the wonderful Domingo serving up dinner)

Am absolutely cracking first day. My stomach is going to bed groaning with the weight of the pasta from the communal meal.

(Image: view from the hostel at night)

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Two Days in the Lakes

Where: The Lake District

When: 27-28 September 2019

Weather: Mixed!

With: Peter

(Image: Lake Buttermere)

I haven’t gone north to go walking since I completed the Dales Way with a group of friends last August (never did get around to writing about that one, but I recommend it). Head down in a book, I hadn’t looked out of the train window much in the last hour, but approaching Oxenholme I did – and was rewarded with the sight of one of the loveliest landscapes in England.

(Image: Glencoyne Valley)

It never seems right to describe the beautiful beasts that loom above the area’s Ice Age bequeathed valleys as hills. They don’t quite meet the height requirement to be mountains, but ‘hill’ feels woefully inadequate. Whatever you call them, that was where I was headed: Peter, one of a number of good friends I’ve made while long distance walking (we met on Day 1 of Offas Dyke back in May 2014) was determined to get me up doing some fell walking. It’s one thing, he reasoned, for me to walk 20-odd miles a day on trails, another thing entirely to do battle with the elements and the challenges that more wild country can throw at you. And I’ll happily admit, right now, that he out-walked me, despite being born some three decades before I made my entrance into the world.

(Looking down towards Glenridding)

On the first of our two days, the wet weather led us to stay close to Penrith, the town on the edge of the National Park where Peter and his family live. Heading for Ullswater, we parked up near Aira Force (Force seems to be the traditional name for waterfalls in the area) and walked up to Brown Hills and Glencoyne, down towards the pub in Glenridding via one of the area’s many disused lead ore mines, and then along the lake to the car. We were out for about four hours in all, largely walking in the wet, rain gear fully deployed, with the fells largely sodden underfoot from the recent heavy rainfalls. Visibility was patchy in places, so it wasn’t a day for heading too high, but the valley at Glencoyne was a sight to behold, whatever the weather.

(Image: Crummock Water and Grasmoor)

Day two was much better weather wise, so we ventured out towards the west of the Lakes to Buttermere, with a pretty spectacular drive through the Newlands Valley on the way there, taking the road through Honister Pass on the way back. The former was lovely, and it was gratifying to see the latter – I sure as hell didn’t when I navigated my way through with 5m of visibility on the Coast to Coast Path in 2013!

(Image: view from Lingcomb Edge, rapidly disappearing)

Peter’s route took us up to the 755m high Red Pike, which disappeared into mist as we got to the top, via Crummock Water, the thundering waters of Scale Force and along the beck that feeds it.

(Image: Scale Force)

The way up was wet underfoot and challenging to negotiate – I know most of my friends would have been in mutinous mood had I walked them that way. But Peter was confident of his route and I was too far back for him to hear the occasional expletive that issued forth from my mouth. A bit of a steep pull up Lingcomb Edge got us to the top, the views disappearing more into the mist with every step we took. Low visibility and a chill wind had us heading back down the hill on what I will politely describe as a ‘somewhat steep’ ascent that took us past Bleaberry Tarn and the wonderfully named Sourmilk Gill, before taking the treacherously wet steps (henceforth known, to me, as the Devil’s Staircase – SO much worse than its namesake on the West Highland Way) down through Burtness Wood. Emerging from that stairway of terror, we reached the placid shores of Lake Buttermere where the sun-filled late afternoon was suddenly full of people dressed in full on walking kit… but who didn’t look as if they had walked much further than from the car to the cafe (she typed, bitterly).

(Image: steps of doom, Burtness Wood)

Neither day made for easy walking, but both were hugely satisfying. On the first day I’d asked Peter how far we were walking: he wisely said that with fell walking it’s about how long you’re out for, rather than the distance travelled. He was absolutely right – we only walked 6.5 miles on the first day and 9 miles on the second, but each mile was hard won, and worth so much more for it. And the scenery? Gorgeous. There’s an excellent reason the Lake District is so popular!

(Image: Peter – with, I think, Bleaberry Tarn in the background)

With huge thanks to Peter and his wife Pat for their hospitality – I had a wonderful – if somewhat wet at time! – weekend.

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The Dunwich Dynamo

Cycled: The Dunwich Dynamo

Distance: 130 miles (from Dulwich)

Date: 13-14 July 2019

There’s an overnight bike ride that has an almost mystical status for England’s cyclists. I say ‘almost’ because while it’s far from a myth (thousands of us have ridden it, some people each and every year), the ride itself has a dreamlike quality, brought on, in part, by mass sleep deprivation.

The Dunwich Dynamo starts from London Fields Park in the London Borough of Hackney, and finishes some 120 miles later on the foreshore of Dunwich, a tiny hamlet of a place with a pebble beach and a great history as a major trading centre a mere 500-1,000 years ago (most evidence of the buildings from that era have long-since been reclaimed by the North Sea). It always takes place on the full moon weekend in July, with the ride starting gradually at around 8pm, groups of cyclists pouring out of the park and into the streets of east London, heading out into the country lanes of Essex via Epping Forest before (in my case, at around 2am in the morning) reaching the 60 mile half way point at the Suffolk border, in Sudbury.

The organisers of the ride describe it as being unsupported. In a fundamental way, it is: if something goes wrong with your bike, if you realise you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, or if you pick up an injury, that’s your problem. But in spirit, it’s far from unsupported. The occasional passing motorist with a pathological hatred of two-wheeled, person-powered transport occasionally shares an erudite commentary relating to certain parts of our bodies, or what we might like to do with them. But overall, it feels like the ride gets a lot of love and support from the communities it rides through. There were always locals in the Essex villages waiting outside their houses to cheer you on, kids in pyjamas, adults with a glass of booze in hand, clapping and whooping as their personal annual version of the Tour de France rides past their front doors. The pubs on the route do a thriving trade (mine was a lemonade, if you’re wondering). And now there are a host of ‘pop ups’ as well – people selling energy gels (ugh) or cake (now you’re talking) from the roadside.

Around midnight, things get quieter. The riders are focused, thinking of the hours left to ride, the miles still to cover. The locals have gone to bed for the night, and you’re left with the glow of the moon (it’s position shifting as you navigate the twisting country lanes), the front light from your bike revealing the road ahead, and the flicker of the red taillights of riders up ahead reassuring you that you’re either going in the right direction or that you won’t be lonely if you’re lost. An occasional bat flys past. This year there was huge fire (it turned out to be hay bales), close to Essex’s border with Suffolk, that lit up the sky.

The hours between 2am and 4pm were the hardest for me. I was wide awake mentally, but after 70 miles of riding I was tiring physically and longing for dawn. The day came gradually, the dark of the night giving way to a bruised purple then pinks of mauve, pink and grey. By the time I reached the 82 mile point at Needham Lake (a much needed toilet and food stop), morning had truly broken, and it made for a beautiful final 38 miles or so through a countryside empty of people at that early hour but full to bursting with corn, lavender, picture-postcard pretty villages… and even a peacock.

The last 10 miles were a blast, spirits high and my speed increasing as a restorative dip in the North Sea beckoned. I arrived (as I has ridden through the night) with my friend Alex, him on his beautiful vintage 80s racer, me on my Pashley Britannia, a bright red, five gear, 18kg bike with a wicker basket that I’d ridden through the night wearing a dress and sandals, just for the sheer hell of demonstrating what Alex described as ‘the art of the possible’. We got in at around 8.20am, around 12 hours after we’d left Hackney and celebrated with beer (remember, it was the end of a very long night) and a swim in the icy water that bordered on bliss.

Dunwich Dynamo is not a race, despite the predominance these days of lightweight racing bikes and team cycling jerseys. It’s not an endurance event, although a number of people find the energy to turn around and cycle back to London again. And it’s most definitely not a charity ride, although some people do raise funds while doing it. What it is, quite simply, is blast. A totally mad, bewitching experience that celebrates summer nights and the beauty of cycling. It’s the fourth time I’ve done it, and I have no intention for it to be the last. Although I may leave my Pashley at home next time!

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Dorset / Wiltshire Borders

Date: 15 & 16 June 2019

Walked: 17 miles

My walks are increasingly long-distance, solitary affairs; I meet people along the way but often head off alone, eating up the miles in a quasi-meditative state.

Not this weekend – this was all about walking adventures at a different pace, where time (well spent) was all about reconnecting with friends. Our group of seven hired a lovely cottage on the Dorset / Wiltshire border for a weekend of catching up over walks, food, drink and – unplanned bonuses – giant Jenga and an enticing trampoline in the garden. Turns out (in the case of the latter activity) that I have quite a talent for landing on my arse but springing immediately to my feet again. And then repeating the move infinitum… art imitating life, etc, etc…

We strolled out on both days from the cottage, and took ourselves off on explorations of the nearby footpaths via routes planned off-the-cuff and on our mapping apps. That meant a few very overgrown footpaths, where, on the Saturday, the wet vegetation transformed walking trousers into sodden conduits perfect for dripping water directly into what would otherwise have been dry walking boots. But it also led to turning a hedge-rowed corner to encounter the biggest field of poppies I’ve ever seen, some fine views, and overheard conversations about the proximity of Guy Richie’s house to one quintessentially English village pub we stopped at for a restorative drink.

I wouldn’t normally blog about such a lovely weekend with friends – it doesn’t really feel challenging enough to warrant a post. But the field of poppies was so spectacular, the red so vivid, that I had to share some photos. And I learnt (or perhaps remembered) that hikes don’t have to be hardcore to be worthwhile.

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The Wealdway

(Image: Camping at Hale Farm, Chiddingly)

Walk: The Wealdway

Dates: 24-27 May 2019

Distance: 80 miles

Slept: Gate House Wood Touring Park (12 miles) / Camp Manor Court Farm (37 miles) / Hales Farm (60 miles)

Planning: OS map app /

(Image: the approach to Camp Hill, East Sussex)

Gravesend has some good ‘bones’; you can tell from many of the buildings in the older part of town (which also houses the grave of Pocahontas, whose young life ended here), but the first two miles or so through and out of town, on my countryside amble from the Thames Estuary to the South Coast, did not make for the most promising of starts. As soon as you’ve cleared the thundering traffic of the A2 and crossed over the UK’s sole high speed train line though, you’re into another world – and pretty much stay there until you can see Eastbourne’s pier jutting it’s way into the English Channel.

(Image: the village of Golden Green, Kent)

I had the most fantastic walk this bank holiday weekend: flashes of electric blue as dragonflies darted around my ankles alongside the River Medway, Burne-Jones stained glass glowing in the mid-afternoon sunlight in the church at Bidborough, the Coldrum Longbarrow, where our ancient ancestors were burying their dead back in 3985 BC, the chalk infused soil of the North and South Downs sandwiching the rolling landscape of the Kent and East Sussex Weald, the wood that inspired AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories (I had that damn song ‘but the most wonderful thing about Tiggers’ stuck in my head for half the day, but failed to spot one. Or Eeyore), the hillside chalk image of the Longman of Wilmington and a beautifully basic campsite, unmentioned on the OS map or any research I did for camping on the trail, right on the Wealdway at the exact time when I doubted I could walk much further on the third day…. it was a good way to spend a bank holiday.

(Image: The Longman of Wilmington, South Downs National Park)

I read a line in another blog that described the Wealdway as an exploration of the South Country. I’ve never heard that expression before, but I really like it. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the moors and dales of the north of England, the bays and the cliffs of the southwest and Wales, but in the past six months I’ve been walking much closer to home, getting out on trails that are a short train ride away. And the truth is that, despite the south east being such a populated part of the UK, there are still vast swathes of it where you can walk for hours without seeing another person (as I did this weekend), where the rolling hills in soft morning light are just as lovely as other, more famed views, and where the country pubs are equally as welcome a sight. Walking in ‘the South Country’ has much to recommend it, and the Weald really was a revelation.

(Video: the consequences of walking across fields very early in the morning! Near Gun Hill, East Sussex)

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The Essex Way, Day 3

(Image: Good Easter’s village sign)

Date: 21 April 2019

Walked: 21.6 miles

Let me put forward what may be a controversial theory: I don’t think the Essex Way is 82 miles. Or the 81 miles Essex County Council states in it’s useful online guide. By my reckoning – or at least, that of the usually reliable step counter thing on my smartphone – it’s about 74 miles. Everyday I’ve progressed quicker across the county than I thought I would because the mileage was off… in my favour. Not so today. Today it was absolutely bang on. Sod it.

(Image: approaching Bury Hall)

My biggest, most gratitude-filled shout out of today – and probably the whole trip – goes to the lovely volunteer who was opening up St Andrew’s Church in Good Easter (I know. GREAT name. And I was there on Easter Sunday!) at about 9am this morning as I lazed on the bench in the churchyard. I was hungry, had run clean out of food, and was a good two hours or so away from being able to buy any. We had a chat, he told me that the quaint looking pub I’d passed earlier in the morning in Pleshey was none other than the one that had been owned by the recently deceased Keith Flint (The Prodigy), and then he disappeared and I headed off, stomach rumbling. Except then I heard someone trying to attract my attention. It was the church volunteer. With a bag. With Hot Cross Buns in it. For me! I have rarely been so grateful in my life. Reader, they were delicious. And eaten very, very quickly.

(Image: Bury Hall’s pet cemetery…)

Other notable instances from the day’s walk included a quite moving pet graveyard at Bury Hall (just outside of Great Waltham), a close-ish encounter with a deer and a stag by Walthambury Brook (I think we drew in the stare-off. Alas, they were too far away for the camera on my phone to do them justice), and getting tangled up with a load of silken threads festooning the trees in Ongar Park Wood. Upon closer inspection, I realised the threads I’d spent 10 fairly unpleasant minutes tangling with were produced by tiny caterpillars… and that I was covered in both. There may have been a bit of swearing. Verdict? Colin the Caterpillar M&S sweeties and cake: good. The real things: not my new best friends. But a passing local assured me they were harmless and walked my penultimate mile along with me, having a good old Essex Way chat as we went. All of a sudden, the end was in sight. Epping Tube Station may not exactly rival the cathedral at Santiago in grandeur, but I was almost as pleased to see it, and really enjoyed that whole ‘sitting down’ thing as London’s public transport system whisked me home.

(Image: plaque outside Epping Tube station)

Another cracking long distance UK walking trail complete, and the first one I’ve camped each night. Job done!

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The Essex Way – Day 2

(Image: field near Little Leighs)

Date: 20 April

Walked: 21.4 miles

Today was definitely one of two halves. Or rather two halves, interspersed with two lunchtime pints!

(Image: Colne River)

I woke early in the beautiful spot I’d wild camped in, to a tent soaked in dew. My early morning ambles took me alongside the Colne river to the edge of Aldham, where one of a number of WW2 pillboxes I’d seen had a notice explaining that the river was part of the Eastern Command Line. Just as with the pillboxes that line the lower reaches of the Thames, so these are left as reminders of our country’s not so distant past.

(Image: church at Great Tey)

Walking on, I saw my first lambs, a young deer lying dead, seemingly perfect and unharmed, on the path by the church in Great Tey, and a very welcome breakfast stop in Coggeshall, a village with more than its fair share of Tudor era buildings. A field full of alpaca eventually led to the peaceful churchyard in Cressing, where I sat for an hour reading and drying out my sodden tent, enjoying the sunshine and chatting to the church warden. And a 30 minute stroll later, I was meeting my friends at the Cross Keys pub in White Notley, where I spend a very happy three hours eating, drinking two pints of larger (I fear it was one more than I should have had…) and catching up in the sunshine.

(Image: Sandy Wood, approaching Fuller Street)

Then all of a sudden it was almost 4pm, I still had nine miles to cover and despite being late afternoon it was still unseasonably warm. The countryside, which looks it’s best in early and end of day light anyway, was all a bit workaday-dull except for a heavenly-scented, bluebell filled woods, and I dreamt of finding a B&B for the night and giving camping a miss. Luckily for my wallet, no such solution offered itself and after a half pint of lemonade in the beautifully situated Square and Compasses pub, I was on my way again, looking for a good, secluded spot to wild camp for the night. I found it in a small wood about a mile from Great Waltham, where I (totally knackered) fell asleep in a woods, listening to the hum of the traffic on the busy A131 in the distance.

(Image: Little Leighs)

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