Saturday, 19 November 2016

Walking Hadrian's Wall - The English Camino

"We're Gonna Build A Wall"
Hadrian came to this decision and began building way back around 122AD. He may, like Donald Trump, have been focussed on keeping invaders out - the Scotts in this case - but the truth is historians are not entirely sure why he built it. It was a long time ago. The wall is no longer complete. Although the Romans were pragmatists, probably more focussed on getting things done than keeping records of it, it must be said that their habit of keeping records was for those times considered quite meticulous. Cataloguing life in ancient Britain is certainly one of the worthwhile things "the Romans did for us 😏" Despite living in England, when my wife and I decided to take on the 80 mile (118km) walk, I was quite unaware that so much of the wall actually remains.

A section of Hadrian's Wall near Birdoswald

Travelling Through History
This remarkable Roman wall runs coast to coast from Wallsend (surprise), by the old Swan Hunter Shipyard just northeast of Newcastle, to Bowness on Solway about 15 miles west of Carlisle. The start and finish points couldn't be more different. The decayed industrial shipyards and urban deprivation of Wallsend contrasts markedly with the timeless tranquil beauty of the village of Bowness, perched at the mouth of the Solway Firth, where locals and visitors can gaze across at Scotland. Along the way one encounters Roman forts, carefully uncovered by archaeologists, and sections of the wall that were not plundered for building materials or simply destroyed under various developer's schemes. The sections that remain are mostly around the middle of the journey, between Housteads and Birdoswald, but the countryside (mostly very hilly), even on the sections with no wall, is spectacular enough to keep the walker interested. After leaving Newcastle, until one arrives in the city of Carlisle the walker can feel rather like they have stepped back in time. I had little idea of quite how primitive it was going to be in fact and we often found ourselves without mobile phone signal, without places to buy food and without ATM machines to get cash. Thank goodness for a few good country pubs along the way, which became our lifeline.



The walk along the Tyne Towpath through Newcastle is picturesque in parts

World Heritage Site
The wall or what remains of it may be 84 miles long but it was not considered too big to make it a single UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its prime historical significance is that this wall is considered to mark the furthest reach of the Roman Empire. Much has been unearthed since the site achieved world heritage status. The extent of Roman ruins along the way - forts and entire villages that once supported those Roman encampments - is really quite remarkable. The exhibition of the wall and the Roman artefacts that archaeologists have uncovered, hosed in the Great North Museum, Hancock in Newcastle easily bears a half day visit - preferably before the walk.

The fort at Chesters, overlooking the Eden River is large & rather magnificent 
- this photo doesn't do it justice

Planning The Walk
This is a walk that needs some planning. Other than Newcastle and Carlisle at each end it is fairly undeveloped, with a couple of small towns but mostly tiny villages along the way and wild, slightly untamed countryside in between. Sheep are more plentiful than people. Unlike a Camino de Santiago pilgrimage walk in Spain (see my two Camino blogs - pilgrimage of the spirit and walking through Spain) less is organised for the walker. Like the Caminos however, there is now a Passport available, which one can get stamped at key points along the way, but there are no state hostels. There are a couple of private bunk houses but mostly it's a matter of camping or staying in B&Bs / hotels. Even the B&Bs tend to be luxury country house affairs, which at around £70-£80 a night can make it an expensive pilgrimage. There is cheaper pub accommodation but these get booked up quickly. Even doing the walk in early November, we found things booked-up 2 months before. Our luxury B&B's were, however, very welcome after hilly 15 mile days walking on sodden ground. I ate more English cooked breakfasts than was good for me. Summer will be easier walking but you will find it more crowded. Also remember that the buses that are scheduled along the route for injured walkers or those who wish to take it easier, these stop running after the last weekend of October and taxis are expensive, since they need to travel out into the wilds from the nearest towns. Bear in mind also, that if you want to spend time visiting Roman forts etc (and I recommend at least one) then you may need to allow for walking only half the day or even taking a day off. On the spur of the moment we decided to take a day off to see the Chesters Roman Fort just outside Chollerford. Unfortunately, not knowing the bus had stopped running 2 days before, we found ourselves hitch-hiking then taking a train and walking miles out of Haltwhistle to find our self-catering cottage for the night, which eventually proved to be only 12 miles from Chesters. Galling when my phone app told me we had walked exactly 12 miles that day. Next time I would plan better in advance!

 1 day out of Newcastle. 
The views along the way can be spectacular at any time of year

Bowness-on-Solway. The hut at the end of the trail, looking out over the firth to Scotland.

In Retrospect
For those who have experienced one, this walk is no "Camino Ingles". The camaraderie of meeting other walkers in Spanish state hostels and cafes along the way does not exist on this walk - not yet. I hope it will come. Don't forget, the Spanish have had 2,000 years to get it right. The English National Walking Trails, National Trust etc have done a lot since this became an official walk and the numbers making the walk increase significantly every year so facilities will improve. Let's hope increased numbers does not harm the experience. I would certainly like to do it again. For those who prefer it, there is also an adjacent cycle trail.



Information
Google will bring up many information resources on Hadrian's Wall. The Northumberland Tourist Office are also very helpful and have a 'where to stay' section on their website -http://www.visitnorthumberland.com/tourist-information-centres
Hadrian's Wall & Around - http://www.visitnorthumberland.com/results
Hadrian's Wall Path (National Trails) - http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/hadrians-wall-path

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores. A new book entitled 'People I've Met On The Road' will be published soon.

  

Monday, 4 April 2016

Fear Of Travel

An Idiot Abroad?
My wife and I are just back from a trip to Turkey - Capadoccia and Istanbul. I knew all about the recent bombings in Ankara and Istanbul when I booked the trip and continued to pay attention up to the time we travelled. There were bombings while we were there and threats have continued this week since we got back. I registered these terrible events before travelling and considered the risks. We did not change our plans. We stayed in the busiest tourist area of Sultanahmet Square but in a smaller guesthouse in a side-street. We even joined the somewhat diminished hoards and visited the Hagia Sophia mosque as well as the Grand Bazaar and we ate out in restaurants near to the square. Traders, hotel managers and restauranteurs in Istanbul told us how the terror attacks had caused about a 50% reduction in tourism for the time of year. They were suffering badly. Given the countless news reports then, friends of mine found it surprising that I would take the risk of continuing with this holiday. They probably think I'm a bit of an idiot.

Istanbul - The Golden Horn

Tourism & The Psychology Of Risk
I should say here that risk management is what I do for a living. I have studied it in great depth both at an intellectual and a practical level. The statistics do not support the average person's view of the level of risk. As human beings we are programmed to avoid things that scare us, but most of us go by fairly unscientific instinct. In my work I see how people will take great care to use safety controls when what they see frightens them but not when what they see looks unthreatening. People will not put their hand into an industrial mincing machine because they can see sides of meat being put in and minced meat instantly coming out. They can imagine the pain of that happening to their arm. They will not make a parachute jump without training and careful checks of the safety procedures because they are afraid of heights when they look out of the plane door. But tell them they need to be careful of how they sit at their computer because over time they could develop life-changing back problems and they will laugh (and continue to sit badly). So seeing pictures and film on TV of people blown-up in a Paris nightclub or outside a hotel in Istanbul scares us and we will take action. We will stay away. But statistically the likelihood of my wife and I being injured or killed in a bomb blast in Istanbul was miniscule. It was probably no higher and perhaps lower than the same thing happening to us in London and yet in London we would feel safer. Human nature and our perception of risk is not reliable. If you don't believe this, see how nervous you feel standing at the edge of a high structure even when there is a solid barrier to protect you from falling.

Our instincts are not always a reliable indicator of the true level of risk

The Impact Of Terrorism On Tourism
The impacts of terrorism on the travel and tourism industry can be enormous. It can lead to unemployment, homelessness, deflation, and many other social and economic ills and spreads beyond the immediate tourist industry to effect the wider economy of a country. The contribution made by tourist spending in many countries is so great that any downturn in the industry is a cause of major concern for governments. It matters little that the actual risks are low, it is about how the consumer perceives things, and in that the media with their often sensationalist focus do not help. The repercussions spread far and wide, into many industries associated with tourism like airlines, hotels, restaurants and shops that cater to the tourists and allied services but also to the businesses that supply them. In the end it affects the whole economy. Terrorist organisations have become more sophisticated. They know these things. They know that seriously damaging the economy of a country is just as effective as frightening individuals.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul. Normally at this time this scene would be filled with tourists.

The Underlying Causes
Clearly the world needs to address the underlying causes of terrorism. People will always have differing views on how things should be run. At one time people with strong views against the status quo would simply protest in the streets or lobby politicians for change. They might even go into politics themselves to try to achieve those changes. That kind of change can be slow to bring about. Increasingly we live in a world of instant gratification. It's all about having what we want and consumerism plays a big part. While millions starve, many of us are out shopping for stuff we do not need. Stuff that will fill up our houses only to be eventually thrown into landfill. Or perhaps we sooth our consciences by making the effort to put it in the recycle bin. Even in relationships we are no longer prepared to work through difficulties, we simply change partner and move on. Chuck one away and order another. Young people turn to terrorism because they want change now, and terrorism seems the fastest way to get it. It can be as simple as the media telling them they need a Ferrari to be successful but there being no realistic chance of them achieving that. We all need to think about the way we are choosing to live and the way we bring up our children. Terrorism as an immediate problem needs to be addressed en-mass by governments, academics and think-tanks, but it is through our personal life choices that we will really change things.

We are all responsible for the state of the world today.
There are unseen consequences to all our actions - especially consumer actions.

So What Can We Do?
When it comes to public response to the terrorist threat, there are obviously things we can do as individuals to protect ourselves. We can ask ourselves if a journey is really necessary. We can choose to travel at quieter times and choose a means of transport less likely to be targeted. We can take holidays in places where gatherings of large groups of people are unlikely and in locations where political tensions are lower. But will this solve the problem? Of course not. Terrorists will simply adjust their methodology and target us in other ways - in schools, sports stadiums or workplaces. They will target us more in our own country. Most of all they need us to be afraid and they benefit from us being unscientific about risk. If we perceive that we are likely to be blown up every time we get on a plane and we are afraid of this, then they will try to blow up more planes because they can see it is effective. Planes feel less safe to us because once they take off we are trapped inside. We can't change our minds because we don't like the look of the guy in the seat in front and get off at the next stop. I cycled 10,000 miles from Ireland to Japan (and survived). I did not perceive it as especially dangerous but I'm sure the likelihood of me being killed was far higher than flying there. And yet I felt safer because I was in control. And I would suggest that this is what we can do. Stay in control.
Travel safety & security advice: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice
Travel preparation, health etc: https://www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo


Common-sense Checklist

1. Be aware of the statistical risk - what are the realistic chances of something bad happening and make your travel plans based on that rather than your instinct (which is affected by media hype)

2. Avoid large gatherings where possible (sports stadia, big events and attractions) but be realistic about the risks - the chances of something happening to you are still low.

3. Check the Foreign Office Travel website for the latest advice on travel locations. I find these very reliable since they are not affected by media exaggeration.

4. Stay in cheaper hotels or better still a small B&B. They may not have armed guards at the door and bag searches, but terrorists are highly unlikely to target them.

5. In high risk countries such as in certain locations in the Middle East, be careful what you say in public. You needn't be paranoid but don't broadcast yourself as a western tourist or let everyone know your political views.

6. Many people feel safer abroad in organised tour groups, but perversely larger groups of tourists are a far more vulnerable target. Research things properly in advance and you will find travelling individually can be safe - sometimes much safer (as well as more rewarding).

Finally I would say that it's important to tell others. It's not always possible to see the threats, but if you go to somewhere like Istanbul and have a great time with no signs of a terror threat, others back home need to know that. Otherwise we remain at the mercy of the sensation-seeking media who are not averse to being 'selective' in their broadcasts to give the impression that a mostly peaceful location is more like a war-zone.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

  

Friday, 4 March 2016

People I've Met On The Road – Tracey

Needing To Get Away
"So what made you come to Romania, Tracey?" I asked.

"Oh, well I needed to get away," she replied.

Tracey was wringing her hands as she answered. I could tell straight away that she was not comfortable with the question. I needed to change the subject.

I had met Tracey in a shop, while I was trying to get a spark plug for my motorbike. The bike was due a service and had been playing up since the south of France – coughing and spluttering. I don't think many Romanians had seen a four cylinder bike in those days. The police had stopped me when it back-fired loudly, scaring a load of old people in a marketplace. My command of Romanian was almost nil. Tracey having been there for three months was quite an accomplished speaker. She stepped in and helped, explaining my problem to the police then to a shopkeeper in a hardware shop. She hadn't made a big thing about it but she'd brought me to the workshop half a mile away, where we now sat.

"It's so nice of you to help out Tracey," I said, sticking to what seemed a safer subject. "Please don't feel you need to hang around, wasting your day. I'm sure I can manage now."


"He says they'll be here with one in an hour. I'm not fussed waiting. Best I wait any-road. Happen there could be problems if that bloke's ordered wrong bloody part or whatnot."

Tracey's Northern English accent made me feel nostalgic for home somehow. I was glad she wanted to hang around but I would have to avoid questioning her too hard, I reminded myself. Yet I felt stuck for what else was there to talk about.

"I used to live up north, you know?" I said eventually. "Birmingham."

"Birmingham?" she laughed. "Birmingham's bleeding midlands."

"Yeah you're right," I said, shrinking uncomfortably. "Sorry I suppose that's a typically daft southerner thing to say, isn't it?"

"I wouldn't know," she said seriously, "I can't say as I really know any southern people."

I was really messing this up. She'd obviously got me marked out as some kind of private school educated idiot with no idea about the geography of my own country north of Cambridge.

"Yeah I rode all around the midlands years back. Fixing my old Triumph on factory forecourts, greased up to the eyeballs, freezing cold, jeezus. Broke down every trip nearly. Bits used to fall off left right and centre. Always someone came out and helped me though. Seems to run in the veins up there - bikes. Especially British bikes."



I was waffling. Worse still I was putting on a bit of a midlands accent. She'd hate that. Talking bollerks because I felt like a bit of an idiot in her eyes. She may have been from up north but she wasn't the slightest bit interested in bikes, I could see that.

"I'm not exactly a southerner you know," I said. "I mean my parents are but I was pretty much brought-up abroad."

"Oh yeah, where abouts abroad?" She seemed a little less cross now.

"Singapore, Malaysia, Germany. My Dad was an avionics engineer in the Army."

"Ex-pat life eh? Must have been great," said Tracey. "I've always wanted to travel. That's how come I'm here really. Well, that and me uncle."

"Your uncle?" I asked.

False Uncle Syndrome
"I call him that but he's not me uncle really. A friend of me dad's just. I've been... working in his shop." Tracey was delving into her handbag. I assumed she was about to produce a photograph until she pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose hard. I waited while she snuffled and put away the handkerchief again. "I had to leave," she said, "the bastard accused me of nicking stuff from the shop."

"but you hadn't?"

"Had I buggery! He made it up, the bastard."

"I see. So why did he make it up - did he want to get rid of you?"

"He wanted more of me than I was prepared to give, if you catch my drift? He seemed to think if I were working for him as he could have whatever he wanted off me. But I could deal with that. I was well used to fighting off lads at the tyre place where I used to work. What I couldn't deal with was me dad."

"What did your dad do?" I asked. I felt nervous asking but it was the obvious question.

"Fat Freddie – that's me dad's friend – told me dad that I'd been flirting with him. Giving him the come-on, you know? He told me dad he'd have had to give me the sack before his wife saw something, regardless of if me dad paid him for what he said I nicked. Bloody lying bastard!"

"And your dad believed him?"

"Told me to get out of the house. Said he'd not have a harlot in his house. Me mam cried but she never stood up for me. I stayed a few nights at me cousin's. I was upset at first, then just angry. I went round and got some stuff. I had a passport thank God, from a school trip a few years back that I never actually went on. I had three hundred quid out of me dad's drawer. I know I shouldn't have but I wanted to hurt him, and I knew how he loves his money. I didn't even know where Romania was. I thought I must be in Italy when I got here."

"Blimey!" I said. "So how did you get here?"




Escape to Romania
"Hitching," said Tracey. "Buses here and there but hitching mostly. At the beginning anyway. Hitching's good 'cos you learns the language quicker and people help you. I've been amazed how kind people have been. I'm living above a teashop where I work evenings. The woman gave me a lift and says she was looking for someone to teach her and her kids English. She wants to go to live in England, see? I told her not to bother!"

Tracey laughed for the first time since I'd met her.


"When will you go back, do you think?" I asked cautiously.

"I'm never going back, me!" said Tracey, with certainty. "No way. That's all in the past. I'm moving on now. I'm going to San Francisco."

If You're Going to San Francisco
"Wow! I said. So you know people there then?"

"Oh aye. My brother's a movie star over there. Big mates with Tom Cruise! Course I don't, soft bugger. How would someone like me know someone living in San Francisco? But I wanna see the Golden Gate Bridge. Used to have a poster on my wall as a kid. Maybe it's still there – the poster I mean. Me teashop lady says I could get a job as an English waitress. Apparently there's a call for that sort of thing in San Francisco. So I'm saving up for the airfare. Got it half-saved already. Come with me if you like."

I laughed. Then I turned. She was not smiling and I was immediately filled with embarrassed discomfort. I had offended her.


"We'd... well we'd need visas," I stammered. Tracey sat quietly. She was wringing her hands again. She sniffed. I wished I had handkerchief to offer her.

"You've got a girlfriend, haven't you?"

I felt taken aback. I hadn't told her that. And she wasn't a steady girlfriend anyway – not in my mind. But I'd hesitated now, so she'd know that she was right.

"I'm looking to move on too," I said. "I'll write to her. She'll be expecting it. Probably she'll be relieved."

"Happen this'll be your spark plug arriving on this here cart. I'd better be going. Cafe's opening again in half-hour."

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.


Saturday, 30 January 2016

Top 5 Worst Camping Sites Ever

Why Camp?
Since I was a small child I have adored camping - and the more basic the better. I loved nothing more than being tucked up warm in a sleeping bag while breathing in the clean fresh air and listening to birds singing – the scratchy sounds of beetles and other insects crawling around under the makeshift groundsheet. When I built a 'Red Indian camp' in the garden, aged 4, I wanted to move into it. I made myself a table using scrap wood and a toolkit my parents had bought me for Christmas. They were worried. And yet this tent, made of an old blanket, two brooms for poles and some string for guylines, was not the most uncomfortable camp I have spent the night in - not by a long way.


Number 5 - Chertsey
We went camping often during the time I lived in England as a child. One place we camped a few times at weekends was a well established formal site by the River Thames in Chertsey, to the west of London. One summer my parents decided my brother and I liked the place so much we would go there for a whole summer. We were in between houses so it was a doubly convenient as my father could get to work from there. We had a big frame tent, a canoe and we fished every day. It should have been a delightful summer, except that it rained. It rained hard and not for just a day. 
It rained for weeks. The site had poorly drained ground and a tide of water washed into our tent on a daily and nightly basis. In the mornings we had to collect shoes, pots and pans etc from all around where they had washed away. One day while my mother was out washing and drying everything at a laundrette, my brother and I watched a very worldly-wise man with a trowel dig a small trench around his tent for water to drain into. It clearly worked well so we borrowed one of the gardener's shovels and dug a trench around our tent. We were pleased with our efforts. When my mother got back she was horrified. The trench was two feet deep. But it worked. The following week we had to move to a rented house. The police had come when a mobile home was washed into the River Thames with people in it and floated away downstream. Luckily the people managed to get out and swim to the shore but the police closed the site down afterwards. It was a miserable experience and I don't think we ever went back.

Number 4 - Shanklin, Isle of Wight - The last of the great English romantics
Looking for somewhere quirky to take my wife for Valentines Day, I read about a restaurant on the
Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. To add a bit of adventure I took her in my VW camper-van. We arrived straight to the restaurant. The food was good but it was in a bit of a slummy place. Arriving at a nearby campsite in darkness we found the place with a few mobile homes but no lights on. The sign at the gate said 'Campsite Open' however, so we drove in and found a spare pitch (there were many). Backing down a slope onto the grassy pitch we immediately sunk up to the axles in soft mud. My heart sank. This would require a tractor to pull us out. There was no answer at the house. Trying to be philosophical we went to bed and slept. In the morning we saw the full horror of our situation. I phoned the AA but there were no breakdown services available on the island. Knocking on caravan doors we realised this was a place where homeless people holed-up at minimal rent for the winter. The site owner came once a week. Nobody had a car except one guy with a Reliant Robin 3-wheeler pick-up (you literally could pick it up). He very kindly tried to pull us out using a makeshift rope from junk. My wife went to the toilet block for a shower. It was derelict. The homeless people washed under
an old hosepipe. The site began to fill with the smell of cheap fried sausages. Once people had eaten they came to help. Many were semi-disabled. It was a mud bath. The little 3-wheel plastic car's wheel spun as it tried to pull the VW out. The smell of burning rubber did not go well with the sausages. Finally after about 2hrs of gargantuan effort, someone 'salvaged' some carpet from a large mobile home and we got some grip. We tried for hours. Eventually by 'flooring' the accelerator the VW managed to slide haphazardly onto some gravel and in a shower of flying mud we reached the path. Handing over all the cash I had to the poverty-stricken team of disabled and clinically obese helpers, we just carried on driving - 6hrs all the way home to Kent, hungry and caked in mud. I'm not one for buying chocolates and flowers. I like to treat my wife to something a bit special.

Number 3 - Katerini
It was March. Hitchhiking in Yugoslavia on my way to Greece with a girlfriend, we were picked up
by a Greek truck-driver who told us we really must visit the beautiful holiday resort of Katerini on the east coast where he and his family regularly spent their holidays. Greece is full of stunningly beautiful places but this guy really enthused about this place so a few weeks later we decided to make a detour on our way from Montenegro to Thessaloniki. We arrived in Katerini by train late at night. All the hotels and B&Bs seemed closed down for the winter period. We looked for someone to ask about where to camp but there were absolutely no people. Walking along the beach we finally decided to pitch our tent in a bit of a cove where we might not be seen from the town. We climbed down a slope and pitched on a flat area. Not having a torch we felt about in the dark and found somewhere level with no rocks. Tired and rather disappointed by the lack of a welcoming resort that we had imagined as a beachside paradise, we got into bed and slept a heavy sleep. Poking our heads out of the tent in the morning we gazed open-mouthed at the site before us. A burned out shack, emaciated wild dogs, all manner of rubbish strewn about a disgusting smell and swarms of flies. Climbing out we found, worse still, that we were camped in the mouth of an untreated sewage outlet. The evidence of this was all around us. Striking camp and heading quickly back to the station, we found one or two sorry looking people. "Yes" they told us, this was a lovely resort before they built the meat rendering plant. It seemed the water pollution and the smell of the plant had driven away the tourists. We spent the whole day and half that night waiting at the deserted station for a promised train before we finally managed to get out of the place.

Number 2 - Orsova, Romania
Cycling along the Danube in Romania on our way from Ireland to Japan, my son and I found ourselves in the riverside military town of Orsova. We had become separated and had not found each other until 11:30pm at night. Everywhere was closed up so we looked for a place to pitch out tent. Unfortunately everywhere seemed either concreted over or flooded with water. Heading on the road out of town we found a derelict children's play park in a lay-by. The ground seemed unsuitable to pitch a tent as it was knee-deep in broken bottles, cans, take-away cartons, old pushchairs and sacks of household waste. Dog tired we decided to sleep on a pair of broken benches. We lay there amongst the rubbish looking at the stars, but we got no sleep. The lay-by, it seems, was used by what I believe are now termed 'doggers'. Every ten minutes a new car would arrive and people would get out and talk. Doors banged, then the springs of the car would begin to squeak. Finally it got light and the full horror of our campsite became apparent. It would have been unsurprising to find a dead body or two amongst the detritus. We packed up quickly and left.

The derelict playpark was vile but the view of the Danube in the morning almost made up for it 


Number 1 - Camp-Platz Petronell Carnuntum, Austria
I have never lost my love of sleeping outdoors. In fact I prefer most things outdoors. Most of all I enjoy wild camping. Wild camping allows few of the comforts of modern settled life we find in houses and hotels. However, in my experience it is surprising how organised campsites with full facilities can be far more uncomfortable. It was in Austria that I encountered my worst camping site. Petronell Carnuntum is a small historic town on the Danube and within a nature reserve. My son Sam and I stopped a night there on our way cycling to Japan. It was a lovely hot sunny day and the site looked idyllic as we rode in. Pitch anywhere you like, the manager told us, then come and pay in the bar – we have nice cold beer and good food. The site had pleasant lawns and decent shower blocks too. It seemed quite a few others had recently arrived and were happily putting up tents. People smiled at us and a few young people came over to chat to Sam. We had the feeling this was going to be a nice place to stop. After putting up the tent we took our leave from our fellow campers and headed over to the bar to pay.

"Let's have a beer now, shall we Sam, then we can have a shower later and go out to eat?"

As we sat at the window drinking our beer, the evening sun going down, the scene outside began to change. The new arrivals had begun heading to the washrooms for showers and after a few minutes, tensions began to develop. Shrieks could be heard as people began swatting mosquitos as they were bitten. One by one freshly showered campers emerged in swimming trunks and shorts from the washrooms and began running towards their tents, vaulting over anything in their path and screeching to their partners to hold open the tent door for them. The mosquito population, quickly alert to their tactics, grouped into a swarm and attacked en-mass. Mass hysteria seemed to fill the site. It was like a battlefield with half naked people running for their lives to barricade themselves in the shelter of their tents. The assault came when a group of around six showerers who had been hiding in the washrooms decided to make a run for it together. These poor souls had covered themselves as best they could, even winding towels around their heads and faces. They sprinted like a crazy heard of stampeding buffalo, tripping over guylines and knocking over flowerpots as they were bitten half to death by the swarm. They paid a high price for this poor strategy. 

The site managers - an elderly couple retired here from Vienna – watched with us from the bar, unmoved but miserable. Clearly this was nothing new to them. They had been unaware of the mosquito problem when they bought the lease, they told us. The local authority would not allow insecticide to be used in the reserve - strictly verboten! - so the mosquito larvae could not be sprayed on the surrounding ponds. People only stayed one night, they told us. 

"Jah, it is all looking so lovely when they are arriving, but then when the evening is coming they discover the true horror of this place."


In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores. A new book entitled 'People I've Met On The Road' will be published soon.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Pilgrimage of the Spirit


A Question of Belief
Presenting myself before one of the "Grand Inquisitors" at the office of the Archbishopric in the ancient Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, I handed over my "Credencial" – a treasured booklet of official stamps (sellos). These I had received at various pilgrims' hostels (albergues de peregrinos) along the route of the Camino Primitivo. I had just completed a walk of over 350km (218 miles) in the space of 12 sweltering hot days. My feet were somewhat sensitive but I felt elated. So why did I need this "Compostela" (official certificate), I asked myself? A pilgrimage it may be but after all I am not religious.

The Inquisitor folded her pale hands and began questioning me. How had I travelled – by bicycle or on foot? Had I really walked the whole of the last 100km (the minimum requirement)? Where had my walk begun? What
was my motivation? I mumbled awkwardly, stumbling over the Spanish grammar. Her stare, her dark eyes and the quiet, reedy tone of her voice had unsettled me. Sternly she pushed a register towards me, followed by a Godly looking pen. Managing to break eye contact, I looked down and began completing the details, while she scrutinised my credencial. My name – my country – my town – my beliefs, then a list to select from. Was I, a) religious, b) spiritual, or c) a heathen, unbeliever or some such condemning descriptor. I ticked "spiritual" and then looked at what all the others above me had ticked. I looked over to the previous pages. By my estimate I think about 75% had ticked spiritual. About 15% had called themselves unbelievers and only the remaining 10% had ticked "religious." I was surprised. Was this a reliable reflection of the state of the world, or only of the type of people who are motivated to walk until their feet bleed for no material gain? I decided upon the latter.

The Inquisition - A Stern Business

After walking all the way to Santiago, the queue for the Compostela can be long

Pilgrims services are held daily in the cathedral. If you're lucky you'll witness the jaw-dropping sight of the huge incense burner swinging dangerously from side to side across the massed congregation

I normally steadfastly resist labels and stereotypes for myself, and yet I had comfortably ticked the box describing myself as spiritual. And thinking about it still, as I wandered back out into the sunlit cathedral square, it is how I could easily describe the mentality of the people I had found myself walking with for those 2 weeks. People I now, strangely, felt bonded to as if they were lifelong friends.
A few of those friends

Goals and The Pot of Gold Metaphor
There have been many illustrative folk stories over time which seek to demonstrate that a treasure which is sought as a goal, results in the person seeking it later realising that what was really to be gained by their quest, was not the goal itself but that which he or she experienced along the road to that goal.

Most religions embrace and promote the idea of pilgrimage. Moslems are encouraged to make at least
one journey to Mecca in their lives, while Hindus follow great rivers and Christians walk between great cathedral cities. I have little doubt that the wise originators of these religious groups had this aim in mind – for people to gain wisdom along the way. Even secular pilgrimages are not uncommon. The young shepherd boy in Paul Coelho's book "The Alchemist," who had a dream of a chest of buried gold, finally found the Alchemist he sought, in order to ask where he might find the treasure. Finally tracking him down, he was sent home again, back to his fields, but not before he had learned along the way to understand about the soul of the world and that his own destiny was entwined with that of the world, since, he was told, "they were written by the same hand." Only then did the young man discover the gold, buried in his own fields. And of course most of us know this metaphor to be true in practice. Yet as with many of life's most valuable lessons, what we subliminally know to be true is kept hidden from us while we are focussed too closely on our daily toils. We need to escape from work and responsibilities in order to really understand it to the level that we can act upon it – live by it.

The Camino Primitivo crosses mountainous and unspoilt Asturias before meeting the Camino Frances trail as one enters Galicia. The route has been extended to start north of Oviedo, close to the coast east of Gijon.

The Camino Primitivo
Amazingly around 200,000 people a year currently complete one of the Caminos de Santiago. Like all the best treasures in life, I stumbled upon this pilgrimage by accident. In Paul Coelho's Alchemist's terms, I allowed my destiny to take me down a path I needed to go. I had done a short 1 week Camino a year before – the Camino Finisterre – at the instigation of my wife (a wise woman where I am concerned). My brother then showed an interest and we agreed to do a 2 week Camino together. For a number of historic reasons this made the experience more profound – probably for both of us. Even the choice of the Camino Primitivo seemed like an accident, and yet it all came together, along with the selection of people we met, many of whom I feel sure will remain friends, to form something powerful and life-changing. Something that from my current perspective seems far from accidental. Fear not my friends, I have not "found religion," but I have found something valuable, or at least a large piece of it.

Priorities and Redirecting One's Life
At some point, often in late middle-age, we all seem to find ourselves bogged down in responsibilities, habits and the pressures of mortgages and careers etc. We tell ourselves we want to escape these things but that we don't have the time. We look for a friend or partner to join us and then use them as an excuse for not doing it. Our job begins to look busier or less secure. An elderly relative looks like they might be on their last legs. These are excuses and are almost never a valid reason. A week away on a short Camino is possible for almost anyone, both in terms of time and physical capability. The "nobody to do it with" excuse seems to be the most common. But one meets people along the way – in hostels you can hardly avoid it. Two weeks I found to be far more rewarding but that could be Step 2 if you are apprehensive. Nobody – and I mean nobody – who does a Camino regrets it. It is one of life's great truths. In fact most who do it never stop telling others what an amazing experience it was, which can become a pain.

 Memorable dinner together in Bodenaya Albergue - Frienships are easily made on Camino

The Ecstasy and the Agony
Despite the intense feelings of "rightness" I felt as my camino progressed – a feeling that sometimes did border on the ecstatic – I came down to earth with a bump about two days from Santiago de Compostela. Suddenly I realised that what had almost become a way of life – getting up at 05:45, starting walking just before sunrise, stopping at small village cafes for simple breakfasts, striding over almost deserted sun-drenched and forested mountainsides with mist hanging in the valleys like cotton-wool, talking with friends about our lives and our feelings, then arriving tired but elated at a country albergue to rest before going out to the village bar for well deserved beer and simple food – would soon be over. Just a memory. I sank into a partial depression. Could I not continue walking forever – a lifelong pilgrimage? I got over this malaise of course, once I was home and able to share my thoughts and experiences with my family and close friends, but there is a part of me that will always be sad that it is over. Until the next time, perhaps?

 After a hundred kilometres, unaccustomed feet begin to suffer

 Some of the early morning vistas in Asturias take your breath away

 The (optional) pass of the Hospitales near Campiello is the 
toughest of any Camino, the book says. It's well worth the effort.

 Often you look out from the green and gold hills and the windmills are the only manmade thing you can see

 Typical path on the Camino Primitivo

The sun, the green forests and the golden grass were always there. 
The Primitivo is less known than other Caminos so silence is not hard to find.

Information on Caminos
There are many guidebooks and on-line resources. My brother and I carried with us the recently updated book, The Northern Caminos, by Laura Perazzoli and Dave Whitson, published by Ciserone. I found it accurate and helpful, but I do find it is usually rewarding to stray away from the recommendations of others at times, even if it means going "wrong." My camino is my camino, and yours is yours.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.