Letter boxes have still overflowed this year notwithstanding text and email's dominance of our normal communications flow. There's something satisfying about sending and receiving a card, however little may be written on it, and despite - perhaps because of - the expense and labour-intensiveness. I never cease to wonder at the variety of representations of the Christmas message that the postman brings: duplicates occur, but they are rare. My father used to hang cards up on sticky tape, and we played a game trying to spot which card image contained a certain unique feature.
This year, we have had a smattering of e-cards as in recent years past; but so far the best e-message has been forwarded by Thomas from Lisbon: as one might expect from him, both up-to-date and tongue-in-cheek.
This is one of the gates of St Gregory's Church, here in Cheltenham town centre: I took it on Sunday night. We were due to go again last night for the carol concert, but it was called off. As compensation, I discovered this joyous video: it has been viewed nearly 25 million times already, but some of you (like me) may have missed it.
We watched the first episode of BBC1's "The Nativity" this evening. Very good it was too. A perceptive review has already appeared here.
What I particularly liked about it was the depiction of the holy family as made up of very ordinary people, rather like those out walking their dog on our local playing field yesterday. (Not sure the holy family would have kept a dog, mind you.) We shall try and catch the remaining three episodes - which is not so hard now that we are house-bound because of the weather: we've just been coping with a burst pipe.
Caroline was out early this morning, sweeping our drive after our first really serious fall of snow this Winter: we have got off lightly up till now. I was quite surprised that the newspapers had got through, as the roads are treacherous. Gritters don't seem to work on a Sunday, I concluded as I slithered by foot to mass this evening. I sneaked in a prayer for a better performance by our batsmen after the Perth debacle.
My photograph, taken this afternoon from the old bridge across the Avon at Stratford, shows the remade Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which opens in earnest next February. By the waterside, the line of the Scott building has been restored, with the café resited in the stalls bar, and a wide outdoor terrace opened up in place of the café. The dressing-room block has been refaced: in 1955, stagestruck, I saw Vivien Leigh on one of those little balconies during an interval of Twelfth Night: she was playing opposite her husband Laurence Olivier. The restaurant - excellent food and of course views - is now in the glass-faced box overlooking both the river and former theatre car park: it paid to be on good terms with Victor there - as with Leslie Mitchell in the box office. The tower is of course totally new, and I think rather regrettable. I would say the same for the octagonal crown over the refashioned auditorium.
Inside, there is plenty to admire. The layout is on the same lines as that of the Swan next door, but altogether less claustrophobic. The seats look really comfortable, and of course none is any distance from the stage - as in the Courtyard. I can't wait to hear what the sound is like.
One major disappointment: try as I might, I can find nothing in the literature to indicate what steps have been taken to make the refurbished RST energy-efficient. Heating the cavernous new shop/foyer area seems likely to cost a bomb.
* the cricket - better than I expected (Day 1): a long way to go though!
* the weather - as bad: not much fun bicycling back from Cheltenham Station in the snow this evening.
I had taken the bike on the train to Bristol, for a visit to watch grandson Laurie in a starring role as a gingerbread man - in his playgroup's Christmas show. In fact, all 31 of the little darlings had starring roles, but naturally Laurie was the only one who really mattered. (Photography generally encouraged, but results not to be posted on the internet, I was advised.) I wondered if any of them would make it onto whatever turns out to be the 2025 equivalent of The X Factor.
It is always nostalgic, coming to Temple Meads Station, and reliving the misery of the beginning of each new school term in the early 50s.
Good friends invited us to their carol party this evening, which put us well into the mood for Christmas. Not many are privileged to sing together in an upstairs drawing-room accompanied by a chamber organ. We began with my favourite Advent hymn, O come, O come, Emmanuel, with five carols following on - just the right number, and played at a good lick. There's nothing worse than a dirgy pace where carols are concerned.
The snow is coming back, we are told, but at least we shall hear about warmer doings overnight, tuning in from Perth. (I have a hunch that all is not going to go according to - English - plan.) Meanwhile, the British Council have added an amazing historic film about cricket in post-War London to their website.
Yesterday, I related unnecessary packaging to incipient climate chaos. Today, the RCE Severn Christmas Lecture by Michael Wadleigh related consumerism as a whole to unsustainable development by means of the simple equation:
H+P = -R
where H = the human population, P = manufactured products and R = resources. It's hardly an original thought, but he put it across well by means of excellent slides. They imagined our world was encapsulated in a space station with ten occupants - one of whom enjoyed half the available resources, the other nine sharing the rest. Result: of course, revolution.
What makes human beings happy? he asked. Products? No: nature, other human society and activities leading to fulfilment. Truth and finit-ism were his watchwords.
I commend Michael's presentation, called the Homo Sapiens report: he offers it free of charge to secondary schools and universities. And he'll bring along his Woodstock Oscar for a talking point!
48 hours after Hamlet, I returned to our local Cineworld's Screen 3 for Don Carlo last evening: live relays from the Metropolitan Opera have begun again, praise the Lord. A couple of minor hiccoughs with the transmission served only to underline the miracle of modern science that enables us to sit in Cheltenham and watch what New Yorkers are experiencing in the theatre. To be able to bike 10 minutes down to the cinema and pick up a ticket at the door (and for only £10) seems to me incredible good fortune.
Both production and performances were outstanding. I forgot I had seen most of the principals in the same staging when televised from Covent Garden a year or so ago, but no matter when such excellence is on hand. Of the cast, Marina Poplavskaya again stood out for me, with her extraordinary legato and perfect looks for the part of Elisabeth de Valois.
Something else we now take for granted is subtitling. Not every word of the libretto is given us, but last night, with the King of Spain around, "Sire!" naturally recurred a good deal. And earlier in the day we had seen another famous sire. Makfi, winner of this year's 2,000 Guineas, resides in a stableyard beside the house where we were lucky enough to be invited to lunch yesterday: stud fee, £25,000.
I collect Hamlets as others collect rare books. The bibliophile leaves many of his volumes unopened on the shelf: likewise, this Hamlet collector doesn't record the minutes his eyes have remained closed during a performance. (Kenneth Branagh took a long time doing his Dane, I recall, on a particularly stuffy evening at the RST in 1992...)
Alan Badel was my first Hamlet - 1956, Stratford. I remember him, but not much about Anthony Quayle and Glen Byam Shaw's production, the first of half a dozed (this is as I typed it - too good to correct) I saw in what we must now call the old Shakespeare Memorial Theatre: that meant something different to theatregoers in the 1950s, whose memories went back before the 1926 fire.
Ian Bannen, David Warner in long sudent scarf, Nicol Williamson with some machine gun delivery at The Round House, Alan Howard, Ian McKellen in 1971, Alex Jennings (1996), Simon Russell Beale (2001), and the great Russian film Hamlet with Innokenti Smoktunovsky: now the collection has an addition to it, following a visit to Cheltenham's Cineworld last night for the relay from the National Theatre. And Rory Kinnear's Hamlet goes to the top of my list.
"Hundreds of students are gathering in Cheltenham to stage a protest against a planned rise in tuition fees" - so promised the press release issued first thing this morning. The police turned out in force. Bus routes were diverted, and not just because of the snow.
The water froze before reaching the taps in my Oxford rooms in 1962. Surely students today are not put off from marching by a little cold? In a place where the annual GCHQ rallies used to witness thousands coming together, just a few tens ambled in after midday today - shepherded by as many (if not more) of the boys and girls in yellow jackets, their kettling skills unneeded. William IV looked down scornfully from his plinth.
Half a century ago, I used to travel into Birmingham on the top deck of the Midland Red bus, to watch Warwickshire play cricket. I sat at the front alongside Mr. Austin, the Warwickshire scorer: he, his wife and daughter Joan lived near us in Alcester. I regarded him and indeed all the cricket establishment with awe.
After lunch, Chico, as people less in awe called him, would let me come and sit at the front of the score box - but only upon the arduous condition that I resisted the urge to clap. Chico knew of my propensity for collecting autographs, and one day when Middlesex were our visitors, suggested I might like to ask his fellow-scorer to sign my book. Who was this white-haired veteran, I wondered? The name in the book was clear: "E.H. Hendren". But it meant little to me, hardly surprising since he had made his Middlesex first team debut in 1907.
Today, we sleep-deprived cricket addicts are rejoicing in a famous victory at Adelaide, brought about through England scoring 620 for 5, their second-highest total in a test match in Australia. Even when rain threatens, the temperature there is up in the 30s: here, by contrast, we walk out into a white wonderland, where even the traffic lights are decorated with hoar-frost. Retreating to the fireside, I read of the occasion in 1928 when Jardine's men reached 636, with 251 from Hammond. The second highest scorer? E.H. Hendren.
This afternoon, I was looking at this amongst other photographs I had taken during 2010, to select some for our usual kitchen calendar. As I did so, I thought to myself how short life is for some people - and that perhaps indeed it would be so for David. I can't imagine what gave me this idea, as that Michaelmas Day in Cornwall when I took this, just two months ago, he was in prime form - as cadaverous as ever, but enjoying a healthy if quirky diet, and no more stressed than usual about what might become his very own Casaubon delusion.
An hour later came the shocking news that David had indeed died at the weekend. What a friend we have all lost! Others have written more knowledgeably than could I about his originality of thought. You could see him as a curmudgeon if you opposed the invasion of Iraq; or the mad professor if you looked for a practical, straightforward answer to a question. He regularly won the family's competition for most unusual Christmas card. Sir Andrew Aguecheek sprang occasionally to mind, though David was nobody's fool - and never had money enough to match his generosity of spirit. Such a mixture of the extremes of conservatism and radicalism puzzled many, but beguiled our children, who will be heart-broken. And what other economic dictionary offers a definition of "quick" in the biblical sense?
The Iraq conflict re-erupted over supper in our kitchen on 8th October 2005 - between David and his good friend Jonathon Porritt. This photograph was taken a few glasses of wine later.
When walking the Gloucestershire Way last year, I called at Don Hunter's workshop in Shipton Oliffe. We haven't had any need for furniture repair for a year or two, but over more than three decades Don had always been our man when something antique needed fixing properly: surely nobody took more care or can have been more respected.
Besides our professional contact over the years, I counted Don amongst my oldest friends, having met him in 1973 at North Farm House soon after I arrived in the neighbouring parish of Sevenhampton. Through his trademark smiles and just a few words, I have been able to follow the blooming of his marriage to Pauline, and of the welling pride he had in Andrew, their only child.
That day in March 2009 Don was with a customer: I told his colleague Carl that I was on a mission and wouldn't dally. So I moved over the road to pay a quick visit to St Oswald's before walking on through the village.
Don wasn't tied up for long, however, and came running across to the church after me. "You look different," I said. "Yes, my hair has gone curly: I've been in hospital," he explained, "for Treatment." Of course I knew what this must mean, but Don was in no mood to yield to self-pity. Indeed, he was his usual optimistic self, full of trust in the God he had long known so well and personally.
In Saturday's Gloucestershire Echo, his death was announced - "peacefully, at home.. Wonderful husband... much loved father... dearly loved by many." That last certainly includes me.
Satish Kumar came to the University of Gloucestershire this afternoon for what he called a fireside chat: no open log fire there, unlike at Dartington Hall - though plenty of fire in the belly.
"My pet theme is about soil, soul and society - a new Trinity for the age of ecology." It avoids, he said, the dualism of the Christian Trinity; the anthropocentricity of the American life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the all too personal "mind, body and spirit".
We are not separate from nature: we are nature, that is "to be born". What we do to nature, we do to ourselves: there can be no healthy society on a sick planet. From one, bitter-tasting pip, the apple tree grows, yielding year after year an abundant harvest, not discriminating between those who enjoy its fruit, whether they be saints, sinners - or grubs.
A body without a soul is only good to be buried. We need to put the soul back into society, for its well-being. You can be rich and not be well - and many of us are exactly that. Without beauty, the soul will starve.
"I'm going to Pakistan," Satish told a fellow-Indian. "Take some food with you," came back the advice. "No, I am foremost, not an Indian, but a member of the earth community. Your parcels of food are parcels of mistrust."
Brendan Bowles, Director of A Rocha's Climate Stewards, paid a visit to Cheltenham last evening, to speak at a meeting of Christian Ecology Link. "Christian responses to climate change" was his theme - what is the particular vision Christians have to offer? What example are we able to set?
Brendan began with the two greatest commandments: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Loving God means working in his direction: he said of his creation, that it was good. And creation is sustained by Jesus. Can it be a good idea, therefore, to trash it?
Our neighbours all round the world are in need of good soil and good rain to feed themselves. Just as being the League Champions doesn't cause you to win a football match, so climate change doesn't cause floods or drought; but if climate change is due to our human behaviour, then that behaviour needs to be looked at - in just the same way as Christians have championed fair trade, and (in the past) the abolition of slavery.
Brendan used to think that the way was for us to reduce our own emissions, before we started to get other people on board. But whilst moral purity is impressive, it makes it difficult for some ever to start on the journey: you hear the reaction, "Anything I can do is never going to be enough. In order to be really green, I need to be dead."
A Rocha has been planting trees in the arid North of Ghana, to act as a barrier against the encroaching desert; to encourage biodiversity, and to enhance the rainfall pattern in that part of the country. £40,000 a year or thereabouts has been pledged by people in other countries towards this scheme, as a way of compensating for their carbon use being so much greater that that of Ghanaians and others under similar climate stress. Planting a tree has its parallel in Jesus's parables of the sower and his seed; of the mustard seed that grew into a large tree; of the yeast that raised the whole loaf, and the candle that shines in the dark. "You are the salt of the world." (To learn more about Climate Stewards and offsetting, see here.)
What goes on in our churches affects the whole of society: we need a huge response to the challenge that climate change brings. It is never going to be sufficient to have just a few really committed people. The power is in the multiplication. Like Jesus, we each have to talk to the bad guys, to get them to make a symbolic change. Like baptism.
Our vision is of a better way of living on low carbon. What we need is, not to accuse people, but to make the good, normal.
Happy St James' Day! It also happens to be the day when I've put the finishing touches to my new book about our month on The Way of St James in April - from Seville to Salamanca.
As reported here at the time, Caroline and I went by train from Cheltenham to Seville, arriving on Maundy Thursday, and walked the first half of the Camino de Santiago which starts there, the Via de la Plata - I with my camera. The resulting photobook with the above title can now be seen here: click and you'll see that its 90 pages (with my 325 photographs and 11,000 words of commentary) are all available to view free online - if your eyes are good enough!
The book is also available for sale - print on demand; but as it's in the style of a coffee table book, it is, I fear, rather expensive: for further details see here.
There are three ways to tackle this problem, all with drawbacks for the cyclist (like me) who is aware of Old Father Time's approach. Today, I made the journey to Worcester by train, both cheap and bike-friendly. Rather than wait for 90 minutes for the next bus to Tenbury, I set out under a grey sky to find the Martley road, via good views of the Cathedral, the River Severn and the Worcester County Cricket Ground. The decision has to be taken whether to follow the River Teme, after its crossing at Ham Bridge, or to plough on the B4204, involving a 200m ascent. Well, that's where it ought to be taken, but I missed the turning after the bridge and by the time I was half way up to Clifton (misleadingly called "on Teme"), it was rather late to go back.
The advantage of sweating up the hill is that you have a nice long downhill into Tenbury, passing Hill Top and Kyrewood, two places mentioned in my ancestor's diaries: I'm in the process of editing these, hence the expedition.
On the way back, I had thought of taking the relatively flat (until Abberley) A443, but having biked along to Burford Church from Tenbury, quite a wide stretch of that road, I realised that I might be lucky to survive the unequal battle with the lorry traffic. So instead I took the minor road along the South bank of the Teme, via Lower Rochford, Eastham, Orleton and Stanford - coming out again to join the B4204 at Ham Bridge. Drawbacks? Well it's marked with 19th Century milestones, scenic and there isn't a lot of traffic; but it's very steep and narrow - and it was pouring with rain.
Yesterday marked the start of this year's Cheltenham Science Festival, which seems to attract bigger audiences year by year: certainly, if the crowd at the event with this title last evening is anything to go by. Jonathon Porritt was talking to psychologist Stuart Derbyshire, of Birmingham University's School of Psychology, and the ESRC's Dale Southerton about why we find it difficult to change our behaviour.
Dale preferred to consider habits, not as addictions we needed to kick, but as essential matters of routine. They are shaped by our daily context. So, the development of deep freezes – which has happened at a rate "faster than that of the internet" – gets us into a dependency on out of town supermarkets: we have become locked into the freezer habit. And power showers lock us into more water use, as few of us use them solely as an alternative to the bath. Our need is to design habits that are more sustainable: what about Tesco's turning into a food delivery service only, and converting their stores into laundrettes? Tesco vans could then return full of our dirty washing when they have delivered the groceries, and millions of home washing machines would never need replacing.
Stuart, however, generally took quite a contrary tack – possibly for the sake of argument, but I rather doubt it. "I refuse to wash my yoghurt pots," he boasted. Che sarà, sarà. But that drip in the background didn't turn into a cataclysm, at least while this hour lasted.
Michael Northcott came to Cheltenham last evening, to address a Cheltenham Inter Faith meeting. His talk was based upon his 2007 book, "A moral climate: the ethics of global warming."
Professor Northcott comes across less as an academic (he is Professor of Ethics at Edinburgh University) than as a campaigner. Not that I have anything against a passionate speaker, but I emerged from the normally tranquil setting of the Friends' Meeting House feeling rather shell-shocked.
Or should that be "Shell shocked"? The first part of the Northcote fusillade was aimed at the oil companies. "Shell paid my school fees... but oil and blood have often intermingled," he told us. Tar sand extraction was "an unbelievably filthy process." And he had brought along the images to prove it.
Professor Northcott's thesis is that inequity is the central feature of the climate crisis; that those who suffer are least responsible, whilst those who are the cause are least affected. The climate, he says, is a global commons, and commons are not traditionally managed by either markets or states; yet the atmosphere is now being "enclosed" by the carbon emissions trading procedure. Climate change cannot be resolved by emissions trading: we have to "keep it in the ground".
The faiths can contribute two things towards meeting this challenge. First, the dimension of healing and restoration (in Christian terms "resurrection"); and secondly their sense of posterity: again, as a Christian, he pointed to the Communion of Saints: we worship God in churches which are traditionally built with graves - containing the bodies of the Saints - all around them. "I am a hopeful person," he concluded (albeit with a rare note of hesitation in his voice).
Nicki Gwynn-Jones ARPS has a new exhibition of her photographs in Cheltenham: it opened this evening, "A bird's eye view". Her stunning ornithological treatments are shot in Florida, whither she commutes along with her husband. ("How long, O Lord?" It's all very well dedicating your show to those rescuing sea birds on the Gulf of Mexico's shores, but don't airoplanes run on... oil?)
Nicki is sharing the Gardens Gallery this week with Helen Dewbery LRPS, whose photography is less spectacular, but in a way more coherent. Both shows are worth a visit, I'd say. Especially on an evening like tonight, when the Montpellier Gardens are to be seen at their most vibrant. What a joy it is to live in Cheltenham!
For once Cheltenham has had a dry late May Bank Holiday Monday this year. And The Suffolks were thronged with happy-looking people, strolling along, people-watching, enjoying the music - and browsing the stalls: one which caught my eye was selling fruit swirls, a sort of sorbet in an edible cup: mine was strawberry and yogourt flavoured - rather delicious.
"A taste of Freedom" was their slogan, and the name of a new social and environmental venture, intercepting fresh yet unwanted fruit before it rots - 20 million tonnes of it are said to be wasted annually in the UK. Tristram Stuart, on the right of my photograph, is behind it: his book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, was published by Penguin last year.
We were at Highnam yesterday on a sunny evening for the opening of this year's Carducci Festival, a glorious event! The young and engaging Carducci String Quartet have been putting on an intensive weekend of music-making there each year since 2007, and people respond. No wonder! The setting is perfect - a much-loved Victorian Gothic church amidst parkland; the quartet's programmes are imaginative, and the playing both rich and delicate - absolutely no gothic horrors.
An interesting contrast was the recital we attended on Wednesday night, as part of the Newbury Spring Festival. St Mary's Church, Kingsclere predates Gambier Parry's Highnam by 700 years, and for a performance the Norman setting feels more secretive than exuberant. The virtuosic intensity of the Trio con Brio Copenhagen's playing contributed to this atmosphere, especially in the tragic music of Smetana's G minor Piano Trio.
It was a fine day for Cheltenham's first carnival for many years. The children loved it, especially the extremely well-behaved sheep, which led the procession. More often associated with racehorses, Edward Gillespie was properly dressed up as freeman of the borough, and made a splendid Mine Host for the afternoon. He was pursued through the streets by swirling kilts (pipes and drums), and a ukelele band, amongst others.
Having commented on the capital investment - mainly European Union money - on the Via de la Plata, it was good this morning to note the progress with the walling along the Cotswold Way. A stretch of new stone wall 1,300 metres long is well on its way to completion, running along the top of Leckhampton Hill and marking the boundary of Charlton Kings Common. Natural England is bearing 80% of the cost of this large project, the total bill being (as I recall) more than £600,000.
When the work is finished, Dexter cattle will be able to graze the hillside without quite so much of the rather unsightly wire fencing needed in the past. Nevertheless, to complete the Common encirclement, a further 3kms. of walling is needed.
Meanwhile, the landscape at the top of our Hill is dotted with machinery and huge piles of both old and new stone. It makes you wonder at the creation of the original boundary walls, in an era of no dumper trucks.
The environment as usual seems to have come well down the list of hottest election issues. And since climate change has gone completely out of fashion as a discussion topic since Copenhagen, UEA, IPCC etc., it seems opportune to have been catching up a bit these last few days.
On Thursday night, the sensible Director of A Rocha's Climate Stewards program, Brendan Bowles came down from Cheshire to speak in Cirencester, giving us a (Christian) vision of a better world with less carbon; and today, at Gloucester Guildhall, Meghna Das, Sustainable Communities Officer at Coventry, led a COIN climate change speaker training course: most useful!
From Salamanca, we caught a train to Lisbon on Saturday last; and after two happy days there, we are now back home again - via another five trains (Lisbon - Hendaye - Toulouse - Paris - London - Cheltenham).
R.L. Stevenson wrote that "to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive," and, although it's nice to come home, I'm inclined to think he was right, at least so far as pilgrimages are concerned. We loved our four weeks' walking on the Via de la Plata, but are not sad only to have managed half of it. Santiago de Compostela is the focus for most of the other walkers we met, but it doesn't seem to us particularly necessary to get there. Indeed, many V. de la P. pilgrims are said to be disappointed when they arrive, such is the touristy hustle and bustle of Santiago - a great contrast to the weeks spent amidst such a stunning variety of things natural, studded with mainly small places to stay en route.
Perhaps it's different for pilgrims to Fatima and Lourdes, most of whom do NOT walk there: we passed through them both on our way back from Lisbon!
On Friday afternoon, we sat down here and celebrated the conclusion of our planned walk from Seville. The Plaza Mayor in Salamanca is said to be the world's grandest drawing-room: on a sunny afternoon, with a glass of white wine to hand, you couldn't disagree! Our only problem was that we were seated rather too near a stag party from Essex, all its members wearing sombreros and drinking large beers, their glasses not being allowed to stand empty for more than a moment.
What a great feeling it is to walk towards the cathedral towers of Salamanca, visible for a good 10kms! Modern blocks of flats only screen the old city when you reach the rather dismal outskirts, but even there we found something to wonder at: a new motorway has been built, at present unused, and in the tunnel which takes the Camino under it was a man recording his own extraordinary voice in a Basque lament!
One of you readers has been wondering about the availability of accommodation along this Camino. Did we use a guide that has this information? Did we generally reserve ahead or find places on arrival?
We were indebted primarily to the Confraternity of St. James' guide (and its web-based update), which has addresses and telephone numbers. There are various other web resources too, which we explored before we left. We found a number of places with a new casa rural, and one, in Torremejia, with a new albergue. We did book some ahead: it is not necessary, and it gives greater flexibility if you leave deciding where to stay till you get to whatever you feel is the right destination for the day. Having said this, some of the villages are many, many kms. apart, so you do at times feel glad of the security of a booking.
Huge amounts have been invested in tourism all along the route, which can "take" a much larger number of pilgrims than currently walk or cycle it: we just felt so lucky that more people - particularly the dreaded cyclists - don't!
It´s 1,000 kms. from Seville to Santiago, and we are now 493 kms. along the line. But tomorrow we bring this year´s walking to an end, on arrival at Salamanca. It´s sad to be parting from the company of other pilgrims, and from our simple routine of the past four weeks: up before dawn, coffee and toast for breakfast, the same relatively few possessions stuffed away in the rucksack, along with plenty of bottles of water, and then OFF into the empty - and usually beautiful - countryside.
This morning´s was a particularly dramatic departure, from Fuenterroble de Salvatierra, with the sun coming up behind the fortress church of Santa Maria la Blanca. That was the stay where we have had the strongest feeling for being on a pilgrimage: the parish priest, Don Blas Rodriguez, has done an enormous amount not only for the people of his small parish, but also for the visibility of this Camino. We were all invited to his children´s mass at 8 last evening: he used the pilgrimage, and its international significance, as a teaching tool for his first communion class. And as many of the pilgrims who came along may never have experienced a mass before, the celebration had a double effect.
The church was in ruins when Don Blas arrived in the village: now is it not only gloriously restored, but filled with modern, wooden sculptures of enormous dynamism, including Santiago of course, and the centrepiece, the risen Christ. Blas´ home is the pilgrim Refugio, its dormitories filled with icons. What one man can achieve in a short time! Nor is he - from what we could see - subject to Mr. Darcy´s strictures: The power of doing anything with quickness is always much prized by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.
Since I was last able to sit at a computer, we have met a couple more "nationalities" - a Swede, and a man from Cape Town. The question, "Why are you doing it?" is never far from my mind, even if not articulated. The South African, a recently retired mining engineer, went to the trouble of making a Schengen Visa application in order to be able to fly into Madrid: he had picked up an Australian´s account of walking the Via de la Plata in his local library, and was taken with the challenge. No religious convictions there!
Most of those we have come across are of an age with us, perhaps a bit younger on average: are we all out to show there is a spark of life in us yet? That we are happy to substitute for the 9 to 5 life, a spell on the hallowed path from dawn to (Spanish) lunchtime, after which we collapse happily into siesta mode, before catching up with our emails in the local casa de cultura when it opens at 5?
Here we are now at the Northern extremity of Extremadura, which it has taken us more than a fortnight to cross. The villages are no longer dominated by white-painted houses: stone and adobe dwellings, with wooden first floor balconies, have replaced them.
From Carcaboso, we had our most lovely walk yet to the Arco de Cáparra - a Roman relic in the middle of nowhere. We waited (and waited) there, under the ancient arch, for a (hair-raising - when it came) lift from the owner of an off-Camino hostal. (Internot) Then, next morning, we followed blue (instead of our usual yellow) arrows to rejoin the Camino, to reach eventually the pretty little town of Aldeavueva del Camino. (Interneither - though lots of horrifying TV pictures of bull getting the better of bullfighter.) The snow-capped mountains lay ahead.
This morning, we had a shorter walk up here to Baños de Montemayor, which is at 700 metres - more climbing ahead of us! After some less than perfect nights´ sleep, we are comfortably ensconced here at Hotel Balneario, the heyday of which must have been about 1910. And we have been indulging ourselves most happily in the Roman baths next door. Very good for blisters!
Three weeks in, and we have yet to come across another person from England, apart from out nice host and hostess at Alconétar Reservoir, Stephen and Sharon, all the way from Woking. American, Argentinian, Australian, Austrian, Belgian, Danish, French, Irish, Italian fellow pilgrims have we met, as well as those from all parts of Germany, Holland and Spain, but where are the English?
I compiled this list today during our rather dreary road walk, from beautiful, walled Galisteo (with its amazing views all round) to the rather less romantic (but very hospitable) village of Carcaboso (Hostal Ciudad de Caparra much recommended). The barns are bigger and more elaborately constructed. There were frogs and bullrushes, and Caroline was Croc-ed: in other words, she eschewed her boots because of... blisters! (Dreaded word in these parts!)
A writer, having contemplated a blank piece of paper for many hours, has to be forgiven for throwing in the towel. Last night I listened to the rain beating down on our window blind, and the bus marked "Salamanca", which pulled in outside our hostal as we were leaving, suddenly became an attractive proposition.
But we were both glad we did not succumb: it´s been a great day on the Camino. The rain held off till after we arrived here in Galisteo, and for the most part it was sunny (but not too hot), with high and beautiful cloud formations. And the scenery ranged from distant views of blue remembered hills (100kms. away?) to cool pine woods and meadows carpeted in purple and yellow with wild flowers.
This time last year I bought a St. James´ shell to take with me when walking part of the Voie du Puy in S-W France: it has kept me company again this year, till today when I sat on my rucksack, forgetting it was underneath. Crack! It was not a good day for sitting: the way is marked by occasional large stone blocks with engraved outlines of the famous Roman arch of Cáparra, which we walk through on Saturday. I collapsed onto one for a rest, forgetting the rain which collected in the engraving. Then we both took another wetting, having to remove our boots to cross a swollen river: quite refreshing in fact - we should do it more often.
So, another 28kms. has been clocked up, and we are off to explore the walled town of Galisteo.
Today´s walk was a bit of a holiday within a holiday: first, it was only 14kms., and secondly our rucksacks were carried for us - the kind couple who run the place we stayed last night dropped them off, as they were driving here to do their shopping.
So, we raced along in the mild drizzle, first climbing up from the great reservoir, on the edge of which we´d stayed (amazing views!), and then gradually dipping down across more moorland-type scenery to the river below this village, Cañaveral: we crossed it on the 14th Century humpback bridge of San Benito before mounting to the village road. The main street is full of people putting up tents for a feria on Saturday. Friday is St. George´s day: I had thought he was big throughout Spain, but I was told by the barman that the feria is to celebrate 2,400 years of womanhood - with something of a shrug.
Yesterday was hot in spite of the forecast: the greater part of our walk was on the roof of the world, the track running for a long time amidst huge boulders - I have only ever seen any like them on Dartmoor. Feeling adventurous, we tried to follow an alternative route at one stage, the original Calzada Romana: a failure! It was then difficult getting back to the marked path, and our water was running low. The last 5kms. along the main road where it crosses the two big rivers which supply the reservoir were the first time we experienced the grim in pilgrimage.
The weather has been more settled today: we have put our macs away. Coming North from Cáceres, the countryside has changed. We find hardly any trees or cultivation, and great rolling landscapes. The Yorkshire Moors come to mind.
The first part of our shortish walk (11kms.), after leaving behind the Cáceres bullring, was along a main road, with more than its usual quota of dead dogs to disgust us. We were glad when a track opened out parallel to, and away from, the traffic, which we followed all the way into Casar de Cáceres. The path runs down a beautiful final half km. of gardens, with a great variety of trees, and below them roses in full bloom.
We had not booked anywhere, so followed a sign saying Casa Rural El Encarnacion, which led us slightly out of the town onto a small hill: the former farmhouse - nicely converted (but a very expensive stay) - is just by one of nine small pilgrimage chapels dotted around the town, this one dedicated to Our Lady of the Incarnation. It has rather good, modern stations of the cross.
Now we are back in Casar itself, and very much ready for something to eat. This place epitomises so many we have passed through: extremes of simplicity and poverty on the one hand, and huge infrastructure investment (housing, roads, library, tourism etc.) on the other.
Not in accordance with our (revised) plan, we are spending two nights in Cáceres - which turns out to be well worth it! A place the size of Cheltenham, Cáceres has at its core a self-contained walled city with an extraordinary richness of architecture, mainly of the 15th-17th Centuries. More churches and palaces seem to appear as you make every turn.
Last evening, we went to mass in the Cathedral (of 13th Century origins): this morning, we toured a 12th Century Arab house; and as I am writing, Caroline is at a Rembrandt etchings exhibition. The only hitch has been our hotel: the partying continued till after four this morning outside the window of our room. As a result, we are both rather short of reading matter till the Post Office opens tomorrow morning, and we can pick up our poste restante. (Luckily, the concierge has just come up with a choice of The Warden and Bleak House, left behind by previous guests.)
We walked mainly in the dry yesterday, the only serious shower coming upon us just as we happened upon a tunnel under the motorway - the second time this has occurred. Today, the rain has been more constant, so we aren´t really complaining about another rest day.
The two of us set off this morning to walk to Alcuescar, 21kms. North of where we stayed last night. We were aiming for the splendidly-named Convent of the Slaves of Mary and of the Poor, which offers individual rooms and supper (with a pilgrims´ blessing beforehand) - no charge, just a request for donations. I was looking forward to this unusual billet.
Somehow, though, before Alcuescar, we must have missed a turning, as we found ourselves well past the village before we realised. Bother. The next place was 10kms. further on, and there was nowhere whatsoever which offered places to stay. So we ended up walking 6kms. further still, to Aldea del Cano, the place we had booked into for tomorrow night: there was no reply to my calls, so we were left hoping there would be room tonight.
Then the rain came, but luckily with the wind blowing us along towards our destination. And like most of our walking so far, the terrain was not difficult, with no great ascents (or descents). There was room for us at the casa rural, we were much relieved to find, and with warm radiators to dry our stuff.
In the earlier part of the day, we had walked through more lovely wild flower meadows and wooded areas - holm oaks, olives, figs (no cherries!). We crossed a couple of Roman bridges, and passed Roman milestones, to remind us where we were.
Still, you know when you have walked 37kms. and Caroline and I are ready for supper!
We have now reached the Northernmost village in Badajoz, 237km. from our starting point in Seville. Tomorrow we shall be halfway to Salamanca.
Though the sky was overcast as we left Mérida, the heavens did not open till just before we were due to pass underneath the A-66 motorway, which was a fortuitous shelter. Between the development surrounding the Proserpina (sic) reservoir on the North side of Mérida (we got lost there), and the A-66, we might have been on another planet: our sandy track percolated through the best wildflower meadows so far, and a holm oak-dotted, rock-strewn landscape.
We were tired after our day off in Mérida yesterday, not that we did a lot of walking round the town (the main sights are in quite a concentrated area): breaking the rhythm of everyday walking is what makes it hard when you resume: we have resolved to avoid days off from now on.
Here, we are staying in a room above the Roman Baths (Aqua Libera). It was a joy to sink into them - there are three (of different temperatures) - when we arrived. We are the only guests, so it feels rather exclusive. The house guard dog is asleep in a box behind where I am sitting, in the office of the owners.
This is the Roman bridge over the Rio Guadiana at Mérida - 800 metres long. We crossed it at the end of today's easy 16km walk from Torremejia.
Easy, because it was much cooler this morning, and indeed spotting with rain, the first since we left England a fortnight ago nearly. Happily, we finished our day's walking before the downpour this afternoon, which has interfered rather with our visits to the extensive Roman remains here. We spent a little time in the amazing museum, before a text came from Thomas: he had just arrived from Lisbon to meet us (bearing cakes).
By 7.30 this morning, we were drinking our coffee at the bar at the end of our road, where we had met up once again with our new Amsterdam friends, Gerard and Franca. We had been chatting to the village priest together, after last night's 8.30 mass in the church: it's next to the sparkling new Albergue, opened only yesterday.
Gerard, at breakfast: "I was brought up in a family with a strict Protestant tradition: I missed the opportunity you Catholics have to get rid of your guilt. And your capacity to celebrate. Too much heavy organ music in our churches! Calvin must have been the greatest hater the world has known." And so ensued a great conversation about truth!
This is the sort of thing that happens all the time on the Camino, even at breakfast time.
We are now back on schedule, having arrived here in Torremejia before lunch. We used our day in hand to make a slight detour to the city of Almendralejo, so as to give ourselves two shorter days instead of one longer one. It would have been too long: this has been the most unchanging and relentless stage of our journey so far.
The tracks, mainly sand-surfaced, are straight and level, all footprints pointing in one direction, between huge vineyards and olive groves. There is no sign of habitation between the places where we stay, and the only other humans we have seen have been burly, raisin-faced Spaniards on their little tractors, either kicking up the dust on our track, or beavering away, harrowing the soil between their rows of vines. Even from early yesterday (Sunday) they went to work.
On neither day did we have a sight of any other pilgrims, which made it seem more than ever a cultivated but elemental desert. The contrast when we arrived suddenly in Almendralejo yesterday was remarkable. As Caroline put it, this is a very grown up place: population, more than 23,000, with some fine public buildings, and literally dozens of shops exhibiting a variety of exotic fashion items - Spanish and beyond. We had seen nothing like it since Seville.
Shaking the dust of Almendralejo off our feet at sunrise this morning, we wondered how a Transition Almendralejo might start to get off the ground: it seems everything arrives there (or leaves it, in the case of wine) in a huge trailer truck: all the lorry and car drivers chuck their rubbish out into the roadside: buildings no longer needed for some industrial purpose are merely abandoned. The motorway rushes past the outskirts.
"Paths are made by those who walk on them" was the title of an early essay by Fr. Thomas Cullinan, and these are the luxurious thoughts of a couple pounding the Via de la Plata and so keeping open an historic route to a long-treasured spiritual centre: its values seem more than ever needed in a world like that of Almendralejo.
This has been a good day! Both of us are feeling much better for the two days´ rest, and a night of luxury - from which we dragged ourselves away at 7.15 this morning, without staying to enjoy the legendary Parador breakfast. "Are we staying in any more Pandoras?" asked Caroline casually, to which the answer has to be, "Yes and No".
Last night, outside our window, the paseo was in full swing till well past our bedtime; but this morning, as we walked out of town by the light of the waning moon, the only sound to accompany the click of my sticks was birdsong. A long but gentle climb up an earth track brought us to a sudden - had we not read about it in the guidebook - view over the pretty old village of Los Santos de Maimona. There we found breakfast at Rosa´s bar. Fortified, and making our way back to the Camino, we immediately met up with two of our Dutch friends. Piet and Henny don´t believe in rest days: they seem to spend their entire retirement on one or another Camino; and it turns out they only drink bottled water, so perhaps there´s a lesson for us!
The way was very easy all through to our destination, Villafranca de los Barros, where we arrived at our B&B (Casa Perin) at 1.30. After a pause for wash and brush up, and a look into the church just opposite, where a boistrous wedding was going on - some of the smartly-dressed guests popping out for a cigarette or to chat on their mobiles - we sought lunch: this turned out to be our first Spanish fish (rather good too), in a place called Los Gemelos.
In my halting Spanish, I told the waiter that it had been hot on the Camino today (22), to which I think his reply was: "You ought to be here in the Summer, when it´s 40 degrees!"
Our path was undulating, but without any steepness, and passed between enormous groves of olive and almond trees. Some of the olives were biblically old, as in my photograph (which also shows one of the many San Isidro hermitages, built after his body was taken from Seville all the way to Leon, a huge journey! - so much for no photographs on Extremadura computers!) and some only just planted. [Agnes would say, this sentence needs breaking up.] In between many of the olives were vines, looking so clipped back as never to be likely to produce grapes. Yet everywhere we have been offered the local wine, and - when we´ve felt up to it - enjoyed it.
Nearer to Villafranca we have seen much more industrial wine-growing activities - alongside other industry too, with huge factories and smokestacks. The contrast between them, in the distance, and the ancient olive trees, in the foreground, is remarkable.
Caroline has been most excited to find (for the first time here) orchids of many hues, some even growing bravely in between our tracks. Irises too have flourished all along the way.
So, with the sun shining uninterruptedly, but with a pleasant breeze in our face, we have been very happy to be back on our walk - and to be a day ahead of schedule. Caroline: "I don´t yet feel that I´m on a pilgrimage." Henny: "But it makes you clear in the head."
This has to be our smartest B&B en route for Compostela! The Zafra Parador sits in the castle of the Dukes of Feria, and is quite as grand as it sounds (though our room is in a modern annexe). Not that we have done anything to earn such luxury, as we resorted to the bus to get us here in Zafra, a day ahead of schedule. Neither of us was feeling much like walking today after spending most of yesterday in bed: Caroline is still pretty ropey.
But we enjoyed a quiet saunter round this pretty mini-Seville this morning. Many lovely squares, and richly decorated churches: we were lucky to get a private guided tour of the former Hospital de Santiago, now some sort of institution.
The huge landscapes we could see from the bus made me realise why walkers are urged to take plenty of water over the two days we have skipped. There are more such days ahead!
And just as well it is (a rest day)! Caroline and I were feeling so well last night after our fith day of walking; but we have succumbed simultaneously and with identical symptoms either to sunstroke, or to some food/water which didna agree with us. Sparing you the gory details, the bath room at Hotel Moya, Monesterio was in full-time use during the night. ("Still too much information," I'm told.)
This morning I have staggered to the town centre, on the shady side of the street, in the interests of imparting to you, dear blog readers, this essential piece of intelligence.
Yesterday was our longest walk so far: it was a game of two halves (a bit like Man. U. v. Bayern in the evening: oh dear!). In the morning, we strolled along a delightful farm track, holm oaks thickly scattered in the surrounding pastures, and not a soul to be seen. The peace was shattered when we came across a shiny new motorway service station, where we had lunch, in the company of those driving three large lorries marked "English National Ballet". From then on, the path ran parallel to the road, rising remorselessly. The fresh wind raised the dust, but kept us deceptively cool - I think that was what did it for us in the night.
Hope to return to the fray very shortly. But disappointingly no computers we are likely to be able to use in Extremadura, where now we are, will let you upload photographs! Or so the nice lady with perfect English has just informed me. How dull! [Photograph added after reaching home.]
I always forget how much later it gets light in the West of Spain. We were advised to leave early on our walks, but it´s been not only cold but dark when we´ve done so, even though it warms up considerably by midday.
Here we are anyway, safely arrived at El Real de la Jara, our last stop in Andalucia, before we cross tomorrow into Extremadura. "For a thinking man there is no such thing as a wilderness," says one of Turgenev´s characters. Well, yesterday, and still more today there´s been hardly any habitation in sight either day, and no people apart from a handful of us walkers. Black pigs run wild; goats, beautiful brown, horned cattle with bells, horses (and a mule), sheep, birds of many feathers, not to mention frogs and tadpoles galore. Then there´s the flowers, which - especially yesterday - were of all colours. (Today, we have climbed higher, so fewer were out.)
But only at the end of today´s walk, that´s after four days on the Camino, did I really start to realise that it´s not a race; and so why not sit by a babbling stream and bathe our feet? After all, Spaniards lunch late, and there will still be somebody there with at least a sandwich at 3.30.
I´m glad to say Caroline is (so far) enjoying it all as much as I am (and neither of us has so far succumbed to blisters). "A far cry from Leckhampton Hill," as she says.
Time to go and have our pilgrim passport stamped at the pretty church round the corner from our B&B.
Today, we saw this lovely invitation to deviate a hundred yards from our Camino in order to help ourselves to water from a source used for the cattle. Its installer is the third angel we have encountered: yesterday we were passing a very scruffy, shacky dwelling, surrounded by a high wire fence and much rubbish: we waved to the owner and his family, who were having a barbecue outside, and were invited to pause for beer, olives and a pork sandwich - just as we were feeling at our lowest in the afternoon heat. Then, this morning, a kind Bavarian headmaster gave us a lift over the three kilometres from our rather overrated farmhouse hotel near Guillena to the point where we had left the path to get to it yesterday evening: a great relief not to have to retrace our steps along that main road!
Today´s walk to Castilblanco de los Arroyos was lovely, through orange groves and olive groves, with cows, horses, a variety of birdlife and even more splendid wildflowers than yesterday. The only plague has been bikers, who don't realise how inaudible they are to walkers; but then it is a holiday weekend.
Caroline is already in bed and asleep, feeling pleasantly exhausted: it´s odd, not having had the opportunity to go to mass on Easter Day, but then we´ve been celebrating the resurrection brilliantly in the open air.
Here is Caroline, baptising her new boots in one of the rivers we had to cross today, all swollen by the terrific rains that Andalucia has had this Spring. The other side of which is the proliferation of wild flowers.
Happily, today has been fine: what clouds we have seen were nice and high, and there was a little breeze to prevent us getting too hot. That´s just as well, as it´s a dusty old track from the Seville outskirts, with no shade.
We´re staying in a hotel made from a converted farmhouse, just outside the rather nondescript town of Guillena, and were very pleased to be able to sink into a bath on our arrival here. Although we avoided the worst of suburban Seville by catching the recommended town bus, we then spent an enthralling hour walking round the remains of the Roman city of Italica: by when Caroline made the mistake of wondering whether we had finished our walking for the day; but a sharp tap with my Leki [stick] and large coffee [carrot] combined to get her back on her feet. And soon it was me that was wilting.
Holy Week in Seville is something rather different (from Cheltenham anyway): at 5 a.m. yesterday morning, I was standing outside our hotel watching 500 black clothed and hooded men with candles process past in silence, followed by an enormous float with a full-size statue of Christ carrying his cross on it (carried itself by a team of 35 willing slaves, in the dark underneath it): this and more than 50 similar progresses have been surging through central Seville all week, watched by silent and respectful crowds of thousands: an amazing tradition, preserved with vitality, and giving hope to those of us depressed by clerical scandals.
We have walked on the pilgrim way in France, and a little in Northern Spain, but the idea of walking the Via de la Plata is what has attracted me recently. And so, in this Holy Week, and in a Holy Year, Caroline and I make our way (via five trains) to Seville on Wednesday, before embarking on Saturday upon our four-week walk to Salamanca: it's a convenient half-way point on the Silver Route - next year (God willing) we shall walk from Salamanca to Compostela.
One of the strangest of Luis Buñuel's strange corpus of films is "La Voie lactée", featuring two people tramping towards Santiago, and meeting a mysterious man in a Spanish cloak, a heretic from the past perhaps. The latest Confraternity of St James Bulletin arrived the other day, always worth a read. It makes mention of that, and also of a more recent film, "Al final del camino". This 2009 road movie/romcom, set on the pilgrimage route, clearly provides a different form of enjoyment from that sought by the reviewer: at the end of what might be called a "mixed" notice, the Bulletin's Editor adds: "[The reviewer] is a retired Methodist minister who can sometimes be old fashioned, especially on the camino."
Walking has never quite gone out of fashion, and today we have double-lined socks, Lekis and mobile phones to aid our passage. I might even get to blog a bit. People temporarily turn themselves into pilgrims for many different reasons, some only finding out on the camino itself: I hope to be one of them!
I happened to notice in the local paper that Cheltenham's Cineworld was screening a recording from last year of the Glyndebourne L'Elisir d'Amore this afternoon. What a joy it was! I have never seen the opera before, though it's familiar enough through one of my favourite recordings, made by DGG in 1990. (James Levine conducting, Pavarotti, past his best, but Kathleen Battle in brilliant form, and a gemlike cameo from Dawn Upshaw.) The Glyndebourne cast's acting and singing uniformly sparkled, and again the Giannetta - in her tiny part - caught the eye and ear: Eliana Pretorian, a name to follow.
As my neighbour said to me, leaving the cinema: "Great not to have to drive all that way back home from East Sussex!" I might have replied, "Yes, and to be paying £9 rather than £190 for a ticket."
Dr. Richard Cork, the urbane art historian (for this is he) today celebrates his birthday. This fact emerged whilst he addressed a large audience in Cheltenham last night on the theme of how art can alleviate suffering and humanise hospitals.
Being born on Lady Day, he said, gives depictions of the Annunciation a special place in his heart, as he shared with us a slide of El Greco's exquisite roundel of 1603 in the Capilla mayor del Hospital de la Caridad de Illescas.
But for all the pretty pictures Dr. Cork had brought along - by no means universally first rate reproductions - he only partly established his thesis. What was the real added value of Hogarth's works in Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital for instance? And how does the rather brutalist Fernand Léger mosaic serve to humanise Saint-Lô's Memorial Hospital precisely?
Still, it would be a sadness if Alistair Darling's proposed £4.35bn cut from the Department of Health (announced in the Budget) meant the end of its funding of Paintings in Hospitals: our Cheltenham General has benefitted from this charity's largesse - enabling it to continue work Caroline and others started two decades or so ago.
Since the excellent Hamish Roberton came as a dentist to Cheltenham some while back, each of my regular (but thankfully infrequent) visits to his room have mostly brought me face to face with a new painting by his talented wife. (She is modest about her work to the extent that I can't insert a link to something of hers on the web.) This afternoon's appointment was cheered enormously by a stunning abstract, which might almost be a celestial vision: the healing power of art was well in evidence at Cambray Dental.