St Andrews – Tayport

Today the wind was from the north so that is the direction I chose, it should give me a nice easy run home. I fought the wind all the way to St Michael then turned off onto the Tayport road. As soon as I did the wind disappeared, sheltered now with trees, the ridge and a hawthorn hedgerow now dressed in springtime leaves. Soon they will be covered in white, sweet-smelling flowers. The day was clear and bright, skies deep blue, with fluffy clouds setting near the horizon.

Tayport was quiet and I soon found myself down at the harbour, I peddled my way over to the Northside to see what boats were there. There seemed to be no hurry to have them back in the water. The majority of the boats here are fin keel, fine here in Tayport where the harbour never dries out but a bilge keelboat would be better around the harbours of Fife – every harbour on the north side of the Forth dries out.

I spotted a large Ketch, now there was something a bit special, a blue water sailor. I was already on board imagining myself taking her down to the Canaries in December. Catching the trade winds across to the Caribbean, to spend some time there before heading for the Panama Canal. The currents and wind now with you all the way to Fiji, Loyalty Island and Brisbane Australia. A course north and around the tip of Australia, into the Indian Ocean for the long haul north and west chased by the wind for Christmas Island and on to the Maldives. Socotra and into the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean. Two years later to arrive back at Tayport. Then again, after such an adventure why would you want to return?

Dreaming over it was time to head home. I decided to return by the forestry track to Morton Loch, this is where the first Mesolithic, hunter-gatherers were known to have settled around 8000 years ago. The first stone tools from this period were found here by a local archaeologist, one Reg Candow. Then in 1970 a team from The University of Cambridge excavated the site and found good evidence of a settlement here. Today the sea lies about four kilometres to the east, but 8000 years ago this was the seashore. The site was probably an island cut off by the sea at high tide. We know they had boats for in their midden Cod bones were found in great numbers and could have only been caught out at sea.

Back onto the forestry track, which was in much better shape than many of the roads around here. A harvester had been thinning trees and stacking them along the side of the road for collection, the smell of newly cut pine filled the air all the way to the minor unclassified road that would now take me into Leuchars. Once out onto the A919 for Guardbridge I was flying along. I did not bother to go onto the cycle path, the roads being as quiet as they are I took the A91 all the way into St Andrews.

For a day that had not been planned it had turned into a very pleasant ride. The bike is doing well, it seems to have loosened up a little and feels much freer to ride. Then again maybe I am just getting better at riding it.   

Doocots

The last day of April dawned. I needed milk and bread so popped out early to avoid having to queue to get into Tesco. Above the empty St Andrews streets, the black skies look down and weep.

Breakfast over I decided that the trip down and along the coast was not on for today, but what had taken my interest over the last few days were dovecotes. Dovecotes were originally built by lairds to provide secure accommodation for flocks of rock doves. The dovecotes, or in Scotland, doocot’s purpose was to provide estates with a delicacy for the table, but of course only for the laird’s table. Rock doves were prolific, needed little space, living in nesting boxes that lined the inside walls of the dovecot. Even the guano made excellent fertiliser and they foraged for their own food, mainly the tenant farmer’s crops, – some of these doocots housed upwards of 2,000 birds so did not endear them to the tenant farmer, often causing friction when the freshly-sow seed was eaten. Dovecotes increasingly fell out of fashion during the 1700s, largely because of the problems created for the community when the birds decimated crops.

However, many continued to be built for purely decorative reasons well into the 19th Century, seen as a status symbol and possibly why so many are still with us, There is a fine example of one such dovecot in the grounds of Glamis Castle. As ever there was this old wives tale that demolishing a dovecote brought bad luck to the household.

We know the Romans kept pigeons, (sometimes used for a sacrificial offering to their gods) but it was the Normans who introduced doocots to Scotland in the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, Fife has the largest number, with East Lothian a close second. It has been claimed there were 360 doocots in Fife during the 18th century and 106 examples exist today and form an important part of Scotland’s rich heritage, but since they are difficult to put to any other use it begs the question “For how much longer?”

I decided to visit an A listed dovecote near here, once the doocot for Leuchars Castle. The wind was slack when I set out and since my trip to Leuchars and back was around 10 miles in total I decided to dial up my cadence to jig-time and went beadling off along the cycle track for Guardbridge. As I left Guardbridge behind a wind rose out of nowhere and tore at the skies sending the clouds scurrying off up the Fife coast. I had been to the site of the castle and dovecote last summer but the field was planted with barley then so I could not get close to the structure, situated as it is in the middle of the farmers’ field. This time I was lucky, the field was being used to grow silage or hay.

Now canvas deck shoes are brilliant on a yacht’s deck and make a good pair of cycling shoes too, but they have their limitations and walking across a field of foot-high grass, wet through with overnight rain, is not one of their attributes. By the time I had reached my destination they were waterlogged, still, I had my pictures. The building was seriously in need of restoration, with large cracks running from foundation to roofline in both the front and rear. Large steel bands have been placed around the structure to preserve it from further damage until funds can be found for its reconstruction. The cost of repair will be high, although possibly not as high as the surveys and technical reports that will be required before the National Lottery pays up.

Whilst here I snapped a couple of photographs of Leuchars Castle (Motte). The best way to see the Motte is to go to the roundabout and down the side of the hotel that leads you along the old railway embankment. You can’t get to the castle from here but it is clearly visible only a hundred yards or so into the adjacent field. The site consists of a man-made oval, flat-topped mound, about 80 metres long by 50 metres wide and standing 8 metres high. Originally it was topped by a mediaeval wooden tower dating to the 12 century and would have been the work of one of the Norman lords, who were given lands in Scotland by King David 1. Later the wooden structure was replaced by a stone castle itself demolished in the 18th century.

Homeward bound and into a crosswind all the way to Guardbridge, the smoke from the chimney at Eden Mill was never going to be given the chance to rise, it was torn from the stack almost as soon as it broke free. The smoke signals were clear to read, headwinds all the way home, ho-hum. Knowing it would be a short day I was able to push hard all the way there and back, very exhilarating.  

The Wee Castle Tour

The morning was overcast and the wind out of the east and bitter cold. I pedalled my way to St Andrew’s castle at the end of the Scores for the start of my journey.  My first digital camera was a great little camera. Simply point it in the right direction and press the button and it would produce brilliant pictures every time. Sadly when the battery would no longer hold its charge I found it impossible to get a replacement.  Looking for a new camera was a nightmare; there are so many out there and the jargon that comes with such cameras is way above my pay grade. I did see one, that rather than charge up the internal battery, you could replace the two AA batteries when they were depleted. This would be better for traveling abroad, no need to recharge at the mains. Camera at the ready and as I snapped away, up popped a message to tell me that the batteries were depleted, ho-hum back to the house for new batteries and add two spares to an already overloaded courier bag. Must get myself a pannier bag.

There is so much written about St Andrews Castle that little needs to be repeated here. It was built around 1200 in Bishop Rodger’s time as his residence. Totally destroyed in the Wars of Independence in the fourteenth century it was rebuilt by Bishop Walter Trail (1385 – 1401). Archbishop James Beaton (1521 – 1539) modified the castle to make it more suitable for artillery defense, adding two circular gun towers, known as block-houses. Further additions were made by his nephew Cardinal David Beaton (1537-1546) at the time of his murder. The siege that followed the young Beaton’s murder was to have far-reaching consequences for the castle.

The Earl of Arran, Governor of Scotland, attempted to break into the castle by a mine, which was eventually intercepted by a countermine; both of these can be seen today. Eventually, the castle was taken as the result of a French artillery bombardment in 1547, which largely destroyed archbishop Beaton’s block-houses. After the siege, the last archbishop before the Reformation, John Hamilton (1546-1571) repaired the castle. His greatest effort was on the entrance front, which he reconstructed in a progressive French Renaissance style, with elaborate dormer windows – a good idea on the continent, but not so much in seaward-facing St. Andrews.

Next port of call, Dairsie Castle, that sits just above the River Eden. With a tailwind out of St Andrews, it was an easy pedal to the top of Knock Hill then a fast descent into the valley below (the computer recorded 31.8 mph)- the man knows no fear. Then a short sharp climb up to the castle. For much of its life it was the property of the Bishop of St Andrews. Until I returned to Fife I had only known it as a ruin but in 1993 an excavation had taken place, the expense born by the Fife Regional Council, that turned up a lot of information on its past. The castle was rebuilt and it certainly is a fine looking building today but I have little knowledge of who now owns the castle, however, it does look much more like a dwelling  than a fortification.

Close by is the little church of Dairsie. No longer used for public worship, it is now owned by the St Andrews Preservation Trust. The church was built at a time when Scotland was going through a Protestant phase, although there has been a church on this site from as early as 1160. It was Archbishop John Spottiswood of St Andrews that commissioned the building of the church we now see today, more in keeping with the reformed episcopalian worship. It is a stunning building and although a simple buttressed rectangle, it is lifted by the ornamentation of its windows, echoes of medieval church windows, and an impressive bell tower. The church has also been given a classical entrance.  War Graves from the Second World War are to be found within the cemetery. A church worthy of a visit.

Even the climb up onto the A91 into Cupar was a breeze today because the wind was at my back, then the long descent into Cupar.   The road was a little busier today, I met a pair of cyclists coming up the hill out of Cupar, they seemed to be making heavy weather of it.

Into Cupar that once had a fine castle but nothing remains of it now. The castle that did stand here, was built by the Earl of Fife in the 11th century. King Alexander 111’s wife Margaret died at the castle on 26 February 1275.

After the castle was surrendered to the English in 1296, King Edward the 1 of England stayed at the castle. In 1306, Scottish forces led by Robert Wishart attacked the English garrison at the castle and besieged it. Wishart was captured by the English at Cupar.

In 1308 the Warden of Cupar Castle, Sir Thomas Grey was ambushed on his way back from Edwards 11’s coronation by a follower of Robert the Bruce called Walter de Bickerton. Although heavily outnumbered, Thomas routed Bickerton’s men through the use of cavalry charges and by deceiving his enemy that they were greater in number than they really were.

In May 1336 English forces, led by John de Strivelyn, relieved the English forces occupying the castle after driving away the Scottish forces, led by Sir Andrew Murray, that were besieging the castle. The castle was surrendered by the English constable Sir William Bullock in 1339.

The court of the Stewart of Fife sat at the castle until 1425.

I passed Kilmaron Castle (ruin).  Kilmaron lies about 2 miles outside Cupar but was not really a castle in the true sense of the word, since it was a manor house built in 1820 to the designs of James Gillespie Graham (1776 – 1855) for the Dundee textile manufacturer Sir David Baxter (1793 – 1872). since it is in the middle of a farmers land and although I passed within yards of it, I give it a miss.

Cupar was quiet and I moved fast up through the town and turned off onto the A913 and started my long climb up to Kilmaron Farm. The road was pretty sheltered so I never saw the computer drop below 9 mph, which I felt was good considering the hill. The unclassified road marked Moonzie, is only a few yards further on and as soon as I turned off onto this road the crosswind hit me, the homeward journey was going to be hard work.  On reaching Lordscairnie Castle there was a big notice on the field gate to tell me it was private land and not to enter. What? After coming all this way? You must be joking!

Lordscairnie Castle, an L-shaped tower-house was one of the castles of the Lindsay Earls of Crawford, and was in their possession by the mid-fourteenth century.  It is most likely the fifth earl who built such a fine castle as this was in its day. He was far less picturesque than his predecessor the fourth earl (Beardie) that history was rather fond of, and supposedly one of the ghosts who haunt Glamis Castle.

Lordscairnie was entered at the base of the stair tower, and the doorway was afforded protection by what is known as a machicolation at the wall-head; that is a projection through which missiles (or boiling oil) could be dropped on unwelcome guests. The original building had five stories including an attic. The rooms (all but the great hall) were large enough to be subdivided by a party wall. The castle was originally enclosed by a courtyard wall, but of this, only the single round tower of a gatehouse remains.

The long climb out of Cupar into a biting headwind saw the computer drop below double figures for the second time today and it did not really recover all the way back into St Andrews. Strangely enough, I met up with the two cyclists that I had seen struggling out of Cupar, they were now breezing along the cycle track and I was the one making heavy weather of it.  We exchanged greetings. All in all a good ride.

After reading ‘the wee castle tour’ a friend sent me this e-mail. My memories, as a small boy going off camping with dad to the berries fields of Fife, the berries picking, during the fair fortnight, I seem to remember through much more colourful spectacles, Then again the lad is now in his nineties, so was possibly talking of a time before the war when things were no good, much unemployment in Scotland.

Walter. Thanks for the memories and the interesting photos, the castle at Dairsie is owned by a syndicate and closed to nonmembers. If you are on the main road Leuchars to Cupar passing through Dairsie there’s an Inn on the left, turning left passed the inn, the road leads towards the river. Many moons ago dad and I camped near the river (source of drinking water) along with a friend of dads, John Mac Phial and his family, no facilities were provided. We were there to pick raspberries all for much-needed money. 8.0-5 0 each day sall meal cooked by dad on an open fire. Midweek dad left the field early (farmer not happy) I had to stay in the field picking, dad walked into Cupar and back for bread, sausages, and tatties. We picked berries for a week, every penny made was a prisoner. On Friday, we were due to return home, dad filled a lugy, (small pail) with the best berries and sealed the top. We sneaked in passed the grieve man to the tent, where it was hidden in dad’s kit bag till we cleared the farm field. To save money we walked into Cupar to catch a bus for home. Back home mum turned the berries into raspberry jam, the homemade jam lasted a long time through the winter months.

The Compostela de Santiago

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Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Santiago lies in the Province of Galicia in Northern Spain,the name a shortened version of Santo Iago, or in English, Saint James. The disciple, James the Greater of Biblical fame, later to become Spain’s Patron Saint  arrived in Spain as an evangelist, and his bones are now believed to be in a casket housed under the Cathedral’s altar in Santiago, brought from Palestine by his followers after he was executed by Herod.   The word, Compostela, translated as ‘field of the stars’ refers to the legend from the 1X Century that a star indicated the point where his remains were to be discovered, the present-day site of the cathedral.

In the middle ages, when Jerusalem was besieged and impossible to visit and Rome, just as difficult, Santiago de Compostela became the leading destination for Christian pilgrims. It would have been a long and difficult journey at that time, across this mountainous region of Spain. Pilgrims would have to deal with wild animals, robbers, sickness and injury, and for that reason, Pilgrim Refuges sprang up across the country.  Many are still in use today. The Cathedral of Santiago would witness thousands of unwashed pilgrims who had journeyed for weeks without a change of clothing on their long treks to visit the tomb of Saint James. Enter the giant incense burner known as a Botufumeiro and principally used to try to mask the smell of a church full of unwashed bodies.

There is not one but many pilgrim routes from all over Europe and the one rising in popularity is the Camino Frances and the Camino del Norte sometimes called Camino de la Costa. As the name suggests this route follows the coast along the French border at Irun before turning inland at Ribadeo or thereabouts to reach Arzua and the main route into Santiago. 

There is now a chain of pilgrim refuges along the coast; where else would you get the chance to sleep in a monastery? The scenery is superb, it is not too hot for pleasant cycling,  there are plenty of interesting towns and architecture and because so many new motorways have recently been built in the north of Spain, there are miles and miles of superb roads with hardly a soul on them.

I first did the Compostela de Santiago back in 2007 not long after my mother died and my caring duties were over. It is a journey I would like to repeat one more time if I can and if I have a little more time left.  The following is my account of my first journey.

The idea to cycle the Compostela de Santiago had come about after watching a documentary on television about a long distance pilgrimage across northern Spain.  I decided this was a trip I must go on. To qualify the pilgrim must complete at least the last 200 kilometers into Santiago, on foot, on horseback, or cycling.  Furthermore, the Pilgrim’s record card must be stamped with the sello, a rubber stamp, obtained at monasteries, churches or refuges along the way. It was also significant that a member of my cycling club, Eric Walker, was a leading light in the Confraternity of Saint James, and a great help in the preparations for my trip.

"But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength

They will soar high on wings like eagles. 

They will run and not grow weary. 

They will walk and not faint." 

Isaiah 40:31 


How many times will that verse have been recited, at the start of a journey such as this? A thousand, possibly hundreds of thousands of times down through the ages.

Preparations

In the early days of May, my tickets arrived from the European Express, along with departure dates and labels for my luggage. For the first time it all started to feel real, I was going off to Spain. The next weeks saw me charging around bike, clothes and chemist shops purchasing everything from a soap dish to puncture repair outfits and an ever-growing pile of stuff started to appear on my living room carpet. All this would have to find a home in two greedy pannier bags on the rear carrier of my bike. Everything was now ready, bike serviced, panniers bags packed and packed again. I did intend weighing myself, then the bike, but decided against this idea, the shock may have been too much.

I had to be at the European-Express pickup point in Bramham by 07.45. Not wishing to be late I did several dry runs and calculated it would take me around two hours from my house to Bramham. What if I have a puncture? Yes, maybe I should add half an hour for unexpected breakdowns or punctures, headwinds, well yes, better add another half an hour for headwinds and half an hour for tailwinds. It seemed unfair to leave out tailwinds since they are such helpful friendly souls.

At the Club run to Otley CC on the Wednesday before my departure date, Eric asked how the preparation had gone and I had to admit my concerns about reaching Bramham on time.

“Why don’t you take the van?” he asked.

“I was not all that keen on leaving it sitting out at Bramham for over two weeks,” I told him.

“If you don’t mind me driving your van, I could come with you and drive it home, then simply drop the keys through your letterbox.”

I could have kissed him, well maybe not.

The Journey Over

The large double-decker coach pulling an equally large bike trailer arrived in good time and quickly and efficiently my bike was on board, (the coach will take any size of bike, tandem, tricycle even tandem tricycles without them having to be dismantled in any way). The coach was extremely comfortable and squeaky clean. By the time we arrived at Dover, I had made new friends and all were excited about their planned trips. I, however, was the only person on the Compostela de Santiago; do they know something I don’t?

In Spain

The European Express dropped me off in Bayonne (just inside France near to the Spanish border). I traveled on the D 932 to St Jean–Pied–de–Port the official start of the Composite, and a small town nestling in the foothills of the Pyrenees on the French side of the border. I found my first refuge at the top of a very steep narrow street, and close to the castle. It was around noon and all the staff were seated at lunch when I arrived and kindly invited me to join them. Would I be staying there tonight they asked? It seemed absurd to me that I should stop in the middle of the day with lots of daylight in front of me. After my Pilgrim’s record card was stamped and I said my goodbyes I wobbled off down the hill once more.  What was in that wine? I only had one glass full.  

After a long coach trip and riding in the hot sun into St Jean-Pier -de-Port I really should have stayed at the refuge there, inexperience really.   I paid for it on the climb into the Parageneses. The route was simple enough to follow the D135 upwards. The heat was like a baker’s oven in the gorge as I climbed the twisting road ever upwards; not a breath of wind to comfort burning lungs. After some 30 kilometers from St. Jean Pier de Port I finally came to the top, at 1087 meters above sea level. What amused me was the notice by the side of the road, which read Attention – Horizontal. The only thing that was likely to be horizontal was me lying at the side of it gasping for breath, this heat was going to take some getting used to. I had now crossed The Pyrenees into Spain and was feeling fine, the heat of the day now subsided, a respite for the unaccustomed and after many long hours’ I cycled into the square of the small town of Espinal. Outside the café were a few tables and chairs, I chose one making it possible to eat and watch my belongings at the same time. When the waiter arrived I ordered something, I had no idea what dish I had just ordered, neither I suspect, did the non-English speaking waiter. I found a campsite and gladly booked myself in, maybe I should have stopped at the refuge but I had been told priority would be given to walkers so decided on camping.

The route was simple enough to follow the D135 upwards. The heat was like a baker’s oven in the gorge as I climbed the twisting road ever upwards; not a breath of wind to comfort burning lungs. After some 30 kilometers from St. Jean Pier de Port I finally came to the top, at 1087 meters above sea level. What amused me was the notice by the side of the road, which read Attention – Horizontal. The only thing that was likely to be horizontal was me lying at the side of it gasping for breath, this heat was going to take some getting used to. I had now crossed The Pyrenees into Spain and was feeling fine, the heat of the day now subsided, a respite for the unaccustomed and after many long hours’ I cycled into the square of the small town of Espinal. Outside the café were a few tables and chairs, I chose one making it possible to eat and watch my belongings at the same time. When the waiter arrived I ordered something, I had no idea what dish I had just ordered, neither I suspect, did the non-English speaking waiter. I found a campsite and gladly booked myself in, maybe I should have stopped at the refuge but I had been told priority would be given to walkers so decided on camping.

Estella Lizarra was to be my refuge for the night and I estimated to be there around 1pm. It had been suggested that I take the minor road the NA172 rather than follow the N135 and skirt around Pamplona before joining the N111 (the new number for the N135) all the way into Estella Lizarra.  Somehow I managed to get lost and ended up climbing some of the steepest hills in the area between Erro and Agorreta and ended up where I did not wish to be, in the middle of Pamplona. I was given a map by the girl in the travel agent in Pamplona and managed to find my way back onto a minor road that took me into Urroz then onto Eunate and onto the N111 for Estella Lizarra.  It had been a terrible – hot – mountainous – and frustrating part of my journey and it was 21.30hrs by the time I finally pulled up at the refuge in Estella hot and despondent. This was my first experience of refuge having camped up until this point. The staff made up of a Dutchman and two lads from Belgium took pity on me, since the building was in almost total darkness, as everyone was already in bed or by now preparing for bed. I was shown the bike store, where to shower and a bunk bed pointed out to me for the night. I was instructed to join them in the dining room after I had showered, where a meal would be prepared. The meal turned out to be everything leftover from an earlier dinner reheated. Macaroni and cheese, then sausages and salad this was followed by cabbage and French bean soup. Boy, what a feast for a starving cyclist.

Next morning around 0500hrs I was awakened to a rousing choir of male voices. I turned to the person in the bed next to me, bunk beds were pushed together in sets of four to save space and your sleeping companion was only a matter of a foot or so from you. The he I had expected to find was, in fact, a she, oh well when in Rome; she had no idea what they were singing either. At breakfast, I found myself alongside a mother and daughter from Australia.

“You’re from Australia” I said,

“And you’re from Scotland,” she suggested. We talked through mouthfuls of hard toast like slices layered thick with margarine and runny jam washed down with mugs full of tea or coffee. The song I had thought was a Comino song was in fact a Basque song since we were now deep in Basque country. This piece of information came from the mother since she had already completed the Compostela once before and had been invited along on this one by her daughter, on her first Compostela. Unfortunately, the young maiden had caught the eye of a rather handsome Dutchman and they wished to go off together and meet up with her mother later on in the day. Mother felt inclined to say yes but it was clear that she was not all that happy at being left on her own. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprising, a large percentage of those doing the Compostela are in fact women and around 75% of those are single girls alone or in small groups. Most walk around 25 kilometers a day, carrying oversized and overweight haversacks, with little effort.

Leaving the refuge at around six o’clock it was just getting light. The digital clock at the side of the road told me it was already 25 degrees in the shade.  I made a mental note to stay out of the shade and pressed on to Najera for the night. I was really getting into a rhythm now and the loaded bike seemed so natural that I could happily trundle along at 10-mph with little effort and put in my120 kilometers a day by around noon. This I calculated would have me back in Bayonne in time to catch the bus home. Miss it and it would be another fortnight before the next one.

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Burgos Cathedral

It was Sunday when I arrived in Burgos, around midday, a very large city indeed with a most beautiful cathedral. The refuge at Burgos was set in the middle of a park, on the grounds of the old military hospital. Wooden huts set out in a rectangle amongst trees, I have no idea what type of trees they were however they had white down like seeds, which fell like snow onto the dry grass. A fire had started and rapidly spread through the park. I sat at a table outside the refuge eating lunch, my floor-show a troop of firemen beating out the small fires that seemed to spring up almost as soon as they had been extinguished.

After lunch I set off into the city and found a fiesta in full swing. In the park surrounding the square children who had just attended their first communion were dressed up to the nines. Girls like young brides and boys in a form of military uniform covered in gold braid. Doting mothers, fathers and uncles were blissfully photographing the children in front of every conceivable fountain and flower bed. The girls happy enough to undergo all the attention lavished upon them, the boys less so and it showed on their faces.

It was a great day for sightseeing since the plaza was full of traders dressed up in medieval dress selling mostly craft goods.  There was a baker, cooking these rather flatbread rolls with a sauce inside.  The oven he had was made from clay and straw, fired by wood.  I bought one cooked in seconds in this furnace, so hot, almost too hot to hold, however, it tasted superb.  The crowning moment for me, however, was walking around the corner to be greeted by a long avenue of plane trees with their branches intertwining with each other to form an arch along the broad pavement.  In their shade, people sat around outside the cafés.  Why was it so special?  I had seen that same scene as a boy.  My Primary teacher had a painting on the wall of her classroom, it was the same picture, only this was in real-time.  I now felt like Mary Poppins, when she and the children had jumped into the picture on the pavement.  I was now inside that painting.  I had to savour the moment so I sat down at one of the tables and ordered a glass of wine.

The next day I was buzzing around making porridge when this rather well turned out elderly lady came forward and peered into my cooking pot.

“Oh how lovely!” she exclaimed, “Porridge.  My husband is from Scotland and makes us porridge every morning, how I do love my porridge”

When I answered, of course, she realized that I was, in fact, Scottish, and went off to tell her husband.  Soon I was blessed with the company of an elderly man with a most welcoming wry smile.

“I hope you don’t intend to eat all of that on your own?” he said by way of introduction.

I scooped about half the contents of my pot into a bowl and pushed it towards him. We chatted and ate, and  he told me how his daughter had married an Italian and moved to Italy. 

“We seemed to be spending more and more time traveling backward and forwards to see them then later on the grandchildren. Our home in Scotland was becoming a liability so we finally sold up and moved to Italy, now the children and grandchildren visit us. It was the best move we ever made”. 

It became plainly obvious to me at that moment that Scotland was not a place on a map or a place where a piece of coloured cloth flew from a flagpole. Scotland was in us, those who were Scottish, it was in our genes. Here in this small part of what they call Spain was Scotland.  I will never meet him again but every time I think of Burgos I  see the face of that old Scotsman with his wry smile. 

“Thanks for the porridge” he said as he made to leave, “Just like mother used to make”, and after the perfectly timed pause, as if he was kindling up memories of his reverent old mother stirring the porridge with her spirtal, he said,

 “The woman was a terrible cook”.

The joke was as old as he was but his timing was immaculate and I had to laugh.

The N120 took me over to Sahagun then on to the LE232 north to Cea and a minor road west again to St Miguel De Escalada and into Leon, where I stayed the night in a nunnery. It was a beautiful city and my new German friend and I visited the cathedral there. From there it was back on the N120   most of the way into Astorga and then on to the NV1 into Ponferradaand onto Leon. From there it is a hop-skip-and a jump along the N547 into Santiago de Compostela itself.

The journey back to Bayonne followed the coast along the north coast of Spain, I thought it would be flattish, being near the sea, but I was wrong.   I did made it back into Bayonne with a day to spare though – this is a beautiful city and the coast has miles and miles of pristine sandy beaches, (and lots of daft laddies riding mopeds one-handed carrying a surfboard in the other, and crash helmets pushed up – the front now on top of their head, – must give them some sort of street cred).

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Compostela Sello

I could go on forever about my trip and of course, it was my trip and will be very different for everyone who takes it on. You will never be alone on a trip such as this; the road to Santiago is a well-trodden path and you will all too soon find yourself in the company of like-minded people, whether you desire it or not. However, be warned, you will not go on the Compostela and return the same person.

I shall always remember the two girls that I met, one crying by the side of the road and carrying her rucksack on my back to the next refuge. The hippies that lived high up in the Sierra de Ancares Mountains in a wigwam.  Chatting with two girls from Holland, in the next bunk to me, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  I never once heard a cross word in all of the time I was away.  There were no papers, television, or radio, it was an isolated world, yet open to the world.  I met people from South America, Australia, Holland, Germany, France from just about every corner of the globe, all living in harmony, (there must have been no politicians amongst them).  There were no cooking facilities in the refuge at Leon, possibly something to do with insurance since it was a very old convent run by nuns (and no hot water not even in the showers).  There was a kitchen but no stove however  there were lots of large pots, so I cooked up a sort of stew from tins of meatballs, packets of soup and fresh vegetables on my camping stove. Scooping out a bowlful for myself I passed it around the table to be eaten along with loaves of French bread.  A Canadian lad had made a fresh fruit salad, dressed with yogurt, for us.  Ulrich Kraussel from Germany managed two bottles of wine.  However one of the most unforgettable memories for me came on my last night in a refuge.   A group of German Girls who had been traveling together, whether part of a group at home or not, I never found out, but they sang a German lullaby that night just at lights out. Dropping off to sleep I could almost see the Austrian Alps with snow-covered peaks.  You ask me what is the Compostela de Santiago and for you, I have no answer, for it is different for everyone who goes on this life-changing experience.

A Lesson Learned

Thursday’s headwind had abated, but it was still there, and very very cold. Having struggled to recover from yesterday’s ride I decided to change my route and headed for Guardbridge on the cycle track and then over to Balmullo onto the A914 for Dairsie of Osnaburgh.  At the roundabout, I turned left onto the A19 for Clayton, rejoining the cycle track at Guardbridge once more. It was a pleasant change and most enjoyable; a leisure cycle, free from hills and around 20 miles. My top speed today was 18.8 mph and my average over the course was 10.4 mph.

Generally, the CTC will do a ride out at the weekend; the distance, normally in the region of 40 – 50 miles.  Our cycle club would have a test ride out each spring to knock us into shape, 100 miles was normal. Audax rides will start at 200 kilometers (120 miles) and that distance has to be covered in a time limit. Under normal circumstances, 20 miles would not even be worthy of a mention. However, my story is all about coming back into cycling after a long lay off and no longer in the prime of life, you have to take baby steps. Keeping yourself fit is the hardest thing to learn, for we are all built differently.

I had been cycling for many years and considered myself a good club rider. I decided to join Audax UK and my first Audax ride was up around Nidderdale.  Not flat, but I had no problems at all, a little dehydrated possibly but I had always found it difficult taking on water, and at that time had no idea about what food worked for me. I had a few 200K Audax rides under my belt when I decided to move up to 300k. 

I remember it was a beautiful summer’s day.  We set off from Newcastle and headed north out into the countryside, crossing the border into Scotland for a few miles then returning back towards Newcastle. About 25 miles from the finish in Newcastle we stopped at a cafe. I could not eat anything but felt I should get some liquid into me so I ordered tea, and when it arrived I put sugar in, although I have not taken sugar in tea since childhood. Hardly had it reached my stomach, when I found myself flying from the cafe and all the contents of my stomach came up in a fountain. I could not hold anything down, even my emergency rations, Jelly Babies. Somehow I managed to get back to the van at Newcastle, out of time to qualify for a finish, but by that time I couldn’t have cared less. I curled up in the passenger seat of the van and pulled a blanket over myself and slept for a couple of hours before heading for home.  Mum would be expecting me at around 8 am. When she saw me she was clearly shocked. I said I was fine. A shower and a couple of hours in bed and I would be right as rain. 

“No,” she insisted,” I’m calling the doctor for an appointment,” and when mum insisted it was better just to do what you were told.

Being Sunday it was an emergency doctor’s appointment. Turned out that the doctor I visited that day just happened to have been the doctor for the British Olympic Team, (sometimes things happen for a reason). He was brilliant at putting me right about taking fluid on board, and telling me how I must eat small quantities of food for the duration of the run. What he also said was that this was a reaction to my body literally eating itself. I still found it difficult to drink lots and lots of water when cycling so supplemented this with sports energy drinks and from then on carried half a dozen small energy bars in the rear pocket of my cycle top.  My favourite turned out to be banana flavoured. I bought that one by the boxful. I never had any problems from then on in, thanks to mum, and that very special doctor.

Strange as it may seem I heard a lady on the car radio one day talking about the making of the stage show Billy. A boy from a mining family who wanted to be a ballet dancer, the story was set in Yorkshire, during the miner’s strike. She said they had around five boys to play the part of Billy, and they had them bouncing around for hours and often they would spew up like fountains.

When I was on the Compostela de Santiago, I came across two Dutch girls by the side of the road. One was sitting down, the other  was most unhappy that her friend would not get up. I stopped and asked if I could help.

 “She won’t walk,” the standing girl said. 

“I can’t walk, I have blisters”  the other retorted. 

 I knew immediately that the girl on the ground was dehydrated and simply spent, the blisters were not the real reason for her not wishing to go on. I went over to my bike and came back with two energy bars and a sports drink. I handed them to the girl who set about them without question. I offered to take her backpack to the next refuge for her.

 “The refuge is only 5 kilometers away,” I told them, “Without the backpack, you will make it”. 

“Take it, take it”, her friend said, without hesitation.

 However the lass was not keen to see all of her belongings go riding off, but in the end, she took her passport and money from the backpack and handed it over. I knew instantly why she was having difficulty when I tried to lift the pack, it must have weighed  around 60 – 70lbs!

When I reached the refuge I told the staff there what had happened and said the girls would be in later. When they finally did make an appearance the staff went into overdrive. They had the girl in a bunk, her blisters were attended to, and food was prepared for them. Six o’clock the following morning I saw them bounce out the door without a care in the world.  I wished them well and reminded them to drink lots of water.    

Coronavirus – a Spoke in the Wheel

Well the Coronavirus pandemic has well and truly put a spoke in the wheel of my big adventure any time soon. However, always the optimist, I have started training anyway.  That way I will be fit and ready whenever things settle down again. If nothing else it gets me out in the fresh air and exercising (while I can) and I enjoy it, there can be no better reason than that.

Last week the weather was so springlike I pedalled all the way to Tayport.  I had overstretched myself for by the time I returned to Leuchars I was struggling.  I still had not learned to pace myself. At Guardbridge I dismounted at the barrier and pushed the bike up the slight hill and into the car park at the top before remounting, using different muscles helped. The wind was light but now like a gentle hand on my back propelled me into St Andrews. I stuffed the bike in the back of the van and headed for the shower, allowing hot water to massage my body. My batteries were flat, lungs burned, my stomach was cramping and I had a thirst that could not be quenched, but I also had a brain that was sparking at one hundred miles per second. I thought I was too old and my fitness levels such that I could never feel this way again; that heightened awareness that comes through sheer exertion.  I can only imagine how professional athletes must be on a permanent high, that keeps them pushing forward, above and beyond the call of duty.

When Generals returned to Rome, in triumph, their servant would whisper in their ear 

“You are not a god”.

 I must find a small voice to sit upon my shoulder and whisper,

“You are now 78 years old”.

On Friday I set out for Strathkinness, a slow climb from St Andrews that gets you warmed up. From there I intended dropping back down to Guardbridge and home along the cycle path, just a short circuit to keep the legs flexible. But as always happens I was feeling good on reaching Strathkinness and decided to visit the Broch at Drumcarrow Craig. Crossing the B939 you start to climb, a climb that only gets steeper as you go, and soon I was twiddling away in my bottom granny gear. There is a little metalled road that takes you up to the Craig, and as I neared I could hear the sound of off-road motorcycles. I left the bicycle at the base of the crag and made the short climb up to the top. 

The view was spectacular, you could see all the way to the Forth, the Tay and all the way west, across Fife. The Broch itself is long gone but the outer foundation ring of stones is still there (I stepped them out at about 13 feet in diameter) and clear for all to see and much bigger than expected. Even the entrance is visible.  Seems they knew what they were doing, the people that built this Broch, for the door is away from the prevailing winds that come from the south-west. I must try to find out more about the (Iron Age) people who built this structure, from its size they must have been a large tribe. As with all these relics from the past the stone was re-used to build or extend farmhouses and barns.  It makes sense. Why would you quarry stone when it is already there in a handy pile? But that is for another day, this was only a scouting trip.

Dropping back down to the B939 from Drumcarrow Craig, was a big Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, all the way home. It is times like this I am thankful I don’t have a computer on the bike, heart attack territory. I remember coming home from a trip, I had climbed up from Braemar and was now coming off the hill at the ski slope heading for Bridge of Cally.  I was going so fast I dare not touch my brakes – at home the computer registered 53 MPH – a bit quick for an unstable tricycle loaded with gear. Best not to know these things at the time!

Crazy Idea or Final Chance?

Now in my 78th year and having been off a bike for the last five of those years, I was becoming a couch potato and having real problems with sciatica in my lower back and left leg. I went to Kingdom Chiropractic Clinic in St Andrews to see if  Dr. Francis Kelly, could help. He could, it was like magic. I decided if I wanted to remain feeling good then I needed to get myself a bit fitter and the only real exercise I loved was cycling.

I needed a plan and a purpose.  

We will be leaving the EU at the end of 2020, so it will no longer be so easy to simply go off to Europe after that, and  I wanted to do one last trip there. I could not afford to go into hotels or B&B every night, and camp sites have become almost as expensive as YH (youth hostels) which themselves have become very noisy, (or maybe I am just too old for youth hostelling now). 

When I had visited Europe in the past it was always cycling through, never really spending much more that a day in any one place. This time I wanted to enjoy some of the places I had visited and  spend enough time there to soak up the ambiance and enjoy the culture. This time it would be months rather than weeks away.

 I decided to purchase a small van. The plan is to  kit it out with a camp bed and my camping gear and this would be my home-from-home for the duration of my Odyssey. Although I am taking the van I intend this only to be a base camp for my cycling around a given area.  Once I had exhausted that area, I would move on to pastures new, and repeat the process. 

The places I really wished to re-visit would be the Loire Valley, Gorges De L’Ardèche, Paris, and Denmark but to see so much more of them this time around. There is one place I have always wanted to visit but never have and that is Stockholm, this time I will. Ever since I watched ‘The Bridge’ that fabulous detective series on television, that bridge has been on my bucket list.

You might well ask why I would consider doing this at this stage in my life, and the smart arse answer would be ‘because it’s there’. However, there are, on reflection, deeper reasons:

As a child I had a dark secret, I never learnt to read, with any confidence.  Later in life I would find out that I was dyslexic. It was an embarrassment to me, that continued into adulthood for there seemed to be no answer to my problem. My defense mechanism was my mask that I showed to the world and if anyone got too close, I pushed them away, or simply moved on. All of my relationships were with people that were more scared of commitment than I.  Most of my life I have been a loner, but never lonely, for I have an inquiring mind, always on the hunt for new adventures. In the movie “Knight and Day” comes this line: 

“Sometimes things happen for a reason”. 

Call it fate, call it what you will but when I was entering my 50s, by default, I learned to touch-type, I was now able for the first time in my life to communicate. Putting down my stories opened up a new world for me, and as I typed the words that appeared on the pages they started to make sense, I was reading. To improve my skills I started a journal, writing something each and every day.  Oh I will never be an academic but the joy that came into my life will never be surpassed. I am a great believer in : 

When life seems dark, simply hold fast, until the sun comes out,’ it always does. And when all your endeavors come to nought, it is simply spilled milk, move on.

Life is much the same for man and chimpanzee – a one-way ticket and no guarantee. I have been blessed with good health, and a natural fitness, throughout my life. I have never wished to be rich, and never envied those who are.  Dad always used to say “If you can’t afford it, why would you want it?” It made sense to me.

 I spend a lot of time in my boyhood with my father. Asking him questions was strange for he never came out with a straight answer and if I moaned about something, normally insignificant, he would say,  “Aye life’s lumpy, son”.   One day I asked what he meant by that and he told me,  “As you go through life, you will find it full of lumps, some should concern you, others are simply irritants.” 

I was none the wiser until years later I came to know what he meant. A lump in your throat, a lump in your porridge, a lump on your breast, are all lumps but different.  You have to decide which should concern you and which are simply irritants.

This journey of discovery is the one I wished to take a decade ago but life got in the way.  On the West coast of Scotland they have a saying:

 “When the Lord made time, he made plenty of it.” 

I hope that is true for this trip. 

How It All Began

Dad and me 1950s

I must have been around seven years old when my father brought home an old bicycle frame and set about making up a bicycle for me. It was a fixed wheel, possibly all he had, no saddle, only a hessian bag tied around the top tube and too big for me to ride. But dad, ever resourceful attached wooden blocks onto the pedals, enabling me to reach them. It was a long wait, and then there it was my first bike, in all its glory. It was difficult enough balancing at first, then there was the fixed wheel to contend with, but soon I was riding it around the street, pedalling as hard as I possibly could, singing at the top of my voice;

‘Riding along on the crest of a wave, when the sun is in the sky,

all our eyes on the distant horizon ………………. ‘

You couldn’t get me off that bike. Riding fixed wheel was fun. If you rode with one straight leg the pedals lifted you up and down like a jack-in-the-box. Downhill the pedals went like the clappers so it was feet up, getting your feet back on the pedals again was an art in itself. Later it would have a saddle fitted and the blocks would eventually be removed, and the rear wheel swapped for one with a three- speed hub, oh joy of joy!

Bob Maitland Daily Express Tour of Britain 1952

My hero at that time was Ian Steel, an exceptional Scottish cyclist from Glasgow who had won the Peace Race two years on the trot in 1951 – 1952. I remember asking dad to take me over to Kincardine Bridge, on the back of his motorcycle, to see Ian Steel ride over the bridge on the ninth stage of the Daily Express 1952 Tour of Britain, Dundee to Edinburgh – 91.5 miles. Many cyclists had gathered and we chanted as they went flying past “Ian, Ian, Ian.” Bob Maitland (a BSA rider) and Ken Russell from Shipley (a privateer who built his own bike, so he could enter) were also racing that day. Ken Russell won the Daily Express 1952 Tour of Britain by a mere three minutes after 1470 miles of racing. Years later, and now retired, I would ride out socially most Wednesdays with Ken and many other riders who had been top-guns in their day, even one who had won two stages of the Tour de France in the 1960s. Bob Maitland too, I got to know well in those days. You would not believe the people I brushed shoulders with.

Riding a bicycle was the one thing I was really good at and moreover something I just loved doing. Two of my elder sisters had joined the CTC (cycle touring club) but not for the cycling, I suspect, so I joined too. Ride outs were on a Sunday, and gave rise to the CTC becoming affectionately known as the cafe to cafe club, for that is where we always ended up. Youth Hostelling during holidays was always something to look forward to. At that time we had to do chores in the morning; first up would be given easy tasks. Unfortunately my big sister liked her bed and was always slow to rise, so would be given such jobs as washing down the stairs or cleaning the toilets, then again she knew we would pitch in just to get on our way, she was not daft, was our Irene.

In 1959 I joined the RAF and after basic and trade training I was shipped out to Laarbruch in Germany, a station that lay very close to the Dutch border. Once settled I went off to find the PTI (physical training instructor) to see about a bicycle from the Nuffield Trust (Lord Nuffield was Mr. Morris of Morris Motor Company fame) I was given a decent road bike and since there was little in the way of racing on the camp or in the local area I went over to Holland and was soon in tow (literally) with a local cycle club. Cycling was a national sport in Holland and some of these lads and lasses were semi-professional, my riding skills, speed, stamina was greatly enhanced by being with such riders. I bought a second-hand estate car, which was really a van with windows in the side, from an airman returning home after his tour of duty. Europe was now my oyster, I really did not want to come back home.

Demobilised in 1965 I still cycled but not nearly to the extent I had done, until that is, the son, of my next-door neighbour, a policeman in Edinburgh, moved with his wife and two kids to Canada. Intending to join the Mounties, when they arrived he found work in the Dunlop factory and he never did join the Mounties. His father was not keeping well so I would do shopping for him, take in the odd meal and generally tidy up for him. His condition worsened over time and eventually he was taken into hospital suffering from pneumonia. The doctors did not hold out much hope of recovery so I phoned his son to tell him what the doctors had said, and he arranged to come over with the family. They stayed for three weeks in the old boys flat, doing a bit of sightseeing and catching up with old friends, but still the old man hung on. They had to return to Canada, but the plane would hardly have touched down when the old man passed away. I phoned the son and told him the news.

“I can’t come back over” he told me. “If I give you power of attorney would you see dad cremated and the house cleared?”

How could I refuse? When everything was settled I phoned him again.

“I can’t thank you enough” he told me “If you ever want to come to Canada for a holiday you will be made welcome”.

I joined a club run by the Canadian government (they were still looking for people to emigrate to Canada at that time) and if you joined and attended the club each month, where you would be shown films and given lectures about all the advantages of moving to Canada you got offered a seat on a chartered plane to go out there for two weeks. I did not want to move to Canada but wanted simply to take advantage of the chartered plane.

The family could not do enough for me on my arrival; trips to the lakes of one thousand islands, trips over to the US to an old west reconstruction, covered wagons, shoot outs at the OK Coral, and yes, ice hockey – that was a passion with the family, they all skated well. What I never could get used to was the amount of food they consumed, at breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner and then sending out for pizza whilst watching the game on the television.

When my two weeks were up, it seemed crazy for me to return home, after all the effort of getting there. I bought a second hand bike with rack and panniers and set off into the USA with no real plan in place. In the evening I would look out for folk clubs, bars with music and offer to do a turn. You would not believe the amount of Americans who believe their distant ancestors came from Scotland, far more than the entire population of our country. A few Scots songs and the whisky tears were rolling down their cheeks. I would be rewarded with a drink, often food but mostly a place to spend the night, although I did have my back up plan, my tent. When money was scarce or winter was closing in I would find employment, and that was my life for the next two years as I made my way, first west, then south and finally east around America. I was given a ride from Florida in a motorhome, its owners travelling back to Washington DC. Next stop from there was home on a tramp steamer. It all seemed to pass so quickly, and to have happened in a different life. My biggest regret was not being able to keep a log of my sojourning.

Home again, and I was soon back in harness. With decent wages and a disposable income, I started planning trips over to Europe. Cycling the Loire from source to the sea and the Compostela de Santiago were just two of the most notable, but at first it was trips back to Holland and always France.

When I retired I had planned to go and live on the canals of France in my old Folk boat. Mum was an elderly lady by now and went into hospital with heart trouble and breathing difficulties, they found she had exceptionally high blood pressure, so they put her on a machine to thin the blood. Five weeks later she was due to be discharged but only if there was someone at home to look after her. Thinking that this would only be until she got back on her feet I said I would stay with her.

Not long after I moved in with her mum had a mild stroke, and I would become her carer. With no disposable income, I sold my house in Scotland and moved down permanently to Yorkshire. We bought a van, converted to take her mobility scooter, so I could now ferry mum around, shopping, hospital appointments or simply to get away from the four walls. Mum went into day centre every Wednesday so I had a day off.

A blind lad had advertised in the Telegraph and Argos; he wanted to buy a tandem and was looking for someone to captain it. I volunteered. A totally new experience for me. For a start, with him not being able to see I had to talk all the time, telling him we were coming up to a roundabout or halt sign, changing gear, hill ahead. The other problem was he was sitting on the rear like a big sack of potatoes strapped into his pedals. When we stopped or slowed down I had all the weight of the bike.

As well as riding a bicycle, I rode a tricycle and it was when we went over to the York Rally that year he bought a second hand tandem tricycle, just out of the blue, no prompting. It was great to be able to simply stop and not worry about balance. We went out every Wednesday for a full day on the tricycle, meeting up with many retired cyclists that were also out enjoying the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, an experience I will always look back on with fondness.

When mum died I returned home to Scotland, finding a place in a sheltered housing development in Elie, in Fife. Tim, mum’s Yorkshire terrier and I enjoyed long walks each day along the shore:

‘House Martins and Swallow in erratic flight,

Gulls diving seaward from astonishing height,

Curlews nest in the rough grass nearby,

a pretty chaffinch sings its song to the sky.

I love when the waves crash onto the shore,

retreat, regroup, advance once more,

feel foaming surf between my toes,

Such days as these I do adore.’

I was coming home one day on a motorcycle. I was more or less stopped and I leaned forward to save a shopping bag precariously hooked onto the handlebars, when the bike started to lean over and I found I could not hold it. It fell over on top of my right leg snapping two of the bones in my lower leg, one in two places and very close to the ankle. I thought not a problem I will be up and about in no time. Sadly that did not happen. The tricycle sat in the corner of the room along side my solo bike. I was thinking how difficult a place Elie would be to live in for the elderly person (my future) so made a conscious decision to move to St. Andrews, best move I ever made.