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Hobbled in Ulm

22 January 2012

For the past two weeks I’ve been laid up in Ulm, on the outskirts of Bavaria, suffering from Achilles tendon strain. It dates from the sudden steep hills of Baden, when I pigheadedly continued walking despite a nagging pain in my ankle, which increased in jolts and jumps until I was practically hobbling. Luckily I found refuge with exceptionally lovely people who didn’t mind me sitting around  rubbing ice on my feet all day, necking ibuprofen, growing my beard and generally feeling sorry for myself.

It’s been an anxious, frustrating time, but at last I’ve reached the point of no pain, and I’m setting out again tomorrow. The German healthcare system is amazing — I’ve been given free ultrasound therapy and acupuncture, and have been fitted with an ankle support and custom-made insoles for my boots. The most important thing, of course, was simply resting up. And it taught me a lesson I needed to learn: pain is a message — don’t ignore it!

Pain is almost entirely absent in Paddy’s account of his journey. Now and then he mentions being tired or sore, but that seems to be the extent of his suffering. Either he was uncannily fit (and I’m not forgetting that he was 12 years younger than me when he did this — that’s 12 years of bad habits he had yet to accumulate), or, as I’m starting to suspect, with a time-lag of several decades, his memory edited out the bad parts and retained the happier ones… the rolling in haystacks with peasant girls and smoking cigars with counts. This is the kind trick that memory plays, mechanically rose-tinting the past. I’m sure when I look back on this, it will be the same.

It seems appropriate, at least, that I commenced to lame myself while inadvertently following the Bertha Benz Memorial Route from Bruchsal to Prorzheim… the route that marks the maiden voyage of the world's first car. In the birthplace of the automobile, a healthy walker is a fitting sacrifice. More to come on this topic soon, in another article for Dark Mountain… until then, I’ll be walking on, and listening to and learning from any pain.

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Dragons' blood

13 January 2012

It takes a week of following the Rhine upstream into Germany before I know I have truly left the Low Countries behind. After the port city of Koblenz, where the Rhine and the Mosel converge, the banks either side of the river begin to rise into folded foothills, jagged peaks and escarpments dotted with gothic ruins. During the next few days, castle after castle appears with almost frantic regularity: Stolzenfels, Rheinfels, Gutenfels, Furstenberg... in this valley, I have entered the realm of German Romanticism.

My introduction to fairytale country is the nightmarishly-named Burg Drachenfels, a tapering stump of weathered stone perched above the river. In the book I'm using as my road-map, Paddy mentions 'the Siegfried-haunted Drachenfels,' and I ask about this with my hosts that night in the village of Sinzig. Siegfried, I discover, was a mythical hero who showered himself in the blood of a dragon (drachen) to gain immortality – of course, myths being what they are, a leaf landed on his shoulder during the immortalising process, leaving that spot unprotected. Later he was betrayed by a friend, who skewered him with a spear. 'You can look it up on Wikipedia,' my hosts assure me, waving at the laptop, but stories like this don't need to be confirmed. It feels much better to hear it from them – this legend of the Teutonic Achilles – in a cosy, wood-smoke-smelling room with the rain beating down outside.

They also talk of a connected legend: the treasure horde of the Nibelungs, who were either – depending on what you choose to believe – the royal house of the Burgundians, or a race of dwarves. I choose dwarves. It seems no less unlikely. The fabled stash of gold and jewels is reputed to be buried in Worms, but later, when I reach that city with vague fantasies of stumbling across it – glinting, perhaps, at the bottom of a drain or at the border of a municipal flowerbed – the only evidence I can find is a signpost that says 'Nibelungenring.' It is sad, but not surprising, that the best the modern world can do with the legend of a dwarfish treasure horde is covert it into the name of a ring-road.

If Siegfried was the Teutonic Achilles, my walk also brings me to the lair of the Teutonic Siren. The towering Rock of Lorelei marks the narrowest point of the Rhine, and the river bends sharply to create treacherous shipping conditions. In these waters dwells the Lorelei, a golden-haired water maiden who lures sailors to their death. Over the years, Romantic poets have rendered the legend thoroughly twee, but the Lorelei has not lost her teeth: only last year, she capsized a barge carrying 2,400 tonnes of sulphuric acid.

(That statistic came from Wikipedia. But hopefully, in a few hundred years, travellers will hear the story – in a suitably distorted version – sitting in a cosy, wood-smoke-smelling room with the rain beating down outside. Meanwhile, reconstruction work on the Worms outer-city ring-road will have uncovered caverns of gold, and armies of furious dwarves.)

So far I've escaped the Lorelei's clutches, and haven't yet been skewered with a spear. I am, however – in a vague nod to at least one of these legends – having problems with my Achilles tendon. Myths are there to teach us things. I'll use more dragons' blood.

--

This piece, and the others to come, can be downloaded on the Ether Books app, available for free from the iTunes Store.

 

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Late Dutch

9 January 2012

This post is a little retrospective -- from my first couple of days on the walk. It appeared on The Times online just before Christmas, and I forgot to put it on this blog. I'm in Ulm now, resting up for a few days, and I have time to remember these things. So: from the top.

I was woken soon after dawn by 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' emanating from hidden speakers in the ceiling. My ferry – the hulking Stena Hollandica, less of a ship than a shopping mall – was just docking in the Hook of Holland. After a perfunctory passport check I watched the other passengers head for the train, then stubbornly turned inland to walk the 20 miles to Rotterdam. Hail rattled off my hat and tinkled musically in the bare branches, but the sky soon cleared. The countryside unfolded into a scene so Dutch it felt quite surreal – dikes and polders, cycle-ways, old windmills and modern wind turbines, with the occasional cargo ship slicing its way through the fields.

Almost nothing is left of the Rotterdam Paddy wrote about in 1933. The Nazi bombardment of May 1940 literally flattened the medieval city, leaving nothing but the town hall, the damaged belfry of the great church, and a bronze statue of Erasmus turning the page of a book. Paddy's 'beetling storeys' and 'hump-backed bridges' have long since been replaced by glass-fronted insurance buildings and expressionless office blocks, high streets crammed with corporate stores competing for trans-national blandness. The house in which I stayed that night, in a street of red brick and plasterwork with a faintly gingerbread feel, only survived because it stood 500m beyond the 'fire line,' the point at which the annihilation ended.

The following day I attempted to find the same route Paddy walked out of the city – 'a wonderful flat geometry of canals and polders and willows' – but found myself trudging instead through a dreary sprawl of suburbs and ring roads. The coffee in my flask had gone, the wind was blowing colder, and just as my spirits were starting to ebb a woman pulled up in a car: 'My husband and I saw you walking, and thought you might like to come in for a cup of coffee and some cake.' Their home was only a minute away, so I bent my no-lifts rule, and was soon ushered into a house of chirruping budgies and children. Much may have vanished since Paddy walked this route, but it seems the essential goodness of people still remains intact.

After coffee, the husband took me outside for a tour of his honk – 'a honk means just a cosy place' – a kind of garden shed he built to double as a spare room. He invited me to stay the night, but Dordrecht was just a few miles away, and I knew its wharves and cobbled streets had been spared the same destruction as Rotterdam – hopefully, traces of that older world might be more apparent. So I thanked them and re-hefted my bag. I had to be getting on.

... and on I got. And, hopefully, will continue getting.

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Abandoned castles

5 January 2012

Between the towns of Koblenz and Mainz, the Rhine Valley is rotten with castles -- gothic ruin after gothic ruin, crumbling romantically on forested crags, looming from dramatic outcrops of rock, so many I almost stopped seeing them. Late December was unseasonally mild, so I ended up sleeping in two abandoned castles perched above the river.

My first stay was in Burg Rheinfels, above the town of St. Goar. The main part of the castle was impregnable — impregnability, of course, being a castle’s primary function — but its makers luckily saw fit to constructing a dry, discreet tunnel in the lower wall. Above this section was a four-star hotel, so I had a glass of Riesling with the other guests and retired after dark to my hole. I had a lovely view over the town and the ferries shuttling over the river.

The next night I slept in Burg Gutenfels, perched above the town of Kaub. It’s the very image of a haunted castle and was a little intimidating as I approached it through the vineyards, its walls lit up by a strangely greenish moonlight. But I had a very comfortable sleep in this sheltered archway, curtained with vines. If there were ghosts — and of course there were ghosts — they seemed happy to put me up.

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Tenuous, traceable threads

2 January 2012

I've been walking for over two weeks, and it's only just starting to occur to me that travelling this way is so much slower – indescribably so much slower – than any other form of transport. Apart from walking backwards, perhaps, or crawling on my belly. It's an interesting adjustment. Bicycles pass me with speed and grace that I envy, but at least recognise as just a faster version of what I'm doing – making my way from one place to another – while cars, to my pedestrian eye, travel so incomprehensibly fast I have already started to think of them as something quite alien, engaged in an activity entirely different to my own. I'm wondering if the same is felt by geese when an aeroplane thunders in the distance.

My perceptions of distance have altered quickly. In a car, or even on a bike, you see a landmark on the horizon – a church tower, say, or a tall tree on a hill – and you spend ten minutes watching it steadily growing bigger and bigger and then suddenly you're there, adjusted to its scale. Walking, you barely notice it change. It stays the same size and it stays the same size, and it stays the same size and it stays the same size, and then you watch the ground for a while and when you look up it's fractionally bigger – or maybe that's just a trick of the eye. It can be agonising – the trick is to stop caring. After all, if I was in a hurry I wouldn't be walking in the first place. I've been thinking of those fairytales about castles that never draw closer, no matter how long a traveller walks, always teasingly keeping their place on the edge of the horizon. I know where those stories come from now, and imagine the way they were dreamed up by walkers, one step after another.

Walking has also made me consider the urban landscape differently. There's a huge difference, I've discovered, between walking on soft grass or mud and walking on a high-impact surface like tarmac or on pavements. Hard surfaces jar the bones of the legs, sending regular shock waves through the body, and caused agony in my shins in the first few days. For this reason I've become obsessed with finding low-impact passageways through towns, clinging to any grassy verge, strip of mud or municipal lawn, doing everything I can to avoid the harder ground. Pavements are more obstructions than aids. This marks me out as a different type of walker to the strollers in the streets. I am not walking in town, I am walking through town, and these narrow corridors of soil are my connection back out to the countryside, a tenuous but traceable thread that strings one green space to the next.

The environment I'm in, I've noticed, determines people's perceptions of me. Along the river path on the bank of the Rhine, people see my muddy boots and rucksack and sleeping bag and two-week beard and recognise me as a walker – one of their own, doing the same thing as them, only going a longer distance. When I'm in a city centre, eating bread and cheese on the steps of the cathedral, I morph suddenly into a tourist – what else could I be? But in the spaces in-between – nowhere lands like industrial zones or urban sprawl or outer suburbs, flanked by highways and motorway bridges and factories and out-of-town car showrooms, far from beauty either rural or urban – then I don't belong in any category at all. People stare from passing cars, shooting me baffled and suspicious glances, as if I must be lost or desperate or doing something vaguely illegal. This isn't a walking-designated zone, there is no clear reason for me to be here – I am out of place. Between country and city, in these no-mans-lands, I can only be perceived as a vagrant.

This article can also be seen on the blog for the Dark Mountain Project -- a cultural movement for an age of global disruption.

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Abandoned orphanage

28 December 2011

Suffering agonies in my shins, I manage to limp to the door of the big house and peer uncertainly in. In a dim, wood-panelled hallway rows of coat hooks gleam on the walls. In the murky light I see two children dressed in creepy, Puritan-style clothing, standing absolutely still and staring at each other.

I don't like the look of this at all. This can't be the place I'm looking for. So despite the stabbing bolts of pain that shoot up my legs at every step, I hobble on down the road. Darkness has fallen, and I've been walking for almost ten hours. I started at first light, tracing the bank of the River Waal, the great grey river that runs westwards through the Low Countries towards the North Sea, back where my journey started. I followed the dike for most of the way, past windmills flanked by osiers, alongside polders full of geese, under a swollen sky. Rain swept in from the river at midday, driving diagonally up the dike to soak the right side of my body, and the wind heaved at my back, pushing my legs onwards.

It was about four o'clock that I realised I'd been far too cocky in trying to walk from Gorinchem to Tiel comfortably in a day. The light was already starting to fade, sort of folding itself away across the landscape, and I still had twenty kilometres to go. I noticed a dull pressure in my shins, and tried to ignore it when it became a steady, repetitive ache, but before long the pain became sharper with every step. Around this point the dike path ended and I found myself walking beside a road, trying to stick to the sloped grass verge – the high impact surface of the tarmac jarred my legs too much – and tried to take my mind off the pain by guessing the colours of the cars as they thundered past me. It was a game – I got one point for a correct colour, and minus if I was wrong. At minus seventeen I gave up, finding it too depressing.

Around five o'clock I found a service station and bought a bottle of Coke, mixing it up in my thermos flask with half a bottle of whiskey. I thought perhaps this would help with the pain. It didn't work – I was still in pain, only now I was drunk as well. Darkness rolled over the landscape, and in the distance I could see the glimmering lights of the town I was heading for, inching closer step by step with agonising slowness. I counted down the last ten kilometres like a prayer.

And now, searching for the address of the place I'm staying in tonight, all I can find is the big stone house with the weird frozen children. I hobble up and down the street, almost gasping with pain. At last I return to the door – it's the only possible choice. And then lights blink on in the hall, a figure waves from the window, beckoning me in.

I stay in this refuge for three days while my shins recover. The damage isn't serious – ice-packs, arnica gel, ibuprofen and rest are all I really need. I put up my feet in the high-ceiling room, read books and drink coffee. The rain falls ceaselessly, the bells of the nearby church elaborately toll every quarter hour, and the interior of the rooms are submerged in a grey, dreamlike twilight.

My host, an ex-rock guitarist with a face like a friendly conquistador, rents this enormous building cheap to keep out squatters. It used to be an orphanage. The children, of course, are just statues. Two smaller statues flank the door, crumbled stone effigies of a boy and girl with distressed goblin features, covered in a slimy layer of green.

After it was a home for lost children, it was a hospital for the disabled.

Both of these incarnations, it seems, are appropriate to my condition.

--

This was my unhappy condition two weeks ago. Since these days of rest my shins have recovered greatly, and I'm now in the town of Bingen, most of my way down the Rhine.

This piece, and the others to come, can be downloaded on the Ether Books app, available for free from the iTunes Store.

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Parting shot

15 December 2011

When Paddy caught the ferry to Holland in December 1933, he was the only passenger aboard the Stadhouder Willem, a little steam-ship with 'the Dutch tricolour beating damply from her poop,' floating 'in a mewing circus of gulls.' Seventy-eight years later the experience couldn't be more different – boarding a vessel the size of a small town and stumbling past shops, restaurants, bars, internet stations and cinemas, I eventually locate my cabin (number 10303) in a seemingly endless corridor of glittering lights and doors. This is the Stena Hollandica, but it seems to me that a ship so massive may as well not have a name.

 Through trial and error in a strange labyrinth of duty free shops and safety signs, I manage to make my way out on deck to wave goodbye to my girlfriend. She's there, the height of a towerblock down, a tiny conical shape waving in a sodium-lit wasteland of car-parks and cranes. We say our last words by mobile phone as the engine starts to churn. Just as I'm pulling out of port, a fishing boat full of whooping lads comes chopping and bouncing over the waves, their shouts apparently directed at me, though I must be invisible up here on deck: 'You crazy bastard! You crazy son of a bitch!'

… and then silence.

It seems these words, and not my girlfriend's words of love, will be my parting shot.

This piece, and the others to come, can be downloaded on the Ether Books app, available for free from the iTunes Store.

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The off

9 December 2011

I'm catching the 11.15pm ferry tonight, and will be arriving at the Hook of Holland early tomorrow morning. The weather forecast for the ferry crossing is 'rough to very rough,' so my journey may well begin on a nauseating note.

Expect dispatches on Ether Books, The Times online, the Dark Mountain blog, on postcards for those of you who supported me through We Did This... and, of course, on this very blog. Enough said. Boots laced. Ready to go.

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An undiscovered realm

5 December 2011

The best quote I've come across recently is from the early 20th century mystic, author and psychogeographer Arthur Machen, who lived near Gray's Inn Road in London:

And it is utterly true that he who cannot find wonder, mystery, awe, the sense of a new world and an undiscovered realm in the places by the Gray's Inn Road will never find those places elsewhere, not in the heart of Africa, not in the fabled hidden cities of Tibet.

Useful words to have in mind at the start of any journey...

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In the Ether

23 November 2011

For those of you who own an iPhone or iPod Touch, I've just been signed up with Ether Books, a 'mobile publisher' that provides short stories, essays and other short writing directly to your mobile phone. All you need to do is download the application for free from the Apple App Store.

Ether are doing a great job in reinvigorating interest in short writing, and have been endorsed by writers like Hilary Mantel and Louis de Bernières (who have provided stories for the app). It's a format that's just been launched and is very much in the trial stage, but I think it could be a perfect vehicle for the kind of short, snapshot-like pieces I've written before when I travel.

So, as a side-project to the book I'm writing for Arcadia, I'll be publishing short travelogues from my journey, along the lines of my Brief Encounters from Estonia, Ethiopia and India. Have a look at Ether Books and get that app, you iPeople.

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To trace the route of the absent

14 October 2011

I've just finished Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which explores the social and cultural roles of walking throughout history -- from the earliest bipedal humans to medieval pilgrims, the bohemian flâneurs of Paris to the great political marches of the 20th century. There's some fascinating things in there (who knew that the Ramblers Association began as a radical anti-landownership movement, a working-class rural Victorian version of Reclaim the Streets?), and I'd like to share a few passages that seem relevant to my own journey:

On roads and writing

[Roads] unfold in time as one travels along them, just as a story does as one reads or listens... Just as writing allows one to read the words of someone who is absent, so roads make it possible to trace the route of the absent. Roads are a record of those who have gone before, and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there -- not saints and gods anymore, but shepherds, hunters, engineers, emigrants, peasants to market, or just commuters ... To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide -- a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere.

The image of the walker, alone and active and passing through rather than settled in the world, is a powerful vision of what it means to be human, whether it's a hominid traversing grasslands or a Samuel Beckett character shuffling down a rural road.

On urban and rural space

Streets are the space left over between buildings. A house alone is an island surrounded by a sea of open space, and the villages that preceded cities were no more than archipelagos in that same sea. But as more and more buildings arose, they became a continent, the remaining open space no longre like the sea but like rivers, canals, and streams running between the land masses. People no longer moved anyhow in the open sea of rural space but travelled up and down the streets, and just as narrowing a waterway increases flow and speed, so turning open space into the spillways of streets directs and intensifies the flood of walkers.

Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors -- home, car, gym, office, shops -- disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.

In the country one's solitude is geographical -- one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and then there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one's secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries.

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Talismanic tokens

10 October 2011

Using my funding from the Globetrotters Club, I have begun purchasing essential provisions for the journey. Originally I intended to go to Millets, as this is where Paddy bought his supplies before setting out in 1933, but in the end I found what I needed in Cotswold Outdoor. It's kind of reassuring to know that despite 80 years of advances in technology and materials, and the growth of an entire 'outdoors' hiking industry, the most important things I could buy are still a rucksack and a decent pair of boots. Essentially I've just bought the same stuff Paddy did, but lighter and more waterproof.

So rather than hobnail boots, I bought a pair of Scarpa Terra GTX boots, waterproofed with Goretex. Rather than an 'old Army greatcoat,' a lightweight Berghaus jacket. I'll carry my life in a 35-litre Osprey Atmos rucksack, which has a special kind of elasticated webbing to keep it off my back. Paddy packed 'different layers of jersey, grey flannel shirts' and 'a soft leather windbreaker' -- I have layers of merino wool and a Rab vest insulated with down.

I'm generally not in the least consumer-minded -- my shopping trips generally consist of buying the cheapest things I can, and regretting it within a month -- but the Globetrotters have given me the chance to buy the very best I can. There's a kind of magic to these things. Trying on these super-soft, light-as-a-feather walking garments, the things that will keep me warm and dry as I trek through Central Europe's winter, felt like the bit in the Lord of the Rings where the Hobbits get given magic cloaks and chainmail made of miracle metal, talismanic tokens and charms to see them through dark times.

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