There are many ways to arrive at Mont St Michel but by bike in the dark in a rain storm is one I would recommend highly. Why turn up in a chauffeur driven car, a taxi, a horse drawn carriage or even one of the free push me pull me buses (the driver can drive from either end) when you can power a Shetland pony of a Dutch bike towards a small faintly lit portal in a monumental granite wall of awe, the sea sirens luring you from either side to a wet sexually unfulfilling end. The world ends not with a bang but with salty panniers. Go on, add some reckless intensity to your day. The air calling out “hurry to safety before I get medieval on your saddle saw ass.”

Honestly I didn’t ask for it. It just happened that way. Explained the monk returning to the monastery, his moist habit damp with misadventure. It takes ten minutes to cycle from the shore but in that short window the metereology went through metamorphosis. So fragile is the space between luck and judgement.

Once I was off the expansive wooden cycle path I could have been arriving on the rock at any point in the last 500 years, yes even on a pony, although perhaps one more locally acquired.

And that is the magnificence of the place, sans or avec daylight. From the outside the glory remains undiminished, unspoilt and unbeatable, compared to anything very much that exists now, or then. The city spirals upwards like an enormous Viennese whirl, as far as it can reach in a stairwell of stone structures without symmetry, until the abbey rises out of all this slow architecture with a golden angel at its pinnacle, pointing upwards towards heaven. The nut on top of the whirl.

The horizontality of the landscape, which squelches out from a saturated misty fenland estuary, adds to the mystic gravity. As do the wade footed wildfowl which live forever in swirls between the sea and the sky, painting a moving cloud of glinting greys. The connection between man, someone’s god and nature supreme, the whole arrangement gives you an unquenchable and frankly unnerving thirst for a deeper connection with the forces of life.

You can fully imagine what it must have felt like to have left your hovel dwelling, built barely to resist the breath of wolves, and approached and entered this citadel of powerful religious architecture, Does Holy shit mean the same in any century?

The Mont represents everything that is symbolically detestable to a raised albeit lapsed Methodist like myself, brought up believing in a non adorned connection to Godliness..and yet..it is formidable and breathtaking and does all that any city could to give you a sense of the supreme god that rests inside all of us, which normally just ticks along, turned down by the dimmer switch of day to day mundernity – the modern mundane. Although I’m sure the medieval era had more than it’s fair share of mundanity too.

Coming through the portal in to the citadel, the ankle gap between my water proof trousers and shoes soaked with unwelcome water droplets, it really did feel like I had arrived at safe haven. The rain fell less bitterly. The wind dropped from roar to murmur.

And then the 20th century reappeared. A sign advertising a cash point. Another for a toilet, and 50 cents for the chance to use it. Ferme, at this time in the evening. The magic was lost. But taking a few more steps I found a prettiness that in itself was quite appealing.

Light poured out of small restaurants and cafes, each one filled with fine looking customers correctly attired who no doubt also arrived correctly. There are many ways to arrive here but only two ways to stay. As a pauper or a (non gender defined!) prince.

I am an unforgiving pauper to myself and after peeping through the windows like a Dickensian child looked onwards to find the dark mysteries. I found them deeper into the city, in a candle lit church, a shimmering flickering religiosity and amongst the ramparts, which I explored at will, as far and high as my legs would take me.

If only this were Denmark. But alas no ghosts, only darkness and fat roosting (no typos here) pigeons. No shortage of nooks or crannies too. And looking back to the shore I saw mists and eddies, the many pasts of my life and the possibilities of the future. I saw myself as tiny and almighty at the same time, conquered and conquering. A misty droplet of inconsequence and a great pool of possibilities.

And from here I could of course also see Europe, stretching on behind the fog, not really very clear at all. And of course I asked those questions that only come in the still of the night, when you have allowed the great claw of curiosity to open up the dusty corners of the mind.

Why was I here, what on earth was I doing? Alone, cold and literally overawed. An out of place pauper on a fools errand? A knight tilting at windmills with my Dutch bike pony illegally I suspected locked to some UNESCO approved railings outside. And if I was some tragic Don did I really bring along a PG Tips toy monkey as my Sancho Panza! The biggest mystery I found that night was me.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Escaping the heat of a 24 degree October day in a small ferry terminus near Fouras in Southern France with a still sea view and an hour or so to kill before a boat can take me to the home Napoleon lived in before he was exiled to Saint Helena I find myself with time to continue the story of my first full day in France as I left off.

With the mind print of the doctors many faces slowly fading away, and with the thought that there was no obvious way of getting back to the campsite, I decided to explore where fate and Yannick had left me. A plan of what to do next must surely emerge.

Soon after procuring my first baguette, and not really knowing what path to take, I found myself following two photographers I had noticed out on a derive. They took me to what turned out to be a beach of shells by a busy harbour. I discovered later that the beach was created by fishermen dumping the ‘empties’ off the harbour wall, but at that point I marvelled at the natural phenomenon that could have created such a coincidence of calcium.

Next to the beach a plain stone memorial with no words stood flat against a harbour wall. Shells covered the base of the memorial and two wind battered poppy reefs lay on top of the shells, the colours of the plastic a deep red incongruous laying on the pastel creams of the shells. To the right, up an embankment, I found a larger memorial plaque and map telling the story of the liberation of the town. As I read the detail I stopped worrying about the day that would have been and settled into the day that was. It seems losing an ear plug up ones own canal without a paddle forces one into the moment, sans grace and panache true but what does this matter.

In Port-en-Bassin they still remember the names of the soldiers whom liberated the town, the men of 47 commando, who lost 29 of their number just fighting their way off Gold Beach, before battling through 12 miles of enemy territory to take up positions surrounding the town. Here they encountered fierce fighting. Their mission was to liberate the town quickly. The allies planned to use it as the landing point of Pluto, a giant underwater pipeline delivering fuel to keep the advancing army moving forward away from the beaches.

I don’t know whether soldiers knew the strategic importance of what they were doing but they knew their mission was to take back the town. Their main obstacle was a heavily armed bunker, fortified with barbed wire, mine fields, flame throwers and machine guns.

Walk up a few boarded muddy steps and a long a hilltop path and you can easily find the bunker. It’s entrance now filled with concrete, it’s impregnability is not hard to imagine. I was moved to find beside it a second memorial to the men who took this bunker, notably a Captain Cousins, who lost his life leading a last desperate but ultimately successful attempt to capture it.

Reading the exact detail of the fighting that took place that day and the manner in which Captain Cousins died made me realise that the people of Normandie see D day in an entirely different way to most British people. For them it is still a lived experience, remembered personally. The grand children of Henri Gouget, the Gendarme who helped the commandos, probably still live in the village. To them it is all very real and marks the difference between a life lived with free will and one lived in bondage to another persons idea.

To British people D Day is a different thing. I don’t suppose most of us know the detail – of who fought in which village to capture which bunker or artillery position. We only know D day as a mythic national experience. A good thing Britain did, along with resisting invasion since 1066 and beating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Although most of us probably only know this because of a Swedish pop group.

But in Port en Bessin they do know the detail. The knowledge is all there on storyboards. And it is not as some may suppose glorifying or memorialising war. It is remembering those who brought with them the dignity of freedom.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The ferry journey from Portsmouth to Caen is the closest I could find to the route taken by British soldiers in their liberation of Normandie on June 6th 1944 – D Day.

It arrives not in fact in Caen but in the port of Ouisterham, adjacent to the long thin stretch of sand now known as Sword beach. The armies of other nations landed further along the 120km of Normandy coastline designated the liberation front by allied high command.

Even though Caen is only a handful of miles further inland it was not liberated until July 20th 1944. There is a beautiful flat cycle path straight from the ferry terminal. Cycling along it and alongside Sword beach i found it hard to imagine what level of misery and tragedy those 50 days must have brought. It must have been hell.

The people of Normandie paid a high price for their liberation – 18,000 civilians were killed during the campaign. Their resistance groups committed over 1000 acts of sabotage to help the liberation. Families risked their own lives to shelter allied troops.

It is clear that there is an abiding love of the liberation story in Normandie. People are proud to fly multiple flags in their gardens. I passed a giant replica of the Statue of Liberty in one window. This is not the celebration of military victory but of freedom itself.

I learnt early on in my ride that the people of Normandie also
adore a cyclist who is over carrying – my euphemism for bad packing. Within 2 minutes of leaving passport control I received a round of applause from a group of middle aged promenaders. Did they shout bravo? I like to think so.

And so it continued for the next 50kms. Jolly bonjours, horn toots, even a fist salute on one tricky ascent. At last I know what it feels like to be appreciated by other road users!

I had booked into a campsite near Omaha beach, almost half way along the landings coastline. En route it was hard not to stop at the many monuments, signs and memorials depicting the liberation story. But with 3.5 hours till nightfall and legs delivering 12kms an hour I was wary of giving everything the time it deserved. The maths did not add up.

At a particular moment I noticed I was riding into a reddening sun, and every glorious falling shade of it made me think of a thing I shouldn’t have packed. The disadvantage of Google maps is knowing how far you have to go, and how far you’ve been. At some point I chose not to look. I just watched me the dot moving along a line on the map and knew this was a good thing.

Bereft of calories I found myself struggling up a hill at one point, only to find in front of me a giant monument staring out to the sea, chaperoned by flags and lit from behind by the countdown sun.

The sight of it took me up the hill where the calories could not. By the brow there was a car park. I pulled into it and devoured a Waitrose sandwich I had bought in Portsmouth the day before. Never have I loved asparagus more. Or Waitrose. Or my own foresight.

I must have looked like a hungry dog to the quiet dignified rememberers around me.

Darkness fell mercifully slowly. When it came I passed a family eating dinner around a table in their front garden. I wanted to force myself upon them and wondered how long they had been there and how many courses had passed.

The greetings continued but were now bon soir. I adjusted. A moped cyclist fantastically stalled as he passed me and I was able to get directions. “Two kms more”.

Next came a beautiful sight. A restaurant named Liberty. I found it hard to pass. But within 5 minutes I had parked my Gazelle and was looking for the owner of Camping d’hypo camp, which according to Google translates as hypo camp. Who knew?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

My first day of The Grand Depart…

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Follow my new blog The Grand Depart

Back in March I came up with a bonkers plan to visit all the remaining 27 countries in the EU by bike and train before March 2019, the date set for Brexit. The month I will lose my EU citizenship and all the rights that go with that, not least the right to move freely across any border between any of these countries. The first leg of my journey starts tomorrow at 7AM. I’m heading off on my beautiful Dutch bike to Normandy and onwards towards Spain, Portugal and possibly Sicily and Malta.

For the next six weeks I’ll be blogging about my experience on The Grand Depart. Some of that will be shared through this website as well but if you want to track my journey head over to the other blog. I have no idea whether I’ll complete my quest as this is a massive challenge for me but I reckon at this point starting is more important than getting to the finish line. Whatever happens for the next six weeks I’ll be squeezing my life into four panniers on two wheels. And maybe that’s enough!

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Cambridge Open Eco Homes: Book a tour

For the last five months I’ve been working for Cambridge Open Eco Homes and really pleased to say we have a great line up of tours available this year and you can book now at www.openecohomes.org Tours include Europe’s first eco-Mosque, a co-housing development called K1 and a wide range of individual new-build and retrofit homes. If you live near Cambridge then its a great opportunity to get some individual advice and information direct from householders who have done the work themselves. October 8th and 14th.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Hello Open Eco Homes 2017!

I’m excited to have just started work again on the Open Eco Homes project in Cambridge. This is my second year for OEH Cambridge and I’m really pleased to be back working with the wonderful folks at Cambridge Carbon Footprint, a great group of staff and volunteers who between them put on many many key events in Cambridge. I’ve just written a blog on the OEH website about what we’ve got planned in 2017. You don’t have to be based in Cambridge to enjoy OEH. The houses and technologies you see are relevant anywhere. Take a weekend: spend one day on OEH and one day sightseeing. Whether you live in Cambridge or not put October 8th and 14th in your diary and make some space for Open Eco Homes! If you live in Cambridge and want to open your eco home for those two days in October please do get in touch.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized