If you want to know what it’s like to create and live in an eco home, get yourself down to Cambridge on September 30th or October 6th. Cambridge Open Eco Homes gives you the opportunity to tour 10 houses and ask all the questions you ever wanted to about low energy homes. Also check out the five workshops running from September 18th-October 18th. Find out more and book a tour at http://www.openecohomes.org
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After I returned from Mont St Michele I lay in my tent listening to the rain, and soon fell asleep, groggy with a stupefying sense of wonder. The desire to put a plug in my ear long gone. The next day I woke early, keen to see the Abbey (which unlike the city itself is only open during daylight hours), before catching a pre booked train south, from whence I’d heard rumours of sunshine.
This time I left the bike behind in one of the cycle parks that sit inside a touriserie of holiday lets, hotels and dull shopping experiences that have been carefully placed in a hollow so as not to detract from the experience of approaching the Mont, so long as you keep looking forward. Think, Lot’s wife and Sodom. Which now that I write it, sounds like one of Ian McMillan’s Barnsley minimalists describing a care free spending spree at an auction with the Mrs.
Next to this holding pen for the better heeled visitor, just before the boardwalk that takes you to the Mont, an architecturally impressive barrage doubles up as a viewing platform. I sat there and watched the sun come up, eating a baguette stuffed full of banana. A tramps breakfast. Wading birds waded. Tourists waddled.
Each arrival to Mont St Michel I imagine is unique. Even I suspect if you are the driver of a tourist delivery vehicle. The estuary is an orchestra with a new overture each day. A bright tenancy of light, a glum heavy fog, a hesitant mist. Sea levels rise and fall with the tides, winds whip, push, curl or play dead. The wading birds are busy, or slow. Some days Otters breach, some days not. And if the characteristics of the day are by chance exactly the same as the last, the chances are the characteristics of you will be different.
Let the day find you, is some sort of truth to drag out in a place like this.
The day found me damp and resilient, a martyr to discovery, my mind filled with the the simple questions, why, who and how?
The Abbey opened its doors at 9.30am so I waddled off towards the Mont at 9, shorn of any urgency. Arriving slowly in daylight, without fear, gave me my naivety back. I instantly forgot the previous night’s rain soaked donkey tussle and enjoyed the approach as if I had never been before, overwhelmed once more, this time with the daylight splendour of it all – appreciating texture, colour and form as I had not been able to before. With the sun also rising the whole scene was tres jolie.
Twenty minutes of flat boardwalk and hundreds of upward steps later I was passing through the strangely rigorous Abbey security check with its airport luggage scanners and heading up another steep incline to some cold misty views of the estuary. I could hardly see France. Chilled and moody I found myself goose gaggled inside with a group of Japanese tourists.
In front of us, in a series of four small squat glass boxes, sat four delicately constructed relief models showing how time brought humanity, religion and war to this bare scruff of rock. The Mont as we experience it today was not built in a rush. It is a work of art we can enjoy only because it was created by thousands of people over 13 centuries. Slow architecture, crowd sourced development, an organic city, call it what you will.
Avranches sounds like Barnsley minimalism for someone who has acquired many American farmsteads but it is in fact the name of a nearby town from whence Bishop Aubert came in 708 to plant the architectural and spiritual seed from which the whole Mont grew. Avranches is also the home of a farm campsite called Power Salads, but I never got the chance to stay there so I can’t tell you if the salads help with the cycling.
Bishop Aubert built a shrine to the Archangel Saint Michael (described rather worryingly in the tourist guide as the ‘head of the heavenly militia’ (chef de la milice celeste) and the mythology of the place was set. For Saint Michael is a powerful and violent figure, appearing in The Book of Revelations to slay the devil, who is masquerading as a dragon.
To medieval people living in fear of the afterlife he was also the one who led away the dead and put their souls in the balance on judgement day. Because of this, Bishop Aubert’s place of sanctuary quickly became a site of pilgrimage, and within three centuries a Benedictine Abbey. Then, with fortifications and ramparts added, a military stronghold.
During the so called Hundred Years War Mont St Michel resisted all attacks by the English, and became a symbol of French national pride. Devotion to the war like Saint Michael deepened during the Reformation and Counter-reformation. Only the warlike angel could fight against the Protestant heresy. Then the French revolutionaries did what the English kings and Protestant reformers could not, dissolved the monastery, turning it into a prison.
In 1874 it finally found its current purpose, as a historic monument. Thanks to decades of restoration you can now experience the Mont, as the guide suggests, “as a representation of the heavenly Jerusalem on earth, an image of Paradise”. Or just marvel, as I did, at how they got the bloody thing up their in the first place. I tried to feel closer to God but I only felt closer to sky. It reminds me of a Billy Bragg lyric, “I found out the meaning of unrequited, at a party to which I was never invited”.
That is not to say I didn’t feel a spiritual tingle, who could not when faced with such an exquisite representation of belief, but for example I found myself more intrigued by the giant wooden turning wheel that hauled everything up than the prayer room next to it. I wondered why the prayer room was so close to the wheel but found out later the Abbey is built on the twin Benedictine principles of work and piety, so after sweating bread, rocks and bibles up the precipitous walls of the monastery saying a few prayers makes sense.
Being there reminded me of a conversation I had with my fiend Hele before I left, which essentially revolved around my lack of interest, indeed almost distaste for, anything that contains ritual. The ritual in life is important to her so naturally she found it hard to comprehend my animosity towards rituals. But to me rituals can mean control, exclusion, the concentration of power, the deliberate isolation of those who do or can not take part.
The Catholic Church created its rituals and decried those who did not stand by them. The more complicated they became the more powerful the church and its ministries were. Connection to God, safety in the afterlife, a better living in this life, could only be achieved through ritual. Even the bible had be read not in common languages by common people, but in Latin by paid interpreters.
Those that tried to translate the bible were thrown out of the Church and Society and at worst straight into the afterlife, where they would burn in hell for all eternity. Of course I know there are helpful rituals as well, that create a deeper understanding of life and a better sense of self and have nothing to do with power structures. These are the ones many of my friends enjoy.
All the same, as I stood cold and slightly at odds with my self any my own feelings, it was hard not to be glad that I lived in this century where, pauper as I was, I did not have to be a slave to someone else’s ritual, my own happiness dependent on a mythology that someone else created.
But then again I thought isn’t that exactly what Brexit is? Am I not slave to the ritual of a certain kind of Britishness that thinks everything will be better when we don’t have to involve ourselves with the lives of others? That prefers competitive isolation over cooperative federalism? That doesn’t think we should be compassionate to refugees? That would prefer to live without a nose just to spite the face? That would give up the freedom of its grandchildren for the self satisfaction of the grandparents? Argh, nothing has changed! Where is my free will? Am I not controlled by the high priests of the political class. Has my neighbour not just taken away my freedom. Merde!
Thankfully, before my despondency grew, I remembered I had a train to catch and a camping check out to facilitate. I ran down the steps from the Abbey, caught a Push me, Pull me back to my bike, cycled 5 miles to my tent, packed up my tent, cycled another 5 miles to the nearest station, stopped at Lidl’s (which are apparently everywhere), and got on a train headed towards La Rochelle and 20 degree temperatures. Leaving religion, ritual and thoughts of Brexit behind me, at least for the time being.
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 Walnut Whip, 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 whip, so to speak.
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.
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.
I am a hypochondriac traveller. I have something in one of my bags for anything that might happen to me on this trip. From an Emergency survival kit and storm shelter, down to first aid kit and a pair of tweezers. I even bought rescue remedy. I have never bought rescue remedy before not having a clue what it actually does. It just sounds good and some of my friends use it. And I figure at least one rescue is an inevitability.
However when I tell you I did not come prepared with an implement designed for the removal of objects irretrievably wedged in orifices you may not be surprised. Before you imagine that my first night in France was more strange than it was let me tell you I woke up on my first full day in France to find one of my ear plugs firmly wedged too far down my ear. I am not the sort of person to react with absolute calm to the residence of something in my body that really shouldn’t be there.
Cursing the morning loudly I tried to extricate it with my panicked fingers…and pushed the plug further in. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried removing something from your own ear whose only gripping point is a thin slice of silicone but I can tell you it’s not at all possible with a pair of tweezers. It was a plug of war and the plug won. All I could hear, very loudly reverberating in my ear, was the twang of silicone. This sucks, I thought to myself, literally and metaphorically.
Now, to continue with this drama I must Tarantino you back in time a moment, to the previous evening. When I arrived at the friendly hypo camp in the dark I interrupted the owner in a family crisis. “I have a problem… with my wife…please take a pitch in front of the sanitary block”. Not as bad as it sounds at all by the way.
Skip forward again to the next morning and picture Allan sheepishly emerging from the flaps of his tent door and walking back to reception with his plugged ear, the one liberated ear plug and a pair of tweezers.
After greetings, I announce this time that “I have a problem” “You have a problem?” “Oui”. Master of French conversation am I. With my show and tell Kit and hand gestures I explain my predicament, hoping at best to be given directions to A and E. First he says, “why do you need plug it is very quiet here”. This is true. I was too embarrassed to explain that I am camper who is sometimes kept awake by the wind.
He says “You want me to av a go”. Well it wasn’t what I’d hoped for on my first day in France but I handed over the tweezers and before I knew it Yannick the Hypo camp owner had his hands in my lobe. Twang. Twang. Twang. Tweezers and silicone. Silicone and tweezers. The great unknown comedy double act.
Whilst we are performing this unusual cross channel mail bonding ritual I remember to ask him how his wife is. “She is in hospital” And then he starts to be very upset and on the brink of tears. “She had a fall and the hospital won’t let me see her” I feel dumbly embarrassed by my over sensitive fear of wind in the face of Yannick’s tears.
And then, the ear plug proving itself twang happy and irremovable, he proceeds to drive me 5 miles to Port en Bessin (pictured) to see a pharmacist, followed by two doctors (the first wouldn’t see me because she had no time!). When he has to return to the campsite he asks the other patients in the waiting room to explain to the doctor what has happened. In return they got my story to take home.
Soon the Dr has his hands in my ear, with an implement I never caught sight of. After a brief struggle, the good Doctor successfully tugged the plug and I left the surgery, stopping only to use the toilet I had spotted next to the waiting room. Two things happened next. Number One, nature brought forth number twos. Number two, I didn’t lock the door properly.
Its amazing how eminent a man can look one minute and down to earth the next. I’m obviously talking about the doctor, who had already undone his belt and was reaching for the flies as he rushed open the toilet door. The looks that passed between us I shall remember for the rest of my life. Shock, repulsion, laughter. All in a moment. And I thought to myself humans really are an odd brilliant lot, wherever you are in the world. Anyhow, that’s how I came to miss the world’s most important historical tapestry but instead got surprised on the toilet by a French doctor. C’est la vie! What could I say about it that hasn’t already been said.
Next time…how the rest of that day planned out, no pun intended.
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?
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!