Follow by Email

Sunday, 21 December 2014


When i set off to walk from Munich to Paris in early November one of the aspects of a long winter trip where i would be sleeping out in a hammock under a tarpaulin for more than a month were the long hours of darkness. I was apprehensive that spending more than 14 hours a day in darkness would be oppressive, or boring, or genuinely take me off into corners - dark corners - of my mind that i'd rather not visit or revisit.

The very start of the trip was in darkness. Just past midnight walking out of central Munich in sleet and wind. Coloured lights, neon, then street lights, then just the odd security light and finally the countryside and only distant pin pricks of illumination and the
reflected glow of the city behind me. In front of me i could see the
shadows of forests and fields against the sky. The wet road shimmered as a slightly less dark darkness. I loved it. There was a full moon that night - obscured behind clouds but just once or twice shining through a rip in the sky.

And it got better and better as i walked on through the 500 miles. I
started walking into the night from choice. Long marches through old forests. Trotting through silent, darkened villages. Following roads as the traffic slowed. My senses became sharper. I often didn't need to snap on my torch for several hours at a time.

And the long hours of lying - often on the edge of chilled - on the
ground or in my hammock, with a light sleeping bag and all my many layers of clothing, under the tarp. Were they oppressive? Not at all. I often fell asleep within minutes of getting into the bag - sometimes as early as five in the evening just as the light faded. Sometimes past midnight. But i always woke up in the early hours. But not in the worried in the black dark hours' way i had feared, but in a floating lightness. Tawny owls love cold clear nights and they were the soundtrack for the nearly the whole trip. But i heard foxes. Muntjac deer. A much larger owl - the deep booming of an eagle owl. Wild boar crashed around me on several nights. But it all seemed perfectly natural.

Historians and sociologists have recognised the existence and
importance - and the normality - of 'segmented' sleep in traditional
and pre-Industrial peoples, and that's the pattern that i was
naturally falling into. My second 'day' in the middle of the night,
untroubled by activity or the need to do anything physical was a time of happy reflection and wake-dreaming and memories; sometimes it was almost trance-like. I could remember friends and people close to me in every detail, but also unexpected events came back to me in total recall. Various things i had been troubled by during the days - and in a few cases - over far far longer periods would seem simpler and solutions obvious when awake in the middle of the night. I would go so far as to say that sharing my walk between hours of dark and hours of light made it easier not harder.

I ended the walk in Paris under another full moon with drifting rain
clouds revealing and hiding its light.

So, today's solstice means i'll have to get more night walking and night waking into less and less hours of darkness for the next six months.

Friday, 12 December 2014


Singing - the least embarrassing way of talking to oneself out loud.

I carried an MP3 player but apart from listening to a few podcasts -
one on solitude, and a series on night walking and darkness subjects
by Jarvis Cocker - didn't use it once to play music. The battery ran
out in the first few days, of course, and it stayed buried in my pack
from then onwards.

In bars - especially the French 'sports and lotto and tabac' cafes'
there were often TV screens playing music videos. I heard Chandelier
by Sia, and David Ezra' Budapest' over and over, as well as random
rap, chanson, flamenco (?), and Europop.

But overall i sang.

My subconscious seemed to provide a random play list of suggestions
for songs that popped into my head, onto my lips and from thence
echoed around the hills and forests (old broadleaf woodland has a
wonderful, and unsuspected, echo that beats any shower).

There were mornings of early Dylan - Tangled up in Blue, One Too Many
Mornings, She Belongs to Me and Song to Woody came up a lot.
Long Beatles sessions - i'd pick an album and sing my way through from
beginning to end.
West Coast rock.

Many days of folk songs - for obvious reasons many fitted with the
pace and sentiments of walking and of the rural life around me. A
world of tramps, pilgrims, rakes, soldiers, solitude, bunches of
thyme, fairs, horses, dark woods and birds fitted nicely. High Germany
was a favourite. And Ewan McColl's Travelling People. And Brendan
Behan's The Captains and the Kings.

Every one of the five Sundays i was walking i sang Kris
Kristofferson's Sunday Morning Coming Down over and over. A little
ritual, if you like.
I sang my own songs. Ones i've already written and sing onstage and
with bands or solo. I finished off or added or improved verses for
songs that needed them.

And i came up with new songs. I've Grown A Beard for Christmas -
sample lyric '....just like Santa Claus, it's not a thing of beauty,
but it keeps me warm outdoors' is one that i probably won't be singing
a lot in the future; it was of its time and place. But Bird Of Passage
might trouble a few ears in the future - especially when i next get my
fingers on my guitar. And faux-Gospe/Work Holler/Sea Chanty number
Climb, Climb, Climb To The Top Of The Hill was created whilst puffing
my way up to the 800 metre high point of my route across the Black
Forest heights (the actual highest peak, Feldburg is 1,500 metres) and
so is ideal as a mantra for exactly that kind of short-breathed,
spirits-up plodding, and was sung lustily across France's Vosges
mountains and beyond.

I had a 'concept album' of road songs that could fill several hours of
rambling-time singing. Further On Down The Road, He Ain't Heavy He's
My Brother, The Long and Winding..., and Walk On were mainstays - but
there were many more.

And themes often provided me with a quiz like game as i tried to
remember and sing as many songs about subjects such as birds, cars,
Gypsies, fires or coffee.

Simple pleasures. And one of the least offensive, really.

One song that i sang a lot - both because of its aptness, and - more -
because it's a great song, was Jimmy Buffet's 'He Went To Paris.
I quoted a few lines in an earlier post. '...warm summer breezes and
French wine and cheeses...' but the end of the song (here's a link - the accompanying video
is a bit close to the most testing parts of the walk. Or better buy
the album, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean; it's all good.)
was especially apt for the walk...

'...some of it's magic, some of it's tragic but i had a good time on the way.

Monday, 8 December 2014


I got to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris late yesterday evening. A totally arbitrary finish point. But not as corny, nor quite as far, as the Eiffel Tower. The last day was a 14 hour non-stop forty mile hike. There was frost, wind, sun, rain. My ankle, though complaining, held out. Some eejit tried to mug me on the quais in the last mile to Notre Dame and was most surprised by my spirited response. And having missed the night bus back to London I slept in a patch of brambles in the Bois de Boulogne. And got on the bus to london this morning. I think, all in all, it was a joyful month of walking, but to be honest, at the moment, it feels like it never happened. But then it's a funny old world out there. 

Saturday, 6 December 2014


Working my way across the cheese-board, I'm in - security conscious - Brie. Less than forty miles from the centre of Paris, and if it wasn't for my pesky ankle within a long day's walk. I'm still striding along and it doesn't seem to be getting worse - just stiff and painful. I've cut up a sock to make a padded cuff which helps. Herzog had a similar problem at this point and roughly the same solution.
He then walked through the night and well into the next day to finish his walk. A bit too extreme for me. And besides I'm still enjoying the walk - despite the hobbling and sudden drop in temperature.
Last night I walked on from Carlos' bar and up into the huge Villefermoy forests. A comfy bed of beech and oak leaves, tawny owls calling, soup in bed and deep sleep. A bit of rain in the night, and dry again by dawn. Instead of rushing off I lay in bed writing, brewing coffee, looking at routes on the map and mulling over the trip so far. Slightly saddened it was so close to an end (chicken counting if ever).
When I emerged from the forest and back onto the road I found a slew of warning signs along the next twenty kms of dead straight walking meant to deter my kind of trespassing, and particularly poaching deer. Rabies, traps, prosecution, live ammunition etc. (Actually the one I've liked best was in a previous stretch of forest; 'process verbal.' - a good shouting, I suppose.). Probably my biggest risk was being shot by the tens of hunters out on a big drive for wild boar. Jeeps and Land Rovers shot by along the roads dropping of gunmen on the long open tracks through the woods. They were all dressed in the drabs and camouflage colours of the outdoors, an effect rather spoilt by covering the lot with high-viz orange waistcoats. Prudent though. There were frequent barrages of shots and high-velocity bullets must have been twanging through the trees like hail. In dark colours and made lumpen and boar-like by my rucksack I felt amusingly vulnerable.
Next is another of those dusk trudges along the verge of a busy road for three miles - the only way forward - and then I'm into the patchwork of dormitory towns, scattered fields and forests and parks that run into central Paris. Like an urban wolf I'm trying to find a corridor that though straight avoids busy roads, built up areas and farm land. I'll need to find a hidden spot in a wood to sleep in tonight. And then tomorrow...

Friday, 5 December 2014


What are the chances? Well, obviously high as it turns out. The photo is of a happy looking Kader Boujnane, who's just finished the third day of his four day, 400 kms run from central France to Paris. He and his team (note to self, must get a team) just turned up to eat. So, he's done half the distance I've done in a mere four days. And he's still full of energy.
But you know I was moaning about my ankle being a bit swollen and painful - well he's got the same problem but his swelling is massive and he's hobbling yet still going to run the last stretch into Paris tomorrow.
So, I'll shut up complaining and get back to walking. I'm seriously impressed by the guy.


Another long stretch without a café and so without wifi. From leaving Troyes on Wednesday evening till midday today, Friday,  walking through - counts on map - ten villages not one bar or café in over 50 kms walking.
Then in the small village of Fontaine-Fourches a boulangerie with - genius - a café/bar attached.
No wifi, but that was actually in it's favour. Locals dropped in for a baguette and stayed for a glass of wine, or came by for a calvados against the cold and decided to buy a few croissants. Brilliant.
I was creating some filmic scenario in my mind about the owner - there were photos of jazz musicians and classic b&w pictures on the walls. It was like a film set. And Margaret could have been played by a Bardot type. Except she's not French but Polish from the Carpathians, and we ended up talking about how the mountain town of Zakopane has changed since I first went skiing there in the '80s, and about horses and Gorale mountain culture. And if I'd got onto the slippery slope of just a small calvados I'd be there still. But Paris is so close.
Which is just as well - the weather is changing. I may have woken after a night swinging above a genuine mud and water bog in my hammock to sun but the temperatures are falling, grey clouds veiled the sun, perhaps for the rest of the walk, and snow is forecast for the weekend, so in the coming days.
And one foot has turned bolshie - the front tendons have had enough and are swollen and painful. I can still trot along happily on flat ground but rough going Unfortunately when I reached the Seine at Bray-sur-Seine, the river's 'bassee' - a wide stretch of river, channels, canals and marsh - the only bridge and road was effectively an eight mile causeway with speeding traffic and only a narrow verge to stumble along blinded by headlights. Most of my curses were muttered, or lost in defiant and uplifting song, as my dodgy ankle turned and rolled on tussocks and ruts and holes. But when I hit the odd bottle thrown into the rank grass and my foot twisted right over my swearing could have been heard in Paris.
Yet, of course, the road came to an end and now I'm in Donnemarie-Dontilly (I've taken to calling it Osmond-ville). And the first bar I found is the Au Bon Coin, run by the ebullient Carlos da Costa from the north of Portugal. He's set me up with wifi and a very nice Alentejo wine, and I'm enjoying the ambience of a happy southern bar - laughter, joking, fabulous aromas from the kitchen. The place is busy. Polish. Portuguese. No conclusions but just saying.
A blast of freezing air comes in every time the door opens. From here there's twenty kms of forest, then twenty kms of busy countryside and then I'm on the very outskirts of Paris and only a long walk from Notre Dame my randomly picked ending.
I'll walk for another hour into the forest and then make camp.
I keep jiggling and testing my annoying ankle and it doesn't seem any worse than it was twenty kms ago. I reckon it'll do. And on the bright side, usually by this time it's my back that's aching from my minimal but not minimal enough pack. The ankle has driven the back into second place.
Oh, and tonight's packet soup isn't a soup at all but a veloute of cress and potato. There seems to be no such thing as a simple packet 'soup' in France - they're always the more exact potage, consomme (pointless from my point of view), bouillon, etc. You got to love France.

About Me

My Photo
I'm an independent writer on wilderness activities, slow adventures, traditional horsemanship and odd stuff. I'm the author of Paddle; A long way around Ireland (Sort Of Books), and i was the story consultant on the IMAX documentary on cowboy cultures across the globe, Ride Around The Word. The Slow Adventure sends reports back from the front-line of a slow and simple life; horses, kayaks, guitars, long walks, travel, books, simplicity, trains, travel, wildlife and the occasional thrill.