‘Don’t let Stephanie touch that dish/plate/teapot, she’ll break it!’ was one of my Dad’s refrains.
Recently my sister reminded me of this when telling me of someone she knew who was dyspraxic. She said she often wondered if I had suffered from a mild form that went undetected.
I assured her that I was just a clumsy child and the fact that I had no problem riding a bicycle proved I hadn’t a dyspraxic bone in my body.
If only he heard about kintsukuroi he might have been a bit more chilled about my breakages, plus he never learned that hovering nervously over me reminding me not to break something was a sure way of making me break it.
Then again with the pressure off I might not have broken any for him to practice on in the first place.
Now my observation is a sort of antithesis.
My Dad was a pedant and therefore on one side the perfectionist in him would have struggled when faced with the shattered pieces of something as beautiful as a delicate china plate.
But he was also an artist, a purist one to be exact (no wild abstract splashing’s for him, his water colours followed the strict old fashioned wash method) so the creative side of this Japanese art would have interested him.
And being a purist, his Kintsukuroi would have been meticulous.
Unfortunately he missed the era of google, but I am sure he would have gone in search of books on the subject, just as he had with the art of tying Artificial flies for his fishing.
One of my childhood memories is of him sitting, head bent, brow furrowed in concentration, at his specially equipped table in my parents bedroom, tying these minute flies. (Really he should have been working at his architectural drawings and earning a crust for his family)
This table, on which stood a miniature vice grips and a well leafed book detailing the art of fly tying, had a small drawer underneath containing boxes with hooks of various sizes, scrapes of wool, gold and silver threads and hackle feathers collected from cockerels around the country.
It was actually my mothers dressing table, but since she never wore a scrape of make up or perfume, he commandeered it.
So you can understand why I could also picture him, at the same table, in the same manner, painstakingly fitting together the pieces of my latest breakage and painting in the cracks with gold or silver lacquer.
And just as when he was tying flies, we watched in admiration (the hook steady in the vice grips and using a forceps with surgical precision, attaching first the wool, winding the silver or gold thread around to hold it in place, then the feathers) as before our very eyes a Wickhams fancy, bloody butcher, sooty olive, or duckfly, appeared, we could have also gazed admiringly at his latest piece of kintsukuroi.
And I would have been the proud source of yet another family story surrounding the occasion of the breakage of that particular piece (rather than the shameful clumsy daughter who’s breakages ended in the bin).
A note on fly fishing (and how it ruled our family)
Firstly, the subject of hackle feathers!
As a child it did not appear to us in anyway unusual that, when driving along a country road we would screech to a sudden halt, as my dad, having spied some colourful feathered fowl in a farm yard, would leap from the car, open the gate and scattering the hens, approach the door to talk to the woman of the house.
From our vantage point, we would watch as she, or one of her children raced around the yard in pursuit of the fine cockerel whose feathers my Dad had put his eye on.
Once caught the catcher would hold the bird steady while my Dad plucked a few of the hackle feathers and thanking the farmers wife profusely, tuck them into the small metal box he kept in his jacket pocket.
Secondly. We had to know the names of the flies he tied. After all if we were his oarsman for the day, he could, without letting his eyes leave the water, reel in his line and announce that a change of fly was needed. And our job then was to quietly place the oars in the rowlocks (sounds might frighten the fish) and hand him whichever of the above he requested.
So you better know your flies!.
But where is this story going?
Breakages, flaws, imperfections and changes and re-pairings.
Kintsukuroi also has a philosophical expression i.e embracing the flaws and imperfections of the object. Seeing its life story through its breakages rather than trying to disguise them.
April, eight years ago, I received the news of a biopsy.
The primary, my right calf.
A small freckle I had surgically removed a few years before (supposedly benign) had metastasised to the lymph nodes in my groin.
Had all those years of cycling in the summer sun caused the primary?
Who knows? but one thing was sure. I was not the perfectly healthy individual I presumed I was, but a flawed one, an imperfect being, a broken piece of the human kind.
Look Dad! Now how insignificant those plates, those cups, that teapot.
‘But how can it be?’ I wailed at anyone interested in listening to me’ I feel so well’
I wrote in my diary.
‘After all my years of nursing, of hand holding and reassuring of others I am now on the same side of the fence. I never thought it would be me.’
I had my surgery that May.
At first I was scared of everything, the sun, my life, even my leg.
Especially my leg.
I took each step gingerly, barely daring to walk on it.
I was so fearful of putting weight on it that I began to cycle more than I ever (if that was possible) just to avoid putting it to the ground.
My bicycle became my crutch.
At first I cycled with two surgical drains still in place, hidden by pinning them to the underside of my long skirt.
Then through an exhausting year of Interferon.
I couldn’t stop cycling!
In the west of Ireland I struggled against the Atlantic storms, forcing my legs round and round.
And when my treatment finished, I cycled at a gentler pace across France where, on I reaching the Mediterranean, I finally excepted the philosophy of Kintsukuroi and embraced my imperfection.
In doing so, I realised I no longer needed to rely so much on my bicycle to cart me around and that sometimes I preferred walking.
And now, although there is no silver or gold mending it, like a piece of (unfinished) Kintsukuroi, the thin scar making its way crookedly along, from mid thigh to mid abdomen, continues to tell my story.
To be continued…
(Where with some anxiety but after much deliberation I decided to explore The Alentejo region in Portugal without the yellow bicycle.
As I cycle I Learn to see life stories in the flaws of old things rather than focus on their imperfections.
If I were to choose my favorite month for cycling it would be May because May is the month when the hawthorn is in bloom.
I try not to take life for granted but too often I don’t appreciate things until they have passed.
Mono no Aware is the Japanese term which describes the gentle wistfulness, or the melancholic appreciation of the transiency of things.
Hanami is the Japanese term for cherry blossom viewing. These two go hand in hand as viewing the cherry blossom, which blooms so briefly in spring, is appreciated so much more because of its transience in a way that would be missing if it was always there.
But we have a native tree that would give the cherry blossom a run for its money.
It is the humble Hawthorn.
It was in the month of May when Penny and I finally found a day when both of us were free and we head off to cycle the Achill to Westport Greenway (Co Mayo) in search of Hawthorn blossoms and to practice Hanami .
After doing the ‘two car thingy’ (A technique I wrote about in a previous post) we arrived in my car at the starting point.
‘WILL YOU BE WEARING A HELMET?’ Penny shouts to make herself heard above the rattle (She has opened the boot and is trying to disentangle her bike from mine).
‘I WILL NOT!’ I shout back, pausing from my task of taking the panniers out from behind the front seat. ‘I’VE NEVER WORN ONE IN MY ENTIRE LIFE, AS YOU WELL KNOW, AND HAVE NO INTENTION OF WEARING ONE TODAY!’
I shout so that she is also able to hear ME over the clattering of handlebars and metal mudguards but more because I am appalled that she would even suggest that I owned such a thing.
‘OK OK! she laughs ‘Keep your hair on’
At this stage She has extricated her bike from the clutches of mine and leaning it against the wall turns to me.
‘I wont wear one either so’
She watches me, daring me to look surprised.
I am surprised, shocked even.
The last time we cycled together on the Greenway, not only did she insist on wearing a helmet but a ‘High viz’ jacket as well. I remember thinking that if she fell off her bike there wasn’t much to hit her head off except some sheep wire. And that maybe she needed to wear high viz so that the sheep could see her coming.
‘Great’ I try to look as though its not important one way or the other but secretly I’m delighted ‘Now you will be able to feel the gentle spring breeze in your hair.
(Nagokaze = the Japanese term for experiencing the gentle spring breeze)
Suddenly I am struck by a wistful longing for those days long ago when cycling were simpler.
Before helmets. Before fear.
Back then (could it be almost forty years ago) I cycled the wild Atlantic way (before it became famous) from Donegal to cape clear island without once worrying about falling.
My bike was a single speed black raleigh, complete with a small wooden bicycle cart (I had bought the cart in Holland the previous year whilst on a cycling trip in Europe).
This cart was of an ingenious design.
When not carrying my accoutrements (tent, spare clothing, pots and pans, Kelly kettle) the base could be taken out and used as a table.
And the sides, having a hinge at each corner, meant the remainder could then be folded flat for easy storage.
Looking back it was a much weightier affair than today’s versions, but I knew no better as, with the breeze tossing my (unhelmeted) hair, I cruised down those Connemara hills, my feet off the pedals, the cart rattling gaily along behind.
Once when heading across the bog road to Scriob, (a road which undulated in such a measured fashion that the momentum of sailing down hill would almost carry you up the next hill without pedalling) the safety bolt loosened from the hitch on a down hill stretch and the cart disengaged.
Passing me out, it landed in a ditch upside down.
Luckily the only damage was a dint in a saucepan but I took more care after that by adding a loop of bailing twine around the hitch.
That was the only accident I can recall.
Suddenly I understand Mono no aware.
‘Come on’ A voice wakes me from my daydream.
Penny has my bicycle out too and wheels it over.
I buckle on my panniers and fix my picnic laden basket on the handle bars.
The traffic is heavy as we cycle up the main road and we are happy to take a left turn away from it and along a small gravel lane. We continue to climb slowly until finally it turns again before flattening out.
Then for a while it runs, not only fairly level, but straight as well, giving us the opportunity to look around.
To the left the boggy fields bank easily down to the sea, where the ruins of abandoned cottages lie.
‘Aw look! Aren’t the colours gorgeous?’ Penny points to the swathes of purple and pink rhododendrons dotted here and there.
The colours ARE gorgeous and I wonder is there a Japanese term for admiring things guiltily.
These invasive plants that thrive in our gentle soft rain were brought in by the Victorians and planted as exotics in the grounds of many estate houses and have now run a muck, causing huge ecological problems by threatening our native species which cannot compete for space against them.
But Penny loves them.
Brought up on the bare boggy mountains of mayo she see’s the purple and pinks as uplifting and striking.
We have the track to ourselves and we cycle along easily, stopping here and there to admire the small orchids growing along the road side and in a damp field, the pink of the ragged robin.
The ditches are full of primroses.
‘We’re Hamani-ing already’. I say
‘Save it for the hawthorn’ Penny says standing on her pedals and sniffing ‘I can smell them’.
Sure enough as we round the corner, there they are, in full bloom. Bent into shape by the prevailing northwest winds, they are spread over a field of ancient potato ridges which run down to the shore.
We catch a glimpse of water between their gnarled trunks.
Penny spreads our picnic on a nearby seat.
‘This is how they do it in Japan! They have picnics and wine while viewing the blossom’.
‘Did you know that the leaves of the hawthorn are edible’ I say. ‘In fact they are very good for you and are a known tonic for the heart’? One up for our sturdy hawthorn blossom’!
‘Except’ she replies ‘The leaves AND flowers of the cherry blossom are edible also and more famously too. There is a wide variety of treats using sakura (cherry) leaves and blossoms. From being incorporated in Wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) to Sakurayu (cherry blossom tea)’.
‘We better chew on a few hawthorn leaves so’ I sigh resignedly ‘Mustn’t let the side down’.
We pick some of the young green leaves and insert them between the two halves of our baguettes french which already contain spinach and smoked salmon.
They taste good in the sandwich, a tougher texture than the spinach but with a pleasant nutty flavour.
Penny draws a line at making hawthorn blossom tea but I pop a few in my cup and pour some boiling water over them.
The tea has a lovely scent.
‘Here’s to Hawthorn blossoms’ Penny raises her glass.
To Hawthorn blossoms’ I echo her.
We sit for a while without talking and sip our wine, admiring the view, the blossoms, the gnarled trunks of the trees, the way the light defines one side of each potato ridge.
The air is so clear.
The fragrance of the Hawthorn envelopes us.
It’s beautiful and serene and all those things that I cannot find the words to describe.
There is another Japanese term.
Yuugen translates as An awareness of something in nature that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words.
(Looking across at Mulranny strand from the Achill to Westport Greenway)
What have goats got to do with a Greenway I hear you ask.
Well not a lot! They sort of meandered into this story uninvited.
It’s early morning. I am off to cycle the western Greenway.
I leave Dublin at cockcrow, my yellow bike in the back of my old car and drive speedily along the motor way which heads to Galway (Ireland has only four of these mindless roads but they ARE handy when you are in a hurry )
After 60 kms or so I leave it to cut cross country in a north westerly direction.
Though now on a ordinary road it is too early for traffic and I still manage to zip along making good time until finally I reach the town of Ballina (in the process of creating its own greenway).
Next I pass through Crossmalina and then hit that lovely web of small roads, more often than not unsignposted.
But I continue on confidently knowing that if I keep Nephin https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nephin on my left and head southwest I will end up at my destination.
Around a corner, a brown OPW signpost points to a small road indicating the whereabouts of St Patricks well. (Did I mention that I am fascinated by holy wells)
Too late! before I even make the decision to indicate, I am gone past the sign.
If I was on my bicycle I would have been up that boreen without hesitation.
But a car is a different matter. too often you have flown by a place of interest before you can stop.
Then, maybe a car on your tail forces you onward as there is nowhere to let it pass or you have to drive some distance before you find somewhere to turn and by then the curiosity has left you.
I am tempted to say ‘feck the Greenway’ and park and pull out my bike and explore this area but my friend Penny (Not her real name) will be waiting for me. (Did I mention that when I cycle greenways I do so with a friend and when I cycle boithrins I like to do so alone).
And finally I am sitting outside the Grainne Uaile pub in Newport Co Mayo.
But still I don’t take out my bicycle.
One of my gripes with Greenways is they do not form a circular route.
If you don’t want to cycle back the way you have come, here is a solution.
I call it the ‘TWO CAR THINGY’
But you need a companion.
This is how it works
- You meet your companion at the end of the journey. Which could be called the beginning
- Of course she must also have a car with her bike in it (or on it) or it doesn’t work.
- You then decide which car will go and which will stay.
- You then load the bike from the vehicle staying into the vehicle going. (size of bike and car and lack of bike carrier may be the deciding factor here)
- You leave the now empty vehicle and drive the now full vehicle to the start.
- You park
- You unload the two bikes.
- You cycle the greenway to the end.
- If both bikes don’t fit in the returning car, you look for something to lock the bikes to, preferable a railing outside the pub (Interestingly you have spotted other cyclists downing delicious looking glasses of Guinness)
- You drive back to fetch the other car.
- Disappointingly, you realize how short the distance is when driven (30 mins) as opposed to the length of time cycling it (4/5 hours)thus minimizing the whole cycling experience.
- You get into your own car.
- You drive back to pick your waiting bicycle parked at the pub only to remember you cannot drink and drive
- You settle for a cup of tea instead.
I don’t blame you. I’m confused myself, and disgruntled too.
But here comes Penny.
Penny is neither disgruntled nor muddled. She is organized and jolly and knows exactly what she is doing
You see Penny is a teacher and after years of organizing unruly children, nothing confuses her.
Not least which car goes where with who or what on-board.
Before I know it, she has cheerfully squeezed her white bike in on top of my yellow one and off we go to the starting point of the Greenway at Achill Sound.
An addendum: As more greenways are created (there are a good few in the pipeline) they will hopefully link up and then we wont have to do the two car thingy anymore.
(The white bicycle and the yellow bicycle enjoying a break on the Achill to westport Greenway)
Friendship and Introducing those goats!
Before I go any further I would like tell you about my good friend Penny so you will understand why she is one of the few people I cycle with.
(Anyone who has no interest in goats may wish to leave now)
Penny and I met over the back of a goat.
Literally! A questionable British Saanen to be exact and about thirty two years ago.
Back then I was mad for a pair of milking goats. I dreamt of rearing my children on goats milk for and making cheese.
Over that summer I read up on goats avidly and studied the pros and cons of the different breeds.
My favorite were the Toggenburgs.
The Anglo Nubians, with their long noses and floppy ears came a close second.
But, having read about the ability of the former to escape and the delicate nature of the latter, I settled more sensibly on the docile Saanen.
I read up on what to look for. I studied photos of the supreme champions.
I noted the sleek coat, the gentle slope from hip to tail, the back legs set apart allowing for good udder capacity.
It seemed I would have to travel far, possibly as far as Northern Ireland, to obtain such creatures.
Then one day in early autumn my sister rang me in excitement. A couple she knew had just the pair and they were willing to part with them FOR FREE.
Was I interested?
Warning bells should have rung.
Instead I said that I would come and view them.
But before I had time to put on my coat, a battered estate car pulled up in my driveway (it must have been literally waiting around the corner)and the driver leapt from it and opened the boot.
Two goats jumped out, shot off into the orchard and with the agility of a pair of chimpanzees, scaled the nearest apple trees and began nibbling the branches and eating whatever apples remained unpicked.
Politeness prevailed. There was a human to be seen to first, and I turned to the owner of these tree climbing beasts.
But no! he wouldn’t stay for a cup of tea thank you all the same… he had a lot of things to attend to…he was in an awful hurry!! (The marks his tyres left on my driveway attested to this).
To cut a long story short, when I finally managed to coax the goats down from the tree with a bucket of beet pulp and get near enough to them to examine them and ensure they were indeed goats (and not some variety of four legged monkey)I was left in no doubt of their questionable pedigree.
Disappointingly there was no similarity to those I had seen in my book. No sleek coat or the gentle tapering from hip to tail, nor could I catch sight, due to the length of their rough coats, of an udder, smooth or otherwise.
After finally enticing them further into their shed with the intention of bundling them into the boot of my own car and returning them, they looked at me with such love in their eyes (Its amazing the effect a bucket of beet-pulp can have) I gave in (I didn’t even know where this ‘friend’ lived).
The wonderful thing about animals is if you are kind to them they will love you and won’t give a fig for your obvious disappointment in them.
But just feeding my goats well will not make them pregnant and if I wanted to have kids (and therefore milk) in the spring I needed to work fast.
And that is how I met my now good friend Penny, the owner of a handsome Saanen pedigree buck.
I was first drawn to her kindness and inevitable friendship (We discovered more than just goats in common)by the fact that she didn’t laugh at my unkempt ladies (honestly all the brushing in the world did nothing to improve those rough long coats)but allowed a romance between them and himself to take place.
Then as if by magic in the late bloom of their ensuing pregnancy, the pair lost their rough coats and indeed began to look something like the goats I had dreamed of owning.
And though my ‘goat days’ are long gone, our friendship remains and she is there when I need a bicycling companion who is willing to put up with my cycling idiosyncrasies and keep me on the straight and narrow.
(The start of my herd)
And now, due to those meandering goats, I have reached a word count of One thousand five hundred and ninty something and have probably lost most of my readers after eight hundred! So I will draw a halt to my ramblings as I have other things to do on this spring Sunday (cycling my bike for example).
Coming soon: When Penny and I actually cycle the Greenway and I promise to not to step off the beaten track …..
Every bicyclist has their reason or reasons for cycling.
From the Pelotons that fill the roads on a Sunday like brightly coloured parakeets to those who cycle from the sheer necessity of getting from A to B.
And all of us in between.
Whether we choose main roads, bóithríns or greenways, it boils down to the one thing!
We spend an inordinate amount of time on a strange two wheeled object which by forward propellant of its pedals (which in turn revolves its wheels) causes it not only to defy gravity and remain upright but also to move forward (and even backward if you are a circus cyclist) and once continuing to do so, will not keel over, dumping us to the ground (Unless of course it is leaning against something).
Greenway: a preserved car free trail often a disused railway line or a canal towpath (In Ireland) used for recreational purposes such as biking and hiking.
(A civilized place to rest on the Achill to Westport greenway)
Boreen/bohareen: derived from the Irish word bóithrín meaning little road. Usually single tracked, often with grass growing down the center. Banked by stone wall, hedgerow or ditch, they twist and turn and part ways around hills and over streams and generally find their own natural and interesting path through the country side.
(One of the many bóithríní crisscrossing the Irish countryside complete with bystander)
Recently a friend asked which of the above I would prefer most to cycle along and she had to wait for a day or so while I pondered over her question.
Now I think greenways are wonderful and I have four of the five Irish ones under my saddle with a plan to cycle the fifth http://www.deisegreenway.com/ when there is a break in the clouds (so to speak).
They have stunning scenery, are car free, for the most part flat, mostly straight (they usually follow a disused railway line or canal towpath) well organised, well signposted, well maintained.
In fact too good to be true!
Why therefore does the untidy and rarely signposted mishmash of tiny roads (Bóithríns) so common to our Irish country side, attract me more than the safe civilized well signposted cycling trail.
Well You see I don’t LIKE to know where I am going. (I enjoy getting home, pulling out the map and thinking THAT’S where I’ve been).
I am not organised and I cycle in a most haphazard manner, choosing my route spontaneously.
And maybe I just like getting lost (easy to do on a bóithrín but impossible on a greenway)
Scenario One: The bóithrín
A yellow bicycle complete with occupant is moving slowly but surely up to the top of a low hill. The rain has finally stopped and the scent of meadow sweet, dog roses and hawthorn lies heavy on the air.
The bicycle is an old fashioned upright type making it difficult for the rider to stand on the pedals and gain any momentum.
Equipped with just three gears, she is now in first and smiles triumphantly. The crest of the hill is about to be hers. But just as she makes that final effort, a voice from the ditch startles her.
‘You’d be better off with one of them electric yokes’.
Losing concentration (and momentum) she wobbles towards the owner of the voice and just about manages to dismount awkwardly, preventing the bike from toppling over.
A middle aged man with a sally rod under his arm hops out in front of her over the low ditch.
‘I’m perfectly able to get up hills under my own steam’ she says haughtily.
Ignoring her obvious annoyance he pulls open a nearby gate.
‘Would ya ever mind standing there for a moment and put a halt to the cattle if they try to head down the hill’ He motions with his stick in the direction she has come from ‘They’re mad for the river’
He has barely finished his sentence when a herd of unruly bullocks shove through the gate and turn towards her.
‘I’ll stand by the lower gate’ and without waiting for her reply he is off over the hill, disappearing down the other side, leaving her alone with her charges.
The bullocks snort and bellow and lower their heads looking at her and the bike with suspicion
One tries to make a dash past.
Still smarting from her now questionable ability to cycle up and over a hill, she has a good mind to let him go his merry way and the others too if they should wish.
But she holds her ground and does as the farmer has bid.
‘Shoo’ Waving one arm up and down, the other holding the bike in front of her for protection she glares at him.
The bullock knowing instinctively he has met his match, backs into the herd who realizing they are defeated turn and, with much snorting, butting and mounting each other, make their way up the hill after the farmer and down the other side out of view.
She follows them (after all she is going in that direction) keeping her distance in case they change their minds.
They don’t, but in revenge one or two lift their tails and splatter the road with dung.
‘Yuck! great!’ She swerves to avoid running her tyre through the mess.
At the bottom of the hill the farmer is standing guarding the road. The gate to another field lying open. He raises his stick and the cattle who, despite constant stops to snatch mouthfuls of grass, have reached him, swing in unison into the new field where they proceed to charge around madly trampling the fresh luscious grass.
‘Don’t forget to think about that electric yoke or better still, get a car’. The man calls out as he ties the gate shut with a piece of baling twine.
Throwing her eyes up to heaven, she doesn’t bother to reply but mounts her bike and whizzes down the hill past him.
At the bottom of the hill the bóithrín forks. She hesitates momentarily before turning left.
As she sails along her wheels hissing on the still wet road, small finches scoot from the gnarled and wind-shaped hawthorn trees to the stands of willow lining the bóithrín.
Like dolphins with a boat they keep apace with her.
The bóithrín twists and turns, dips and climbs, its appearance ever changing.
Here a bit of stone wall, there a low ditch, here a flower entangled hedgerow, again those low hawthorns and all interspersed with gates of some kind. Some large and galvanized, others shaped from old pallets keeping livestock off the road.
At one point a solitary horse, alerted by the sound of her wheels, meanders over, she stops to stroke his nose. Then she is off again.
They only sound she hears apart from the wind and the odd call of a sheep are the far off cars on the Westport to Louisburg road and even they fade as the road swings further south.
Another fork! again she decides to take the left turn. At this stage she has lost track of where she is or what sort of distance she has covered.
All she is aware of is that the far of sound of traffic has been replaced with the sound of running water and she is getting hungry and is keeping an eye out for a suitable picnic place.
Rounding another corner she finds that the river has either done a full loop or maybe she has backtracked.
Jumping down from the saddle and leaning her bike against the low stone bridge she unstraps her basket from the handle bars and lays her picnic out on a flat area of the bridge
Wine, some bread and cheese and an apple.
She settles herself comfortably on the wall in the late afternoon sun.
Coming next ; The greenway.
(Going abroad with a bicycle the easy way)
- ‘ A word or phrase as an explanation or afterthought added into a passage which is grammatically complete without it (usually marked off by brackets, dashes or commas.)’
- A woman who on reaching sixty, finds herself adding many afterthoughts and unnecessary explanations (parentheses is the plural) to her writings.
You would be excused for thinking that the title for this post was to do with a new yoga regime for the older woman.
Or that my absence from this blog (it must be at least three months since my last post) is due to the fact that I have been away on a such named boot camp devised for the middle aged.
As an aside it has occurred to me that, while NOT writing, I have become sixty!
(A note to oneself: Keep writing… it prevents you getting OLD!)
And though I do feel some days that I have been inverted (Silly me to imagine things would slow down when I reached the above age) and even somewhat deflated, (It’s getting harder to find time to write) the above title is only to do with my fast approaching holiday in Portugal (Where I plan to rent a VW camper with bike rack and explore the Alentejo region) and the obvious question….
Do I bring the yellow bicycle with me or rent a bicycle when I arrive?
It might seem a simple enough affair to throw a bicycle into the nether regions of a plane but its more tedious than you would think (or maybe on reaching sixty things just appear more tedious)
You see for the passage of a bicycle, airlines request that you;
- Deflate both tyres.
- Invert both pedals
- Drop the handle bars and turn them sideways
- Lower the saddle.
These procedures are simple to accomplish with a good spanner, pump and wrench but the tediousness comes with the redoing of the undone.
Flying the yellow bicycle to France all those years ago when I was a young and energetic fifty year old (as opposed to the ease of cycling it fully intact onto a ferry and off the other side last September as I approached sixty) seems a long time ago.
Yet the recollection of sheltering from the downpour under a walkway outside the main doors of Bordeaux airport as I struggled to unwrap a large sodden cardboard box in which my bicycle had travelled, is still vibrant.
As the rain pelted down and the taxi men sat warm and smug in their cars watching the show, I wondered if it had been a wise idea after all.
I had packed it into a large cardboard box, courtesy of my local bike shop (The other option of using one of those fancy bicycle bags I dispensed with as unpractical. I didn’t intend hauling any unnecessary equipment on my journey). The idea that I would just tear up and throw away the cardboard seemed the best option (I had a month of cycling to consider how I would pack it for my return journey)
It turned out to be easy to fill up the various bins outside the airport with the sodden stuff. Whether it was legal or not was another question but nobody stopped me and as I cycled across France, I quickly learnt that if you are on a bicycle you can get away with anything.
At this stage, strip by strip the yellow bicycle began to reveled its shiny self and just as I had run out of bins, it stood before me, a sorry sight, its metaphorical head hanging as though in shame at being caught at its most vulnerable.
I got to work, my audience twisting their heads to get a better view.
Inflating tyres with a small hand pump is a lot less fun then deflating them but I pretended that I was having the time of my life.
Eventually that task was complete and I had less trouble attending to the inverted pedals and raising the saddle.
It was when I tried to tackle the final chore that I had to admit defeat.
No matter how well I held the handlebars upright and how tight I tightened the screws they just stubbornly dropped back down again.
Meanwhile the taxi men grew either bored or received a passenger because one by one they roared off enveloping me in a wreath of petrol fumes and leaving me with a bicycle that looked like a cross between an Omafiets , a hybrid and a racer.
However there was a happy ending to this story.
On finding a nearby bicycle shop a handsome young man (without any look of disdain) not only righted and tightened the handles to the correct height but also oiled the chain and finished inflating the tyres and, refusing to take any payment, handed me back my bike and wished me ‘Bon voyage’
Needless to say (as in all good films) I had only left the shop when the rain stopped and the sun came out.
With a light heart, I turned the yellow bicycle towards the west and headed into the setting sun.
My destination was Arcachon where I dipped the tyre of the yellow bicycle into the Atlantic before turning eastward and cycling across France to the Mediterranean.
In hindsight it hadn’t been too tedious and as I write this piece this piece this morning I know what I will do
I will bring the yellow bicycle to the dutch bicycle shop (the only bicycle shop where the employees don’t hide under the table when they see us coming) and get a few lessons on the raising of handlebars.
Then I will ring Aerlingus and add the yellow bicycle to my flight.
(Arriving at the Mediterranean successfully with handlebars still aloft)
Good bye to the Agapanthus
Before I realize it my week is over.
In what seems like the blink of an eye, my island story is told.
I make my bed one final time and close the door of the room with it’s window that looks across the bay of sleeping boats at low tide and its ghostly presence at night.
I never did get around to writing about my need to check each room, cupboard and wardrobe before I went to bed.
I am not usually scared of night time. I wild camp without a second thought and sleep in a small tent with no fear. Darkness never bothers me, I have often cycled home alone with just my bicycle lamp to show me the way.
Yet, though this house is in the middle of the village and there is no crime on the island, I felt uneasy each night I spent in it. My unease coming from something inside the house rather than outside.
Of all the rooms, the bedroom opposite the one I chose to use, caused me the most anxiety.
My instinct was to close its door but to keep my one open so that I could keep a watchful eye.
But what I would do if I woke in the morning to find it open or worse, woke in the night to see the door handle slowly turning, I had no idea.
Eventually of course I fell asleep each night and in the morning all was well.
And in the end, the only night I was ever disturbed was when leaving the window open, the zing of a mosquito in my ear made me shoot out of bed.
After a ridiculously lengthy chase I managed to squish the intruder between my shoe and the wall.
I plan to be up early but I sleep in.
When I finally walk up the hill to the boulangerie, all the pain au raisin are sold out.
Madame looks surprised to see me and I explain my absence yesterday. I tell her I am leaving this morning and thank her for her delicious patisseries over the last week.
She suggests a Breton Far. A solid custard type square studded with plums and when I nod, I see her slip a second one in.
‘Au revoir et bon voyage’.
I walk down the steep hill for the last time.
The lady who takes care of the house rings to tell me just to pull the door after me and leave the key in it.
She has had to go to the mainland unexpectedly and apologises for not being there to say goodbye. I am concerned about leaving the house with the key dangling in the door but she assures me that I needn’t worry.
I meet the postman coming in through the gate. He has the only other yellow bicycle on the island and it has a small engine on it, which I suppose when, day in day out delivering letters and parcels up those steep hills, he is well entitled to.
Outside the gate I wait patiently until the only herd of milking cows left on the island walk by and then sail down the hill to the catch ferry, stopping on the pier to look back one last time across the semi circle of sand.
Au revoir to the village with its steep hill. To my house with the blue shutters. To the stone cottages. To the white beaches and small lane ways.
Au revoir to the fields of fennel and cauliflowers and now faded Agapanthus.
‘Simple ou return?’ The ferry lad looks surprised (or maybe slightly relieved) when I sadly reply ‘Simple’
Again he doesn’t charge me for the yellow bicycle though it has caused him more trouble than I have.
The tide is still out so once again its an easy chore to wheel my bike off the ferry and up the sloping ramp of the walk way.
The importance of lunch time in France can not be overstated.
I learnt that the hard way when cycling from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean a few years ago.
Cycling until midday, my romantic notion of stopping and buying baguette, figs, goats cheese and a small bottle of Sancerre to picnic on in the shade of some dappled-Monet-like-canal-side-tree, was soon quashed.
Shops closed for lunch from 12 until two.
On the dot and without exception.
No amount of pleading by a mad Irish woman who didn’t have a watch or a good sense of time, and always managed to arrive just as the doors of such establishments were shutting, was going to make the owner take pity and let her in.
I went hungry for the first day or two until I began to realise the importance of these two hours.
Then one day, after again being turned away with a rumbling stomach, I spied a tiny fish restaurant on the banks of the Canal.
I was shown to a small table at the back in a dark corner.
The only other people at the restaurant, were a couple who were already eating at a prime canal side table.
Seated beneath an ancient weeping willow in the warmth of the October sun, they appeared dappled and happy and impressionist like.
Their wine glasses glinted in the light as they raised and lowered them between mouthfuls. Their contented sounding conversation drowned out only occasionally when a pretty pénichette would chug by, its wake causing the soporific ducks and swans to sway and untuck their heads momentarily in order to glare at the disturbance of their fish filled dreams.
Lucky them I thought (The couple not the birds)watching enviously from my table in the gloom.
Minutes later a group of ten arrived and immediately the couple were moved (mid mouthful) from their enviable table to a smaller one near mine and the waiters busied themselves joining the now empty table to another while the new arrivals stood patiently by.
With a flurry of white linen and the clattering of cutlery and glass, it was soon ready and the newcomers were seated.
Meanwhile the discommoded couple continued their food and wine and conversation at the lesser table.
I watched amazed
Not only did they NOT give the slightest inkling of objection at losing their scenic spot, nor any indication at the inconvenience of being interrupted mid bite, But they even smiled at the waiters as though understanding perfectly that it was not the loveliness or ambience of seating position that was important, but the priority of getting everyone fed for this imperative meal.
(Nor, I noted, was there any smugness on the part of the group who now sat installed at a wonderful table in the dappled shade.
Indeed they (the newcomers) didn’t seem in the slightest bit aware of their good fortune except to take it as though fully entitled to do so.
Nor did they show any appreciation for the loveliness of their surroundings. Instead, bending their heads low, they discussed what they would eat).
The second time I noticed the importance of lunchtime was when I took the train from Sete to Narbonne with my bicycle.
Unfortunately I chose a day when the train workers decided to stage an impromptu ‘manifestation’ (strike) .
The train stopped (and remained) at a small station and as I sat listening to the sound of rifles being shot into the air further down the tracks, the other passengers suddenly sprang from their seats and hurried down the platform to where a large crowd was gathering.
Curious as to what was happening, I followed, to see the striking station workers handing out cardboard boxes to everyone.
It was midday and yes, the world might be falling asunder, the trains not running etc, but the people had to eat lunch.
I joined the crowd and was duly handed a box.
Taking it back to my carriage I tucked into tuna pasta, a small plastic bottle of white wine,a fruit yogurt and an apple
Once I had finished and because ,though the sounds of of gunshots were fading, the train still showed no signs of moving, I removed my bicycle from its rack in the bike compartment and cycled away satisfied by my lovely lunch.
Lunch time is drawing near.
The restaurant opposite the old harbour is busy.
I manage to get a small table on the terrace with just two chairs at it.
knowing from my above mentioned experiences how precious restaurant tables are at this time of day, I am aware how lucky I am.
At the table beside mine, a group of five Irish men sit with glasses of beer in front of them.
I order a glass then watch as one of the men stands up, boules in hand and steps across the low stone wall separating the terrace from the pitch.
There is a Frenchman already there (I saw him arrive on a moped when I was putting my bicycle in the rack) practicing alone. The Irish man approaches him and without noticeably speaking the pair shake hands and a game of boules begins.
It all happens so smoothly, almost fluently.
It’s obviously not the first time the Irish man has played.
Not only does he appear to know the protocol of starting a game, but he does not let us down either.
By now the beer/wine/coffee drinkers are swiveling in their seats for a better view and the odd clapping of hands and murmurs of appreciation break out.
I settle contentedly back in my chair and watch the game too.
The restaurant is getting busier. (If that is possible) I order a plate of moules mariniere and a glass of white wine
Every table is filled and I nod as someone asks if they can take the empty seat opposite me.
Another chair appears. and another.
My table for one has now become a table for four.
Though now a bit squished, I have no objection.
I understand that we are not at the one table with the expectation of becoming friends or even making small chat but rather for the importance of ‘faire manger‘.
So after an initial ‘bon appetit’ we get down to the business in hand of enjoying our lunch!
The final hours.
The church of Sainte Barbe sits on top of a hill.
Built at the start of 17th century, it is a beautiful building, its tower reaching to the heavens.
The plaque explains that Sainte Barbe was the patron saint of sailors and that the occupants of the passing boats would salute the church in hopes for a safe voyage.
After my lunch at the busy restaurant I still have some time before I need to be at the ferry, so I sit in its shadow and pulling out my diary am busy writing the final sentences of my story when I become aware of the flow of male voices.
I can’t see the owners of this conversation as they are hidden from my view by the shrubbery, but judging from the undulation, the butting in, the interruptions, with sometimes two voices together escalating and much laughter they can only be that of friends.
As I turn around curiously to listen and try and catch what language they are speaking (Yes eavesdrop, if you will) I notice three bicycles complete with filled pannier’s leaning against a wall.
One of the bicycles is sporting an Irish flag.
The voices get louder and without a break in the conversation, three men of about my age appear around the corner.
‘Bonjour’ They greet me politely when they see me sitting there.
‘Bonjour’ I reply in my best accent intending to pretend I am french. But before I know it I’m admitting to my Irishness.
We start comparing notes.
They explain that its their first time cycling in France and only one of them (I’ll call him Tom) speaks the language and poorly at that.
They depend on his french (however poor) for asking directions when they get lost (which they seem to do frequently).
Now their story goes that Tom only knows the french word for ‘right’ (a droite) and can never remember the word for ‘left’ (a gauche) but at least he knows that one word. So when they are cycling along (Lost as per usual) and he is forced to stop and ask directions, if whoever he asks, indicates they should turn left and says ‘a gauche’, he jumps back on his bicycle, immediately forgetting the word for ‘left’ so shouts instead to the pair still cycling ahead ‘A non droite, A non droite’ (‘to the not right’) and they turn left.
Was it due to my almost non existing chance of conversation for the week on the island that makes me find their story hilarious?
Eventually after much chat we part ways arranging to continue our conversation later in the bar on the ferry but for now they off to buy wine to bring home to their wives and I am off to buy gifts for my grandchildren which I do before cycling down the hill to join the queue of cars waiting to board the ferry.
It was my last day on the Island and I awoke in a dilemma.
Should I stick with my original plan of having no plan and just do my usual i.e let the small sandy tracks lead me hither and tither,
or should I get the ferry to Roscoff and go to the market.
I blame it on Regine!
She made the market sound so enticing.
Sitting with her and Marie yesterday eating gallettes at the Creperie du Phare she became as animated as when I first met her and she thought the yellow bicycle was an antique.
Describing the various stall and the delights they offered, her blue mascaraed eyes flashed with excitement.
If only I hadn’t bumped into her yesterday, I wouldn’t have a clue about what was taking place on the mainland.
I just wanted my last day to be uncomplicated. To spend it alone. (meeting the two women for the 10.30 ferry meant company for a good part of the day)
For the first time in a glorious week of spontaneity I had to make a decision.
I wanted to go but I wanted to stay!
I wanted to go but I wanted to go alone.
I looked at the clock.
I am out of bed and through the door in 15 minutes flat. Teeth barely brushed, no time for coffee.
It is still dark as I cycle up the hill past the church, down the other side and along the seafront.
The tide is well out. I can just make out the outline of the boats sleeping on their sides on the sand.
This adds an extra minute to my journey as racing past the ‘tide in’ pier, I have to cycle on around the corner and down the long jetty way.
The ferry is there but the engine is chugging impatiently.
The handsome young lad from my first crossing, looks up from his work of untying the mooring ropes as I loom out of the darkness, the yellow bicycle clattering across the cobbles
‘Attend!’ I shout to him.
Laughing, He gestures at me to slow down.
The ‘low tide pier’ makes getting the bicycle on much easier.
No steps to struggle down.
I wheel it easily off the jetty and onto the boat.
Sitting down on one of the plastic chairs, I catch my breath as the sky turns pink and the sun appears over the horizon.
The 7.30 ferry pulls out and begins its journey across the bay.
‘Retour S’il vous plait et aussi le velo’ I hand over my fare brushing away any guilty thoughts of Regine and Marie and remind myself I hadn’t committed fully to going with them.
‘If I am not on the pier at 10.30 go without me’ were my parting words as I headed up the hill, wobbling slightly from the amount of wine we had drunk.
Plus they don’t really need me, they had each other for company.
Its only when the boat is half way across the bay that I remember Madame at the boulangerie. How long will she wait with my brown paper bag before she realises I won’t be joining her queue today.
Roscoff is pink in the morning light
Once again I find it much easier to bring my bicycle when the tides are out.
I wheel it easily onto the jetty and push it up the long sloping steps.
The market is underway already. I’m glad I’m there early. It gives me a chance to see every thing before the crowds start.
I buy a raincoat. Its bright yellow to match my bicycle and is lined with blue and white cotton. I also buy a Breton jumper.
Blue and white striped also.
I queue at the cheese stall and eavesdrop on what the other customers are buying.
I watch the Fromager lifting and holding up the huge wheels of cheese for his customer to view and I listen carefully, doing my best to understand what they are saying as they discuss the merits of each cheese before he cuts with a steel string the requested amount.
But its the small pats of smelly goats cheese that really catch my attention and the brie’s with their white/ grey mouldy rinds and milky oozing interiors.
Some of the goats cheeses are wrapped in nettle leaves, some in rushes, others are ‘naked’ the rind being enough to hold them together.
I watch as he gently presses each circle with the back of his hand before choosing one to wrap for his customer.
The array is mind boggling.
My eyes skim up and down, backwards and forwards.
Un …. non un …. et un piece de…. I practice to myself
And then it’s my turn.
I pronounce my choices in my best french and I receive a smile for my attempts.
‘C’est tout’? he enquires as I start rooting for my purse.
‘Qui c’est tout’ I breath a sigh of relief.
Not only did he understand me but he hadn’t spoken to me in English (A sure sign that I have passed the test.)
I queue at the vegetable stall along with women with baskets and men with pulley bags.
No one is in a rush and the crowd chat and joke and choose and hum and haw and change there minds.
I miss the last bunch of fragrant basil.
The small bearded man with a blue hat ahead of me, has snatched it up and is busy burying his nose in it.
I give him a minute, he might put it back?
But no! He lays it gently on top of the other items in his already bulging wheelie bag before paying and heading off, smiling smugly.
I am offered a handful of freshly smelling flat leafed parsley instead. I nod and add it to the head of lettuce before choosing a bunch of odd looking tomatoes. ‘Tomatoes ancien’ it says on the little wooden label.
‘Not for cooking’ says the stall owner ‘délicieux for eating without….you know?’ she makes the motion of stirring a pan and my audience nods their heads in agreement.
‘Qui! pas pour la cuisson’ they mutter.
Its when I’m at the bread stall that I see him.
I am busy discussing seaweed breads with the bread man, whom I recognise as being either Dutch or German but with really good french and speaking English with a french accent that is tinged with something more gutteral.
He is passionate about seaweed and describes collecting it. Especially his favorite, the chorda Filum variety.
I recognise it and tell him I know it as mermaids tresses but he is not listening! He is on a roll describing how you are only allowed by law to harvest it when it is a certain length. He pulls a measuring tape from his pocket to show me the mark allowed and tells me how he brings his tape everywhere with him in so he will be able to harvest it if he comes across it.
(He is definitely German, I can’t imagine a french man being so precise)
He also tells me how he not only pickles it but adds it to his breads and cakes .
His cakes are beautifully presented in unbleached cake cases, each decorated with a swirl of seaweed on the top.
I choose one and he puts it carefully into a paper bag even though I want to eat it straight away.
Suddenly his gaze shifts and he lifts his hand to greet someone behind me. I look around and there he is!
Jeremy Irons, tall thin dark haired with a touch of grey, a beaked nose wearing a white linen cap and crumpled white linen suit with a slash of a yellow silk scarf around his neck. He is holding a cup which, when he reaches us, he passes to the German.
‘You are not Jeremy Irons so?’ I ask in that round about way now that I see him at closer quarters.
‘Sorry to disappoint’ He smiles ‘but sadly no I am not, but you are not the first person to think so’
He says this in french but I can tell its not his native language.
‘He is an american in Paris’ laughs the German ‘or should I say Roscoff’. He takes a sip of the coffee whilst the American slips easily into our conversation.
We talk about Ireland. The american has been there often. His wife is from Brittany and they love all things Celtic especially the music.
A few clouds begin to build up above the stalls.
Will it rain I wonder excitedly (I have my new rain coat at the ready)
‘Non’ they look up ‘Pas de pluie aujourd’hui’.
I roll my new coat up and stuff it disappointingly into my pannier.
In the side that is not filled with cheese and lettuce and tomatoes and now seaweed baguette and cake.
The market is well underway and becoming crowded. Women are forming a queue at the seaweed bread/cake stall so I wave goodbye to my new friends and make my escape.
The town is very pretty and I could linger but I need a bit of space.
I follow a road through the town which brings me out to the coast road.
I follow the coast road past the parked campers.
I am happy it is just me and my bike again. I have talked enough for one day.
At a castle I spy a small lane way cutting across the tidal inlet
It’s my kind of road!
sandy and narrow.
what can I do but see where it goes?
And now dear reader, I could continue to describe my day in words but you are probably tired of them so maybe it would be nicer if I showed them in pictures and you can find your own descriptive words.
Suffice to say it was a wonderful sun filled day with clear sea’s.
Those looming rain clouds knew that this cyclist now had an adequate rain coat (thank you Regine and the market) so they stayed away.
Yes, my day slowly filled with bicycling along the coast, the warm wind in my hair, stopping for a swim here and there,
and further along stopping again,
for a wonderful bowl of Moules mariniere with copious glasses of white wine.
And finally catching the last ferry home.
Cycling tiredly over the hill and homeward bound, I see a small triangular figure in the distance walking in the same direction, weighed down with a full bag on each arm.
Like the coward that I am and feeling very guilty for being such, I brake and wait till the figure disappears around the corner and out of sight before continuing home to unpack my wares, have a cup of tea and take stock of the day.
To be continued……..
My dad had an odd sense of humor which veered towards puns and spoonerisms.
When we were young, He would ask us…
‘Did you ever hear the story of the three wells?’
Some of us had, having heard it from him umpteen times before, but as there were many of us he probably couldn’t remember who he had already told.
And anyway it was wiser to humour him!
So we answered ‘No’
‘Well! Well! Well!’ He would shout triumphantly.
Now that he had our attention this would be followed with,
‘And did you ever hear the story of the three eggs?’
Again we would chorus obediently ‘No!’
‘Two bad’ and he would laugh uproariously.
On the Island of Batz I found three Wells,
and well…..here is the story of my search for them…
It is day five on the island and anyone following my story will see how, as the days pass by, I relax and grow more comfortable with spending time alone, doing nothing more exciting than wandering the Island on the yellow bicycle.
Now and again I have a brush with humanity and this mostly takes place as I join the morning queue at the boulangerie for my pain au raisin, my pet de nonne and my baguette
I think madame keeps them specially for me because now that the school has opened, there is an increased demand for pastries, and even if I am last in the door, she hands me the warm bag before I even get a chance to make my request.
Although done out of a chance to practice my french, I am grateful that I no longer have to rush up the hill but can take time to observe the bay not only for 16th century french Galleons but now also for that 18th century Corsairs ship too (See previous posts)
After the boulangerie, is the cycle up the hill to the supermarket for the filling for my baguette.
After which ‘Le Monde est mon huitre’ (The world is my oyster)
Originally my aim was to head out, each day, in a different direction, no plan, no map, just a spontaneous following of the small roads that crisscrossed the island.
However, after my discovery of Le Trou du serpant yesterday and the story of Saint Pol driving the beast into the sea and giving one of the Island Wells the cure for blindness, I decide to try and find that Well (and any others I can find along the way)
And so off I go, picnic in panniers, ready for the days findings.
At the crossroads I turn right. This road brings me down a narrow street and onto a small square in the center of which stands a circular stone structure.
Although it is now filled with agapanthus, it looks suspiciously like a Well, not just because of it shape but also because of its position in the middle of the triangular square (My dad loved a good paradox too)
But I may be wrong and unfortunately my french does not extend to discussing such subjects. Plus the only person I meet is an elderly man and he is heading in the opposite direction.
With the first Well in my pocket I’m off again, turning left and passing some lovely blue shuttered cottages, one with the tiniest window imaginable.
In Ireland, An old high stone wall in the countryside usually indicates the presence of ‘The big house’
So I am surprised to see a similar type wall on this tiny island
I follow it along curiously and soon reach a gate that allows me to glimpse inside.
I can see a square walled field with rows of cauliflowers not yet in bloom and huge mullein plants growing from the base of the wall.
I move past the gate and come upon a very exciting find.
Inserted snugly into the wall, its roof and bowl intact and protected by the ancient moss covered walls which jut out on both sides like a pair of sheltering arms is a beautifully built Well.
I have found Well number two.
Maybe this type of structure was to stop cows and other domestic beasts getting in an stirring up the water or maybe it was for resting the waiting buckets on. Whichever it is a thing of beauty and a very practical design
But is it the well with the cure for blindness? St Pols well?
Further along I catch a glimpse of the extensive roofs of the big house and turning left at its entrance I follow the high wall as it twists around the property.
Ahead, in the same way that the Well is inserted into the wall, is a chapel. I can only presume this belongs to the big house because it was common in the 18th and 19th centuries for houses of wealth and power to have there own chapel for members of family and staff.
The lane leads back into open country again and down the hill towards ‘the wild side’
I cycle along a bumpy road that could be straight from the west of Ireland, passing a tethered Connemara pony (I know a Connemara when I see one), feeling very much at home when I notice to my left, a track leading off towards a flat stone slab.
I recognise that familiar shape too and arriving breathless and slightly shaken from the uneven surface I find Well number three. It is so reminiscent of an Irish Well that, together with the wild landscape and the Connemara pony, I have to remind myself I am actually in France.
This is surely Saint Pols Well!
Its position is perfect. A triumphant Saint Pol having successfully thrown/ enticed /ordered the serpent into the sea, would have strode this way, clapping his own back (Remember the agreement was if he managed to get rid of the serpent the island was his) as he headed towards the town.
It would be no skin off his nose to give the Well the cure for blindness as he passed it.
Again I dip my hands in to the water and splash it on my eye’s and looking up from my task I see a path of smooth flat stones leading to another structure.
How clever! The Well feeds water to the communal washing area Le Lavoir
But all this searching for wells and mulling about the history of them is hungry work.
I lay out my picnic and sitting on the low stone wall, look back at the lavoir, trying to imagine the scene where the women of the village would gather to do the weekly washing.
The facility is so well laid out with the smaller pool for soapy water perhaps and the larger for rinsing.
The overflow spouts between the pools, I presume, kept the water flowing, clearing the ponds as it did and the low walls were just made for sitting and gossiping on.
Sadly now it is full of algae and I have no one to gossip with.
A familiar blue figure catches my eye.
It’s Regine and when she spots me, she hurries over kissing me on both cheeks and greeting me like a long lost friend, her ancient Pentax camera bouncing against her chest, her lashes an even more startling blue than I remember.
‘Tomorrow’ she exclaims breathlessly, before I have even time to say Bonjour. ‘The market is on in Roscoff!’
‘It is not to be missed’ She frowns as she takes off her rug sack and rummages in the pocket of it, pulling out her small note book.
‘Regardez! I have a list of the tides and the boat times here’
She runs her finger down the timetable.
‘If you get the 10.30 boat, the tide will be coming in and you wont have to make the long walk along the jetty’ (when the tide is out the ferry cannot get into either the island harbour or the mainland one and instead it moors at a long pier which means the passengers have to walk about half a kilometer to the shore)
‘Are you going? I ask her
‘Bien sur‘ she nods furiously. ‘It is fantastique‘
‘Mais maintenant, I am going to meet my friend at the Creperie Du Phare! Please join us. The proprietors are tres sympathique, the food is formidable!’
And because I miss having someone to gossip with and I like the sound of sympathetic proprietors and formidable food, I decide that I will.
Looking back I realise I was drawn to the Island because of its size.
Or lack of it.
I needed to be free but I needed to be contained too.
Without containment I might get on my bicycle and just keep cycling. (This is what happened when bicycling across France a few years previously. Promising I would regard every Saturday and Sunday as rest days, I couldn’t help myself and ended up cycling on those days too.)
A small Island would do the trick. The sea would put a halt to my gallop.
Plus a small Island would surely be a place of small happenings with few distractions (I could get a bit of writing and painting done too)
No large heroic adventures would be found there.
Just the simple, the ordinary.
And yet I found as the days went on the happenings on the island invited better attention to things that would elsewhere be passed over as mundane.
I was becoming absorbed in my examination of every simple ordinary mundane detail.
My daily visit to the boulangerie, was as captivating as any play by O’ Casey or John B Keane or Beckett
I could write a novel about the people waiting for the supermarket to open.
Each lace curtained, coloured shuttered window, each winding sandy lane, each neatly rowed cauliflower-ed field, had the makings of a story, a poem, a work of art.
And to pay heed to it all I found that walking became my correct pace.
Cycling my upright slow bicycle was now going too fast.
I feared I might miss things travelling in that manner.
I would still bring it with me, but push it along like a sort of work horse for carrying my drawing materials, my picnic, my towel and swim suit and most importantly my bottle of wine.
And I did cycle it every now and again up those hills. (I needed to continue working off those pain au raisin and Pet de Nonne’s).
The sign at the end of the ‘wild beach’ to the west of the Island shows a symbols of a bicycle within a round circle and a red line through it.
Anxious to obey the rules of the Island (there is no Gendarme here and I don’t want to be the reason for one arriving) I lean the yellow bike against the nearby fence (no need for a bicycle lock) and stuffing my picnic into the front basket, I lift it off my handle bars and proceed up the path on foot.
The trail is of sand over a layer of soft turf and is gentle on my feet with a slight bouncy feel to it.
Not so kind the gorse, which snags my ankles every now and again.
But I’m used to that from following such trails in the west of Ireland and this place is very reminiscence of there.
After a while, the trail forks, one path turning inland and up a steep slope.
Always curious as to what lies at the top of a hill or around a corner, I take that one.
I peer inside.
A large stone fireplace lies at one end of the single room and the man who once warmed his toes at the fire was Balidar, the Famous or Infamous Corsair (Depending on whether you were French or English!)
I know the house was once an old customs shelter built around 1711 but am not able to find much information about Balidar on the island.
Not having internet access either to do my own research, I imagined him to be a swashbuckling type, dark and handsome with perhaps a dashing moustache, swinging across masts and tangled sails, a poignard between his teeth, boarding the deck of the enemy ship and taking the captain by surprise.
Below is a shortened and translated from the french version of what I found about him when I got home
Balidar was born in Portugal and from an early age was engaged in the Portuguese regiments of Oporto.
At one point he was taken prisoner and deported to France. Blaming English politics for his demise he joined the Corsairs of the channel.
He obtained a ship and crew (probably other Portuguese deportee’s)and this he lay at the ready downwind off the island.
And when his watchman, observing the seas from the north shore, for enemy ships, signalled him, he would slip anchor and sail swiftly, cross wind and catch his prey by surprise off Ile de Batz. He tackled and scuppered many an English ship and sold his ‘catch’ to Roscoff or Morlaix.
What interested me more than the Career of Balidar was the fact that due to the lack of timber on the island, wood was a precious commodity.
So much so that the islanders would steal any bit of timber they could lay their hands on and a door or window frame of an unoccupied house was very tempting (The roof of this house had no roofing timbers and was built solely from stone).
The only way the owners of such houses i.e The french authorities, could deal with this was by removing the windows, shutters and doors, when the occupants were leaving and any new officials or guards would have to bring their own door, two sets of windows and shutters with them.
Further along where the path runs down to the sea I pass a lane, its way barely marked by the old crumbling walls.
Was this the road along which Balidars servants (I imagine, due to his success at sea, he was becoming quite rich) pulled the cart, containing the door etc?
Oh and here is the wild sea he thrived on.
Further along the coast and east of the Corsairs house I come to Le Trou Du Serpent
The story goes that in early christian times there was a great Serpent/dragon on the Island causing havoc and mayhem, terrorizing the inhabitants and devouring the women and livestock as dragons do.
In the 6th century Paul Aurélien, a christian monk from Wales who was evangelizing Brittany at the time happened to arrive in the area and was offered the whole Island if he could get rid of the beast.
Walking up to the raging serpent he calmly put his stole around its neck and led it to the western tip of the Island where he ordered it into the sea.
Although it was never seen again it is said the noise of the pounding sea at the huge rocks where it entered the water sounds like its hissing breath.
But Paul (St Paul de Leon) wasn’t satisfied with just dealing with the dragon. He also ordered a well to appear on the island which has the cure for blindness.
Tomorrow I will go in search of it but for now my ordinary mundane day of Privateers on the high sea’s and Monks fighting dragons has left me quite hungry.
I sit on the cliff top looking out to sea enjoying my baguette and cheese without fear of monsters from the deep and in a while retrieve the yellow bicycle and cycle swiftly home to my house of the blue shutters before anything else exciting happens.
To be continued…….