Badagri to Lagos

16-17 September, 1978

Bob had been in Nigeria for some time when I first knew him.  He was a petroleum engineer and was one of life’s enthusiasts. With his eyes wide open and a permanent grin on his face, he always looked as if he was about to have his photograph taken.  He was an instantly likeable guy.

He had recently bought two adjoining cottages in England, with the intention of converting them into one residence.  His wife and children were there, sorting out the building work and schools, leaving him as a temporary bachelor.  He was enjoying every day to the full and he filled his week with rugby training and the occasional match, tennis, squash and a weekly challenging of all-comers to race around the circumference of the golf course.  And of course all washed down with copious amounts of Star beer.

Bob had recently returned from a trip to Tanzania, to climb Mount Kilimanjaro (5895 m), together with a small group from Lagos.  Unfortunately, Bob suffered from severe altitude sickness, and did not make it to the top.  But not deterred, he was planning to attempt Mount Cameroon (4040 m) later in the year.

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Mount Kilimanjaro
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Mount Camaroon

One evening at the Ikoyi club, after our second or third bottle of Star, Bob told me of his ambition of walking from Badagri, near the Benin border, along the coast to the nearest point opposite Victoria Island and Lagos.  He said that it was about 60 km, but walking during the night to avoid much of the heat, it could easily be done in twenty hours.  He said that he had never found anybody interested in doing it.

Badagri to Lagos
Badagri to Lagos

‘I’ll do it’, I said.

‘Are you serious?’

‘Yup, it sounds really interesting’

‘Fantastic.  How about this weekend? There’s no rugby planned’.

‘Perfect’

We agreed to ask the guys at rugby training the next night to see if anybody else fancied joining us.

The next day, just as I was about to leave work, I received a summons to go to the MD’s office.

‘Come in and take a seat Mr Blackwood. I have heard that two of you are planning a rather foolish venture this weekend, to walk along the coast from Badagri to Lagos overnight.  I hope you realize that the police have little jurisdiction over that area and if you get into trouble, I have no idea how you could get help.’

‘Hmmm, I would not describe it as foolish, perhaps a little adventurous.  But after tonight, there will almost certainly be more than two of us, and we are all fit, so the distance should be no problem’.

‘Well I can’t stop you doing it, but I confess that I would prefer not to have known about it.  It is not the sort of thing that I would fancy doing, but I wish you all good luck’.

I never did find out how he knew about our plans.

And that evening after training and before the second bottle of Star, three more volunteered to join us – Peter, with whom I shared an apartment, Dave, an auditor, and Sean, a recently arrived Irish journalist.

So on the Saturday afternoon, we all met at Bob’s apartment and his driver drove us to the beach at Badagri, and left us there.

We agreed to stay within sight and shouting distance of each other, and to have a ten minute stop every hour, the stop being initiated by whoever was in the lead at the time.

Before long it was apparent that Peter had some sort of problem; he soon fell behind and looked quite uncomfortable.  At our first stop the reason became apparent; in his pack he was carrying a huge container of water, enough to fill a bath.  Needless to say, he realised his mistake and most of it was dumped.

And to cool down – he was already drenched with sweat – Peter went down to the water’s edge, took off his shoes and went in to paddle in the water.  Unfortunately for Peter, a huge wave broke on the shore and washed away his shoes.  Some people are quite accident-prone.

Needless to say, we laughed hysterically at Peter’s misfortune, but we soon realised that Peter had no alternative than to walk the next 55 km in his bare feet.

Within the next hour the sun set, but there was a full moon, so we were not exactly stumbling along in the darkness.  But the going was harder than we had anticipated.  The beach was steeply shelving and in parts we had to walk along the edge of the jungle.

At around 10h00, it started to get much darker, and incredibly we realized that we were witnessing an eclipse of the moon.  It was not a total eclipse, but was quite impressive.

It was not long after that we heard voices ahead of us.  We had not expected to meet anybody on the beach.  As far as we had known, there were no villages on the thin strip of land that we were on and that we were isolated from the mainland by a wide creek.

But there they were, perhaps twenty men, some carrying machetes.  There was nothing to do but brazen it out.

It turned out that they were out hunting for turtles and were just as surprised at seeing us as we were to see them.  They were very curious about us and must have thought that all white people were nuts.  But they were friendly and all ended well.

In the middle of the night it started to rain, gently at first, but soon heavier.  Then the thunderstorm started, but luckily we came across a couple of thatched shelters on the beach.  They must have been built by weekenders, who came up the creek on their motor boats.  We stayed there for about an hour, until the rain stopped.

And so the routine continued, hour after hour. The sun rose, the temperature and humidity rose, and we trudged on.  Nobody spoke, we just kept walking.  Walking on sloping sand is not easy and nobody wanted to know how Peter’s feet felt.  We had expected to get to the end, and the ferry to Lagos, by midday, but we had lost time sheltering during the night, and our progress was slower than anticipated.

But at about 15h30 we finally spotted Lagos in the far distance and an hour later we were at the end of the beach, with ten minutes further to get to the ferry.  We had made it on time.

And then potential disaster struck.

‘Where’s Peter?  Has anybody seen Peter?

From where we were, the beach extended far into the distance, and as far as the eye could see, there was no sign of Peter.  As there was no time to waste, I volunteered to run back and try to find him.

I set off at a steady pace and after about ten minutes, I saw in the distance what looked like a log.  It turned out to be Peter, fast asleep.  I woke him up and soon we were back with the others.  Apparently he just stopped ‘to rest his eyes for a moment’.  And his feet were fine.

With time to spare, we caught the last ferry back to Victoria Island, and were met by Bob’s driver.  We went to our individual homes, showered, changed, and one hour later met again for dinner at the Ikoyi Club.

We did not say much; we were all extremely tired.  We had beer and then ordered a meal. While we were waiting for the food, one by one the heads went down, sound asleep.

When the food arrived, only Dave and I were still awake.

 

Guilty as charged

England & Belgium

1995

I will never forget that summer’s morning when my secretary entered my office and closed the door.  She looked quite concerned.

‘Len, there’s a police sergeant downstairs in reception and he has asked to speak to you.  I have tried to find out what it is about, but he insists that he can only discuss the matter with you.  I have seated him in the small conference room’.

‘Hmmm, it sounds like somebody is in trouble.  I can’t imagine that it is me’

But it was.

The sergeant informed me that the Belgian authorities wanted to prosecute me for driving at excessive speeds on the E411 from Luxembourg to Brussels and the E42 from Namur, east to the Belgian/French border.  Apparently my car had been caught several times by unmanned radar traps.

He showed me the thick file of documentation that the Belgians had forwarded to Scotland Yard, and it had been delegated to him to investigate the case.

‘At what speed would you normally drive on those roads’ he asked.

‘Oh, probably a little over the speed limit, if the roads were dry, it was light and there was no traffic.  I normally drive later, when the roads are more or less empty’.

‘Do you know what the speed limit is for Belgium’.

‘130 km/hour?

‘No, it is 120 km/hour, and you were caught at speeds very much in excess of that.

‘Hmmm, what happens now?

‘I will return with a colleague, tomorrow if it will be convenient for you, and we will take a formal statement from you.  We will send that off to Brussels, and it is up to the Belgians as to what happens then.  As they have gone to a lot of trouble to track you down, I don’t imagine that they will drop the case.  They will probably summons you to appear in a Belgian court.  You can of course decide to ignore the summons, in which case they may seek your extradition, and if you are found guilty, the penalties could be quite severe.’

And so next day the sergeant returned at the appointed time, accompanied by a constable.  They told me that I had the right to remain silent, a condition that rarely applies to me.  The constable documented everything, I signed the statement and that was that.

It never occurred to me at the time, to ask how they had traced me directly to my office.  The car and the owner can be obtained from the government vehicle registry.  I guessed that there must exist a tax file giving each taxpayer’s business address.

Time passed, I heard nothing more, and I assumed that the case was forgotten.  I still drove in Belgium, but not so often, and I tried to make sure that I was always within the speed limit.  Belgian colleagues had told me that, if I committed no further traffic offences in Belgium during three years, the old offences were not taken into account, but to be very careful in the meantime.

In 1998, when I was then managing a Swiss company, based in Neuchätel, I drove north through France to Luxembourg, and next day continued on.  On the way past Arlon, just after the Luxembourg/France border, I spotted a police car sitting partially hidden in a lay-by.  I instantly checked my speed and to my dismay, I was driving at over 150 km/hour.  On an empty road in a good car, it does not feel like it is very fast.

I slowed down to 120 km/hour.  I could see no obvious threat in the rear mirror and started to relax. And then I spotted the flashing light far back.  It soon came up beside me and the driver signalled for me to pull over to the shoulder.

Both policemen got out of their car and one of them came over to my window and demanded my papers – passport, insurance and ownership documentation.  He then went back to his car and I could see that he was using his radio, presumably checking everything with his base.  In the meantime, the other policeman stood watching me.

I admit that I was desperately trying to remember how long it had been since my previous ‘experience’ with the Belgian police.  I thought that it must have been at least three years, but from which date did the three-year period start?  If I was still ‘active’ in the Belgian database, I was in trouble.

After an interminable wait, the policemen hung up his radio and came back to my car.

‘On my radar, I recorded you driving at *** km/hour, ** km/hour in excess of the speed limit, and therefore I am authorized to issue you with a fine of €***.  You can either pay the fine now, or you can follow me to the nearest police station.’

It was rather a large amount to – the fines in Belgium, as in most countries, are not linear, but exponential.

‘I don’t have that much in cash.  Can I pay with a credit card?’

‘Certainly sir, that is not a problem’

So I produced my credit card, the policeman recorded all the details, I signed the payment, and I was free to drive on.

I felt so relieved that my previous speeding offences had not surfaced.  I felt like a criminal who had been acquitted by the judge, for lack of evidence.

And I have been on my best behavior ever since.

Lagos

London and Lagos

1978

‘Would you be interested in a twelve-month contract in Venezuela with Maraven.  It used to be the Shell company in Caracas before it was nationalized?’

That was the question that I was asked by my contact at P-E International.  I had just completed a project of more than a year at Shell International in London, through his company, and he knew that I had traveled a lot in South and Central America, and that I was keen to return.  I was very excited by the opportunity.

‘We don’t yet have a date for the interviews, but I will find you a short term contract to tide you over until then’.

He was as good as his word, and a few days later I started a small fixed-price development project with Ford in Dagenham.  It was a horrible commute from where I lived in Hampstead in north London, but I was able to do a lot of the work at home, and carry out testing in Dagenham in the evenings, when there was less traffic.  I worked at least twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and completed the development in just over a month.  It proved to be a quite lucrative contract.

But still there was no confirmation of the interview date, so I went on a holiday to the U.S. with the intention of returning once everything was arranged.

About two weeks later I received the notification, returned to London, interviewed and a couple of days later, was informed that I was one of two applicants that had been selected, the other one being a P-E employee.  The only problem was that it would take some time for Maraven to obtain 12-month renewable work permits.  The wheels of bureaucracy can turn very slowly.

But Shell was keen for the ‘technology transfer’ to take place, so I was provided with a 3-month contract, to make modifications to a Shell drilling system in Nigeria.  One week later I was in Lagos.

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What followed were three amazing and unforgettable months of my life.

I shared a large four-bedroom apartment on Victoria Island with another P-E employee, and I was given the use of a robust Volkswagen.  The work was interesting and I was provided with membership of the Ikoyi Club, with access to its restaurant, bar, squash and tennis courts, outdoor movies etc.

I exercised every day of the week playing rugby, tennis and squash, and running in handicapped races around the perimeter of the Ikoyi Golf Club, two or three times a week.  I ended up fitter than I had ever been before.

There were parties every weekend and I will always associate the Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever with Lagos; that recording was played over and over, with the exclusion of everything else.

There was a rugby match against a visiting team from Monrovia (Liberia), a trip to play Kano in the north and a seven-a-side competition.

Lagos Rugby Club 1978
Who was the clown making faces?

And there was the 24-hour hike along the coast from Badagri, near the border with Benin, to Lagos, and the trip to Kainji Lake National Park in north-east Nigeria.

But they are stories for another day.

I left Lagos in early November and a few days later, via London and Los Angeles, I arrived in Caracas.

In 1987, I returned to Nigeria, as the UK Director of P-E (West Africa) Ltd, a Nigerian consulting services company.

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And more soberly dressed and serious

And for the next eight years, I traveled regularly to Lagos and Port Harcourt for board meetings, visiting clients and entertaining staff.

When I left P-E International in 1996, my relationship with Nigeria came to an end.  But I still retain very many warm memories of the people and the country.

Burgos to León

Burgos to Homillos del Camino (19km)

Monday, 9 April, 2012

I knew it was not going to be a good day, when I got out of bed a little too enthusiastically, and felt a sharp pain in the inside of my good knee.  I struggled on the flights of steps that led up to the street behind the cathedral.

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For some time, I limped along very slowly and when I finally arrived at the edge of the city, I sat down on a bench opposite a hospital, feeling quite sorry for myself. I hesitated to continue, not wanting to do any more damage to my knee.  But I eventually decided to persist with the walk, and when an hour or so later the first village came into sight, I realised that the pain had stopped, without my being aware.  I took it very carefully for the rest of the day.

The weather was glorious; blue sky, mild, with a soft breeze. The hills were long, but gentle. It was a perfect day for walking.

And before I knew it my objective for the day lay below: Homillos del Campo.

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It was a really small village; there was one street, a church that was locked, a tiny bar and a Casa Rural, at which I was the only guest. I had the beautiful house all to myself.

I had some drinks and dinner at the bar, where I had the most delicious bowl of lentejas and an animated conversation with the owner, who was barman, chef and waiter.

And it was followed by a solid night’s sleep, to be woken in the dawn light by a wonderful chorus of bird song.

Leaving the window open at night can bring such dividends in the morning.

 

Homillos del Camino to Castrojeris (20km)

Tuesday, 10 April, 2012

So this morning I set off in high spirits, with no apparent repetition of yesterday’s knee pain. But the spring in my step soon disappeared when I emerged from the shelter of the village, into the teeth of a strong headwind.

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And as I climbed out of the valley the wind increased in force and for the next six hours I was buffeted and jerked around like a demented puppet.

And there was absolutely no shelter whatsoever.

It was with much relief when I finally hobbled into Castrojeris, where I found a room with no problem.

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And the local food and wine were excellent.

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Catrojeris to Frómista (26km)

Wednesday, 11 April, 2012

I had another challenging day. Once on the open plain, one met the full force of the wind. And thirty minutes later there was a steep climb diagonally up the side of an impressive ridge. The climb was not difficult, just steep and long and led to a wide table top, before another steep descent to a landscape, flat as far as one could see.

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And the wind did not relent. It roared and howled in one’s ears, like an angry Irish housewife. There was no escape; nowhere to shelter, except for two small villages en route.

And then the threatened rain started, not long after an old farmer working in his field assured me that there would be no rain that day, but the next day for sure.

For the next two hours I plodded along, accompanied by both wind and rain, until I finally arrived in Frómista, very wet and tired.

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San Martín de Tours, built in Romanesque style in the early 11th century, and restored in the late 1800s

But with a comfortable room and after an excellent meal, I felt quite revived.

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The wine was included with the meal

 

Frómista to Carrión de los Condes (22km)

Thursday, 12 April, 2012

So the farmer of the previous day really got his weather forecast quite wrong. According to him it should have rained, instead of turning out to be a beautiful spring day. If he ever tires of farming, he would have a job waiting for him at the BBC weather desk.

Today the path was unrelenting; straight and gently undulating for all of its 22km. It ran alongside the local road, separated from it by a ditch. The path was formed of stones sunk into sun-baked clay. Unfortunately, the stones protruded and after an hour my bad foot ached and throbbed with each step, and my good foot started to whinge in sympathy. At times El Camino can be a real test of perseverance.

From the crest of some of the slopes, one could see for two or three kilometres in either direction. That day for the first time, I noticed that the bounce had gone from the step of many pilgrims. They did not pass me cheerfully. Many limped or had their heads down, moving painfully, struggling with blisters, knees, shin splints, hips; the romance and adventure had receded and the personal struggle to keep going had taken front stage. Some will give up, perhaps returning one day in the future, with fresh enthusiasm and healthier bodies, to resume where they left off. Most will continue with their struggle all the way to Santiago de Compostella.

For those who persist, the reward will be theirs.

 

Carrion de los Condes to Calcidilla de la Cueza (17km)

Friday, 13 April, 2012

When I awoke the next morning and looked out the window, the sky was clear and turning blue. And when I left the village the sun was shining and there was not a cloud to be seen. It was another perfect day for walking.  And the birds were singing their heads off, oblivious of my presence. I could have almost touched some of them, as they clung to solitary branches by the path. They seemed to have no fear of pilgrims.

But the wind had slept in that morning, and when aroused felt quite guilty, and started rushing hither and thither, bumping into everything it encountered. And the nosey clouds rushed over from the horizon to see what was happening. So what had promised to be a gentle stroll, became another head down leaning forward sort of day.

It was with some relief that the tiny village of Calcidilla de la Cueza finally came into view.

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Calcidilla de la Cueza to Sahagún de Campos (23km)

Saturday, 14 April, 2012

Walking against the never ceasing wind across the seemingly vast plain was almost hypnotic. One could walk for hours, but seem to be remaining on the spot; a feature on the horizon remains what it was when the day started; a feature on the horizon.

And yet one knew that there were villages between here and there, but where were they? By then one of them should have been in sight. And on one plodded until suddenly, with no prior warning, there it was, a little village nestling below in a hollow in the plain.

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As one descended, the wind continued its frenetic rush above, as if it had more pressing matters to attend to elsewhere; to the mighty wind an insignificant little village was not worth the expending of time and energy to descend. And I made my way down to the welcome shelter of the village bar and a coffee and a slice of tortilla, with a chunk of bread. And so once revived, I ascended once more to the fray.

And when mid-afternoon arrived, I stopped at the first village with accommodation; by then I will usually have reached my limit for the day.

And so for day after day the routine repeats, the wind continues to buffet everything in its path.  Occasionally it rains.

And slowly, almost imperceptibly, I have been moving across the map of Spain.

 

Sahagún to El Burgo Ranero (18km)

Sunday, 15 April, 2012

Sahagún reached it greatest splendour during the reign of Alfonso VI of Castile (1047-1109), as evidenced by a plethora of ancient buildings.  In the 14th century, it housed a university.

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Church of San Tirso

On the way out of Sahagún, one crosses a Roman bridge over the river Cea.

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El Burgo Ranero to Mansilla de las Mulas (19km)

Monday, 16 April, 2012

I always like to leave the curtains open when I go to bed, so that I can awaken to first light, but it is not often that I can lie in bed and watch the rising sun. I remember once witnessing the rising of a huge orange sun as I crossed Sydney Harbour Bridge in the early morning,when I had set out on one of my crazy marathon walks.  In El Burgo Ranero I woke to the rising sun and I did not have to move a muscle to see it, apart from my eye lids.

And I felt incredibly at peace, totally relaxed, a feeling that I only once before recall experiencing, and that was when I was having a stroke. It apparently happens when the logical side of the brain switches off and the sensual side becomes dominant.

I wondered if I will feel so peaceful when I have another stroke. My sight was fine and all I had to do was to raise both my arms to be reassured. But I felt no panic whatsoever and lay without moving, enjoying the sensations. Eventually the logical side woke up. I raised my arms and another day began.

I walked relaxed all day, past a huge wading bird, past yet another wayside memorial for a pilgrimage fatality – I have lost count as to how many memorials I have seen.

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Another helping of tortilla and a beer served by an attractive girl in pink top and tight pants saw me through to the ancient village of Mansilla de las Mulas.

 

Mansilla de las Mulas to Léon (19km)

Tuesday, 17 April, 2012

The first view of Léon was rather deceiving.  It looked as if I was almost there.

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But there remained much more than an hour of suburbs and city streets before arriving at the central plaza, with its magnificent cathedral.

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Logroño to Burgos

Logroño to Navarette (13km)

Monday, 2 April, 2012

It was a choice of either an easy day of 13 km to Navarette or 29 km to Nájera.  Now my average pace of about 4 km per hour may seem rather pedestrian to athletic types, but believe me, with boots and backpack, over undulating terrain, on mud, rocks and occasional asphalt, 4-5 km per hour is what most people achieve.

Of course there are the rather irritating exceptions, going as far and as fast as they can each day, taking no time to ‘smell the birds or hear the flowers’. To them contemplation and inner peace are for the wimps.

On the Camino, most villages and every town had hospitals, that treated the sick and the injured pilgrims.  Some of the hospitals still operate, some have been converted to other functions, and many are in ruin.

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Ruins of the former pilgrim hospital ‘San Juan de Acre

After a relatively easy day of walking, I arrived in Navarette, and had no problem in finding a room.  The village was not exactly crowded.

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Rush hour in Navarette

And I spent a long and laid-back afternoon in the Bar Deportivo, eating tapas, sipping on glasses of local wine, and tapping away at my notebook.  I was blissfully relaxed.

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Tapas and wine – the good life

The athletic jocks don’t seem to know what they are missing.

Navarrete to Nájera (16km)

Tuesday, 3 April, 2012

Normally I set my alarm for 07h00 and wake up before it rings, by 06h30 at the latest, to hit the road early. That night I decided that the alarm was no longer required, and consequently slept in and woke up at 08h50, to find rain dripping on the window sill, and little visible, apart from some cars parked in the plaza below.

And all day it rained, never heavy, but with that persistent drizzle that chills, and somehow percolates ones supposedly rain resistant clothing. I arrived in Najera feeling thoroughly miserable: cold, wet, chilled through. And to cap it all, I had some difficulty in finding a vacant room.

But with persistence and asking several people, I was eventually directed to a very comfortable room, with a very reasonable price, in a back street under the cliffs.  The house was owned by two very charming men of rather obvious sexuality.

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The cliffs above Nájera

With snow flurries forecast for that day and the next ten, I had to recognise that I was poorly equipped for such conditions. So I went back into the town, and by pure luck I stumbled upon a little shop that had a waterproof jacket with a fleece lining, and at €38 seemed to me a bargain. And the old lady who sold it to me was delightful.  I had fun talking to her.

Nájera To Santo Domingo De La Calzada (20km)

Wednesday, 4 April, 2012

So at 07h45 this morning, complete with my new jacket, my fleece, tracksters and hat, I emerged from the hotel, ready and prepared for whatever nature would throw at me.  Despite the ominous forecast of the night before, to my surprise it was quite mild, and the fog and rain had been replaced by a beautiful spring morning. Weather forecasters can make fortune tellers and economists seem quite professional.

Within ten minutes and partly up the first hill, I was sweating and had to stop to take off my fleece. Another ten minutes and off came the jacket and the pack was noticeably heavier. Before the top of the long incline, off came tracksters, of course requiring removal and replacement of boots.  Now I was comfortable, but cursing the weightier pack.

At the top of the hill, once removed from the shelter of the valley, the wind felt quite cold, and before long back on went the fleece and jacket, but my legs remained bare – it was too much hassle to fiddle with boots.

And for much of the day the dressing and undressing was repeated, depending on the state of the wind and sun. I felt like a male model at a fashion show. If I were ever to master mincing and pouting, I could have a new career as an aging clothes horse.

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The cathedral in Santo Domingo de Calzada

Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Beldorado (23km)

Thursday, 5 April, 2012

When walking across Spain, one thing struck me; there were enormous swathes of cultivated land, but no farmhouses to be seen, the reason being that the farmers live in the villages and commute out to their farmland.  This seemed to me as an imminently preferable arrangement, in that it gives much more social opportunities for the farmers’ wives and children, and brings added life to the villages.

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The long and empty road

Until I eventually arrived in Burgos, this region gave me the impression of being rather left behind: remote, overlooked, forgotten. Yet the people were some of the most kind and friendly that I have ever come across. They reminded of Ulster country people: willing, honest, modest, with few pretensions.

Beldorado to San Juan de Ortega (26km)

Friday, 6 April, 2012

Once past Villafranca Montes de Oca, the path climbed to a plateau and for kilometre after kilometre there was nothing to be seen, except forest.  It had rained heavily the night before and one had to trudge through thick clinging mud.

In the Middle Ages the area was quite remote and it had the reputation of being dangerous for pilgrims; they were preyed on by bands of thieves and robbers. The pilgrims had no resource to banks and ATMs; they carried their money on their person and were quite vulnerable, unless escorted by volunteer knights.

At one point the path passed a monument erected by the relatives of the 300 people shot by supporters of General France, soon after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  It was a grim reminder that not so long ago, the country was very divided.  Some would say that it still is.

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Monte de la Pedraja

Eventually the path descended into a valley and there I spent the night in the tiny village of San Juan de Ortega.

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San Juan de Ortega to Villafría (17km)

Saturday, 7 April, 2012

When I set out next morning, the sun was shining, but soon darks clouds moved in and it turned much colder.  Then the rain started and it continued to rain heavily all the remainder of the day.

On the outskirts of Atapuerca, I passed the archaological complex, where some of the oldest remains of man had been discovered, during the excavation of a railway cutting in 1976.  The site contains evidence of continuous human occupation since over one million years.

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After Atapuerca, the path climbed up to the Sierra and the rain turned to snow.

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On the descent from the Sierra, the snow turned back to heavy rain, and it continued relentlessly.  The long trudge around Burgos airport on the edge of the asphalt road was quite dispiriting, and I decided to stay at the first hotel I came across, enabling me to change into dry clothes and dry my wet gear.

Villafría to Burgos (8km)

Sunday 8 April, 2014

And finally Burgos; kilometre after kilometre of industrial area, before arriving at the well preserved heart of the old city – a jewel of parks, plazas, churches, overseen by the magnificent cathedral.

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And the narrow streets, with their bars and restaurants, were filled with Easter Sunday celebrants.

Just before I left for Spain in March, I had read a book called La Sombra del Viento, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  It was set in Barcelona and events that took place during the Spanish Civil War were central to the plot.

One of the central characters in the book went by the alias of Laín Caubert.  Now I have a very good friend called Laín Burgos-Lovéce, who is from Santiago de Chile, and our friendship dates back to Caracas in the late 1970s.  In all those years I have never come across another Laín, until that book.  The name is apparently quite rare today.

Fast forward by a month and I was staying in Burgos.  I had just checked into a small hotel and when I left the hotel to explore the surroundings, I noted the street names, in case I got lost.  The street that I was staying on was called Calle de Laín Calvo.  In Spanish ‘calvo‘ means bald, and that would certainly be an accurate description of my friend Laín today.

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The street sign of Calle de Laín Calvo

So were Laín + Burgos + Camino de Santiago just a coincidence?

Perhaps it was a very positive sign that I was on the right path.  I have no idea of where the path might lead, but I suspect that if I keep my mind open, I will come across more signs.

Jimmy

James Bankhead was a quite tall slim man with fair hair.  Before he bought his first car, he used to regularly walk into Portrush.  He had a very long loping stride and in a few steps he was over the crest of the hill and out of sight.

He was married to ‘Nan’ Stewart, a childhood friend of my mother.  They lived in the big schoolhouse, next door to our farm, and he was headmaster at Carnalridge Primary school, no more than fifty meters from his front door.

Between the schoolhouse and the school lived a very strange old man.  He had unkempt hair and a long grey beard, and must have belonged to a religious sect, for he had a sign in his garden declaring ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is nigh’, or something similar.

The old man’s house was so small, it could only have consisted of one tiny room.  His garden was a large patch of bog, in which the only thing that grew were rushes.  The old man was rarely ever seen.  As a child I was afraid of him.

Carnalridge school was originally established in 1850 by the congregation of the Presbyterian church.  When I first attended the school in 1953, it consisted of just two rooms, a recently built extension for infant children, plus a dining room and catering facilities.

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Carnalridge Primary School

There were three teachers – Miss Moore, who looked after the infants, Miss ‘Old Biddy’ McCartney, who was my first teacher, and James ‘Jimmy’ Bankhead, who taught the older children, until they left for the secondary schools.  I don’t know how many pupils there were in that era, but my guess is that there were about 60 altogether.

My earliest memory of the school was the morning of my first day.  We had to stand around the room, with backs to the wall and give our names. The little girl beside me wet her pants and stood in a large puddle of urine. I feel sure that she has never forgotten the embarrassment that she must have felt.

In my last year, there were only four of us who took the ‘Eleven Plus’ examination, that determined whether we would go on to a grammar school, a technical college, or to an intermediate school, which was little more than a holding pen, until the children could leave at age of 15.

Three of us went on to the grammar school in Coleraine, all in the ‘A’ stream, which was a tremendous compliment to the teaching skills of James Bankhead.  In addition to me, there was David Hunter, who ended up studying law at Oxford, and who became a barrister in Belfast, and Michael Moore, who ended up as a headmaster, like his father before him. The fourth pupil was Joan Gurney, who went on to the Intermediate school.

James Bankhead was born in Ahoghill, in 1906, the son of Samuel and Jane Bankhead.  He started his teaching career in Clooney Primary School, in the Waterside area of Londonderry, where he was an assistant teacher for 5 years.  He was appointed principal of Carnalridge in 1932, and remained there until his retirement in 1966.

James Bankhead

He was a man of many talents and diverse interests.  He was a renowned horticulturist, specializing in growing and studying daffodils, and wrote many articles on the subject.  He was a local pioneer in the field of radio and television.  He built his own radio in 1939 and took it to the church to hear the declaration of war.  He built one of the first television sets in the area, and invited local people to his house to see the coronation ceremony in 1953.  He was an accomplished tenor soloist and sang with the church choir.  He was a keen golfer and bowler.  He was an accomplished mathematician and read widely.

My years in his class were some of the best years of my youth.  He taught me in arithmetic and I loved it, and my love of mathematics endures to this day.  He introduced me to the classical  books in the small school library and I borrowed and read most of them: Children of the New Forest, Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, the Enid Blyton books, Robinson Crusoe, among many others. He talked often about the history and geography of our area.

It was James Bankhead who introduced us to cricket, and in our lunch breaks, when the weather was favourable, we used to play, and he always joined in.

Cricket became a passion with me, especially after he showed me a game being played on his television.  I used to spend hours bowling against a wicket placed against the end of our house, and I made up different ways of keeping score.

In about 1986 I visited him.  He was living in a bungalow on the edge of Portrush, on the Ballywillan Road.  His wife had previously died in 1977 and he had remarried to her sister, Lily, who had been living with them in their later years.

I spent a very enjoyable and memorable couple of hours with them, sipping on sherry, and chatting about old times.  I asked him where he had found all the fascinating historical facts about Portrush and the area, history that used to enthral me.  He remembered the book and the author, but regretted that he did not have a copy, otherwise I felt sure he would have given it to me.  It was not until recent times that I discovered a complete transcript of the book on the internet.

Before I left him, I took the opportunity to do something I had wanted to do for many years.  I told him what a great influence he had been on me.  I thanked him for having given me such a good grounding and fostering my interest in a diverse range of subjects.  It was an emotional moment for me and I suspect it was also for him.  He was already an old man at that time, and shortly after, he had a stroke.

He and Lily spent their last days in an old people’s home in Portrush.  He died in 1992 and was buried beside Nan, just outside the door of the ruined church at Ballywillan.

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Lily died some time later and was buried in the new graveyard, across the road from the old church.  I have always thought that Jim and Nan would have wanted her to be buried with them.

Coleraine

The earliest known settlement in Ireland was found at Mountsandel Fort, about one mile from the centre of present day Coleraine.  It was there where nomadic hunter-gatherers built their shelters in about 7000 BC.   Dating from about 4000 BC, there is much evidence of Neolithic Man in the area, such as the stone tomb at Magheraboy and the standing stone at Carnalridge.

Coleraine is reputed to have received its name when St Patrick passed through around 450 A.D. Popular tradition states that the Saint was given a piece of land by the local chieftain on which to build a church. The ground was covered with ferns, and so he called it “Cuil Rathain”, which means the ferny corner. Again, authorities differ in this, some asserting the meaning to be “the rath at the bend of the waters”. Over the centuries the name was anglicized and became “Coleraine”.  It is believed that the first church, or monastery, was in the same location as the present St. Patrick’s Church.  The earliest record of Coleraine occurs in Adomnán’s ‘Life of Saint Columba’, written on Iona, circa 700.

Located at the lowest fordable point of the river Bann, Coleraine suffered repeated devastation by competing tribes, by the Vikings in 830 AD and by the Normans in 1177.  It was not until the end of the 16th century that the Ulster tribes were subdued.  In 1610 the first settlers arrived to rebuild Coleraine.  Fortifications were erected and the town was laid out in its present form.

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Coleraine in 1613

In 1642 the dispossessed Irish rebelled and for six weeks laid siege to the town, during which 2000 of the inhabitants died of disease and famine, many of them having fled from the countryside seeking protection.   The siege was broken by the arrival of a Scottish army. In 1689, when the invading army of James II approached the town, the people fled to Derry, where they again suffered siege and famine. James II was eventually defeated at the Battle of the Boyne.

As a result of the devastation of the countryside, poverty was widespread and over the next 200 years there was a steady exodus of locals to the New World. There was continued threat of uprising and there was much suffering as a result of the serious outbreak of cholera in 1832 and the Great Famine of 1840-46.

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Possibly due to the lack of local opportunities, there was a strong tradition of young men enlisting in the military and many local men fought in the Crimean, Boer and the two world wars.  The Battle of the Somme had a particularly devastating effect on the area and there was scarcely a household that did not lose a family member, as witnessed by the long list of names on the local war memorials.

In 1844 a new stone bridge was built across the river and in 1855 the current town hall in the Diamond was built. The town also became an important centre of the linen industry and textile and shirt-making industries expanded.  In 1888 the river was dredged and piers built, allowing the passage of ships to Coleraine harbour.

In 1968 the new University of Ulster was opened between Coleraine and Portstewart and the influx of students provided a much-needed new source of income to the providers of accommodation, suffering as a result of tourists going to warmer climates for their holidays.

Like much of Ulster, Coleraine suffered from ‘The Troubles’.  In 1973 an IRA car bomb killed six, in 1992 a car bomb exploded in the town centre and in 1995 a massive explosion devastated the entire centre of the town.

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The Diamond with its town hall as it is today

A grammar school in Coleraine was first proposed in 1846, but the plan was shelved, die to the economic crisis resulting from the Great Famine.  Coleraine Academical Institution (C.A.I.) was finally open in 1860, with two masters and 14 boys. The number of students peaked at about 1100 in the 1970s and has since been reduced to 700.

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Coleraine Academical Institution, now known as Coleraine Grammar School

The school includes 27 acres of sports fields, including rugby and football pitches, tennis courts, cricket pitches, an athletics track, a swimming pool, a games hall with multi-gym equipment and a boathouse.

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James Nesbitt – actor

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Andrew Trimble – Ulster & Ireland rugby

Two well-known C.A.I. Old Boys

Boarding, which was a feature of the school since its beginning, reached its peak in the 1970s with 300 boarders, but since then it went into decline, and the boarding department was closed in 1999.

In 2015 the all-boys C.A.I was merged with the all-girls Coleraine High School, to become Coleraine Grammar School.

Just past the school, off the Castlerock Road, was the farm of my maternal grandmother’s family.  Her ancestors had farmed the land since at least the early 1800s.  Unfortunately, there are very few records that have survived from before the mid-1800s, so the tracing of Irish ancest0rs soon meets a dead-end.

Kilcranny House
Kilcranny House

My great grandparents had eight children, seven girls and only one boy.  I guess that the only son did not want to be a farmer, and the farm was eventually sold.  The only son died when he was only 48.

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Today some peripheral buildings have been added to Kilcranny House, which now belongs to an organization that promotes much-needed peace and reconciliation.

I suspect that the organization would have had my ancestor’s approval.