The Ash Tree

My mother loved her garden.  Apart from a few essentials for herself, every spare penny she could save was invested in scrubs and plants.

When we moved into the new house in 1952, the site was covered in rubble, ashes from the burned out Irish cottage, that previously stood in one corner, weeds and nettles.  There was little or no topsoil.  It looked as if nothing would ever grow there.

Yet a few years later, it was a virtual ‘Garden of Eden’, with a variety of flowering shrubs, roses, various plants and bulbs.  My mother had a proverbial ‘green thumb’, and visitors to the farm used to marvel at the profusion of year-round colour.

In a secluded corner of the garden, where there was a small ash tree, my mother had one of the workers construct a seat under the tree, using a sheet of corrugated iron, backed with soil and topped with a layer of grass.

It was never a success.  It was too shaded, too damp and within a year the iron retainer started to rust.  Nobody ever sat there.

But I liked it, for it enabled me to climb onto the lower branch of the tree, and standing on the branch, I felt as if I was on a ship.  I used to spend many hours in that corner of the garden.  It does not take a lot to stir the fertile imagination of an eight-year-old.

On Friday, February 07, 1958, the BBC morning news announced that a plane carrying the Manchester United football team had crashed the previous evening, when attempting to take-off from Munich airport, and that 20 of the 44 passengers had been killed.  Later three more died of their injuries.

The team had been returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade and had landed at Munich to refuel.  The pilot had aborted take-off twice in a snow storm, due to poor runway conditions.  On the third attempt, the plane hit a thick layer of slush, careered off the runway through a fence, and one wing hit a house.

BEA Flight 609

One of the undoubted heroes on the night was Irish goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, from my home area.  He managed to carry and drag several of the injured from the burning plane, including Bobby Charlton, Jackie Blanchflower, Dennis Violett, the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat and her daughter, and his manager, Sir Matt Busby, who was twice given last rites, but survived.

Harry Gregg in his playing days


And at the 50-year memorial, with a candle for each of the victims


Like a great many people, I was very shaken by the news.  I went down to my secluded corner, climbed into the ash tree, and with my penknife I carved ‘Man U 1958‘ in the bark.

Several years later, when I returned on a visit, I could still vaguely make out the carving.

The garden has now long gone, but perhaps the ash tree is still there.


Moon Landing

It was on October 04, 1957, that Russia successfully launched the first Sputnik into orbit. It was the first artificial Earth satellite and it weighed 84 kg, with a diameter of 58 cm.

The Sputnik took about 100 minutes to complete an orbit, and with favourable conditions, was reportedly visible with the naked eye.  I never saw it, nor did I ever know anyone who had seen it, although I did go out one night to try to spot it.  Having a clear sky on the north coast of Ireland can be a relatively rare event.


The launch of the Sputnik was the starting pistol for the space race between Russia and the United States.

Less than four years later, on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gargarin became the first human in space.  He was a small man, only 1.57 m in height, and was probably chosen for the mission because of his stature and weight.  He died six years later in a plane crash.


Most people can remember what they were doing on Monday, July 21, 1969.  It was at 02:56 UTC that the first human set foot on the moon.  I was fast asleep at the time in a hotel room in Frankfurt.

What was I doing in Frankfurt in July 1969?

At that time, I was employed as a junior programmer with Singer Sewing Machines.  I was based in London, in a team developing an inventory control system for Singer’s European companies.  We were writing programs using the COBOL language.  Input, instructions or data, was via punched cards and punched tape, for an IBM 360 model 30.

In the photograph below, one can see a typical computer room, housing an IBM 360 30, like that we used in Frankfurt.


Also in the photo one can see disc drives, tape drive, central processor and printer, with the operator sitting at the system console.  Not only can one observe how bulky everything was, but the system had to be housed in a cold air-conditioned room, with a raised floor to accommodate the plethora of cables connecting the equipment.

And the power and capability of such a system was miniscule, when compared to the most basic smart phone of today.

The same basic smart phone has infinitely more capability than the computer systems that managed ground control, the different stages of the rockets and the landing module of the moon landing in 1969.

Of course, comparing the computer systems of 1967 to the smart phone of today is like comparing the plane of the Wright brothers to the Boeing Dreamliner.  Both fly, but that is about the limit of the comparison.

I am, however, constantly amazed that man could progress from launching the first satellite in 1957 to landing men on the moon less than 12 years later.

It was an amazing feat.

Becoming Aware



Friday, 28 October, 2016

On October 23, 1956, there was a country-wide revolt of Hungarians against Soviet imposed policies.  On November 4, a large Soviet force invaded Hungary and brutally suppressed the resistance.

That was almost exactly sixty years ago, and I was nine years old at the time. I can clearly remember being very aware of the BBC radio news reports, and sensing the tension in my parents, as they listened to the depressing news.

In those days, few people had a television, so our only news was that of the two or three daily reports on the radio.  The newspapers were always one day old, and the news in the cinemas was at least a week out of date.

A few days later, on 29 October, Israel invaded Egypt, supported by Britain and France, their goal being to seize the Suez Canal, and remove the Egyptian President, Nasser, from power.  A few days later, the US and USSR forced them into a humiliating withdrawal.  That was the start of the rapid decline of British and French influence on the global scene.

At that time, I overheard my father saying that, if hostilities continued to escalate, he would soon be back in uniform.  As he had already spent some seven years serving in WW2, from the Normandy beaches to Lübeck and Hamburg, the prospect of another protracted period of hostilities, was a concern to my parents and their generation.

That period of less than two weeks in late 1956, was a watershed for me. I guess that one could say that it was the end of my innocence, and the beginning of my awareness of the greater world outside the little farm in which I was growing up.

Soon after, I decided that I wanted to go to Sandhurst and become a career officer in the Army.  I also started to take an active interest in my father’s business, and he began giving me ‘pocket money’, in return for chores, especially during school holidays.  And almost certainly because of my reading, I dreamed vividly of travelling to remote parts, of climbing mountains, of being successful.

My military ambitions did stay with me for a few years.  When I was old enough, I joined the local Army Cadets and was an enthusiastic member.  But one day, when I was sixteen, I decided that a career of having to blindly obey orders was not for me, and I resigned.

Perhaps I could have made a success out of the expansion of my father’s farming business, but my heart was not in it.  The urge to see the world and expand my horizons had become much too strong.

When I was eighteen, I migrated to Canada, and that was the first of my many moves.

And I am still moving…


Pamplona to Burgos

7-20 October 2016

This was the third time that I have walked from Pamplona to Burgos, so I will try not to repeat myself.  If you want to read my original accounts from 2012, then click on (Pamplona to Logroño) and Logroño to Burgos.

From Pamplona, I once more walked to Puente de La Reina, over the Alto del Perdón, to Estella, Los Arcos, Viana, where Cesare Borgia is buried, and Logroño, with its multitude of wine bars.

Leaving Puente de La Reina in the early morning sun, on the eleventh century bridge over the river Arga

From Logroño I went on to Navarette, Nájera, and Santo Domingo, where I once more stayed with the nuns, as we had done in 2014.  Then Belorado, and Villafranca Montes de Oca, in the beautiful grand old mansion, where the owner and his son remembered me and treated me royally.

One of numerous huge stacks of straw
Part of the road between Villafranca Montes de Oca and Monasterio de San Juan de Ortega

Finally, to Atapuerca and the long gruelling walk into Burgos, around the airport and the 10 km of concrete pavement through the industrial area, until finally reaching the jewelled heart of the city.

The ornate entrance to the cathedral plaza in Burgos
Burgos cathedral

In Burgos, I stayed in a beautiful little apartment, opposite and managed by the Pancho Bar, where we had spent a riotous evening in 2014. When I made the booking, I did not realise the connection.  The owner, his two brothers and sister are the core of the staff, and their tapas are excellent.

And it was in that bar that I spent another great evening.

Pancho Bar in Calle San Lorenzo

Burgos was to be the end of my Camino for 2016.  The weather was turning distinctly colder, especially overnight, and it was time for this little bird to spread his wings and head south to a warmer climate.

But God willing, I will be back next year to walk another path across the glorious landscape of Spain.


Villava into Pamplona

Wednesday, 5 October, 2016

That previous evening in Villava, it struck me that I had not seen one single pilgrim in six days of walking on the Camino de Baztan, from Bayonne.  Considering how difficult it is to find solitude in this crowded world, I over-achieved.

The next day I set off to stroll the remaining six kilometres into Pamplona, and true to recent form, I got rather lost. I was standing at an intersection, probably looking bemused, when a man came up to me and, without any questions on his part, said that if I was a pilgrim looking for the path, he would show me the way.

We walked together for more than an hour.  He said that he was taking food to his daughter and grandchild.  He noticed my limp and I told him of my stroke ten years previously.

It turned out that he had had an identical stroke to mine, a cerebral haemorrhage.  His was in August 2005, mine in November of that year.

He lost memory and speech, as did I, and his sight was affected, as was mine.  At the time he had his stroke he was still quite fit, running marathons and cycling.  My story is similar.

The big difference between his experience and mine was that he was operated on twice to remove the blood clot, and he subsequently made a full recovery.

While we walked, we talked about a wide range of subjects – children, love, religion, nature, food, wine and many more.  It was like talking to a twin brother.

And he even has a small vegetable plot in Asturias, similar to mine in Uppsala.

When we arrived at the Magdalena bridge, the ancient bridge over the river into historic Pamplona, he shook my hand and left me without a further word, apart from ‘buen camino’.

I wanted to  stop him.

But he did not look back.

Puente de La Magdalena



Lantz to Villava

Tuesday, 4 October, 2016

While I having breakfast, my hostess told me that the rest of the way to Pamplona was gently downhill, at least compared to my previous day in the mountains, and that it was about 20 km to Pamplona.  So mentally I expected 15 km, as I intended to spend the night in Villava.  I set out at a leisurely pace, for what I perceived to be a relatively easy walk.

Leaving Lantz with the mountains in the background

The route followed farm paths, heavily covered with smooth stones, that I found rather uncomfortable on my injured toe, ankles and knees.

I passed through a couple of tiny villages, each with a large closed-up church.  At one time there must have been a much larger population, for today each village had only a handful of houses, no bar or shop and little sign of life.



There was eventually a long stretch of narrow path, high up on the hillside, alternating between forest and meadow, following the contours of the land and avoiding the busy road below.  It seemed endless, but finally it descended to the river and Sorauren.  There two old ladies told me that I had about six kilometres to go to Villava.  My original estimate of 15 km was now looking more like 28 km.

The path was now concrete and followed the banks of the river.  There was no breeze and it was hot.

But my day was made when a huge flock of sheep came along the path toward me.      Without any outward sign and without looking back, the shepherd moved over into the field and the leading sheep followed him.  One little sheepdog raced around like crazy, rounding up the laggards and moving  the whole flock across into the field.


I always find it impressive to witness a working dog.  And with all under control, the dog ignored me as he passed.


About an hour later I crossed the bridge over the Río Ulzama into La Trinidad de Arre and Villava on the outskirts of Pamplona, where the Camino Baztan joined up with the Camino Francés.

The bridge into La Trinidad  de Arre and Villava (from internet)

I was now on familiar territory and mission accomplished…  🙂


Monday, 3 October, 2016

When the church bells woke me that morning at 07:00, I was so comfortable in bed that I was sorely tempted to roll over and stay for another hour.  But the nagging ache in my big toe reminded that all was not well.  The nail had gone brown and black and had started to pull away from the flesh.  It was bothering me the previous evening, and I must have caught it on the sheets when turning over during the night.

My hostess told me that there was no pharmacy between Ziga and Pamplona, some 50 km away, but she supplied me with some gauze and sticky tape, and I was able to carefully wrap the toe, hopefully avoiding further damage.

So off I set to cover the 25 km to Lantz, via a 600 m ascent over the mountain.

The road from Ziga climbed steadily, passing through the little neighbouring villages of Berroeta and Almándoz.  At Venta San Blas I left the road behind and the path zig-zagged up through the forest.  Everywhere the ground was covered with a thick layer of autumn leaves, and the sky was a piercing blue.  It was a glorious autumn day.

In the entire day, the only people I saw were two men hunting for mushrooms.  They told me that I had a long way to go to Lantz.  I did not need reminding of that fact.  They also said that the markings were quite faded and to watch out for false paths.

There were two high points with a significant dip between them.  That part was very wet, the rocks were slimy and very slippery, and all was coated in a thick layer of leaves and mud.  It seemed that the sun never reaches that area and I made very slow progress, trying to ensure that I did not once more sprain my ankle.

When I finally emerged from the marshy area and passed over the second high point into warm sunshine, the going came suddenly easier, for the ground was dry and the views were stunning.

A few minutes later I passed the newly built Ermita de Santiago.

Ermita de Santiago at 911 m

At the end of the valley below was the XII century pilgrim hospital of Santa Maria de Belate.

Ermita de Belate (photograph from internet)

At this point the normal pilgrim route through the forest was closed, due to forestry work, and a temporary route had been marked, following the busy main road for about four km, until it re-joined the historic path.  The deviation added another three km to my total hike for the day.

I was footsore and quite weary when I finally reached Lantz.  Once more the accommodation was excellent, the hostess extremely hospitable and helpful.

And that first beer went down without touching the sides.

When I finally took off my boots and socks, I found that my injured toe had come through the day surprisingly well.

So one more day to go to Pamplona.


Urdax to Amaiur (16 km)

Saturday, 1 October, 2016

As I set out that morning from Urdax in the rain, my host cautioned me that the path started 300 m from his door, just before the monastery, and that it was quite steep for the first part.  He advised me to take it slowly and eventually it would ease, but that it would continue ascending for quite a way.

He was not exaggerating.  And the smooth rounded stones of the path were extremely slippery, which made my progress even slower than normal.  I had spent most of the last twelve months in Montevideo, Cape Town (Green Point) and Uppsala, none of which are vertically challenged, so my body did not quite know what had hit it.

But eventually the incline did indeed ease and the thumping of my heart reduced to a less noticeable level.  I sometimes forget that carrying a relatively heavy backpack has its physical cost, and that I have been on the wrong side of 50 for a few years now.

At one point in the ascent, I came around a corner to be confronted by a small herd of horses, five in all.  They looked extremely healthy and fit, although very wet, and they paid little attention to me.  As the path was narrow and steeply wooded on both sides, I had no alternative but to walk among them. One of them, a quite young horse, was very curious, and came up and nuzzled me.



Eventually the path started to descend and much of the descent was in cloud, with a light drizzle.


The going was much easier in the descent and before I knew it, I was in the village of Amaiur or Maya in the Vasco language.


I had to go through the village and back along the main road for twenty minutes to find the Casa Rural, where I had booked a room for the night.

Amaiur to Ziga (18 km)

Sunday, 2 October, 2016

To avoid having to walk back along the main road, my host showed me a path which he said was a shortcut back to the village.  Unfortunately, he omitted to check whether I had a brought a machete with me, for in parts the ‘path’ was overgrown with brambles and nettles. I eventually emerged in the middle of the village with some scratches and stings, quite convinced that my host had not used that path in recent years, if ever.

Looking back at Amaiur

For the rest of the day the going was relatively easy, at least when compared to the previous day.  Lots of descending and ascending, always ending up higher than the last ascent.

‘Tomb-stone’ fencing

The route passed through Arizkun, Elizondo – the largest town in the Baztan valley, and Irurita.

The central plaza of Irurita
A curious horny cow

Finally, after a last ascent, the village of Ziga came into view.



Once again I had a room in a beautiful Casa Rural, run by a charming couple.  There was no restaurant in the village, but the woman made me a baguette filled with cheese and ham and included a bottle of local wine.

Never has such simple food tasted so good.

And I slept through until dawn, and the ringing of the church bells.


Cambo-les-Bains to Urdax (28 km)

Friday, 30 September, 2016

After my experience of walking from Ustaritz to Cambo-les-Bains, I did not expect there to be a convenient path or a quiet country road to Espelette.  So for five kilometres I walked along a very busy main road, frequently stepping well back and holding on to my hat every time a monstrous truck came hurtling by.  And I lost count of how many drivers I saw talking on, or fiddling with, their phones.  It was a relief to get off the race track and into Espelette.

Espelette is an attractive town, famous for its production of dried and powdered red peppers.  Apparently they are sold at a covered market every Wednesday.  As it was Friday, I was quite happy to have missed the market, as I am not a great enthusiast of crowds.

Red pepper drying (photo from interet)

But my objective in going to Espelette was not to go shopping, it was to pick up the Camino de Santiago, which would lead me up the Baztan valley, over the Pyrenees and on to Pamplona.  I spotted the typical yellow arrow marking near the church, but I was not able to find a second.

The church of Saint-Etienne in Espelette

I asked several people for directions, but without luck.  Even in a busy bar nobody seemed to know anything of it. Eventually I found a second and subsequent yellow arrow marks at the edge of the town, and started off in what I believed to be the direction of the next village, Ainhoa, which was about 6 km away.

But after ninety minutes of following the yellow arrows, of toiling up and down steep rocky paths, seeing only deserted farm buildings, and not a soul in sight, I started to feel uneasy.  In the distance I saw a couple of modern looking houses on the other side of a valley, one with a car parked outside.  So I set off down another steep rocky path, across a stream and up the other side.  By the time I got to the houses, nearly two hours had elapsed since I left Espelette.

A woman answered my knock.  She informed me that she knew nothing of a path to Ainhoa or a Camino de Santiago, but she could direct me to the main road, which involved retracing much of the way I had already come, and following another country road.  I was quite lost.  I eventually came to the main road from Espelette, with four kilometres to go to Ainhoa.  In three hours I had progressed two kilometres towards Ainhoa.

The rest of the ‘hike’ along the main roads, through Ainhoa and on to the Spanish border at Dantxarinea, was relatively uneventful, but quite tiring, as it was a hot day.

Dantxarinea was something of a surprise to me.  I expected a small run-down border town, no longer with a function, since the abolition of EU borders.  Instead it turned out to be a bustling modern commercial centre stretching along both sides of the main road, with five service stations and very many large stores plus bars and restaurants.

Once across the border, the route was clearly marked, and more than once I was greeted with the traditional – buen camino.  It felt as if I had come home.  The road gently descended, until 45 minutes later I was in Urdax.

Urdax with its monastery (photo from internet)

Why did I become so lost earlier in the day?

Until I go back and retrace my steps, I will not know.  But I did receive something of a consolation in being told that evening, by my host, that it was quite a common experience among pilgrims starting in France.

And what had intended to be a walk of about 18 km, for me ended up as 28 km.



Bayonne to Cambo-les-Bains (25 km)

Wednesday-Thursday, 28-29 September, 2016

In former times, those who landed in the port of Bayonne to travel on to Pamplona or further, would go by the Baztan valley across the Atlantic Pyrenees. It was also the oldest path to Pamplona and on to Santiago de Compostella, pre-dating that of the Camino Francés from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

So it was on a perfect early autumn day I set off from Bayonne, following the path along the banks of the River Nive.  I saw very few people; an occasional runner, cyclist or a local, walking their dog.  It was extremely peaceful; only the sound of birds or the buzzing of a bee.

The river Nive

But after 15 km the peaceful walk ended at Ustaritz with the constant roar of trucks and cars hurtling through the narrow streets of the town.  I felt sure that there must have been a path or quiet road to Cambo-les-Bains, but according to the locals who I quizzed, the answer was a shrug of indifference.

So with no better alternative, I set off to walk the remaining 8 km to Cambo, along a noisy and heavily traveled road.

But eventually I arrived in Cambo, a delightful little town, and I put my ‘not-so-pleasant’ experience of French traffic behind me.

And the hotel was perfect.  The owner, Laurent Rodriguez, his wife and beautiful daughter, made my stay most pleasant and nothing was too much trouble for them.  I forgot to ask Laurent if he had played rugby, for he was built like a prop forward, with huge shoulders, massive arms and a neck like a tree trunk.

He was not someone that I would have relished having to tackle.

Hotel Laurent Rodriguez