This is the third in our series of articles about Tom Ventham and his family who made the journey on foot with their horse Maggie all the way from the UK to the Pyrenees in northern Spain.
Julia continues with her letters back to friends:
Leaving a life, home, child, family and friends is so huge but we’ve done it and now we focus on the pilgrimage and what we all hope to get out of that! I know that we were ready for this but it still doesn’t make the pain of the farewells fade in any way just yet – time will help!
Our days are filled with the slowness of simple tasks, it’s blissful – preparing food, walking dogs, tending to Maggie (not me!), crocheting (never did get my lesson Kim!), reading. I had forgotten how easy it is to while away the hours with just that!
By the time I next get to write, life will be different again. A month in to this life as a traveller and there are so many stories to share.
The days and the kilometers whizz by and we are already in the Loire valley, just about to start our 3rd map – don’t know why but the number of maps feels quite a landmark to me!
Firstly, we are all well, a few bumps and scratches but on the whole we are getting stronger and fitter every day and enjoying the physical challenge. Having said that we have just had a week of almost continuous rain and at times we felt extremely tested. I am so glad we listened to John ( a PH customer and wagon expert), who recommended that we have a small wood burner put in the vardo. It has been a spirit saver, drying out our soggy clothes and warming our hearts at the end of a wet day – we can even boil a kettle on it and cook simple fare!
We are walking on average 15 miles a day, starting around 11am until 2pm then resting somewhere for a couple of hours – time to refuel. We then do the next leg at about 4pm until we start looking for a night spot about 7pm, depending on the terrain that can take quite a while, to find a place that will suit Maggie’s stomach, where there is water near by and is quiet and secluded for us. We have mostly done really well, ticking all the boxes but sometimes we have to be bold and go and ask at the nearest house, if they have anywhere for us. I have to say the whole experience of travelling with a horse and cart is helping us to overcome any inhibitions or embarrassment that we may have had, (you didn’t I hear you all cry!!), as firstly you are a huge tourist attraction and second, we would not get very far if we couldn’t ask for help from local people. Our experience overall is that people are more than happy to help and will often go out of their way to make us feel welcome – it is a humbling experience that restores our faith in humanity.
I am usually the spokes person, my French is not that good but I can do the accent quite well, so whatever I say sounds impressive, Tom and Molly think so anyway!! A few days ago in torrential rain, at the end of a very long and difficult journey, we came into a village only to be faced with an huge and very beautiful châteaux. Tom dared me to go and ask if they had anywhere for us to spend the night, ‘the worst they can say is No’, where the words that spurred me on, as I walked down the pristinely kept avenue towards a sweeping driveway and enormous front door. I looked like a soggy peasant woman. Tom,animals and vardo stayed at the top of the sweeping driveway, as I nervously approached the door. A very friendly, petite, apron clad woman had already spotted us and was there with door open before I could knock/ring. In my rather pathetic repertoire of introductions in French, she very quickly put me out of my misery by saying that she could speak English. She was sympathetic and tried hard to accommodate our request but didn’t have anywhere for Maggie, all the lawns were so perfectly kept, that hoof prints on wet ground would have ruined them instantly! ‘I could put you in one of the houses’, she said ‘but the horse is a problem’, Tempted for only a second to leave Maggie in a random field somewhere – I thanked her and said my good-byes, she called after me, ‘would you like to come in for a coffee?’ We gathered our spirits and continued on for another hour before we found a suitable field.
Maggie now sports some new shoes – we had to stay for a week with my friend Catherine, near Alencon, while we waited for a date with a farrier! We had hoped that she could do the journey bare foot, just with the rubber boots that we had bought before we left but after she broke the back ones, slopped out of the front ones and £300 later, it makes sense to have her shod for the trip and then once in the Pyrenees back to bare feet. Finding farriers every 4 weeks could prove to be tricky but maybe it means we will have to rest a few days somewhere while we locate one! Yet another thing that points to us letting go of time and any pressures, we are at the whim of Maggie and her feet!
Molly is coping so well with the basic living conditions, learning how to do a 1 bucket wash and to stay in the same clothes for more than a day (not easy when you’re 14). Also, until we get to civilization, anywhere between 2 – 7 days so far, she has to manage without technology, this has meant that she has read 8 books since setting off which is mind blowing, as neither of my children have shown signs of being bookworms, earlier in their childhood. Now it’s a fight for the Kindle, I have to keep reminding ‘them’, that it’s mine!
The usual pattern on the road, is that I lead the way, with dogs and map, maybe 50paces up front, looking out for tractors and lorries, (which seem to scare Maggie), I call back if there is one in view, just to prepare everyone – she is getting so much better though and mostly we are on very quiet routes but one can suddenly appear from nowhere when you’re least expecting it. I enjoy the solitude and peace of walking in silence, I get into my own rhythm and feel reluctant sometimes to leave it!! It’s amazing how much you notice when you walk in this way. All the wild flowers, birdsong and hedgerow activity. Tom walks alongside Maggie, leading her and chatting and singing to her all the time! Molly alternates between being in the vardo reading, listening to music etc. or joining one of us for a while.
Setting up camp at the end of the day is also finding its own routine. Tom after sorting Maggie out goes foraging for firewood and water, while Molly and I get the vardo sorted and start preparing supper, which if it isn’t pouring with rain can be cooked on the open fire. Being totally raw is not so easy out here and I am really missing PH and all the wonderful produce, it has made me realize just how spoilt we were! I have been eating bread and cheese as well as lots of fruit and salad but it really doesn’t suit me, so I try to find supermarkets that sell rice cakes or similar but we often don’t pass through many towns bigger enough to have them, so I get a bit stuck and then resort to the bread! I am still fasting every week and that works well.
Well, the battery is about to run out on Molly’s laptop, so I must bid you lovely folk a farewell until the next time.
Much love to you all from the 3 of us.
P.S. Betsy and Floss have become expert at keeping up with us and hunting as they go (French rabbits are just too fast luckily!), they are mostly off lead but come to the whistle and are put on leads, when we are on busier roads.
If you missed the other parts of the series, you can check on them here: