This is the article number 4 in our series about the Ventham family’s journey from the UK to the Pyrenees in northern Spain – on foot with the help of their horse Maggie.
This is the next in the series of Julia’s letters back to friends:
France is a vast country, my feet are now beginning to feel just how vast it is! It’s as if we have passed through many countries within one with so many changing landscapes and climates! We are now at the bottom in the French Pyrenees, just a hop, skip and a jump over some fairly large mountains and then we are in Spain – a strange thought! We are staying for a few days in the last town in France, resting and stocking up on supplies before we start the ascent.
We have been out of WIFI areas for some time, so my August newsletter will just have to join with the September one!
The last month has been full of heat and insects and much adventure. We had temperatures in the low 40s for a week or so, that meant our whole travelling day had to change, we were up early before the sun had gathered strength (doesn’t make for a happy teenager!), then having to stop at midday, sometimes for the rest of the day because even at 7pm it was too hot to walk!
Along with the heat came many other testing ‘friends’, mosquitoes were out in force and they loved our English flesh; so our beautifully brown bodies were peppered with bites. We encouraged each other not to scratch but then would stumble on one of us having a secret scratching session, which started us all off in a frenzy of relief followed by regret as we looked at our torn flesh!
Maggie was also plagued by flies, the normal kind and some huge French beasts that bite hard – as we walked alongside her we tried to swat them as we went, totalling up the number of strikes in a day! The last little critters to mention were ants, they found their way into the vardo under the canvas. I went to get something out of a box or worse turn in my sleep, to discover a gang of them having a ‘fiesta’ on a few measly crumbs!! I had to be ever more vigilant with my sweeping (which many of you know is my favourite past time anyway!)
I feel better having got all the insect stories off my chest, they seem quite trivial now as we are in the mountains and free of them but they occupied our days and nights for quite some time!
This latter part of France seems to have whizzed by and yet our pace of life is so slow, so what must it feel like for others on this fast moving planet?
We have moved through Armanac country with its vines and sunflowers dotting the gentle rolling hills, we stayed for a few days on the banks of the great Dordorgne river, swimming and picking blackberries. We then moved into La Lande region and walked for 3 days in the relentless heat through pine forests, occasionally interspersed with a small town but a noticeable lack of water everywhere. We were shown a beautiful flowing river that we could camp by, just when we thought there was no let up from the heat one day – it felt like an oasis until we realised that the combination of pine forest and water brought clouds of mosquitoes! The only place free of them was to be totally submerged in the river! At least the animals were happy, Betsy practising her new found passion – swimming! Floss and even Maggie were playing in the river!
After La Lande came the start of the hills, gentle preparation for the big ones to come but we were all so relieved to be out of the forest that we hardly noticed them. We have moved through the midi-pyrenees, experiencing a few dramatic thunderstorms, one of which came at the end of a long, tough day when we heard a loud hissing noise from one of the tyres and before we knew what was happening, it went flat as a pancake! The local farmer (who spoke Spanish thankfully), helped us to repair it and then let us camp in his field for the night! The rain was harder than we had experienced so far but the vardo remained dry – cramped but dry!
As suddenly as the vineyards began, we noticed that we had passed our last, we all felt a sadness for the classical French terrain that had accompanied us for so much of our trip, now giving way to a new mountain backdrop. Tom thought that the mountains were clouds for a few days, not believing us when we said that they were the Pyrenees – the long awaited moment had finally arrived, 1000miles had passed and we could almost smell Spain! The Haut or high Pyrenees were soon upon us, with ‘those clouds’ looming ever bigger and presenting us with a very dramatic backdrop! The weather here is just as dramatic and changeable, we can have blue sky first thing and thick black cloud an hour later. It,s green everywhere! We can have fires without worrying that we could start a forest fire! Rivers are full and flowing and Autumn feels closer now! Just the last couple of days, we have seen the swallows gathering – making their travel plans, luckily we go a little further south with them. The nights are cold here, we are only 600m above sea level, soon to double that, when we reach the peak of the Col de Portalet. We already use all the bedding we have, so I think it will be piling on the clothes next. Luckily, I know that the weather is much warmer and sunnier on the Spanish side!
Betsy and Floss are travelling dogs now (a case of resignation I feel!) Floss as always the protector, is on night duty, sleeping outside the vardo or tent with a watchful eye – we feel very safe! She comes in at dawn, when her shift finishes and collapses into a deep sleep for a few hours. Betsy, on the other hand values her comforts and her sleep too much staying in the vardo under the bed. She was sporting a large black oil stain for weeks, which we couldn’t rub off, so she really looked the part as a travellers dog! I think they’re happy but would love to know whether they think of the ‘old life’ or ask themselves ‘what the hell are we doing; when will this walk ever end??’
Maggie is forever the soldier – getting fitter and fitter all the time, Tom has had to tighten her girth to the last hole now, so you can imagine how slim she looks!! My relationship with her is getting more and more comfortable, having not been relaxed around horses, I must say that I have so much respect for her – I have even cleaned out her feet by myself, which I am very proud of and left Tom and Molly a gasp, with mouths open! We had her 2nd shooing a fortnight ago by a lovely man, who took so much time and care over her feet, it impressed Tom – we were lucky because it is normal to wait for a week or two to get an appointment with a good farrier but a very kind English man that we met, pulled a few strings and we managed to find someone in the next town to where we were. When we are looking for our night time camp, we have to let Maggie choose the spot because if she is content, then we can all relax and it makes for a peaceful night! Unfortunately her choice is not necessarily ours, she likes, town recreation fields, play areas, public parks, where there is activity and weedy grass! We like secluded, private, forest or shaded areas with lush grass and water! We put her choice down to all the years of grazing on common ground in Hull!
Now to the humans – we are all thriving!
A few blisters and tight tendons but nothing more. Molly continues to amaze me with her joy and pleasure in this trip – she like us, is learning heaps about herself and the world as we go. Books are read at a rate faster than we can keep up with (buying from Amazon for the kindle), she helps Tom a great deal with the care of Maggie, leaving me the responsibility of the dogs, which I am happy with! Molly alternates between walking, reading and sitting up front listening to music, as we travel. I am also so impressed with her ability to adapt to the bush living- river washing, bush toilet etc, she has just got on with it without a mention of hair straighteners!
Tom is the best person to do an adventure with – his practical and inventive skills never cease to amaze me. He is a genius with his ‘Heath Robinson’ creations. To date he has made us a lovely outside table from an old deck chair that he rescued from someone’s bonfire pile, lots of handles and hooks crafted from bamboo that we have found and in his spare time he has started to make the most beautiful spoons out of any local wood that he just happens to come across!
Me, I am loving this time, just us, a rare space for us all. I miss my ‘boy’ hugely but am able to speak regularly and it comforts me to know that so many family members are looking out for him, he is doing very well.
I am writing, reading and creating. I have loved making a collage on the back of the vardo as we go along, I am also painting and am still crazy about crocheting! Painful for the others but I am teaching myself how to play the whistle (thanks Will)! Just having the time to do these things is still a novelty for all of us! Although Spain has been my destination for so, so long, I am in no great hurry to get there just yet – infact we all feel that way, as we know that life will change again!
I know we’ve been on the road for quite a while now because all supplies of precious food that I brought have finished, we are bored of our clothes, standards of tidiness in the vardo are slipping and we have become totally blazé about being the local spectacle and now take it in our stride (literally), as we walk through a village and people come out to see us, stare, point or ask if they can take a photo of us!
I cannot finish without mentioning all the ‘angels’, who have appeared sometimes out of nowhere and offered us a meal, shower, a field/garden, vegetables, a swim in a pool, use of internet, a glass of cool wine, a trip to the supermarket, telephone numbers of others who can help us on our way or just a simple smile of encouragement. We’ve been truly blessed by the best humanity has to offer – it is a good world we live in, if we can be open to see it! Thank you to all you ‘angels’, you know who you are!
So, only 100kms to go and then it is finished, well at least this part of the adventure, the rest is unwritten.
I will certainly let you know when we have arrived!
If you missed the other parts of the series, you can check on them here: