When Pittsburgh turned yellow…

L1031481Last day in the US. Teaching on a short course for researchers within the Veterans Administration at the Grand Wyndham Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh. In a conference room cut off from the outside world with air-con set to ‘artic’.

Lunch break was 1 hour 15 mins. I step out of the hotel into a beautiful sunny, beyond baking hot day. Slightly disorientating. Everywhere I look people are wearing yellow and black. Walking across the park in front of the hotel. It’s Sunday. The Steelers are playing. I walk in the same direction. Across the yellow bridge. Towards the stadium.

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L1031507I’m told/observe a few things.

American football is a family event. People head over to the stadium hours before the game for the atmosphere, pre-drinking and eating. Very, very few people do not wear the kit in some shape or form. You can take alcohol into the stadium but no bags (other than clear/plastic bags).

I saw one policeman on a bike. Looking totally out of place. As if he was passing by on his lunch hour.

A retired player posed for photos with fans. The queue was enormous.

 

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“Get your phones out and ready” people were told. No charge. A snap or two. A ‘terrible towel’.  More cheer.

I wandered back towards the yellow bridge. To the beige hotel (in the photo below) for the final sessions in this marathon trip.

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What a backdrop. What a city. What an extraordinary journey…

I cannot wait to be home.

Pittsburgh and the speakeasy

L1031307 (1)Pittsburgh. A city where everything seems big.

After meandering my way here overland via Montreal with some freedom, I’ve been full on working.

Tonight a free evening and some wandering.  I stumble across an extraordinary old building positioned in what looks like a stage set in the shadow of sun soaking tower blocks. Beckert Seed and Bulb Co. A Disney film in the wings.

L1031416Nate happened to be sorting the rubbish. He ran with my fascination with this ‘out of/more than in’ place building.

“There’s the old speakeasy down there… You know. The illegal liquor sales… The door to the speakeasy is still there.”

The speakeasy.

L1031422We went and looked at the door down the alley way.

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“So long ago now…” said Nate. Shaking his head. He went back to work.

L1031424I went back to my big hotel.

 

Finally, New York to Pittsburgh

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L1031190 (1)So I’m inviting the nerdier among you to join me on my last long distance journey on this mammoth North American trip. New York to Pittsburgh on an Amtrak train. Leaving New York Penn Station at 10.52am. Get some nosh in advance I’ve been advised. The train fare can be a bit limited.

Tim is the ticket inspector. With more than a hint of banter and humour.

“You think this is the first time my picture has been taken by someone from England?!” he asks, posing for a few pics like an old pro as the train bounces around the track a bit and he keeps blurring.

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The train is well worn, comfy, spacious with a range of around the seat gadgets. A distant table, a foot rest attached to the seat in front moved with a foot pedal. Under each seat is a pull out chair extension so you can recline your chair and almost lay down with your legs stretched out. A shiny round black knob on the arm of the chair pings the extension back under the seat.

There’s plenty of room.

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A dining car and free (speedy and largely consistent) wifi.

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And wonderful views.
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From the edges of New York city through villages of colourful wooden houses dotted around tree filled Pennsylvanian hills, the 400 or so mile journey takes nine hours. Its a relaxed pace, slow to middling. Allowing time to soak up the changing scenery. Read, work. Think.

A bit of excitement mid afternoon. Tim’s replacement, a similarly comedic, big voiced, kindly woman, marches into our nearly empty carriage.

Now listen up everyone. I have an announcement to make! Are you listening? I have something important to say!”

Crumbs. What’s happened? The six or seven of us left after the mass exodus at Philadelphia station a few hours earlier poke our heads out from our by now, personalised spaces. Footrests up or at ease. Seats reclined. Full body sleepage on the go.

“A couple of people have reported the smell of smoke in this carriage. Yes. Smoke. Now if I catch anyone smoking I will toss them off the train at the next station. Got it?”

We nod. Feeling guilty. She marches out of the carriage with a flourish and a cheeky smirk.

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Early evening, more excitement. An unexpected announcement over the tannoy. We’re about to approach the ‘world famous horseshoe curve’. Time to look out of the left hand side of the train. Wow. One for the serious train buff maybe but it’s pretty cool. It takes me back to the days of wooden toy train track building with the obligatory figure of eight curves. We never had enough pieces for a horseshoe.L1031276

We settle back in our various spaces. The sun slowly sets and by Johnstown it’s dark. The industrial approach to Pittsburgh reduced to chaotic lights in blackness.

Time for a cheeky bottle of the local brew, Yeungling, from the dining car. And to reflect on the humanity both generated by and captured on public transport.

Walk on the High Line

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I entered New York three times for the first time over the last four days. Train from Boston Friday, car on Saturday evening, Coach USA today. Arrival into Penn Station, via the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln tunnel.

Friday involved an in and out, without stepping out, of stations. Cloaked in a humid, frantic and harsh Friday evening space. New York a promise of familiar names, signs and lifelong memories.

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Saturday evening I walked a chunk of Manhattan Island with the friend/colleague I was staying with in Nyack. Promise more than realised as we grazed Central Park, Times Square, 5th Avenue and the Empire State Building.

Today I caught the bus from Nyack and checked into the New York Yotel. Mid afternoon, I went to walk the High Line. The park that almost wasn’t.

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Built on a historic, elevated freight line destined for demolition… run by the non-profit conservancy Friends of the High Line which relies on individual donations.

A disused elevated freight line made into a park. An extraordinary, joyful space with original tracks, plants, walkways, seating, artwork and views.

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And then I came across the choir.

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L1031150Truly wondrous.

Eh? Sorry, what was that? A park on a bridge across the River Thames? 

Final day in Old Orchard Beach

Staying at the Pine View Motel. Motel life. A glimpse of a pool here through the window and beyond, Saco Avenue, the main road between Old Orchard and Saco. I worked, Skyped, went to the laundrette [exceptional] at lunchtime and late afternoon walked the beach.

I walked the other way under the pier this evening towards Brunswick. Sea gulls stood almost to attention with a haughtiness along the beach while tiny (groups/gaggles/ chatters?) of sand pipers (I think with a quick google) added a joyous layer of fun and playfulness. Tripping over themselves without touching, chasing and ducking the waves.

I met Pretzer (or Prezzer) and his owner. A dog who loves the beach.

At JJs Eatery, where I ate, Halloween preparation was underway with serious attention.

On the way back to the motel I passed Lisa’s Pizza. Squaring, or circling the Old Orchard Beach experience. A place where you can order a pizza and someone will deliver it and wait. No stops necessary.

Rib beef buffet and Eric Spoonton

Quiet day in Old Orchard Beach. Skype calls, work in my motel room and a walk along the beach late afternoon where some nifty painters were busy at work in the sky.

L1030709I had dinner in Strike Zone, sitting next to Peter who was carving an enormous piece of meat for an ‘all you can eat’ buffet. Another deadpan legend.

“The pumpkin mash is amazing. Did you make it?”
“Nah. None of it”.

Custom was steady with a few rules in operation.

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“You need a clean plate.”
“This one’s fine.”
“No you need a clean plate. It’s the rules.”
“Ah. I’m all for rules.”

I started to take some pictures.

“Where are you from?” He asked.
“Oxford, England.”
“We had someone from Manchester the other week. He really loved the pickles. ‘I love the pickles so much!’ he said.”
“That’s cool. Is that beef?”
“Yep. Prime rib beef. All you can eat. On Fridays it’s all you can eat haddock.”
“Wow.”
“Make sure you take a photo of Eric Spoonton.”
“Who?”
“Eric Spoonton. Like Eric Clapton.”
“Ok.”

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Greyhound days, Dave and the red pear

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When I got to the Montreal Greyhound station this morning the queue had woven untidily through available space and back almost out to the pavement. I thought about the Oxford to Newcastle Megabus (a nifty six hour journey) I pass on the way to work. Seeing the odd, pale, typically beaten passenger having a quick puff on the pavement.

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I parked these reflections. This was going to be a bus journey and a half. I had music, books, wifi, kip potential and the Vermont autumn scenery to soak up. By the time I reached the front of the queue other stragglers had joined and we were directed to another bus. A new bus. An express bus. Driven by Dave.

Dave.

I would want to employ Dave, or a someone like Dave, if I ran my own organisation. A exemplar in minimal interaction, keeping passengers informed/in line, and doing what matters.

I settled into a seat next to a woman wearing a round straw hat with her nose very firmly in a book. ‘Don’t talk to me’ she said without words. Comfy seat, space and big windows to beak through. A greyhound on the right side of shiny.

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There was chatter at first. People exchanging peculiar transient life fragments; where they were going, where they’d been. Why we were on that bus. The demographic was mixed with a hefty dose of young, scrubbed student types.  An older Greyhound-pro on his way to give an engineering lecture sat in front of me. He had a striking comfortableness with the process. Leafing through his newspaper he could have been sitting on a hotel balcony with a cup of coffee.

An hour or so into the journey the bus was largely quiet. People hooked into books, phones, tablets or dozing. There was weighty traffic as we approached the border and we inched forward slowly.

“Can you hear me?! I’m stuck on the bus. I’m stuck on the bus at the border. I don’t know what time. I’ll ask the driver.”
“What time will we be stopping in Brunswick?”
“We’re not stopping in Brunswick. This is an express bus.”
“But my ticket says Manchester.”
“You’re on the wrong bus.”

The promised border guard eventually appeared. After a brief chat Dave told the woman caller to get her stuff and wait for the next bus. The rest of us were get off the bus with our ‘on bus’ bits. Cases could stay in the hold.

“Is this yours?” said the young woman sit across the aisle to me. “It fell into my bag when you stood up”.

My red pear. From my hotel breakfast.

“Thanks…”
“You might have a bit of trouble with that pear. You aren’t allowed to bring fresh fruit into the US.”
“Oh.”
“You might want to lose it or declare it…”
“Lose it? Like leave it on the bus?”
“Mmm. That might make things worse. You should probably declare it.”

I got off the bus with the pear and a tub of grapes humming in my bag. We were herded into a new queue.

“Does anyone want a grape?” I asked.

The grapes went down well. I was allowed to keep the pear. Back on the bus we drove through spectacular countryside, had a break in torrential rain at White River Junction and arrived in Boston around 7pm.

 

 

Dave switched the lights on.

“Are you visiting Boston or do you live here?” asked the woman sitting next to me.

So much more than a ‘bus journey’.

I was taken back to this transport related piece of wisdom from LB.

Finally, New York to Pittsburgh…

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L1031190 (1)So I’m inviting the nerdier among you to join me on my last long distance journey on this mammoth North American trip; New York to Pittsburgh on an Amtrak train. Leaving New York Penn Station at 10.52am. Get some nosh in advance I’ve been advised. The train fare can be a bit limited.

The ticket inspector is a cheerful Tim. With more than a hint of banter and humour.

“You think this is the first time my picture has been taken by someone from England?!” he asks, posing for a few pics like an old pro as the train bounces around the track a bit and he blurs.

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The train is well worn, comfy, spacious with a range of around the seat gadgets. A distant table, a foot rest attached to the seat in front moved with a foot pedal. Under each seat is a pull out chair extension so you can recline your chair and almost lay down with your legs stretched out. A shiny round black knob on the arm of the chair pings the extension back under the seat.

There’s plenty of room.

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A dining car and free (speedy and largely consistent) wifi.

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And wonderful views.
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From the edges of New York city through villages of colourful wooden houses dotted around tree filled Pennsylvanian hills, the 400 or so mile journey takes nine hours. Its a relaxed pace, slow to middling. Allowing time to soak up the changing scenery. Read, work. Think.

A bit of excitement mid afternoon. Tim’s replacement, a similarly comedic, big voiced, kindly woman, marches into our nearly empty carriage.

Now listen up everyone. I have an announcement to make! Are you listening? I have something important to say!”

Crumbs. What’s happened? The six or seven of us left after the mass exodus at Philadelphia station a few hours earlier poke our heads out from our by now, personalised spaces.

“A couple of people have reported the smell of smoke in this carriage. Yes. Smoke. Now if I catch anyone smoking I will toss them off the train at the next station. Got it?”

We nod. Feeling guilty. She marches out of the carriage with a flourish and a cheeky smirk.

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Early evening, more excitement. An unexpected announcement over the tannoy. We’re about to approach the ‘world famous horseshoe curve’. Time to look out of the left hand side of the train. Wow. One for the serious train buff maybe but it’s pretty cool. It takes me back to the days of wooden toy train track building with the obligatory figure of eight curves. We never had enough pieces for a horseshoe.L1031276

We settle back in our various spaces. The sun slowly sets and by Johnstown it’s dark. The industrial approach to Pittsburgh reduced to chaotic lights in blackness.

Time for a cheeky bottle of the local brew, Yeungling, from the dining car. And to reflect on the humanity both generated by and captured on public transport.

Six days in Asturias

A last minute booking to try to escape the stain/strain of GMC tribunal horror. Rich had to stay at home to work. I got a return flight to Asturias for £107. Returning to the land of the Camino. A hotel in Oviedo booked for night one. The rest open to whim [or howl]. The forecast rain and cloud.

Thursday evening

At the airport, waiting for the Oviedo bus, I chatted to D. She was on her way to a Tai Chi course with a Spanish master. After 12 years of practice she was beginning to understand the inner workings involving her core. She also mended clocks.

She asked what I did for a job. 

“My mum told me I was diagnosed with High Functioning Aspergers when I was at school”, she said, when I told her. “I never looked it up or anything, I was just relieved to learn I was normal. I didn’t feel it at the time.”

M joined us. A recently retired economics teacher. She was going to spend a week volunteering on an immense course.

“Immense?” I said. “That sounds pretty important.”

“Immersion. Students of English immerse themselves in the language for a week with no Spanish spoken. It helps to cement learning.”

“I realised I talked all the time and didn’t listen,” said D. “On one of our retreats, someone said I wasn’t to talk for 24 hours. It made me realise that the quiet people, who I’d never even noticed before, spoke the most sense. The noisy ones I’d always engaged with said nothing.”

It was dark and raining in Oviedo. After some help from non English speaking locals, I found my hotel and checked into my room with a view. I felt like shite.

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Friday

The guy on reception enthusiastically scribbled on my map before I left to explore the city (of sculptures). With a final flourish of the biro he marked the Santa Maria de Naranco up on a hillside overlooking the city. I was to catch the A2 bus opposite the Campo de San Fransisco, two minutes from the hotel. The bus turned up straight away. I got on and said my destination. The driver didn’t understand me so I showed him the map. He shook his head and pointed to the bus stand behind me, making his fingers into a shape I think meant a letter rather than a rude gesture.

I got off and pointlessly studied the bus timetable written in Spanish for a few minutes.

Someone shouted. I turned round. Another bus driver asking where I wanted to go in Spanish (I think). 

I got the map out and pointed to the scribble. He nodded. The fare was €1.20. The church spectacular. I stayed a second night in the room with the view.

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Saturday

Early afternoon I was wandering around Cudillero, a dense and beautiful fishing town that tapered down the hillside into a harbour, with Alicia Wood and Henry Iles. Reminiscent of Portofino there were bustling restaurants serving seafood delights around the harbour front. Unlike Portofino, there were no designer shops, masses of tourists or fakery. Just a fishmonger, a vending machine or two, people’s smalls hanging on airers from windows in the narrowest alley ways and an enormous, damp smelling, dusty pink and blue flavoured church.

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We sat up into the early hours of the morning, eating traditional stew, drinking and putting the learning disability world to rights.

Sunday

A day trip to the Somiedo Nature Park with Alicia. A small beer in bear country before driving further into the mountains for a two part adventure. 

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Part One. Clear and detailed info from Alicia about what lay ahead. Eight kms of fairly hairy (pin bends) but doable driving. Passenger advice: don’t look right if you don’t like heights [I don’t]. We reached Valle de Lago, walked further into the mountains and had a picnic from the olden days, chatting about childhood books. Looking for bears.

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Part Two. No advice, just a creeping sense of horror as the road grew steeper and narrower. Small sections of wooden barriers with car sized holes appeared every so often. 

“There’s metal inside the wood. You can see where it’s snapped…” I said, leaning away from the window. As we ‘laughed’ hysterically.

Bend after bend, more broken fencing and the occasional oncoming car. We inched our way up the mountain road to a car park on top of the world. A mountain dog, torrential rain and extraordinary views. 

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After a soaking wet walk to a lake along a pink path worthy of a sci-fi film set we drove back down. With cattle for company.

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Monday

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I left Alicia and Henry and took the single track FEVE rail journey from Las Cabos to Gijon. Alone at first, I was joined along the 30 or so stops by a few Asturian locals. The odd set, perm and elaborately coiffed comb over. No chat. Just travel. Taking in idyllic hamlets, small towns, touching on bits of coast and the back end of industrial Aviles; apocalyptic, smoke belching ironworks and a hinterland of dust covered, unrecognisable landscape.

I was weepy for most of the day. An outcome of the extreme fear therapy we’d endured the day before? Or maybe it was because I was, unusually, able to think about Connor rather than GMC/NMC and other shite. I walked to La Madre del Emigrante (mother of the immigrant) sculpture we’d passed on the CaminoLB.

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Followed by dog and people watching.

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I had a room with two views in Gijon; the second window right above (and facing) this guy’s head. A second set of doors opened out onto the neighbouring square.

Tuesday

The sun shone and I felt brighter. The Gijonese were out in force and I did what they do. A march along the sea edge with my bag, a parade along the front, ice cream and book reading on the beach. 

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Ending the day with a cheerful and delicious final meal with Alicia and Henry. 

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This post is, in part, an unashamed plug for this strip of Northern Spain. An 80 minute flight to a land of delicious food, beautiful and varied scenery, warmth, rich hospitality and a wonderful way of life.

It’s also an account of easing into feeling human again.

#CaminoLB reflections

l1023817-2The #CaminoLB. Following the back end of a yellow shell for 8 days across the Northern route of the Camino de Santiago. Carrying the cardboard #JusticeforLB bus (made by the Boumelha family) to Aviles for an exhibition to be held on December 2. 160 kms of beautiful and constantly changing scenery (beaches, forests, mountains, towns, hamlets, woods, lakes, estuaries) and pathways (cliff paths, foot paths, dirt and gravel tracks, tiled sections, alongside dual carriageways, roads and railways). A backdrop of fresh air (with delicious whiffs of eucalyptus, rotting hay, mint, fig, lemon, orange and hazelnut trees). Constant and unexpected sunshine sometimes blocked by sea mist.

And hills… (mountains?)

Still trying to remember what joker told me the Northern Camino was pretty flat. Or maybe I dreamed it among the low level anxiety before we set off.

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Learning disabled people can’t walk (far?) was a message communicated to us in a meeting a few weeks before we set off. We’d crowdsourced £2k [thank you] to fund a group from My Life my Choice to join us for part of the journey. Sadly the language of social care diffused into everyday talk to threaten what was, essentially, a walking holiday. ‘Public liability insurance’, ‘support vehicles’ and the like, as ever working to bleakly colour and constrain the lives of so many people in the UK.

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As it was, we walked (miles), talked, ate delicious nosh, drank beer and cider, slept in dorms and laughed. The biggest [unanticipated] risks were snoring, farting, bangle wearing, decisions around the use of ‘she wees’ (we didn’t) and cheeks that ached more than legs because of hilarious contributions from John and Dave and, later, Dawn and Shaun.

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Fifteen people and two Great Danes pitched up at different points along the walk, facilitated by the extraordinary efforts of Mariana Ortiz, Alicia Woods and Henry Iles. We met all sorts of people en route intrigued by the bus. More officially we met members of a Spanish charity, Integra, and were welcomed at town hall receptions in Gijon and Aviles. A scruffy, cheerful bunch, carrying the battered but still brilliant cardboard bus, greeted by immaculately turned out dignitaries, film crews and photographers. Visible shock and horror expressed at the deaths of LB, Danny (Rosie Tozer’s son), Thomas, Nico and others.

“This is unimaginable…”

Reflection and clarity completely missing from public office/sector in the UK where LB, Danny and others were simply budgets and burdens.

There was other spontaneous support:

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And snatched moments of contemplation along the way. The enormity of why we were walking the Camino constantly with us. It was fitting that the walk coincided with the Dia de Todos Los Santos (Day of the Dead) on November 1. We marked this with (non risk assessed) late night candle lighting and tears on the beach.

l1024319-2With an irony meter the size of the hills we were regularly scaling, I ‘learned’ a shedload during this adventure. The biggy [howl] was the realisation (or  more accurately, recognition) of how I let LB down. No – no – response to this please (and don’t even go there Sloven, NHS Improvement, Jezza, NHS England, CQC, Health and Safety Executive and the like…) He was waiting for me to bring him home and I didn’t.

I also realised, or maybe recognised more clearly, that you just have to crack on and do stuff. Ditch the doubt, walk away from the blight that is big charity (non) work/public sector shite in the area of learning disability and just do stuff. Mencrap, NAS, Scope and other money spinning waste of space bastards totally miss the point. The conversations, chat, discovery, self reflection, delight and joy we shared/experienced across the journey – among those walking, people we met, and virtual campaigners – underlined this. Those who should do, simply ain’t going to. In the UK, anyway.

Spending time with Dawn, Shaun and Paul generated insights into life as a learning disabled adult. Dawn’s stories of living in a Mencrap home in the past were harrowing and her comment after an uncharacteristic stern moment – ‘Oh, I’d make a good carer’- was chilling.

I was surprised at how far we were able to walk. And the absence of complaint. There were some struggles, a few blisters and chafing (a story for another day). Endless uphill walks or clambering down rocky, chestnut and wet leaf strewn paths. I worried about the pain the walk would inevitably involve – I ain’t no walker – but it didn’t materialise. I wouldn’t advocate not training for a substantial walking trip but clearly backbone, guts and resilience go a long way.

It was astonishing how much we all gained from the experience. I don’t know whether this was the walking, the scenery, pilgrim life, the company or the underlying campaign… but there was an exhilaration, emotion and depth of something remarkable and immensely powerful. As Alicia posted on Facebook:

“It’s hard to know what to do after the incredible #CaminoLB. Such a powerful, hilarious and moving week that will stay with me forever.”

Whatever it was. It worked.

#JusticeforLB. Walking the walk.

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