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Day 27 - Mediterranean to Atlantic, done.
Hobson hobbles home

March 30, 2010                       Lesparre Médoc to Soulac-sur-mer                        19 miles
DNM's Cordouan horizon shot
Cordouan lighthouse external piuc
The King's spacious and ornate quarters in the Cordouan lighthouse have led it to be called "The King of lighthouses, and the lighthouse of Kings".

The lighthouse images are by me (top only) and as follows: immediately above, by Thibault 
Grouas, reproduced under a General Public License per terms explained here; immediately below is a drawing from the 1911 11th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, believed to be of government origin, and by reason of age and of origin now in the public domain. Credits for the photos at the foot of the page are given alongside them.

The top photo, and the one of me at the foot of the page, were taken yesterday in calm weather.

Cordouan drawing
It took me all day, but I finished the last day of what-turned-out-to-be 19 miles with a sense of achievement and of relief.

But the hike itself was quite dreadful. To get back to Lesparre to begin the hike to Soulac, I had a choice of two trains, one at 6.33 am and another at 11.40 am. The latter was too late, so I chose the one that was too early. Arriving at Lesparre at 6.50 am, it was dark - and with daylight savings time that has just started here, it wouldn't be light until 8 am, or a tad earlier on a clear day. Well, it wasn't a clear day, and it started to rain. There was nowhere to drop into for bacon and eggs, or even a coffee and baguette, so it was a choice of sheltering from the rain in the cold under an awning - or walking.

I walked. The rain got worse, and the grass verge got muddy. Moreover, it had lots of molehills - and into the mole-holes my boots often descended.

Then it got breezy, and later blustery. When daylight arrived, positively the only good thing about the situation was that I'd covered a couple of miles safely. I hoped the rain would subside as the day warmed, but it hardly warmed and the rain hardly eased at all. It took another three miles before there was any improvement. Having planned the day's route with Steve B, I swung onto a side road to Vensac which at least relieved traffic concerns, but then the rain resumed in full force, and I reckoned I'd better stay close to the bus route in case I called it a day. So I swung back to the main road.

If things weren't miserable enough already, there was worse to come. The wind strengthened at about 11 am to what was assuredly gale force, and it stayed that strong for the rest of the day. When it rained, there was no possibility of using the umbrella. It was hood-up and head-down, lean forward and trudge. On any other day of this entire hike, I would have run for cover. But not today.

Eventually, at least the rain eased and sometimes stopped. But the wind didn't ease at all. Worse, for the last three miles it veered towards my front, and then the road swung left so I was headed right into it. When I reached the beach at Soulac, where there was nothing to break the force of the wind, breakers raced for the shore and the sea was muddy from churning up sand. The beachfront was quite deserted, and it was hard to keep on my feet.

But nothing was going to stop me finishing now. Though the wind* made it a challenge, I swept my hand through the Atlantic surf, and the hike was done.

* With the help of my friend, Steve B, who located historical weather data here, I was later able to quantify the windspeeds today, taking the average of the nearest four coastal weather stations. In the early afternoon, when I was reaching Soulac, winds averaged 74 km/h (46 mph) with gusts to 103 km/h (64 mph).

Hiking without the backpack was essential today. I haven't spoken about injuries recently. My feet are in quite reasonable shape. Black toenails will heal. My battered big toe takes its daily hammering, and does not get worse, and will rapidly heal after I'm done. I am pleasantly surprised by my ankles, which have stood up nicely. My right ankle used to roll easily - and once that started, the tendons stretched and then it rolled even more easily. That hasn't happened this hike, and though I would like to give credit to a few strengthening exercises, I am mystified. My arthritic right knee has occasionally scraped on itself, and given pain, but I seem to unconsciously avoid the maneuvers which produce that, or muscle development has helped.

I am probably quite fit cardiovascularly now, a blessing and a reward for six to eight hours of vigorous exercise every day.

I have two worries. My shoulders ache even without the pack, which brings to mind a rotator cuff injury from the last hike, and the operation which took months of recovery. I hope I haven't messed that up. Also, I too-often feel strain at the site of my first (and only) hernia operation, and I really don't want a second. The backpack weight can't help. In today's conditions, I don't think I could have finished with the backpack on.

So, if Hobson hobbles home now, it's as well that's it's over while he still can.

And that's a thought to keep firmly in mind for the future. After a while, a completed hike takes on the glow from rose-colored spectacles. I have asked Jennifer to remind me about my call after that terrible first day, when five miles brought me to my knees and I told her I didn't think I could do this hike. I think, now, that I was suffering the side-effects of antibiotics. But that confession is still part of the picture.

I also don't want to pretend for a moment that this hike - or my previous ones - are in any way remarkable. Younger and even older folks do these hikes easily and faster and probably more often than me. I can only speak for myself, and say that these hikes are the hardest of my own physical challenges.


So what of the Cordouan lighthouse, of which I've spoken? Well, it sits at the mouth of the Gironde estuary, out at sea but easily visible from Soulac. In factual terms, it's the world's 12th tallest at 223 ft or 68 m, not bad for a structure built 1584-1611. (It was heightened slightly in 1788-1789, but without reworking the pre-existing foundations and superstructure.)

The importance of its location can be gauged from the fact that there have been lighthouses on the same site since the year 880, though then lit only by a fire and visible for a very short distance.

In its 1584 recreation, Cordouan was designed and built by Louis de Foix. The purpose was the safe export of Bordeaux wines. As Wikipedia reports,

"De Foix first built a round base 135 feet in diameter and 8 feet high to take the onslaught of the waves. Within it was a cavity 20 feet square for storing water and other supplies. Above it were constructed four storeys of diminishing size. The ground floor consisted of a circular tower 50 feet in diameter, with apartments for four keepers around its inner wall. In the centre was richly decorated entrance hall 22 feet square and 20 feet high.

"The second storey was the King's Apartment, consisting of a drawing room, ante-room and a number of closets. The third storey was a chapel with a domed roof notable for the beauty of its mosaic. Above this was a secondary lantern, and above that the Lantern itself. This was 162 feet above the sea and visible 5–6 miles away, the original light being provided by burning oak chips in a metal container.

"Throughout the building, de Foix took as much trouble with the decor as with the durability of the building, and on every floor was a profusion of gilt, carved work, elegantly arched doorways and statuary."

Stained glass windows in the chapel, pictures of the King's apartment, and views from atop, are shown here, where it's reported that "most of the stones [that] make up the entire thickness of the tower . . . are assembled in such a precise fashion that it is impossible to slide the blade of a knife between the joints".

The King's quarters allow the Cordouan to be called the "King of lighthouses, and the lighthouse of Kings".

But perhaps it is the light itself that makes Cordouan the world's most historically-significant lighthouse. For here, Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788-1827) pioneered a lens that made lighthouses what they are today. Instead of using just mirrors to amplify the light source, Fresnel developed a new lens system that still bears his name. It completely changed the way that lighthouses beamed their lights.

As The Times reported, "the Fresnel lens is a round glass plate [or plates] carved into concentric rings, with each ring slightly thinner than the next and angled slightly differently, focusing the light from a lamp to the centre and then out over the horizon".

This lightweight set of lenses made possible what could only previously have been done with an enormously heavy and impractically thick lens.

Fresnel lenses let lighthouses be seen at night on the horizon, but they have a place in our everyday lives also. Have you ever seen a traffic light, used an overhead projector, seen a car tail light, or used a flat magnifying glass?

The Fresnel lens made its debut at Cordouan.

Cordouan is still manned and operated, and still uses a Fresnel lens.

When I finally reached the beach at Soulac-sur-mer, I was drained of energy. But after the shortest of rests, my energy was replenished by a sense of accomplishment. I had walked 375 miles in 27 days, averaging 14 miles (22 km) a day. More importantly, I'd seen an untold number of beautiful sights and experienced a new (to me) culture and language, and wonderfully-welcoming people.

The long, long walk had been arduous, but also often exhilarating. My terrible first day had given way to better but always-challenging ones. The worst snow in twenty years had been replaced by spring on the sunlit uplands of the continental divide. Then the cold had come back, and then sun again, and then wind and rain, and then a couple of days of summery weather. The final day was as bad as anything I'd previously experienced. But a real hike, which of course is a longdistance one, is about surviving the elements and the moments when every step seems more than one can bear and the end may still be hundreds of thousands of steps away - so that keeping the faith is by no means a given. As the French say, it takes "bon courage".

I had explored my innermost thoughts. It is what a solo hike invites, but they can still be elusive. I thought about blessings and misfortune, about youth and age, about loved ones lost and loved ones that can still come home, and what can yet be, and what can't.

The Cordouan's structure by day, and its light by night, were prominent on the horizon, smiling (it seemed) on a hike successfully completed. But visiting it was another matter altogether.

We could take a boat ride," said Hobson.

I told Hobson that the boat tour runs only in summer. And, no, we're not going to "borrow" a boat, and land on the rocks in raging seas and a fearsome tide to end up in the hands of St. Peter or the gendarmes.

"If it's St. Peter, we're doomed," said Hobson. "I'd rather take my chance in a French prison. At least the chow will be good."

I said I wasn't sure about the cuisine, and to please shut up now.

"The water temperature is up to 6 degC," Hobson added. "It's only 5.3 miles on a bearing of 339 deg."

I told Hobson we weren't going to swim, and he acknowledged defeat with a sigh.

"The King never even visited," he said.

Hobson and I looked out at the Cordouan, perhaps for the last time, before finding the perfect end to our story:

"If the King never visited, then neither shall we."

Dreams, you see, do not always come true. If they did, there would be no dreams. We must save some for the future to keep our dreams alive.

Cordouan exterior pic 2
The photos above and below are by Thibault Grouas and are reproduced under a General Public License per terms stated here and here. The photo of the author at the foot of the page is by the author.
Cordouan chapel
Granddad holds Steven's and Wyatt's pictures at Soulac
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