An old friend, called Alan Bell, wrote many of the songs made famous by The Houghton Weavers in the nineteen eighties, including the lovely Blackpool Belle, an homage to one of the resort’s best loved tram cars. Surely, though, the greatest song ever written about a bus ride was The Day We Went To Bangor, recorded by Fiddler’s Dram. The song became the massive hit single from their album, To See The Play, in 1979. It was written by Whitstable Folk Club regular Debbie Cook, who went on to become a successful scriptwriter for The Archers and EastEnders. The lyric was delivered with an ´inebriated´ gusto by lead singer Cathy Lesurf as the rest of the band plinked and plonked as if having had far too much of the plonk in question. The song lists the fairly innocent delights of a coach trip to the seaside, and you will come to understand in this article why the song, ever since we, too, took a similar journey last week, just won’t go out of my head.
Ed: Thanks Norm! It’s now irretrievably stuck in my head, too!
Dee had found the advert and handed it to me to read. It was written in Spanish, in a magazine that was all written in Spanish which would have rendered it indecipherable anyway, but over here on Lanzarote they love an illegible font that blends invisibly into a ridiculously coloured background page colour, so I simply handed the leaflet back to her. After one of her inimitable deep sighs of frustration she started to slowly, nay interminably, pick out odd words in translation. A good while later we had decided the advert was for a coach trip from Playa Blanca on Monday 5th August to the beautiful church of Las Nieves, a building we have once visited on holiday that is as enchanting as it sounds. The coach, said the advert, would pass through all the ´beautiful little villages´ along the way. After the visit to the church there would be a stop for lunch on the way back for a meal and folk lore entertainment.
That sounded good, and Dee said it would be a welcome break, for her, from my driving.
However, it was now seven thirty on the Friday evening, and knowing how the ´system´ used to work (or not) in the UK we figured the telephone numbers included in the advert would be unreachable between now and the coach departing at 9.00 am in two days time. Lanzarote never lets you down though and when we phoned we got through at the first attempt. The lady who answered was called Lolli and explained in English that was better than our Spanish that there were still two tickets left and we could pay the guide on the coach the price of twenty six euros, for two, which included return fare, lunch and drink and entertainment.
So we arrived at the guagua station in Playa Blanca and by the time the coach arrived at nine am precisely, (what is all this nonsense about mañana?) we and the other fifty passengers were already standing in an orderly queue. Any English chat to each other between Dee and me was completely drowned out by the rapid-fire Spanish conversations going on around us, but we filed on board. The guide, a lovely lady, came and asked us for our ´fares´ and, realising we were English, went on to check in with us during the rest of the day asking if we were ok and enjoying ourselves.
We certainly were. Our fellow travellers consisted of grandparents, parents and children as young as seven or eight. We assumed they all must live in our town, having congregated at our bus station, and indeed Dee recognised a lady she sees in church and I recognised a demon boules player I have seen in various matches in town, but there were certainly no other English people. Nevertheless, from the moment we set off, until the moment we arrived back ten hours later, we had a wonderful day.
As we set off, though, we were still unsure what to expect. We know Las Nieves to be at one of the highest points on the island, as we had a puncture there on that holiday trip in our hire car, but since coming to live here Dee has forbidden me to follow, in our own car, any signs pointing up that hill. We had, therefore, only seen the church on that one occasion, when it was closed and covered in low cloud.
We picked a couple of other families up from El Golfo and from the bus stop at the foot of the hill up to Las Brenas and then took a circuitous, picturesque route up through Tahiche and Teguise and through the beautiful Los Valles past the windmill farms and then began the ascent to the church itself.
As we neared the site we were amazed to see people climbing the hill on donkeys, or cycling up the hill, or walking up the hill like mountaineers, or some hobbling up on walking sticks and others even riding up in wheelchairs. There were hundreds of cars in a roped off car park and one or two refreshment stalls set away from the church grounds. As we were stepping off the coach our guide was informing every one of our coach number and time to meet back here. We could only just hear her above the hubbub of chatter but even had she used a loudspeaker we’d have been none the wiser, so Dee approached her and asked a few questions in Spanish-y and we learned that we were all here for the annual mass to the Virgin de las Nieves, and then those who wished to could follow the procession carrying the icon of her around the church, and then meet back at the coach which would only set off once all the driver’s flock was safely gathered in.
Legend has it that the Virgin de las Nieves first appeared to a farmer tending his flock on the mountains of El Risco above Famara, in 1427. A church later erected in her name was subsequently burned down by pirates and stood in ruins until a rebuilding in 1724, when Virgin de las Nieves was named as the patron saint of Lanzarote. The site then had become a popular pilgrimage destination for farmers and land-workers from as far away Teguise, the lands of Malpasso and Haria. These pilgrims came to pray for rain for their crops and at times of other biblical disasters like fire. These kind of events happened frequently enough for the Virgin to also be given the alternative name of Our Lady Of Calamity.
The last renovation of the building was by Enrique Spinollo Gonzales and it stands today as the finest vantage point from which to view the whole of the Chinijo Archipeligo.
It was now ten thirty, and the mass wasn’t to start until noon, so we had some time to spend on what was a lovely, hot day, with a cooling wind, courtesy of our elevated location, so we decided to take a stroll. Separately, as we are prone to do. Dee wandered off in the direction of the church and I out to the very perimeters of this cliff top site, to stare in wonder at the awesome vistas it offers. There is what you might call an eagle-eye view of Famara, absolutely unforgettable, which is a good job because it is surely un-photographable from any safe position. The town can be seen many thousand feet below, cradled by a coastline that from here seems to wander away and then creep round behind you. Miles in the distance you can see the other resorts as you look away to coastlines in all directions. Despite the fact that by now there were perhaps three thousand people milling about, most of whom had walked many miles of mountain tracks to get here for this service, you could nevertheless find peace and quiet, solitude even, in a heartbeat; so vast is the area, and so quiet this world.
An hour later Dee and I re-convened at where we had split up and each of us handed in our reconnaissance reports. First I told her about the views and the fact that from over there, just over there, she would be able to see where we had once felt so deflated to abandon our car where the police had picked us up and driven us back down to Teguise, just when we had been on the point of suicide or of one of us killing the other. Today, though, thirteen years later, I was merely relieved to see somebody must have managed to tow away our four wheeled, three tyred vehicle. Dee told me about the incredible religious iconography in the church and how all the pews were already taken, with still forty minutes before the mass was due to start.
We found a comfortable bit of wall to sit on, all pews and benches, inside or outside, being taken and Dee ordered a coffee. Well, she ordered me to go and get us a coffee, so I dutifully did as I was told. She should never have let me go on my own, though, so I don’t think I deserved my telling off about not caring enough about my weight or my diabetes to resist bringing back food, too.
The six sugary, floury, coconut cupcakes were to accompany the coffees. I notice she seemed to enjoy the one I gave her as much as I enjoyed the five I had.
I wish I knew how to express all this in more detached and scientific fashion, but I can only describe the event as a pilgrimage on this catholic island. It seems that at this time each year people from all over the island make this pilgrimage to revere the saint, and at least a part of that pilgrimage is made on foot. There is reverence, but not what I would consider piety. There is a respect, but it is not a fawning adulation and the event has become large enough to warrant a police presence (for safety rather than enforcement) and even a slight commercialisation, if a pastry stall next to a bar selling more soft drinks than any hard alcohol, can be called commercialisation. This was about the size of a football crowd at Bury or Rochdale where I was used to live, but there was no aggression, no tribalism and the sense of entitlement of many UK football fans was here replaced by a gratitude for what God or nature has given us. The whole scene was a peculiar mixture of hymns ancient and modern. There were motor vehicles in the car park and donkeys and asses at the tie up bar. There was colourful clothing, and children with toys that spoke of the contemporary but the atmosphere and gentility spoke of timelessness.
By the time the mass began at mid-day, the church and the square outside was packed with people, and too the surrounding land in which we were sitting. We could hear the congregational sounds if not the priest’s sermon, but soon, as we nearly jumped off the wall at the sound of a sudden explosion, we noticed the statue being carried down the aisle and out through the front doors. The explosion had been that of a firework rocket of very white-light, that had burst, invisibly, at its apex against a background of pale blue sky, a puff of smoke carried away quickly on the wind being the only link between sound and vision.
A band of brass-instrument players greeted the statue with a fanfare at the gates and then turned to lead her and the fifteen hundred or so followers on a procession around the church grounds.
The music they played sounded, to us, unrecognisable, if not to say strangely incongruous. I have referred before to such playing as being not unlike the New Orleans funeral music we see so much of on films and tv these days, but this even lacked the percussive element that would have made that more obvious.
It took, perhaps, half an hour for the procession to complete its full circle around the grounds and back in to the church. That was the ceremonials and the homage over with and it was time for a gentle stroll back to our numbered coach.
I used to work At Bolton Wanderers on match days in the police control room and help with the dispersal of vehicles from the car parks around the ground. We had roundabouts, traffic lights, motorways, cctv cameras and two way radio communication, but here there was one policemen, on his own, directing traffic, with a whistle and shout when needed, down an incredibly steep hill, with a sheer drop on one side of the track. I reckon he’d have got the job at Wanderers.
We were quicker down the hill and out on to the open road than ever I was out on to the M61 that ran past the Reebok stadium, and we took a long and rural ride back into Mancha Blanca. There we pulled into a restaurant, opposite the glorious Ermita de los Dolores, and were soon followed in by several other coaches. All of us, though, were shown efficiently, with a minimum of fuss, to our designated tables and were soon at the help yourself buffet bar offering a choice of soup, salad, meatballs, paella, potato croquets, Canarian potatoes, chips, fish and ice cream and wine. ((no don’t go back to the top to check the price. I’ll repeat it,…the whole day cost us only 13 euros each).
The meal gave us a chance to then get to know a couple of our fellow passengers and we were sitting opposite a nicely shy, but confident little ten year old girl, Spanish at least as defined by her language, and the lady accompanying her.
The atmosphere was easy and even in a dining hall atmosphere seating by now more than two hundred, we could hear ourselves speak and tell each other how much we were looking forward to the folk lore music.
Whether he had been told, or had mis-heard, that there would be folk lore music or whether we had read, or had mis-read that there would be folk lore music mattered not, because this wasn’t folk lore music. It was, whatever they called it, pop by any other name. It was, though, just what these customers wanted and soon there were several pairs of our retired generation up on the dance floor as a girl singer and a male keyboard player delivered the music our fellow passengers wanted to hear. These were the songs, in Spanish, that had been the hits of their youth. I managed to keep Dee’s bottom planted firmly in her chair and when we suddenly recognised the tune of Leapy Lee’s Little Arrows she agreed to come and sit outside with me.
At a lovely little umbrella table we sat and read our books and kindles for an hour or so whilst our fellow travellers danced the time away. However, although we were the first to beat a retreat outside, we were fairly swiftly followed by other couples coming out to play cards or just to relax away from ´that rock and rolling music!´
All too soon, for this was a beautiful peaceful time, with the music of the band a soothing background, everyone else was heading back to their coaches and it was time for to follow suit.
The community spirit that had been all pervasive today was evidenced as farewell kisses and cuddles and handshakes were exchanged. Obviously most of the passengers knew each other but we too, unknown to any of them before today, were saluted farewell.
It had been a day unlike any other we have had on the island since coming to live here four years ago, and if I am honest I don’t know how or why I have placed such an everyday life story on to these pages that I usually fill with stories of arts and culture.
Maybe that’s it, though. All the concerts we report on seem to exceed not only our preconceptions but also the expectations of the indigenous audience. So, too, this little chara-ride, as we’d have called it in the UK, had bettered it’s billing.
Today had proved somehow that here on Lanzarote the patchwork quilt that bears arts and culture and religion and faith and life style and the family focus of Lanzarote is invisibly seamed and that all these things are inter-woven.
In the words of a John Stewart song, we in Lanzarote ´hope for the best and we deal with the worst´ knowing somehow that this island always give us more than we ask for.
The following day we told our friends Jorge and Kassia, at The Italica Resaurant in Matagorda, all about the day, and sadly found ourselves suggesting that such ´ínnocent´ days in the UK disappeared along with the Whit Walks, as we called them in our youth. Kasia, suggested, however, that the atmosphere we described still exists at such events in her home country of Poland.
Jorge, though, told us a story on a different track that lent the final mystical brush stroke to the whole event. He told us that the church of Los Nieves is so called because it is all so white against the skyline and mountain backdrop that sometimes it is swallowed up by the white cloud mists that sit like a silky hairstyle on the mountain tops, so rendering the church, and the one or two tiny villages around it, as invisible.
Dignity and self and mutual respect, too, are almost invisible here; not in the sense that they cannot be seen but in the sense that they are so much part of the everyday that we don’t notice them.
Ed: What a wonderful final sentence, and so very true.