The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes. MARCEL PROUST

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Days 7, 8 & 9: Riencourt-Lès-Bapaume To Deuillet Via Péronne And Seraucourt-Le-Grand

The Canal du Nord.

It was another day of cemeteries and flat farmland as I moved from the department of Pas de Calais into the department of the Somme. At midday I lost my way for a couple of hours in the forest of Bois de Saint-Pierre Vaast. Eventually, using the sun as my guide, I emerged from the woods, skirted a couple of huge, harvested fields, surprised a deer and flagged down a van at a crossroads of farm tracks. The farmer pointed out the road to Allaines, then offered me a lift, which I declined.

Hot and sweaty, I crossed the Canal du Nord, entered the attractive little town of Péronne and installed my tent in the Camping Municipal du Brochet ('brochet' means 'pike', and the site was built around a fish pond).  As I headed down the main street in search of something to eat, I spotted Peter and Ernst. They had found a small, basic two-bed gîte opposite the church. We celebrated our reunion with pastis and beer at a restaurant opposite the castle. We ate omelettes. And we recounted our latest adventures.  

The castle at Péronne.

The next morning Peter and I decided to spend a few hours looking round the Historial de la Grande Guerre, the First World War museum housed in Péronne's medieval castle. I'm very glad we did. It was both fascinating and sobering. The Battle of the Somme had taken place nearby between July and November 1916: the biggest battle of World War I, in which more than 1,000, 000 men had been either wounded or killed — making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. And the end result was a stalemate, with hardly any positional change in the Allied or German front lines. It was also the first battle ever in which tanks had been employed.

We hit the trail at 12.30 — very late — but still managed to walk 26 km before setting up our tents at the Camping du Vivier aux Carpes in Seraucourt-le-Grand. The first person we saw at the campsite was Ernst. He'd arrived early, pitched his tarp, settled himself in the campsite bar and had been entertaining other campers and caravanners for hours! He left at 7 am the next day, leaving a breakfast yoghurt for Peter and me in the grass outside our tents.
Typical farming landscape of the Somme.

It was Saturday 2nd August, and I broke camp late as I wanted to use the site's washing machine and dryer. The day was very warm again, and I walked through the accustomed landscape of windmills and wheat fields, church spires and water towers. There was also a long section by the Canal de Saint-Quentin. Here I met a Frenchman and his two sons picking mirabelles — small, succulent wild plums. We fell into conversation, and they became utterly intrigued by my journey. They plied me with plums, chocolate, sweets and a glass of wine, and even wanted to fill up my backpack with potatoes! The younger son (his breath smelling heavily of drink) kept jabbing me in the chest, shouting repeatedly: 'Vous êtes courageux! Mais fou!' ('You are brave! But crazy!) Finally I managed to get away and continued along the towpath to Tergnier, a scruffy, down-at-heel railway town full of sidings and marshalling yards.

The Canal de Saint-Quentin.

I caught up with Peter in Beautor and we made a wild camp at the edge of a cornfield just beyond Deuillet. It was a perfect spot: flat, with soft ground and no flies. Though, unfortunately, our sleep was interrupted by three farm dogs, whose barking echoed through the night . . .

Wild camping.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Day 6: Arras To Riencourt-Lès-Bapaume

For the next ten days or so I would walk through French Flanders, Picardy and Champagne, and would cross the rivers of the Somme, the Aisne and the Marne. I would see signposts to places such as Vimy, St Quentin and Verdun. For I was walking through the very heart of north-east France and the battlefield areas of World War One. It was a sobering experience. Of course, I happened to be there for the centenary of the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914. This picture was taken in the Beaurains Road Cemetery on the southern outskirts of Arras — I passed many War Grave cemeteries on this part of the route. It was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, whose website states: 'We commemorate the 1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. Our cemeteries, burial plots and memorials are a lasting tribute to those who died in some 153 countries across the world.'

The cemetery register in Beaurains Road Cemetery.

Some cemeteries are huge, and stretch for several square miles. Others are small plots in the middle of nowhere — often on the site of field hospitals where the dead were buried as they fell.

I have no words to capture the poignancy of this.

And war still goes on every day — in Gaza, in Iraq, in Ukraine. Good God, I have no words. Only silent prayers.

The countryside I crossed was fittingly bleak: flat, treeless farmland of wheat and potatoes, sugar beet and maize. The only verticals were wind turbines (aeoliennes in French — much nicer), water towers (châteaux d'eau — water castles!) and the grey, pointed spires of distant churches. A cloudy sky loured above me. There was no accommodation in Bapaume: the priest was on holiday, and I was told I could not sleep on the floor of the church hall without his consent. All the hotels were either closed or full. Even the gypsies on the town green seemed reluctant to let me pitch my tent with them. So I left Bapaume with relief. I had a bad feeling about the place. But I knew something else would turn up.

It was an hour and a half later, and early evening, and I was eating some bread and cheese on the cemetery steps in the tiny village of Riencourt-lès-Bapaume. A car drew up and a man got out with a key to lock the chapel for the night. He introduced himself as the mayor of the village. He seemed friendly enough, so I began my story: I was a pilgrim walking to Rome, I'd found no lodgings in the previous town, did he know anywhere I could pitch my tent? He thought for a few seconds, then announced: 'You can camp here! In the graveyard! There's a lovely patch of grass in the corner, and a tap, and, look, you can have this chair from inside the chapel, and a table too if you want . . .' He then took me on a guided tour, showing me his own family's tombstones, and, pointing to one blank slab at the end of the line, winked and said: 'This one's reserved for me!' If you look hard you can just spot my tent in the centre of the photo . . .  

. . . and here it is closer up, complete with chair. I had a peaceful night, disturbed by no one, not even the graveyard ghosts . . .

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Day 5: Camblain L'Abbé To Arras

Larger-than-life-size religious effigies greet you as you step into the École Saint-Jean-Baptiste de la Salle — a Catholic boys' boarding school — in Camblain l'Abbé. I must admit I found them rather scary and intimidating. What enforcing effect do these ever-present icons have on the pupils, I wonder?

This journal seems to be a tad obsessed with Catholicism at the moment, but I can only reflect the truth of what happened during those early days of pilgrimage, and I felt that Catholicism was hectoring me. Seeking a bed for the night, I knew that the École Saint-Jean-Baptiste de la Salle in Camblain l'Abbé offered beds to wayfaring pilgrims for a small donation. It was here that I met Peter from England and Ernst from the Netherlands, two pilgrims who were to become important, recurring figures in my pilgrimage. They were walking the Via Francigena like myself — but going the whole way to Rome.

Peter at the entrance to the École Saint-Jean-Baptiste de la Salle in Camblain l'Abbé.

Ernst consults the map.

All three of us dined quietly in the school refectory (the boys were on holiday) with a Père and a Frère, two teacher-priests — a rather eccentric meal of endives with balsamic, cold rounds of beef in gravy, potato crisps and a banana. There was a little wine of dubious quality, and the Père made sure his glass was always topped up. At the end of the meal the Frère left the room and returned with a bottle of Chartreuse, which he produced with a gleeful flourish!

At one point we were talking about the British monarchy, and the Frère declared dramatically: 'Vive la reine!' ('Long live the queen!') Before I could stop myself I came back with: 'Vive la révolution! Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité!' It could have been an awkward moment, but we laughed it off. The French in general adore the British Royal Family, and the Catholic Church in particular is allied historically with the conservative establishment.  

A surfeit of iconography: Peter photographs a luridly bloody Crucifixion.

It was only 16 km to Arras, the first city along the route, and I walked with Peter, who was an artist, and good company. We talked all day, finding we had much in common. In Arras we checked into the Maison Diocésaine Saint-Vaast (€20 per night plus €3.50 for breakfast), a huge Catholic House offering accommodation and many other facilities. Then we had a pizza and explored the town.

Rabbit pizza, anyone?

Arras suffered terribly in both World Wars, and much of the city has been reconstructed in the Flemish-Baroque style.

The belfry (belfroi) and hôtel de ville in the Place des Héros, Arras.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Days 3 & 4: Wisques To Camblain L'Abbé Via Amettes

No prayers could change the challenging nature of the day: hot sun, biting insects and barking dogs. 

On Sunday 27 July I walked 30 km from Wisques to Amettes under a baking hot sun. I found it quite tough, as there was little shade, and, to make matters worse, I was badly bitten by insects on my face, neck, arms and back. And what was the one thing I'd forgotten to pack? Insect repellent!

I soldiered on, past farms busy with the corn harvest and through villages of modern chalet bungalows and long 'toy town' or 'Lego-like' houses made of of bright red brick and blindingly white mortar — not very attractive. These homes were usually surrounded by chain-link fencing to create a compound for one or more barking dogs, which threw themselves at the fence as I went by. The plots were often untidy and neglected — the front gardens steeply banked and covered in green plastic sheeting to prevent soil slippage and deter the weeds. The effect was pretty gruesome. In an attempt to soften these wastelands of rubbish dumps and dog kennels, most houses had gone over the top with displays of hideously gaudy flowers — red begonias, yellow marigolds, deep-pink hydrangeas — all clashing with each other in one headache-inducing explosion of colour.

La Ferme des Templiers: unfortunately I could not afford to stay here.

As you can tell, what with the dogs and the insects and the eye-offending architecture, I was not in the happiest of moods. Eventually, at 5 o'clock, I arrived in Amettes — to learn that the pilgrim refuge next to the Estaminet Saint-Benoît had now closed. Luckily I had another address, and was soon being welcomed by M and Mme Gevas, who ran a farm and chambre d'hôte business at the bottom end of the village. They also provided a small gîte for pilgrims with kitchen, bathroom and shared dormitory accommodation at the pilgrim-friendly price of €12 (plus an extra €5 for breakfast — a breakfast which was one of the best I had during the trip, by the way, with orange juice, cereal, four kinds of bread, creamy butter, home-made jam and wonderful coffee).
M and Mme Gevas.
Amettes is the birthplace of St Benedict Joseph Labre (1748-1783), a Franciscan, French mendicant and Catholic saint. He's the patron saint of the homeless, and one of the patron saints of pilgrimage, though not at all as well known as St Roch. He was inspired by St Roch to 'abandon his country, his parents and whatever is flattering in the world to lead a new sort of life, a life most painful, most penitential, not in a wilderness nor in a cloister, but in the midst of the world, devoutly visiting as a pilgrim the famous places of Christian devotion.'

And so began a life of poverty and pilgrimage. He lived on what he could beg, then shared those meagre morsels with others; he slept in rags, often in the open; he received abuse; he talked little and prayed a lot. Today we would call him a 'holy fool' — think perhaps of Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky's The Idiot or of the half-crazed, ascetic mystics of Sufism and other religions. Labre died young of malnutrition on the steps of the Santa Maria Ai Monti church in Rome, where he lies buried.

'Il n'y a pas de chemin. Le chemin se fait en marchant.' ('There is no way. The way is made by walking.')

The birthplace of St Benedict Joseph Larbre in Amettes . . .

. . . which has a beautiful roof space . . .

. . .  and a view of the Église Saint-Sulpice . . . Catholicism is intent on hammering home the message, isn't it?

The next day it rained all morning, with occasional showers in the afternoon — but I was glad, as it kept the biting insects at bay!

This is the château in Rebreuve Ranchicourt . . .

. . . and this is the château in Olhain . . .

. . . and this is Laurent in the biker bar, 'La Mouffe' . . .

. . . where he kept two Harley-Davidsons . . .

Monday, 8 September 2014

Day 2: Licques to Wisques

As usual, crosses and calvaries punctuated the route . . .

. . . though other wayside 'shrines' were more kitsch than ecclesiastical. Is it my imagination, or does Snow White resemble the Virgin Mary? And where on earth is the seventh dwarf?

I was walking through a soft and gentle countryside of lush valleys and peaceful villages. In small fields between the woods grew beans and a nice mix of cereals — barley, wheat, maize —  and cows grazed in the riverine meadows. The roadside verges were full of wild flowers — columbine, poppy, willowherb, woody nightshade, St John's wort — and wildlife included rabbits, herons and a solitary egret. It was a dull, damp day, but I relished the novelty of these early stages of the walk, whatever the weather. People I passed were curious and kind. I was again reminded of the fact that most people are well-meaning and generous, if only they are given the chance to be so. It's the pilgrim's role to give them this opportunity! In Alquines the owner of the bar-shop-post office asked if I would like to take a rest and gave me a free coffee. In Bouvelinghem a woman opened up the church for me (note the Flemish-sounding name — we are not far from Belgium here, and I would soon be walking through the fields of Flanders). In Quelmes another woman filled my water bottles. All in all, I was enjoying myself immensely. 

By late afternoon I'd reached the abbey at Wisques, home to an order of Benedictine monks. They have a tradition — as do all the Benedictine communities — of hospitality, and give food and shelter to visitors, pilgrims and those seeking a meditative, spiritual retreat. I was made most welcome by a tonsured and cowled Père Pierre, who carried my staff (or rather Leki walking pole) up to my room. It was simple and comfortable, with a shower and WC next door. At 6 o'clock I attended Vespers, which was a dramatic, theatrical affair — lots of chanting and deep bowing from 14 monks in dark habits — and then at 7.30 joined them in the refectory for dinner. One interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict decrees that meals should be taken in silence, which I found strange and difficult to get used to at first, though after a while I relaxed, stopped trying to make eye contact and just concentrated on eating. I found to my surprise that it was actually quite enjoyable not to have to think of something to say. And there was always the intoned religious lecture to listen to, which reverberated through the refectory and lasted the length of the meal. All around me the monks were attacking their plates with gusto, licking them clean. Dinner was unpretentious, nutritious food, prepared and served by the monks themselves: bread and cold soup, boiled eggs, a dish of greens,  a dressed salad, plums, a glass of water, half a glass of wine.  

This was the view from my room, looking out over the central cloister or courtyard. The monks are only allowed to enter this courtyard for a brief period each day. Each day is exactly the same for them, a day regulated by the 'horarium': strictly ordered periods of work, prayer, eating, sleeping, spiritual reading and the daily religious offices.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Day 1: Guînes To Licques

Calais: Rodin's sculpted group Les Bourgeois de Calais in front of the fancy, red-brick hôtel de ville (town hall).

In July 2013 I walked for three days along the old pilgrim route of the Via Francigena. I began in Canterbury, took a cross-Channel ferry from Dover to Calais, then followed the Canal de Calais to Guînes, where I camped at the 5-star campsite, la Bien Assise — free to pilgrims. However, because of various problems, I returned home, vowing to complete the 1000 km trek to the Italian border another time. Just over a year later I fulfilled that vow. And now my vow is to carry on through Italy to Rome — a momentous project for a future year. But back to this year's pilgrimage, from Guînes to the Great St Bernard Pass . . .
The hôtel de ville at Guînes, which overlooks Place Foch. A market was in full swing, and I'm a big fan of markets, so I spent a while there. I remember the stalls of cheap clothes and jewellery, the speciality cheeses, the fish, the horse-meat sausages, the two black evangelists selling Christian CDs and the old crone selling her garden produce from the back of a van. Guînes is famous as the site of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where Henry VIII of England met King Francis I of France in June 1520 to seal a bond of friendship (though the two countries were at war again two years later).

I set off on 24 July, heading for Guînes on train, ferry and bus. It was a lovely, warm day, and everything seemed so much better than last year: I was free of ailments, I had a lighter backpack, I was given a much better pitch on the campsite (free again) and the weather was not as punishingly hot. Despite the drunken antics of an English couple on the campsite, I did manage a little sleep, and was packed and ready by 9 am, eagerly anticipating the first day's walk . . .

Pleasant countryside between Guînes and the Forêt de Guînes.

I skirted fields of wheat, beans and potatoes, crossed the TGR railway line and had a mid-morning open-air brunch at the edge of the Forêt de Guînes . . .

Picnic site in the Forêt de Guînes.

I entered the forest, escaping a busload of schoolchildren who had come for a picnic and 'educative' games . . . 
Err . . . Is it left or right?

Although in this department of Pas-de-Calais I did come across 'Via Francigena' signs, they seemed to be randomly placed, and often pointed in a quite different direction from the route described in my guidebook (The Via Francigena — Canterbury to Rome 1: Canterbury to the Great St Bernard Pass by Alison Raju). More on the inadequacies of signposts and the ambiguities of guidebooks later . . .  

On the ridge to Licques.

Very soon, at le Mât, I survived my worst 'dog experience' of the whole trip. A vicious dog howled at me as I went by, then jumped through a hole in the gate, chain at full stretch. His companion, however, was loose, and started to chase me down the road, teeth bared aggressively. Luckily at that point an unkempt, eccentric-looking owner emerged from a tumbledown cottage and managed to exert some control . . .  

On the ridge to Licques I found the countryside prettier and hillier than expected, with a narrow, wooded valley to the left and a wide view of hamlets and farmland to the right . . .

I surprised a green woodpecker, and two deer with black rumps, then came down from the ridge, passing this combine harvester trailing dust . . . 

Harvest time in Licques.

The Église de la Nativité de Notre Dame in Licques, all that remains of the Premonstratensian abbey founded in 1075.

I relax at the campsite in Licques.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Walking To Italy On The Via Francigena

The Great St Bernard Pass.

After walking 1000 km in six weeks, I'm back! I walked across France and I walked across Switzerland and I reached the Italian border at the Great St Bernard Pass. The people and places encountered were unforgettable; this was one of the most rewarding pilgrimages I've done. But it was not without its hardships and difficulties: signs and guideposts were rare in the French part, and there was far too much road walking. I wrote in my journal every day, but wrote only one poem. This is it.

A Chance Encounter in Frasne-le-Château

The old man with the kind face
came from Sardinia. He lived alone now,
stacking the logs for winter,
tending his garden. This summer
his Roma tomatoes had mildew,
but the other crops were fine,
and the gooseberries — such a harvest!
Smiling, he filled my water bottles
— his eyes moist as two green pools —
and pointed the way to Grachaux.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Next Pilgrimage

The long straight track.

Much of the time, we are willing to do almost anything rather than face the unknown, the wilderness. When we drive in our cars, we'll go on for endless miles, rather than admit we're lost. We drive our lives that same way until a crisis stops us. But that fear blunts our experience of the world, doesn't it?

. . . if you're lost enough, then the experience of now is your guide to what comes next. None of us knows what comes the next second.


Oh, a storm is threatening / My very life today / If I don't get some shelter / Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away THE ROLLING STONES Gimme Shelter

The pilgrimage I'm undertaking soon may well be a challenging one: many days, if not weeks, of solitude — with cheap accommodation, or indeed any accommodation, thin on the ground. I'm taking a tent. And this time I'm making sure my pack weight is nearer a manageable 20lb than a punishing 30lb. I came up with the following 'ideal' guidelines, which I'm carrying with me in my head (zero weight!). Wish me luck.
Twelve Zen Guidelines for the Long Distance Pilgrim and Walker

1. To walk — and live — fully in the present.

2. To neither regret wrong turnings (the past) nor yearn for destinations (the future).

3. To walk — and live — mindfully, aware of and focused on what’s going on around, through the five senses, and what’s happening inside, through thoughts and feelings.

4. To try to get beyond desire, craving, negativity and division.

5. To let go.

6. To welcome intuition and the imagination, and to use them creatively.

7. To walk — and live — simply, thriftily and economically, consciously making each coin, each morsel of food and each mouthful of drink, count.

8. To be grateful for the luxurious, comparative freedom of a long-distance walk: going where I want, quickly or slowly, directly or obliquely.

9. To be grateful that, for a period of time, I am not subject to the usual routine dictates and compromises of family and society.

10. To consider walking a kind of art form.

11. To consider each step, breath, mile, thought, feeling, action, encounter, sight and insight a kind of prayer.

12. To try to love unconditionally.

Footpath through poppy fields.

For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know myself?


Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Old Ways

Much has been written of travel, far less of the road. EDWARD THOMAS The Icknield Way (1913)

My eyes were in my feet . . . NAN SHEPHERD The Living Mountain (1977)

All things are engaged in writing their history . . . Not a foot steps into the snow, or along the ground, but prints in characters more or less lasting, a map of its march. The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints. In nature, this self-registration is incessant, and the narrative is the print of the seal. RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1850)  

Robert Macfarlane's book The Old Ways is one of the finest books on walking I've ever read. Though it's about so much more than walking — it's about the whole world. Everything is contained in and fans out from the paths we take, whether our journey lies inwards or outwards. The tracks we make, our footprints in the snow, are our witness and record, our narrative and our history.

This book could not have been written by sitting still. The relationship between paths, walking and the imagination is its subject, and much of its thinking was therefore done — was only possible — while on foot. Although it is the third book in a loose trilogy about landscape and the human heart, it need not be read after or in the company of its predecessors. It tells the story of walking a thousand miles or more along old ways in search of a route to the past, only to find myself delivered again and again to the contemporary. It is an exploration of the ghosts and voices that haunt ancient paths, of the tales that tracks keep and tell, of pilgrimage and trespass, of songlines and their singers and of the strange continents that exist within countries. Above all, this is a book about people and place: about walking as a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move.

ROBERT MACFARLANE The Old Ways, Author's Note