There are two main guidebooks: one meanders through every field, and will never take you one side of a triangle where two will do, but has accurate directions. The other is more direct, grossly underestimates distances, and leads one astray more often than not. The first tells me I have covered 431km, the second 343. I think the reality – given the all too frequent necessity of retracing steps – is around 400km.
The inescapable and sombre theme of this week has been the tragedy and waste of war. Even before I had left behind the city of Arras en route for Bapaume I was passing war graves.
The ages of the young men killed constantly had me in tears. They were just children. Walking into Bapaume I passed a memorial to the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War – a reminder that France and Germany were at war three times within 70 years. And we want to leave Europe? Whatever its faults, the European Union will prevent such conflict.
Odd phenomena appear: one can see the tip of the church spire in the next village. One walks and walks. It must be getting closer. As one nears the village the church disappears behind some trees. When one gets to the trees the church has somehow moved a further half kilometre on. Tramp tramp tramp. It must be round the corner, just hidden by buildings. And then one finds that the church has lifted up her skirts and scuttled up a nasty little hill, laughing as she went. This happens a lot. Others: drivers of white 4x4s spend their days driving up narrow lanes, only to drive back down three minutes later. Every day this happens. And the universal phenomenon: if one wants to nip behind a discreet hedge, there is always a tractor working in the field right by.
On the way to Péronne I was led astray by one of the above guidebooks into the Bois de St Vaast. Bad move. I might still be there, wandering the forest tracks, had two angels (dressed as foresters on a quad bike) stopped and rescued me. “It’s a good thing we found you”, one said.
In Péronne I slept in an outbuilding of the presbytery, recently done up for passing pilgrims. There was hot water, which is one of the greatest gifts you can offer the walking pilgrim, especially that week when the sun burned down from a deep blue sky, and temperatures reached for the high 20s. I dried my washing in the presbytery courtyard, discreetly out of sight of Monsieur le Curé. Next morning the sky was red as I set out at 6.30 for a long stage.
That day, and every day since, nightingales have been my constant companions. Nightingales, cuckoos, blackbirds and thrushes. It can get quite noisy…
That night I was in weird pilgrim refuge where the Via Francigena and the Way of St James cross. It was the concept of one man, a former stone mason who himself had never been a pilgrim. He created a chapel in an old water mill, and pilgrims are housed in pre-fab “bungalows”. I was well provided for, and was the only resident apart from a goat and a rather sad-looking sheep.
Off to Tergnier, a dump if ever there was one; a town based round railway junctions and, now, high unemployment and deprivation. I note that here too obesity is a marker of depression (in both senses).
A high point (literally and metaphorically) of my journey so far awaited me the next day: Laon. The weather, having given me a couple of grey and rainy days, turned steamy hot. Ahead of me lay 33.5km of solid road walking. You can see the old city of Laon, high high on its hill, from miles away. It was so hot and humid I was drenched and exhausted. I had promised to ring my host for the night, Philippe, when I was about an hour away. I rang as I arrived in the lower town, with the prospect of a long gruelling climb ahead of me. He immediately got in his car, fetched me, took me by car for a tour of this beautiful medieval city, then took me home, gave me a beer, and did my washing. Another pilgrim angel.
In Laon, too, I finally met pilgrim Geoff, who had been one day behind me all the way, but had magically (I shall not reveal how) caught up. We had supper together and swapped our journey anecdotes.
And then to Corbeny on the Chemin des Dames, site of three battles during World War 1. The slaughter was tremendous – more than a quarter of a million Frenchmen in one go, mainly because of the incompetence of the French general, Nivelle. After that Pétain took over, instituting intelligent reforms. This helps explain his popularity in 1940.
The night before Reims I was lodged by someone well known in Via Francigena mythology: Hélène Spanneut, who seems herself to have walked just about every known pilgrim route in France, and some unknown ones, has done several Caminos to Santiago de Compostela, and figures in Harry Bucknall’s famous account of walking to Rome, “Like a tramp, like a pilgrim.”
And so to Reims, where it is cold and windy. Here I am resting my painful feet and knees for a day. The cathedral is covered in the obligatory scaffolding, so I include a picture of a model. Tomorrow is Pentecost, and High Mass beckons – good timing!
And so the way goes on…