Arras to Reims

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.”

The famous LN (Hélène)
The famous LN (Hélène)

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…


Canterbury to Arras

So far, according to the books, I have managed about 150km. This doesn’t include the retracing of steps for the inevitable wrong turnings.

It began with a sparkling blue and gold Mayday morning after a hard frost in Canterbury. The previous afternoon I had been to Evensong and been blessed by the alliterative (and very kindly) Canon Clare of Canterbury Cathedral. It was a surprisingly emotional moment.

Stone Zero at Canterbury Cathedral
Stone Zero at Canterbury Cathedral

To anyone, pilgrim or no, I recommend the North Downs Way. It is really beautiful, and worth walking the whole way to Dover. My daughter Anna accompanied me, and – having missed our way only once (making the journey approximately 35km), we arrived, very footsore and weary.

Striding along the glorious North Downs Way - before the pain kicked in
Striding along the glorious North Downs Way – before the pain kicked in,

And so to Calais, where – because it was the Fête du Travail everything, even the Buffet de la Gare, was closed. A takeaway pizza was the best this pilgrim could find.

Never let anyone tell you northern France is flat. It may appear so as we whizz east and south along the autoroute, but every village, every little stream necessitates a steep up and down. Good training, I suppose…

The second night in France, in a chalet in a campsite, was in a small village called Licques. Even here the village cemetery has Commonwealth war graves. The next week or so will see many sombre reminders of the cost of war.

Next day the weather became hotter, the way longer.

The fast...
The fast…
...and the slow and painful
…and the slow and painful

I omitted, from delicacy, to mention that since before Dover I had been suffering from a painfully upset stomach, and shivering despite the hot sun. My guardian angel arranged that the next night was at the Benedictine abbey (female) at Wisques. The soeur hospitalier, Soeur Lucie, ministered to me with some vile powders which have set me on the road to recovery.

And it’s a small world! Soeur Lucie and I discovered we had both done a trial in the Monastère des Ermites de Marie in the Pyrénées Orientales in the early 90s. I was the first person she’d ever met who knew the place, and its community. We both decided for differing reasons it was not our vocation. Both with some regret.

The wonderful ministering Soeur Lucie
The wonderful ministering Soeur Lucie

And so on, feeling slightly restored, for a long day to Amettes. Gaining strength and (I hope) fitness, Ascension Day brought me to the château of Villers Châtel, where Monsieur de Franssu and his wife, themselves walking pilgrims of experience, welcome pilgrims for a small donation. I had such a jolly time with their four small grandchildren at supper time, and the next morning three of them and Monsieur de Franssu accompanied me on the first couple of kilometres towards Arras.

La vie du château
La vie du château

And so here I am in Arras. In the cathedral I went through the first (no doubt of many) Doors of Mercy. Soon I’ll be into the département of the Somme, nearly exactly 100 years since the beginning of the terrible battle. I am feeling much better than I was and the feet are not too painful, though I am sunburnt and rather weary.

Le Beffroi d'Arras
Le Beffroi d’Arras

I apologise for the poor layout of this post. On an iPad trying to edit pictures is difficult . I may improve. More probably from Reims. To everyone who is praying for me, thank you. And to the many who are contributing so generously to Shelter and to Refugee Action, a huge thank you. Most of you are anonymous – but you know who you are, and thank you.

A badge, and a rush of donations

The CPR logo - hand embroidered
The CPR logo – hand embroidered

I display here with pride my pilgrim badge, my elder daughter’s pre-departure gift. The Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome (CPR) recently designed its logo, but so far they have not produced any badges or stickers. So Olivia (painstakingly, she tells me) embroidered one for my rucksack, large enough to be visible on the road, and which clearly identifies me as a pilgrim. I am thrilled with it. I posted a photo of it on the Via Francigena group Facebook page, and it received 39 ‘likes’.

Secondly, it is now less than two weeks before I set off from Canterbury. Last week a kind friend made the first donation to my Just Giving page in aid of Shelter. This was ‘shared’ on Facebook, and a rush of generosity followed, both to Shelter and to Refugee Action.

A huge thank you to those who have already donated, anonymously or otherwise. I’m sure some of my readers are waiting to see if I actually make it to Rome (or even to the starting post) before supporting these charities. But if you’d like to donate, click on the Just Giving page (in the sidebar to the left, though if you’re looking on a tablet turn it landscape).

There is much to do in the next few days. Enough of these pre-departure posts: the next one will be from…who knows where?


Panty liners in one’s boots – really?

My pilgrim passport
My pilgrim passport

Yes. Panty liners in walking boots – just one of the tricks of the trade learned by reading a pilgrimage forum (in this case There is some debate as to whether the adhesive side should stick down onto the inside of the sole, or be uppermost, and adhere to one’s sock. The aim is to prevent sweaty feet, and thus lessen the chance of chafing and blisters. I have yet to try it, but I think I would favour sticky side down, with the absorbent part in contact with the foot.

All that to say that preparations are continuing. As I write, 39 days till I leave home.

The ZPack Arc Haul
The ZPack Arc Haul (click on any image to enlarge)

The great news is that my super-light bespoke rucksack has arrived from ZPacks in the USA. It left Florida on 19 February, arrived in UK Customs on the 22nd, and stayed…and stayed…and stayed, causing impotent frustration and fruitless telephone calls and emails. It was finally delivered, duty duly paid, on 18 March. Its weight is supposedly 680g, but it scarcely causes my luggage scales to move. Plenty of space, with a roll-down top, good size mesh pockets, and holders for trekking poles – but so light compared to the usual fabric backpacks (my first one weighed 2400g).

Early in March I went to the annual meeting of the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome. Julia Peters, who walked the entire Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome last year, taking exactly 79 days to honour Archbishop Sigeric’s journey, spoke on “The best laid plans” – how any undertaking of this nature will meet hitches, reverses, problems. She was full of helpful information, and last year I was gripped by her extremely detailed blog “Kent on the Via Francigena”. At the meeting I met a pilgrim from Alaska, Connie, who was setting off to Canterbury that very day to walk south through the chill of March.

I love the warmth and camaraderie among the community of pilgrims. In the Via Francigena Facebook group those who have gone before pass on their knowledge to those in the planning stage. Arrangements are made to meet. Friendships yet to be are conceived. I already know of a fellow walker – from Connecticut – setting off on the same day as I shall.

Space for the stamps
Space for the stamps

At the AGM I picked up my pilgrim passport, the credential, which will be my passport to pilgrim accommodation, and eventually – if I make it to Rome – my “Testimonium”, the pilgrim’s certificate. It must be stamped every day with (in French) un tampon and in Italian un timbro as proof of non-cheating. These stamps can be obtained in churches, town halls, hostels, or even hotels, bars or shops.

And so the days count down. I have booked my ferry crossing, and the first three nights’ accommodation. To do more would perhaps be living too far into the future. Sufficient unto the day…and the current anxiety is an unstable and painful knee: the difficulty of staying upright in the recent extremes of liquid mud in the fields and on footpaths caused a stretch of a ligament torn back in 2007.

The wonderful Scarpa boots are, however, well worn in. Now to decide whether to stick panty liners in them!