I was pleased to leave Reims. It was cold, large, grey and inhospitable. It’s hard not to judge a place by how one is treated, and – arriving with my boots, stick and rucksack at midday – I was turned away with sneers by two waiters in a so-called “pub” where I had sought a bite to eat.
High Mass at the Cathedral was impressive, but longer (much longer) than any church service should ever be. It being Pentecost there were confirmations and at least 50 candidates. Even with two auxiliary bishops going flat out (the archbishop was in Shanghai) it took forever. I was disgruntled, and so did not feel able to go through the Reims Door of Mercy.
The pilgrim leaves Reims along the Canal Latérale à la Marne. Towpath walking is good: flat and smooth. But all too soon I was back on road, with champagne vines stretching as far and further than the eye can see.
It was a public holiday, and past me in the road whizzed expensive cars from Germany, Belgium, France and GB doing a champagne tour.
My lodging for the night was with an elderly lady who in her time has welcomed more than 500 pilgrims. She knew what was needed: hot shower, plenty of food, and an early start in the morning.
The next day there was delightful walking along the towpath again, with the usual counterpoint of nightingales and cuckoos.
Despite this, the frequent road walking carrying a heavy pack (much water must be carried) had taken its toll on my bad knee (injured nine years ago, but on which I fell heavily the week before departure). I hobbled into Châlons, which is on the Via Agrippa, the Roman highway from Milan to Boulogne.
I obtained the stamp in my pilgrim passport from the church of Notre Dame en Vaux, one of the crossing points of the Way of St James and the Via Francigena. It proclaims the largest set of bells in Europe.
What a carrillon….
Were it not for the fact that the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) is on strike yesterday and today (18/19 May), and thus trains not running, I might have been back in England by now, with my tail between my legs. The pain in my knee (injured years ago, and never pain-free) became almost unendurable, and my fear was of doing more and permanent damage.
Five kilometres on from Châlons en Champagne early yesterday morning I sat down and wept. I wept from pain, but more from the utter defeat and humiliation (after so much trumpeting and publicity) of having to give up. Those who know me will understand I don’t do failure. Was the purpose of this pilgrimage to teach me humility?
But I think the guardian angels are at work. I hobbled back to Châlons, asked a kind pharmacist if he could tell me the name of a doctor close by (I think I wanted medical authority to stop). He got on the phone, got me an appointment at midday. A charming and sweet young doctor (she looked about 18) examined the whole leg carefully and pronounced it not to be my old torn ligament but acute arthritis (bone on bone) brought on by all the hammering along roads built on steep cambers. She said what a specialist said back in 2009 – that I need a new knee.
She said “Sometimes it takes more courage to stop than go on. But I am going to give you the best chance I can of carrying on.” She prescribed strong painkillers, anti-inflammatories, three sessions of physio, a knee brace, and complete rest for three or four days. She didn’t charge me anything (I cried at the kindness again), but mainly I think because nobody in the surgery knew how the EHIC works.
So here I am, using my emergency money, in an hotel in Châlons. The physio (who looked like David Tennant, and who was as kindly and charming as everyone else I’ve met here) fitted me in that afternoon, and I’ve already had two of my three sessions. Could this, would this ever happen in the UK? A doctor’s appointment and physio the same day?
And so, God willing, on Saturday I shall take a train to Bar sur Aube, which is where I would have been. I need to keep to schedule because money and travel insurance are not infinitely extendable. Of course I feel guilty about using public transport, but anyone who has done a long-distance pilgrimage on foot will tell you this happens. Some take trains and buses even when not injured. The medieval pilgrim would have jumped onto a passing oxcart.
And so I hope to get to Besançon by easy stages on foot, where I will review the situation before the long upwards pull into the Jura and the Alps. From those who have faith I ask renewed prayers; from those who do not – please send me positive healing thoughts.
Watch this space!