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From Vercelli to…Suffolk, and a pause


How can it be that one morning I am strolling through a piazza in Vercelli under a deep blue sky, and the next I am shopping in Tesco? imageThat one evening I am listening to nightingales, and the next to “The Archers?

Yes, I have come home to Suffolk for a pause in my journey on the Via Francigena, for some R and R, and to get my knee, foot and all other afflictions more ready for the last 840km from Vercelli to Rome. Does this suggest that finally wisdom does come with age? I saw this wood carving

Carving seen by the Rhône: maybe a sign of increasing wisdom?

beside the Rhône as I walked toward St Maurice in Switzerland, and pondered with Job “Where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” Answer – maybe on the Via Francigena. I have certainly learned that I am not the person I took myself to be.

And so there is a moment for a little reflection, but also a look back at some of the lighter moments….

A lot of policemen
A lot of policemen

…the shop window in a Swiss town with an array police hats from all over the world; the 1936 mural in Villeneuve church painted by Louis Rivier, imagewith an incredibly camp Joseph in his little tunic standing as far back from the Madonna and Child as he possible could; the street names…

They weren't around when I passed by

“Rue des Belles Femmes”, “Empty Bottle Alley”….

Photo by Geoff Collier
Photo by Geoff Collier

The road through France and Switzerland was solitary, and pilgrims rare. When pilgrims in these circumstances meet bonds are quickly forged, past secrets shared, future hopes revealed, and vulnerabilities become visible. Sometimes these friendships endure through the years to come; sometimes they dissolve into memories as pilgrim paths part, and one senses an erstwhile companion moving into the distance. Time now to honour those I have met so far.

The first companion was Geoff Collier,imagea Welshman from Connecticut who set out from Canterbury the day after me, and who is now striding rapidly through Italy. We shared meals in Laon, Reims, Champlitte, Besançon, and some memorable spaghetti in Gy; sparred, snarled and laughed, and parted near the Swiss border. He likes to call himself a Short Fat Welshman, but I think we must now substitute ‘Fit’ for ‘Fat’. His encouragement, his company, and his electronic contact when we were not together cheered many an evening. And still do.

My next pilgrims were the Rev Tim Thorpe and Chris Taylor from Derbyshire ,image aiming to do the VF in 70 days. We met by chance in Châlons, where they recognised me from the pilgrim badge my daughter made. It made my day. We met again in Besançon, and all ate with Geoff. imageThose who have done any of the Caminos to Santiago will know the warmth and jollity, often le vin aidant, of a pilgrim evening. Chris is still in touch by email, and at the rate they are going they will be in Rome soon. Tim’s wife emailed me to say I’d got a mention in their church magazine. Such celebrity…!

And then a long, difficult and solitary gap with no-one until I met Gilles the Québecois imageon the way up the Great St Bernard Pass. Without him I don’t think I’d have had the courage to go up through the snow. And we stayed together till Vercelli, where he was finishing. His Québecois accent rendered communication somewhat frustrating, but I might still be wandering round the Alps had he not showed me how to download the Lightfoot waypoints onto the Pocket Earth app.

Then there were Swiss Sonia and Daniel, imagejust doing a week of the Francigena to help Sonia over the recent death of her mother; Stephen a young Belgian carrying an enormous 16kg pack; and finally on the day before I returned home for my “pause”, Tim O’Brien from Sutton, who left Canterbury ten days after me. That should indicate my snail-like pace.

When I return to Italy in the autumn I sense there will be more pilgrims; the way will be less solitary.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 0.42.58And it will go on. Watch this space.





3 thoughts on “From Vercelli to…Suffolk, and a pause

  1. Sounds like the sensible thing to do.
    I’ve enjoyed reading your diary – you shd. turn it into a book. I kept a similar one when I did the chemin de Stevenson last year (mini walk!) but not as ablog.

  2. Welcome Home

    That must be quite a culture shock, the ‘one-minute-Vercelli-next-stop-Tescos’ scenario.

    Luckily, it’s been raining solidly here in Suffolk since about 2 o’clock this morning, so at least you won’t need to acclimatise to the weather.

    You write ‘I am not the person I took myself to be’ and I can hear the underlying self-criticism. But I thought the whole point of a pilgrimage was to open yourself up to new opportunity, new friends, new opinions, new situations … had you come back exactly the same, would that not have defeated the object?

    See you for supper on Saturday, when we can discuss this, and much, much more, Cx

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