Archive for July, 2010

Part Trois – If it’s Monday, it’s closed

July 31, 2010 2 comments

Napoleon’s curious put-down, that the British were a nation of shopkeepers, begins to make sense only in the context of the French attitude to commerce, which has amused, bemused and frustrated equally in the past month. Exactly four weeks in, I have made it to Besançon, about 750 kms from home, and the first stirrings of French commercial activity. Not only are there shops, but many are open, and not just today, some open for as many as four days a week.

The primary problem so far this trip has been fuel. Simply put, it is difficult to eat and find water each day in sufficient quantity. I reckon to have lost around 20lbs since the start of the trip, when I ought to have built muscle, simply because I can’t replace what I’m burning. On a typical day, I might pass through 12 villages, 9 will have no commercial activity at all, 2 will have a Tabac or a boulangerie which is closed, 1 will have a Tabac or a boulangerie which is open. Everything shuts on Sunday and Monday, most places work half days Wednesday (middle of the week, see), Friday (big day, Thursday) and Saturday (nach). Every day is punctuated by lunch which begins at 10:00 and lasts until 16:00. The working day begins at 9:00 and ends at 16:30. It is, in its way, quite magnificent. Life here is about the important things – family, friends and cycling around in Lycia one pieces. I love it. Great place, lovely people.

Water is more of a problem but can usually be secured from graveyards, which are also good for camping sauvage, as are woods. Someone asked me the other day if I wasn’t ever scared. Quite simply, no. Firstly, I am too tired. Moreover, I believe that God will protect me from evil, a belief that has firmed this trip. It is unbelievable how unfailingly nice everyone has been. I have traipsed through some terrible places as well as all the glory stuff, and no-one has even looked at me askew. Whenever I am really tired or hungry, something turns up, and those setbacks I do have are better viewed as tests. The intercession of St Bèniot and St Christopher has also, I’m sure, helped. Physically and mentally, I’m in top order, it’s remarkable how well the body responds to the withdrawal of nicotine, caffeine, alcohol and slinkhur.

The journey distinguishes itself by the sheer range of scenery. Roughly every 30kms, it changes again, and in the Champagne I went from rolling wheat fields to vineyards, to the canals, to grazing land and now to the mountains of Franche-Comte. The via Francigenia, after being found again, shows a priggish determination to take me through fields of cows, but other than that is behaving. I have had the chance to observe many cows up close on this trip, and am therefore well acquainted with their wiles. They are malevolent, insolent and terrible predictors of rain. They lie down whenever a passing cloud happens to suppress their natural ebullience, which is frequently, and not, as is commonly supposed, only when rain is immanent. It is easy to see why the Welsh prefer sheep.

On an unrelated note, it is my sad duty to pass comment on the toiletry habits of our friends and partners from the lowlands. As those of you who have travelled with me know, there is on average one instance of unbridled fury every month or so (usually directed towards German naturists), and this month’s was in Chaumont, to a portly, moustached Belgian gentleman exiting a toilet he had liberally decorated with matter a less imaginative person would have entrusted to the sewage system. In fact the toilets in Chaumont’s campsite were a nightmare, I have never had occasion to stand ankle-deep in human excrement before, and hope not to have to again. Terrible place. Incidentally, the resemblance of campsite toilets to an open cess pit seems directly correlated with the number of Belgian number plates on display. One can only imagine that they view their deposits in the same way as Italians view driving – not a mundane activity bound by rules and social conventions – but a joyous expression of self, liberating and free. Terribly odd, must be on account of their proximity to Germany.

Enough nonsense. To Switzerland! Incidentally, in answer to Karen, I am raising money, but it can’t be done online, one has to send a cheque to the Marrilac at:

Marillac Care
Eagle Way
CM13 3BL

I would urge you to do it. Great cause, good people.


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Part Deux – Well we don’t know where we’re going, and we don’t know where we’ve been…

July 23, 2010 4 comments

This is regrettably true, as my guide book is now residing in a motorway lay-by somewhere in the evocatively named Ham. Having discarded half of my kit, I am losing the remainder at an astonishing rate. I am navigating south using the knowledge that satellite dishes always point south until Bescanson where the second guide book starts. It is a good job Austin did not come, I think the lack of order would have terrified him.

I am in Vitry-de-François, which is quite charming really, having come just short of 500kms. I’m in good order, putting in a solid 30kms a day and seeing some of the great variety which hallmarks French scenery. The Champaigne is really rather beautiful, and better still I have found a canal to walk beside which takes the pressure of the hill climbing muscles for a few days. Lockes and canal boats are starting to become quite interesting to me – a worrisome portent of middle age. 

Must dash as have to traipse over hill and dale before it rains, but my favorite thing so far has to be the sign at the bus stop in Chalons-en-Champaigne: Dogs in handbags go free, dogs on leads pay full fare, British bulldogs banned. How very French. Thanks for the good luck messages, and I really will write this properly when I manage to sleep somewhere which isn’t a cemetary… Tx

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Part Un

July 12, 2010 5 comments

Apologies for being rather slow in updating this, it is almost impossible to convey how remote a great deal of Northern France is, and I have been hard pushed to find water most days let alone the interweb.

I am in Arras, having covered some 200kms in the first week before the weeping stumps where my feet used to be have occasioned a couple of rest days. The sores are now largely closed, but my ankle is three times the size it ought to be. Other peoples injuries are even less interesting than other peoples children, so I shall say no more on this topic other than that I have never known anything hurt quite so much as the combination of sunstroke, blisters, ankle tissue damage and the inability of the French to locte municipalcampsites anywhere near where an educated guess would hqve them.

Still, it has been a grand experience thusfar. Highlights: Sangatte (really), venerating the kneecaps of St Beniot, the kindness of the French (really), Farmhouse Gites, Camping Sauvage, and the satisfaction of living Kipling’s maxim about filling the unforgiven minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run waddled.

Apologies for brevity – money out – more soon Tx

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July 2, 2010 4 comments

I leave tomorrow at 6AM from Canterbury Cathedral. I have the requisite rugby shorts, a tent which is already demonstrating considerable antipathy towards its new owner, and nothing so vulgar as a phone. Consequentially, this blog may be updated rather sporadically from here.

Wish me luck, and I shall update from France.

All best,


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July 1, 2010 1 comment

My father, a man of great economy in these matters, is firmly of the belief that it is sufficient to pack only two items of clothing for any trip abroad – a pair of black rugby shorts, to be worn in the course of ones every-day business – and a pair of white rugby shorts for best – ambassadorial functions and so forth.  I am minded to agree, but with the proviso that these should, at all times, be paired with a formal business shirt. It’s a timeless look, and style never goes out of fashion. Accordingly, I have packed the requisite rugby shorts, a couple of French cuffed shirts and a pair of styrofoam flip-flops. Even better, as I shall be undertaking this venture alone, I shan’t arrive on the continent and find that most of my clothes have been unpacked by my travelling companion and replaced with something “less embarrassing”.

It has been suggested that perhaps I ought to take something warmer in order to mitigate the inevitable cold atop the Swiss mountains, or the rain that seems to be a ubiquitous feature of Tuscany in September. I don’t think that this is warranted. There is no reason to suppose that waterproofing cannot be achieved by simply compounding clothes on top of one another, while I have spent thousands of pounds building a deep level of natural insulation to protect from the cold.  Clothing, at least, is taken care of.

Rugby shorts do not make an appearance on Richard Alkerton’s 1406 list of pilgrim attire. Once marked with a cross, “the pilgrim shall have a staff, a sclavein, and a scrip”. The staff, used originally to ward of stray dogs and wolves, may still be seen in one form in the hiking poles beloved of professional walkers. On principled grounds I object to carrying around something that makes me look like a serious walker, and I intend to ward of wolves – recently re-introduced to the Southern French woods in an interesting attempt to endanger a number of the Republic’s own citizens – by invoking the name of St Thomas Beckett, as was the fashion of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The scrip was a soft, leather pouch, worn around the waist in which one kept food and money. The notion of taking money onto a pilgrimage was extremely contentious, with a number of clerics claiming that to do so was to demonstrate a lack of faith in the notion that God will provide. Money should be taken solely to distribute as alms, and indeed many prolific alms givers would find crowds lining their route in the hope of a demonstration of Christian charity. While not strictly intending to follow this, Thomas Cook seem to have vaporised the contents of my bank account, so I shall be likewise dependent upon heavenly provision.

The final piece of the original pilgrim apparatus was the sclavein, a coarse tunic, presented ceremonially before departure in a special service. Although hats with a broad brim at the front and a long veil at the back, bringing to mind contemporary American ghetto style, became more popular in the fourteenth century, they were never synonymous with pilgrimage in quite the same way, and in any event, the symbolism of the three-piece pilgrim kit was felt to fit better without it, representing in various sermons the conflict of the Holy Trinity with evil, the virtues of faith, hope and charity and the means to salvation. I am not sure a tattered rucksack and a pair of ill fitting rugby shorts are as rich in potential symbolism, but I shall have plenty of time to re-consider this on the walk…

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