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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June 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Providing a complete overview of the route eclipses both my limited technical prowess, and my powers of clairvoyance. I hope to be able to update the route whilst on the hoof, principally because I anticipate that either I shall be waylaid by blisters, sloth and local hostelries, in which case progress will be much slower than anticipated, or otherwise rabid dogs, shotgun wielding farmers and a desire to get a good coffee, in which case I will certainly be quicker through France.

In the meantime, the proposed first 23 days follow this itinerary:

While the route as a whole looks something like this.

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June 29, 2010 3 comments

It may surprise you to learn, given what has gone before, that I have not prepared for the linguistic challenges of the trip with any appreciable rigour. The rural French can’t speak English, the urban French wont, the Swiss speak all languages but, and although Italians communicate solely through gesture and variations in vocal candescence, which may be easily imitated by a newcomer to the language within minutes, a pilgrimage to Rome still represents quite a significant undertaking given my rather limited linguistic resources.

Whilst the more high born medieval pilgrim would have spoken French and been familiar with Latin, the contemporary British education system and a considerable degree of intellectual sloth on my part has left me speaking what can be described, at best, as multi-purpose European.

The French I learnt at school, and certainly that which I remember seems particularly unsuited to any conversation one might wish to have with anybody over six or not American. My oral exam at GCSE level consisted of a tiresome role-play where I was tasked with persuading a shopkeeper to sell me a blue pen, an undertaking accomplished by repeating “je voudrais un stylo bleu” with increasing firmness while the shopkeeper, demonstrating an irritating lack of application to the task in hand, attempted to detain me in a supplementary discussion about the number of daughters I had and what colour their hair was. I only received a B, despite having successfully and promptly secured the pen, a result which should act as a suitable riposte to anyone who claims exams are getting easier.

Aside from asking for different colour writing utensils, I can order someone to close a window, explain that my father’s house has a bathroom and a small garden and ask how old you are. It might be the case that I have forgotten the rest, but I rather doubt I knew much else in the first place.

This foundation in French is supplemented by Italian, gathered almost entirely from chance encounters with the thoughtful, eclectic world of Italian television, and thus geared entirely towards persuading girls in bikinis and high heels to perform tasks which involve getting wet and pouting– a activity of dubious merit on a pilgrimage. As for Spanish, despite or perhaps because of a romantic entanglement with a Puerto Rican girl, I am able to express in that fine language only my own manifold shortcomings as a boyfriend and object of desire – of which there are an extraordinary number. While this may make for an absorbing confessional, the latter is again of limited value in the monasteries of Northern Italy.

It is in Swedish that I excel as a linguist, however. Regrettably from the pilgrim’s perspective, the language seems almost entirely preoccupied with fornication, although possibly that is more a commentary on my teacher than the language more generally. Possibly the only word of any merit in polite company that I know is slinka, which I am told means beautiful eyes. It is an engaging, if useless, tongue. I speak no German, and rather distrust anyone who does.

In order to communicate, then, I will have to rely upon the traditional tools of my countrymen abroad – speaking very loudly and very slowly in my native tongue, and hoping that the poor benighted foreigner being addressed had been fortunate enough to have gained some exposure to the Queen’s English.

I leave in four days. I shall have to spend them learning foreign.

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Aims & Intentions

June 25, 2010 2 comments

I have been away for three days learning to put up a tent. It is not something I shall enjoy repeating, but at least the family camping next to me learned a great many new words, many with a heritage in very old Anglo-Saxon.

Pilgrimage has a heritage dating to at least the second century, and, if we include biblical textual evidence, significantly prior to this (the eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles, for instance). Its purposes have shifted throughout this time, however. The medieval pilgrims in whose footsteps I shall follow would have gone both as a supererogatory act of devotion, and as a penance. Diane Webb, for instance, records the case of an English adulteress whose penance was a bare-footed walk to Canterbury, where she was to be whipped around the Cathedral by monks, and attain a certificate of performance. This sensible and humane punishment – Deuteronomy is quite clear that she ought to have been stoned to death – was replicated throughout Europe and on a grand scale, as, in the words of one medieval preacher – “it is only fit that as we sin with the limbs, we atone with the limbs”, although given the prevalence of adultery cases for which penance was prescribed, it seems that the first two legs were often tasked with making reparation for the excesses of the third.

The three main pilgrimage roads were to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago. The former in particular benefited from the cult of the saints which grew up some time after the 4th century, as the miraculous properties of relics became apparent, and pilgrims flocked to see the tombs of St Peter and St Paul, and latterly the Veronica, a cloth upon which the face of Christ was imprinted. The later part of the dark ages saw the development also of the notion that visiting Rome at a prescribed time – particularly the Jubilees, a tradition borrowed from Judaism from the fourteenth century – would gain one time off from purgatory. As with the much missed Lira, these were subject to enormous inflation. While attendance of any one particular church in the 1300 jubilee would earn one at most 7 days off from ones punishment, by 1390, when the 1400 jubilee was brought forward 10 years, a single step at the entrance of a particular church could be worth as much as 7 years. This was a significant incentive to the pious Catholic of medieval Europe.

In some cases they would have gone for less noble reasons. Thanks to the extensive protections proclaimed by the Church on the property of pilgrims while away, the protection from civil law cases being brought, and the opportunities available to trade, there were at least some instances of pilgrimages undertaken in order to evade domestic trials. Johnathon Sumption, for instance, records that at least one of King John’s vassals in Burgundy placed his property under the protection of the Holy See and set out for Jerusalem when it became apparent that the French King would over-run the area and may well have otherwise attempted to deprive him of his properties.

Why am I going? A number of reasons. As a relatively new Catholic, and one whose behavior frequently falls short of what I would hope it to be, both the penitential and the contemplative aspects of pilgrimage appeal. In addition, there are interesting questions to be asked about the conjunction of religious tradition and contemporary political progression. I am grateful to the Peter Kirk Fund in indulging me while I ask such questions.

There is also another reason. A very good friend of mine – life and soul of the party, very involved in everything going – fell ill many years ago with ME, a ghastly affliction which left her bed bound in her room for weeks on end. For such an energetic person, and one who embraces life so much, this was a tragedy – she could not continue at university, she couldn’t see friends, or even leave open her curtains. Moreover, no effective treatment could be found on the NHS. There is, however, one treatment centre in the UK that she was able to get into – The Marillac in Essex, run by The Sisters of Charity. The efforts of the selfless women who work there, combined with the sheer willpower of the young lady involved were able to bring about a complete cure.

Quite simply put, without the efforts of these wonderful women, my friend would still be in bed today. Instead she has completed a fabulous degree and is set on a path of helping others through medicine. We should all be grateful for what these women do, not only those of us touched by them. No-ne asks them to, no-one pays them. They do it from love and from hope and as their Christian duty.

To that end, I hope to use this journey as a mechanism for fund-raising for the Marillac. I was intending to pay my first bank bonus to them when I went into the city, but having left that path, I will do whatever I can do – including passing on royalties if I am able to turn this into a book – to show my thanks. If this story in any way resonates, or if this endeavour in any way amuses you or helps pass the time in the next three months, then I would urge you to send a cheque – however small – to:

Marillac Care
Eagle Way
CM13 3BL

I will put a link on the side. Many thanks, and all the best.

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