I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. FERNANDO PESSOA

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Day 1: Guînes To Licques

Calais: Rodin's sculpted group Les Bourgeois de Calais in front of the fancy, red-brick hôtel de ville (town hall).

In July 2013 I walked for three days along the old pilgrim route of the Via Francigena. I began in Canterbury, took a cross-Channel ferry from Dover to Calais, then followed the Canal de Calais to Guînes, where I camped at the 5-star campsite, la Bien Assise — free to pilgrims. However, because of various problems, I returned home, vowing to complete the 1000 km trek to the Italian border another time. Just over a year later I fulfilled that vow. And now my vow is to carry on through Italy to Rome — a momentous project for a future year. But back to this year's pilgrimage, from Guînes to the Great St Bernard Pass . . .
   
The hôtel de ville at Guînes, which overlooks Place Foch. A market was in full swing, and I'm a big fan of markets, so I spent a while there. I remember the stalls of cheap clothes and jewellery, the speciality cheeses, the fish, the horse-meat sausages, the two black evangelists selling Christian CDs and the old crone selling her garden produce from the back of a van. Guînes is famous as the site of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where Henry VIII of England met King Francis I of France in June 1520 to seal a bond of friendship (though the two countries were at war again two years later).

I set off on 24 July, heading for Guînes on train, ferry and bus. It was a lovely, warm day, and everything seemed so much better than last year: I was free of ailments, I had a lighter backpack, I was given a much better pitch on the campsite (free again) and the weather was not as punishingly hot. Despite the drunken antics of an English couple on the campsite, I did manage a little sleep, and was packed and ready by 9 am, eagerly anticipating the first day's walk . . .

Pleasant countryside between Guînes and the Forêt de Guînes.

I skirted fields of wheat, beans and potatoes, crossed the TGR railway line and had a mid-morning open-air brunch at the edge of the Forêt de Guînes . . .

Picnic site in the Forêt de Guînes.

I entered the forest, escaping a busload of schoolchildren who had come for a picnic and 'educative' games . . . 
  
Err . . . Is it left or right?

Although in this department of Pas-de-Calais I did come across 'Via Francigena' signs, they seemed to be randomly placed, and often pointed in a quite different direction from the route described in my guidebook (The Via Francigena — Canterbury to Rome 1: Canterbury to the Great St Bernard Pass by Alison Raju). More on the inadequacies of signposts and the ambiguities of guidebooks later . . .  

On the ridge to Licques.

Very soon, at le Mât, I survived my worst 'dog experience' of the whole trip. A vicious dog howled at me as I went by, then jumped through a hole in the gate, chain at full stretch. His companion, however, was loose, and started to chase me down the road, teeth bared aggressively. Luckily at that point an unkempt, eccentric-looking owner emerged from a tumbledown cottage and managed to exert some control . . .  

On the ridge to Licques I found the countryside prettier and hillier than expected, with a narrow, wooded valley to the left and a wide view of hamlets and farmland to the right . . .

I surprised a green woodpecker, and two deer with black rumps, then came down from the ridge, passing this combine harvester trailing dust . . . 

Harvest time in Licques.

The Église de la Nativité de Notre Dame in Licques, all that remains of the Premonstratensian abbey founded in 1075.

I relax at the campsite in Licques.

7 comments:

Ruth Mowry said...

Beautiful, and humorous and charming as ever. The signposts and escaping a busload of school children made me smile. And that simple phrase "I entered the forest ..." evoked wonder.

George said...

Confusing as they may be, those "Via Francigena" signs are quite inviting. Calais brings back memories for it was there that I first set foot on mainland Europe more than fifty years ago.

The dog attack seems rather daunting. On some of my cycling trips through France a few decades ago, being chased by angry dogs was an all too common hazard.

Your campsite looks rather comfortable. Did you camp for the entire trip?

am said...

Love the beginning with "Les Bourgeois de Calais" and those feathery clouds. It's so good to know you have been out walking great distances. Thanks for the tip about The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. There is the journey and the writing about it. Both embody depth of feeling. The creative spirit is renewed again and again!

Bouncing Bertie said...

Looking forward to following your pilgrimage in future posts. Cheers, Gail.

litehiker said...

I'm so looking forward to reading your journal. It's a shame there is so much road walking. Could Alison Raju not have found a more off road route? Nevertheless, id like to give it a go. I walked part of the VF in Italy in 2004. If you're interested, my account of it is at http://litehiker-italianjourney.blogspot.co.uk/ Too much of it was on roads, largely due to poor maps.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Ruth — I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

George — I did camp (both on official sites and in the wild), and I'm glad I carried the tent, even if it did increase my pack weight. However, I also stayed in abbeys, monasteries, convents, gîtes, presbyteries, church halls, schools, church halls, youth hostels, Centres Internationals de Séjour, Foyers de Jeunes Travailleurs and with families who welcomed pilgrims.

Am — I 'm pleased you are enjoying 'The Old Ways'; I think you would like all Macfarlane's books. He's a stunning writer, I think, and explores the really deep places.

Looking forward to your company along the Way, Gail and Litehiker.

Litehiker — yes, I remember your account. The first part of the VF is still, to a great extent, a route in the making — signage is rare, except in Switzerland — and pilgrims use a variety of 'guides', including guidebooks (few available, and all have good and bad points — the Raju, for instance, can be inaccurate and poorly edited in parts, sometimes giving 'right' for 'left' and vice versa, and her instructions can be ambiguous and ill-expressed), maps, a compass (the direction is always SE), the sun and asking people. Yes, sometimes there are alternatives to Raju's road routes... lots more to say later on Raju and route finding in general.

Rachel Fox said...

Sounds like someone (...) needs to put out a better guidebook...