From Cupid & Death to Rome…

One of our violinists, Julia, embarks on the Via Francigena soon, walking approximately 1900km from Canterbury to Rome. Accompanying her will be a newly crafted Pilgrim’s violin, a lightweight full-size pochette made for her by Finn Trucco, a student at the Newark Violin School, which she will be playing on her travels. Keep an eye on these pages for updates of her progress…

Week one 

As I look back on the week and write this from the beautiful town of Arras – I realise just how fortunate I am to be doing this journey. So far I have walked 175 km, which is not as far as I would normally get (on my ‘fast’ Camino stage I averaged 43km per day!) but because I have had glandular fever flashbacks since mid April I decided I needed to be slow and steady at first. As I keep reminding myself, it’s not a race! And maybe it’s God’s way of telling me to slow down… Overall it’s been the most amazing week

Particular highlights have been

  • spending such a lovely time with my eldest son who walked the first three days with me – and receiving hospitality from the friends who I have stayed with en route.
  • beautiful scenery of the North Downs,
  • walking along the beach between Calais and Wissant on a perfect day of azure sky with the White Cliffs of Dover over the sea, so clear all day
  • Learning more about crops being grown (- I can now identify vetch and a linseed crop (pre-flowers) and many encounters with nature, from an owl flying in front of me on an overgrown path to hares running through fields
  • The amazing people of North France and it’s food, customs and history. Also art work, especially the modern stained glass
  • Exploring and observing historic war defence installations along the coast 
  • Being completely overwhelmed by the atmosphere in certain churches, especially the church at Carrier – a ‘thin place’ if ever there was one
  • Playing my little Pilgrim’s violin all afternoon in a beautiful little private Chapelle – just me, my violin and God
  • Last night’s host, who has walked pilgrimages all of the world, refused to let me put more than half a litre of water in my bottle on the grounds that a Pilgrim should be asking for water and bread as they go along the route – he said people love to give something simple like water and bread to others and by asking and receiving you make them so happy. I was to learn the truth of this today in Arras, where an old lady, Marie-Thérèse, who I met in a church insisted on taking me out to lunch, despite my protestations. She showed me around Arras and later made sure I got to the Diocesan house where I was staying. She was so overjoyed to give something to a Pilgrim, it was extraordinary. I played on my violin to her and a friend later as a thank you, but it seemed insignificant in comparison…
  • The joy of waking up every day and deciding whether to follow the official Via Francigena GR145 (which zigzags horribly in the Pas de Calais) or whether to divert and do my own thing. Mostly I’ve chosen to divert and go direct, so I’ve seen things that otherwise I wouldn’t have (- industrial ex mining towns and the extraordinary Cité des Électriciens for instance) There’s an incredible freedom in this, along with the slightly staggering knowledge that it’s unlikely anyone else will choose exactly the same route as myself to Rome…

Low points have been

  • missing the last bus to the last foot-passenger ferry from Dover – all was well though as kind P&O staff came to the rescue and got us on the boat!
  • Two days of 32° – significantly higher temperatures than forecasted and horrible to walk in, especially through fields with no shade at all wearing a mask to limit the hay fever…
  • Sheltering from aforementioned heat at midday by having a kip and lunch in shade of a hedgerow as no trees for miles around – seemingly a good plan for 30 minutes until cloud of thunder flies decided it would be entertaining to cover all of my body whilst I was trying to eat my sandwiches – tickly and itchy all at the same time – an experience not to be recommended        
  • Not being able to find my gîte etape at the end of a long walk and on the point of tears, only to bump into my host who had just popped into the village with flowers for the church.   At that momentarily, truly an angel in disguise!                           
  • And finally, a postscript…a sad conversation about Brexit where the host said that for the last few months, Pilgrims from the UK were insisting on being written down on the forms as being Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish, anything but UK. She had never known this before. She turned to me and said ‘it seems that Brexit has caused the United Kingdom to become dis-united and it is liable to become permanently divided’. My hosts were not particularly pro EU, (they had been cattle farmers but gave cattle up because of EU regs) and all around the table (French & Belgians) agreed it was far from perfect, but they all saw it as a way of ensuring peace and stability in Europe and a voice on the world stage – and sitting in a farmhouse in Pas de Calais, an area that has been fought over and occupied so many times over many centuries, where so many have died fighting and whole communities have been erased for refusing to swear allegiance to the occupiers, it was hard to disagree. 


Week 2

I realised that some of you will not know the history of the Via Francigena so I should have started the first blog with an explanation. So to make amends…

The Via Francigena (‘the way through France’) follows the route described by Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury, when he journeyed to Rome in AD 990 to collect his pallium, or cloak of office, from Pope John XV.

Many others would have made similar journeys at that time, but Sigeric had the foresight to have one of his party record the 79 stages of their return from Rome. Sigeric’s De Roma ad usque Mare, which is preserved in the British Library, forms the basis of today’s Via Francigena across England, France, Switzerland and Italy.

The historical route was revived and put back on the map in the 1990s by a group of enthusiasts who faithfully followed Sigeric’s stopping places, only adapting his itinerary where the old Roman road had become a modern highway. So now you know all you need to know about the Via Francigena!

Another incredible week and I’m now in Champagne region having finally reached Reims, some 410km into my journey. This week I have been walking through Pas de Somme, and along the Western Front, so it has been a somber and emotional week of visiting BEF Cemeteries en route. Again I’ve chosen to do quite a few diversions and by doing this have discovered German Cemeteries too. My experience of them is that they are very different to the BEF ones, generally in wooded places and with rows of wooden crosses – four bodies marked by one cross..

Much of my walking has been through fields but I’ve also done some canal-side walking and a day in the forest of St Gobain and it’s been a week of joy in nature; grouse, butterflies and dragon-flies and I saw a hare so huge that I thought initially it was some sort of miniature pony in the distance!

The walking has settled into a rhythm now and become almost meditative and my body seems to bearing up to the strains and stresses well; my legs and feet are in better shape than I’ve any right to expect. I know people have been praying for me and I thank you all – this journey really does feel “prayer-assisted”.

Once again it’ll be easier to summarise high and low points. First the high points 

  • Joys of dawdling – I’ve been staying in a few Airbnb places this week which means that I generally can’t get into my lodgings until teatime so I have learnt to dawdle – to take little detours to discover interesting things on the map that otherwise I wouldn’t have seen – grottos, historic landmarks and alas, cemeteries. Another consequence of having to hang around for a while when I reach my destination is that I’ve got pretty good at kipping in parks.  Pilgrim = basically very close to itinerant 😂! In fact I was reading an exhibition on Pilgrims whilst in Laon Cathedral and they explained the three marks of a medieval Pilgrim which I reproduce in the original (so you can have the joy of translating)     
  • Les attributs du Pèlerin
  1. Le bourdon – Le bâton de marche est l’épée spirituelle les Pèlerin …un signe de reconnaissance qui distingue les Pèlerins des touristes 
  2. La besace pour transporter ses effets 
  3. La crédentiale qui est une sorte de passporte attestante sa qualité de Pèlerin et non pas de vagabond…            I love the last one! Luckily I have a Pilgrim’s passport (or crédentiale) so I’m definitely not a vagabond. But worryingly, I don’t have a ‘bourdon’ so maybe I’m just a tourist…
  • Joys of AirBnB – I know Airbnb is not always regarded as a good thing, especially in tourist-y cities where the abundance of AirBnB properties is actually starting to change the nature of neighbourhoods, because so many people are AirBnB-ing their places rather than renting it to locals, but in its purest form it’s a fantastic idea and this week I have really benefited from it. From Claudia and Bruno who made me so unbelievably welcome, did my washing and invited me to join their evening meal to Nadia and Jean-René who welcomed me with Russian delicacies and afternoon tea, and who stated that they looked after their guests well; after all you never knew if it was Christ who was visiting…I have had the most wonderful exchanges and conversations and I thank all of them from the bottom of my heart
  • The pilgrim’s violin really came into its own this week. Everyone falls in love with it because of the way it looks, and it has been a great source of conversation and connection with all my hosts. It’s been such a privilege to play for them and my repertoire of unaccompanied Bach, Biber, Irish and English fiddle tunes generally entrances and pleases people. Then inevitably I get asked questions about violins and strings etc. and a lovely, though slightly hilarious, chat with my crazy French ensues. My vocabulary is definitely expanding though! So Pilgrim’s violin = a definite hit & thank you, Finn, for doing such a great job of making it!
  • Observing farmers at work – sprinkler systems everywhere, high-tech tent ‘thingys’ on wheels set up to protect the pickers and the weeders, complete with solar panels to produce electricity (and cooling I suppose) I even saw them using drones to check the crops
  • The joys of getting stamps in the crédentiale! Most gîte etapes are used to this stamp-getting scenario, but when you stay AirBnB, you need to go to the mayors office to get one. First I explain I am “une Pèlerine de la Via Francigena” which is often met with confusion, and then once they understand and have found the stamp, I then produce TWO crédentiales and explain, with as much gravity as I can muster, that one is for me and the other is for my violin. (PS this is my eldest son’s fault as he thought the violin should take over his credential when he went back to the UK)  At this point they give you a very special look which has two variants – incredulity mixed with pity and incredulity mixed with admiration. I prefer the latter but often receive the former!
  • The last 3 km when you can see where your destination is and visualise resting and having your pilgrim’s beer..                                                                                 Low points
  •  the last 3 km when you’re so tired that you keep almost falling over things that aren’t there and you discover your destination is uphill (or in case of Laon, up 300+ steps!)
  • The last 3km in Péronne, when having walked 3 km down the hill into town, I discovered my lodgings were back 3 km at the top of the hill. In my defence I was staying in an old Mill house and there was a massive river at the bottom of the town, so I assumed it was there, but I made a resolution always to check the address in future…
  • My worst lodgings of the trip so far at a historic Pilgrim’s hostel for Pilgrims of both the Via Francigena and Compostela. I hesitate to criticise in a public blog, but the lodgings, although in a beautiful lakeside setting, had seen better days and were ramshackle in the extreme. It had the distinction also of being the only pilgrims hostel I’ve ever stayed in not to have a washing line – this is one of the most basic requirements of a pilgrims hostel, so I was somewhat surprised. And I had already done my washing, so I improvised and hung my clothes on the wire perimeter fence making sure to avoid the worst of the bird droppings , and hanging them outside the property so that the resident billy goat wouldn’t eat them! On the plus side, I was greeted with much enthusiasm and beer, and the host was obviously a highly interesting man – a sculptor and deep thinker
  • Being feasted on by horseflies as I walked through the forest. Completely ignored my bare flesh and tucked in to my legs – through my walking leggings! Wished I had a horse tails to swish – ended up taking my hat off and using it to bat them off my legs. Took anti-histamine at lunch but not soon enough to prevent some bites from suppurating…

Final thoughts The following poem, discovered in a church in Pas de Calais, has haunted me all week, especially whilst walking through the SommeYour Christ is Jewish,Your scooter Japanese;Your pizza is Italian, Your couscous Algerian;Your democracy is Greek, Your coffee Brazilian;Your watch is Swiss,Your shirt Hawaiian;Your MP3 player is Korean, Your holidays Turkish, Tunisian or Moroccan;Your numbers are Arabic, Your writing Latin, and yet…….you reproach your neighbour for being a foreigner!One definition of a Pilgrim I read this week was “étranger et voyageur”. As I walk through France, I am certainly a stranger and a traveller, but in conversation with the people I’ve met, I’ve discovered so much in common with them. People all over the world may be culturally different, yet all want the same things; love, health, family, friends, a decent job and place to live. And all the cemeteries I passed through were so different and yet all had one thing in common  – everyone was dead; generations of men betrayed by populist demagogues. War is essentially a failure of dialogue, so we need to keep talking to people we don’t agree with and leave the safety of our comfort zones – no great things emerge from comfort zones! Vote wisely and for future generations, not our own. Check facts, don’t believe everything you read. Do what my parents used to do – they now read the Times, but they used to take the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail, (and the Sporting Life!). Growing up, this confused me, but now I see it was a stroke of genius: if you can read about the same events through different ‘filters’, you will see the truth is somewhere in the middle. So left-wingers, read a right wing newspaper occasionally, it won’t kill you; you won’t like it but it will be good for you. Right-wingers do the same. Try to understand how it is that people with the same facts at their disposal can interpret them so differently., Do research to find out (as much as you are able) what the facts actually are and speak up when untruths are peddled as facts. It’s hard and takes an effort, but it’s necessary if we are to avoid the tourists and pilgrims of the future visiting cemeteries muttering “oh, how sad” over the graves of our children and grandchildren…

Cross made from munitions. Swards to ploughshares?
Leaving Laon
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