Day 17: Wisques to Thérouanne ( 23 km) And Quiet Flows the Aa

Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.

A.A.Milne – Winnie-the-Pooh

My walk to Rome to raise money to help repair the roof of St Peter’s Church, Winterbourne Stoke is going well.

I’ve now completed 1/3rd of the distance (420/1236 km) that I’m aiming to do this year.

Sadly I can’t walk the entire distance to Rome this year for the simple reason that the Great St Bernard Pass is impassable to walkers from mid Sept due to snow and I won’t get there on my current timetable until mid October!

If you’d like to donate to my walk, you can do so via my Just Giving page as follows:

We are still waiting for HMRC to provide the link to Gift Aid, which will increase your donation by a further 25%.

However, if you would like to make a donation now, please would you be kind enough to email my wife, Olivia (once you have done so) as she will be creating a spreadsheet with donors’ details (name, surname, first line of your address and, most importantly, your post code + amount donated), so we can reclaim the extra 25% back retrospectively).

Olivia’s email address is:

So enough of the preamble and back to the travel blog! My big news is that I met another couple of pilgrims here at the Abbey of Notre Dame in Wisques. Ok they aren’t walking the VF, in fact they aren’t actually walking at all ( they’ve brought a car) BUT they are pilgrims, and very pleasant ones at that.

Eva and Marine arrived at the Abbey yesterday afternoon and we shared supper together. They are both from Lille and on a pilgrimage to visit the shrine to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.

Marine and Eva

Now I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t have the foggiest about who Saint Thérèse is, so Eva ( who is a marine insurance broker) and Marine ( who somewhat confusingly isn’t a marine insurance broker but a corporate adviser on sustainable growth) explained who she was over supper.

Saint Thérése of Lisieux

Born in 1873 in Alençon, Thérèse became a Carmelite nun and died in Lisieux in 1896 aged 24. Her popularity in modern times owes much to her memoirs (L’histoire d’une âme /The Story of a Soul) in which she advocated a simple approach to religious life. On her deathbed from TB in 1896 she said: “I only love simplicity. I have a horror of pretence”.

Thankfully Eva and Marine’s English was excellent and over a simple supper of soup, a slice of ham, couscous, tomatoes and a small pot of yoghurt, we were able to conduct an animated conversation on a wide variety of topics. These ranged from the sad deterioration of global tourist destinations due to resource over exploitation (Sri Lanka/Thailand etc), the doctrinal differences between Anglicanism and Catholicism and French literature from Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Le Diable et le bon Dieu’ to Molière’s ‘L’Avare’.

And then it was off to attend Compline in the Abbey church. Built in the 1890s, the Abbey of St Wisques feels much older with its soaring Gothic barrel vaulted ceilings and ogave arches. It reminded me of the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge in a funny sort of way.

Abbey of Notre Dame, Wisques

I entered the church into a side chapel which was plunged in darkness. Gradually I simply became aware that there was a old lady knelt in the pews in front of me. With 5 minutes left before the service (Compline) commenced, the ethereal silence was broken by the toll of a solitary bell which permeated the church like the mist rising from a meadow on a summer’s morning.

Then, suddenly without warning, the lady kneeling in front of me, stood and flicked a switch which illuminated the side chapel in which we were seated. Opposite us, across the nave in a separate side chapel, I could dimly discern the faces of Eva and Marine.

At this point there was a cacophony of noise from somewhere in the church which suggested that the nuns were gathering for evening prayer. I thought I could make out the sound of vestments swishing on the floor and the clank of what sounded like hob nail boots on tiles, almost as though a cohort of Roman legionaries had entered the church. The nuns were not visible but they began to chant prayers in Latin and the service commenced.

Periodically during the service, the three other members of the congregation would rise to their feet and then genufluct. I followed suit, although I didn’t have much clue about what was going on.

After about 10 minutes a hymn was sung and then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over and with another great clanking and swishing, the nuns (whom I never actually saw) left the Church. Finally a switch was flicked and the church returned once more to a state of silence and tenebrous gloom.

Figs from the Abbey gardens for breakfast

After breakfast I headed out of the Abbey for the little village of Esquerdes through which flows the Aa, much beloved by French crossword compilers apparently!

Gunpowder factory on the River Aa at Esquerdes

Interestingly, the Aa which flows through Esquerdes isn’t the only river in Europe with that name. There is a river Aa in the Swiss canton of Lucerne, a couple in Germany (Westphalia and Munster) and two in Latvia. That may seem excessive until you understand why – the name Aa is derived from the old High German word ‘Aha’ which in turn is derived from the Latin ‘Aqua’ (water). In Britain you see the same phenomenon with rivers called Avon, derived from the Welsh cognate, ‘Afon’ ( a river!)

The butcher’s shop in Esquerdes

En route to the little village of Dohem (no facilities!) I passed along a ridge on which stood 6 huge wind turbines. Their blades revolved slowly in the gentle breeze. They seemed strangely out of synch with the surrounding countryside, like brooding giants. Doubtless Don Quixote had similar thoughts when he mounted his faithful steed Rosinante and did battle with the windmills of La Mancha!

Wind turbines near Esquerdes

As I entered the village of Delettes at lunchtime I noticed a sign saying ‘Welcome Pilgrims!’. Yet the church was locked and there were absolutely no shops in the village. By this stage my stomach was growling ominously – the fare at the Abbey of St Wisques had been somewhat frugal! One house did have a sign in the window saying ‘Eggs for sale’. I wondered whether to knock on the door, purchase half a dozen eggs and enquire whether the owner would make be an omelette with them. On balance it seemed like a slightly unwise ploy so I soldiered on towards my final destination for the day, Thérouanne.

Horses in a field outside Thérouanne

In a field outside Thérouanne I came across 8 white horses. Could they be Boulonnais draft horses I wondered? If so, then it was quite a find.

The smallest type of Boulonnais was originally used to pull carts full of fresh fish from Boulogne to Paris, while the larger varieties performed heavy draft work, both on farms and in the cities.

During the early 1900s, the Boulonnais were imported in large numbers to the United States and were quite popular in France; however, the European population suffered severe decreases during 20th-century wars. The breed nearly became extinct following World War II, but rebounded in France in the 1970s as a popular breed for horse meat.

Nowadays there are fewer than 1,000 horses remaining in Europe, mostly in France.

It was a sobering thought that many of the villages I passed through were the sites used by the Germans to launch V1 (doodlebug) bombs during WW2. Most of them targetted London. On the 16th June 1944 two hundred and forty four V1s were launched from the area targetting London. In fact one of them could very well have been the one that landed near my mother’s home in London, blowing her bedroom window to smithereens and nearly killing her!

V1 doodlebug bomb many of which were launched from near Thérouanne on London in June 1944

I finally reached Thérouanne and found my way to the Gite d’étape ‘Eden’ run by Alain Millamon.

Gite d’étape ‘Eden”

No sooner had I entered the gite (Alain had kindly emailed me the entry code) than Alain appeared and showed me around the accommodation. I was the only pilgrim and so had the entire place to myself – dormitory, kitchen, washroom, laundry, and TV room. And all of this for 20 euros a night. Yet again I was in ‘Fat City’ as they say!

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