Water, water everywhere And not a drop to drink.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I won’t claim that last night at Seraucourt-le-grand was the best night’s sleep I have ever enjoyed but at least I survived without being predated by the large number of flying insects that were hovering around the WC against which my mattress was wedged!
With a saucepan of hot coffee and a couple of pains au chocolat inside me, it was time to say farewell to Seraucourt-le-grand and Dean from Seattle.
I had enjoyed spending time walking with Sean. He had led a strange life. On the one hand travelling everywhere from Paraguay to Mount Fuji and walking some of the world’s great trails including the Appalachian Trail, the Camino Frances in Spain and part of the Via Francigena from the Great Saint Bernard Pass to Rome. On the other hand he’d spent time working as an archaeologist before becoming a nurse at a high security prison in Bellevue, Seattle where he’d worked for the last 28 years.
Yet despite all of his globe trotting adventures, there was something sad and vulnerable about him, a 66 year old nurse from Seattle, with a phone that didn’t work, a ruck sack that looked as though it belonged in a museum and a command of French that was virtually non existent. In a strange way he reminded me of a character from a Graham Greene novel. But he was a kindly soul and I had enjoyed his company. I hope the rest of his walk goes well and he makes it back safely to Seattle on his Icelandair flight via Reykjavik.
When I reached the village of Jussy and the canal which ran through its centre, I saw a little white pilgrim sign pointing to the left alongside the canal. This surely indicated the VF I thought to myself. Ten minutes later, as I struggled through nettles and thistles on the edge of the canal, I was faced with a difficult decision. Should I struggle on and hope that the going got easier, or should I make a U turn, retrace my steps and try and relocate the GR145 markers?
Discretion proved the better part of valour and I plumped for the second option. It proved a wise choice although it added a few kilometres to the day’s walk.
Later during the morning, after I had successfully relocated the GR145 and rejoined the tow path along the canal towards Tergnier, I saw something swimming in the canal towards the bank. At first I thought it was a duck or a dabchick. As I got nearer, it turned tail and started swimming across the canal to the opposite bank. And then I saw what it was – a young fauna that had clearly been separated from its mother and fallen into the canal. I watched helplessly as it tried several times to clamber out of the canal. But the side of the canal was too steep and time and again it slipped back into the water. I couldn’t help but think of Sean struggling along the stretch of the canal that had defeated me earlier and was overcome with an uncomfortable premonition that all was not well with him. I hoped I was wrong as there was little I could do for the poor little faun or for Sean.
As I headed along the canal towards Tergnier, I made a decision. It was only 1pm, I was making good progress. So instead of finishing the day’s walk at Tergnier as I’d originally planned, I decided to plough on and try and reach my next day’s destination at Septvaux. 45 km was quite a stretch, but I’d walked 75 km from Winterbourne Stoke to Winchester, so it seemed like an interesting challenge.
The hamlet of La Fére looked an interesting place. The central square was dominated by a huge statue of a French soldier.
Of more interest to me were a couple of signs in the village. One was for the Musée Jeanne D’Aboville, the other commemorated Joseph Rault and his family who was arrested, tortured and killed by the Gestapo during World War 2 for working for the French Resistance. Was there more to this story I wondered.
It turns out that Joseph Rault played a prominent part in the French Resistance during World War 2. Born in St-Brieuc in 1899, he served in the French army during World War 1 and was subsequently decommissioned on the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939.
After the German occupation of France in 1940, he joined the French resistance. Captured and tortured by the Gestapo in 1944, he was transferred to a German POW camp at Sandbostel where he died of typhus aged 45. Seeing his name on the street plaque in La Fère, for me reinforced the debt of gratitude we owe such people for their supreme sacrifice in the name of ‘Fraternité, Égalité et Liberté’.
I wish I’d had more time to spend in La Fère, in particular to visit La Musée Jeanne d’Aboville. A quick Google search revealed that the collection of over 400 paintings assembled by Jeanne dAboville, the Countess of Héricourt, was one of the top cultural attractions in the Haut-de-France region. With over 400 works ranging from the 15th Flemish school to French landscape paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries, the collection looked fascinating. Then I remembered that I wasn’t on holiday – I was on a charity walk to raise money to help repair the roof of St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke. It was time to quicken my pace if I was to reach Septvaux before dark.
Later during the afternoon I passed through the Saint-Gobain National Forest en route to the hill top town of Saint- Gobain. Covering 9,000 hectares, the forest is the second largest in the Aisne department and contains a number of important monastic sites including Prémontré Abbey founded in the 12th century and the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Nicolaus-aux-Bois. If only I had more time on my hands…
In hindsight I should have spent more time looking around the hilltop town of Saint Gobain, home to Saint Gobain Glass.
Saint Gobain is famous the world over for producing industrial glass. Listed on the French Stock Exchange, it’s fascinating to think that its origins go back over 350 years to 1665. Founded during the reign of Louis XIV, the Royal Manufactory of mirror glass developed a revolutionary procedure that involved casting glass on a metal table. It opened its main production site in a small village in the northeastern part of France from which it took its name – Saint-Gobain.
The final stretch to the Ferme de Brellemont at Septvaux was a bit of a slog walking on the side of a busy road, dodging transit vans and HGVs. Eventually, however, footsore after having walked 45km I reached my lodgings for the night, the Ferme de Brellemont. Now for a hot shower and a hearty meal as the reward for my hard day’s slog.
Imagine then my disappointment when the owner of the gite d’étape dropped the bombshell that they didn’t actually serve evening meals! AAAAARGH!
Ah well, I thought to myself philosophically as my stomach growled like a hungry hyena, there’s only another 12 hours to go until breakfast. Going ‘Back to basics’ sure makes you appreciate the simpler things in life like a roof over your head for the night and a square meal!