Day 27: Septvaux to Laon (30 km) From the ridiculous to the sublime

All good things come to those who wait.

English Proverb

The day got off to a bad start. The owner of the Ferme de Brellemont was charming, but she obviously hadn’t heard on the bush telegraph that I hadn’t eaten for the best part of 24 hours.

Breakfast was extremely meagre – some orange juice, coffee which I had brewed the previous night, and a small piece of bread and apricot jam. Half a baguette did make a belated appearance, but I decided to play it safe and keep it for lunch, just in case food stores en route to Laon proved elusive.

As there only appeared to be 18km between my lodgings at Septvaux and my destination at Laon, I thought I had the luxury of doing a minor detour to the medieval abbey at Premontré and still make it to Laon in time for lunch. However, I hadn’t reckoned with the Forest of St Gobain throwing a spanner in the works!

The Forest of St Gobain covers a large area (9,000 hectares to be precise) and it is easy to get lost in when:

A. All broadleaf trees on a map look broadly similar rendering the map completely useless.

B. You have no signal to access a GPS location app on your phone.

C. It is impossible to get a compass bearing on a point in the landscape and refer back to your map to pinpoint your location.

Forest of Saint Gobain

Anyways, to cut a long story short, I spent nigh on 4 hours bimbling around in the Forest of St Gobain before I vaguely worked out my location and descended towards what I thought was the Abbey of Prémontré.

Forest of St Gobain

The opportunity to visit the Abbey of Prémontré had seemed like too good a one to miss.

Prémontré Abbey by Tavernier de Joniquières 1780

Founded in 1120 by William of Norbert, Prémontré Abbey was the mother house of the Premonstratensian Order. Norbertines, or White Canons as they are known in Britain, lead communal lives in Priories and Abbeys following the Rule of St Augustine yet are heavily involved in community activities outside of their foundations. These include providing pastoral and healthcare facilities to the poor and needy.

As I descended from the tree clad ridge I’d been flailing around in for nigh on 4 hours, I became dimly aware of the silhouette of buildings appearing through the trees. Fantastic I thought. At last I’ve reached the Prémontré Abbey. I was a bit surprised therefore to see a sign which pointed to the ‘Radiology department’. I didn’t think they usually had those facilities in medieval monasteries!

As I got deeper and deeper into the complex, I was struck by the large number of people in white coats and masks, many of whom were looking at me in a strange way. It was all very difficult to square with the increasingly grandiose buildings which gave the entire complex the feel of the Palace of Versailles rather than an NHS A&E department.

Prémontré

As an ambulance passed me at speed, I decided that it might be wise to head for the exit rather than risk interrogation and detainment. It was only when I had passed the entry barrier that I turned and saw the sign which revealed that I’d been blundering around in a mental asylum!

Prémontré Mental Asylum

I’d hoped that the small village of Suzy might have a food shop to buy a bit of cheese and ham for my breakfast baguette but I wasn’t in luck. If, on the other hand, I’d wanted to go to the circus I would have been in luck – there was one parked in the main street blocking access to Cessières, the next village on my itinerary.

Suzy- the circus comes to town

My guidebook suggested that Cessiéres had everything from a restaurant to a bar and a food store. Things were looking up. Indeed a quick Google search appeared to confirm this in the shape of the 5 rated ‘Epicerie Vrac des Ecureuils’. I entered this into Google Maps and was rewarded with the information that it was only 100m away up the Rue de Eglise. These directions I duly followed but I couldn’t for the life of me find the ‘magasin’ in question. Maybe the satellite was slightly out of orbit and the shop was in the next street. This search proved equally unsuccessful. Eventually having trawled through every nook and cranny in the small village, I threw in the towel and slumped down on a bench outside the Mairie. Ah well I thought, thank the Lord for small mercies – at least I have bread and water.

Lunch at Cessières

As I headed towards the medieval hilltop town of Laon, I was feeling rather down. The hot autumn sun and the long road stretching out in front of me, reminded me of the cover of Laurie Lee’s ‘As I walked out one Midsummer Morning.’ Memories came flooding back. Memories of my first term at Winchester College. Memories of 2 boys called Comfort and Ball. Memories of why I had started embarking on long walks as a 15 year old.

The road to Laon

Sometime between the age of 13 and the age of 15, I went from being a relatively upbeat and optimistic boy to an introverted, tongue tied and depressed teenager. A lot of that had to do with 2 boys in my house at Winchester called Comfort and Ball. They almost sound as if they worked for and had established an up market paint company, but sadly for me they were anything but.

They were my tormentors for almost 5 years, not so much with physical as with mental abuse. The nickname they gave me was ‘Worm’ and on a daily basis they did their best to persuade me that I was a worthless individual.

Laurie Lee’s epic travelogue ‘As I walked out One Midsummer Morning’ was the first ‘Div’ book I read during my first term at Wincoll. Maybe because I was so miserable, it struck a chord with me. I just wanted to pick up a guitar, learn how to play it,  walk out of the school and head to sunnier climes – Sri Lanka where I had grown up, or, at a pinch, Spain would do.

Sadly there wasn’t any escape from Comfort and Ball until I left Winchester and went on to university but by then the damage had been done. I think I began to walk as a way of escaping the unhappiness; first as a 15 year old along Offa’s Dyke and subsequently pretty much every long distance foot path in the British Isles. And as I walked, things gradually got better and the pain and sadness were numbed. Yes, these were the memories that came flooding back as I walked towards Laon this afternoon and remembered reading the first chapter of ‘As I walked out one Midsummer Morning .

When I reached Laon, the clouds lifted. The final climb up to the medieval city and the awe inspiring Cathedral were more than worth the effort. Both exceeded my wildest expectations. I spent a happy hour walking around the narrow medieval streets before venturing in to the Cathedral.

Completed in the 13th century, Laon Cathedral is one of the most aesthetically perfect examples of early Gothic architecture. Words alone can’t do it justice, you have to go and see it.

Laon has long been on the nexus of pilgrim routes to Rome and Santiago de Compostella. But Laon has long been a place of pilgrimage in it’s own right as it contains three important religious relics.

Statue of Notre-Dame de Liesse

Of the three, undoubtedly the most bizarre is the Black Virgin, known as Notre-Dame de Liesse (Our Lady of Joy/or Jubilation.

The statue is said to have been brought to Liesse by three Knights Hospitaller. The three were brothers and members of the noble house of Eppes in Picardya. Sometime in the twelfth century, while protecting the fortress of Bersabee, near Ascalon, they were captured in a Saracene ambush and taken to the Sultan of Egypt. The knights refused to convert to Islam, despite theological arguments and promises of gold and honor. Angels brought the three imprisoned knights a small statue of Our Lady for consolation. The Sultan decided to send his daughter Ismeria to the dungeon to convert the three knights. But the knights preferred to talk about what unites people of different religions. She learned about the Christian god and was prompted to help the brothers escape. During their flight all four fell asleep, and were miraculously transported to Northern France. They awoke close to  Eppes’ castle in Picardy much to the joy and relief of their family. Ismeria was baptised in Laon cathedral, the four knights preserved the statue of the Madonna, which is now safely harboured in Laon cathedral. Make of that what you will!

My lodgings for the evening were with Mme Tordeux-Bremard, who lives just a stone’s throw away from the Cathedral in the Rue de Cloitre.

If there is a kinder, more entertaining and charming 80+ year old host on the Via Francigena, then I can’t wait to meet her.

How should I describe Mme Tordeux-Bremard. Well she is like your favourite Aunt, the one that gives you the best Christmas presents, has an impish twinkle in her eye and slips you the odd illicit treat behind your parents’ back.

Mme Tordeux-Bremard

She also has a lovely house and garden where she cooked me a delicious meal. As we sat outside listening to the sound of pigeons cooing at dusk, Mme Tordeux-Bremard told me about her fascinating life.

Supper chez Mme Tordeux-Bremard

Her family Château had been destroyed by the Germans during the Great War. She remembered the silence that accompanied German air raids during WW2, a silence that Covid had reminded her of. Not surprisingly she harboured no great love for the Germans. As for the English, well I sensed that was a different ‘kettle of fish’.

The Tordeux-Bremard Chateau before its destruction by the Germans

As a child she had been sent to school in England at St Leonards on Sea in Sussex, a time she remembered fondly. Needless to say her English was excellent and she had travelled widely in many parts of the country. She had then gone on to run a chain of 20 hotels and had enjoyed welcoming many English guests. ‘Things are not the way they used to be in France’ she remarked wistfully over supper ‘ but at least in England you still have the Royal Family. That is VERY important’ she added, wagging her finger as she did so.

Mme Tordeux-Bremard’s house and garden

I couldn’t help remarking on the impressive collection of stag and boar masks which adorned the walls of her kitchen and drawing room. She told me that she had shot them all and still enjoyed shooting, although her mobility wasn’t what it had been when she was younger she sighed.

From the flea pit at Seraucourt-le-grand to a delightful meal in the lee of the Cathedral with a charming and insightful host – it really was a case of going from the ridiculous to the sublime.

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