Day 28: Laon to Pontavert (33 km) The Way through the Woods

They shut the road through the woods 
Seventy years ago. 
Weather and rain have undone it again, 
And now you would never know. 

The Way through the Woods – Rudyard Kipling

Mme Tordeux-Bremard gave me the perfect send off this morning – three blasts on her boar hunting horn which hung in her hallway.

Wild boar on the wall

She showed me a photo of some of the boars she had shot on a hunt some 20 years ago. “That one” she said pointing to a particularly ferocious specimen hanging on the kitchen wall, “I shot him twice through the head. The bullet went through the same hole twice!”.

I had to take my hat off to Mme Tordeux-Bremard, sharp shooter and pilgrim hostess extraordinaire. They don’t make them like her anymore.

Mme Tordeux-Bremard bidding me goodbye

Boar hunting is obviously popular in these parts. I passed a white van near Mme Tordeux-Bremard’s house that left little doubt about the owner’s love of hunting!

White van man in Laon

As I left Laon, I passed the Abbey of Laon , founded by Norbert of Prémontré in the 12th century  .

Laon Abbey

The medieval city of Laon was built on a limestone outcrop. This fact was brought home to me as I passed the leaning tower of Lady Eve which formed part of the city walls. An informative notice board explained how the tower had acquired its lean.

Lady Eve’s Tower

The limestone outcrop on which Laon was built is divided into 3 geological layers. A top layer of chalk which supplied the material for the city walls. A secondary layer of sand which was heavily mined for mortar and a third layer of clay which held the water which trickled through the layers above and provided the town’s spring water. When Eve’s Tower was built in the 13th century the weight of the chalk and mortar caused the structure to sink into the clay. Whether the Leaning Tower of Pisa suffers from a similar structural issue is anybody’s guess.

Sediment structure of Soissons Gate

As I passed through the old Soissons city gate and gingerly navigated the cobblestones descending from the medieval city Ivwas passed by a couple of agile joggers running at a frightening pace. I shuddered to think what would happen if one of them missed their footing and went flying.

‘Soissons’ Laon City Gate

I had a spring in my stride as I left Laon. It wasn’t just the extraordinary warmth of Mme Tordeux-Bremard’s hospitality, it was also possibly due to the freshly laundered socks I was wearing. At this point I have to make a confession – I haven’t been as diligent with washing my clothes as I probably should have been. In fact I have yet to wash my T shirt during the last month! However, I am comforted by the fact that it passed the ‘sniff test’ conducted by Claude in Arras last weekend. In these times of oblugatory social distancing, I comfort myself with the thought that I am merely performing my civic duty by encouraging others to keep their distance when they encounter me in the street!

This reminded me of an  incident which occurred 40 years ago when I was returning to my parents by train after completing a month of hop picking in Kent. I remember boarding the train at Tonbridge with the same hop picking clothes that I’d been wearing for the previous month. It was a Saturday morning, the carriage was packed and I struggled to find a seat. Strangely, within 10 minutes of my boarding the train, the carriage had entirely emptied of passengers. I thought little of it at the time and settled into a book for the journey.

When I reached my parents’ home, no sooner had I entered the front door than I was frog marched to the bathroom for a shower, my clothes were unceremoniously removed and placed on the bonfire for immediate incineration. Apparently I stank to high heaven, but being anosmic, I was blissfully unaware of ‘the stink’ I was causing!

The artisanal bakers in Bruyéres-et-Montbérault where Mme Tordeux-Bremard had promised me I could find a delicious sandwich for lunch, were closed. It was Saturday. I had to settle for a cheese and ham sandwich and apple from the only food store that was open. Maybe because my stomach has shrunk over the last month, I don’t seem to feel hungry any more!

Lunch stop

As I was a mile out of Bruyéres-et-Montbérault I had that feeling again. Something was missing. Yet again I’d forgotten to pick up my thumb stick. Panicking that somebody might have swiped it, I raced down the hill like a boring dromedary. Thankfully it was still there. Soaked in sweat, I retrieved my steps and headed up the hill again towards Martigny-Courpierre and the Lac de l’Ailette.

Lac de l’Ailette

The path which led to the ruined 12th century Benedictine Abbey of Vauclair was called the ‘Chemin de Dames’. Running 35km along an escarpment, the ‘Way of the Ladies’ derives it’s name from the daughters of King Louis XV, Mesdames Adelaïde and Victoire, also called “Dames De France”, who used to take this path to visit the Countess Françoise de Narbonne-Lara, then owner. Invading armies from Julius Caesar and Napoleon the the Prussian and German armies in the 19th and 20th centuries have used the ‘Chemin des Dames’ to launch attacks against France. But this Saturday the only noise came not from the hob nailed boots of invading armies but the contented chatter of people enjoying the sunny weekend.

Eventually I made it to the ruins of Vauclair Abbey founded in the 12th century by 12 Benedictine monks from Clairvaux, founded by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1134. Originally called Vallis Clara, its name is the reverse of Clairvaux, signifying the fact that it was the first daughter house of the Abbey of Clairvaux.

Vauclair Abbey.

The final stretch to Pontavert was a bit of a slog through the Woods of Vauclair. Once again there wasn’t a signal to get a GPS location, but thankfully this time I didn’t get lost and so eventually made it my lodgings in the village of Pontavert some 20 miles north of Reims.

The Woods of Vauclair

Mme Dumon and her husband made me most welcome on arrival. I was the 3rd English pilgrim they had welcomed this year out of 10 in total, the relatively low number of pilgrims reflecting the fact that Pontavert lies some way off the Via Francigena. Brian, my pilgrim neighbour in Shrewton, had passed through a month earlier and told them I could be heading their way.

Over a delicious supper of ‘tomate farcie’and rice, followed by cheese and chocolate mousse we chatted about their extensive organic vegetable garden ( which supplies them with vegetables throughout the year), the honey they produce ( they have 11 hives) and the visits Mme Dumon has made to the UK over the years. Having pitched my tent in their garden it was time to hit the sack.

‘What time is breakfast tomorrow morning?’ I enquired before venturing outside to my tent. ‘It’s entirely up to you’ Mme Dumon replied, ‘ but the cockerel in the garden usually starts crowing at 5.30am’. Yes, it was definitely time to call it a day and hit the sack!

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