Day 29: Pontavert to Saint-Thierry (23 km) Champagne country

Champagne. In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.’

Winston Churchill

Today was a bit of a red letter day. I’ve now been walking for a month, have chalked up nearly 800km/500 miles and I’ve reached champagne country. I’d love to break open some bubbly at this point, the only problem being that I’m currently staying in a Benedictine Monastery at Saint-Thierry a few kilometres from Reims. So the champagne tasting will have to wait until tomorrow!

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

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/jonathan-dutton5

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: olivia.dutton@outlook.com

The day got off to an early start – at 3am the cockerel in my host’s garden started warming up. This triggered an combative response from what I took to be a tawny owl, but which Monsieur Portet, my host, assured me was a barn owl ( une chouette d’effraie).

Over breakfast I had an interesting chat with Monsieur Portet about his vegetable garden which is quite a thing and looks as though it could feed a small army rather than just Monsieur Portet and his wife. He doesn’t use any fertilisers yet doesn’t have any problems with pests like slugs or caterpillars. He also has 11 bee hives in the garden where the bees feed on flowers from the surrounding countryside including lime tree blossom. I tried some of his honey. It was quite delicious and I could definitely taste a soupçon of lime in it.

The veg plot

Our conversation then turned to the abysmal weather over the summer. I mentioned the folklore associated with it raining on St Swithun’s Day ( 15 July). In France they have a similar tradition if it rains on St Médard’s Day ( 8 June). And if it rains on both the 8th of June and the 15th July I guess it’s time to book a Caribbean holiday!

It was sad to say goodbye to Monsieur Portet and Mme Dumon. They gave me a couple of tomatoes and apples from their garden, bade me bon voyage and waved me off on the road to Cornichy.

On the plateau above Portavert I passed a field full of lapwings, was passed by a phalanx of Sunday cyclists and passed a touching roadside tribute to a motor cyclist who had been killed in a road accident last year. Life and death comes in all shapes and sizes.

At Cornichy I saw my first champagne vineyard advertising themselves ( Champagne Boulard – Bauquaire)

First Champagne vineyard

By the time I reached the centre of town, pretty much every signpost was pointing towards a local champagne vineyard!

Cornichy

I climbed through the first of the day’s vineyard as I headed up the hill out of Cornichy. The harvest must just have taken place, as the there weren’t any grapes to be seen on the vines.

Vineyards above Cornichy

I had my lunch in the pretty little village of Hermonville. The French cousin of Banksy clearly lived somewhere nearby.

Le Banksy d’Hermonville?

It was Sunday and as I say in the main square, it was so silent you could hear a pin drop. The boulangerie was the only shop in town that appeared to be open. A steady stream of people went in and out of the bakery as I sat eating my sandwich.

Hetmonville

Claude had again worked his magic and booked me in to stay at the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Thierry, some 4 km north of Reims.

So who exactly was Saint Thierry ( Saint’s Day 1 July/patron saint of oculists) and why was a Benedictine abbey founded in his name?

Saint Thierry

Thierry was the son of Macard, a famous thief and brigand who lived in the Marne district of France. Thierry’s parents forced him to marry a young girl. However, he decided that he wanted to become a priest.

He asked his wife if he could enter a monastery but, not surprisingly, she refused. So he went to the bishop of Reims who annulled his marriage. 

According to legend, Thierry was led to a place called Mont d’Hor near Reims by an eagle, and that’s where he founded a monastery. 

One day his father knocked on the door of the monastery and asked to receive  the monastic habit so that he could live in penance alongside his son.

Thierry’s reputation grew and reached its peak when, called to the court of the king of Austrasia, he anointed him with oil on his eye. Threatened with the loss of sight in one of his eyes, the king lamented: “If I lose half of my eyes, I lose, at the same time, half of my authority over my warriors!” In order to receive this cure, the day after their coronation in the cathedral in Reims, kings of France would come and lunch at the abbey of Saint-Thierry. Thierry died on July 1, 533. And it is because he helped save the sight of the king of Austrasia, that Thierry is the patron saint of populists.

I arrived at 3pm and was shown to my room by one of the nuns.

Saint-Thierry

Supper in the refectory was booked for 7pm so I had time to get myself ready for Vespers (5.15pm), have a shower and dry my tent which was sopping wet when I’d packed it away in my rucksack this morning.

I must confess that I almost fell asleep during vespers. There was something infinitely soporific about 20 nuns singing evensong in French.

Supper though, completely exceeded my expectations. Soup, lasagne  chocolate mousse and cheese in the company of a lovely family from Boise, Idaho who are about to embark on the Via Francigena. Tomorrow is another day. The first service of the day (Matins) is due to start at 5.25am. I’m not 100% sure I’ll make it up for that one but for now I am living high on the hog in the Abbey of Saint-Thierry and enjoying my taste of the monastic life!

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