Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.
Hamlet Act 1 Scene 3 – William Shakespeare
Somebody on social media asked me on Sunday if I planned to make it up for Matins at 5.25am on Monday.
I diplomatically didn’t reply. As it transpired I didn’t – but the reason had less to do with my indolence and more to do with the fact that in the Abbey of Saint-Thierry (as in the rest of France) Monday mornings are a half day off. There is no Matins service on a Monday.
Having finished and posted the previous day’s blog post as it was nearing midnight, it was with some mild trepidation that I set the alarm for 5am the next day.
A little over five hours later, guided by moonlight, I was sitting in the chapel waiting for the nuns to appear for Matins. Five minutes before the service was due to begin, a solitary nun appeared, turned on the lights, slipped the order of service into my hands and led me away to another room in the Abbey where the service was taking place.
I had been hoping to slip into a pew at the back of the chapel and make myself as inconspicuous as possible. Unfortunately this wasn’t an option. Six nuns trooped in and took their seats on one side of the room. I attempted to sit on one side of them but it was indicated that I should sit in full view opposite the nuns beside the lectern.
I wasn’t entirely sure how long the service would last (Compline on Sunday had continued for 25 minutes) but it seemed a sensible strategy to turn off my phone to ensure that the solemnity of the service wasn’t interrupted by a cold call from a call centre on the other side of the world!
As the service commenced, I was struck by the tranquillity and beauty of the occasion. The psalms were sung in harmony in a quiet understated way which added to the solemnity of the service. I struggled at times to follow exactly where we were in the service – my ability to read the words on the service sheet by surreptitiously sliding my glasses down my nose was hampered by the fact that I was wearing a face mask which rendered this manoeuvre impossible. Clearly my every movement was being acutely observed by the nuns, as on a couple of occasions during the service one of the nuns came over and indicated where we had reached in the service on my service sheet! I was only thankful that I was holding the service sheet the right way up!
Eventually, after nearly an hour, the service drew to a close. The nuns trooped out in silence and I made my way back through the darkness to the Abbey for breakfast. It had been a strangely moving occasion which had brought home the tranquillity of the Abbey as a refuge from the cares and stresses of modern life. I was glad that I had made it up before the crack of dawn and savoured the experience of attending Matins.
I must admit that I’ve not always had the easiest of experiences with religion. My earliest memories of church services were of being hauled along to attend Sunday services at St Mabyn in Cornwall where my grandmother lived on the edge of Bodmin Moor. It was there that my parents were married in 1958 and where my father grew up, bird watching and fishing on Bodmin Moor, collecting cowrie shells in Daymer Bay.
My grandmother was a fearsome Scot with a strong Calvinistic streak in her and proud that she could trace her family roots back to King James VI ( of Scotland) and I of England!. She brooked no nonsense from truculent 5 year olds such as myself. Any suggestion that we might skip Sunday worship and instead go to the beach at Rock, were swiftly booted into touch. In winter the church at St Mabyn was cold and damp, the pews felt terribly hard, the service was largely incomprehensible to me as well as being irredeemably long – it would normally last for well over an hour!
Thus visits to see my grandmother in Cornwall, which could have been idyllic, proved to be trips which filled me with anxiety and trepidation rather than enthusiastic anticipation. It is fair to say that news from my parents’ of impending visits to ‘Granny Dutton’ in Cornwall were never greeted on my part with unalloyed glee!
I can still remember one ill- fated trip which took place at the end of one particularly torpid summer. After yet another interminably long church service, we decamped to my grandmother’s house for Sunday lunch. I remember being served a particularly indigestible cut of meat and a large portion of runner beans from her garden which had ‘gone over’ and tasted like the strings of a violin. For me, this was the proverbial ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’. I refused to eat my grandmother’s grisly runner beans, a move which was greeted with consternation by ‘Granny Dutton’ ( I still can’t remember ever hearing my parents calling her anything else!).
“Spare the rod and spoil the child” exclaimed my grandmother. “That child (me) will not leave the table until he has eaten up all his beans”.
With that she theatrically swept out of the room with my parents in tow.
I remember sitting alone in the dining room of her house for the next few hours, resolutely determined not to eat a further mouthful of the foul indigestible beans. The ticking of the grandfather click in the hall seemed interminable. Eventually, at around tea time, my parents caved in, took pity on me and ended my ordeal. But for many years thereafter I had a strong aversion to runner beans and religion!
Having said goodbye to fellow pilgrims (Patrick from Suffolk and Marie-Paul from France via Vietnam), I embarked on the walk into Reims. The 10km walk into the centre of town took almost 2 hours and felt a bit like ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’. The previous day I had covered the same distance by bus and tram in a little over 20 minutes! But I was determined not to skip walking any section of the VF however unremarkable or tedious the suburban scenery might be. Beware the ‘primrose path of dalliance’!
As I left Saint-Thierry and made my way through the drab suburbs of Reims I was buzzing. How much of this was due to my experiences in the Abbey over the previous 36 hours and how much due to the 4 bowls of strong coffee I’d consumed for breakfast was unclear! The sensation was not dissimilar to the way I used to feel before exams at WinColl having taken a quantity of ProPlus concentrated caffeine tablets to energise me!
As I walked, the beginnings of an idea began to germinate in my mind. Wouldn’t it be great if I could somehow convert my blog into a book about my walk to Rome, get it published and allocate all the royalties to St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke.
They say everybody has a book in them! Maybe it is a bit of a pipe dream, but nevertheless worth a shot. If so, I can think of no better an environment to write that book than in a monastery like Saint-Thierry. After all, wasn’t that what one of our greatest travel writers did – Patrick Leigh- Fermor?
As I walked through Saint-Thierry towards Merfy I realised that the champagne harvest was in full swing. I stopped to talk with one of the grape pickers called Benjamin. He told me he was from northern France and that he worked as a carpenter for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He was currently helping restore the Thiépval War Memorial. I mentioned that my great uncle was commemorated there and complemented him on his work. All the Commonwealth cemeteries I have visited have been immaculately presented and it’s been a real privilege to set foot in them.
Apart from a brief walk through the centre of Reims which enabled me to visit a Post Office and send some surplus maps and guide books back home, the bulk of the day was spent foot slogging along a canal! To be honest it wasn’t hugely exciting but I did see (in no particular order) an eagle eyed heron eying up its prey, a lot of artistic graffiti beneath bridges, an interminable number of concrete factories, a dovecote and ( somewhat incongruously) what I took to be a water polo net!
Apart from that I passed the Basilica in the centre of Reims where Clovis was converted to Christianity in 496 AD – I knew my History Degree from Oxford would come in handy one day!
Thankfully the interminable stretch of canal walking came to an end shortly after 2pm and the countryside transitioned once again to vineyards thereafter. The champagne signs left me in no doubt that I was moving in august circles!
I eventually made it to Trépail at 6.45pm. It had been a long day and at times it had been tempting to skip the suburbs of Reims and take a bus to Trépail. But that would have been cheating. One of the essences of pilgrimage in my eyes is learning how to take the rough with the smooth. I am glad I avoided the ‘primrose path of dalliance’ today and instead took the proverbial ‘ steep and thorny way’ to Trépail.
Tantae molis erat, romanam condere gentem!