My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky. So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man; So be it when I grow old, Or let me die! The Child is father of the Man; And I could wish my days to be Bound each to each by natural piety.
William Wordsworth – My Heart Leaps Up
The Pré en Bulles B&B was by far and away the classiest place I have stayed at in France. With the whole area in the middle of the grape harvest and overrun with itinerant grape pickers, I was lucky to find anywhere in the area to stay the night.
Trépail is a sleepy village in the heart of champagne country that I suspect only comes alive during the grape harvest. There are around 160 small scale farmers in Trépail who have around 250 hectares under cultivation. They mainly grow Chardonnay grapes and supply the big Champagne houses like Moet and Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Mumm.
Sylvie Gerard, the owner of the Pré en Bulles told me that this year’s harvest has been ‘complicated’ by frost, Covid (difficulties getting vaccinated migrant workers) and disease (mildew and botritis) which has adversely impacted the harvest as well as her business. Brexit has been a big headache (“cauchemar”) for her – British tourists have all but disappeared this year. “Le monde est malade” said Sylvie sadly.
As I left Trépail en route for the little hamlet of Billy-le-Grand a white van drew up alongside me and the young driver inside asked if I was a pilgrim and where I was heading. When I told him that I’d walked from Wiltshire and was en route to Rome, he told me he was delivering food to the workers picking grapes and asked me if I’d like to take something with me for lunch!
As he opened up his van and poured me a coffee, we got chatting. Originally from Châlons en Champagne Sebastian was now based in Reims with his wife and children. He told me that his dream was to embark on a pilgrimage like me. As we chatted, I realised how privileged I was to have the time and the opportunity to embark on a journey that most people could only dream of.
The hamlet of Billy-le-Grand sounded as though it could have been an important person in French history, rather like Alfred the Great. Was this where the owner of the house of Pol Roger, Hubert de Billy originally hailed from I wondered. Maybe if he’d been christened William, he would be known as Billy de Billy!
I have to confess that I did get slightly lost after passing through Billy-le-Grand. Maybe I got distracted by the thought of the possibility of being invited to stay at Hubert de Billy’s chateau in Epernay. Anyway, the sight of a six lane motorway appearing in front of me with no obvious way of crossing it, alerted me to the fact that I might have gone seriously off piste – and so it proved. In fact I was walking in completely the wrong direction!
Eventually I found my bearings and made my way back onto the VF where it rejoined the canal which I had walked so many miles along yesterday. I have to confess that I’m not a great fan of canal walking. It tends to be pretty monotonous with precious few distractions. For the next 4 hours I pounded the tarmac besides the canal and headed for Châlons en Champagne. I’d be lying if I pretended that it was a thrill a minute!
A notice board at Condé sur Marne (which stands at the junction of 2 canals) attempted to extol the attractions of ‘canal life’. Such is the magnetic pull of France’s inland waterways, as many as 300 tourists a year have visited Condé sur Marne since 1995, the notice board proudly proclaimed.
This was a tad bizarre, I thought to myself as I ambled along the canal. I had yet to see a single boat cruising on the canal. There were strollers and bicyclists aplenty on the towpath as well as a smattering of course fishermen. But as for canal boats or pleasure cruisers, not so much as a sniff of one.
No sooner had this thought passed through my mind, than what should appear around a bend in the canal? Yes, you guessed it – a pleasure boat! What was even more surprising was the name which adorned the prow – ‘Wanderlust’. It was almost like yet another message from the ‘Big Man On High’.
At some point during the afternoon I saw what looked like a trout swimming in the canal. I thought canals were the preserve of fish like chubb and perch rather than trout. Maybe French canals are different from their British counterparts in this regard!
The sight of a trout swimming in the murky waters of the canal, immediately brought my father to mind. It is fair to say that I had a pretty uneasy relationship with my father growing up. However, one of the things we did enjoy together was trout fishing.
My father has grown up on Bodmin Moor in the 1920s fishing with wet flies on the little rivers that tumbled off the moor like the ‘Allen’ and the ‘DeLank’. He’d honed his piscatorial skills on the ‘Itchen’ when he attended WinColl and he’d then been lucky enough to be given plum postings with the Foreign Office to countries which were blessed with excellent fishing. My father had fished for salmon and trout from the foothills of the Himalayas in Kashmir, toAustralia,Canada, Ceylon Sweden and Ireland (where he boasted that he could leave his desk and be on a prime salmon beat within an hour!)
It was in Ceylon that I first went fishing. Indeed my second earliest memory is of going out fishing with my father. But we weren’t fishing for trout, we were in search of bigger prey. To be precise – barracuda!
I can’t have been aged much more than 4 or 5 when I remember my father chartering a small boat from Trincomalee in the north west of Ceylon. It wasn’t a very large boat, but it did have a small cabin and room for a couple of rods. I remember the fear inside me as we headed out past unexploded Japanese mines on the beach ( a relic of World War 2) and out into the Indian Ocean. I wasn’t completely convinced that I was in safe hands even after my father had successfully hooked and landed a large number of barracuda. As the wind got up and a growing sea swell sent waves crashing over the prow of the small boat, my father refused to head back to shore despite my implorations. We had to catch more fish come what may. That was my father’s overriding priority rather than my concerns. I don’t think I ever truly forgave him for that.
But my earliest childhood memory had nothing to do with fish, it had to do with a Kabaragoya, or rather three of them!
A Kabaragoya or Asian water monitor is a fearsome thing, particularly if you are a small 4 year old boy, it is early in the morning and you have just seen three of them in the hallway of your house at the bottom of the stairs!
I remember being utterly petrified at the thought that they might decide to come up the stairs to my bedroom at any moment. I rushed into my nanny’s room to wake her up and get her to raise the alarm. Initially she was somewhat incredulous of my rantings but eventually I managed to drag her out of bed and haul her to the bannisters. She soon got the message and rushed off to raise the alarm with the rest of the servants and deal with the intruders before they created havoc ( they have a fearsome tail with which they are known to have killed small dogs and possibly children!).
Eventually the three Kabaragoyas were evicted, but not before they had wrecked considerable damage. They had initially been chased into the pantry area where they had managed to destroy a large portion of the glass and china that my parents used for official receptions including the Queen’s Annual Birthday Ball!
At around 4pm I made it to Châlons en Champagne and sought out my lodgings for the night at Le Pavot Bleu with Mme Lesoeur and her husband. They were sitting out in the garden with a friend when I arrived. They quickly made me welcome and then enthused about the many attractions on offer in the city known by the locals as ‘La Venise pétillante’ due to its plethora of shimmering canals.
My Belgian friend Claude, who had made the booking with Mme Leseour at Le Pavot Bleu, had implied that my French was virtually non existent. So Mme Lesoeur and her husband expressed some surprise when I proceeded to explain in French who I was and what I was doing. I even managed to explain in French the difference between ‘ un blogger’ and ‘un blagueur’ – a distinction which had them in stitches!
As I lay in bed this evening I thought back to the sudden unexpected appearance of ‘The Wanderlust’ and the trout on the canal during the afternoon which had set off a train of thought which had eventuslly led to barracuda and kabaragoyas in Ceylon. Was I suffering from a mild case of sun stroke or was there some subliminal connection between them all?
Maybe those seminal childhood experiences had in some strange way sparked a sense of curiosity and wanderlust in me, which I am still experiencing to this day on my pilgrimage to Rome.