Sweet are the uses of adversity which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
As You Like It – William Shakespeare
It isn’t every day that you have breakfast in a water mill dating back to Roman times! I couldn’t help staring at the giant kernstone and the elaborate system of gears and pulleys across the room as I ate my croissant and fig jam from Régis and Catherine Jacobé’s garden.
The propriétaire, Regis Jacobé explained that it had taken 4 people to operate the kernstone which was used to produce flour for the community for almost 2,000 years. It was quite a feat of engineering!
The water mill at Le Moulin du Ruet helps explain the opulence of the church at Saint Amand sur Fion. The church was built in the 12th and the 13th centuries on the back of the wealth generated by the income from two thirds of the tithe from four mills (including Le Moulin du Ruet), a farm, a press and an oven which had originally been granted to the canons of St Stephen’s church in Châlons by a papal bull from Pope Paschal II in 1107 at the Council of Troyes.
Wandering around the church, it didn’t take long to realise that this was no ordinary parish church!
The church includes a nave of three bays built between 1160 and 1170 with a central aisle and two side aisles. The stylistic unity of its architecture and suggest that the transept and apse were built quickly, between 1250 and 1260 , under the direction of a great architect.
This architecture is similar to Châlons cathedral and the churches of the royal domain in the Île-de-France.
The network of two lancets surmounted by a quatrefoil appear in churches in the Île-de-France and Champagne around the year 1230.
The pilgrim connection to Saint-Amand-sur-Fion dates back to Amandus ( c. 584 – 679). Commonly called Saint Amand he was bishop of Tongeren-Maastricht and one of the great early christian missionaries in Flanders.
Born into a noble family in Poitou in 584 AD, at the twenty Amandus decided to become a monk and went off to live in a cell for the next 15 years eating and drinking nothing but bread and water. During the early 7th century Amandus went on a pilgrimage to Rome before returning and embarking on an evangelical career in the north of France and Slovakia which included bringing a hanged criminal back to life.
Despite all the trials and tribulations of his life, he lived to a ripe old age, dying near Tournai aged 90 – which could attest to the long term health benefits of living off bread and water in a cell for 15 years!
It had been a good decision to change my original plans and heed Mme Lesoeur’s advice to visit Saint-Amand-sur-Fion with its wealth of history and wildlife. I saw another red squirrel in the large oak tree in Regis Jacobé’s garden the previous day which brings my red squirrel(écureil rouge) sightings to two!
The morning was spent walking with Baptiste and his friends. It was nice to have the company of other pilgrims although at times I felt I was intruding on Baptiste’s weekend with his friends.
When we reached Vitry-le-Francois, I deemed it diplomatic to make my own way for the rest of the day. I needed to reach Saint-Remy-en-Bouzement by nightfall and still had nowhere to spend the night.
Repeated calls to the only accommodation in town by my old friend Claude had been met with a voice mail response. Once again I was indebted to Claude for going the ‘extra mile’ to ensure I had somewhere to stay the night. That is what good friends are about – you can rely on them in times of trouble!
I didn’t meet any other walkers for the rest of the day. At times I began to question the wisdom of following Mme Lesoeur’s advice and adding 47 km to my itinerary by avoiding the high level route to Brienne le Chateau. In many ways the paths looked pretty similar!
Much of the day had been spent walking across pretty flat terrain, but during mid afternoon I passed a sign marked ‘ Mont Moret- historic monument’. I began to ascend the path towards the summit.
If you are British you are probably familiar with the Battle of Britain, the 6 week period in 1940 when Britain was arguably saved from Nazi invasion and occupation. If you are French, then arguably the Battle of the Marne and the engagement at Mont Moret fills a similar role in the national psyche!
The Battle of the Marne in 1914 was one of the turning points in French history. As the French and British forces were left reeling by the invading German forces, an heroic last ditch defensive campaign was waged to prevent the Germans from advancing and occupying Paris. The battle hinged on a few key moments including the ferrying of French reservists to the front by a cavalcade of Parisian taxis!
From the 6-11 September 1914, one of the critical engagements of WW1 took place on Mont Moret. At 153m high, Mount Moret was a strategically key location which controlled access to the town of Vitry-le-Francais. Captured and recaptured many times between 6-11 September 1914, over 20,000 shells rained down on the summit during the battle which also saw the first incidence of trench warfare during WWI. Eventually the repeated German attacks on Mount Moret were repelled and the German advance was repelled. Some 20,000 French troops lost their lives but Paris was ultimately saved from occupation and the German forces were pushed back to the Western Front which formed the attritional battlefield between the Allied and German forces for the next 4 years.
Coming down from Mont Moret into the little village of Blaise-sous-Arzillieres, I couldn’t help but notice a wondrous array of pumpkins stacked outside a house on the approach to the village. As I paused for a moment to take a photo, a lady who was clearly the owner, offered to fill my water bottle with cold water. We got chatting. It transpired that pilgrims perennially pass their house including a Taiwanese couple who had brought a posy of lily of the valley flowers. It is traditional in these parts that if you find lily of the valley flowers growing wild on 1 May, you will receive good luck!
The owners of the pumpkins who were called Marie-Jo and Francis, asked where I was headed. I replied, St Remy en Bouzement. “That is the village with the longest place name in France” they piped up with a twinkle in their eyes.
The final couple of hours walking to Saint Remy en Bouzement were a bit of a slog. I tried ringing the accommodation in the village, but all I got was a voice mail response. It looked like I’d be wild camping for the evening. At least the tent would come in handy!
When I did eventually reach Saint Remy I wasn’t disappointed. Not only did it have ample places to camp, it also had a shop, a bakery and a street sign that did indeed suggest a place in the Guinness French book of records for the village with the longest name!
Armed with a baguette, some cheese and a bottle of wine, I headed back to some promising looking fields on the edge of town to pitch my tent and settle down for the night. As the first rain drops began to fall, I remembered the wise words of my neighbour in Wiltshire who had given me some good advice about walking the Via Francigena. ” Don’t worry too much about the obstacles you will encounter on your journey” he said. ” These things happen from time to time. The main thing to remember is always to take the rough with the smooth. Pilgrims always find a way to overcome difficulties.”