What is love? ’tis not hereafter; Present mirth hath present laughter; What’s to come is till unsure: In delay there lies no plenty; Then come kiss me, sweet-and-twenty! Youth’s a stuff will not endure
William Shakespeare – Twelfth Night
In May this year, Claudine Thorelle, my host at the gite ‘La Charmotte’ in Gy, had a close brush with death.
After a frenetic period in her life when she had just completed the renovation of some of the buildings on her family’s old dairy farm and constructed a new gite d’Etape for visitors to stay in, one day this April, Claudine woke up feeling weak and tired.
Within days she was taken to the local hospital in Gray and diagnosed with Covid. But the doctors at the hospital didn’t believe her condition was serious, so within days she was discharged. However, a few days later she woke up feeling short of breath. Luckily one of her daughters who lives near Toulon, had unexpectedly turned up at her house for a surprise retirement party for Claudine and was thus able to rush her to hospital. Claudine was immediately put on oxygen as her breathing continued to deteriorate. For a while it was touch and go whether Claudine would make it through. But make it through she did.
Thankfully Claudine is now fully recovered from Covid with no long lasting after effects. She has just retired after a career working in the Tourist Office in Grey and lives on the old family farm with her 95 year old mother, welcoming pilgrims like myself. But her close brush with death has taught Claudine to seize the day because you never know what is around the corner.
Claudine told me this story shortly after welcoming me to ‘La Charmotte’ yesterday afternoon. It had been a long 40km walk from Dampierre-sur-Salon and I was grateful to put my feet up in a chair in her front garden and listen to Claudine’s story.
Claudine’s great grandfather,Jean-Baptiste Thorelle and her grandfather Eugene, bought the ‘La Charmotte’ dairy farm in the 1930s. Originally cheese and dairy grocers from Neuilly-Plaisance in Paris, they were attracted by the quality of the lush pastures at ‘La Charmotte’ and were convinced they would be ideal for cheese making.
And so it proved. The cheeses that they produced on the dairy farm at ‘La Charmotte’ ( which means a basket for picking cherries) won many prizes across the region.
Perhaps the most famous of the cheeses they produced was a creamy camembert called ‘Le Charmeur’, named after Claudine’s great grandfather.
The cheese was produced at ‘La Charmotte’ and then transported by train to Paris where it was sold to the top restaurants on the city during and after WW2.
Since the dairy farm closed in the 1980s, Claudine has been welcoming guests to ‘La Charmotte’. In 2017 Claudine converted some of the old farm buildings into 2 luxury guest houses which as well as being tastefully designed include mementos of the farm’s rich history.
Sadly none of the cows remain, but Claudine still has quite a menagerie (2 cats,a dog, sheep, geese and hens) as well as a lovely garden and arboretum. Nestled on the edge of an industrial estate outside Gy, La?Charmotte has the feel of an oasis about it.
Over supper with Claudine’s mother and her boyfriend ‘Charlie’, we chatted about Claudine’s ambitious plans to create a museum at ‘La Charmotte’, showcasing the history of the farm.
Claudine’s mother, Francine, enjoys having pilgrims to stay apparently, as suppers become more extensive. So it proved last night. We began with soup, moved on to salmon and herring. Then came a prawn paella, followed by cheese ( including of course regional Comté).
Arguably the pièce de resistance, was saved for last – semolina pudding with a large dollop of mulberry jam! Like the Madeleine’s in Proust’s ‘A la Recherche du temps perdu’, the semolina pudding transported me back 50 years to my first days at prep school in Northamptonshire. Thankfully Claudine’s semolina pudding was infinitely less lumpy and glutinous than the stodgy stuff I remember forcing down the hatch 50 years ago!
Leaving Gy on the road back towards Bucey-lès-Gy, I saw some people harvesting grapes. I stopped for a chat with a chap who was loading grapes onto a truck. His name was Charles. I asked him how the harvest was going. Not so well came the reply. The combination of botrytis, mildew and the return of “the birds” meant that yields had been poor. With this he scooped out a bunch of grapes from his trailer and placed them in my hands.
Most of the morning’s walk was through yet more woodland. I didn’t get lost but the terrain was frankly uninspiring. The highlight was a solitary wayside cross in the midst of the woods.
The sheer monotony of walking through endless miles of woodland is the ideal environment to set your mind off wandering. In my case, my thoughts were cast back 50 years ago, when I was packed off to prep school aged 7.
I can still remember the day as if it was yesterday. My parents had told me they were taking me to visit a distant aunt who lived in a large house in Northamptonshire. This seemed plausible, as my father had innumerable maiden aunts dotted around the country.
Shortly after arriving at a large imposing half timbered manor house and being introduced to a kindly looking lady called Molly (it later transpired she was our maths mistress!), my parents surreptitiously disappeared and I was led away to a corridor and asked to sit down on a ‘tuck box’ with my name inscribed in black letters on it. Along the corridor wall there were 15 other tuck boxes on which were sat 15 boys who were crying their eyes out. Soon I was doing the same after being informed that my parents had left and I wouldn’t be seeing them again for 6 weeks!
On arrival at my prep school we had been welcomed by the headmaster ( who remembered teaching my father Greek and Latin in the 1930s!) and then placed in dormitories with 6 other new entrants and a slightly older boy called a ‘dorm cap’. My ‘dorm cap’ was a boy called Timothy Batstone. He was the bane of both my and every other boy’s life who slept in his dorm for their first year at prep school.
Things at my prep school went from bad to worse on my 8th birthday in November, some weeks after my arrival in early September . For my birthday my mother had sent me a present in the post. It was an ‘Action Man’ – something that was popular in the early 1970s!
As I began to unwrap the parcel from my mother, I was barged to one side by Batstone who grabbed the parcel, ripped it open and smashed it to smithereens against the wall. He then proceeded to try and garrot me by hanging me from a cross beam by my dressing gown cord! I somehow managed to prevent myself being strangled but was left with a large blood weal on my neck, which for some reason went unnoticed by the school staff for the next 8 weeks. It wasn’t until I went home for Christmas that my mother discovered it and wrote a furious letter to the headmaster. He responded by writing a letter to all boys’ parents requesting that in future they sew their boy’s dressing gown cords into their dressing gowns so they couldn’t be used for strangulation in the future!
By the standards of the time, I guess my prep school wasn’t unusual. One boy in my dormitory was beaten with a belt on a nightly basis by the dorm cap for our entire first year at the school until his injuries were discovered by a matron while he was changing for swimming during the summer term. Another boy in my year was hauled up several flights of stairs by his hair by a peculiarly sadistic French master after fluffing a vocab test.
Strangely enough I can still remember entire pages of the vocab book into which we had to memorize French verbs like ‘balayer’ ( to sweep) ‘balbutier’ ( to stammer) and ‘bavarder’ ( to chatter)! Maybe it was the fear of God that Mr Jones, the French master, instilled in me@
I remember another boy in my year being forced to stand in front of the class on tiptoe for the entire lesson with his nose on the blackboard for having committed some minor transgression. I often wonder how emotionally damaged many of these boys were by their experiences and how they fared later in life.
Shortly before midday the woods cleared and I entered upland pastures that were redolent of the Alps. As church bells struck midday in the distance I heard cow bells jangling away in unison over the valley.
I still couldn’t get over the taste of semolina pudding out of her month. The taste of semolina pudding got me thinking about an episode which occurred to me just over 50 years ago.
Approaching Cussey-sur-l’Ognon, I spied a couple of backpack laden pilgrims heading in the same direction. It was the French pilgrims, Étienne and Brigitte, whom I had met almost 24 hours earlier. We briefly exchanged pleasantries before I motored on towards Besançon.
As I entered the small hamlet of Aucherons, I lost my bearings for a moment. Recalibratkng my route, I saw that the path skirted a football pitch before heading south towards Miserey Salines. I couldn’t help noticing the figure of a half naked man sunning himself on a bench by the side of the football pitch.
As I passed the bench, he motioned to me. “Are you a pilgrim?” he enquired. I replied that I was walking to Rome to raise funds to repair the church of my village church in Wiltshire.
Donning his T shirt, he rose to his feet and offered to accompany on some of my way to Besançon.
We got chatting. His name was Mario and he was living locally with his daughter May. Originally from Argentina, he had spent many years travelling and living overseas including the US, Germany, Spain and the UK (Reading!). He has travelled all over the world by bike and his next big project was to bike around South Korea on the country’s national bike trails. I mentioned that I had lived and worked in South Korea for over 15 years and told him that it was a great country to travel in.
I finally reached the centre of Besançon at around 4.30pm. The final hour’s walking had been a bit of a slog, but mercifully I had no blisters to worry about and my lodgings for the night at the Diocesanal Centre in Besançon had already been booked for me by Claude.
It had been another long and rewarding day on the road, I thought to myself as I settled down for the evening. The combination of nearly 8 hours walking and the reflections of my time at prep school had left me feeling physically and emotionally exhausted. Dwelling on the past is all fine and dandy, I thought to myself, but what is done is done. Time to move on and seize the moment. None of us know what is around the corner, so like Claudine at ‘La Charmotte’ maybe the best strategy in life is ‘Carpe Diem’ and ‘live and let live’!