The journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step.
When I originally planned the ‘Raise the Roof’ charity walk from Winterbourne Stoke to Rome, I’d hoped to complete the walk in one go, starting in early June and finishing in late September. Covid put paid to those plans. Olivia suggested an alternative strategy. Why not divide the walk into two chunks – finishing this year in Geneva and next year in Rome? It seemed like an excellent compromise solution. I started my walk in Winterbourne Stoke in late August and planned to finish in Lausanne on the 15th October, flying home from Geneva the following day.
By and large I have stuck to the original schedule fairly well. There have been a few more rest days ( 2 in Arras, 1 in Reims, 1 in Chalons-en-Champagne, 1 in Langres and 1 in Besançon) than originally planned, but that has given me more time to enjoy some of the places I have passed through and spend more time with my old friend Claude. As Olivia wisely remarked at the beginning of the walk – “it isn’t a race!”
The only real changes to my original itinerary was the decision to take the longer route between Chalons-en-Champagne and Brienne-le-Chateau rather than the direct route that Sigeric would have taken on the Roman road via Coole and Donnement. When you also add in the odd wrong turning ( notably the epic 55km day to Bar-sur-Aube) and by the time I reached Lausanne today, I had walked 1,438 km vs the 1,236 km on my original schedule.
I am planning to finish this year’s walk on Sunday in Martigny. That is another 106 km from Lausanne. Snow means that I won’t be able to make it up to the top of the Grand Saint Bernard Pass this year. On the other hand, there are excellent transport links from Martigny to Geneva.
It’s quite a sobering thought to think that in 4 days time this year’s walk will be over. By then I will have walked 1,544 km from Winterbourne Stoke or 965 miles in old money! In the process I’ve also lost about 8kg!
As I set out this morning from Francine’s apartment in Lussery-villars I reflected on what the pilgrimage has meant for me so far, the highs and the lows and what I’m looking forward to next year when I hopefully complete the walk to Rome with Olivia.
In a way this year’s pilgrimage has been like a piece of music: The quiet monotony of walking alone for 7-8 hours a day is initially hard to deal with. At the beginning of the journey, interior shouting torments the modern pilgrim, who is generally unaccustomed to being understimulated. A thousand thoughts about life’s exigencies bite at the ankles; one is tempted to stop at every roadside café offering Wi-Fi to check in on the outside world. But by about day three, these torments begin to subside as the walk begins to slow the mind to the speed of the body at a pace that is natural and unforced. The walk becomes a long piece of music—andante, of course—that neither lags nor hurries.
If one surrenders to the music, any pilgrimage is a form of extended walking meditation, a practice in many religious traditions. “Each mindful breath, each mindful step, reminds us that we are alive on this beautiful planet,” the Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote of walking meditation. “We don’t need anything else. It is wonderful enough just to be alive, to breathe in, and to make one step.” In his book Three Mile an Hour God, the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama mixes Hanh’s Buddhist interpretation with his Christian faith, writing that the speed at which humans walk “is the speed the love of God walks.”
If I’m being brutally honest, there haven’t been any Damascene moments on the Road to Damascus or Rome over the last 8 weeks. There was one time when I did just think that I might be on for a ‘Road to Emmaus’ moment, but it turned out to be a bearded jogger on the outskirts of Dampierre sur Salon.
When I started off on my walk to Rome, I wasn’t expecting miracles. A few years ago I read a book by John Cornwell entitled ‘Powers of Darkness Powers of Light’. Cornwell, a former trainee Catholic priest and journalist, embarked on a journey into a world of apparitions, prophecies, miracles of healing, levitation, holy relics, weeping statues, stigmata and demonic possession. He followed a trail through Yugoslavia, Ireland, Spain, the USA, Canada, Italy and Britain, in search of proof of divine or diabolical intervention.. His conclusion was that there was little if any scientific evidence for any of the ‘miracles’ or ‘diabolic interventions’ that he investigated. Yet he ended his book on a curiously upbeat note, writing:
Many people have turned away from religion – even with a sense of hatred, rejecting all its idiosyncratic externals – to embrace scepticism, agnosticism, even militant atheism, are perhaps as much in the desert, in the ‘dark night of the soul’, as any contemplative. What we are fleeing, perhaps, is not God at all, but the false or inadequate representations of him which hinder any possibility of ever making progress in coming to recognize him or reach out for him. What we are rejecting, even hating, is not God, but the ‘trash and tinsel’ that passes for him. And thus it is that ‘Hatred of God may bring the Soul to God’.
In a way I feel similarly to John Cornwell. What has made my walk so much more enjoyable and uplifting than I had originally anticipated, are all those entirely unpredictable moments that no guidebook can predict or inform its reader about. They are purely personal. For me the bulk of those moments have involved meeting other pilgrims on the road to Rome as well as the pilgrim hosts who have put themselves out to make me feel welcome in their homes after a long day on the road.
It has been a strangely humbling experience. Like Brownian motion, unexpected encounters have been curiously uplifting, confirming the essential goodness in so many individuals I have encountered on the road to Rome. In every sense of word, they have been ‘Good Samaritans’ and it is they, as much as anything or anyone else, who have ‘made’ the walk what it has been.
Today’s 28km walk from Lussery-villars to Lausanne was pretty straightforward. Francine, my host the previous night, had to leave at 7am for a full day of meetings in Lausanne. So her neighbour from across the corridoor, Nicole, kindly prepared me some breakfast.
It turned out that it was the day for the department’s pipes to be cleaned. Sillery-villars ( like Winterbourne Stoke) lies on a heavy chalk deposit, making chalk cleaning a regular requirement. Nicole showed me the cumulative impact of chalk on the department’s pipes – it was shocking to put it mildly!
I tried out Nicole’s home made quince jam for breakfast. It was delicious.
Whenever Olivia has prepared quince, it has been in the shape of membrillo, which is a Spanish way of preparing quinces and is delicious with manchego cheese. Nicole’s method of quince preparation was slightly different – the quinces were rolled into thin layers, heavily coated in sugar and then cooked in the oven. They looked smoked salmon slices but tasted like an exquisite sugary dessert that you might enjoy at Christmas.
Much of the day’s walk to Lausanne was spent hugging the banks of the Venoge river.
The Venoge is the longest river in the Vaud region of Switzerland. It flows all of 44 km from the foothills of the Jura mountains into Lake Geneva. That makes Vaud residents very proud, so much so that a local poet called Jean Villard Gilles wrote an epic poem in 1954 entitled ‘La Venoge’. In all honesty it’s difficult to put the Venoge on a pedestal similar to the world’s great rivers like the Amazon, the Nile and the Indus. Nevertheless, Gilles gives it a good shot:
It likes dawdling,
getting bigger, then charging off
like a wonky clock.
Sometimes it’s a bit like
the Colorado –
only smaller of course.
I made it to the shores of Lake Geneva at 1.12pm. It seemed like a significant moment, nearly 1,500 km from Winterbourne Stoke. Easy Jet flies from Geneva to London in a little under two hours, but it had taken me the best part of two months of blood, sweat and toil!
Of course the whole purpose of the walk was to raise money to help restore the leaking roof at St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke. So far we’ve raised around £5,300. Hopefully with a grant from the Wiltshire Historic Churches Trust and a grant to recover the VAT on the roof repairs, we should be in a good position to get cracking on fixing the hole in the roof next year!
If you’d like to support the ‘Raise the Roof Appeal’ you can still do so by clicking on the link to my JustGiving Page. All donations are massively appreciated and make all the toil and effort of the last 2 months worthwhile!