How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.
A.E.Housman – How clear, how lovely bright.
When I got up this morning I was still undecided on how far I would walk. Ideally I’d finish up at Bourg-Saint-Pierre, 20km away. Everything hinged on the availability and timing of return buses to Orsieres and connecting trains back to Geneva.
Pascal, the owner of the Gite des 3 collines, thought I’d make it to Bourg-St-Pierre without too many problems. I asked him about crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass – he didn’t think snow was a problem.
I reached Orsieres by 10am and made a bee line for the tourist office. The walk from Sembrancher had been pretty straightforward compared to the hazardous stretch the previous day from Martigny.
If I’m totally honest I’d been a bit disappointed not to be able to end this year’s walk at the Grand Saint Bernard Abbey. But as I was walking towards Orsieres the thought occurred to me that it was perhaps appropriate that the walk should finish up in Bourg-St-Pierre, just 12 km short of the Grand Saint Bernard Pass. Bourg St Pierre is after all the “town of St Peter”. What could be more appropriate as a finishing point. What is more, the keys of St Peter’s feature prominently on the village’s coat of arms, mirroring the keys I had carried on my backpack all the way from St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke! A few minutes later I saw a red squirrel. It was surely a sign!
The lady in the tourist office in Orsieres had some good news for me. There was a regular daily bus service between Orsieres and Bourg-St-Pierre as as good train connections to Geneva where I was due to spend my last night with friends. The sign I had passed en route to the tourist office suggested it would take a little over 4 hours to reach Bourg-St-Pierre. I did a quick bit of mental arithmetic. With a fair wind in my sails ( and not too many wrong turnings!) I stood a good chance of making it to Bourg-St-Pierre and back to Geneva for supper. In a flash I decided to go for it. Bourg-St-Pierre would be my final destination for this year.
The walk up the valley to Bourg-St-Pierre was gruelling and unrelenting – uphill all the way. Despite having been on the road for over 2 months, I could hear my heart pounding as the ascent showed no signs of ending. Maybe I’m getting too old for this sort of caper I thought to myself, wondering whether I’d make it to Bourg-St-Pierre in time to catch the return bus to Orsieres.
It is a fair bet that Napoleon and his army trod this same path towards the Grand Saint Bernard Pass en route to crossing the Alps into Italy and defeating the Austrian army at the Battle of Marengo in May 1800.
Walking towards the Great Saint Bernard Pass over the past couple of days there were constant reminders of Napoleon’s epic crossing of the Alps. In Martigny I had stood outside the house where Napoleon had stayed before for embarking on his Alpine crossing in the footsteps of Hannibal.
I had walked past garages and shops adorned with murals of Napoleon’s famous journey up to the Grand Saint Bernard Pass.
I needn’t have worried about missing the bus at Bourg Saint Pierre. I arrived in the village a good 2 hours before it was due to depart down the valley again!
Bourg Saint Pierre has had a hospice for pilgrims since 820 AD which predates the Monastery of Grand Saint Bernard by nearly 300 years. The guides from the hospice who were entrusted with guiding pilgrims across the pass were called ‘marrons’ or ‘marronniers’.
I made my way to the Church of Saint Peter to give thanks for my own safe passage to Bourg Saint Pierre, a journey of nearly 1,550 km. There were so many times during my walk when I felt that there was a presence keeping me safe from harm.
Back in Geneva at the home of Archie and Louise, it was difficult to believe that today was the final day of my walk to Rome. Eight weeks ago I was just setting off from Winterbourne Stoke with Olivia after the Sunday service.
I had walked over 1,550 km to be within spitting distance of the Great Saint Bernard Pass and the Italian border. I’d walked halfway across England and the whole way across France and Switzerland. But now the journey was over it felt infinitely good to enjoy a hot bath and a convivial evening in the company of Archie, Louisa and their slumbering one month old son, Jack.
Before I started walking, I was worried about two things. Firstly that my body wouldn’t be up to the rigours of walking for two months and that I would be forced to abandon the walk at some stage, returning to Winterbourne Stoke with egg on my face and my tail firmly between my legs. My second concern was that I wouldn’t meet any other pilgrims on the walk and that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the isolation and sheer monotony of walking.
Thankfully both of those fears proved unfounded. I haven’t had any blisters or pains of any variety. It’s quite remarkable. A lot of that is attributable to my decision to carry as little weight as possible. I am indebted to my neighbour in Shrewton, Brian Franklin, for all the excellent advice he gave me about what kit to buy.
Isolation also hasn’t proved a problem. I’ve met other pilgrims on the road. Admittedly not hordes of them, but just enough for me to appreciate and value the interactions. I’ve met so many interesting people on the walk from all the hosts who generously accommodated and welcomed me into their homes as well as a host of chance meetings with complete strangers. During the walk I think I’ve changed – I’ve become more self confident and I’m more willing to strike up conversation with complete strangers than I was 8 weeks ago. I’m now happy to be the one who starts the conversation with strangers.
When I was in Beaune with my Belgian friend, I asked him whether I had changed much over the 30 yeard that he has known me. He replied “Not really, you have just become more confident”.
He may well be right. Growing up I never had much self confidence. My mother always used to refer to myself and my father as “a couple of no hopers”. I’m not sure whether she was joking or not, but for a long time I took those words to heart.
I set off walking in my teens to escape and avoid having to confront the emotional issues in my life. It was often lonely, but it was also therapeutic, enabling me to be at one with nature. I always returned from these walks feeling energised and refreshed.
Thankfully I’ve finally stopped trying to escape from reality. Walking is now a joyous ourney of discovery, of new placed but also of meeting new places. It’s the people that I have met during the last 8 weeks as much as the placed I have visited which has made the pilgrimage so special.
Believing in yourself is sometimes easier said than done. It helps if you’ve got somebody by your side who believes in you. In my case that person is Olivia. When I was at Oxford in the early 1980s she saw something in me that I didn’t recognise myself. A lot of my growth in self confidence is down to her belief in me. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without her love and support.
It just remains to say a few thank yous. To Olivia for encouraging me to take up the challenge of walking to Rome to help raise funds to repair the roof at St Peter’s as well as for holding the fort while I was away and providing me with constant love and encouragement during my walk.
To the fellow pilgrims I met on the road whose company I shared. To the wonderfully generous and kind hosts in whose houses I stayed. To Claude, my Belgian friend, for helping me book accommodation. To Harry Bucknall for providing the inspiration for the walk and for coming down to give a?talk about his adventures. To the Reverend Jonathan Plows for advertising my fund raising efforts and blog to everybody in the benefice. To all my blog readers. And last, but not least, to all those who have very generously donated to the ‘Raise the Roof Appeal’ via my JustGiving page. It has provided me with a constant morale boost and made the walk worthwhile.
In some ways it feels like only yesterday that ‘I walked out one midsummer morning’ from Winterbourne Stoke. In other ways it feels like a lifetime ago. The good news is that I’ll be starting to all over again in less than 10 months time…
If you’d like to make a donation to the ‘Raise the Roof Appeal’ to help renovate the roof at St Peter’s Church, Winterbourne Stoke, you can do so by following this link: