I will weep when you are weeping;
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow,
till we’ve seen this journey through.
Hymn – The Servant Song (Brother, Let Me Be Your Servant)
I must confess that I’ve become slightly addicted to blogging. In fact one of the most enjoyable aspects of the walk was writing the blog at the end of the day, knowing that many were sharing my experiences vicariously.
I always aimed to write a daily blog of around 1,500 words and I’d religiously adhere to this discipline, however tired I was. I spent a lot of each day planning out the framework of the blog. It was strange how I never really struggled to find something to write about.
So first things, first. It’s great to be back in the comfort of my own home with Olivia and the dogs and to be greeted by her today at Heathrow with a broad smile on her face.. It was lovely to be able to share photos of my life with fellow pilgrims and host families and thus put Winterbourne Stoke on the map!
Sharing photos of our garden with the stripy main lawn and colourful herbaceous borders (www.theoldrectoryws.co.uk) was also fun. Hopefully some of the people I met on my walk will drop in and visit us over the coming years.
So what did I miss most while I was away? The answer may surprise you. Apart from seeing Olivia and the dogs, the thing I craved most after a long day’s walk was a bath. Showers really didn’t really ‘cut the mustard’ for me, even though things improved after the first day’s icy dousing at the campsite at Pitton!
I tried to travel with as little weight as possible but I never checked out exactly how much I was carrying. I thought it might be in the region of 8kg with my two 1 litre SIGG waterbottles filled up. When I got back home I discovered it was considerably more than this and that I’d been carrying around 12 kg in my backpack! Most of this comprised a digital camera which I rarely used, hard copy maps which I rarely used and a notebook and sanitary/first aid items which I hardly ever used! All told I could have reduced the weight I carried by 2 kg. No wonder I ended up losing almost 10kg of weight during the last 8 weeks!
Of the 58 days, I only spent 5 nights under canvas so was it worth taking a tent and sleeping mat? The answer is yes as it gave me the flexibility and peace of mind to know that, come what may, I could always find somewhere to sleep even if no accommodation was available! But I don’t plan to take the tent on next year’s walk to Rome as it only sleeps one person and is a tight squeeze at the best of times! Olivia will be relieved!
I stayed 5 nights in Abbeys or monasteries at Aylesford in Kent, Wisques, Saint Thierry outside Reims and Saint Maurice. These were some of the most enjoyable stays and enabled me to connect with the journey to Rome that Sigeric undertook in 990 AD which formed the basis for the Via Francigena.
Staying in church or communal hostels was also great fun. I normally had these facilities entirely to myself or shared with one other pilgrim.This was in stark contrast to the crowded pilgrim hostels where I stayed when I walked the Camino to Santiago de Compostella some years ago. I packed some earplugs but never found the need to use them!
The lightweight kit I bought at the recommendation of my neighbour in Shrewton, Brian Franklin, all worked like a charm. My Meindl boots did start to show signs of wear and tear early on my walk, but they fitted like a pair of bedroom slippers, they never gave me as much as a single blister and they lasted until Bourg-St-Pierre.
Of course I was incredibly lucky with the weather. I only had half a day’s heavy rain and a few sporadic showers during the 58 days of my walk. Somebody up there was smiling down on me!
Some of the most enjoyable experiences of the walk was spending time with host families who put me up in their homes en route. It was fantastic to feel welcomed into pilgrim friendly accommodation at the end of a long day’s walk. I received so many acts of kindness from these hosts that it was a truly humbling experience and the happy memories will stay with me for a long time!
From a Gypsy caravan at Mormant-Leffonds, to a family dairy farm at Gy to the wonderful ‘Ger in the Garden’ at Shepherdswell to the wild boar heads in the kitchen at Laon, to the Scandinavian cabin in Ornans- there were so many memorable evenings spent on convivial company!
I walked 1,544 km from St Peter’s Church Winterbourne Stoke to St Peter’s Church in Bourg-St-Pierre over the course of 58 days. In total I took 6 rest days in Arras (2), Reims, Châlons-en-Champagne, Langres and Besançon. I averaged 30 km a day with the shortest day being 15 km (Shepherdswell to Dover) and the longest day, when I went seriously off piste, being 55km (Brienne le Chateau to Bar sur Aube).
Taking 6 rest days proved a great decision. It enabled me to spend time with my old friend Claude and make personal pilgrimage to see the spot where my great uncle Charles Dutton was killed on the 7th July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. He was only 26. My grandfather also fought on the Western front during the Great War. He survived but his younger brother didn’t. During my walk I thought a lot about my great uncle and wondered how his life might have played out had he survived the conflict. In some way I made the pilgrimage to honour his memory and to keep his memory alive.
Some of the most moving experiences of my walk took place when I passed the countless graveyards of British soldiers who lost their lives on the Western Front during the Great War.
As I walked between Arras and Péronne I passed signposts for the Via Sacra or Western Front Way, a 725 km long distance footpath that will eventually run from the Channel coast to the Swiss border.
When completed, the Via Sacra will serve as a route for remembrance and provide a permanent lasting memorial to the loss of life in the First World War and all conflicts since.
The path was inspired by an Old Wykehamist killed at the battle of Loos, Lt Douglas Gillespie who wanted to build a “long avenue between the lines from the Vosges to the sea….I would make a fine broad road in the ‘No Mans Land’ between the lines, with paths for pilgrims on foot and plant trees for shade” he envisioned this as a “a via sacra” and hoped it would become “the most beautiful road in all the world”. Gilliespie wrote of his vision in a letter home in 1915 which was rediscovered by historians historians while researching a book on Public Schools and the Great War. It sounds like a fitting tribute to the thousands of young lives, like my great uncle’s, that were lost between 1914-18.
The walk more than exceeded my expectations although there were some surprises. Only by walking across France did I realise how large and under populated isolated rural communities are. I also hadn’t appreciated how much of France is covered with broad leaf forests!
Were there any ‘hairy’ moments? Not really. Somewhat ironically the ‘hairiest’ moment on the journey was saved for last! Just as my BA flight from Geneva was about to land on the tarmac at Heathrow, the pilot aborted the landing due to severe cross winds on the approach! We spent 20 minutes circling Heathrow before the pilot seemed it safe to land.
My walk is well on the way to achieving it’s primary purpose of raising enough money to repair the leaking roof at St Peter’s Church, Winterbourne Stoke. At time of writing, we have raised over £7,000. If you include a couple of grants that we are applying for, then we are well on the way to meeting our objective. So a massive thank you to everybody who donated to the ‘Raise the Roof Appeal’. It is hugely appreciated.
Over the last 8 weeks, my walk has given me the time and space to mull over and process the troubled relationship I had with my father. It’s been a hugely cathartic experience. I realise now that a lot of my father’s issues stemmed from the loss of his father at such an early age. Yet in some ways he clung on to the memory of his father who was a solicitor in Bolton where I discovered he was the solicitor for Bolton Wanderers Football Club. My father was born in Bolton and although he left there to live in Cornwall after my grandfather died in 1924, he retained a life long love of Lancashire in general and Bolton Wanderers Football Club and Lancashire Cricket Club in particular.
I always remember my father drinking his coffee from a celadon bowl every morning. For some reason after my father died, I kept my father’s coffee bowl. For many years it languished unloved and covered in paint in the garage.
As I walked through France, I sometimes found myself drinking my coffee in the morning from a bowl in much the same way as my father had. When I returned home today, I went into the garage, unearthed the unloved ‘paint bowl’, gave it a good wash and poured myself a coffee. It seemed like an appropriate way to end my walk – drinking coffee from my father’s bowl. The walk has finally enabled me to make peace with my father and move on to a better place.
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: