In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Kubla Khan
There are no two ways about it, today was a tough day! My departure from the Smoking Wild Boar Gite outside Ornans was delayed by an hour by the need to recharge my phone as the log cabin where I was staying didn’t run to electricity/phone charge points!
Over breakfast Laurent commented that few, if any, pilgrims he had hosted had tried to walk from Ornans to Pontarlier in a day. On the other hand this was precisely the walk Alianna had yesterday proposed to complete in a day. If she could do it with an outsized 20kg backpack, then surely I should be up for it!
I hope I run into Laurent and Karina again. They were fantastic company and had a great sense of humour. They both seemed to have discovered the secret of eternal youth! They can’t have been much older than me, yet they were planning their winter backpacking adventures with the youthful enthusiasm of love crossed teenagers!
The picture postcard village of Lods provided an ideal backdrop for a photo opportunity when I arrived there at around 11am. When I arrived, tourists were already gathered on the bridge making the most of the unseasonably warm autumnal weather.
It’s not difficult to see why this part of France should be a Mecca for hill walking enthusiasts. The area has all the walking opportunities of the Swiss Alps at a fraction of the cost!
When I reached Mouthier-Haute-Pierre it was almost midday.
As I descended from the heights of Mouthier-Haute-Pierre through the narrow village streets, I overheard a distinctly Scottish brogue emanating from three men standing in front of a campervan that was parked in the middle of the street.
“Where are you headed?” one of them piped up, in response to my enquiry as to whether they were Brits. ” Pontarlier” I replied. “Och, you want to be heading back up yon hill from wherest y’ouse come” came the cheery rejoinder of the smallest of the trio, pointing towards the steep path which I had just descended. “Trust me pal”, he added in a rasping Glaswegian accent, ” I know what I am talking about as I’ve been coming here for the last 30 years!”
Trusting in the power of technology (my Via Francigena App suggested I should continue descending into the centre of the village rather than doing a U turn and retracing my steps) and the possibility that the village might harbour a provisions store which could furnish me with a spot of lunch, I blithely ignored the good man’s advice and headed on down the street in search of sustenance! For once, my senses proved me right and I was rewarded with a cheese tart and a bar of chocolate from the village stores.
Soon after leaving Mouthier-Haute-Pierre, the path took a more savage turn, snaking up the sides of the river Loue towards its source.
The next hour or so was spent gingerly making my way up the sides of a valley towards the source of the River Loue. Judging by the number of ramblers and joggers I passed coming in the opposite direction, the path is something of a rite of passage for walkers in these parts. I was just keen to emerge at the top of the ravine in one piece and avoid slipping from the narrow path into the swirling river below!
Emerging from the ravine, I made my way through lush alpine uplands to the Chapel of the Angels of Notre Dame. Once again I was awe struck by the lofty isolation of the chapel perched on an prominent outcrop with panoramic views of the landscape all around.
The climb from the village of Ouhans was brutal. A road sign indicated an incline of 13% but it felt more like 25% as I monitored up the best part of a Munro in something less than 30 minutes! In some strange masochistic way, it was curiously satisfying to reach the summit without drawing sweat. Maybe that is the kick that mountaineers get from conquering summits, I thought to myself as I stood alone on the summit ridge.
It will come as no surprise to seasoned ramblers and keen mountaineers, that we have just celebrated the centenary of George Leigh Mallory’s attempt to be the first man to scale Everest. He finished his expedition from Mumbai to the North Col of Mount Everest – closer to the mountain’s summit than any man had ever gone before on the 23rd September 1921, and less than three years later embarked on another expedition, last being seen alive by his fellow expedition members as he neared the ‘steps’ on the final ascent to the summit of Everest on the 9th June 1924.
For almost a century, debate has raged as to whether George Herbert Leigh-Mallory was the first man to ascend Everest almost 30 years before the New Zealander, Edmund Hillary, reached the summit on the 29th May 1953.
Like many schoolboys, George Herbert Leigh Mallory was a hero of mine. The fact that as a boy he had attended Winchester College, undoubtedly played a part. But there was another more unlikely aspect to my respect for the man.
On his final attempt to be the first man to conquer Everest he was accompanied by Andrew Irvine. It so happened that my second French master at prep school was a chain smoking Old Wykehamist called FG Irvine known to all and sundry as ‘Figgy Irvine’. He would typically read us a passage from his favourite work of French literature ( Les Carnets du Major Thompson!) for dictation and then sink behind a copy of the Racing Post in a fug of cigarette smoke for the rest of the lesson while we struggled to make head or tail of Major Thompson’s travails in France.
But Figgy Irvine had a particular eccentricity – whenever he spoke French he did so with an extreme nervous twitch. This, it was firmly believed by all the schoolboys, was due to the trauma he had suffered as a child when being informed that his older brother, Andrew, had perished on the final ascent of Everest in June 1924.
Several years later I decided to do some research into Figgy Irvine. It transpired that he had never attended Winchester, his surname had been Irving rather than Irvine, and he had had absolutely no connection with anything related to Everest mountaineering! My admiration for George Herbert Leigh-Mallory remains undiminished, but my chain smoking French master’s reputation has never recovered!
The afternoon’s walk passed pleasantly enough. I was now in the Jura mountains and there was a distinctly Alpine feel in the air with the lush pastures, jangling cow bells and tree clad hills that looked as though they could have featured in ‘The Sound of Music!”
To be honest, the last part of the day’s walk was a bit of an anti climax. The final hour and a half to Pontarlier was spent trudging through drab industrial suburbs. I experienced more of the same as I tracked down the inappropriately named ‘Hotel F1’. There was nothing remotely F1 about the hotel which made the Premiere Inn look like the Ritz. My room didn’t even extend to an electricity charge plug, meaning I’ve had to write this blogpost sitting in the corridoor outside the communal loo and shower facilities!
The Hotel F1 didn’t stretch to providing evening meals, so I headed back into town in search of something to eat. Sadly the supermarkets and restaurants were all closed on a Sunday evening, but I did eventually come across a mobile pizza van that sold an eclectic mix of pizzas.
It had been a long and arduous day I mused to myself in my room to the strains of French rap music being played at high volume by my neighbour in the adjacent room. But a pilgrim’s journey was never supposed to be a teddy bear’s picnic and I could thank my lucky stars that after 50 days on the road, I was fed, dry and relatively healthy. Compared to George Herbert Leigh-Mallory as he set off on his quest to be the first man to conquer Everest on the 9th June 1924, I had it easy!