Suivez vos rêves, ils connaissent le chemin.
The day began in Stygian gloom shortly after 5am. It was an early start – I needed to be back home in Wiltshire and beat the Bank Holiday traffic by 6pm.
As I was cooking breakfast of spicy cheese ramyon, a shadowy figure emerged from the shower block behind the Exmoor Forest Inn and enquired if I was doing The Two Moors Way. She and her group of 3 friends had spent the last 9 days walking the route and they, like me, were hoping to reach Lynmouth later in the day. She was the first Two Moors walker I had encountered over the previous four days!
The final stretch of my walk from Simonsbath to Lynmouth took me up over the moor and ended with a series of adrenalin pumping switch back ascents and descents on a narrow path along the side of a steep gorge towards Lynmouth. Not surprisingly I didn’t see another soul between the time I left Simonsbath shortly after 6am and arriving in Lynmouth four hours later.
I came across a deserted shepherd’s dwelling at Hoar Oak, where a magnificent oak tree, planted in 1916, marks the Devon/Somerset border. It would have made an ideal spot to wild camp I thought to myself.
After an hour’s yomping over the moor towards the little hamlet of Cheriton, Lynmouth and the sea finally came into view.
With five minutes to spare, I made it on to the Barnstaple bus that would take me on the Tarka line to Exeter and then on to Plymouth (£11.50 one way!) and thence to Carswell Farm by taxi to retrieve my car and hot foot it back to Wiltshire.
It seemed hard to believe that I’d covered 120 miles from Carswell Farm on the south coast of Devon to Lynmouth on the Bristol Channel in a little over 4 days.
The amazing thing was that at the end of my walk from Carswell Farm to Lynmouth, pushing 60, I felt stronger and fitter than I had as a 22 year old, having walked the Hadrian’s Wall path (84 miles) in 3 days over the August Bank Holiday weekend in 1986! My boots though (the same ones I’d worn on the Via Francigena last year) had fared less well!
With my coast to coast walk across Devon at an end, it was time to take a breather and pause for reflection on the Tarka Line train from Barnstaple to Exeter.
In a strange way, walking across Devon felt like meeting up with an old friend. Much of my life in the UK has been entwined with Devon – from boyhood holidays, to close friendships, to living in the county. It was all comfortingly familiar and enjoyable – like wearing a well worn pair of bedroom slippers. But for me, it lacked the intensity of walking the Via Francigena where every day was an intoxicating new experience that stimulated the senses and enriched the soul.
Inspired as a 13 year old by reading Laurie Lee’s “As I walked One Midsummer Morning”, I set off a couple of years later on my first long distance walk along Offa’s Dyke. I made a number of elementary schoolboy errors on the walk including failing to break in a pair of rather basic leather boots that I purchased from Milletts in Winchester. The Vango tent I brought with me, weighed a ton, even more when waterlogged and my fluorescent orange rucksack was totally porous. I compounded those errors by carrying a large number of Fray Bentos tins of steak and kidney pudding, which also weighed a ton and would probably have tasted delicious, had I remembered to also pack a tin opener! I do remember the weather being atrocious, struggling over the Black Mountains in a howling gale, soaked to the bone and wondering whether I had bitten off more than I could chew! I did make it half way to Prestatyn before my severely blistered feet forced me to abandon the walk and return home by train with my tail between my legs having failed to complete the walk!
Wild camping as a skinflint teenager is all well and good, but when you’ve got enough money in the bank to afford a bit of luxury, what’s the point of embarking on a long distance walk (or any other adventure for that matter), which takes you out of your comfort zone and involves a fair bit of discomfort? Unless you have a deeply ingrained streak of masochism in you, wouldn’t it be a lot easier not to leave the comforts of home?
The same question occurred to me many years ago when I went along to a talk at Dartington Hall in Devon by the Antarctic explorer, Pen Hadow. Readers of “The Times” with long memories, may remember the epic accounts he filed en route to the North Pole in 2003. His talk was absolutely fascinating and included his extraordinary expedition planning which ensured that his pack and sledge was light enough to enable him to consume/expend sufficient calories to reach the North Pole. I came away from the talk, awed and inspired by his planning skills, his dedication to the task in hand and his force of character. But more than all this, I was struck by one anecdote – growing up on Dartmoor, his nanny had been determined to toughen up the young Pen Hadow by encouraging him to roll naked in the moorland snowdrifts. She also happened to have been a close acquaintance of Captain Robert Falcon Scott RN (aka Scott of the Antarctic!) Motto of the tale? Adventure is bred into you from a young age and, however much you might try and ‘civilise yourself’ with the comforts of modern day living, if it’s in your blood, there is no escape!
As Albert Einstein once said: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Over the years my curiosity has taken me on a good few adventures – travelling to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, attempting to climb Aconcagua (22,837 ft) in Argentina or taimen fishing in Outer Mongolia. My walk across Devon on the Two Moors Way hasn’t quite been in that league but it has been hugely enjoyable nevertheless! A fantastic opportunity to catch up with old friends, revisit old haunts and explore new areas in Devon that I was completely unfamiliar with.
Two months into my pilgrimage along the Via Francigena last year, I chanced across a sign on the side of the path between Orbe and Cossonay in Switzerland just outside an isolated refuge for youth groups and religious gatherings. “Follow your dreams, they know the path” it read. For some reason, it struck a cord. It could have been a leitmotif for my pilgrimage on the Via Francigena in particular or my life in general! Over the next few months, like an earworm, I couldn’t keep that sign out of my head. Did it have a hidden significance I often wondered to myself?
So why the sudden decision to quit these shores and move across the English Channel to France? There are a plethora of reasons, but one of them is the nagging feeling that since moving back after 15 years in Asia to live here in 2002, something has gone terribly wrong with the UK.
I look back to 2012 and the London Olympics as a high point when I felt really proud to be British. After 2012, we had the Scottish referendum, Brexit and “Partygate”. The last ten years back in the UK has been like watching something come apart in front of your eyes: the NHS at breaking point, the legal, and transport systems in varying stages of melt down, crumbling Victorian infrastructure, an increasing disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. And now, of course, to cap it all, we have the cost of living crisis, with 65% of the world’s 6th richest nation facing fuel poverty this winter and having to choose between eating or heating. As Shakespeare once famously said, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, or in this case, the UK!
Over the past few months an idea began to slowly germinate in my mind – why not up sticks and move to France? On the surface it was a fairly revolutionary notion with a host of reasons not to believe in the notion of l’entente cordiale: “beastly Macron”, the vagaries of French bureaucracy, a punitive tax regime, the lack of curry restaurants,the absence of British humour and the annoying superciliance of some Parisians, to name but a few.
On the other hand, South West France (Gascony) does have its attractions – food, wine, a slower pace of life, beaches, ski slopes and its less populated than Wiltshire – to name but a few. Pre-Brexit ( in the 12th century), Gascony was of course part of the Angevin Empire so some of it’s charm may be a curious Anglo-French mélange.
An added attraction of moving across the Channel, is that France has got more than its fair share of long distance footpaths or grand randonées as they are known. After I have completed my pilgrimage along the Via Francigena to Rome next year, I can’t wait to get my teeth into some of the classic GR routes in France, including the GR65 (from Le Puy-en-Vezelay to St Jean-Pied-de-Port), the GR3 ( through the Loire Valley) , the GR10 (which runs the length of the Pyrenees) and the GR20 (which runs the length of Corsica)
As I was weighing up the pros and cons of moving to France, I remembered a remark made to me by a pilgrim host on the Via Francigena called Pierre-Yves Lamarlier on his farm at Béthonsart, near Arras. Over supper our conversation had turned with a certain inevitability to the pros and cons of “Le Brexit”. Despite my best efforts at trying to explain why the UK had narrowly voted in favour of leaving the EU, Pierre-Yves was completely baffled by it all and went on to extol the virtues of the EU. “Of course the trouble with you in England” he admonished me wagging his finger vigorously at the end of the meal, “is that you never had a Revolution!” It was a remark to which I had no immediate riposte.
Landownership of England in 2022
Pierre-Yves emphasized the astonishingly high level (30%) of land in England that was still owned by members of the aristocracy who comprise a tiny portion of the UK’s population. “C’est incroyable!” he exclaimed and then went on to point out that this percentage of land ownership was roughly the same (30-35%) that was owned by the First Estate (the Church and clergy 5-10%)) and the Second Estate (aristocracy 25%) at the time of the French Revolution in 1789 before “heads began to roll” ….. It was food for thought.
So as I return home on the train from Barnstaple to move in a few weeks time to south west France, it’s time to say au revoir for now until I resume my pilgrimage along the Via Francigena to Rome next year.
The last few days have been fantastic and my coast to coast walk across Devon walk along the Two Moors Way, will live long in my memory. The future though is all about dreams, because ultimately they will show you the path of life to follow.