Day 7: Tatsfield to Wrotham (29 km) A “chance” encounter and other strange happenings….

Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God

The Baptist Herald and Friend of Africa – William Carey

I was sad to say good bye to Vince and Veronica Short. They were incredibly kind, highly entertaining and were also a mine of information about the history of Tatsfield.

As I left Tatsfield Church I noticed the inscription ‘Attempt Great Things for God’ carved into a wooden arch above the church lychgate which had been donated by a parishioner.

There were some fantastic views south from the Downs over Chevening House, which is used as a weekend retreat by the Foreign Secretary.

Chevening House

I must have been paying too much attention to the views and not enough to my location, when mid morning I got slightly lost and ended up on the perimeter fence of an MOD property!

MOD – keep out!

The last time I remember crawling under perimeter fencing was when, as an Oxford undergraduate whipper-in with the Christ Church and Farley Hill Beagles in the mid 1980s, our pack of hounds had pursued a hare onto the US Airbase at Upper Heyford. With the hounds threatening to run amok on the airfield, we had had little choice but to pursue them. Rather surprisingly there was a gap in the perimeter fencing through which we were able to gain access to the airfield.

As we were rounding up hounds, a number of startled US airforce personnel appeared and a rather frosty stand off occurred as we attempted to explain our presence, clad in green hunting jackets, white breeches, with hunting crops and 20 couple of beagles! Eventually tempers were calmed and we were escorted off the base in high dudgeon.

We subsequently learnt that the US Airforce guys were rather jumpy due to the imminent arrival of President Gorbachev for a top level summit with Margaret Thatcher!

RAF Upper Heyford

Having decided that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to try and get over the barbed wire MOD perimeter fence, I eventually came across an elderly local couple who directed me back on to the PW (Pikgrims’ Way) and I descended to the hamlet of Dunton Green. As I passed the Donnington Manor Hotel ( formerly a 15th century half timbered manor house), it was almost as though I had stepped back in time and been transported to Asia!

Donnington Manor Hotel

I reached Otford at lunch time, a small village with a lot of history! In 1016 it was the scene of a bloody battle between the Viking army of King Canute ( the chap who tried to turn back the sea) and the Saxon King Edmund Ironsides. The Viking army were roundly defeated and the Otford ran red with Viking blood.

The High Street was dominated by an Elizabethan house called ‘Pickmoss’ with a jet tied frontage, close studding and oriel windows that are typical of the period.

Pickmoss House

Otford also boasted a large tannery which operated for 200 years from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Dog poo, pigeon droppings, urine, oak bark and animal brains were all used to remove hair from the pig hides according to the informative notice board in the High St!

Local history!

Leaving Otford I came across an old stone mile post which indicated that it was 65 miles to Dover as the crow flies. A quick calculation suggested that by the end of the day I would have walked 129 miles from Winterbourne Stoke!

Mile post outside Otford

As I headed towards the small village of Kemsing, I had one of those strange serendipitous encounters that sometimes make me think are down to more than pure “chance”. For some unknown reason I’d impulsively stopped for lunch in a charity shop cafe at Otford. Had I not done so and earlier lost my bearings by the MOD perimeter fence, then the encounter on the hillside outside Kemsing would never have taken place.

As I descended the steep slope towards Kemsing, I sighted from afar an elderly couple slowly crossing a ploughed field far below me. As they neared me, for some unknown reason I decided to approach them and strike up conversation. I asked them if they were local. It transpired that they were. When I divulged that I was walking to Rome on a pilgrimage, their interest was clearly piqued.

The couple were called Michael and Jessica. Michael revealed that he was originally from Northumberland where his grandfather had been a vicar near Morpeth. Michael enquired whether I would be staying at the Friars ( aka the Carmelite Priory at Aylesford) The ecclesiastical connection had been established!

Aylesford Priory aka ‘The Friars”

We fell into conversation – I mentioned that I used to visit Northumberland with my father to fish for sea trout on the River Coquet at Rothbury, had been beagling in Northumberland on many occasions and once walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall in a long Bank holiday weekend.

As the conversation evolved it emerged that by an incredible coincidence I had been at school with one of their cousins!

Michael and Jessica

I reached Kemsing during mid afternoon. According to local legend, the knights who murdered Becket rode through the village on their way to Canterbury. The church is reputed to be haunted by a devout knight on armour who appears on 29 December ( the day Becket was murdered), and kneels to pray at the altar before vanishing for another year.

True or not, what is less debatable is the fact that the village was visited by pilgrims whose staves made indentations in the 13th century church door.

St Mary’s Kemsing

My destination for the evening was the picturesque village of Wrotham.

I took the liberty of looking around the 10th century church dedicated to St George, which was not only open but also had a pilgrim stamp available for use. Without any doubt, the interior of the church, the organ, pulpit, monumental grasses and vaulted ceiling were the most impressive I had encountered on the walk so far.

And so finally I made it to my accomodation for the night – the Bull Hotel, where an inn has been on the site since 1280 when the Old Palace next door was still used by Archbishops travelling to and from Canterbury. Indeed Becket us supposed to have stayed a night in the palace at Wrotham on his final return from London, less than a fortnight before his murder.

Day 8: Wrotham to Aylesford via Rochester (34 km) Walking on sunshine and diet coke

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

The Windhover – Gerard Manley Hopkins

What ended up as probably the most satisfying day of the walk so far, didn’t get off to a particularly promising start.

I had enjoyed a fitful night’s sleep the previous night, as the sound proofing in the rooms of the 14th century Bull Hotel left a lot to be desired. For much of the night there was a cacophony of noise from passing traffic on the road outside, creaking floor boards from the floor above, and discordant singing from the downstairs bar, where a female crooner was serenading a wedding group!

Having a shave and a shower also proved somewhat challenging. The shower had definitely seen better days and emitted a trickle of lukewarm water while the hand basin looked as though it had been designed for a doll’s house!

Basin in my room!

Breakfast was a rather trying experience. The morose looking lady who was taking orders, seemed completely distracted from the task at hand. I had to repeat my request for coffee and brown toast, not once, not twice, but three times! The lady, who was supposed to be serving me, spent the majority of time chatting away with a similarly doleful looking colleague, with both of them periodically gleefully announcing that a guest had already checked out and wouldn’t therefore be troubling them for breakfast. That is what you get nowadays for £115 a night in a UK hotel at the weekend!

The restaurant walls were covered with World War 2 memorabilia commemorating the Battle of Britain, which all looked slightly incongruous. I noticed on arrival that there was even an OS map at reception with the precise location of all the bombs and doodle bugs that had landed in the area during the War!

Having checked out of the Bull Hotel, I was heading up the hill in the direction of Trottiscliffe when I suddenly realised that something was missing – my staff! I sprinted back to the hotel to retrieve it. One upshot of this mishap was that I discovered that I can run for considerable distances carrying my rucksack. This could prove useful once I cross the Channel should I be accosted by savage dogs or disgruntled locals!

The morning passed uneventfully apart from a slightly disconcerting detour through a place called Vigo Village that suddenly appeared from nowhere and consisted of endless blocks of identical looking houses laid out in a grid like pattern. It felt like entering a maze! The one person I did encounter (a jogger wearing earphones) didn’t have a clue how to get out of the place and onto a road/footpath to my next destination, Halling.

Having turned to the GPS app on my phone as a last resort, I did eventually manage to navigate my way back onto the PW and find my way to Halling.

Whitehorse Wood

I met an old chap in a fleece in the convenience stores at Halling who claimed to have walked every major long distance path in the UK. Offa’s Dyke and the Cleveland Way were his favourites. I told him I was walking to Rome. ” I’d love to join you” he said, ” but I’m getting a bit too old for that sort of thing nowadays”.

The church of St John the Baptist in Halling was closed, despite it being Sunday. In contrast there was a steady stream of arrivals at the 5 Bells pub opposite for lunch.

As I sat on a bench outside the church eating my lunch, a battered Ford Focus sped past and a tattooed youth shouted out of the window at me “GET A LIFE!”

Crossing the Medway after lunch, I noticed a Samaritans sign on the bridge. ‘Talk to us, we’ll listen’ it said. I paused for a while and thought about the closed church at Halling.

Crossing the Medway

For hundreds of years there used to be a ferry which connected Halling to Wouldham on the opposite bank of the Medway, but it closed in 1963. Pilgrims would have crossed the Medway from Halling to Snodland. The last ferryman, who was called Mr Stephens, said he was glad to be made redundant after having worked 18 hour days for over 30 years!

The village of Wouldham on the banks of the Medway comprised a row of two up two down workers cottages.

Car in Wouldham High St – may struggle to pass its MOT!

The Peters portland cement works, which were the largest in the world in the early 20th century, supplied most of the work in the area.The company founder lived at nearby Wouldham Hall. At their peak in the early 20th century, Peters Cement employed over a 1,000 people and operated over 80 barges. The new housing development I passed enroute to Wouldham is called Peters Village.

Peter’s Cement

I popped in to the Church of All Saints, Wouldham where I got chatting to Martin, the clock winder, and Mike, the Rector.

All Saints Church, Wouldham

Martin offered to give me a tour of the clock. It was installed in 1899 to mark Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1897 and paid for by the Peters family. The Derbyshire firm which installed the clock, still exist and service the clock once a year.

Martin the clock winder and Mike the Rector

Having climbed up a narrow circular stone staircase, Mike showed me how the clock operated. It only loses 4 minutes a week, which is pretty impressive. There are also 6 bells in the belfry and an active team of bellringers.

The 1899 clock

Mike, the Rector, kindly gave me a tour of the church once he had stamped my pilgrim passport. The church was originally Saxon and dates back to 1058. Mike showed me the last surviving bit of the Saxon church – a teardrop window, one of only a few surviving in this country. He showed me the way to the path along the Medway to Rochester and bade me a safe journey.

En route to Rochester along the Medway

Rochester Castle boasts the tallest Norman keep in the country. Built in 1127, in 1215 the castle was seized by rebel baronsxand endured an epic siege by King John garrisoned by rebel barons, the castle endured an epic siege by King John.

Rochester Castle

Having first undermined the outer wall, John used the fat of 40 pigs to fire a mine under the keep, bringing its southern corner crashing down. Even then the defenders held on, until they were eventually starved out after resisting for two months.

As I passed the moat of Rochester castle on my way to the Cathedral, I noticed a brass plaque commemorating the last ‘ Justice Tree’ in the county – the ‘justice’ being meted out by the Court Leet – and consisting in the most serious cases of hanging on the gallows or Justice Tree ( Also known as the ‘Grief Tree’, the ‘Gallows Tree’, the ‘Justice Tree’ or simply ‘The Tree’.) On the 3rd February 1820 the last public hanging took place in Rochester – that of a busking bagpipe player Duncan Livingstone who murdered his 10yr old assistant. His body is interred under the castle walls.

Site of last Justice Tree in Kent

I managed to make it into Rochester Cathedral (founded in 604AD by St Augustine who reintroduced Christianity to these shores) by the skin of my teeth – they were closing to tourists for the 3.30pm choral evensong service.

I had a quick look around and left to find some replenishment and also look at the Gordon Hotel which I’d booked but then cancelled when the owner told me that they no longer did breakfast for guests. ( WHAT? NO BREAKFAST???) Clearly they aren’t targetting the ravenous pilgrim market.

Rochester almost seems like a giant Dickens theme park. In the high street I noticed a ‘Little Dorrit’ sweet shop, an ‘Oliver Twist’ bakery and a pub which claimed to be the last place that was mentioned in Edwin Drood.

I’d jettisoned my water in the morning in order to increase my speed and make it to Rochester and back to Aylesford in time for evening prayers at the Carmelite Priory at 6.30pm. With the mercury hitting 70 degrees, I was feeling pretty parched. Having necked a 2 litre bottle of diet coke I legged it back towards Aylesford along the banks of the Medway.

Fuelled by diet coke induced caffeine rush, I managed to make it back to Aylesford in record time, locate my quarters after flagging down a Carmelite monk called Father Jed. On arrival at the Priory I’d noticed a large crowd of Indians emerge from the chapel in a state of high animation. I asked Father Jed about them. ‘ They are on a youth pilgrimage from Gillingham”, he told me. “We get a lot of Indians coming to the Priory”, he added.

Aylesford Priory

Evensong was a simple affair. There were only 4 monks in attendance including Father Jed, clad in the brown hooded vestment of the Carmelite order of friars. The service was conducted in plain song and lasted just 20 minutes. Besides me there were only two other attendees. I could hear seagulls squawking in the distance as the monks melodiously intoned the Lord’s Prayer. It had been a long day, but a rewarding one, sparked in large part by the previous day’s chance encounter and the suggestion that I should spend a night at the ‘Friars’ with the Carmelite monks of Aylesford Priory.

The chapel

Day 9: Aylesford to Charing (33 km) A day when not a lot happened and I mused on the abstruse!

Who, or why, or which, or what, Is the Akond of SWAT?

The Akond of Swat – Edward Lear

I found myself reciting the first few verses of Edward Lear’s famous poem ‘The Akond of Swat’ as I woke up this morning and pondered the question, who are the Order of Carmelite Friars and why do they have a Priory in the middle of Kent?

Aylesford Priory

The Carmelites are one of the four great mendicant orders of the Roman Catholic church. Founded in the Crusader States near Mount Carmel in 1155, they first came to Aylesford in 1242. As with other mendicant orders like the Franciscans, their primary purpose is to care for the poor and downtrodden in society.

According to the info on their website: ‘

Prayer is at the core of the Carmelite spirit. To grow in friendship with God, to experience God’s love, to ponder the mystery and wonder of life, to search for meaning – all encompass the contemplative dimension of Carmelite life.

Adam Kossowski mosaics at Aylesford Priory

In the solitude of prayer, we experience the compassion of God which enables us to live in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. This experience makes ministry possible. It empowers us to “suffer with” and respond to those in deed. It also enables us to be patient with and forgiving towards each other.

The chapel at Aylesford Priory.

How Carmelites serve is not set in stone. As friars, we respond to the needs of the Church in a variety of ways. Today we can be found in parishes, schools, retreat houses, on campuses, in hospitals, in prisons, in both rural and urban settings.

What we do today, we may not have done in the past. The same holds true for the future. Depending on the need, Carmelites will respond – continually following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

As I was leaving the Priory I encountered a large gaggle of people parading a portrait of Jesus Christ and heading towards the main chapel. The Indians from Gillingham were not amongst them, but I did overhear some very animated Irish voices chatting away in the throng.

Procession at Aylesford Priory

And after that, well to be totally honest, nothing massively interesting happened during the day which was overcast with leaden skies and a constant threat of rain in the air.

Consequently there was a lot of time to ponder abstruse subjects such as the identity of the Akond of Swat!

I did pass quite a few oast houses during the day, which definitely reminded me that I was in Kent as did the familiar greeting I was given by a number of passers by – “youarightthen

Oast House near Aylesford.

But as for hop fields, much to my disappointment, there was neither sight nor sound of them. In contrast I saw a large number of vineyards during the day.

Vineyards near Harrietsham

For most of the day I stuck to the original path that the pilgrims would have taken on their way to Canterbury in the time of Chaucer.

The pub signs were a constant reminder that I was on the original pilgrim route. I passed the Black Horse Inn at Thurnham and dropped in to the Dirty Habit pub at Hollingbourne for a pint of diet Pepsi.

The Black Horse Inn Thurnham

The Dirty Habit pub was once called the Pilgrims Rest. The present name is derived from the clothing of monks who worked the monastic farmland and vineyards.

The pub was packed with people enjoying the Bank Holiday and there was barely standing room at the bar for me to drink my Pepsi!

The Dirty Habit pub at Hollingbourne

At Lenham, en route to Charing, I came across a large cross cut into the hillside which commemorates those from the village who died in World War 1 and 2.

I finally made it to Charing at around 4.30pm and nipped in to the church, which amazingly was open and had a pilgrim stamp for my passport. Charing was a day’s ride from Canterbury for pilgrims in the middle ages. The Bishop’s Palace in the village was one of Becket’s favourite stop overs en route to Canterbury. Charing was also a pilgrimage site in it’s own right – it displayed the block on which John the Baptist was beheaded. The relic was brought back from the Holy Land by Richard I after Becket’s murder. It survived the Reformation only to be lost in a fire in 1590!

St Peter and St Paul’s Church Charing.

For those of you who are wondering if there is any connection between the village of Charing and Charing Cross in London, the answer is yes. Both are derived from the old English word ‘cerring’ for a bend in the road or river.

My final destination was the Premiere Inn at Ashford North which involved a 30 minute walk along the busy A30. Never was a warm bath more welcome particularly as the room and facilities at the Aylesford Priory had been a bit disappointing. The communal loo didn’t flush properly, there was no hot water in the communal shower, a notice in my room advised that on no account should I drink the water from the tap and at breakfast my attempt to obtain a second sausage was rebuffed with the remark ‘ Those two sausages are reserved for two other guests.’

I think I will enjoy my supper at the Premiere Inn this evening!

Postscript – the Akond of Swat

Who, or why, or which, or what, Is the Akond of SWAT?
Is he tall or short, or dark or fair? or SQUAT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he sit on a stool or a sofa or a chair,

Is he wise or foolish, young or old? or HOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he drink his soup and his coffee cold,

Does he sing or whistle, jabber or talk,or TROT,
The Akond of Swat?

And when riding abroad does he gallop or walk

Does he wear a turban, a fez, or a hat? or COT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he sleep on a mattress, a bed, or a mat,

When he writes a copy in round-hand size,with a DOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he cross his T’s and finish his I’s

Can he write a letter concisely clear or BLOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Without a speck or a smudge or smear

Do his people like him extremely well? or PLOT,
At the Akond of Swat?

Or do they, whenever they can, rebel,

If he catches them then, either old or young,
or shot,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he have them chopped in pieces or hung,

Do his people prig in the lanes or park?
GAROTTE?
O the Akond of Swat!

Or even at times, when days are dark,

Does he study the wants of his own dominion?
a JOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Or doesn’t he care for public opinion

To amuse his mind do his people show him
or WHAT,
For the Akond of Swat?

Pictures, or any one’s last new poem,

At night if he suddenly screams and wakes,
or a LOT,
For the Akond of Swat?

Do they bring him only a few small cakes,

Does he live on turnips, tea, or tripe? or a DOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he like his shawl to be marked with a stripe,

Does he like to lie on his back in a boat SHALLOTT,
The Akond of Swat?

Like the lady who lived in that isle remote,

Is he quiet, or always making a fuss? or a SCOT,
The Akond of Swat?

Is his stewart a Swiss or a Swede or Russ,

Does like to sit by the calm blue wave? or a GROTT,
The Akond of Swat?Or to sleep and snore in a dark green cave,

Does he drink small beer from a silver jug? or a POT.
The Akond of Swat?

Or a bowl? or a glass? or a cup? or a mug?

Does he beat his wife with a gold-topped pipe, or ROT,
The Akond of Swat?

When she let the gooseberries grow too ripe,

Does he wear a white tie when he dines with friends,
or a KNOT,
The Akond of Swat?

And tie it neat in a bow with ends,

Does he like new cream, and hate mince-pies?
or NOT,
The Akond of Swat?

When he looks at the sun does he wink his eyes,

Does he teach his subjects to roast and bake?
in a YACHT,
The Akond of Swat?

Does he sail about on an inland lake

Some one, or nobody, knows I wot
Who or which or why or what

Is the Akond of Swat?

People often ask what I do when I am walking. Do I listen to music, sing songs, listen to books? The answer is none of these! I usually just think and observe and on long days ( like today) when not a lot is happening, I like to meditate and muse on life’s mysteries, like the Akond of Swat!

Funnily enough the Akond of Swat was in fact a real person – the ruler ( or Akond) of the Swat Valley ( in NW Pakistan, which I happened to travel through in 1990 while on an 8 week journey along the Silk Road from Agra and Rajasthan across the Kunjerab pass into Xingjiang Province and across central China to Beijing via ( amongst many other places) the Swat Valley!

Swat Valley Pakistan

Day 10: Charing to Canterbury (28 km) Canterbury Tales – Plantaganets, Argentine railways and Edith Cavell.

‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.’

Richard III Act 5 Scene IV – William Shakespeare

Today was an early start so that I could fit in an appointment in Chilham and make it to Canterbury in good time to look around the town and Cathedral.

I made my way back onto the PW via Westwell to Eastwell Park which stood at the end of an impressive tree lined avenue.

Eastwell Park

As I walked through the grounds I got chatting to Paul ( a groundsman) and ‘Creepy’ from the estate security team. The previous day a group of 80 pilgrims from Southwark who were on a pilgrimage to Canterbury over the Bank Holiday weekend, had been feted with tea and cakes. I had come a day too late they joked!

Paul and Creepy

I was more interested in locating the memorial to Richard Plantaganet in the graveyard of the ruins of St Mary’s Church. Creepy escorted me back down the drive and ushered me into the graveyard where I located the memorial to Richard Plantaganet. The inscription read:

Reputed to be the tomb of Richard Plantaganet December 1550.

Memorial to Richard Plantaganet

And therein lies a tale! Richard Plantaganet is reputed to have been the illegitimate son of King Richard III who lost his life at Bosworth Field in 1485 and has recently been discovered to have been buried beneath a car park on Leicester.

The tale is that Richard was brought up without knowing his parents but was boarded with a schoolmaster who taught him Latin, a sign of someone being educated according to his status.

One day he was taken to the battlefield at Bosworth where the king embraced him and told him he was his son.

After the king was killed in battle, his son fled and ended up at Eastwell, working as a gardener and bricklayer for Sir Thomas Moyle, the lord of the manor.

It is thought he lived an inconspicuous life because people claiming to be descendants of the royal family were executed during the reign of the Tudors. Parish records suggest Richard was 81 when he died in 1550 – an extraordinary age for somebody in the 16th century to live to!

As I walked through woodland towards Chilham, I mulled over all the fascinating places I had visited, the interesting people I had met, the happy unforeseen chance encounters that had occurred and the many miles I had walked since leaving Winterbourne Stoke with Olivia just 10 days ago.

By my rough reckoning, I’d averaged 20 miles a day. By historical standards, not too shabby – Roman legionaries would routinely march 15 miles a day, although they were also wearing heavy armour and sandals and walking on rough muddy roads. Hmm. Maybe my daily achievements weren’t so impressive after all.

And then of course there was King Harold’s army which, in the course of 10 days, marched 180 miles from Sussex to York, fought and defeated a Viking army at Stamford Bridge and then, with barely time to draw a breath, marched 180 miles back south in 4 days to fight the Norman army at Hastings. That equated to a staggering 35 miles a day and firmly put my own efforts in the shade!

As I neared Chilham I came across an interesting information board which commemorated the annual pilgrimages to Canterbury of walkers supporting The Connection Charity. Based in St Martin’s in London, the charity was established to help London’s homeless rebuild their lives. I was reminded of the fact that the charity is just around the corner from the memorial, in St Martins-in-the-Fields, to Edith Cavell who was shot by the Germans for spying in 1915. She happens to be Olivia’s ( nee Cavell-Northam) cousin!

Olivia and her father in front of the Edith Cavell memorial

My walk to Rome was inspired by Harry Bucknall’s travelogue ‘Like a Tramp, like a Pilgrim – on foot across Europe to Rome’. In the book, Harry recounts an amusing episode when he dropped in to Chilham Castle to stay with Theresa Wheeler, the owner. Sadly Theresa and Stuart died recently and Chilham Castle has been sold to a mystery buyer for £15m!

So dropping in to Chilham Castle wasn’t really an option but I did the next best thing – I dropped in to see the brother of a friend who lives in a lovely Queen Anne vicarage behind the Church.

The Old Vicarage Chilham

As I knocked on the door, I was greeted by a boisterous Vizla called ‘Chica’ followed by Anthony and his Dutch wife. ‘You’d better not leave your boots and hat by the door Jonathan’ I was advised. ‘ Chica’ will make off with them and bury them somewhere’. I followed their advice and carefully placed my kit behind the door to the cellar!

Anthony and his wife

Anthony and his wife kindly made me some coffee and offered to cook me a poached egg to ‘keep the wolf from the door’ and sustain me until I reached Canterbury.

Anthony had had a fascinating life. Born in Argentina, his family had been involved in the building and running of the Argentinian railway network at a time when there was an extensive British community in the Argentine.

As I sat eating my poached egg on toast, Anthony regaled me with amusing anecdotes of his childhood growing up in Argentina ( he narrowly avoided conscription into the Argentine army during the Falklands Conflict!) as well as giving me a fascinating overview of the founding of the Argentine Republic by Simon Bolivar and the exotically named Bernardo O’Higgins.

I mentioned that I had once travelled around Argentina and Chile during a trip which involved the attempted ascent of Mount Aconcagua in 1996 – the first of many interesting connections we shared!

Since retiring from a career as a barrister representing the Home Office, Anthony had turned his attention to theology and bee keeping, a hobby shared by my grandmother who kept bees on Bodmin Moor in the 1930s and learnt her craft from the legendary Brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey. ‘Ah yes, Brother Adam’, Anthony smiled and added mischievously ‘ Of course his bees were imported from Italy. My bees are quite different – many of them are the progeny of a large swarm which I rescued from the tower of the church here in Chilham. They are extremely productive – last year I harvested over 60 jars of honey from their hives!”.

Hop field near Chilham

On the final stretch to Canterbury I did finally spot a hop field. However, the majority of the landscape was dominated by acres and acres of apple orchards. Kent is still ‘The Garden of England’, although the apples and hops aren’t picked by students like me anymore! At Chartham Hatch there was a village of standing caravans for migrant seasonal workers from Eastern Europe. I only saw one chap chatting away on his phone. What impact Brexit has had on fruit picking operations in the area I was unable to ascertain, but it is unlikely to have been positive.

As I approached Canterbury I passed the iron age hill fort at Bigbury, the scene of Julius Caesar’s first major battle with the native British after his invasion in 55BC. This part of England has a lot of history attached to it – on Sunday I passed the spot where the Romans had crossed the river Medway during their successful invasion of Britain in 43 AD.

There was time to visit one final church before reaching Canterbury Cathedral – the Church of St Dunstan where the head of St Thomas More is buried and from whence King Henry II crawled on his knees in penance to Canterbury Cathedral to atone for the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170. All of this interesting information was imparted by the curate, Jenny Walpole, whom I encountered as I left St Dunstan’s. ‘Good luck with your walk to Rome’ she said as I headed off on the final few yards of my pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine.

Jenny Walpole – Curate of St Dunstan’s

And so I finally reached Canterbury Cathedral and made my way to the spot where Becket was savagely murdered by four knights who hacked his skull to smithereens as he emerged from Mass on the evening of 29 December 1170. It was strangely moving to stand in silent contemplation, commemorating the past and wondering how far I would get on my own pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome along the Via Francigena. It seemed like the end of the beginning and the beginning of another journey.

As the old Korean proverb goes, the journey of a thousand leagues, begins with a single step.

Day 11: Canterbury to Shepherdswell (20 km) Pinch, punch!

Journeys end in lovers meeting

Twelfth Night Act 2 Scene 3 – William Shakespeare

In some strange way, I feel that my journey to St Peter’s Rome will only really start in earnest, if and when I make it across the Channel to Calais. Until then, it is a bit of a teddy bear’s picnic. So I fully intend to enjoy my last couple of days on these shores and give my feet a bit of a holiday over the next couple of days!

One of the major worries over the last few weeks, has been whether I will be able to cross from Dover to Calais on the P&O Ferry. Foot passengers have not been allowed on Dover-Calais ferries for the last 18 months. Paradoxically, however, foot passengers with bikes are allowed on ferries. Don’t ask me the logic of this regulation or why foot passengers are still allowed on ferries from Newhaven to Dieppe.

So the challenge is on to locate and buy a serviceable and cheap (£10?) bike in Dover before Friday morning when I am hoping to make the crossing from Dover to Calais! As Brian Franklin, my pilgrim neighbour from Shrewton, shrewdly observed, ‘Pilgrims always find a way’.

I stayed last night in a youth hostel. Start as you mean to go on as I am planning to stay in a lot of pilgrim hostels between now and Rome. I suspect,however, that the Canterbury youth hostel is in a different league to anything I will stay in over the coming months! The place is immaculate and youth hostels are more like 3 star hotels nowadays than when I used to frequent them in various parts of the UK in the 70s and 80s!

The last time I remember staying in a British youth hostel was in the summer of 1985. I’d gone off backpacking and fishing in the Highlands and ended up in a youth hostel in Crianlarich near Fort William. It was the weekend of Live Aid and the entire youth hostel of 60 odd people were glued to the TV! Then the hostel manager poked his head round the door of the TV room and asked if there was somebody called Jonathan Dutton in the room as there was an urgent phone call! It was my parents on the line – they’d received a phone college from Oxford telling them that I had to be back in Oxford within 48 hours to attend a viva voce oral exam in front of 12 Oxford dons to determine my degree level. If I failed to turn up, I wouldn’t be awarded a degree!

I packed my rucksack and was out of the hostel within 15 minutes hoping that British rail weren’t on strike, that I could get back to Oxford in time and that in the 8 weeks that had elapsed since sitting my finals exams, I could still remember the intricacies and nachinations of 10th century Byzantine politics!

As I wandered through the centre of Canterbury I was struck by how depressed a d dystopian the whole place looked. Rough sleepers crowded the shop doorways and there were countless shops with closing down sales and vacant premises. The disappearance of European tourists and language students due to Covid appears to have had a devastating impact on the city.

Shops opposite the Cathedral

Fortified with a sausage bacon bap and coffee from Gregg’s, I visited St Augustine’s Abbey. Well it didn’t open until 10am, so I only got to view the ruins from the outside.

St Augustine’s Abbey

For many, St Augustine’s Abbey is the birthplace of English christianity. The Abbey was founded in 598AD by Augustine who had arrived in England at Pope Gregory I’s behest the previous year from Rome to convert the pagan Kentish king Ethelbert (whose wife Bertha was a Christian).

The newly founded Abbey provided a residence for Augustine and his fellow monks as well as becoming a burial place for abbots, archbishops, and kings of Kent. Of course there are those that believe that Glastonbury Abbey ( founded by Joseph of Arimathea in the first century AD, was the first Christian community on these islands, but that’s another story as they say!

As I passed the first VF signs on the path to Patrixbourne, I really felt that my walk had just begun. 1,800 km to Rome a sign informed me opposite St Martin’s church, the oldest church in the English speaking world!

Patrixbourne is on four pilgrim routes and is the first church pilgrims would have reached as they headed out of Canterbury on the VF, Pauline the churchwarden informed me shortly after I had bumped into her opening up the church with an enormous key! They get 2-3 pilgrims coming through each week which helped explain the array of pilgrim staves I noticed in the church doorway propped up against the wall.

Pauline the churchwarden of Patrixbourne church.

The highly ornate Norman church entrance is one of the finest in Kent, testimony to the wealth of the local Norman landowner who was called Patric and originally hailed from Lalande-Patry in the Calvados region of France.

The beautiful stained glass windows (15th and 16th century) were another feature of the church. Apparently it was the custom for the family of the bride to pay for their installation in the church when they got married.

At Shepherdswell I sat on the village green and ate my lunch in front of the church and pub ruminating on the charming plaque in the church entrance inscribed with the words “here may the weary find rest and the strong be renewed”. Words of encouragement for weary pilgrims on the first stage of the VF to Rome.

Plaque in the entrance to Shepherdswell church.

As I made my way towards my destination for the day (the home of churchwarden Mike Pascall and his wife Stella) I crossed the village playing field and saw what at first I thought was a small horse – it certainly moved like a horse, but closer inspection revealed that it was a dog, or to be more precise, a Borzoi. It’s not often that I bump into a Borzoi so I was intrigued, and so struck up conversation with its owner, Mike.

Mike informed me that he had not one but two Borzois! ‘Vsoshka’ which apparently means dragonfly in Russian and ‘Lenin’ who was asleep in the back of his car. Borzois are also known as Russian wolf hounds. I have never seen one in the flesh before although I vaguely remember one featuring in ‘Cousin Teresa’ a short story by HH Munro (aka ‘Saki’). According to Mike there are only two other Borzois that he is aware of in this part of Kent!

And so it was that I finally reached Mike and Stella’s house and was welcomed with a mug of coffee and a luxurious warm bubble bath. Heaven!

Mike is one of the churchwardens at Shepherdswell and has many strings to his bow.

Besides the church, he is a keen walker, enters vintage ploughing competitions, has done a lot of beating on neighbouring estates ( where he has met various members of the Royal Family including the Queen on a number of occasions!) and is a keen local historian, having lived in the area all his life. But most important string to his bow ( at least as far as I was concerned) is the fact that he used to be the harbour master at Dover, a post now held by his nephew. So if there is one person who could pull the right strings to get me onto the Dover to Calais as a foot passenger or ‘footy’, it is Mike! It looks like I could have hit the proverbial jackpot particularly as he has just managed to source a bike for me from a friend!

Mike, Stella and ‘bike’

Day 12: Shepherdswell to Dover (15 km) Fond farewells

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Dover Beach – Matthew Arnold

What an amazing night! I’m still not 100% convinced that I didn’t dream it all. First Olivia announced that she would be able to come and stay the night at Mike and Stella’s house in Shepherdswell having taken our daughter up to London to settle her into her new flat share in Fulham. Then our son Freddy and girlfriend Nicola kindly agreed to drive down from Oxfordshire to Winterbourne Stoke to look after our dogs ‘Islay’ and ‘Puzzle’. That meant that Olivia could stay the night rather than having to drive on back to Wiltshire. Heroic.

After Olivia had arrived and settled down with a mug of tea, Mike disappeared into a structure in his garden which from the outside resembled a Mongolian ger.

Mongolian ger

I’ve spent quite a few nights sleeping in Mongolian gers over the years in Hovsgol Province near Lake Baikal, so I thought I knew what to expect when Mike and Stella announced that supper was ready and led us down the garden into their ger.

However, nothing could quite prepare us for what lay behind the door of the ger. It was a cross between entering the Tardis/a Swedish sauna and a Korean norae bang or indoor karaoke bar. In the centre was a huge barbeque with hot coals above which was a retractable chimney. We sat around the sides of the ger on sofas bathed in exotic multicolored flourescent light which could be altered at the touch of a button to deliver a strobe . In the background music was piped from hidden speakers. It was not unlike being in a small intimate discotheque!

As we sat down to eat the delicious barbequed lamb which Mike had prepared, I thought to myself that we could have been dining with nomads on the Steppes of Central Asia!

Mike, Stella and Olivia

I awoke this morning feeling slightly groggy, slightly regretting having drunk four bottles from Mike’s craft beer collection the previous night! It was then time to bid Olivia a fond farewell as she departed back to Winterbourne Stoke but what a fantastic evening it had been – one that will live long in the memory!

Fortified with yet another ‘Full English’ with white eggs from the hens at the bottom of Mike and Stella’s garden, I made my way out of Shepherdswell towards Dover, bowled over by the kindness and warm hospitality of Mike and Stella who had gone from complete strangers to close friends over the course of the last 24 hours!

I passed in front of Waldershare House, the Queen Anne house built for Sir Henry Furnesse whose mausoleum I would later see in All Saints Church Waldershare. An impressive pile!

Waldershare Park

All Saints Church Waldershare has been deconsecrated and is now managed by the Churches Conservation Trust. When I entered the church I saw that there was somebody praying in the wooden pews who was clearly somewhat surprised by my unexpected appearance in the church. He told me that he had cycled there from Dover to find a place for silent contemplation.

All Saints Church Waldershare

Whether it was the after effects of Mike’s craft beers or the weight of the IGN maps of France that had been added to my rucksack, I found the morning’s walk to Dover quite tough going. Stella had kindly given me a couple of her home made chocolate brownies (150 calories each she mischievously informed me), so I guiltily decided to throw caution to the wind and consume them as a mid morning energy boost. It seemed to do the trick!

Tucking into one of Stella’s delicious chocolate brownies!

Shortly thereafter I bumped into John who asked me if I’d come from Canterbury and where I was going to. It transpired that Mike was a Kiwi from Waihi on the Coromandel Peninsula of the North Island of New Zealand. John, whom I noticed was sporting an elaborate Maori tattoo on his arms, had been on the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostella as well as the Camino del Norte.

I mentioned that I’d done some ‘tramping’ on the South Island including traversing the island on the Wangapeka Trail, walking the Abel Tasman Trail near Nelson and crossing the Arthur’s Pass where I remember camping out in the snow and having my tent attacked during the night by a Kea bird, a feral and aggressive variety of parrot!

“Forget the South Island’, come to Waihi when you next visit New Zealand. It’s the most beautiful place in the country. We’ve got everything – miles of beautiful unspoilt beaches and little blue penguins. You couldn’t ask for more” John imparted to me as he hoisted his bike through a gap in the hedgerow and rode off towards Dover on the busy A2.

I made it to Dover shortly after lunch, checked into my AirBnb near Dover Castle and then struggled up a long flight of steps to visit the Castle and get a grandstand view of Dover.

View of Dover from the Castle.

It was humbling to remember that Operation Dynamo ( the British evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk in 1940) was co-ordinated from Dover Castle by Sir Bertram Ramsay.

Called out of retirement in 1939 by Winston Churchill, Ramsay was made Vice Admiral of Dover. Working from the tunnels beneath Dover Castle he and his staff worked for nine days straight to rescue troops trapped in France by the German forces. For his success in bringing home 338,226 British and allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk he was asked to personally report on the operation to King George VI and was made a Knight Commander of the Order of Bath.

Despite the continued absence of any sign of the ‘barbeque summer’, I wandered down to Dover beach – the subject of Matthew Arnold’s elegy to the recession of empire and faith and more recently the spot where swimmers have ended their epic Channel crossings.

Ice cream, Dover Beach and the White Cliffs

As I sat on the shingle with a Flake 99 icecream and looked out over the deserted beach, I couldn’t help wondering where I would be in less than 24 hours time and whether I would succeed in crossing the Channel on the 7.55am Dover-Calais P&O Ferry tomorrow.

Day 13: Calais to Wissant (22 km) The kindness of strangers.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Cargoes’ – John Masefield

As my alarm sounded at 5.45am I must confess that I wasn’t hugely optimistic about my chances of making it across the channel. I hadn’t even tried out the foldable bike that Mike had kindly given me, so had no idea about whether it would safely convey me the one mile from my AirBnb to the ferry without my coming a cropper!

Donning my high vis top ( as advised by Mike, so as to avoid being flattened by an HGV in the ferry terminal) I gingerly made my way downstairs, having attached my walking stick to my rucksack so that it resembled something akin to a prehistoric antenna.

Thumb stick safely attached to backpack, ready for the off!

Having given the folding bike a quick spin in the deserted road in front of my AirBnb, I headed off towards the ferry terminal, the route to which I had cunningly recce’d the previous evening. Despite a few near misses with low hanging trees, I somehow made it through the ferry concourse in one piece and onto stand 189 where I waited to embark onto the 7.55am P&O Ferry.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that I was accompanied by a convoy of fellow pilgrim bicyclists. As far as I could see, I was standing in glorious isolation, the only bicyclist waiting to embark!

At this point Jeremy appeared. Jeremy, who was originally from Newcastle and whose father lives in Poitiers had set up a business exporting Japanese sports cars to France. It had apparently been a highly successful and lucrative enterprise until Brexit reared its ugly head and he had suddenly been clobbered with 20% export duties. I commiserated with him and shared my own experience of the impact of Covid and Brexit on our language school business. The law of unintended consequences.

Jeremy

Our conversation was abruptly terminated by the announcement that we were about to board! I was given the green light for go and manfully cycled up the ramp onto the ferry. Halfway up the ramp, my progress was checked when I realised that I wasn’t going to make it up the ramp in 3rd gear ( yes, mirabile dictu, the bike had gears!) So after a nifty gear change into first, I safely made it onto the ferry, and immediately hared up the stairs in search of another ‘Full English’.

One of the strange features of my walk so far, has been the uncanny number of ‘chance’ events that have taken place. Call it serendipitous if you will, but another one occurred on the ferry crossing today.

As I was waiting patiently in line to order my ‘Full English’, a couple of gentleman who were ahead of me in the queue, struck up conversation with me and asked if I was a pilgrim. I answered that I was walking along the Via Francigena to Rome to raise money to restore the church roof of St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke, of which I was the Treasurer, and my wife, churchwarden. At this point I was nonplussed to hear them ask the chap at the checkout to include my ‘Full English’ on their bill!

I joined them at their table and we struck up conversation. The elder of the two gentleman ( who were brothers) was Luigi and his younger brother was Riccardo. Luigi was planning to walk the Via Francigena, so was fascinated to learn more about my endeavour.

Luigi and Riccardo own and run a chain of Italian restaurants in London called ‘Spaghetti House’. They were on their way to see their family and friends in Mergozzo in the Piedmont region of Italy. Their father had originally come to England in the 1940’s and had worked as a butler at Milton Lilbourne Manor near Pewsey. When I mentioned that I had close friends in Milton Lilbourne who would probably have known the family their father worked for, Luigi and Riccardo’s interest was piqued!

Coincidence then followed coincidence! Their 92 year old father lives in Norfolk at Dersingham near Sandringham. I mentioned that my wife had at one time worked in a goldmine in the Yukon with a member of the Coke family who own Holkham Hall. It transpired that Luigi and Riccardo were keen fieldsportsmen and that their particular passion was dry fly fishing on chalk streams including the Test, Itchen and Nadder. It turned out that Riccardo had recently been fishing the same beat of the Test ( although on the opposite bank) as I had! It really doesn’t get any more unlikely than that!

Luigi and Riccardo

On arrival at Calais, I was somewhat bemused not to be frog marched to customs control and asked for my passport/proof of Covid vaccination. Instead a couple of ‘jolie’ young female French gendarmes in a van, ushered me out of the port and pointed the way into Calais. The Lord moves in mysterious ways!

Arriving in Calais

Miraculously the weather seemed to have undergone a fundamental change during our 24 mile Channel crossing. The clouds had entirely disappeared and the mercury had risen a good 10 degrees. My heart bled for the hundreds of thousands of UK staycationers valiantly waiting for the arrival of the much heralded ‘Barbeque Summer’.

It seemed prudent to get full value from my trusty steed before abandoning it, so I cycled into Calais which is blessed with a lot of bicycle lanes. Nobody seemed in the least bit surprised to see somebody cycling around Calais on a rickety bike in a yellow high vis top, a ruck sack and a thumb stick. Maybe that is what they call ‘Sang Froid!’.

Calais

Tempting though it was to hang on to the bike and ride it all the way to Rome, I decided this wouldn’t be in the spirit of the charity walk, so I reluctantly decided to abandon it at Bleriot beach – the spot from which Louis Bleriot completed the first flight across the Channel in 1909.

Goodbye trusty steed

The rest of the day passed relatively uneventfully. I kicked off my boots at Bleriot beach and walked along the beach to Sangatte. After an hour’s walk along the cliffs to Cap Gris Nez, I rejoined the beach, kicked off my boots once more and walked through the surf to Wissant. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the beach was largely deserted apart from the occasional kite surfer, and life felt good!

En route to Wissant

Wissant which means white sands and is on the Cote d’Opale, has quite a few claims to fame. It is believed to be the spot from which Julius Caesar in 55 BC and William the Conqueror launched his invasion of England in 1066. It was the place from which Becket sailed from France in December 1170 knowing that his death was imminent – commemorated in a plaque on the side of the church in Wissant. ‘I have come to risk life and limb for Justice and for Truth’ Becket is reputed to have said before he set sail from Wissant on the 1 December 1170. Less than a month later he had been brutally bludgeoned to death in Canterbury Cathedral.

Memorial to Thomas Becket in Wissant

Again I was reminded of Edith Cavell, Olivia’s cousin, and the inscription on her memorial in St Martin’s in the Fields in London.

Memorial to Edith Cavell

Wissant is famous for its flobarts, a shallow draught boat used in Wissant to fish for plaice and flounder. Last weekend was the annual Flobart carnival, when the entire town celebrates its maritime history.

Flobart

Wissant is also famous for its 19th century colony of painters who used Wissant as a base and were attracted by the coastal light in much the same way as the Newlyn School of artists flourished during the same period in Cornwall.

There is a lovely painting from the Wissant School of Painters by Virginie Demont-Breton of her husband, Adrien, painting a Flobart which reminded me of Laura Knight’s paintings.

Laura Knight – Newlyn School
Virginie Demont-Breton – Wissant School

Yes it was good to be back on the Continent again I thought to myself as I wandered around the Friday market in Wissant, wondering what to buy for supper!

Wissant Friday market

Day 14: Wissant to Guines (26 km) In search of fields of gold

‘Its eyes blaze and with quivering tongue it licks its mouth,which opens wide; the dragon hisses through its gaping jowls. Its monstrous head bristles with bloody crests, the rest of its body skims the boundless air behind’

Jacobius Sylvius – epic poem about the Field of the Cloth of Gold composed in 1520.

For some reason the propriétaire thought there were two people staying the night ( THERE WEREN’T!) and had provided petit dejeuner accordingly! I smiled sweetly and accepted the bounty without demurring – lunch of baguette and nutella/cheese was sorted.

Petit dejeuner

It’s only day 2 of my walk on the VF admittedly, but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well sign posted the VF/GR145 is. So far I haven’t had to resort to my GPS or IGN maps, and am beginning to wonder whether bringing hard copy maps in addition to not one but two guides to the VF may be erring on the side of overkill!

Well sign posted route!

Leaving Wissant and the Côte d’Opale behind me, my route took me up the Mont de Couple, a 163m high vantage point over the surrounding countryside. The panoramic view from the summit was awe inspiring, tempered slightly by the sign which indicated that it was still 1,284 km (as the crow flies) to Rome and 610 km to Geneva!

I lingered awhile on the summit, and as I did so, a murmuration of starlings suddenly appeared, circling and swooping around the slopes of the Mont de Couple in the fading morning mist.

Mont de Couple

As I descended from the summit I passed a cohort of lycra clad walkers, leki poles flailing at the double. “Bonjour Monsieur!” they acclaimed gaily as they sailed past. I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast with the walkers I had passed in Kent, who at worst had ignored me and at best grunted ‘ Youarighthen’, apart from one lady on the outskirts of Wrotham ( pronounced Root’em) who had complimented me on my stick – walking that is!

At this point, I realised that something was missing ( not for the first time on this walk!). It was the crucifix from Pluscarden Abbey that Harry Bucknall had kindly sent me to ensure my safe passage to Rome. Damn, I thought to myself, I must have left it in my room at Chez Edwige in Wissant. There was only one thing to do – contact Claude.

Claude is one of my oldest friends, whom I first met in Korea over 30 years ago. We have travelled together extensively in Asia and Europe and I am the proud godfather of Georges, his trumpet playing son. Now based back in Brussels, we had agreed to rendezvous in Arras and spend a weekend retracing the final steps of my great uncle, Charles Dutton, who lost his life on the Somne aged 26 in 1916 and is commemorated at Thiepval. If anybody could secure the return of my crucifix from the propriétaire of the Chez Edwige in Wissant, it was Claude.

At Caffier, a fairly nondescript village between Wissant and Gûines, something possessed me to enter the church. If I’d been following my guidebook religiously, I would have taken a left turning before reaching the church. But as usual I wasn’t paying attention – mungchacha as they used to call me in Cantonese in Hong Kong – head in the clouds!

Church at Caffier

As I opened the door to the church I was aware that music was playing – it seemed like a Jacques Brel melody. It was curiously soothing like a siren call. I was immediately overcome with a sense of peace. Whether it was the effigy to La Pucelle (Joan of Arc) who was burnt at the stake as a witch by the English at Rouen in 1431 or the the stained glass windows glinting in the midday sun, I don’t know, but I was overcome by the need to pray.

The church at Caffier

As I knelt down, I said a prayer for my departed parents and asked their forgiveness for having spent so many years away from home. As the church bells struck midday, a shaft of sunlight came streaming through the stained glass windows and I found myself crying, tears streaming down my cheeks, the first time I had cried for ages.

Sunlight dappling the church floor

Before leaving the church, I lit three candles in memory of my father, my mother and Cavell, my father in law. May they rest in peace.

A candle for the departed

As I left Caffier behind and headed towards the Forest of Guines, I felt curiously light headed, as if a burden had been imperceptibly lifted from my shoulders. For some unknown reason I was overcome with the need to sing. Not a hymn, nor a pop ballad but a folk song from the 18th century – ‘ Over the hills and far away’, popularised by the legendary John Tams when it became the theme tune for the Sharpe TV series in the 1990’s starring Sean Bean!

Here’s forty shillings on the drum

To those who volunteer to come

To ‘list and fight the foe today

Over the Hills and far away.

O’er the hills and o’er the main

Through Flanders, Portugal and Spain.

King George commands and we obey

Over the hills and far away.

Le picnic

As I entered the Forest of Guines I came across another walker, taking a breather. His name was Hans, and he was a Belgian from Ghent walking thr GR128 to Wissant.He loved walking and revealed that he had walked most of the South West coastal path in England.

Hans from Ghent

After a hour or so of walking through the forest, I came to a clearing in the trees in the middle of which was a large column, commemorating the first crossing of the Channel by balloon by Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a French balloonist who accomplished the feat with an American doctor called Jeffries. Their flight from Dover on the 7 January 1785 took an hour and 45 minutes. The column doesn’t reveal the tale of skullduggery ( see separate blog post!) behind the flight!

The Blanchard column in the Forest of Gûines.

As so it was on to Gûines – site of the historic meeting between King Henry VIII and the French King Francis I in 1520. Nobody is completely sure where the actual meeting took place, but it was somewhere between modern day Gûines in the English Pale ( whence the expression ‘beyond tgexpale’ is derived!) of Calais and the town of Ardres in France. It was the first post medieval summit where the young English King went to great pains to impress the French King, Henry I, with his power and wealth – hence the description of the meeting as the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’.

Masterminded by Henry VIII’s Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, the summit meeting comprised 18 days of lavish entertainment.

The lavish banquets were accompanied by archery displays and wrestling matches between Breton and Cornish fighters. Moreover, the two young and boisterous royals were naturally drawn to competition once more and in a raucous atmosphere Henry VIII chose to challenge young Francis I to a wrestling match. Losing the match, Henry then challenged Francis to an archery competition.

Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold

Whilst the two kings were trying to impress each other with their strength and skill, in the king’s large retinue the women were treated to great banquets, dances and theatre performances.

On 24th June, after many lavish days and nights of celebration, the summit had reached its conclusion and Cardinal Wolsey assembled a great crowd in order to say Mass. At the end of the service, a great awe-inspiring dragon was sent flying through the air. This great kite combined the salamander emblem of Francis I with the Welsh Tudor dragon, and was flown to signify the end of the meeting. All that was left was one further banquet and the exchange of gifts. These expensive tokens included an enamel jewel box given by Francis I to Cardinal Wolsey.

Mural commemorating the Field of the Cloth of Gold in Gûines

In 1521, only a year after the grand event, Europe appeared once again to be in the midst of battle, with Francis I and the Emperor Charles at loggerheads and England embroiled once more. The alliance looked set to crumble and once again peace in Europe looked to be a distant and unattainable dream.

Another day full of surprises and history. A good day I thought to myself, as I pitched my tent for thr night in the camping La Bien Assise. A good day became even better when the lady at reception smiled and told me that there was no need to pay – camping is free for pilgrims!

Day 15: Gûines to Tournehem-sur-la-hem (34 km) The way through the Woods

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones …

Rudyard Kipling – The Way through the Woods

My previous night’s sleep had been somewhat intermittent. At around 1pm I awoke to hear a pair of tawny owls amorously calling to each other in the distance. How romantic I thought to myself. Over the next 60 minutes they were joined by a 3rd interloper and proceeded to move closer and closer to my tent until they decided to take up station for the night on a tree branch directly above my tent, thereafter making an unholy racket for what seemed like an eternity!

Eventually after I’d grabbed a few hours sleep, bleary eyed I emerged from my tent and ambled over to the washroom for a shower, hoping that I wasn’t going to be faced with a repeat of my experience at the Pitton campsite, a fortnight previous….

Call me a wimp, but I’m not a huge fan of cold showers at 7am in the morning! Camping la Bien Assise has many things going for it, sadly warm water at the crack of dawn isn’t one of them! It was Pitton all over again!

Things cheered up considerably when a foray into Gûines in search of breakfast (pain chocolat) and lunch (baguette) was amply rewarded. In rural France the local supermarkets may have moved out of town, but so far, everywhere I have visited has had at least one boulangerie.

It is a sobering thought that until a little over 500 years ago, Gûines was English – part of the English Pale which comprised Calais and the surrounding countryside. The statue to the Duc de Guise in Gûine’s town square commemorates the liberation of the town from the English in 1558. Calais fell the same year. Queen Mary was said to have died with Calais inscribed on her heart such was the shock and anguish in England when Calais fell to the French.

‘The Siege of Calais’ by Françis-Edouard Picot 1838

For over 200 years from the Battle if Crécy in 1346, Calais had been a valuable source of taxation for English monarchs as the bulk of English wool was exported through the Calais Staple. Calais sent two MPs to Parliament and amongst the luminaries who were in charge of the Calais Staple, were Dick Whittington, who went on to become Mayor of London three times.

Statue of Duc de Guise in Gûines

The Forest of Gûines, through which I walked for a good hour in the morning,was full of weekend walkers and trail bikers enjoying the late summer sunshine. A couple of joggers passed me and wished me ‘Bon route!’ when I confirmed that I was walking the VF to Rome.

Forest of Gûines dappled in sunshine

I reached Licques at lunchtime. It was Sunday and the town, dominated by the imposing Abbey of Notre Dame, seemed largely deserted.

Abbey of Notre Dame in Licques

Sadly, the brewery, for which it is famous, was closed. I fancied a bottle of La Licquoise to wash down my baguette and turkey sandwich.

The story goes that it was in the 11th century, after four years of war alongside Godefroy de Bouillon during the 1st Crusade, that Raoul the Bearded, lord of Licques and his suzerain Baldwin of Boulogne brought back from the Holy Land the secrets of the La Licquoise.

Sadly I wasn’t able to discover the secrets of La Licquoise and had to settle instead for a pilgrim stamp to add to my growing collection from the town Tabac.

La Licquoise

As I headed out from Licques, for some reason my thoughts turned to etymology. What is the difference, if any, between the French words for sheep – Mouton and Brébis? I dimly seemed to remember my French master at school telling me that Brébis referred to a ewe while Mouton was the generic term for sheep.

His name was Mr Murdin and he insisted on calling me ‘Mutton’ ( it rhymed with Dutton). He was a good teacher if somewhat eccentric. At breakfast he insisted on proper English usage. You couldn’t ask for the marmalade, you had to ask for the ‘delicious marmalade’ or the ‘sublime sugar’ before he would pass them to you. “Mutton”, he would say, “would you like another helping of shark infested custard?”. Invariably I would shake my head – I’ve never been a fan of banana custard!

As I slogged up the hill from Licques in the heat of the early afternoon, my eye was caught by a stone memorial by the side of the road. The inscription read:

A la memoir de Madame René Lacoche née Christianne Maguin. Tué en ces lieux par un V.1. Le 23 Âout 1944. A l’age de 23 ans.

A grim reminder of the random brutality of war

It was a sobering reminder of the grim reality of war and its seemingly random collateral damage.

The V.1 bomb or doodlebugs as they were known, were introduced by the Germans during the final 12 months of WW2 after the Allied D-Day landings in June 1944. I can remember my mother recounting the terrifying experience of the whine of the Doodlebug cutting out and the minute’s silence before the ensuing explosion and the obliteration of her bedroom window.

Thankfully she survived to tell the tale, but many, including Madame René Locoche, weren’t as lucky. Now just a solitary roadside memorial records their random and untimely death.

The road to Tournehem-sur-la-hem

There were flashes of roadside colour as I entered the tiny hamlets of Yeuse – manicured roses and Californian daisies brightening the late summer burnt umber landscape.

And then suddenly on the ridge ahead of me, loomed the ruins of the Chapel of Saint Louis in Guèmy.

Chapel of St Louis

On a clear day they say you can see the coast of England 70km away. Not today though! Built in the 16th century by Anthony the Bastard ( illegitimate son of Philip the Good Duke of Burgundy) the chapel of Saint Louis has long been the subject of local folklore with some claiming that it was once a site where Druids worshipped.

It was late afternoon by the time I finally made it to Tournehem-sur-la-hem ( which sounds and originally was Flemish) and sought out my lodging for the night chez Madame Lysensoone. I tracked her house down without much of a problem and was welcomed in by the kindly proprietaire and her in laws who were visiting from St Omer.

Madame Lysensoone and family

No sooner had I been given a whistle stop tour of the house and garden than two things happened in close succession. First another pilgrim and her dog ‘Ipso’ arrived and then a swarm of wild bees materialised and set up shop in a tree in the garden right outside the kitchen!

Arrival of another pilgrim

As nobody seemed either able or willing to speak English I was forced to wheel out my extremely rusty French, struggling to remember that ‘saignant’ meant that I wanted my steak done rare and numerous other bits of obscure vocab that had been in hibernation since my O levels nearly 40 years ago!

After a hot shower, an evening meal of steak and chips, cold beer and a cheese plate I was feeling distinctly mellow. It was all that a ravenous pilgrim could ask for after another day on the road to Rome!

Day 16: Tournehem-sur-la-hem to Wisques (20 km) Benedictine rules

Up the long flight of stairs
every tread echoes from stone walls
as if to comment on how stillness
tells of sound its silent origin.

In the quiet library, the central table
bears a careful written message:
‘Silence is spoken here’..

and that’s truer than

It first appears to read.

Michael Shepherd – The Monastery

The bees were still in the tree in front of Mme Lysensoone’s kitchen when I came down for breakfast.

Having consumed what seemed like a couple of pints of coffee from a bowl, I began to appreciate why my father always insisted on drinking his morning coffee from a bowl ‘à la française’ while smoking a cigarette and doing The Times crossword!

Petit-déjeuner

Over breakfast we discussed a curious incident that had occurred the previous evening. At 7.30pm, after I had retired to my room, Mme Lysensoone had received a mysterious knock on the door. An Englisman in his 60’s who looked extremely dishevelled and hadn’t made a reservation, appeared on her doorstep and asked if he could stay the night! Mme Lysensoone apologised that she unfortunately had no rooms spare. The Englishman, who had driven from Calais in an extremely old and dirty car and had not eaten supper ( it was Sunday and the shop in the village was shut) then reluctantly got back into his car and drove off. “C’était tres bizarre” Mme Lysensoone opined.

Conversation then turned to the monastic life enjoyed by the Benedictine monks and nuns of the Abbeys of St Paul and Notre Dame at Wisques. It was a simple way of life without many of the pressures of modern life, Mme Lysensoone explained, and added that the monastic way of life had many therapeutic benefits to boot.

She then went on to recount the tale of a local farmer who had been suffering from an ailment which affected his arm, preventing him from carrying out his work properly. At his wife’s end when drugs had failed to remedy his ailment, he had decided to give up work and go on a pilgrimage to Rome. When he returned after 6 months on the road, his arm was miraculously healed. Mme Lysensoone ended the story by drawing up the sleeve of her blouse and flourishing her unblemished bare arm for dramatic effect!

It was sad to say goodbye to Mme Lysensoone and her bees. A neighbour’s dog was curled up contentedly in the dining room as I wrote some suitably effusive comments in the visitors’ book, put ‘le picnic’ in my rucksack and headed up the hill out of Tournehem-sur-la-hem.

Although Mme Lysensoone’s chambre d’hote was technically a ‘donativo’, she’d given me a much warmer welcome than some of the places I’d stayed in England on my walk which had charged quadruple the price!

I almost missed the ancient windmill at Nort-Leulinghem. Built in 1854, the windmill is now a refuge for abused teenagers and their destitute parents as part of a charity called ‘Soleil,1,2,3’ that was set up by a local resident Angélique Delpaut.

Angélique Delpaut and the windmill at Nort-Leulinghem

“I grew up in the village as a child and the windmill was my playground” remembers Angélique who is known as ‘Angie’ by the children.

It was by far the warmest day of my walk so far. The temperature must have been in the 80s, and although it was only 20km from Tournehem to Wisques, at times it felt more than twice the distance. By lunchtime, the water in my SIGG water bottles had turned distinctly tepid and tasted like the inside of a Greek wrestler’s jockstrap. I ended up pouring the contents over my head in an effort to cool down!

After a quick pit stop for lunch, the VF transitioned onto the ancient road running 50km from Sangatte to Thérouanne known as La Leulène. The route which dates back to Roman or pre-Roman times, would have been the same route taken by Archbishop Sigeric when he travelled from Canterbury to Rome in 990 AD to receive his pallium from the Pope.

In the garden of a house in the small hamlet of Leulinghem I came across a Roman legionary telling me that there was only another 1,648 km to walk until I reached Rome and that I had walked 107 km from Canterbury. Somehow it felt like more!

All roads lead to Rome (eventually!)

I made it to Wisques at around 4pm, and passing the Abbey of Saint Paul ( monks only), made my way up the hill to the Abbey of Notre- Dame (nuns only).

Abbey of Notre-Dame in Wisques

The first nuns arrived at Wisques in 1889. For the last 120 years, the nuns have continued to follow the Benedictine Rule. Their day is shaped around services conducted in Gregorian chant, prayer, work, silent contemplation and studying the lectio divina; their enclosed life is completely focussed on the search for God.

Notre-Dame Abbey, Wisques

Currently there are about 20 sisters in the Abbey of Notre- Dame at Wisques who live together fraternally observing the Rule of St Benedict. The liturgical life marks the rhythm of their life, throughout each day and season of the year.

The sisters work together in the kitchen garden, orchard, and the workshop where they decorate ceramics, knit, bind books, and welcome pilgrims like myself to their guesthouse, a former hunting lodge.

The guesthouse where I am spending the night.

As I made my way towards the Abbey, my attention was grabbed by a figure waving her arms frantically and shouting what sounded like “Cooey!”. It was Soeur Lucie, one of the nuns at the Abbey, whom I had emailed with my arrival details. She was expecting me and showed me to my room.

I asked her if she had come across my neighbour in Wiltshire, Brian Franklin. She had. Then I mentioned Harry Bucknall’s name. He was another Englishman, a journalist and a former soldier who stayed here 10 years ago, I told her. Soeur Lucie looked puzzled for a moment but then her face lit up. “Ah yes, Monsieur Harry. I remember now. He was walking to raise money for wounded soldiers”.

After I had taken a welcome shower and completed an overdue clothes wash, Soeur Lucie poked her head around the door to my room and enquired; “Our evening meal is at 7pm and we then have Compline and Gregorisn chant in the Abbey. Will you be joining us?”.

I paused for a moment then smiled and answered that I would. It seemed like the perfect end to another rewarding day on the Via Francigena!

View from my room