Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Walking through France

20 years ago today I was on the second day of my walking pilgrimage through France from St. Malo to the shrine at Rocamadour in the Dordogne. The first day had taken me from St. Malo to the small town of Lanhélin where I stopped for the night in a little comfortable hotel.

7th May 1993

It was another sunny morning, and at twenty minutes to ten I heaved on the rucsac, almost impaled myself on my staff as I negotiated the doorway, and waddled across to the bar to pay my bill. This came to 226 francs - 150 for the room, 45 for the evening meal, 25 for breakfast, and 6 for the lemonade I had when I arrived. Paying the Madame, who always seemed to be singing wherever she was in the house, I left the hotel via the rear courtyard and came onto the street by the church. It was but a couple of hundred yards round the Post Office and right at the crossroads to get me back onto the D73 and the eight kilometre walk into the town of Combourg, and it was five minutes to ten as I left the precincts of Lanhélin. It was a fine morning to be walking and still cool enough to enjoy, although the high clouds bore the promise of a hot afternoon to come. The road was fairly straight, and twenty minutes later I exchanged my first "bonjour" of the day with a teenager who was playing pétanque on the gravelled courtyard cum driveway next to his isolated home. If I'd known more vocabulary, or felt more confident with the few words and phrases I possessed, I would have stopped and suggested a game, but as it was we simply acknowledged each other and I moved on.

The hamlet of le Plessis Margat, which I reached at about 10.20 a.m., was a real one horse place, with not even the horse in sight. The couple of houses seemed occupied, but it was like the aftermath of the bomb, not a living thing anywhere, and I passed through un-noticed.

Another hour of walking at a steady pace brought me to the outskirts of Combourg, and here I exchanged my second "bonjour" with a young boy riding his bicycle back up the road. At least he knew where he was going. The Michelin maps from which I was working were fine for the open road, but somewhat lacking in detail when it came to negotiating my way through urban landscapes. However here I was fortunate, for at the top of the hill as I entered the town was a sign for the Château, and by my reckoning the road I wanted out of the place led directly past this edifice. Following the Rue des Princes downhill the entrance gates appeared on my right, but I decided against stopping and doing the "tourist bit", and instead moved on down into the main shopping street. Here I located a small café on the left, slid off my sac, lumbered it inside to a table by the window, sat down and ordered myself a mid morning "grand chocolat chaud". I sat sipping it, studying the map for the next stage, and wondering what I had missed by not visiting the château.

I rested for some twenty five minutes in the café, then, having paid my bill, struggled out of the doorway, heaved on the pack, only to un-heave it again when I found the opportunity to buy some postcards from a shop two doors away. This done, I headed south out of town along the main D795, which took me past the lake where Chateaubriand used to sit and meditate. From here there was a magnificent view of the château, and I could appreciate the words he used to describe the scene: "There is silence, obscurity, and the visage of stone." Or at least I could have appreciated them if the silence hadn't been broken by the thundering traffic on this major link road, and if my obscurity hadn't been challenged by two french ladies who, walking abreast, forced me off the narrow pavement almost into the path of a group of cyclists pedalling past. Still, at least the "visage of stone" remained the same, and I took a few moments to actually look rather than glance at the marriage between water, trees and stone, which the Linon lake and château presented, before turning off along the smaller and quieter D82 for the seven kilometre stretch to Digné.

Once again, as was becoming the norm for this walk, my passage past the outlying houses of the town was accompanied by the snapping and snarling of a variety of dogs, thankfully enclosed in their gardens behind chicken wire or wooden fencing. This repeated procedure every time I came to civilisation was beginning to get on my nerves, and it was only the second day!

I arrived in the central square of the smaller town of Digné at ten minutes past one ready for some lunch, but there was none to be had. The only two places of refreshment that were open were simply bars with no food available, and as I sat in the less-dishevelled of the two sipping on a cool "Orangina", a lorry driver entered on the same quest, only to be told there were no snacks being served, and no restaurant in the town. He departed with a disappointed shrug of the shoulders, and I followed a few moments later, taking the D83 for Montreuil sur Ille.

This next town remains in my memory as the worst place I encountered in the whole of the trip, probably because of its lack of hospitality. On the map it appeared to be fairly promising with a main line railway station, and I felt sure that this would mean that there would be hotel accommodation of some sort to be found there. I would be grateful for the stop, for as I trudged the seven kilometres towards the town, past fields of cereals and grass, my feet and hips were beginning to protest, becoming quite uncomfortable. My practice was to take a break of ten minutes or so every hour, but I was now finding that once having stopped, my hips were seizing up and it was taking me another quarter of an hour to get moving freely again. For this reason Montreuil sur Ille began to appear more and more attractive to my mind as it got nearer, but as I entered its grey suburbs, parallel to the railway, I began to have doubts. It didn't have the air of somewhere that people would stop over, let alone stay, and my fears were realised when, having crossed the railway line and walked the length of the single main street, there wasn't an hotel nor bar to be seen. I couldn't even find anywhere to get a cup of coffee, and somewhat dispirited I found the D221 and followed it uphill out of the town. This would lead me to Aubigne, my planned destination for the day, but by now my feet were starting to hurt rather than protest, and espying a fairly secluded field, I stumbled over the ditch to see if it would be suitable in which to camp for the night. It wasn't too bad, with a reasonably level patch to one side underneath some trees, and so although it was only three o'clock in the afternoon, I erected my single man emergency tent, unrolled my sleep mat on the grass, and lay down and snoozed.

I was woken some twenty minutes later by the noise of a tractor rumbling past on the road, whose driver cast a querying look in my direction, and I began to reconsider my decision to stay here. The farm to which the field belonged was only a couple of hundred yards away, and I didn't want to get involved in a situation where in the small hours I would be trying to explain my presence to a shotgun-toting farmer, so I repacked everything and started out once more for Aubigné.

Reaching the village half an hour later I found it not to be the watering hole I'd imagined, but just a couple of dozen houses, a locked church and a closed bar, so I had little choice but to press on for the larger centre of St.Aubin d'Aubigné, confident that I would find overnight accommodation there. For some of the way this route via the D221 led me through woods, and I was able to take my ten minute rest in their shade, for the afternoon had indeed become quite hot, and I delved into the rucsac to find my sun bloc cream. It was three kilometres to the junction with the major N175, which runs south west to the major city of Rennes, and here I turned right for St.Aubin, which I could see on its hill another two kilometres away. Keeping well to the left hand side of this busy road so that I was facing the oncoming traffic, I headed downhill, wondering whether to stop at the transport café on the right for a drink, but decided instead to go on into the town and sort myself out for the night.

At several points along this road were signs advertising the "Hôtel des Voyagers", an auspicious sounding name to this pilgrim, and entering the town at just on five o'clock I made my way past the Gendarmerie and down to the crossroads where the hotel was located. This wasn't my day, for "des Voyagers" was well and truly closed with a faintly derelict air about it and yellowed newspapers crammed in its letter box. An enquiry at a small pancake take-away opposite produced the response that it had been closed for over a year, and that the nearest hotel was about seven kilometres away on the road to Ercé près Liffré. There was apparently no other accommodation in town, and so, whilst wondering what to do, I strolled through the fair that was in full swing along the main street. It was as I passed a side street on the right that I noticed a small sign reading "Presbytere" and pointing up the hill. Perhaps it was now time to put into action the two letters of recommendation that I was carrying, one from the Bishop of Salisbury and the other from the local Roman Catholic priest in Beaminster. Both asked the readers to give me assistance and hospitality if requested, so if I could only locate the local Curé I might still be able to find a bed.

The side street led me up into a new development of houses, none of which looked like a Presbytery, nor was there any further sign, and after wandering aimlessly up and down a few times, I stood at the edge of the estate hoping for some kind of divine guidance. At that moment, two elderly residents came out of one of the nearby houses and started to come down the street towards me. This was my chance, and accosting them with an "'excusez moi", I asked if the Presbytery was along this road. The old man glanced at his wife, looked me up and down, and gabbled something about it being a bit further up the hill. Not catching all of his reply I decided to try a different tack, and asked if the town had a Curé. At this husband and wife looked at each other, than at me, then at each other again before the man replied, "Oui." I tried again. "Is the Curé near here?" I asked in my appalling accent, no doubt getting the tenses of the words completely wrong. Now both husband and wife answered me simultaneously and I couldn't follow either of their replies. I put on my best hang dog expression. "I'm seeking hospitality." At this they both shrugged their shoulders, smiled apologetically and, suggesting that I tried the "Mairie" or Police station, walked off down the hill. I was still somewhat confused. It seemed that either there was a Curé, but he was away at one of his other churches taking a funeral and he wouldn't be back that night, or there had been a Curé, but he had died and his replacement had not yet arrived. Whichever was the case I'd drawn a blank, and with the time now half past five, trying the Town Hall would also be a dead loss. Nor did I fancy the idea of walking into the Gendarmerie and asking for accommodation. A night in a police cell wasn't my idea of pilgrimage hospitality.

I walked back to the main road, and with it beginning to look as if I was going to have to spend the night under canvas, I decided that I'd better buy some sort of provisions. Finding a small "Corsair supermarché" nearby, I bought a set of four small tubs of fruit purée, a two litre bottle of mineral water, and retired to the steps of a not-yet-open-for-business dodgem rink for some refreshment. Two fruit purées, some water, and a Mars bar later, I refilled my water bottle, and then stood up to pull on the rucsac, or should that be, I attempted to stand up. My hips had been pretty uncomfortable all day but now they were really seized, and I lurched to my feet, grasping on to the side wall of the dodgem rink for support as if I was "three sheets to the wind". Managing to lift the pack and twist it on, I gingerly bent down to pick up my staff, replaced my hat on my head, and swayed down the road, legs like boards, looking as if I'd just got off a horse having ridden across the Mongolian steppes. It was no wonder that I got a few odd looks from the people now thronging around the fair, and I was glad to get out of the town centre and onto a quieter road where my ambling gait wasn't a source of public amusement.

This time it took twenty minutes before things eased up and I was walking anywhere near properly, and by then I was some two kilometres out of the town along the D106 which would eventually lead me to the town of Liffré. But "not tonight, Josephine!" Enough was enough, and I began searching for a suitable field in which to camp. As I came to the junction with the D26 which led up into Ercé près Liffré I had the momentary idea of following it and trying to find the hotel mentioned by the pancake man, but as it would take me some way off my course I decided against it and carried on, past the house standing at the junction, and on out into the country. Ten minutes later I came to a fairly open piece of road bordered on the right by a high hedge, behind which was a ploughed field. With no sign of livestock, and the farm quite some distance away on the opposite hill, I decided that this was the place and, stepping over the ditch and through a hole in the hedge, I moved round so that I was hidden from the road and gratefully dropped my pack to the ground. Flattening out some of the long grass that was growing along the edge of the field I pitched the tent, unrolled the sleep mat, unpacked the medical kit, took off my trainers, and began to attend to the blisters that had formed on my feet. It was here that I suddenly realised that I had neglected to pack either a pin or a needle to do the necessary to those painful little sacks of fluid. Still, being an ex-scout, (I was a member of my school troop for eight weeks!), I had my trusty Swiss army style penknife, and using the only appropriate item on that, I proceeded to attack my feet with the corkscrew! It actually worked very well, but just don't ask me to open any bottles of wine if you've lost your usual implements!

It took me about half an hour to sort things out inside the tent so that I had enough room to get in alongside the contents of my pack, and then, as it was still light and a beautiful evening, I sat outside on the sleep mat just watching the world and thinking back over the day. My attempts at finding the local Curé reminded me of a comment made by John Gibbons in his account of his pilgrimage in 1928. He had actually prepared the way by writing to all the priests along his route, yet they were still elusive. No matter what time he called at the Presbytery the housekeeper always informed him that "Monsieur le Curé is out." If he replied that he would call again later it was, "Out, probably all night. May not indeed be home tomorrow." This unavailability he put down to his appearance which, as time went on, began to get ever more shabby, and he notes that "as soon as the woman caught sight of my trousers it was safe to assume that his reverence would be permanently out during the whole of any stay that I might be making in his village." Perhaps it was the same with me, not so much my trousers, for they were in good condition, special lightweight walking ones bought from a camping supplier in the Cotswolds and guaranteed to be quick drying in the event of rain, but possibly my rolling gait and quasi-antipodean hat. Walkers seem to be an oddity in France, not the common sight they are round our English lanes, and are cautiously treated as if we're all "tuppence short of a shilling!"

As the evening began to set in I wrote up my Log, composed several postcards, and then studied the map to see how far I had walked in the day. It totalled 32.5 km. which was a little further than yesterday at just over 20 miles. This was again beyond my minimum target, and therefore I could with an easy conscience do less on the morrow and stay at Châteaubourg where I knew there to be an hotel. What I really wanted was a long hot soak in a bath to help ease my aching hips and sore feet. However, for this night I would have to be content with a cocoon-like tent and a narrow sleeping bag, and as darkness fell I crawled inside, zipped shut the flap, and settled down.


  1. Will there be another installment tomorrow? I just found this and I am fascinated to read more!

  2. Hmmm, not sure. Copies still available at a ridiculously low price (see ad in sidebar) from me. 18th May 1993 was a Sunday, and I spent much of the day relaxing in Montreuil-Bellay lodged at the Hotel Splendid. I visited the chateau and then after lunch had to force entry to the hotel stairwell as the door had jammed. Dinner that night was a smoked salmon starter, a main course of medium-rare steak with frites and a green-pepper sauce, a small piece of Brie from the cheeseboard, and a ramekin of chocolate mousse. Yum yum. 20 years on, dinner tonight will be home-made mushroom risotto. More yums!