I cannot believe that I’ve been on the Via Francigena for 14 days already. Each day has had its own challenges, but looking back, the time seems to have gone by so quickly. I had hoped to post on this blog frequently, but have found managing my time to be quite a challenge. Walking each day has taken me much longer than I had first estimated. This is partly due to the fact that I have had to build up my speed and fitness, but also because of challenges of navigation have meant I often am forced to take longer routes than I had originally planned. This first blog on the road, covers the first week from Canterbury to Arras. As may be imagined that week was packed with many experiences and impressions. My hope is that through these accounts of my trip, others may share in this adventure across the route of the Via Francigena.
Day 1: Canterbury to Dover (33 km)
The date of departure was set – Saturday, 28 March with a 7am start at the Canterbury Cathedral gates. On Friday night my brand new, state of the art rucksack was packed and a faint anxiety was felt as I lifted it for the first time. I tried out the straps, finding the most comfortable tension and walked around my flat a few times. Fine – it would be fine. I was down to the minimum weight already and couldn’t justify taking anything else out so I would just have to manage. I didn’t have time to worry for long as it was getting near to 6pm and time to meet my friend Harini, who was coming down to Canterbury from London to join me on my first day. Harini and I had met on one of the stops in Galicia in the last week my four-week journey to Santiago. We hadn’t spent much time together, but the Camino has a way of forging quick and lasting bonds. When she heard about my walk on the Via Francigena she didn’t hesitate in offering to come to join me on my first day from Canterbury to Dover. It was a great reunion and when I met her outside Canterbury West Station the comfortable familiarity we felt struck us both as being quite strange considering how little we knew each other. We spent the evening sharing Camino stories and catching up on events in our lives. That last night in my cosy flat was about enjoying the simple pleasures – a home-cooked meal, good company and sleep in a comfortable bed. I wasn’t sad at the prospect of being deprived of these things for the next eighty days, but I was determined to appreciate them while I had them. It was a lovely evening of mushroom risotto, chocolate fondant cake, wine and terrific conversation and of course I stayed up later than I had intended. By 11pm I was in bed but last minute messages from family in the US kept me up well past midnight. Even after I switched the light off anticipation for the morning and undoubtedly for the trip meant I kept waking up. I was predictably tired out when I woke up at 6am. My first thought that morning however, was not of tiredness, but the realisation that my journey had finally started. After months of planning and countless conversations in which I announced my plans of walking 1200 miles to mixed reactions of shock, worry and enthusiasm, it was time to go.
The Camino morning routine of taping my ankles to prevent blisters and packing my rucksack was comfortingly familiar. I had said I would leave the Cathedral at 7.30 am and didn’t want to get off to a late start my first day. So with a great rush I was out the door and Harini and I were on the way! A dedicated friend was waiting at the gate to see me off and after some pictures and goodbyes we started to walk down Burgate Street out of the city walls. We had about four and half hours to reach Shepherdswell (12 miles) where I had arranged to meet up with well-wishers and friends who would walk the last 8 miles to Dover. Fortunately the day was dry although very windy. Harini and I followed the signs of the North Downs Way, finally seeing our first Via Francigena sign, represented by the silhouette of a pilgrim, on a sign after Patrixbourne. The way was mostly through fields which were completely barren as it was early spring. We only passed one person, a lady walking her dog, who was very interested to hear I had just started my journey to Rome that day. We arrived in Shepherdswell before 12 pm and waited at the train station for my first arranged meeting. A group of cyclists, including Velia Coffey of the Canterbury City Council and member of the Association of the Vie Francigene, had organized their route that day to stop by and wish me well. Several of the group had participated in the cycle of 2007 of the Via Francigena to raise funds for the Canterbury Cathedral’s new roof. It was great to see their enthusiasm and support for my endeavour. After some pictures they were speeding off on their way. Robyn Ford, a colleague from the University of Kent, who I had met through a lunchtime walking group, had now joined our small group accompanied by her chocolate lab Bear. Bear was raring to go and excited by all the attention. Still to join us were Rebecca Beach and her four-year-old daughter Jasmine, and friend Sophie Punt and her partner Edmund McKeirnan, both University of Kent alumni. Tired and hungry, we decided to make our way up the hill to The Bell pub on Shephersdwell Green and wait for the others there. The Bell is very cosy and Harini and I were grateful for a chance to sit down. We had just ordered some baguettes and drinks when Becky and her daughter arrived and not long after, Sophie and Ed. By 1.30 pm we were ready to go and a merry group started on the 8-mile journey to Dover.
The Via Francigena after Shedherdswell does not go through any other towns. The first section is a well-surfaced path through green fields, past Waldershare House and then on to the Roman Road which is unsurprisingly, a completely straight path to Dover. There was a strong wind to contend with and a flooded section of the Roman Road that proved difficult to navigate but it was still a smiling, though tired, group that I said goodbye to in Dover. We had arrived at dusk and Harini and I, who had walked the full 20 miles that day (and I had the weight of my backpack), were very ready for a hot shower and a good meal. I had decided my last meal in the UK would be fish and chips and a pub down the road from our B & B did not disappoint. I had to hobble back to the B & B as I was experiencing some pain in my right knee that was worrying me quite a bit. Another worry was that I knew the next day would be a bit of a challenge to coordinate. As it turned out, I would lose two hours of the day on the 29th of March, as not only was I travelling to France which was an hour ahead, but it was also daylight savings. When I looked up how to catch the ferry from Dover I also learned that foot passengers have to arrive at least an hour before departure. I knew I needed to get up early, but after a bad night’s sleep and a long day I knew we wouldn’t be on the way to the ferry until at least 7am (8am with daylight savings). Again with a lot on my mind I crawled into bed. Unsurprisingly, a restless sleep followed.
Day 2: Dover to Guines
We awoke the next morning to a drizzle and strong winds. My knee was still bothering me but I hoped it was just stiffness. After packing up quickly we were out the door motivated by the promise of a Costa Coffee. After some coffee and breakfast my spirits improved considerably, although I was starting to become aware that there was something quite wrong with my right knee. All I could do for the moment was hope that it would improve. Something similar had happened to my ankle on the Camino which miraculously repaired itself after two days without taking a rest. Harini and I battled the winds to get to the passenger terminal of the ferry and it was here that the last goodbye was made. It would have been a lonely journey that day without her, and I was so grateful for her limitless enthusiasm and positivity which ensured I started off from England with high spirits.
Getting on a ferry turns out to be more complicated than an airport. Foot passengers must wait in the terminal for a bus which transports them to passport control, where they get off then get back on again, then to another building for security, off and on again, and then finally to the ferry. As I walked onto the ferry the winds were so strong they almost blew me over. The dread of an inevitably rough crossing set in. I was grateful I had paid an extra £6 for a seat in the Club Lounge where I found a quiet and comfortable space at the front of the ferry. I was soon sipping my last true English tea and taking advantage of the wifi to post some photos of the first day’s walk. Not long after we set sail however, I started to feel queasy. Looking at a screen of my laptop hadn’t helped. Two little girls started to cry and the kind ladies in Club Lounge quickly started serving tonic water to the seasick passengers. High winds, an injured knee and seasickness were not quite what I had imagined for my second day on the Via Francigena, but I my level of enthusiasm couldn’t be diminished by these temporary setbacks.
Getting into Calais was also a challenge. High tides had apparently affected the ramps so the foot passengers had to wait to for a bus to take them off the ferry. Once I arrived at the terminal however, it was straight out the door and on the way to that night’s destination – Guines.
The winds in Calais were gale force. As I crossed a bridge over a canal I actually had to hold on the railings to be sure I wasn’t blown onto the road. I questioned whether I should continue. My greatest fear was being hit by something caught in the wind. Telephone and electricity cables made threatening whistling noises in the wind and I had a very nervous moment when I saw a sign had been blown off its rails and was lying on the ground. It wasn’t raining however, and the way beckoned me on. I was soon beyond the outskirts of Calais following the Canal de Calais which later joined the Canal de Guines. I knew if I followed the Canal de Guines I would be brought directly into the town centre. I only had to walk 16 km and the way was completely flat. Had it not been for the wind this would have been an enjoyable and relaxing walk, but struggling to stay upright quickly became exhausting. I was grateful to find a new cycle route next to the canal about 5 km from Guines that allowed me to walk more easily. By four o’clock I was at the end of the canal and could see the first buildings of the town. It was a quaint little town and very well signed. I soon spotted a sign for my accommodation, Le Bien Assise, and within 20 minutes was walking up the drive. It was a lovely campsite that advertised that they catered for pilgrims on the Via Francigena. I was soon struck by dismay however, when I saw a sign that read ‘closed until 4 April’. I couldn’t understand. I had a reservation, but the office was closed and the site was completely deserted. I collapsed onto a bench and was just considering my next move when a car pulled in. A gentleman got out and walked towards the office. In my first attempt to speak French so far on the trip I explained my situation. ‘Don’t worry’, he said. ‘It’s no problem’. I was soon taken down the drive to a beautiful farmhouse, which was Le Bien Assise hotel, and shown to a luxurious hotel room. Handing me the key the gentleman told me I could give the ten euro I would have paid for the campsite to the lady at the desk in the morning. Overwhelmed by gratitude and disbelief I thanked him profusely as he rushed out the door. This was to be the first camino act of kindness I would receive on the Via Francigena.
Day 3: Guines to Licques (18.5 km)
The walk to Licques the next day was not a long one and took me through very pleasant countryside. The first section was through woodlands past the Colonne Blanchard, a column which marks the place where Jean-Pierre Blanchard and the American Dr. Jeffries landed their hot-air balloon after travelling from Dover in the first successful crossing of the English Channel in 1785. The way was marked with Via Francigena signs, but at one crossing the indications were quite confusing. There were two signs, both pointing in directions different to the one I had just come from, and they didn’t specify if they were indicating the direction to Rome or to Canterbury. One of the paths was more of a track and very muddy. Taking out my compass I decided this was probably the correct one. After walking 10 minutes however, the track started to turn in a direction back to Guines so I was afraid I had made the wrong decision. After returning to the signs and asking a runner the correct direction, I was back on that path, trudging through the mud for the third time. It was at that point, on my second day, that my compass was put away in one of the pockets of my rucksack and Google Maps started to become my means of navigation. This may not make me a particularly authentic pilgrim, but the challenges of the modern pilgrim must be met with modern technology. Under the Roman Empire or for Medieval pilgrims it would have been clear which road to take. They would first of all, have been able to travel on the major roads, whereas modern traffic forces me onto farm tracks and secondary roads. They would also have met travellers on the way who were coming from that direction. Their enquiry of the way to Rome would not have been met with the same level of confusion that I would find if I asked the same question. Using Google Maps on my phone means that I am always certain of where I am and which road to take. This is an amazing comfort when you are travelling alone and when you only have so many daylight hours to reach the next booked accommodation.
After this experience, I arrived in Licques without any more adventures. It was almost 2pm when I arrived so I detoured from the route to my accommodation to go to the church, Eglise de la Navité de Notre Dame which is all that remains of the abbey founded in 1075. Next door was the Mairie where I stopped to get a stamp for my pilgrim credentials. The lady behind the desk didn’t seem too surprised by my request, but when she wished me ‘bonne chance’ as I walked out the door I could hear a touch of concern in her voice which made me worried. I now associate this expression with a lack of confidence. I prefer ‘bonne route’ which is similar to the ‘buen Camino’ said so frequently on the Camino de Santiago. It’s a positive wish, rather than a hope that I will come to no harm.
In Licques I stayed in what was termed a ‘chalet’ in a campsite. I was told I was the first pilgrim to come this year, but that last year 75 pilgrims had stayed there. I told him I thought that number would continue to increase and he agreed. My chalet was very comfortable but a storm started up in the evening and continued through the night with high winds and rain. Concern of what this storm would mean for the next day’s walk meant another restless night.
Day 4: Licques to Wisques (25 km)
On the 31st of March the destination was Wisques, where I would be staying at the Abbaye de Notre Dame and the first official pilgrim accommodation on the way. The most difficult part of those early days was deciding which route to take. The Via Francigena signs were inconsistently placed and therefore, couldn’t be relied upon. I am using the guide of Alison Raju, The Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome published by Cicerone, but I find the directions difficult to follow. I learned this day however that finding my own route was not so easy. Google Maps does not always reflect how busy a road is. It may seem like a secondary road, but I found out in the last section to Wisques that you can easily find yourself walking along a busy road which is neither safe nor enjoyable. I have since compromised by planning the route out every evening using the routes in the guide, but finding the ways indicated on Google Maps so I’m sure not to get lost. This has so far worked out quite well.
The wind blew very strongly all day, and when I arrived in Wisques I was quite exhausted with dark bags under my eyes to prove it. The hospitality I received there however, was enough to erase all the troubles of the journey. Soeur Lucie led me from the Abbaye to a beautiful cottage with the symbol of the Via Francigena displayed to the left of the garden path. I was shown to my own lovely furnished room with views out onto the valley. There was a well-equipped kitchen and sitting room where the afternoon sun was bursting through large windows. I had a few hours before dinner at 7pm in which to shower and have a much-needed nap. At 6.50 pm I was walking quickly up the drive to the Abbaye where the door was immediately opened by another nun who greeted me with ‘good night’ and showed me to a small dining room where two other ladies were already seated. These ladies were not pilgrims, but were staying at the convent for reasons of contemplation. Dinner was simple but filling and I appreciated the quantity. I was in bed by 9pm as a true pilgrim should be, needing my rest for an early start and a long walk to Amettes the next day. I awoke to find breakfast on the table and as I was eating Soeur Lucy came in to say her goodbyes. By 8am I was on the road finding the day sunny but still windy and a bit chilly.
Day 5: Wisques to Amettes (33km)
I had carefully planned out my route for the day, and had no problems navigating. On the route that day I would pass an important site from WWII – La Coupole. La Coupole is a huge concrete bunker that was built by the Nazis in order to be able to launch V-2 rockets to target London. It was detected by the Allies and bombed heavily. It wasn’t destroyed but the area around it became too destabilised for the bunker to be used. La Coupole is now a museum and the dome has been turned into a planetarium. I didn’t have time to be a tourist, but I would have been really interested in seeing it if time had allowed. I needed to press on as it was a long distance to travel and my legs were still not yet used to carrying the weight of my rucksack. I did play the tourist in Therouanne however, as I not could pass by the tourist office that also houses a small museum without a visit. Therouanne (Tervanna) is an ancient Roman town connected to Arras by the Roman road now known as the Chausseé Brunehaut. I was interested to know what Roman remains have been found here. The finds were not well labelled but there was clear evidence of a substantial settlement, with a collection of coins, particularly of the time of Trajan and Hadrian, pottery, drainage times, decorative figures and personal accessories such as brooches and hairpins. I would have liked to have stayed longer, but I was being given a personal tour and the exasperated sighs of my ‘tour guide’ as I kept taking out my camera were signs of unmistakable impatience. As I stepped out of the tourist office I continued my journey on the Roman road. It was named the Chausseé Brunehaut after Queen Brunhilda who made improvements to the road in the 6th century. Legends describe the gruesome end of this queen of Austrasia and Burgundy. At the age of 80 she was reportedly tied to the tail of a horse and dragged to death on this very road. Locals still know the section of this road from Therouanne to Arras as the Chausseé Brunehaut, but on the map it is unromantically referred to as the D341.
Not long after turning onto country lanes after Therouanne I started to notice the distinctive mounds, or slag heaps in the distance. A reminder of the extensive coal mining that took place here in the late-19th and early-20th century the lifestyles today in these sleepy villages area a far cry from the descriptions found in Emile Zola’s Germinal, although unemployment remains high in the region. I saw at least eight massive slag heaps within 8 km of this section of the Via Francigena and upon enquiry, discovered that the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2012 based on the following criteria:
‘Remarkable as a landscape shaped over three centuries of coal extraction from the 1700s to the 1900s, the site consists of 109 separate components over 120,000 ha. It features mining pits (the oldest of which dates from 1850) and lift infrastructure, slag heaps (some of which cover 90 ha and exceed 140 m in height), coal transport infrastructure, railway stations, workers’ estates and mining villages including social habitat, schools, religious buildings, health and community facilities, company premises, owners and managers’ houses, town halls and more. The site bears testimony to the quest to create model workers’ cities from the mid 19th century to the 1960s and further illustrates a significant period in the history of industrial Europe. It documents the living conditions of workers and the solidarity to which it gave rise.’ (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1360)
The Chausseé Brunehaut would have brought me directly to my destination of Amettes but there was too much traffic to walk safely so I detoured along country lanes and farm tracks passing the slag heaps as I went. I trudged into the small village of Amettes just before 6pm very grateful to be received by M and Mme Gevas at their lovely farmhouse gite where they cater to pilgrims. Sitting at the kitchen table warming up from being exposed to the cold winds for over 9 hours that day, I flipped through Mme Gevas’ folder with pictures of all the pilgrims who had stayed at the farm last year. I was surprised by how many there were – at least fifty and of many nationalities including English, Italian, Spanish, American, and French. More than half were cyclists, but it was encouraging to see the faces of these people who had come before me. Perhaps what I am doing is not so crazy after all.
Day 6: Amettes to Arras (40 km)
Mme Gevas had a wonderful breakfast spread out for me in her sitting room the next morning. Too full to eat the piece of home-baked apple cake I asked if I could take it with me, knowing if would be a welcomed treat on the road. Mme offered to call ahead to secure my pilgrim accommodation at a village 25km from Amettes at a boys boarding school for that night. It was the only accommodation between Amettes and Arras, which at 40 km was too far to travel in one day, particularly as I was still building up my level of fitness. Disaster struck however when Mme got off the phone and announced it would not be possible to stay there that night. She said the only option was to go to Arras and that if I had a problem getting there I should take the bus. I nodded my head in agreement, but knew in my heart that I would have to be really desperate to ‘cheat’ and take the bus. Knowing I had a lot of ground to cover I quickly got my bag packed up, had my picture taken by Mme Gevas and was out the door.
There was a light rain which seemed to make the task of the day even more daunting, particularly as the first part of the route out of Amettes was a now very muddy farm track. Mme Gevas had suggested I not follow the Via Francigena route that day as it made too many detours, but that I follow the Chauseé Brunehaut straight to Arras. I took her advice and was making very good time until I was within 10 km of Arras. The traffic increased and I felt it was unsafe to continue so there was no choice but to get off that wonderfully direct road and detour through a series of villages until I got to the outskirts of Arras. As it turns out it was a beautiful walk through idyllic countryside and villages. It also took me past the first World War I cemetery at Ecoivres. 2515 men are buried here (UK 888, Canada 830, Australia 2, South Africa 4, Germany 4, France 787). All were killed nearby at Mont St. Eloi which is a distinctive feature in the landscape with the ruined towers of an abbey founded in 930 AD. A train line connected Mont St. Eloi to the hamlet of Ecoivres during the war, bringing in supplies and taking out the dead from the battlefield. As the bodies were removed systematically in this way the cemetery is distinctive for the chronology of the burials. I was surprised by how affected I was at seeing this cemetery. I have of course seen military cemeteries before, but there was something about knowing that these men had died so nearby. That they lay within sight of the ruined towers that they probably had seen in the last few minutes of their lives. The tragedy was also their ages. Most were between 19 and 26 and of the 19 year-olds, how many were in fact younger, so eager to join up that they had lied about their ages to enlist. I was unprepared for the evidence of this war that I would see walking over the next four days through Arras and the Somme. It was a part of the Via Francigena that I had not expected. After long days walking through the battlefields, exposed to all types of weather, passing thousands of graves, the reality of this brutal war hit me in a way that a documentary or film had never done.
Back to the journey of that day – it was starting to get late and I still had about 9 km to go to get to Arras. The possibility that I would not arrive before dark started to become extremely likely. My hope was to get to the outskirts in time to take advantage of street lights to make the last stretch into Arras. I did make it into a suburb with street lights by 8pm, but navigating in a strange city is never easy and I took a wrong turn at one point which meant some back tracking. At 8.30pm my phone rang and it was the lady who ran the gite I was staying in that night. As another example of the generosity you experience on a pilgrimage she offered to come and pick me up. I was only about 2 km away, but she insisted it was too dangerous to walk. Within 10 minutes her car pulled up and with many words of thanks I got into the warm car out of the chilly night air that was hovering just above freezing. The gite was located in St. Nicolas, a suburb of Arras. Exhausted by my first really long day of the Via Francigena I didn’t waste much time before collapsing into bed just before 10 pm.
Day 7: Arras
As I had walked just 2 km short of Arras I had the exciting prospect of a day off. I had booked a hotel located on one of Arras’ distinctive squares and was checked in by noon, looking forward to exploring and having some time to relax in a café. I also had spied a crêperie on my way to the hotel, and thought I deserved a nice dinner that evening. I probably should have spent the day giving my body a well-deserved break, but the historian in me couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit the Wellington Quarry (Carrière Wellington), and its WWI museum. The quarry was about a 25 minute walk from the hotel but I was so glad I had made the effort to go. The quarry was one of several in Arras that were dug in the medieval period to extract limestone for the construction of the town. During WWI the front line was just outside of the city and it was discovered that some of these quarries could be extended under the German lines to enable a surprise attack. The Wellington Quarry was so named because miners from New Zealand, who were considered some of the best in the Empire, were stationed here to extend the tunnels. In order not to get lost in the network of tunnels, place names were written on walls, and the New Zealanders had written ‘Wellington’ at this point of the quarry. The museum is set out as a guided tour of the quarry and seeks to put visitors back to April 1917 when 20,000 men from the British Commonwealth were brought into the tunnels and housed there for 8 days before the Battle of Arras on 9 April when they streamed out of the tunnels on the German side of the front starting the British offensive. This battle was part of a greater strategy that would draw German troops from the south up to Arras, and allow the French to carry out their offensive known at the Chemin des Dames, near Laon. These two offensives were an attempt to break the stalemate that had existed for the previous two years, with a hope of finally ending the war. Down in the quarry the tour explained the conditions the men contended with in those eight days before the attack – over-crowded, frigid temperatures and damp. After walking through a section of the tunnels the group finally stopped at a set of stairs carved into the limestone. It was one of the several exits out of the quarry. At 5 am on 9 April, 1917 these 20,000 men ran out of the tunnels to surprise the Germans. They were told to leave their overcoats behind in order to move more quickly, despite the freezing temperatures outside. This offensive would continue through to 16 May achieving a gain of 12 km on the Front Line. 160,000 Commonwealth soldiers and 125,000 German soldiers would perish in this battle which explains the over 100 cemeteries found around Arras today. Again, it was a moving experience going into the quarry, and would give me greater perspective as I walked the following days.
My day off had gone by too quickly. I walked back to Arras from the quarry and stopped at the crêperie to enjoy first a savoury crepe and then to indulge in a dessert crepe as well. I had 30 km to walk the next day and knew it was important to get some rest. I just had enough time to plan the route and still get to bed by 10pm. With my mind still going over the events of the day and all of the emotions I had experienced it took several minutes for me to fall asleep, but the tiredness of my first week on the Via Francigena finally came over me and quieted my mind for a peaceful night’s rest.
Contribution by Harini Nallapothola – ‘Experience on the English section of the Via Francigena’
When Julia invited me to join her on the first leg of her journey, every instinct in my body screamed for joy. The last time we had met had been more than a year and half ago on our final day before reaching Santiago on the camino Frances. Even though we didn’t talk much, we instantly became camino friends and I will be forever grateful to her for introducing me to one of the great loves of my life. So, walking from Canterbury to Dover for me was a no brainer. The thrill of putting on my backpack, making sure I had enough water and tying my shoelaces brought back all those familiar sensations I missed dearly. Reuniting after such a long time, there is always a moment of disbelief to see each other again. Then, the natural process of sharing food, memories, experiences and laughter all come back. As I have had some time to reflect on my experience from Canterbury to Dover, I have once again learned a few things about walking: The mind is stronger than the body. When you think you can’t take another step, you somehow find the courage to go on. Especially, if it means finding fish and chips at the end of an 20 mile day. Even a precious 4 year old can walk 6 miles without complaints, shows that the spirit is what carries you on. Julia told me over the course of the day that many found it either very brave or crazy to walk to Rome. Thinking back on those words, I believe that everyday when on the road, you find a little piece of yourself come to life. This is why I walk. You get to know yourself, your strengths and weakness and realize your full potential. A passage from one of my favourite lyrics translates:
If you carry impatience in your heart then you are alive. If you carry dreams in your eyes then you are alive. Learn to live like the free waves of wind. Learn to flow like the sea does as waves. Receive every moment in life with open arms. Every moment is a new beginning seeing with your eyes. If you carry surprise in your eyes then you are alive. If you carry impatience in your heart then you are alive.
Buen camino Julia. I can’t wait until you complete your journey in Rome