The next morning, on the outskirts of Arras, we came across our first fellow pilgrim. This part of the Via Francigena is hardly well travelled and possibly, choosing to camp, we were in a ‘tributary stream’ but it was something of a surprise it took two weeks before our first pilgrim encounter. Loic did not disappoint.
Ange and I were trying to absorb the impact of the Beaurain Road British War Cemetery, designed in its permanent state by Sir Edwin Lutyens; 23 of the burials were unidentified. A later similar gravestone carried the moving epitaph of words to the effect: ‘God knows who you are’. Though, of course, that sentiment can be understood in more than one way.
Loic appeared at my shoulder from nowhere: short, wiry, tanned and energetically optimistic. His shirt unbuttoned to the navel, he carried a crucifix and saints around his neck and a substantial, five foot staff in his hand. Yes, he would be in Rome in two months. Yes, he was walking 40/45 kilometres a day. We talked for a bit then wished each other well. Ange and I turned back to the cemetery. When, a moment later, we turned to look after him, he was gone.
As it turned out, we did encounter him again a few hours later in the form of his signature in a little roadside shrine at Boisleux-Saint-Marc. It was there that we meet Dominic at the side of the road. There was a tricky bit coming up – he would walk with us to show the way. At the end of it, he invited us for coffee and we sat with him and his wife, Nicole, in their garden, while he offered meals, lifts and genuine advice from someone who had done many such walks, including the Francigena early, back in 2005.
He took us back up to the VF and a little way along the First World War rail track it followed. On 1 July, the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, Dominic was one of the official guides and took parties of people up this track. He stopped at a suddenly wider bowl in the tree-lined path. Here a munitions train had been blown up in 1917. He reached down. You could still pick shell cases up out of the earth. We shook hands warmly and he set off with his long, loping stride back to the village.
I am compelled by a theme emerging from these posts. That of l’etranger. In the sense of both foreigner and stranger. It’s there in my fund-raising aspiration, Brexit, the atmosphere around Calais, the dogs, the abbey. It’s there, however artificially, in the whole project, walking, a stranger, a foreigner, through the landscape.
And so many people meet me with openness and generosity. I have developed a habit of taking a coffee in every bar tabac I can; invariably, someone will shake hands and a conversation begin – about football, or the walk, or nothing much at all. Women chatting by a fence stop me for a chat.
And, I feel it’s a fundamental thing, and Dominic’s generosity illustrates it as perfectly as does the Benedictine abbot washing the hands of strangers whom he should welcome as he would Christ. I think I don’t care that this seems naive. I know there are those who would wish to take advantage. I have lived through ‘stranger danger’ campaigns (though these, of course, never really protected children from the real sources of danger much nearer home). Our attitude to others, strangers, foreigners, goes a long way to defining ourselves. A first instinct that smiles, welcomes, seeks to help and does not distrust, fear or even hate, is a sign of right thinking and being. Thank you, Dominic.
A Woodland Oyster
I walk on through the woods surrounding the old rail track, open mouthed in wonder at the history and the natural world around me. And suddenly, gulp, it’s gone, a fly, straight down in one go. A woodland oyster, protein with a bit of a kick (though hopefully not too many).
These days on the Via are dominated by the First World War cemeteries. They are often in some corner of a foreign field on the edge of a French village, beautifully managed, documented and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
They are moving because, although regimented and understated, they are about the individual men who died. For this reason perhaps, at the first three we visit, Ange does not fail to cry. It is also because of her son, older than many of these, and because of her grandfather, lost at the Battle of the Somme and lying somewhere in one of these cemeteries. (Nicole offered the assistance of her sister-in-law who works for the CWGC.)
I am struck by how many of our wars, for a variety of reasons, have been fought out on French soil and how much the ravages of war have had their impact here in ways only the Blitz perhaps has impacted on our soil.
On to Bapaume, onto the lawns of which we collapsed in exhaustion, and Peronne, whose campsite, curled about by the River Somme, was exhausting extra kilometres from the centre of town.