We stay the night in Calais, in one of those slightly desperate station hotels, and set off the next morning direct to Guînes along two canals. Who, from amongst those future thinkers, is going to come up with canals, after trams and bicycles, as a great, green transport solution – somewhat more of a boon to the environment than a flight path? Here, little chalets settle along the canal banks, as they don’t beside a motorway, each individualised in ways both eccentric and banal.
Going to Hell
Not more than an hour into our first walk on the continent, we stop for lunch. In France, places can look abandoned like nowhere in England. We come across a cafe that appears last visited in the fifties. It is called ‘Au Train d’Enfer’ which might mean ‘going to hell in a handcart’, or at least at very great speed. It seems entirely inappropriate to my three month mission in search of the holy city, so we go inside.
Maybe it’s because it’s the day before Black Saturday, but the place is heaving, with workmen taking hours for lunch and generations of families and everyone knowing everyone else. It is enormously heartening.
Fear and Intimidation
In many ways, my walk is no more enlightening as to the nature of a place than a jet passenger streaming overhead. I spend a lot of time in fields and on tracks. What do I know? I might have a different sense of scale but not much else.
So, why is it we form such a strong impression of tension around Calais, of fear and intimidation? A child comes up to speak to me; his mother hurries over and stares me round the corner, out of sight. A gang of youths (for there are several and they are young) shout and jeer at us as we pass between them. To be absolutely honest, they might be shouting and cheering. We don’t understand what they are saying but there seems an atmosphere, and an attitude to strangers, I haven’t felt since on the walk.
In contrast, a couple of days later, some distance from Calais, believing myself all alone in the world, I sing as I walk – I think Bruce Springsteen, ‘Dancing in the Dark’! – and, rounding a wall in the middle of nowhere, surprise a young woman putting out her rubbish. Her attitude to me, in contrast to what has gone on before, is one of relaxed and amused indulgence.
Guînes boasts one of those Castels campsites, luxurious and typically surrounding a chateau. This one, Camping la Bien Assise, does not disappoint. In addition, they have a policy of not charging pilgrims on the Via Francigena.
The next day, I say goodbye to Ange. She walks back to Calais (and on to home to look after my mother for a week). I set off on my journey alone, heading for Licques. It’s hard for both of us.
A Gentleman’s Agreement
I climb into the forests south of Guînes. There are so many way signs, I neglect the guide book. Suddenly, I’m lost. And, in that bizarre 21st century way of things, I get a text from Bill. I tell him me and ‘the book’ have had a slight falling out. But when we come to a gentlemen’s agreement, and I accept the book is right and I am wrong, we settle back into comfortable companionship.
A Kind Word Can Be Hard To Take
A nice campsite in Licques, Camping Les Pommiers des Trois Pays. I help a Dutch couple with their caravan. In return, when we chat, we do so in English rather than Dutch! In the morning, I say goodbye to the husband, in my quick and typically awkward way. He stops me and takes my hand firmly and very deliberately says: ‘Good luck. And God bless you’. It is a gesture I both warmly appreciate and fear: clearly, he thinks I’m not going to make it.