French villages appear on the horizon, fully advertised with church prominent and then the Mairie. Trefcon is different. Buried inside woodland, you wouldn’t even know it had a church. To add to its mystery, we are led inside its boundary by a horse and trap. Are we entering a time warp?
In fact, the trap is driven by Danièle, our host. In addition to a gîte and b&b, they operate canoes as well as horses. Despite rapidly oncoming flu, when he hears we have nothing to eat, Danièle’s father, Hubert, heads out to the local Crocci to buy us a hearty meal.
The Post of Accommodation Officer
Ange has become Accommodation Officer which I consider a significant promotion from her workaday job (which is, I’m led to believe, one of great responsibility). In all seriousness, I’m catching up with this blog and actually finding somewhere to stay the night because of it. There is notoriously little accommodation on this part of the route and planning the next night involves bending and stretching the route … as well as phone calls in French. In consequence of which, we go halfway down the next section and then bear east in the direction of Saint Quentin.
It’s interesting how the names of streets and features differ between France and England. The French confidently celebrate (even seemingly obscure) individuals and dates in their street names – a history of people and action. In Britain, we seem to mark geography rather than history in our names, or at least a history buried deep in folklore.
A Fairytale Forest
From Saint Quentin we get the train back to Tergnier. From here, it’s going to be 35 kilometres before we reach our campsite, most of which will be spent deep in the Forêt de Saint-Gobain. In fairy tales, we are taught to be sceptical of sources of seeming perfection which emerge out of the forest, like chateaux with classically presented gardens or houses made of sweets.
Imagine then our uncertainty on being presented with a formal restaurant emerging between the trees at the edge of the hamlet of Saint-Nicolas-aux-Bois. The Restaurant Mexico was established in 1968 (when it must have been extremely à la mode – in the days when France outstripped Britain in the medals table). Right now, it provided a full-on lunch with wine, to give us the strength to climb the next hill.
As we descended from the hills of the forest, we had our first glimpse of Laon. To my shame, I had no idea that this city rose out of the plains of the Picardy/Champagne regions on such a sudden plateau, so steep it requires a funicular railway to get up there. It also boasts a magnificent cathedral. We struggled to the little campsite at the base for the night and struggled even more the next morning climbing up into the old city.
Shortly before I left England, I summoned my old mates, Tim and Barry, for a last drink, since I felt, of course, I might never see them again. After a beer or two, I was warming to my theme: about the great adventure I was about to undertake. At one point, one of them mentioned something about blisters. ‘Oh, I won’t be getting any blisters,’ I announced. There was a frankly embarrassed silence with both of them looking down into their beers. They looked at one another and one of them, representing the consensus, quietly said: ‘You will’.
My blisters regime, should any walkers be interested, is as follows: 1000 mile socks (or two layers of sock to prevent friction); Stride Out Oil from Cotswolds Outdoors in the evening for suppleness, as used by Special Forces; Gehwol Foot Cream, applied in local, vulnerable areas more than once a day; stops in the day, to take off shoes and socks and release the heat; Compeed, should the worst happen.
Of course, Tim and Barry were right. I let go the regime on my right foot when I applied a preventative plaster and I’ve now got three awkward blisters. My left foot continues to benefit from the regime and is blister-free.
After the climb into Laon, I was struggling to keep going. Ange also had a blister but it was clearly much less serious since she wasn’t going on about it like me. So, the funicular down to the station, train into Reims, with the plan to train back and walk packless.
On the train, we met up with our second and third fellow pilgrims, Maurizio and his wife Catherina. They were in mourning for Santiago de Compostela. Everything was half the price. There was somewhere to stay every five kilometres. You could find your way without a map. And, most importantly, you could get coffee. ‘I am Italian,’ Maurizio cried, from his mischievous heart.
Instead of the planned walk we gave way to two days in Reims, resting up. In consequence of which, I have finally caught up with these blogs! For their dismayingly rapid publication – not another one! – I apologise. However, my walking self and my digital self are now on the same page. At noon, a man and his shadow are as one.