Via Francigena - Canterbury to Arras
Because we live in South East London, we were able to start the pilgrimage with a single leg in Kent between Canterbury and Shepherdswell. We then returned home and set out to walk from Shepherdswell to Arras a week later. The summer of 2018 was very hot and sunny.
Friday 29 June 2018
Canterbury to Shepherdswell (17Km) We drove down to Shepherdswell and got a train back to Canterbury. At the cathedral we purchased our pilgrim credentials (£2 each) and received a blessing from a priest. Then we set out to walk back to Shepherdswell. Over this section the VF follows the same route as the North Downs Way which we had completed many years before. After 5Km we stopped in the churchyard at Patrixbourne to eat our sandwiches. In the next section there were several long stretches through open fields with no shade from the hot sun. We had a break at the edge of a wheat field and pressed on. We arrived at Shepherdswell feeling hot and dehydrated. Luckily there was a small supermarket where I bought an ice cream and Gillian had a bottle of wheat beer.
Sunday 8 July 2018
Shepherdswell to Dover (14Km) –The second start of our pilgrimage to Rome. We went up to Victoria and caught the 10.40 train to Shepherdswell arriving at 12.25. It was really hot and sunny again but we got along OK arriving in Dover at 16.45 (14 Km). We were using the Cicerone VF Guide Book on my iPhone and PocketEarth Maps on Gillian’s iPad. Amazingly we met another pilgrim en route, a Frenchman from Calais who had a harrowing medical history of being paralysed because of a brain tumour and a “didn’t believe in operations”. He was sitting beside the track resting his feet. We weren't destined to meet another pilgrim until we had walked more than 300km across France. In Dover we checked in to the Travelodge and went out to a pub called the White Horse for a drink. The kitchen was just closing because they had almost run out of food but we managed to order two meals of whitebait, potato and salad. Afterwards we went for a stroll on the sea front. The sun was finally setting after shining all day from a totally cloudless sky.
Monday 9 July 2018
Calais to Guines (12 Km) Another very hot sunny day. We got the 09.25 P&O boat from Dover and reached Calais at about 12 noon local time. We walked into the town and headed for the cathedral hoping to get a stamp in our pilgrim passports but found it closed for renovations. Gillian got them stamped at the tourist office nearby while I went in search of patisserie. We went on to view the impressive town hall and the “Burghers of Calais” sculpture by Rodin. At about 14.30 we found the Canal De Calais and began our walk towards Guines. It was hot work and the first few kilometers along the canal were in the suburbs of Calais. We stopped for a coke at a place called Coulogne. The whole walk was absolutely level and the countryside got greener the further away from Calais. At one point, we were startled by a large over-friendly dog which had eluded its owner. When we reached Guines around 16.00, it was a nice place with lots of historical connections to Henry VIII and the Field of the Cloth of Gold but as with many other small French towns it was slightly in decline. We found an open bar with outside seats in the main square and had a cold beer Our accommodation was in a very nice 19thC town house with an extensive garden and another large friendly dog. We visited a supermarket to buy picnic food and an evening meal for the next day and then had pizzas and beer in one of the cafes. I drank Kronenburg and Gillian had a wheat beer from an unusual blue bottle.
Tuesday 10 July
Via Francigena (Guines to Audrehem) (about 20Km) The weather was grey and cloudy which was a welcome relief after the 30 degree heat of the previous day. We decided to take the GR128 for the first part of the route to Licques. There were also some helpful VF direction signs. A couple of kilometers outside Guines we crossed a bridge over the TGV railway line and entered some extensive woods. Immediately I spotted a large memorial amongst the trees and I left Gillian on the path while I investigated. It was a stone column commemmorating the first crossing of the English Channel by air which was accomplished in a hot air balloon by Jean-Pierre Blanchard in the year 1785 in the reign of Louis XVI. Something I had never heard of or even imagined. Amazing stuff. I took a photo. When we emerged from the forest, we followed the book’s advice about taking a detour and after some road walking we came to the hamlet of Le Ventus d’Alembon where there was a garden full of beautiful hydrangeas. In fact, the whole area seemed to be good for growing hydrangeas. I took a photo and we were walking away when the lady owner called us back and insisted we came into her garden to admire the flowers more closely. She was very proud of them. And rightly so. But, sadly, she didn’t offer us a cup of tea. After that, we had an easy 3Km ridge walk with good views all around before descending to Licques with its impressive Abbey. We stopped at a cafe near the Abbey for a hot drink and then continued towards our accommodation at Audrehem. We arrived at the isolated farmhouse 30 minutes before the 15.00 check-in and sat in a field entrance and had a word game until it was time to ring the bell. We had a self contained apartment with its own kitchen. Better still, it had a bathtub where we could soak our aching limbs. Gillian cooked a nice meal of Frankfurters and creamed potatoes from powder which we had bought the night before. I watched the Football World Cup semi-final.
Wednesday 11 July 2018
Audrehem to Wisques (about 25Km) We left our accommodation at about 8.30. It was grey and overcast with a hint of rain. We passed through a village caled Alquines and crawled up the big steep hill which followed. At first we tolerated the misty precipitation, Gillian with her umbrella (which doubled as a parasol when necessary) and me with my light fleece but shortly after the hamlet of Le Buisson in a stretch of open countryside the rain got harder and we had to put on our raincoats. We were on a track which descended through fields and the rain sounded worse when passing under trees. It continued until we rejoined a road and reached the larger village of Bouvelinghem. After this we had a lot road walking in a light mist of raindrops. At Acquin-Westbecourt, there was a café where we had a drink. Then there was a steep uphill stretch (on the grandly named Rue de la Montagne) towards a long straggling village called Quelmes. We stopped on the steps of a wayside shrine to eat our picnic lunch and then passed over the A26 Motorway. At Leulinghem we emerged into open countryside. The final 2.5Km to our destination seemed to me a big underestimate of distance (I guess I was getting tired.) At the outskirts of Wisques we took a pedestrian path which led us to the Abbey of Notre Dame where we got our credentials stamped by one the elderly sisters. (It was literally a paper stamp stuck into the page.) We located our accommodation at the Hotel Les Sapinières Our room was in row of detached bungalows with gable ends. After settling in, I had a large beer in the bar and watched Tour de France on TV. Wisques was perched on a hill with a nice view across to St Omer which was illuminated in the evening sunshine. I thought it would be make a good first night stopping point on any subsequent European car journey. We had a very good evening meal in the restaurant (Gillian had salmon and I had Basque chicken) whilst I kept one eye on the TV screen showing the England v Croatia match from the World Cup.
Thursday 12 July 2018
Wisques to Auchy-au-Bois (24km) The day started out grey and cloudy but became warm and sunny in the afternoon. This was the transition back to the heat we had been expecting. We had been lucky to have a couple of cool days. We decided to make fast progress during the morning by doing some direct road walking to Thérouanne. We reached there at lunchtime and I had a light meal in the first bar at the entrance to the town Just as well, because we didn’t see any more cafes open for business. We visited the tourist information office where there was a small museum and a very friendly woman curator who chatted about the town and stamped our credentials. The guide book proposed a route to the south of the main road but Gillian suggested what should be a more scenic road to the north. To Gillian’s delight this turned out to be the official GR145 route and was very pleasant passing through acres of yellow barleyfields. We did a detour around a quarry and then had a break in a field entrance. It had become very hot. We descended through a small village and started on a long uphill road walk to Ligny-les-Aires. After navigating this village we emerged on to the very straight D90 which led to our destination 1.8Km distant. Gillian suddenly became worried about walking along it and suggested holding back to find another route. But I was anxious to finish and I persuaded her that there was an ample verge for safety on both sides. In fact, we had no trouble at all. As we reached Auchy-au-Bois there was a small bar where we could buy a beer. We relaxed at a table outside and watched traffic, including many heavy lorries, negotiating the junction. We had a bit of troubling locating our chambre d’hotes but when we found it, it was very nice and friendly. We had booked dinner which started with a champagne and kir aperitif. Our hostess Fanny cooked an excellent meal and there was a red wine and a white wine. There were two other guests, Sue and Michael from Yorkshire, both retired teachers, who were returning from a holiday with their car on the Mosel. Sue was a linguist who had studied German and Scandinavian. It was a pleasant evening.
Friday 13 July 2018
Auchy-au-Bois to Rebreuve-Ranchicourt (20 km) We started walking around 08.30 and our first village was Amettes, the birthplace of St Benoit. We stopped to visit his house which was small and sparsely furnished. We were now into old mining country and, as we left the village, there were some conical slag heaps on the horizon, now covered in trees. We climbed through fields on a dusty track. The next village of Floringhem had a bar where we stopped for a drink. It was very hot and when we reached some woods we took advantage of their shade to have a lunchtime break. We reached the town of Camblain Châtelain where we were obliged to start walking beside roads. We went along the D90 to its very busy junction with the D341 and turned right. The next few kilometers were unpleasant. To start with, they were mostly uphill with traffic roaring past and parked cars blocking the footpath in typical French style. We stopped for a break under some scrubby trees and then walked on past the junction to Divion. The road went down again and the traffic became less. Then we went sharply uphill again but this time on a track. This was the Chaussée Brunehaut, an old Roman road. The heat was getting to me and I fell behind. After several more kilometers we came into some suburban streets and turned left and walked into Houdain. This was the first big town we had seen since Guines. I had a tasty salad roll at a baker’s shop and bought an identical second one for next day’s lunch. We went to a supermarket and bought supplies for our evening meal. Among other things Gilly bought a box of four choc ices. Bearing in mind how hot it was and how quickly they would melt, she gave one away immediately to another customer. We sat in a small park opposite and she ate two more while I ate one. We decided to walk the 1.5km to Rebreuve-Ranchicourt directly along the main road carrying our food (which included three cans of beer) in carrier bags. There was a pavement which kept us away from the traffic. We turned right to reach Rebreuve-Ranchicourt and sat in the local churchyard in the evening sunshine until our host arrived home at 19.00. Our air B&B accommodation, in the garden of the house, was a bit eccentric for France. It was built in tyrolean chalet style with a large jacuzzi adjacent to the sleeping area. It had some quirky lighting and lots of character but was a little impractical for cooking and sleeping. We made use of the jacuzzi and had our evening meal (chicken, cole slaw and salad) sitting in the garden gazebo . We heard Bastille Day fireworks going off as we went to sleep. The jacuzzi rumbled and bubbled periodically throughout the night
Saturday 14 July 2018
Rebreuve-Ranchicourt to Arras (28Km) We started early at about 07.30 and opted to use the main road, the D341. Because this was a public holiday. we hoped it would be fairly quiet and free of lorries. It was, and we made good progress. We covered the first 8Km in a couple of hours. We were taking a break on a bench in a village when a cavalcade of thirty or forty vintage tractors chugged by. We were the only spectators in sight and got some cheery waves from the drivers. We were on the Chausée Brunehaut again. 1.5 Km later we were able to go straight on along the old Roman road while the modern highway detoured to the right. The road became a track went pleasantly along through shady woods. When we emerged back on the main road, we were pleased to see from a roadsign that there was only 9Km to go to Arras. However, the road was getting busy and we knew that there was an impractical junction ahead with a route nationale. So we went back on the longer route in the guide book. This meant taking a side-road down to the village of Ecoivres. A bit further on there was a sign saying – road closed ahead – but we assumed correctly that it only meant closed to vehicles and soon reached a stretch of flat walking beside a railway. After a short section into and out of the small hamlet of Bray we crossed the railway line again and our track led out into open fields with the village of Maroeuil visible ahead. It was around 14.00, the hottest part of the day and we stopped in the shadow of an oak tree by the wayside and took a long break. I was getting low on water. We walked into Maroeuil and I went looking for a bar. The only café was closed between 13.00 and 16.00 !!!! and I returned to Gillian muttering darkly about the lack of facilities in small French towns. We walked on and I asked a lady standing outside her house if she would fill my water bottle but, instead, she told us that there was a natural spring ahead. We found the spring but the water was sadly labled as not “potable”. Although the next few kilometers were pleasant enough (partly along a small river called La Scarpe) I started to feel increasingly dehydrated and images of an ice-cold coca-cola kept swimming into my mind. As a consequence of being thirsty I also got very grumpy. The route took us beneath the perimeter road of Arras and then onto a rising track. Finally we descended into the town and walked through some parks along a river to reach the town centre. I insisted on buying a drink at the first opportunity which was at a stall selling friites. We went to the cathedral and had our credentials stamped. I said a short prayer to ask God to make me less grumpy. We walked up to the Grand Place where we each had a large beer. We caught the train to Lille at 17.35. (Gillian had been unable to find any accommodation in the whole of Arras and it was only later that we discovered the reason – the Tour De France was starting from there the next day.) In Lille we soon found our IBIS Hotel and, after a break, we walked through the city which was very busy on this national holiday. In the warm evening, lots of people were eating at outside tables. We did the same at a small restuarant and had a meal of charcuteries and tempura vegetables with a bottle of Sauvignon from Touraine. At 23.00 there were fireworks in the citadel and we could just see them over the tops of the houses. We returned to the hotel happy that our walking was finished. Tomorrow we would return to London by coach.