Footloose in France

IT BEGAN IN SEPTEMBER on the Sussex Downs.  Gazing out over the Channel, I thought : one day I’ll load up my largest rucksack, and take my local ferry from Newhaven, and get off at Dieppe and just keep walking as long as my feet and resolve will carry me. Through the Pas-de-Calais and Picardy and down into Champagne, perhaps, and south into Burgundy. Possibly the Auvergne and the Cevennes in the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson, then down into Languedoc-Roussillon and so to the end of France where the eastern Pyrenees meet the sea.

That evening, with a glass of wine, I fetched out a map and measured distances with thumb and forefinger and wondered idly how long it might take the owner of a bus pass to cover more than a thousand miles on foot with his belongings on his back. A few days later, just for fun, I was jotting down place names for an imaginary itinerary and – merely for interest’s sake-  asking Stanfords of London to send me the IGN map of the long-distance footpaths of France: the Grandes Randonnées. By the time the November gales had come and the beech trees that love the chalk of the South Downs were bare, idle fancy had metamorphosed into a feasibility study. Asked what I would like for Christmas, I said a new backpack and walking poles and perhaps a pair of Meindl shoes if anyone was feeling especially generous, and two or three pairs of Bridgedale socks.

By the end of March I had a plan, and as April went out in almost mid-summer sunshine the ferry from Newhaven had become Eurostar from London to Calais. The Eurostar station is roughly five miles southwest from the centre of the Calais centre, so I had a fair start on my way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where in 1520 Henry VIII of England stayed for his meeting with the French king, Francois I. All the same, a three-hour uninspiring trudge to what is now a sadly unremarkable piece of ground between Guines and Ardres was enough to modify the grandiose notion of walking every mile of the way to Port-Bou. With five or more miles to go to my b & b at Bonnigues, the pack weighing cruelly  and night coming on, a ride in a tractor was heaven-sent. “It’ll go much faster when we get to the road”, boasted the proud owner as we bounced along the track where he had picked me up.  “You’ll be very comfortable there”, he said, when he dropped me at the gates of Le Manoir. Very comfortable I was, too, where the room was as charming as the proprietress and the table d’hôte dinner exquisite.

Though I had said at the outset that the intention was to walk from the Channel to the Mediterranean, I had made no gratuitous  promises either to myself or to anyone else, which  had been just as well. I don’t say that there is no good walking country in the Pas de Calais; I say only that a man needs to be significantly better informed than I was if he is to find it. Unless he has something peculiar to himself to prove I can see no virtue in toiling mile after mile through infinities of assorted legumes, cereals and sugar beet.  Vanity would have suffered a hard knock had I resorted to a deliberate thumbing of lifts; the face-saving compromise was a longer look over my shoulder at overtaking vehicles than pedestrian caution required, a ploy that was surprisingly effective. Half a dozen suburban miles from my hotel in central Saint Omer next evening, labouring faute de mieux on the D206, my body language must so have touched the heart of a weather-beaten paysan in a matching Peugot as to cause him to pull up and offer me a lift. It was with truly heart-felt gratitude that I accepted.

Of fifty or sixty miles during the next few days more than half were walked, the first twelve or so on the towpath of the Canal de Neufossé to Aire-sur-la-Lys. Here, an 80-metre barge was loading grain from a silo. How would I fancy a 6-day cruise to Holland, her master suggested: there was plenty of room on board. Wrong direction, I told him. Two days later I was at Miraumont, in Picardy, where the May blossom and the lilac and the lily of the valley were out, and in High Wood and Delville Wood and Mametz Wood of dreadful fame where the remains of thousands of those who died still lie unmarked beneath the bluebells and the brambles, and the trees were in new leaf. Everywhere, poignantly, heart-breaking, the Portland stone crosses and headstones of the Commonwealth military cemeteries of the 1914-1918 war were a brilliant white against the green and brown of the wide, rolling slopes where more than 50,000 men fell and almost 20,000 died between dawn and dusk on the first day of the appalling Battle of the Somme.

Spring and early summer are together by far the most desirable season for these parts. Roughly speaking, from the Somme southward the walking is good: untold miles of country lanes and tracks where a vehicle of any kind is a rarity. Sometimes one might imagine oneself to be walking through a vast, well kept but unsophisticated country park. After Miraumont it was south by way of Fresnes-Mazancourt and successive b & bs into the department of the Aisne to Chauny, on the Saint Quentin canal and Monampteuil, where the Canal de Loise à l’Aisne tunnels under the high ground that in the 1914—1918 war was the scene of a horror no less dreadful but infinitely less well known than that of the infamous Vimy Ridge: the battle of the Chemin des Dames.

The road was so called because of its habitual use in the 18th century by two daughters of Louis XV. Inconspicuously, if at all identified on most modern motoring maps, part of the almost straight D18 traversing a limestone plateau commanding the valley of the River Aisne, in 1917 it occupied a position of crucial strategic importance for the Germans, who had occupied and progressively fortified it since 1914. As both Caesar and Napoleon are said to have recognised, and as walkers today may themselves discover, to capture the position would involve foot soldiers in an almost precipitous uphill assault. In spring, 1917, the first few hours of such an attack, commanded by Nivelle, a French general no less hideously profligate with the lives of his men than Britain’s Haig, cost 30,000 dead. Subsequent reenactments of identical and obviously futile tactics resulted in so great a killing that there were mutinies among the surviving French soldiery, in response to which men were court martialled and shot.  In 1918 and the last great German offensive of the war, the ridge was again the scene of a slaughter so savage that almost the entire British IX Corps—recently moved there from the Aisne—was annihilated and of the total number of allied dead over half had no known graves

I walked there from Monampteuil.  At first the way was by bosky canal paths where nightingales sang and helmsmen on slow-moving barges raised hands in greeting, then it was steeply up through woods where —as on the Somme—thousands disappeared for ever and more than 80 years have not served to hide the shell craters and the trenches. From the high ground was so lovely a vista of country reaching southward to the Marne that to associate it with so great a carnage was to strain imagination and belief.  Compared with the battlefields of more densely populated and more easily accessible Flanders and Picardy, that of the Chemin des Dames seems forgotten and deserted.  Skylarks are noisier than any traffic. Where the air was fragrant with hawthorn and meadowsweet I sat on the remains of a German bunker, eating my bread and drinking  my wine and heard a cuckoo calling from a wood below the ridge.

 The above piece, and the two or three pieces that are intended to follow it, have been freely adapted from a series of half a dozen illustrated features originally published in 2004 by France Magazine.

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