THERE WERE FIVE OF US ON THE WALK: Philippe, the young president of the regional association des randonneurs; thirty-five-year-old Jean-Daniel and his wife Marie-Odile from Nantes (he a doctor, she a radiologist), their friend and neighbour Françoise, an engaging physiotherapist of about the same age, and I. Philippe and I had arranged to meet in Tiffauges, but half an hour after the appointed time he had telephoned in great embarrassment. The local tourist office, he said, offered the public a variety of organized walks as part of a weekend package; one of them was from Tiffauges to Clisson, which he and I had arranged to do. The local man who ought to have conducted it had suddenly become unwell, so that three people from Nantes, who had paid for a package and were already in Tiffauges, now found themselves without a guide. Would I mind very much if they came with us? We would have an interesting route along the valley of the Sèvre Nantaise, where I would be able to visit Bluebeard’s castle. ‘Bluebeard’ (aka Gils de Rais, he reminded me) had been a companion in arms of Joan of Arc during her reconquest of the kingdom of France from the English. ‘Mais pas du tout sympathique,’ remarked Françoise sotto voce.
At first, there was little talking as we walked. Speaking no English, the weekenders were to begin with extremely reserved and almost painfully apologetic for their ‘intrusion’ (as they put it) upon my plans. It took some time for me to discover that they had been intimidated by a briefing that had presented me not only as a vastly important person, but also eccentrically solitary by inclination. ‘We thought you looked very severe,” they said later on. All three were smartly dressed in well-cut shorts, tennis shirts and trainers, but to my concern, given that we planned to walk 12 miles or more, I saw that Françoise was wearing no socks.
All francophiles, I suppose, have their own images of quintessential France. Mine has always been of a supreme rurality, and in the valley of the Sèvre Nantaise were all the elements of my ideal. The river flowed slowly, bordered here by high, leafy banks, there by water-meadows; here by narrow woods where our path ran through welcome shade, there by steep slopes with very old farmhouses at the top and cattle swishing their tails in the summer heat. By ancient mills willows drooped, ducks paddled, and a line raised and recast by an angler constituted an exercise of such moment as to mark the very air.
At about one o’clock we lunched in the shade near an old mill. A common supply of bread had been bought in Tiffauges before setting out; otherwise, we offered one another whatever each of us happened to have brought by way of provisions, including wine. I had kept a bottle of good Muscadet cold by my customary means of wrapping it up in a goosedown ‘body warmer’, a refinement much admired by the others. ‘Ah, the English!’ remarked Françoise mockingly. ‘How fussy they are about their wine.’
After we had eaten, the sound of water over a distant weir and of the leaves rustling in the lightest of breezes stilled all chatter and we lay on our backs, gazing up at a blue sky where a solitary, very high-flying jet ejected four perfect vapour trails. I wondered where it had come from and where it was going to and thought that there was nowhere in the world that I would rather be than where I already was.
When we started walking again I was glad to leave the map-reading to Philippe and to have no cares for time and distance. I was also glad in the heat of the summer afternoon to enjoy more pauses than I might have taken on my own; pauses when Marie-Odile and Françoise flopped down with a ‘phew!’ and a ‘mon dieu, qu’il fait chaud!’ and drank deeply from their water-bottles. Occasionally forced to abandon the riverside, our path would climb steeply enough for me to envy the three from Nantes their skimpy shorts and shirts and their super-lightweight footwear. While I plodded, they seemed to step lightly as fawns. Françoise, it is true, was obliged at one point to confess that a sore place had developed where a shoe had chafed a heel, whereupon I had the undeniable satisfaction of supplying first aid.
We reached Clisson at half past five in the afternoon and a more agreeable end to a 12-mile walk it would be hard to devise. At the approaches to the town our path took us close beside the river through a tiny park shaped roughly like an amphitheatre with a steep tree-covered slope that long ago must have been the river bank and an open green sward; all shaded; all cool; all verdant. Ahead, high above the banks of the Sèvre Nantaise and its confluence with the Moine, rose a castle which, though at heart a ruin, looked as a medieval castle ought to: mighty, proud and forbidding; with the addition of a turret or two it could have been an illustration to a fairytale. ‘C’est très plaisant,’ remarked the undemonstrative Françoise.‘C’est fabuleux,’ said Marie-Odile. Hardly less pleasing in all our eyes, sitting under a parasol on a table outside the Café des Sports in the town square, were five tankards of cold draught beer. “It’s best to drink slowly when you’re hot,” advised Philippe sagely. “You’re right,” said the rest of us as we sank the glorious golden stuff in almost the same breath and looked eagerly round again for the waiter.
Clisson was enchanting. It had been arranged that a local doctor who is also a passionate historian should take me on a tour of the town, but we walkers had arrived later than we ought to have done and had sat too long at the Café des Sports, so that when at last I presented myself at his house he suggested that rather than attempt a hurried tour at the end of a tiring day I might like to relax for a while with a drink. Built on the edge of a cliff close to the Sèvre Nantaise, the house seemed almost to be lodged among the tops of tall trees growing in the riverside park below. The doctor’s wife was truly beautiful and impeccably dressed, so that in my far from elegant walking gear, and with my face grimy from the exertions of the very warm day, I was hardly at my ease to begin with. It was a mood that was soon dispelled.
“Here,” said my host, filling my glass with a deliciously cool Muscadet for the third time, “It’s only eleven and a half degrees.” While I had been drinking, he had been telling me something of the history of Clisson from its time as a colony in the Roman province of Aquitaine Secunda down to 1794 and the end of the Revolution, when the savagery of the republican Turreau and his infamous ‘colonnes infernales’ had left it a fire-blackened ruin, ‘abandoned to wolves and dogs’.
The doctor and I joined Jean-Claude, Marie-Odile, Françoise and Philippe for dinner at the Auberge de la Cascade. We ate little oysters cooked with herbs, followed by sea bass with a beurre blanc, duck, cheese and tarte aux pommes. With the oysters and the fish we drank a Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, a Chiroubles with the duck. Philippe left for Nantes, the doctor went home, and the rest of us walked up to the Café des Sports for un petit digestif before bed. The night air was warm and soft and scented with hay, or with lawn grass cut but left lying all day in the hot sun.
Next morning my companions of the day before were obliged to stick to plans that had been laid before we had all met in Tiffauges.The sun had gone, the sky was a uniform grey, the breeze was cold. Setting out alone on another 12-mile walk, I felt strangely bereft. After a while the rhythm of the exercise worked its usual therapy and the weather improved, so that my spirits rose. It was getting on for seven o’clock in the evening when I presented myself at the Abbaye de Villeneuve, on the outskirts of Nantes.‘Is that all the luggage you have?”, queried the receptionist, waringly eyeing my small and venerable day-pack.
“But hasn’t the rest of my luggage arrived?” I asked anxiously.
“Ah non!’.What were you expecting?”
“A much bigger rucksack, and a black holdall”.
In other words, everything except the essential walking gear that I was either wearing or had in my small day-pack: all the means of my making a more or less respectable showing in the dining room.”It will be waiting for you when you get there”,the patronne of Auberge de la Cascade at Clisson had assured me that morning. “Never fear.”
At about eight o’clock I sat swathed in a hotel bathrobe while the maître d’hôtel gave me his suggestions from the menu. Though I had been looking forward to eating in the hotel’s well-reputed restaurant, and dislike room service except for breakfast or a snack, in the absence of my luggage room service for dinner it would have to be. Earlier, as a little something to raise my morale, the head waiter had suggested a bottle of Muscadet Château de Cléray: “a superb wine”. He had not exaggerated, and I was on my second glass when the telephone rang and the now jubilant receptionist announced that my big rucksack and the holdall were on the way up. A lady had brought them and was waiting to see me. A lady! The patronne of the Auberge de la Cascade had been particularly helpful, and now, to my embarrassment, she had obviously felt obliged to bring my luggage in person. What a fuss I had unwittingly caused!
But it was Françoise, not the patronne of the Hotel Cascade, who sat opposite me in the dining room ten minutes later. “I’m really very sorry”, she said. “I was thinking about you in Clisson this morning. Then, when we were leaving, I saw your luggage by the reception desk at the Cascade. They said a taxi was going to collect it later on and bring it over here, so I volunteered to do it after getting back to Nantes and picking up my own car. I would have been earlier, but had to look in at the hospital.”
I was in that light-headed, feet-not-quite-on-the-ground state that can be one of the rewards of a day’s walk and a bath and a glass or two of wine, and for a few moments just looked at her happily. “Still”, she went on, filling the silence. “I did save you the cost of a taxi . And I hope you’re glad you weren’t obliged to have dinner on your own.” I said I was rather and asked for two glasses of champagne.
Adapted from Walking in Wine Country
Remembering Alaska, when dinner in the gorse on the Sussex Downs was over, instead of burning the empty foil packets (‘pouches’, as the makers call them) in which it had been cooked and from which it had been eaten, I sealed them carefully in a plastic bag (Alaska grizzlies have an ultra-keen sense of smell), poured myself another wee dram of Laphroaig single malt whisky and read Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary until my eyes got too tired.
It was not the first time I had dined by candlelight in a gorse thicket. When Robert Louis Stevenson’s Vagabond stated a preference for ‘bed in the bush’ he had a point. For the timorous traveller, the chief advantage of gorse over any other kind of boscage is its obvious (though I would contend superficial) inhospitability. Potential predators are discouraged. Anyway, for the ridgeway walker at the eastern end of the South Downs scarcely any choice of cover for a bivouac presents itself: it is gorse or nothing.
I had come no more than 6 or 7 miles from Eastbourne, but my pack was heavy, the climb up out of Jevington had seemed especially demanding and by 4 pm I had had enough. With the sun already low in the sky and my reserves of energy swiftly following it, I scanned the ground ahead for a likely patch. What I sought was a configuration of prickly vegetation in which a deceptively impenetrable margin yields to an inner clearing spacious enough for the erection of a one-man tent. Fortunately, an almost ideal situation awaited me and by the time it was necessary for my 24-hour camper’s candle to be brought into service my establishment was more or less ship-shape and Bristol fashion. It seemed the moment for a dram or two of something to set against the very rapid and potentially insalubrious fall in temperature up there on the Sussex chalk. It was now that I first brought out the flask of Laphroaig
And so to dinner. To confess to having brought little to eat but what was contained in two 3.3 oz packets of freeze-dried food may well invite the scorn of outdoor romantics, but it was not just any old freeze dried food. The year before, following a camping expedition in the remote northern wilderness of Alaska, a packet of Mountain House Beef Almandine and another of Chicken Chop Suey, made in Oregon and purchased in the Four Winds supermarket, Fairbanks, had travelled back to England with me. Moreover, this was not just common or garden Mountain House, which itself is excellent, but a particular product range with the endearing brand name of Woodsy Owl. A couple of centuries ago it was observed that, within reason, the longer the voyage of a cargo of Madeira, the better the wine. I am now able to testify that there is a je ne sais quoi about Woodsy Owl Beef Almandine and Chicken Chop Suey that have travelled to northern Alaska, thence half the world to England and have ‘rested’ (as they say in the wine business) among miscellaneous camping gear in a basement in London SW4 before being consumed on a winter evening on the South Downs.
‘Serving suggestions for main course entrées and meats’, said the solemn legend on the packets. ‘Add boiling water and eat directly from the pouch – no dishes to wash, no cooking required, wait 5 to 10 minutes and enjoy’. It may not sound the sort of thing that the Michelin Red Guide to France would distinguish as being “vaut le détour”; but that evening. both beef and chicken seemed to me not far short of epicurean. Ask which was better and, risking some Mountain House chef’s feelings, I am bound to say the Chicken Chop Suey; but then, I long since came to the conclusion that Chinese cuisine may be the best in the world.
It was after eight when I blew out the candle. Though I started with my shoulders out of the sleeping bag I awoke about midnight, snuggled right down, secured the drawstring of the hood until scarcely even my face was exposed. and was blissfully warm and comfortable. Yet while I slept the Downs were turning white in a heavy frost. So far as I knew, not a woodsy owl had hooted or a grizzly had stirred.
It was barely 7 miles as the crow flies from Henri Pellés cellars in Morogues to Henrichemont, where there would be hotels, but by the time the tasting was over it was later than I had bargained for and I knew that if I hoped to be in time for dinner I would need to set myself a brisk pace.
Shunning the obvious but hardtop road, I took tracks to the east of it, but only an hour after setting out, with a leaden sky and my pack seeming especially burdensome, it became obvious that before I could reach the macadam on the far side of the forest that I had so boldly chosen to traverse, I should be benighted.
In retrospect, I suspect that I may unconsciously have welcomed the excuse to experiment with a piece of equipment that I often carried in case of emergency, but had never yet used — a Gore-Tex bivvy bag. Substituting for a tent, and significantly lighter; needing neither poles nor guy ropes and pegs, a bivvy bag is a sort of sack which can accommodate the user in a normal sleeping bag. Here, in the swiftly darkening Bois d’Henrichemont, its moment had arrived.
In a thicket of saplings that gave an illusion of security (I have always been afraid of the dark) I found a level space just large enough for my needs; and for extra shelter, and to enhance the illusion, rigged my lightweight groundsheet as a sort of porch. I was not badly provided for. I had water. Odds and ends remained from my lunchtime picnic. Not least, I carried a small flask of whisky. By 8 pm I was snugly cocooned.
Few people can honestly claim unbroken sleep in a bivouac. I slept and woke, slept and woke again. Within arm’s reach outside the bivvy bag, the water in its plastic bottle was almost ice-cold and I laced it with whisky. While I hid there, winter tightened its grip. It was not simply a matter of temperature, but of impalpable, primordial mood. The silence of the woods was not merely that of repose, but of all nature cowering from the dread tyrant, not daring to stir, hoping to be overlooked.
But in the morning there was a heavy frost and a million leaves had fallen.