On the morning of Tuesday 11th April 2023, Community of the Passion member Lya Vollering set off from Canterbury to begin walking the 1800km pilgrimage trail known as the Via Francigena, which has Rome as its destination.
Walking an ancient path to the future, Lya does so as an act of ecological witness in the midst of our climate crisis, to call attention to the urgent need to heal and care for the earth, our common home.
Here we share her first week of reflections on the journey.
Tuesday 11th April: First steps
Chris, Claire and I left early to attend the 8am service in Canterbury Cathedral. It was the gospel of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden. Therefore the service was in the crypt, in the Mary Magdalene chapel. An intimate space (certainly compared with the impressive cathedral). The chapel was full.
John Thornhill was there to meet us. John and Chris heard the priest say that Jesus appeared to a ‘mere’ woman. I and Clare missed that, maybe we didn’t want to hear it 😊. A couple of years ago I had the idea to walk to Rome and gather testimonies of how women feel in the Catholic Church. I have let go of that idea, but if you would like to share your experience with me, I would be very interested.
The landscape we walked through was very gentle, with beautiful old villages. A delight to walk through a field full of cowslips. There was also plenty of ‘green desert’ fields with just one crop: wheat or rapeseed mostly. I was surprised to hear so many skylarks.
Wednesday 12th April: We need a system change
At first I had thought I could walk the 33 kilometers (at the end we did around 40) and get the ferry in one day. I am so pleased I changed the plan and decided to do in two days. Because why the rush? I tried to find somewhere to stay between Herne Bay and Dover, but wasn’t very lucky (or maybe I was!). It made sense to go back with Chris and Clare to Herne Bay. There we had such a lovely second evening, with a very nice meal cooked by Cai and good conversations. The connections made that are so enriching.
Now I am on the ferry, delayed because of the rough weather. Chris and Claire walked with me all the way to the ferry and there we said our goodbyes. They have been great company. On our walk, we talked a lot about how the problems we are facing—poverty, climate crisis, breakdown of democracy, disregard for creation and her creatures—are all connected. We need a system change. A profound change of how we live and relate to the world, and all its creatures around us.
Thursday 13th April: We are one world family
I crossed the channel during the storm; the stabilisers helped, but didn’t stop people getting sick. I arrived much later than expected, and found the arrival deserted: no bus, no taxi. A volunteer from Maria Skobtsova House kindly picked me up. In the car she started to tell me about the Iranian family that had stayed with them and had tried to cross the channel last week. A couple with three children: eleven, eight, one and a half. Only the dad had a life jacket. The dinghy they were in exploded. They all got in the water and couldn’t swim; amazingly they all survived. It was clear that it has effected all in MSH.
A young couple with two children from America offered me the guest room in their house. They are supporting the work of MSH (not sure if that covers all they do, but I like supporting more than managing, it is done with such love and dedication). The first evening we talked briefly, what stayed with me is that Rachel said that the most important thing is to love the women and children. How the women would say that nobody wants them: not in their own country, not here, and not in the UK. Except in a big way in MSN. Yesterday we visited the house: bright and full of beautiful and heartbreaking drawings of the women and children that stayed there.
Rachel gave me a tour around Calais to show me what the British Government fund to make Calais more ugly, and the UK less accessible. Big rocks are put in green spaces to prevent anyone sleeping there; fences everywhere and money goes to the special police force CRS who keep removing people who try to settle in small camps. It is probably all funded by the foreign aid budget.
She showed me, too, a huge support facility that provides food, clothes, tents etc. to the homeless seekers of safety who have their hope set on the UK.
In the evening two women from Ethiopia cooked. We eat together and shared stories and laughter. Always when that happens – that was the case in Carmel House – it feels like family. That is what we are: one world family.
Now I have my rucksack packed again and will continue on my own. Time to process the last couple of days. My head and heart feels full.
Friday 14th April: Making time
I woke up early and finally met the two children of my hosts. They were very chatty, keen to show me their bedroom and toys. Then it was off to school for them, and for me to continue the journey on my own.
That, however, didn’t happen so quickly. Rachel and Joseph invited me to go back to Maria Skobtsova House to meet a French sister who comes regularly to give volunteers a break. We gathered around the table and discussed the situation in the house. The house is for women, but at the moment there are places available, and the idea is to open it for families. The need is always greater than what can be met. It also depends on the availability of volunteers.
The two young women from Ethiopia were making breakfast: pancakes and an Ethiopian dish. I kept an eye on the clock, literally! The idea was that we all would go to the beach where I would pick up the route again and they would go for the best ‘fries’ in town and a little stroll. I was hoping we could go at 11. Eleven passed, and we were just starting to have breakfast!
Maybe we could go at 12? Twelve passed. I was getting nervous; I still had to get to Wissant, a 20km walk away. I tried to gently get the message across that I really needed to go. We were waiting for another visitor from the UK who wanted to see the place. Ok Lya—just let it go. Washing the dishes helped me not to get too agitated.
I suppose I could have walked from the house. However, I liked the idea to go together. The visitor arrived and was offered pancakes 🙃 Ok let me make a cup of tea for him then. Finally all 8 of use got in the van. They all walked with me the first kilometers. It was certainly worth waiting for! I have that image now in my heart and head: 7 people waving me off on the beach.
I know that the two women will try to make the crossing to the UK this weekend. It is hard to imagine that ‘pilgrimage’. It makes me—again—so aware how privileged we are in the West. The ease with which we can travel abroad. It was illustrated by the many ferries going to and from Dover to Calais.
I paid £30 for a ticket. People seeking a safe place pay an average of £2,000 for a very unsafe journey in a small boat.
The walk along the beach was beautiful. There is something so attractive and calming about the sea. A colony of kittiwakes nesting on the cliffs. Interestingly, because I was late, I was lucky that the tide was out and I could walk the whole way to Wissant on the beach without climbing the high cliffs. It was an very easy walk. This way I can dance my way to Rome! I found the camp, pitched my tent, and got something to eat. In the night, the rain started and didn’t stop.
Saturday 15th April: Missing meadow birds
In the morning I was waiting for the rain to stop so that I could pack my tent, but no luck. So I had to come up with a plan: how to pack a tent and rucksack on the rain. I am not very experienced in camping.
The rucksack was heavy and the road to Guînes long and partly uphill. I wasn’t dancing! This time, I had booked a mobile home, to be able to dry the tent and sleep in a warm place, not realising that the campsite was a few kilometres from the route. I got there in the end.
En route I heard again a few skylarks. Then I realised that I didn’t see or hear other meadow birds. No lapwings, no godwits, no curlews. The landscape I am walking through is mainly agriculture. Although I see signs of ‘Pay du lait’ I haven’t seen or heard many cows. It is fields of rapeseed and wheat mainly.
Nearer Guînes I came through a young woodland with a beautiful carpet of forest flowers: blue bells, wood anemones, common blue violet, wild geranium and lesser celandines. It lifted my spirit and lightened my steps.
Sunday 16th April: Beech trees
I packed my dry stuff and start the 15km walk to Licques.
I really struggled, and had difficulties to get up a not-particularly-high hill. How I am going to do this? Lya, just stop. I was in another young woodland, and the flowers still made me smile. At the edge of the wood was a row of older beech trees.
I put my rucksack down and put my feet up. Literally. I put them against a big beech tree, and admired the crown of it. It was good to have a different perspective and to be so close to an older tree. I had my picnic and took a painkiller. I was packing up when a walker passed by asking me if I was a pilgrim. He was a French man, doing parts of the walk at the time. He walked fast, with Nordic walking sticks; but he slowed down a bit.
Amazingly, walking was easier again. We walked and talked sometimes. He had been to COP21 in Paris too. We shared our concern for the environment. We passed a big field with leeks. The waste, he said. The leeks won’t be used. I passed other fields. I said how the woodland is very young. Yes, he said, they have to replace trees if they cut them down. However, they replace them with inferior ones (I am not sure if there is such a thing as an inferior tree, but I think he meant a tree with softer wood). We reached Licques where he was going to be picked up by his wife, and I walked on to the camping.
A beautiful campsite, with spacious places for mainly camper vans. I was the only one with a tent. The little tent looked a bit lost in the big space it had been allocated. It was cold at night. I had all my clothes on and my coat on and still wasn’t comfortably warm. I managed to sleep.
Monday 17th April: God is outside
A beautiful bird chorus woke me up. Sleeping in a tent, I was right in the middle of it. It was certainly worth the cold night. It was incredibly beautiful. I heard a cuckoo. So rare to hear nowadays.
I was cold and decided to walk the 35 kilometres to the monastery. Again, the route went through fields of wheat and rapeseed. I saw another field with leeks that had been wasted. It was so sad to see the tractors with the equipment with long arms spraying the fields, presumably with pesticides.
This time the route didn’t take me through woodland. Instead I skirted the edge of it, hearing a chainsaw as I went. I was looking forward to seeing the ruins of an old church. However, there wasn’t much to it. It was too cold to sit there for too long. I reached a little village called Tournehem sur la Hem.
There was one cafe. I tried the door and thought it was closed. An elderly lady came out to welcome me in. It was so comfortably warm. I hadn’t felt such warmth for what felt like ages. There was nobody else in the cafe. With my limited French we made some conversation. She was delighted with all the pilgrims visiting her cafe. She brought over the visitors’ book and asked me to sign it. A lot of people had signed from Australia and Canada and Europe, of course. The coffee was terrible and I am not completely sure if the onion soup was vegetarian, but my host was a delight and she warmed my heart and my body felt much better too. Only 19 more km to go.
Later, I took a wrong turn, but I really didn’t want to make the route any longer, so I decided to risk it and try walking through the fields to reach the bridge that crossed the motorway. All the apps and GPS are wonderful. However, there is something thrilling about getting lost and finding an alternative way too.
I reached the small place of Wisques with two big Benedictine monasteries: one for men and one for women. The one for women ( L’abbaye Notre Dame) is immense! Do look it up. So far, I could count only sixteen nuns living there. When I rang the bell an elderly nun in full habit opened the door. I was hoping to stay in the monastery, but there was a special guest house nearby. It was very nice too, and the whole setting reminded me of the old Carmelite monastery in Liverpool. Although this one was three times its size!
Dinner was eaten in the monastery, and I shared it with four young French women. They were using the quiet space for study. The elderly nun came to bring the food and to have a chat. Some of what she shared I could follow, particularly the bit about money. I had to pay in cash and didn’t have that on me, so used was I to paying for everything by card. We agreed that the next day I would walk to the nearby town to withdraw money from a cash machine. She said she would keep my pilgrim’s passport as a token. I said she could keep my luggage too! She had a better plan: a volunteer would pick me up at 9am and take me to the bank.
So it happened. The nun was there to receive the money and to say goodbye. I said I would like to attend mass. Are you a Catholic? She seemed a little surprised. Mass reminded me again of the Carmelite monastery. The nuns were behind a grille, out of sight. We could hear their exquisite singing though. It was beautiful but I couldn’t help thinking that for me God is ‘outside’.
I was getting ready to leave, feeling very tired and was dragging my feet somewhat. The nun came and said: would you not like a coffee before you go? That was so unexpected and such a gift. I so needed that cup of coffee!
You can follow Lya’s weekly updates here.
Reflections, music and scripture as well as opportunities for sharing on this World Aids Day online service.
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See the full list of talks at this year's week-long seminar, and tune in on YouTube.
Sep 20 2023
Lya Vollering shares eight concluding lessons from ninety-six days spent walking the Via Francigena.
Jul 25 2023