On the morning of Tuesday 11th April 2023, Community of the Passion member Lya Vollering set off from Canterbury to begin walking the 1,800km 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 third week of reflections on the journey.
Tuesday 18th April: We need the wild
My walk through this landscape in Northern France has led me past many rough dung heaps. They smell, and leak a thick black soup, running onto the path into the fields and then into the groundwater. The image of high nitrogen contaminating the environment is just too much. This, alongside the monotonous monoculture use of the fields is sad to see. I wondered how did it look for pilgrims in the 10th century? They saw far more woodland I would imagine. How did it look even 100 years ago? Imagine if there were more food forests now, more rewilding.
If I am correct, only 10% of the earth’s land is left for wildlife. So little. I think we human beings need the wild. It does something positive to our soul. The verges with the wildflowers speak more to me than the incredibly tidy gardens.
I reach Therouanne, a small town with just over a thousand inhabitants. It wasn’t always like that. In the Middle Ages it was a prosperous city and important religious site. At that time it had the largest cathedral in France. In 1552, Charles V decided to wipe Therouanne from the map as a revenge for his defeat at Metz. He ordered the buildings to be destroyed, the roadways taken up and the fields to be salted.
It was the story that the host of gîte Eden told me before even talking about payment for staying there. I have decided to use gîtes for now, until it gets a bit warmer to camp out. They have great facilities with a kitchen, a laundry area and three dormitories with a capacity for ten people. I was lucky to have the whole place to myself, but a group of five had booked it for the next night, and for the weekend it was fully booked.
Wednesday 19th April: The weight
I have walked for eight days, and I am tired. Today, I walked from Therouanne to Amettes, only 20 kilometres away, but it took me five and half hours. Not like the first day when I did it with ease in four hours.
The biggest problem is my feet. I walk a lot on hard surfaces in shoes – maybe not such a good idea. My feet burn terribly, and I have blisters. I’m not sure what to do. A shortcut to reach Arras earlier and buy new shoes? Take the train? Or just continue and rest more often putting my feet up? I am tempted to do the latter.
First, an early night. My hostess of the gîte in Amettes has kindly given me some bicarbonate for a foot bath. Again, I am fortunate to have the gîte to myself. My hostess offered breakfast at her home. I was invited into the living room of their old farmhouse. A big table full of food: bread, five types of jam, flan, yogurts, cheeses, ham and a good pot of coffee.
It is very hard to be vegan on this pilgrimage! The small shops have no plant-based milk or yoghurt. The bigger supermarket selection of vegan food is also limited. One of the difficulties is that walking to the countryside there is a very limited amount of shops. It means carrying your food when you can get it, adding to the load.
Thinking of load, the film, ‘The Mission’, came to mind and the scene where the character played by De Niro carried a heavy load as a form of penance for all the crimes he had committed against the First Nation of Paraguay. Despite all the ultra-light stuff in my rucksack it still added up to ten kilos. The weight of our culture of ‘stuff’. I wondered about past pilgrims and what they might have carried? The wisdom of scripture came to mind: don’t carry anything with you on the journey. Maybe that could be understood metaphorically: don’t carry heavy thoughts .
Thursday 20th April: We own nothing
Yesterday, I wasn’t sure what to do. My feet were hurting very badly.
My hostess suggested to take the train to Arras and have a day of rest there and look for other shoes; if not, the problem could get worse. She is right, but it is hard not to feel defeated.
Defeated by what and whom? I have noticed it before of how our culture of achieving creeps into pilgrimages too. The many videos on YouTube I watched were often about how many kilometers they had walked and about food. Still, I feel sadness sitting at the station of Lillers waiting for the train to Arras. So no, the road to Rome is not all singing and dancing. I am sorry to miss the WW1 cemetery Notre-Dame de Lorette. I wanted to pray there. But then, I can pray anywhere, for peace and for wisdom that wars with human beings and the earth would stop. May we come to our senses and see that all life is sacred.
Tomorrow is the Big One in London. I will be there in spirit. I hope the 100,000 will turn up and may it be encouraging for all who are there to continue to work for change. A world were we walk with a lighter foot print and give space to others and wildness. I am not very hopeful that the ones in power will listen or see. Doing nothing, however, is no option.
There was a time that we (white people, but not exclusively) thought that it was ok to own people, whom we could buy and sell as a commodity. I hope that there will soon be a time when the majority of us will think that it is also wrong to think that we can own animals or even land. The indigenous wisdom that we can’t own anything, not even our body, strikes a chord with me. We are here as caretakers of land, animals, others and ourselves. Lyla June talks about the civilisations that there were in the Americas before Columbus arrived; civilisation marked by the fact they didn’t leave a trace of human existence behind. The only legacy was biodiversity.
My French is extremely limited but one of the words I have learned is ‘interdite‘ or ‘entree interdite‘. It is on signs at the entrances of most of the woodlands I have passed so far. This concept of ownership is strange and harmful. There is an excellent book called, The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes. He explores the land in the UK and tells the history of land ownership. It was William the Conqueror who decided that land that was held in common was now his, and that he could give land away to his cronies. For a long time, male MP’s were the only people who held land. Hence the history of legislation protecting the interest of landowners.
About language: one of my anxieties before starting this pilgrimage was that I possess a very basic knowledge of French. It is very frustrating not to be able to communicate properly. Some French speakers will look at me as if they want to say: why on earth do you come to France if you don’t speak the language? They have a point, but learning a language takes most of us a long time. I am grateful, though, for this reminder of how it feels not being able to speak, to feel tongue-tied, to feel ‘stupid’. It helps me to be more understanding and patient to those who don’t speak the languages I speak (I don’t want to say ‘my language’ because we don’t own a language either). Particularly those who had to flee their home country and had no chance (not even knowing where they would end up living) to learn the language of the place where they are able to live safely.
Friday 21st April: Wasted heat
My feet and I found refuge in Foyer Anna Frank in Arras, a place for young working people who have no place to live. They accept pilgrims to come and stay.
On the website you will see a beautiful accommodation. Be that as it may, my room is very basic: a bunk bed with a plastic covered mattress, a sink, an old small table and two chairs. It has an old—Minsteracres style—radiator on full blast. I tried to switch it off but it started to leak terribly, continuing doing so even when I opened it again. The handy man came. Well, he said, you shouldn’t touch it! Just open the window! I make use of the wasted heat to wash and dry my clothes. In my room is the bottom section of a spiral staircase, so I hear the young and energetic visitors walking (running!) up and down the stairs.
However, I notice how happy I feel here. Out of place, yes, but I like to be out of place with people that don’t fit very well into society too. Despite the language, age and probable difference in background, I feel connected to them. This feels like a real place. Hotels are in a way artificial, commercialised hospitality. For supper, there was a vegan option (hooray!) of fried potatoes with brown lentils.
In the evening I went for a stroll through Arras. It is very beautiful, with lots of Amsterdam style houses (apologies for my ethnocentric approach!).
I am going to see if I can get an extra pair of shoes and more blister plasters .
Hoping to find some quiet time to connect more fully with all of you at The Big One event in London this weekend.
Saturday 22nd April:
I went hunting for shoes. I was advised to go to the outdoor sports shop at the edge of Arras but was told it was too far to walk. How far? I asked. Three kilometres. This is quite funny in the context of attempting to walk 2,000km to Rome! Anyhow, I walked, and found some shoes. The ‘eco’ bit about them is that 5% of the material is recycled plastic. Still much progress to be made with that! They are manufactured in China, as is so much of our stuff.
Not sure if I should share this because I might be made fun of for the rest of my life! On the way back I saw a lovely bakery. I thought I’d buy a baguette. I asked for a vegetarian one. To be fair, the young assistant did say she hadn’t any vegetarian ones. Then she mentioned what I understood to be a Parmesan baguette (I know that would make an unusual sandwich, but I was tired and hungry, and I so wanted to eat something). So, I paid for it and sat down to enjoy. However, noticing that it contained chicken, I went back with it only to hear that she had in fact said, ‘poulet césarienne!’ What to do? Throw it away? I hadn’t eaten chicken for a very long time, and felt so sorry for the creature as I ate!
In the afternoon I rested and thought of you all at the Big One in London. I felt sad not to be there. I struggled with the thought of walking again the next day. Why am I doing this? Supper was spaghetti with a ham sauce. After the chicken adventure I decided to eat plain spaghetti.
Sunday 23rd April
This morning I was on the road wearing my new clean shoes and backpack. It was drizzling and the road out of Arras felt long. Once in the fields again, I felt better, even though surrounded by the familiar sight of rapeseed and wheat. As I walked the bushes or trees soon lifted my spirit.
Today the March for Biodiversity takes place in London. In solidarity, I sang on a lonely path: ‘Hey ho, take me by the hand, strong in solidarity we stand, pray for climate justice, pray for climate justice’.
I visited three WWI cemeteries today; the third made the biggest impression on me: Sapignies military cemetery. Here lie 1,550 German soldiers. It is a simple field with a hedge, and some random trees now probably over 100 years old. The graves bore simple black crosses, often with two names on them, one on each arm of the cross. A hen and a cockerel were wandering around looking for snacks. Otherwise, it was quiet.
I sat on a stone wall, noticing that some graves had a slab of stone instead of a cross. I wondered why; I soon understood that these were Jewish men. How sad to think that within 20 years after the war they would be the ones to be persecuted. It was the simplicity, the presence of the trees that created a atmosphere of peace but also one of sadness and lament. The British cemeteries, earlier, had felt somehow militaristic. I think it was due to the big white cross with the black sword added to. It didn’t feel right to me to have a sword on the cross.
It rained heavenly on my route from Bapaume to Peronne, and a strong wind blowing in the opposite direction wasn’t helpful either. The route was mainly on hard surface. It was a case of head down and keep going. This meant that I was able to see the bright orange slugs appearing on the path and an almost transparent snail carrying its beautiful ultralight home. At a little woodland an exotic looking pheasant came towards me twittering away. I presume the fuss was about food, but it is nice to imagine the reason for its attention as being otherwise. He/she accompanied me for a short while and I enjoyed the company.
After a 29km walk, I finally reached Peronne and discovered my phone had died. It doesn’t like damp, and despite a full battery, it had suddenly given up. I had arranged to phone a parishioner when I arrived so that I could stay in their gite. First, I decided to have a coffee and I found a tiny bar with the door wide open. I walked in and felt as if I was interrupting a family gathering. There were platefuls of snacks everywhere.
I asked for a drink but finished my request with ‘por favour’ (I still confuse French with Spanish!). The barman said he didn’t understand me. I corrected my request and asked if I could charge my phone too. No problem. It is interesting that some French people insist on speaking only French. I know it must be annoying for them particularly, that English became a world language instead of their own dialect. In The Netherlands we never expect a visiting foreigner to speak Dutch. They never do.
A kind lady brought me a low chair, as the other two chairs in the bar were high stools. I sat there rather uncomfortably but also fascinated about what was happening in the pub. When someone left the gathering, they would shake the hand of all present or kiss the women on the cheek. They sang a French song as canapes were passed round. Finally, my phone was fully charged, and I could make my call. I thanked the gathering for their kindness before leaving.
Walking towards Jean de Bapiste Church, I was beckoned by an elderly lady, who turned out to be the owner of the gite where I would be staying. The place itself was rather rundown, brightened up somewhat by painted plant pots outside its door. Next door was a well-maintained large presbytery. Beggars can’t be choosers. It was great that this place was available at all, and they were only asking for a donation for my stay.
The lady said that she had been thinking of me when she had been watching the rain. She brought me some soup. It was an incredibly kind gesture and how I savoured that soup!
Monday 24th April
Today, I walked from Peronne to Trefcon. A beautiful route that followed the river before crossing some wetland. My avian knowledge is not very extensive but I think I heard and saw the sedge warbler.
Later I was back in the open fields again as the rain returned. As I walked through the village of Tertry, I heard a voice calling: ‘Voulez vous un café?´. The voice was that of an elderly lady who was standing at a community building. Yes, please! I was invited into a room with a stone floor (important detail).
Four other elderly people were there. They were preparing to play cards, but for now they found this unexpected stranger to be an interesting distraction. I was able to understand some of the many questions they were firing at me. I had coffee and a lovely biscuit. I tried to show the route I was following on my app but the internet didn’t work.
One of the guys was interested in my guide pages (quite dog-eared by now). In my eagerness to show him the route I had walked, I caught the mug and its contents ended up all over me! The mug broke as it hit the floor. Oh dear! The only long trousers I had with me were now covered in coffee. We all got busy with cleaning it all up, laughing as we did so. You don’t need language for laughing. They offered me another coffee, but I declined. I shook the hand of each one and thanked them for their kindness. Another stroll through woodland and I arrived at the gite. Once settled, I started washing my clothes in the hope they would dry overnight!
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