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 25th April: Empty Spring
Dominique did a great job with the signage, but after Bapaume it has been poor. I must look out for white and red stripes on lampposts. I have managed this so far with my guidebook and app (when my phone works).
I am now in a rather unusual gîte in Seraucourt-le-Grand. It looks like a bathroom area in a public building. It has two toilets (one is used for storage) and a shower. There are three sinks at the opposite side, with a camp burner next to them. A mattress is standing upright against the wall. There is enough space to put it on the floor, right in front of the toilet and shower.
The space comes at no cost, courtesy of the local council. It is the first gite I’ve encountered with WiFi. It also has a little heater. I was surprised when I saw the space. The description had said: ‘tres rustique’. I wondered how much simpler the accommodation could be, having stayed in some very simple places. Yet, in a way, I quite like it.
The last couple of days I have been pondering Spring and the beauty and energy of this season. Walking Southwards, the blossoming of the trees seems to happen quickly, despite the cold. Yesterday, I walked on a carpet of willow blossom. The trees seem to blossom all at the same time: the wild cherry, hawthorn, the apple trees; today I saw elders coming into flower. The cow parsley is also starting to flower. I so love this tall flower that can edge paths and roads so beautifully. What we call in Dutch the ‘Pentecost flower’ and in English the ‘Cuckoo Flower’ is out too.
I’m not sure if this is ‘normal’ for France, but there has been a change in when things flower due to climate change.
On my walks, I keep hearing the skylark, and since Licques, where I camped on 16th April, I have heard the cuckoo every day (I hadn’t heard this bird for a long time at Minsteracres). I have also seen a few swallows. I love that gracious bird. However, there are so few now. We have lost not only actual species, but also numbers have diminished.
Rachel Carson warned about this in her book Silent Spring as early as 1962. It also feels like ‘empty spring’. I find the skies, the fields and the waterways so empty of birds. The danger is that gradually we will get used to this. My niece gave me a book called: Nature Amnesia. I haven’t read it yet. I haven’t had the courage to.
The danger is that we’ll forget how it was. How full the skies and fields were with birds. I remember 20 years ago, the many swallows and house martins would come to nest at Minsteracres. In the last couple of years there have been fewer and fewer. I remember the many lapwings and godwits on the farm where I grew up.
It is so good to hear that at ‘The Big One’ climate event, tens of thousands marched on Earth Day, bringing attention to biodiversity loss. It was also good to hear that on Sunday thousands of pink boats were sent to MPs in support of people who make dangerous crossings in the hope to find a safe place in the UK.
I am going to put my mattress down now and my tired body will follow!
Wednesday 26th April : Mass
Today I walked most of the 20km journey along the Picardy Canal. The guidebook advised to check if the towpath was accessible, as often it is overgrown. I decided that it was navigable, even though the path was sometimes very close to the edge of the canal.
My balance is much different with the rucksack. I must be more attentive. It was so beautiful walking through this little stretch of wildness. Every time I encounter a piece of nature left to her own devices I feel my spirit lifted. Unfortunately, it soon became an official path covered with tarmac. I started to notice the calmness of the canal, which looked quite clean. However, there was no sign of water birds along that whole stretch, apart from near the end when I saw two swans. I did see one heron, a floating carcass of a big fish and had a close encounter with a muskrat. It was sitting quietly at the edge of the canal, until I stopped to watch him/her. Then he/she decided to jump into the water and swam away.
It was strange seeing no water birds. It felt like a painful illustration of what I shared yesterday about ‘empty spring’.
Today I am host at the parish of Notre-Dame de Therigny in Tergnier. I have been warmly welcomed by Pierre, who speaks good English. I have a bed in the parish centre next to their meeting rooms. There is no shower but there is a kitchen. I must walk down a corridor, go through a beautifully simple chapel and pass through another meeting room to reach the kitchen. I can only get into the building via the large church (built in the sixties; much was destroyed in Tergnier in the two world wars) and pass through the aforementioned rooms to find my bed. There is quite a contrast to the confined space I was in yesterday. I really enjoy staying in unusual places. It adds to the sense of being on a Pilgrimage.
It was such a joy to attend mass in the beautiful chapel. Approximately 20 people were present (mostly female) and most were elderly, though there were some young people too. They were singing loudly and joyfully. A young man with special needs did the conducting, seated in his pew. The beauty of the universal church is that you don’t need language to understand mass or to take part in it. At the end of mass, the priest welcomed me and wished me a good pilgrimage. He thought I was from Germany but living in England. I corrected that, pleased I understood what he was saying. I felt so welcome. A lady came to me to tell me she had some very good Dutch friends. Making connections with others is a beautiful thing.
Thursday 27th April: Forest bathing
It felt like a caress as the young beech leaves overhanging the narrow woodland path were stroking my face and head. Their texture was like silk. I kissed them in response. So, yes, it was quite a romantic walk today! I love the woodland. This must be what the Japanese call ‘forest bathing’. So much beauty at this time of the year. Not only autumn but spring too has so many different shades of colour, the differences are more delicate. It was such a joy to see the palette of colours in the woodland I was approaching. To walk on the soft ground again, made my feet very happy! There are so many wild flowers.
The walk was long and I had to remind myself not to go too fast at the start (as I tend to do!) but to take it slowly and to stop often. I had set myself the target of reaching the ruins of an abbey by lunch time – a bit ambitious! My tired body implored me to have the break earlier. I didn’t, and then I missed a turn and ended up missing the ruins altogether. (I did see another muskrat with two young ones crossing the street on their way to a lake). In the end, I had the picnic at a roadside, because I really needed to stop. I hope I have learned the lesson now!
The best bit was sleeping in a field of wildflowers. I chose a patch of grass to lay down my weary body, and I soon slept. How glorious it felt to sleep on the earth. Just like that, no covering, no mattress. Luckily it was warm enough to do this. I felt refreshed and continued the journey to Laon.
This medieval city is built on a hill. The hill felt steep after a long hike. When I finally found the refuge that I had booked, nobody answered the door. Yet again my phone had died. I dragged myself to a Kebab house. Luckily the pleasant proprietor said he could make me a vegetarian kebab and I could charge my phone. In the end, I accessed the place where I was staying for the night. It was an incredibly beautiful old house. I slept in the living room with a view of the cathedral.
The decor is done very tastefully. This place is rented out to tourists, but when it is available, pilgrims can use it for a donation with the request that you use your sleeping bag. A great deal! Here, I met the first fellow-pilgrims. I had seen their names in the visitors’ books of the past two days. They had taken two days to complete the same walk that I had done in one, which is why we ended up at the same place at the same time. We shared stories about the quirky places we had stayed and laughed about our experiences. How good it was to share and talk. I have enjoyed the three weeks on my own, but it is good to share time with Albrecht and Astrid from Germany.
Friday 28th April: Cathedral
This morning I visited the Cathedral of Laon. It was open when I arrived at 9am but there was no one inside. What a privilege it felt to enter this holy place on my own. I felt I had to tiptoe around. It really is a stunning building.
I loved the many side chapels, dedicated to the different saints, or sometimes used as storage. There was a strange combination of beautiful wooden statues from the 15th century alongside ugly plaster ones where the paint was peeling off in places. The devotion was the same. Marble plaques were left with ‘merci’, a date and initials on it. I presume that prayers had been answered.
I loved the black Madonna and child, the side chapel dedicated to the holy face of Christ and the 15th century wooden statue of St. Martin de Tours. On my second meditative round of the building, sacred music was playing through the speakers adding to the hallowed atmosphere. Then people started arriving, including a man with a barking dog. I knew it was time to leave!
Friday 28th — Saturday 29th April: Falling for weeds
I was aware of their scent before I saw them: a row of lilac alongside the road as I walked downhill from Laon. Seeing them, I realised that the bushes I had seen in the woodland before were probably wild lilac. They had smaller white flowers, and their scent was sweeter and less intense.
Friday was a warm day. I had started the walk late, recovering from the very long one the day before. I had said goodbye to Astrid and Albrecht. We weren’t sure if we would meet again. Albrecht has a problem with his leg, and they walk slower than I might. It was good to meet them.
After the recent coldness, today’s 20 Celsius felt very warm. I was wearing just one layer instead of four and had changed my woolly hat for a summer one.
My love affair with nature is going well. I am now falling for weeds. Google classifies them as ‘weeds’ rather than ‘wildflowers.’ It feels such a demeaning name. I like to call them ‘wild wonders.’ I love the chickweed, a larger version than the common chickweed. Not very nice names either. Let me call them ‘wild white star’ and ‘little wild white star.’
There are many others too. I saw wild mustard in flower, comfrey, and wild strawberry too. Then there are the tiny, barely noticeable, ones, which add to the ever changing composition of wild wonders too.
The route led through villages that had been completely destroyed in WW1. Martigny-Courpierre had a very intriguing art nouveau church. A closer look revealed the decay, with concrete was crumbling at the edges.
I took a path off the route to look at the river La Bievre. To my surprise I encountered Astrid and Albrecht there. ‘How did you do that? I thought you were way behind me’, I said laughing. They smiled, surprised too. Apparently, they had taken short cuts while I was taking my little detour. The truth is that, despite his leg problem, Albrecht walks quite well. We decided to team up for wild camping.
The ruins of the Cistercian Abbey of Vaucluse (founded by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1134) would be a good spot for camping, we thought. However, the space was too open for sheltered camping, so we chose a grass path in the forest nearby. We pitched the tent and went for a picnic near the monks’ pond (the sign said the name in French and Dutch: ‘monnikenvijver’). The night was mild, and the sleep good. The term ‘cuckoo clock’ took on a new meaning when we woke up to the call of a cuckoo nearby. For sure, the best alarm clock ever!
We packed our tents, hoping that we would find a cafe in the nearby village. We were lucky, not only a cafe but a bakery too. The cliched image of French people walking around with baguettes seems to be true. In Dutch we call baguettes stick bread (‘stokbrood’) – quite an apt name. In front of the café, a man was deep in conversation with two others, waving a baguette to give emphasis to his words.
The villages I’ve passed through are quite empty and often have no services available at all. The houses with their gardens are, in most cases, fenced in, often concealing a barking dog.
Yesterday, we reached the Champagne region and we saw the first vineyards. They are probably very attractive in Summer and Autumn, but not at this time of the year. You see rows and rows of vines with only a few green leaves emerging on them. The strips under the vines have all turned yellow from being sprayed with pesticides.
We decided to camp out for a second night and found a good spot at the edge of a woodland on a strip of land with wildflowers. We even found a ‘kitchen’ – a couple of cut down trees we could sit on and use as a table for our little cooker. Nearby was a path to an area we designated as our toilet. It was a cold night again and very bright with the waxing moon.
This afternoon we reached the Benedictine monastery in Thierry, just outside Reims. I had a glorious shower! Camping wild is great you can end up dirty and smelly. The monastery is much smaller than the one in Wisques, and most of the garden is open to guests. The chapel is beautiful. It is a large rectangular room with two semi circles where the nuns sit and there are some chairs at the side for guests. A sister made sure we had prayer books too so that we could participate with them in their prayer. In Wisques, the nuns were behind a grill and felt very distant. Vespers was sung with such calmness and dignity here. At supper, the other guests told us that the prayers of the nuns here are available on YouTube. They have a QR code that connects you directly.
Tomorrow Marlies, Edwin and Evita are coming to Reims, and we will spend a couple to days together. I am very much looking forward to that.
Monday 1st May: The Garden Chapel and the Eucharist
As I strolled through the garden of the Benedictine monastery in Thierry on this first day of May, this sentence came to me: ‘Blessed is the ground that is loved’. Their garden felt like an extension of their chapel, or maybe it is the other way around: the chapel is an extension of their garden. Both share the same care and calmness, the same sense of sacredness and harmony. Patches of the garden were left wild with the cow parsley growing high. There was a lovely herb garden, orchard and borders with ornamental flowers, but not too neat. It felt very much like a ‘prayed in’ place, a loved place.
We left the oasis of the monastery garden, and the three of us continued our journey into Reims. After a three hour walk it was time for a break. At the outskirts of the centre of Reims we found a cafe with a bakery next door. It has a great system: you order your coffee and then you get your cakes from the bakery. We got mini pizzas that tasted so good. The wild camping was great, but we had little food and only a small amount of water. Daily sustenance must be carried on top of what is already a heavy rucksack, but we shared out whatever we had. So, at the cafe we ceremoniously cut the last little pizza into three pieces. This felt very ‘eucharistic’ – sharing what we have with friends we meet on the road. Communion has more than one meaning.
Later I was sitting outside the cathedral waiting for Marlies, Edwin and their daughter Evita to arrive. Albrecht and Astrid took the opportunity to visit the cathedral, while I kept watch over their backpacks. Astrid came back to tell me that inside the building there is a special desk with information for pilgrims. The attendant at the desk offered to arrange a place for them to stay in another Benedictine monastery. It is all working out well.
We shared the sense that we feel that – there are different names for it, but I will call it ‘God’ – God is walking alongside us and things fall into place. At the same time, there is a need to be attentive to the signs along the way and a need for taking responsibility for our own decisions. Have I explained this clearly enough? There is a balance between providence and taking responsibility for your own action.
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