A POSTCARD OF REMEMBRANCE

A journey from Paris to London as a mark of personal remembrance of WWI

Day 11 – Part 2 Westminster Abbey

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Day 11- Part 1 Coulsdon to Westminster Bridge

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My brother joined me for the final day into central London. Company and support that was much needed today.

I woke early and went through my normal routine of waxing my boots and sewing on lost buttons. I now have a large hole in the sole of my left boot and in both the nails have worn away. They are agony to walk in but, that said, walking on carpet in socks is also very painful.

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We followed the Wandle Trail and cycle route 20 for most of the way winding through South London. Seeing the skyline of the city in the distance was a fantastic experience after such a long journey. I have walked this route in the past so was familiar with it. The last time, however, was in the summer and the river was buzzing with wildlife. It was far quieter and less attractive in the river’s preparation for winter. It was good to see men at work busily restoring and replanting the river banks. It’s a fantastic wildlife corridor through South London and will look amazing next year.

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There were a few comments along the way from passers by. We met two men on the footpath who, although slightly worse for wear at 9am!, were enthusiastic about my walk.

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Reaching the Thames was an obvious mile stone; but as with most journeys there are always more steps to take. We zig zagged across the river from Chelsea to Lambeth with the aim of crossing back towards the Abbey over Westminster Bridge.

To this point I had not much time to consider the end goal or how it may affect me. When I saw the flags flying over the Palace of Westminster and the towers of Westminster Abbey I could feel the emotion build. The thoughts of an entire eleven days walking and the conversations I had along the way raced through my head. As I crossed the river for the final time I knew my journey was almost at an end………

Stephen

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Day 10 – Haywards Heath to Coulsdon

 

My route again had been direct along busy roads. It has required a lot of concentration to dodge the traffic and flooded areas from last nights heavy rain and thunderstorms. That said the weather has again been fantastic.

I have passed some beautiful Sussex and Surrey villages. I am however at the stage where I have my head down, gritted teeth with the sole aim of reaching my destination in one piece.

It has taken a few fantastic people I have met to snap me back to my reason for walking.

I passed through Turners Hill and stopped at the temporary memorial the village had constructed for Remembrance Day. It was a lovely tribute. I thought I’d pop into the local shop for fuel. The owner of Central Stores, Mrs Keshavji took a great deal of interest in my walk. She was extremely kind and offered me more food and drink should I wish to take it. She understood the reason for my journey was purely commemorative but made a donation to the Royal British Legion anyhow. She then promptly called the journalist at the local paper and told him my story. A quick interview with him about my journey through Turners Hill and I was back on my way. Thank you to Mrs Keshavji for paying so much interest and further promoting my cause.

My route was aptly dotted with large poppies which had been attached to lamp posts. The names of men who had died appeared on each. I read a number of the names and I thought it a great idea to keep them alive in the memories of those passing.

My walk was long and slow but never before has the drone of the M25 made me so happy. If you are planning to go from Paris to London watch out for the bloody hill just after the motorway. It’s a killer. Coming down it I was passed by Gary and his son Matthew in a van. They stopped to let traffic pass and he wound down the window to ask what I was doing. He said ‘good on you’ and continued down the hill. The support I needed to get me to the top. Gary then drove back past, tooted and pulled in to talk. He took a photo of me with Matthew and told me about his Grandfather and father. His Grandfather was in the First World War and his father in the the second. His father was a royal marine who survived the sinking of HMS Hood ( http://www.hmshood.com ) purely by circumstance. It was a pleasure to talk Gary and I hope your son tells those stories in the future.

It’s these accounts that I am keen to hear. Before starting this journey I knew very little about the war(s). My walking is very personal and is an opportunity for me to increase my knowledge from listening to others.

On my way into Coulsdon, at school kicking out time, I passed some secondary school kids sitting next to the war memorial. They shouted out to me ‘Oi mate you look like Christopher Columbus, have you just come back from the jungle’. Maybe we need to do more to keep history and its lessons alive in the next generation; I certainly could have done with it at that age.

Stephen

 

 

 

 

Day 9 – Newhaven to Haywards Heath

Today has been full of swearing, tantrums and tears.

Again the sun has shone and the countryside has been beautiful. I left Newhaven later than planned but I wanted to wait around for breakfast to start so I could get a fry up inside me!

My route stuck to the roads which is a necessary evil at the moment. Direct and relatively dry from the rain soaked fields but busy with traffic and hard under foot. I became increasingly frustrated by the speeding cars and my staggering on uneven verges when there were some. The soles of my boots have also completely soften so the ball of my foot walks on nail points. They don’t rub but the shock from the road is agony. I crawl along at slow pace walking on the outside of my feet in strange contorted positions to avoid the bruised areas. I even tried walking backwards. I am however used to this and if I grin and bear it I can slowly shuffle along the twenty or so miles each day.

The combination of cars, hard road, boots and fatigue did elicit a few tears today promptly followed by a growl and a quick march forward.

I couldn’t help feel saddened by the fast pace of life and the speeding cars. I am so grateful for this walk and the time it has given me to reflect and think. I have noticed so many small details whilst shuffling through the countryside and I worry that those rushing about were missing things around them. At one point I stood at a crossing for five minutes until I could get across the road. No one seemed to spot me bent double trying to get to the other side.

Three people took some time to talk today and I thank them all. Firstly a chap who had dropped his son of at rugby training. We talked a little about what I was doing but it was great to have normal conversation about his hangover and where he was from. To him; thank you for the coffee invite and I am sorry I could not stop for longer.

I also met David in the pub. I found a village pub called The Plough just at the right time in the day for a pint and a roast. Much needed comfort food. I have to admit that I hardly drank the beer as it’s hard to do so when really tired and thirsty. David was a local man who was interested in my walk and we talked at length about the First World War. He told me about his Great Aunt’s diaries from a time when many servicemen were camped nearby. She was young and worked on a farm. Having so many soldiers about was quite an adventure by all accounts. David pointed out the memorial outside to the WW2 Polish airmen who were stationed nearby. I hadn’t noticed it; now who’s missing things! Thank you David for the conversation.

Finally the chap smoking outside the mail sorting centre, I assume on an allowed break. He understood how I felt with how busy everyone was this Sunday, he said ‘it is just modern life’.

I think my point is that we all need to take time to reflect on the past and our own and other’s experiences. This allows us to make a good assessment of our history (I’m not just talking about the war here) in order we can make an informed decision of how we can control our future. Without this time we are doomed to react on a whim and be influenced too easily by others without learning the lessons of the past. I’m now taking that time if in a slightly painful way.

Stephen

Day 8 – Neufchatel en Bray to Newhaven via Dieppe

I have had a long but fabulous end to my time in France.

I set out early well before dawn to meet the Samarobriva Pipers at a village en route. I quietly left my room key on the reception desk of the hotel and walked out of town leaving the smell of that morning’s freshly baked bread behind me.

It was a clear night and full moon so I had no need for a torch. I made good progress along the path through, I imagine, countryside past many small villages. I passed the magnificent Chateau Mesnieres http://www.chateau-mesnieres-76.com which I could just make out in the moon light.

I reached my rendezvous with the pipers at a quiet village. As I waited for them to arrive I watched the early morning bread delivery and dog walkers go about their business. A few looked me up and down wondering what I was doing there. ‘You’re all in for a shock in a moment’ I thought.

Francoise, Pipe Major Pascal and their pipers and drums had taken the time to travel from the Somme region to meet and accompany me for a short while. For this I am eternally grateful.

I cannot explain the feeling of walking through the Normandy countryside followed by a pipe band who are there to commemorate with you. It was a moving experience, one the few pictures and videos I have do not do justice. I wore the Bleuet de France, the french symbol of remembrance, given to me by Francois.

The sound of the pipes and drums of course drew much attention and many came out to watch and support. There were claps and words of support from locals. I was not used to such attention as I had previously quietly made my way from Paris. Perhaps I should have had them walk with me from Paris, a challenge for Francois and Pascal next year!!

Thank you to all the pipers and drummers for taking the time to commemorate and walk with me. It was a fantastic experience to be piped out of France!
https://m.facebook.com/samarobrivapipeband/photos/a.746535552049256.1073741847.528399030529577/746535985382546/?type=1&source=49&refid=17

http://samarobriva-pipes-and-drums.blogspot.co.uk/?m=0#

I bid the troop farewell and headed off on the final leg to Dieppe. It had been a warm long day and my feet were the worst they have been by the time I reached the ferry. It was quite uplifting to see the coast and to know I am almost home.

Just the little matter of a five hour very rough ferry crossing, negotiating Newhaven’s drunken teens and I am now firmly back in Britain.

I have three more long days ahead of me but can certainly say that after today, and whatever lies ahead, it has been an amazing journey.

Stephen

Day 7 – Gournay en Bray to Neufchatel en Bray

I’d tried to plan a rest day into my route but unfortunately the distances and the time I had allowed did not make this possible.

The distance between towns today is thirty miles which would have been impossible walking in this mornings storms.  Fortunately the owner of my hotel was heading out and he dropped me off at a local village and for my normal walking distance.  I know little about him, as we didn’t talk much, other than he makes good pear jam which I ate for breakfast, likes Dina Carroll and has a far better moustache than I.

We shook hands and he wished me a good journey as I set out on my final mileage to Neufchatel. He didn’t quite understand what I was doing as kept asking where my suitcase was and he was convinced I had forgotten it and that I didn’t understand what he meant.

A little road walking again today but most of my journey has been along the well laid Avenue Verte.  Hard on the feet but dryer than the grass verges.

It rained most of my journey and I was forced to shelter under sparsely leafed trees for the worst of it.

I knew I would get wet and uncomfortable again today but last night and this morning I went through all those little kit preparations of drying and waxing clothing and taping feet.  I’m not from a military background but these little routines, and maybe my military friends who are reading this will agree, psychologically prepare you for the walk ahead even if the physical preparations unwind in the first few hours (especially in wool and old kit). Getting wet and walking I can deal with but starting in wet clothes is a killer.

It was a very strange experience walking in my cape looking down at the reflection in the glass like water on tarmac. It felt like I was looking at someone else.

 

One thing I have noticed on my journey so far is how most gardens have vegetable and fruit patches and even fruit trees where they’ll fit. It’s as if everyone grows their own where they can; and so they should. However few had picked the sloes off the blackthorn bushes. Sloe Gin clearly isn’t as popular. In places the Avenue Verte was lined with well kept raspberry bushes and also medlars. I had a few of the last Autumn raspberries, very good.

I am so impressed with my boots. They are far more comfortable than I was expecting and dried well overnight. The path meant that despite the rain my feet stayed dry. The cooler weather today also meant I could wear my coat, cape and hat comfortably which makes the distribution of weight easier to manage and allows me to set a faster pace.

Again it took me a while to get into my hotel, they keep locking me out. I’ve bought tomorrow’s food supply and paid my room bill as I will be leaving well before sunrise to ensure I am in time to meet the pipers at Saint-Vaast-d-Equiqueville at 10.00. I will need to walk quickly in the afternoon if I want to make my ferry but I can’t wait to be home. I am very tired now and want to be in front of my log fire with my wife.

Stephen

 

Ps This is how I feel today

Day 6 – Gisors to Gournay en Bray

I woke up to thick fog that clung until midday.

I took the most direct line today along the busy D915. I had always planned this route and I am glad I did as it would have been very hard to navigate with my map along foggy small lanes.

It’s clear from the traffic of large lorries that I am approaching Dieppe. It was busy and noisy with few breaks in the steady stream of cars and trucks.

I was apprehensive about taking a busy road, especially in the fog, but fortunately the wide grass verge alongside fields full of winter beets kept me clear of danger. It’s surprising how few pavements there are even close to the clusters of houses I passed. Everyone must drive.

I saw no cyclists today, they would have know. It would be too risky in this weather.

The down side of the route was the tall wet and muddy grass. My B5 boots and feet were soaked from the start but remained surprisingly comfortable. I’ll miss them when they finally fall apart!

I rested at each village I passed which gave me achievable goals along the way.

I found a war memorial that appeared recent with a superb statue of the French Cock on top. The names were listed and thought I’d share them in the detailed picture below.

Apart from the weight of my kit and the straps digging into my shoulders; there is one thing beginning to grate on me, the dogs. I have a dog. I’m used to dogs. I like dogs. So it’s not dogs per say. It’s the incessant barking that’s initiated by the sound of my boots and it starts a good half a mile away. It seems every front garden of every village I pass though has a dog who angrily tells me to go away. All sizes and pitches of bark. If it wasn’t traffic noise today it was an avenue of barks and growls that greeted me along the way. It’s definitely the noise as I watched one dog in a double glazed conservatory angrily watch at where the noise was coming from through an open window which was in the opposite direction to me.

I digress; I finally reached Gournay en Bray which is a pleasant little town as far as I can make out. I had to wait for a while to be let into the hotel which gave me time to meet a very nice lady in a yellow coat who spoke good English. She explained that she had heard lots of her friends complaining that there was too much coverage of the centenary of WW1. She said that upset her and stated we couldn’t think about it enough.

A young couple stopped me outside my hotel. We didn’t understand each other but they read my explanation and made some agreeable sounds. I think they were impressed. I get the feel that as I approach the coast and with the Somme region not that far away, people are more familiar with at least reenactments if not the original images of world wars. I am in areas that were certainly devastated by the second.

Dieppe is not far away now, I just hope my boots dry and that they hold together when they do.

Stephen

Day 5 – Bray et Lu to Gisors

I started the day refreshed and in high spirits after the hospitality and excellent food at Les Jardins D Epicure. (As a side point I had a plate of wonderful local cheeses from the Normandie region with one of my favourites Comte)

It was a bright crisp morning, just the temperature I’d been hoping for since beginning this challenge. Cool enough to make for comfortable walking and also to chill you when stopping which encourages forward momentum.

Today’s route followed L’Epte river along the path of an old rail line converted to a cycle path. Clearly popular in the summer as snack bars have sprung up in converted railway buildings along the way. All closed today!

Initially I made good progress in the morning sun through the open countryside with only local beef cattle in the fields for company. I assume they are the breed blonde d’aquataine but will happily be corrected.

As this was a single track it allowed me, for the first time, to focus on walking and switch my mind off from frustrating distractions.

Of the few people I did meet later on we exchanged little more than a recognition that’s half nod and half raising of eyebrows.

By midday I began to find the cycle track disorientating. With few reference points and, as a relatively straight line, it felt like someone had started to change the scale of my map and extend the path.

I felt every gram of weight in my pack, each stone in the wet leather soles of my boots and every one of the hobnails.

Slowly both my kit and I fell apart. The strap on the bag that carries my water and rain cape broke. My hat lost it’s buttons (not important but demoralising). My left boot heel plate loosened and now makes a high pitched tap with each step. I reached that unfocused point in a walk where your legs stagger left and right with each step forward. I walked on the carpet of fallen leaves whenever I could as such a small change in surface makes a big difference to comfort and morale.

 

I think this afternoon, given half the chance, I would have tried to find a way out of this walk. Perhaps I should have stuck two pencils up my nose and put a pair of pants in my head like they did in the Sudan?!

I finally reached my destination town of Gisors through the never ending light in an avenue of trees.

Gisors is much like any town with a high street, mixture of new and old buildings and a Lidl being constructed on the outskirts (the Mayor is free to comment and sell Gisors below). This is the first large town I have reached since Paris. I prefer the countryside and feel conspicuous and vulnerable wearing a little recognised uniform when entering populated areas.

But then I need to meet people. I undertook this walk not to experience or recreate the past but to see how the First World War is viewed now from Paris to London.

I was glad to reach the hotel which is simple but welcoming. A guest in reception read the details of my journey and said ‘ bravo’; just the encouragement I needed after today.

Tomorrow I plan to follow the main road and hope the verges keep me away from the traffic. A noisy route no doubt but I hope it will shorten my hop to the next town.

Stephen

Day 4 – Maudetour en Vexin to Bray et Lu

 

It was a relatively short hop today to Bray et Lu which has given me a much needed rest and time to carry out some kit admin.

The walk was very quiet and peaceful with the countryside silence only shattered by my boots clomping on the ground scattering pheasants in every direction.

I started along a very muddy track which had been flooded by yesterday’s heavy rain.

Passing through quiet woodland I emerged at the beautiful Domaine of Villarceaux http://villarceaux.iledefrance.fr

The first village I encountered was Chaussy. I had time to stop at the cemetery where I found the grave of Rene and Paul Camus. I can only assume they were brothers killed two years apart at the battles of Aisne and the Somme. Chaise also had the first war memorial that I have seen since Paris.

Chaussy was a silent village and I am sure the noise of my boots wouldn’t have been welcome for long.

Beyond Chaussy I reached Bray et Lu where I am repairing and washing kit and also taking my fill of the superb food.  I’ll need the energy for the longer days ahead.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow, traveling along the traffic free path to Gisors which follows an old rail line.

Stephen

Day 3 – Boisemont to Maudetour en Vexin

It rained a lot!

I left La Ferme Rose after being well fed by my hosts. Yvonne, the owner, had his Great Grandfather’s rifle in the breakfast room. I couldn’t imagine carrying the weight of that too.

I am firmly in the French countryside now which reminds me of the Chiltern Hills in parts and Lincolnshire in others. A lot of this route is on road so I have been cautious of cars but all the drivers so far have given me plenty of room (and odd looks).

It felt very autumnal today with dried maize swaying in the wind and beech leaves blowing everywhere.  I snacked on walnuts I found along the way.  B5 boots make great nutcrackers.

I found a well stocked bakery in Vigny to refuel knowing there would be no meal at my destination this evening.

I have met few people along the way today and the route was generally quiet. Lot’s of polite ‘hellos’ but little conversation. One elderly lady was very interested in all the tape on my feet whilst I was resting for lunch. It’s mainly been dogs that have noticed my passing. The sound of hobnails seems to drive them into a frenzy of barking and jumping at garden gates.

It has threatened to rain all day and finally the wind picked up and the heavens opened six miles from the end. The open fields were very exposed. I tried out my WW1 rain cape for the first time. It turns out not to be very waterproof but creates a good little shelter from the worst of the elements. It was also very useful to rest on under an ivy hedge.

Needless to say I got very wet. I was very happy to see my chateau hotel in the distance. Unfortunately the owner wasn’t as pleased to see me in my wet stinking wool with muddy boots. He didn’t recognise the uniform and asked if I knew the price of a room. I politely said I did and made an effort to demonstrate me placing my wet cape in the shower.

I think these countryside stretches may be lonely in part due to the lack of people and also to the language barrier. All the more reason I’m looking forward to Francois and his pipers joining me on day 8 http://centenaire-pipers-somme14-18.blogspot.fr/

Stephen