Walking in the footsteps of war
173kms – 7 days
If my first week walking through France was characterised by sleepy farming villages, my second was characterised by history. I passed through towns and cities with their origins in the Iron Age and Roman periods. Places that, given their geographic location, have been the scene of battles for thousands of years. Yet it’s the battles of World War I, and their scars, that draw most visitors to this part of France.
The unassuming city of Arras, the historic centre of the Artois region, was the perfect place to recuperate after a busy few weeks on the road. But it’s a challenge to avoid clocking up extra kilometres when your rest day is in a city that’s so charming and interesting.
Arras has a decidedly Flemish feel to it, a stark contrast to the rustic French villages that I’ve been walked through to date. Baroque gabled houses line the enormous Grand’Place and Place des Héroes, squares where people drink goblets of beer and devour bowls of frites. But there’s more to the city than it’s similarities with Brussels – the gothic Hôtel de Ville and Belfry, the Renaissance-style Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint Vaast, the 18th century town house that was home to Maximilian Robespierre, extravagant Parisian style mansions, and Art Deco apartments.
Arras has a unique architectural mix, which tells the story of its long and turbulent past. Being only 10 kilometres from the Front Line during World War I much of the city has destroyed, in fact 80% of it had to be rebuilt. Yet efforts were made to preserve each building’s architectural heritage so that the city’s history wasn’t lost.
On the outskirts of Arras I passed a museum and memorial to the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, a military unit made up largely of experienced miners who brought a strategic advantage to the Allied war effort in 1916. Arras sits on top of a labyrinth of underground tunnels, dating from Roman times and used throughout history to mine chalk and store grain. The New Zealand Tunnelling Company expanded the tunnels, taking them closer to the Front Line and enabling 24,000 soldiers to launch a surprise attack on the German forces in the 1917 Battle of Arras.
As I continued my journey south into the Somme, reminders of World War I were everywhere I turned. I had, somewhat naively, imagined huge out of town cemeteries and memorials that necessitate a dedicated visit by car. But I discovered that these cemeteries and memorials, both large and small, are scattered throughout the landscape – at the side of a busy road in the middle of a town, annexed to a village cemetery in the shadow of a local church, in the middle of a wheat field. And the war can also be seen in buildings that have been scarred by shrapnel, or partially rebuilt in styles and materials inconsistent with those of their origins. In this part of France no corner escaped the war. And it felt important that my journey, slow and on foot, enabled me to realise that.
But then there are the huge out of town cemeteries and memorials, with never ending fields of crosses that are the resting places of an incomprehensible number of soldiers. Every reminder of the war causes you to stop and to contemplate. But places such as Rancourt, with its German, French and Commonwealth war cemeteries that together hold over 20,000 soldiers, completely stop you in your tracks.
I spent a morning in Péronne at the fantastic Museum of the Great War, an outstanding quadralingual (English, French, German, Dutch) museum that revealed sombre facts and interesting insights. As I walked through the exhibition halls, looking at the outdated and impractical uniforms that many soldiers fought and died in, and reading about the battles that resulted in gains of mere metres and losses of millions of lives, I couldn’t help but be dumbfounded by it all.
France had so far been sleepy and quiet, with little more than tractors and the occasional cyclist crossing my path. But the further I walked into the Somme, the more it seemed to come alive. Pavements and town squares were lined with people dining al fresco and enjoying cold glasses of wine. As I walked down the street people shouted “Bonne Francigena” to me or stopped me to suggest that I visit a particularly beautiful church en route. One lady even gave me a round of applause when I told her I was walking from London all the way to Rome!
And there were more pilgrims on the road too, people from different places travelling at different speeds, and for different reasons. Some you pass like ships in the night – pilgrims on bikes travel much faster than those on foot, but that doesn’t stop you from having an evening of laughter where English, French, Italian, and Spanish are spoken in an effort for everyone to understand and be understood.
Walking cross country can sound incredibly romantic and exciting, but the reality can often be quite different. And this area of France comes with its own special challenges. Towns and villages are few and far between, and those with facilities seem to be even more cruelly distanced. If there’s no room at the inn, you find yourself walking a further 8 kilometres to the next available bed. Food can be surprisingly tricky to get your hands on, as shops and boulangeries can never be relied on to be open (or still in business!). Water fountains are non-existent, making the cemetery tap the life source for passing pilgrims. And the inside of churches provide the only shade and opportunity to cool down.
But the lack of pilgrimage infrastructure also makes life somewhat interesting. In the last week I’ve stayed in a hotel, a youth hostel, on a farm, in a caravan, in a safari tent, on a mattress on the floor of an old school, and in a 17th century house that’s opened up by the eccentrically wonderful Madame Marie-Agnes to pilgrims as a home stay. The scenery in this part of France may, at times, be unchanging, but the weird and wonderful places where I lay my head each evening never fail to keep me on my toes.
Canals and forests began to break up the never ending wheat fields, adding flashes of green to an otherwise blue and gold landscape. Hills seemed to be getting bigger, and more frequent. But some shorter days meant I could spend afternoons relaxing whilst watching carp fishing enthusiasts at work, and swim in some of the lakes that dot this area.
A steep and sweaty climb of 100 vertical metres brought me to the capital of the department of Aisne, Laon. It wasn’t just the journey there that took my breath away – this fortified hilltop city is simply stunning, and the views from its ramparts of the plains below make every step of the climb worthwhile. Laon’s medieval architecture, including its cavernous Cathédrale Notre-Dame, have been wonderfully preserved. Every street tells the story of hundreds of years, yet the tunnels that run below the city tell tales dating back to the Roman times. Everything about the city was charming, tranquil, and low key. And I couldn’t understand why there weren’t more people soaking it all up (or why I’d never heard of Laon before).
What goes up must come down, and it was with a heavy heart that I descended into the forest surrounding Laon, and continued my journey. But my mood soon lifted. The golden wheat fields were starting to give way to something green, something that brought an orderly geometry to the landscape. I was entering a legendary wine growing region, and was excited to taste its wares. I was walking into the heart of Champagne.
I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity Mind. You can read more here, and if you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site.
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