Arras to Berry-au-Bac

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.

Baroque gabled houses on Arras’ Grand’Place

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’ Hôtel de Ville and Belfry on Place des Héroes
Inside Arras’ Renaissance-style Cathédrale Notre Dame et Saint Vaast, rebuilt after the First World War
The colourful Parisian style Hôtel de Guînes

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.

A memorial to the New Zealand Tunnelling Company at Wellington Quarry

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.

The grave of an unknown soldier in Gomiécourt South Commonwealth War Cemetery

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.

Gomiécourt South Commonwealth War Cemetery
Sapignies German War Cemetery
Rancourt French War Cemetery

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.

Symbolic poppies are visible throughout the Somme

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.

Wheat fields continue to dominate the landscape
Cooling off in the shade of a church

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.

Early mornings walking along Canal de Saint-Quentin

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).

The stunning Cathédrale Norte-Dame in Laon
View of the Aisne countryside from Laon’s ramparts
Laon’s medieval streets, lined with boutiques and artisan bakeries

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.

Calais to Arras

From the coast to the capital of Pas-de-Calais

146kms – 5 days

When most of us think of Calais, we think of P&O ferry rides, booze cruises, and the beginning or the end of a long drive to the South of France. It’s safe to say that Calais and the Pas-de-Calais department that it sits in are largely overlooked by tourists, who only pass through or at most make an overnight stop before an early morning ferry ride. Unlike them I would be travelling slowly, as fast as my feet could carry me. And slow travel would allow me to get acquainted with this lesser-known corner of France.

Calais’ Hôtel de Ville

Weaving my way between Calais’ towers and lighthouses, through its parks and colossal churches, I made my way to the imposing Hôtel de Ville. I couldn’t help but liken it to a space station crossed with Big Ben, ready to launch into the sky. In reality, it’s like some sort of watchtower from which the people of Calais keep tabs on intruders from the south. Because beyond the Hôtel de Ville there’s nothing. The city came to an abrupt halt, and I was soon working my way along canals that felt like they were in the middle of nowhere.

The Forest of Guînes

Outside the town of Guînes the canals morphed in to dense forest, the site where Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American Dr. John Jeffries landed the first successful balloon crossing of the English Channel in 1785. The forest canopy provided a welcome relief from the burning sun, but it’s bugs had firm plans to drive me back out into the light of day. My picnic lunch under the shade of a tree had to be relocated to a farm track in an open field, underneath an electricity pylon – the glamour of long distance walking!

Emerging from the forest the scenery quickly turned to golden wheat fields, which were to be the backdrop for much of my journey south to Arras. One never ending wheat field, or so it seemed, punctuated only by a flash of red poppies here and there and the scars left by a tractor’s twists and turns.

Poppies adding colour to the fields of golden wheat

Days were broken up by what became a familiar routine…scanning the horizon for a church. Some were huge, like cargo ships sailing across the fields, and others were on the petit side with pointy spires topped with an iconic, proud, cockerel. Whether large or small, a church always meant shade, water, a town, and perhaps even the hope of a pain au chocolat. And they were, without fail, always empty, with no real signs of life on the streets surrounding them either. I began to wonder whether it’s not just tourists who neglect Pas-de-Calais, but the French too.

Churches provide a cool refuge from the sun and a place to fill up water bottles

Signs of religion were everywhere, not just in the village churches. Roadsides were adorned with chapels and crosses. I even passed holy springs, and the birthplace of Saint Benoît-Joseph Labre, a patron saint of pilgrims. Perhaps a fortuitous sign.

The 18th century home of Saint Benoît-Joseph Labre

Passing through tiny French town after tiny French town, I soon became acquainted with their look and feel. The pretty, crumbling Mairie (town hall and mayor’s office), the boulangerie, the absence of any green space on which to sit and take off my boots, the sleepy Tabac with next to no customers and where I guzzled down cold Orangina, and the tiled old road signs that I have developed a slight thing for.

The Mairie in Licques
Boulangeries, my new best friends
Old tiled road signs which I can’t resist photographing

I walked through these villages with a huge amount of house envy. Beautiful rustic farm houses were kept from view behind thick courtyard walls and enormous wooden doors. Being bold and stepping over the threshold revealed colourful shutters and geraniums, sloping tiled roofs, old farm machinery and a world from years gone by. Snooping on chateaux wasn’t anywhere near as challenging, as their showy-offy nature meant they were visible from the road. I ogled at them in wonder – their different shapes and sizes, their towers, their countless windows.

The kindness of locals meant that I was lucky enough to stay in a traditional farm house in the beautiful village of Amettes and a chateau in equally stunning Villers-Châtel. And I stayed in them for next to nothing. People say that “the camino provides”, that one way or another pilgrims are taken care of as they journey from place to place. But the generosity and kindness of those I met in Pas-de-Calais was overwhelming. People wouldn’t let me set off in the morning without the hand drawn map they had prepared for me, and wouldn’t let me put my feet up at night unless I had a glass of wine in hand. I’m quickly learning that it’s a very special and humbling thing, to walk across unfamiliar parts of Europe and be treated like one of the family.

The beautiful farm house I stayed in in Amettes
Although it may look like it’s a display, every pot and pan has its use!
The stunning Chateau Villers-Châtel

But the most memorable night’s stay (the 1970s caravan coming a close second) would have to be in Abbaye Notre-Dame, which is home to an order of Benedictine nuns. I was looked after by Sister Lucie, who showed me to my room in a beautiful former hunting lodge within the abbey’s grounds. I was invited to listen to the nuns sing their nightly prayers under the enormous vaulted ceiling of their church, to eat a wholesome evening meal cooked using vegetables they had grown, and to enjoy a peaceful night’s sleep that was broken only by the sound of church bells in the morning. Some places have an air about them, an aura that’s hard to explain. The abbey had just that, and the nuns living there exuded a sense of calm and contentedness that was infectious.

Abbaye Notre-Dame

Wheat fields gave way to open cast mines, which marked the landscape with huge mountains of earth that looked quite out of place in the otherwise gently rolling hills. Run down mining towns were spruced up by a grand Hôtel de Ville with a bell tower that would sing a merry song every hour.

The beautiful Hôtel de Ville of Calonne-Ricouart

Arras’ spires soon came in to view, and signs for McDonalds and Subway replaced my friend the yellow knap-sack carrying pilgrim and signs for the Via Francigena. As I approached the city I wasn’t sure how I felt about returning to urban life. The sleepiness of the countryside had lured me in, and the hum of traffic felt alien and suffocating. But as I walked through Arras’ quiet back streets I realised that there was no need to panic. Arras is about as sleepy as cities come.