WALKING TO MONT ST. MICHEL
- Caen to Mont St.Michel
September 23rd. - 29th. 2017
with the Association Les Chemins du Mont-Saint-Michel.
This is an annual walk from different start points each year, arriving on September 29th, the feast day of St. Michael.
Having walked from Farnham via Winchester, Plymouth, Cherbourg to Mont St. Michel in 2016, I joined the Association and when I learnt that they had an annual walk to Mont St. Michel I knew I had to join them. I had never walked with others before and my French is very limited, despite my mother being a French teacher; I was the disgrace of the family!
However my schedule was very complete so I kept putting off securing a place, but then, as always happens a gap in my schedule opened up and was just the same period as the walk! I had funeral services to conduct before and after but that specified week was clear. It was simply telling me to go. I had no idea what to expect and being so busy didn't really look at the walks schedule. Although I knew we met at St. Michael's church in Caen at 2.15pm. on the 23rd. So, the week before the walk I booked the overnight ferry from Plymouth and enjoyed a comfy sleep on the lounge floor, arriving at 6am at Ouistreham, on the coast 15 km from Caen. I looked for a bus but they were infrequent and walked away from the ship, aptly named Mont St. Michel, found a bar and had Petite Dejeneur and a large Cafe au Lait; I was back in France!
Some cyclists, who were cycling from London to Paris for Charity sped by and I noticed their route. Refreshed I went outside and found their signed cycleyway - 15 km to Caen. Rather than wait for a bus I set off along the cycleway beside the canal to Caen. It was all well signed and off road walking passing a few fisherman, yachts on the canal and the occasional cyclist. The sun shone and reached 25C, so was glad I was just in a T shirt and shorts with a light loaded (10 kilos) 45L rucksack. After 6km I came to a surprise, the famed Pegasus Bridge that was a major story of the D Day landings and a Hollywood film. Nearby I did my half hour Qigong session. Two hours later I walked into the historic centre of Caen and saw many church spires. Rather than asking I just followed my nose to a prominent church but it was not the right one - St. Peter's. I spotted other spires nearby but not St. Michaels, - St. Nicholas and St. Andrew! I had to admit defeat and walked into the Tourist Office and they gave me a map where it was, 2 km's away! I found it and then went back to Pizza restaurant I had passed and enjoyed a fine glass of Bordeaux wine and a really mouthwatering pizza.
Nearing the appointed hour I retraced my steps back to St. Michael's Church and found some forty pilgrim's there. I checked in and visited the church to see St. Michael's statue and others. I said Bonjour to the others and congregated on the steps as more pilgrims arrived. We all bought a pilgrim stamp book to collect the stamps along the way before sitting on the steps for a group photo. Then, as the day's pattern would unfold we all walked into the church to learn its history and to go through the day's itinerary. Ofcourse it was all in French but I understood some but much went over my head. As the days progressed I understood and spoke more; another week and I would be quite fluent; my mother would be pleased!
We then set off to visit many of Caen's churches, which I had already past and seen! and then onto our lodgings for the night. Just round from the church we passed a sex toy shop; such is life! After 4 hours and many churches we reached our overnight halt in an Institute. Our dormitory was on the fifth floor and dinner was on the ground floor! The food was good and a great cheer went up when one of the organiser's brought two cartons of red wine - pilgrim's blood. We all went to bed early for we had to be up at 6.30am with breakfast (Petite Dejeuneur) at 7am. Everyone had their suitcases outside ready to be transported to the next night's accommodation. I didn't join in for I carried all my gear the whole way. I also spotted most were using walking poles; again I don't use them, they are for old people! With walking from the ferry terminus to Caen I would be walking coast to coast as well. Nothing like a mad Englishman, but I was doing it the "Pure Way".
Everyone got lifts or a ride in the van or cars back to St. Michael's church, but I didn't, I walked there taking a French Belgium pilgrim along for company, he could speak English! I told him I knew the way and did because of my wanderings yesterday. We all met on the steps of the church where the Mayor of Caen and Vice President of the area gave speeches and wished us good walking. We presented him with a brass St. Michel walk logo and we all posed on the steps for a group photo. There were now 75 of us. Soon we were walking along the streets of Caen into the countryside, a long waving caterpillar of pilgrims stretching into the distance. I hovered around the middle and attempted to introduce myself in faltering French. All was fine until we had to walk on roads to the next footpath. I was always taught to walk facing the oncoming traffic but this is not correct in France. You walk with your back to the oncoming traffic. I was repeatedly told "A droit" (keep right). After two days of this I went to the back marker, who had told me off, and said my name was no longer John, but, a droit! She howled with laughter and we became firm friends after that!
After three churches and a history in each one we came to to our Picnic spot, a school playground. Here the team handed out sandwich baguettes, cake, drinks and a banana. Soon the red wine carton came round, but I didn't have a cup! This was the daily routine for the walk. While they were eating I moved to a grassy area and did my Qigong Bang routine, which I had to do each day for 100 days. If I missed a day I would have to start at Day One again. Afterwards several came up-to me to ask if I would teach them, so 20 mins at lunchtime were set aside for short lesson.
Then we were on the move again for another 4 hours of walking and three more churches, all with links to St. Michael. By evening we were in a gite near Evercy. One massive dorm for the men. Just time for a quick cold shower then into the reception area for drinks with the Mayor - white wine from the Alsace - before sitting down to a splendid three course meal. The organisers brought me my own carafe of red wine, everyone else had rose.
We did't have to leave until 8am so I had time in the early light to do my Qigong Bang routine before breakfast, which would allow time for the "class" at lunchtime. Then the cases were loaded up and we set off again, following another Mayor's speech and good walking! It was a full programme as well as walking 16 or miles a day. Thankfully there were only two churches this day, not that I wasn't interested in them; I can read a church and having explored ten's of thousands of them, I know what to look for. But having everything explained in French, after several during the day I was a little "brain" dead!
And so the days progressed as different people joined us for the day and were shipped back to their cars at the end. As a group we knitted together well and although I knew few names I recognised their faces. One made me speak French every morning and I had to expand and say more everyday to get his approval. It wasn't just the simple words like Bonjour (Good day) or ca va (alright), I had to comment on the weather, whether is was hot or cold.
On our third day we came to Villedieu Les Poeles with a very fine church - another talk, but with a bell foundry nearby. Alas we only walked past it but it reminded me of the one in Whitechapel in London. Again we had a Mayor's welcome and a second breakfast. The local press appeared and more photographs of the group and I was interviewed, since I had come specially to do the walk from England. As the day progressed a local Normandy TV Station film crew arrived and made a news story of our journey.
Our final night was in a Youth Hostel, the former railway station at Genets close to where we would across the exposed sand, mud and rivers, to Mont St. Michel, 7 kms away. By the church was labyrinth outlined with scalloped shells and I was the only one to walk it. I had been in Chartres Cathedral a month ago and seen the one there. The Mayor's reception was Champagne and a restaurant in the village was splendidly decked out for a stunning meal. By now I had earnt myself the praise of being a wine connoisseur and was given the wine list. I chose a red wine from Languedoc and once the ones around me had sampled it, they all agreed it was an excellent choice and one bottle - 28 euro's - was not enough!
The final day. We waited for the Mayor and had our pilgrim passports stamped and we walked 5 km around the shore to the starting place for the walk across the sands. You can only cross at low tide and need a guide for it is dangerous with quick sand and deep river channels. The tide comes in at a fast pace and you cannot outpace it if caught. We waited around for awhile and I couldn't understand why, but it was soon revealed that a French TV crew wanted to film our crossing. Most had taken off their boots to walk across in bare-feet but I kept mine on until we reached start of the crossing. The President of the Association came to me and asked if I would carry the flag across and lead the party. I was stunned at such an honour and accepted. And so we set off walking across hard ripples of sand, squashy mud, a couple of rivers in calf high water and reasonably warm. Then the main river channel with a drop in the middle up-to your thighs, before climbing out the other side. As we walked the film crews dashed around getting their shots and a camera drone took to the air for aerial shots.
After two hours we reach Mont St. Michel and began washing the sand and mud off our legs. The President came to me and said the film crew wanted me to walk the last bit again as I had walked too quickly! So back I went before sitting on the walls having our last picnic. We were due in St. Michael's church for Benediction in an hour, so I walked around the walls carrying the flag before going to the service.
After six days of comradeship I wasn't looking forward to saying goodbye. I did secure a room for the night but eventually realised I didn't have time as I had messages asking me to do three funerals three days ahead. I knew I would be fighting time and needed to get back to London urgently. So with a heavy heart I walked out and saw no-one to say goodbye to and walked the 9km in the rain to Pontorson and the train to Caen and the ferry to Portsmouth. Again I took the overnight ferry and was back in London at 11am, the next day and started sorting the services out that afternoon. I felt out of place in my shorts and T shirt and bare feet but only when necessary did I put long trousers and a shirt on or robes. Then back home I was in shorts etc again.
Now a week later I am still in shorts and still trying to come to terms with the very deep and meaningful walk. So much happened over those few days, so many memorable moments which have literally changed my life. I took 248 photo's and these are great memory prodders and I can transport myself back to those days of walking along sunken bridleways, exploring churches, meeting mayors, and sampling a variety of wines and enjoying French life. Where I go from here I am not sure. I am struggling to find anything to equal the experience. Yes I want to walk to Mont St. Michel again and am seriously considering the walk from the foot of Italy to there and onto St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall, thereby joining the three sites together. And come September 23rd next year I could well be there walking another route to Mont St. Michel with the Association. Thank you is not enough.
Revd. John N. Merrill - October 5th. 2017.