Day 15 of Walking Out of the World: a two thousand kilometer 86-day pilgrimage to Compostela on foot. Rouen cathedral and some thoughts on pilgrimage and 13th century French gothic.
(Previous post: Day 13b & 14 Dieppe to Clères on the Chasse Marée)
The Good News was my tent had not been attacked by wild boar in the night. Not once. But the Bad News was the wet clothes I had hung up to dry on a line between trees overnight: they were now wringing wet because it was still raining. Including my only lightweight thermal top. I put it on anyway: like a wetsuit when windsurfing on a cold Italian lake with a northern breeze from the Alps, the wet top would keep me warm once it had come up to body temperature when walking.
I did not come up to temperature and six kilometres later I was still shivvering when I entered the small white painted reception office of the mairie in Fontaine-le-Bourg where I was confronted by a plump lady in a beige woollen twinset and matching cashmire poncho: the entire ensemble being a sensible choice since the building was unheated on this dark rainy day. It was the most stylish town hall beige-wear I had observed on this pilgrimage so far, and I imagine it resulted from being ten minutes drive from the haut-couture boutiques of Rouen.
She ordered me to laisser le gros bâton dehors, and I left Le Big Stick outside. This was a generalised town hall prejudice against the 15th century that I was now well accustomed to, ever since Winchcombe. I returned to face her over her tidy desk, a workspace devoid of any evident work. I had my map and credencial in my hand. She asked if I was lost.
I explained as best I could that, no I was not a lost tourist but a genuine jolly pilgrim wending my merry way through her flowery village and heading to the Pyrenees along centuries-old routes, one of which passed through this very ville fleury and its welcoming mairie! That confirmed to her that I was certainly quite lost. With sceptical eyebrows raised, she stamped the town hall tampon in my credencial. I asked her to write the date. She told me all this paperwork was quite unnecessary. Wartime controls had ended half a century ago! You could travel freely anywhere in France without this self-imposed bureaucracy, even if you are Anglais: and being Anglais – as indicated by her furrowed eyebrows – was the most lamentable condition to find oneself in.
I thanked her and she folded her arms across her beige poncho as if to close the episode from her mind, and I went to seek pain-au-chocolat and coffee nearby. In a dry café which was a welcome break from the continuing rain, I opened my credencial and looked at the Fontaine-le-Bourg stamp. It should be mentioned here that pilgrims always take delight in their latest stamp, or tampon or sello and pass around their credencials each admiring the others’ stamps and saying things like, “Oh! I got that same sello when I walked through Terradillos in 2005!” Or, “If I’d known that New Age headbanger was going to stamp my credencial with the image of a witch, I would never have stopped for a beer at that weirdo’s bar in Lino!”
This one from madame Beige Poncho was exactly the same design as the Longueville mairie tampon from the previous day. Apart from being stamped with a blue inkpad rather than a black one, it was identical. She had dated it in matching blue biro. This at least was a sign of artistic flair. It was difficult to know what was worse on the Chemin Saint-Jacques de Compostelle in Normandy, the ghastly weather or the nondescript tampons.
Finally, as I arrived in Rouen in the afternoon it stopped raining. I stopped for a photograph with what I took to be Rouen cathedral in the distance. An easy mistake when you have been walking through rain for three days, and attacked by deer and boar at night. Rouen cathedral is behind the building on the right. I should have known what building I was looking for. This was not my first time in Rouen, although it was the first time I had walked here from Worcester.
It was 1983 when I found the cycling route from Dieppe to Rouen down the valley of the river Scie where I have just been pilgriming on foot these last few days. I had been working intensively for months as technical assistant to an architectural enamelling artist, Vera Ronnen-Wall, and we had done a spectacular 14-panel mural for the reception area of the IBM headquarters on the South Bank. I was worn-out because she was a very draining person to work for: all take and no give.
I had been the diligent Sorcerer’s Apprentice who prepared the materials, kept the notebooks, worked the furnace and calculated the exact firing times; but the artist had burned me out. So I arrived exhausted in Rouen, just like now, on foot twenty-five years later. And I was amazed by the cathedral. I spent many hours just sitting in the nave, exploring the side chapels, staring at the sculpture and the stained glass. Stained glass. Fired in a furnace. Art work done under pressure. One mistake and days’ work is ruined. I knew all about the pressures of art work produced in a high temperature kiln.
High on the facade in those days I would have seen the apostles, including Saint James the Greater – the saint of Compostela – but I would not have known who he was. I would not have been able to name more than Peter and Paul in those days. The art was interesting but the religion – to me – was an unknown and remote story from an earlier age. Like the Roman gods: great sculpture but neither the ideas nor the worship had any place in my thinking. The gothic architecture? Yes, I could believe it that. I began to read John Ruskin on the nature of gothic, Emile Mâle on French cathedral iconography, and above all that wonderful chapter of Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (popularised as “the Hunchback of Notre Dame”) where he contrasts architecture and the printing press as competing media of communication.
The 13th century gradually came alive to me, and I would return again to Rouen with my friend and illustrator Maggie Kneen and marvel at this 13th century gothic splendour, just a short trip down the road from Dieppe. Later I returned again, this time with with my daughter Alys. But Rouen was not the best, and the best is yet to come, and we shall see it in Chartres further along the Chemin des Anglais where so many English pilgrims saw it many centuries before us.
High above us in those photos – on the west front of the cathedral – way above, fifty metres high, was a statue of St James, but I didn’t see it in those days nearly forty years ago. Now, up there is just a copy of that 13th century original. Many of the statues have been removed and replaced with copies in the renovation work of recent years, and the originals are placed inside the cathedral on either side of the Lady Chapel.
Today, to my delight, the original life-size statue of Saint-Jacques, once situated fifty metres above the great west door and now placed here indoors at ground level, cleaned and seen from a close distance where the mason would have stood to admire his chisel-work when he crafted him in the 13th century. What better than to ask Saint-Jacques to hold the replica 15th century pilgrim bourdon I have carried here all the way from Worcester, step-by-step over these past two weeks.
“Has it only been two weeks of walking?” I asked the statue of good brother Jacques, saint and apostle of the Christ. “It already seems as though I’m forgetting my former existence. The motives for doing this don’t seem to matter any more: the pilgrimage has become my present life and the past and future are equally distant. By the time I reach Compostela, will I truly be someone different? Will my life change so much?”
He gazed down impassively at my bourdon. I was for a long timeless moment struck by the fact that this statue represented a real historical person, a true missioner of the Early Church, and a man who had walked “even to the ends of the earth” (even to Galicia in Spain?) to spread the Good News of his Master, who he told people was the Word made flesh. In some sense – yes, in a real sense – I was walking in those footsteps and this was the point of the pilgrimage. I nodded farewell to the Apostle and took my pilgrim staff from him, then spent some time in silence in the sanctuary of the Sacrament chapel in the north transept.
As I walked out of the side entrance, still feeling a tremendous wave of religious devotion, I dipped my fingers in the holy water stoup by the door. My fingers encountered not holy water but something dry and decaying. I tentatively peered into the upturned shell-shaped stone bowl and it was dry, with a dead bat – its thin flaking wings spread out – looking up with dead eyes at the high gothic vaults and crossed arches. It looked like a mason’s model posing for a 13th century gargoyle. The wave of holiness left me. I needed a beer. This is a pilgrimage.
A tour bus group of American tourists with their guide had just arrived at the cathedral steps and the guide spotted me. She used the opportunity of an encounter with a real live pilgrim to explain the place of the cathedral in the mediaeval economy. I was photographed and questioned. None of the right questions of course, but who would expect that of tourists? You needed to be a pilgrim to ask the right questions here.
“All the way from England on foot? Did you come through Germany? Yeah, we came here through Germany from England too… A town called Zurich. Hey! Don’t you have a job to go to? Or are you training for a sports event?”
I filled in for the guide – but without the generous tip at the end of the tour – and I explained the medieval tradition of pilgrimage to Compostela. I wondered for a moment, looking at the quizzical expressions on the faces of the group, whether some of them thought I was simply there as a paid actor providing a piece of local historical theatre for them. Did any of them believe I had walked from Worcester and was now continuing south towards the Pyrenees? It would be natural for them to see me as part of the Disney element of the town, along with the incongruous little white tourist train, the Joan of Arc waxwork museum and the juggling street artists in medieval fool costumes.
I waited here outside the west door after they had disappeared inside. This was the pre-arranged rendezvous point for Jean-Noel of the Amis de Saint Jacques de Normandie. Tomorrow I will stay here in Rouen for a meal and a talk to the pilgrim association. I am in Rouen not for the first time, but for the first time as an invited guest. The wild animals of the previous nights and the storms of the daytime had receded behind me, and here for the moment was a homely welcome and refuge for a pilgrim. A chance to dry my tent and clothes, and tonight I will sleep under a roof for the first time since I walked out of Westminster!
Tomorrow, further thoughts on gothic architecture and the 13th century pilgrim. I remain on my guard, however, for this is the city of the great Gustave Flaubert; and after the surprise encounters with deer and wild boar, I may not escape Rouen without a Flaubert parrot attack.
Hello fellow virtual pilgrims!
I’m getting Whatsapps and emails and messages on Facebook from people who are following this “virtual pilgrimage” every day, all appreciating it in different ways: for the humour (really?) or the practical walking details, or bits of history, etc. Few people care about the religion, and quite right: this is a pilgrimage, for God’s sake!
Please don’t send me more encouragement in Whatsapp etc… ! Just comment here please. This is where the conversation is We walk together through the virtual landscape. This is a live “virtual” pilgrimage. It will develop into something good to share, you’ll see! 🙂