Day 18 of Walking Out of the World: a two thousand kilometre walking pilgrimage to Compostela. Today, the Vallée de l’Eure on the Chemin des Anglais pilgrim route to Chartres, and on the walk we reflect upon the road once taken which went nowhere.
Previous post: Day 17 Rouen to Louviers
We begin the day by returning to the church of Notre Dame, because Pilgrim Simon says we really shouldn’t leave Louviers before we’ve seen the retable Nottingham alabasters with the merchants at the foot of the cross and the stained glass with the Blessed Sacrament procession. Pilgrim Buhurojo says all this religion is getting in the way of a good pilgrimage. Pilgrim Alys says she’s sure it is very flamboyant but she’ll probably look at it next time she is in France. Pilgrim Jabbapapa says Pilgrim Peasant has forgotten to put a hyphen in Notre-Dame, after he’s already made the inconsistencies in French puntuation clear enough by now.
Pilgrim Maggie says she missed Louviers church in 1983 because Pilgrim Peasant wanted to cycle straight through to the camping shop on the way out of town to get a Gaz cartridge, and then again in 1984 because he wanted a tent-peg mallet and it was near closing time; and that’s another fine flaming flamboyant porch she missed!
So, our pilgrims on the Chemin des Anglais, are a longe waye from the inne at Southwarke and afar from Chaucer, wych is a Good Thinge.
These photos taken by Simon of the retable depicting the Crucifixion are very detailed. Nottingham alabaster (of which I knew nothing until looking at these examples and reading a bit more) is a type of gypsum and the finely worked pieces by Nottingham craftsman were highly sought after. They generally followed two themes: the Life of Our Lady and the Passion of Christ.
What makes the presence of these late mediaeval pieces in Louviers interesting from our pilgrimage point of view is they show this to be a trading route with England along the Chemin des Anglais for pilgrims from Dieppe via Rouen. As a footnote we may also regard these pieces as a glimpse of the riches of the art of Catholic England. Alabaster art like this would have been smashed by Cromwell’s men across the country in the early 16th century, so look upon this fine craftsmanship and weep to recall how these riches wrought by devotion and craftsmanship were vandalised to satisfy the greed and bigotry of a few powerful men, and the art heritage of England was partly lost forever.
Simon’s comment under Day 17 refers to the: “Fine late-mediaeval stained glass, including a Blessed Sacrament procession, the priest carrying the monstrance is surrounded by candle-bearing tradesmen – shearers, wool merchants, dyers and pressers.” This continues our theme of ordinary people being represented in this art, which we reflected upon in Rouen in the panels dedicated to fishmongers, and underlines the point made above that the iconoclasm – the breaking of these images – was also an assault on the communities that made these artifacts.
The day’s walk is forty-seven kilometres and the destination is Ivry-la-Bataille where there is a choice of camping grounds (the earliest is at 42km), but it is a flat and easy tarmac route, mostly the D71 road with very little motor traffic, so it is popular with cyclists. It is also very credibly the authentic route from Dieppe to Dreux of the Chemin des Anglais because Ivry was a garrison town with a Norman castle (now a ruin), therefore a thriving market centre and place to seek an inn for the night. Today is dry – hooray! – for that also helps achieve a better distance.
I pause at what used to be our favourite overnight stop when cycling to Chartres. Just after Saint-Vigor, there is a half-timbered 16th century mill built over the river Eure next to a wide meadow, a ruin in the 1980s, good for a free overnight stop.
It was next to a deep clear mill pond for a refreshing bathe. The decaying ruin had been roofless then, with the beams exposed to the elements. Now it amused me that an overnight stop at this historic Gîtes de France location with its jaccuzzi and four-star views across the Eure would be out of the question. It would cost five times my twenty-euro daily pilgrim budget! I looked down from the D71 road at the river and the yard beside the mill, with a tinge of nostalgia.
The out-house we stayed in overnight on bicycle trips to Chartres was long-demolished, but decades later the constant factor seemed to be me. I was still a ‘poor’ traveller in this landscape. Then, a cyclist on a cheap holiday, eating bread and cheese; now a pilgrim to Compostela on a tight budget, still getting by on bread and cheese. It was a question of quality again, that theme that had been sparked for me by Pirsig who I last mentioned on this pilgrimage when we walked through Oxford.
We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on “good” rather than “time” and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer. Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better, roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where – when you stop to ask directions or information – the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you’re from and how long you’ve been riding.Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)
Pirsig, as narrator of this American road novel, is mulling over his perception of the world and trying embrace an outlook that draws upon both the romantic and the rational. This means accepting “irrational” traditional wisdom as well as science and reason, and of course, technology. He hopes to show how a Zen-like “being in the moment” can comfortably exist alongside rationality and lead to a higher quality of life. It is very telling that within the story, the metaphysical intensity of the quest leads to the complete mental breakdown of the main character, in a schizophrenic episode. It seemed Pirsig was representing the western ‘schism’ of thought between Plato and Aristotle as a cause for his (or the novel’s narrator Phaedrus) psychological collapse. In reality, this American road novel had simply gone down a wrong turning at speed and hit a brick wall at the end.
I said previously that this book changed my thinking, but I had also been deprived of an education into my own culture, so it took years before I noticed this was the central discussion of the thirteenth century Christian monks and scholastics, and the debates of the Franciscan and Dominican friars who founded the universities of Oxford, Paris and Cologne. Like me today, they were to be found walking across Europe, in a mendicant fashion, thinking and discussing with fellow travellers, who might also give them a crust and buy them a drink.
There was always only one place on this route to buy food: in Fontaine-sous-Jouy there was a bar-tabac-épicerie next to a little green and opposite the mairie. A place for a picnic, to save having to carry food bought in the shop for a long distance. It was handy for the cycle journey down towards Chartres and the journey home. I hoped it would still be there. Between this hamlet and Chambray – a bigger village – was the old railway station. I remember seeing a goods train on the line once, many years ago. Then there were no more. These lines have been turned into voies verte now, for cyclists and walkers and Sunday family rambles. This one still had tracks, so the pilgrim route must keep to the D71 road. I found the shop open.
“Are you walking to Compostelle?” asked the young woman in the bar, after she had served me with bread, cheese, chocolate, bananas and orange juice in the shop. An open arch connected the two areas and I was now seated at the bar with a small beer. There is no large beer for a pilgrim with these bar prices and a tight budget. “I had two English people in here – six months ago – and they said they were doing the whole walk.”
“Yes, two thousand kilometres,” I said. “I’m so glad your shop is still here!”
“Yes,” I said. And I looked around me out of the window at the little green square of grass and the mairie flowerbeds, still well-kept, as I remembered the place. When we cycled to Chartres. Before I was a Franciscan friar. Long before I was a secondary school teacher. And I was still struggling with ideas and reading Pirsig. Where people ask where you’re from and how long you’ve been riding… And I said, “I came into this bar, this shop… four times in 1983, twice in 1984, then once in 2005, and now today!”
“Then that makes you a regular customer!” she laughed. “But you’re not getting a free beer!”
So, there was no voie verte. I continued down the D71. This time I would not be stopping at the epicerie on the way home, for I would be flying home eventually from Compostela. Walking is a wonderful way to work through ideas. Cycling tends to be more technical, therefore the thought processes get interrupted by what gear you are in, what pothole is before you, and how the wind direction and the traffic affect your forward progress. Walking goes well with praying. It’s the rhythm. And the same for thinking. La pluie – de le matin – n’arretez pas – le pèlerin.
Pirsig’s framing of the intuitive, the irrational, the traditional wisdom, as “zen” – in a very 1960s kind of cultural trap – had successfully thrown me off the scent. It was not that his metaphysical question was wrong. “What is Quality?” is arguably the central question in life, framed in a secular context. Nor was the working method wrong: the evaluation of Plato and Aristotle and an attempt to synthesize the romantic and the rational. Pirsig’s mistake was to go down the route of eastern mysticism and his great omission was the western debate about faith and reason.
For a book which had awakened my thinking and done what it promised on the cover, “This book will change the way you think and feel about your life,” it had actually led me into a cul-de-sac for a full ten years, from my mid-twenties right into my mid-thirties. The error was now clear when I looked back at it.
There are no regrets: the journey was interesting. It led me to Alan Watts and other western zen writers, until I was bored with imagining “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and fed up with the sound of hundreds of typewriters churning out ‘enlightenment’ for a modern age without faith. I read the novels of Hermann Hesse and entered the world of mystical cults, like theosophy; the Rosicrucians; belief in the continuity of some order of Knights Templar; a secret knowledge held by certain Grand Masters who appeared in every generation, people like Jean Cocteau. In books it was almost convincing, but it was merely embarrassing nonsense when people stood up to talk about it in some hired room full of weirdos in Bloomsbury.
So, on this walk, I took Pirsig’s book with me from Worcester to London and I left it behind me having reflected upon that road once taken which went nowhere. I wanted to know why I went down that road, all those years ago. I noticed something remarkable in it, and I marked the three passages concerned. In reading a book about metaphysical questions and the division in western philosophy – the road once taken – I had failed to notice there were only three mentions of Christian tradition.
One was the mention of a hymn. The second was a sentence about Saint Thomas Aquinas “taking Plato and Aristotle and making them part of his synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian faith;” a big clue about the road not taken, which I didn’t even notice before, since Pirsig closes the gate on that route immediately. But the third and last time he mentions Christianity he takes us down the slip-road directly onto a fast three-lane interstate highway in exactly the wrong direction, accelerating towards the east.
He became aware that the doctrinal differences among Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism are not anywhere near as important as doctrinal differences among Christianity and Islam and Judaism. Holy wars are not fought over them because verbalized statements about reality are never presumed to be reality itself.
In all of the Oriental religions great value is placed on the Sanskrit doctrine of Tat tvam asi, “Thou art that,” which asserts that everything you think you are and everything you think you perceive are undivided. To realize fully this lack of division is to become enlightened.Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)
If you are an untrained thinker – and one who gets his main philosophical inspiration from a popular paperback with a lotus flower and a spanner on the jacket could be deemed such – then it would be forgivable to spend some time after reading such a statement, completely ignoring the Abrahamic traditions. That is not to assert that there was any propagandistic intention by the author, but simply to say there was a tacit unspoken agreement between author and reader that Biblical faith has no place in grown-up metaphysical enquiry.
That was a hard walk. Not physically but psychologically. I should have prayed more and done less analytical stuff, that was the mistake. Or was it? I covered a lot of ground. Tomorrow’s walk will be easier: there’s a forest section and also a bed under a roof at the end of it, with a pilgrim association member. All booked. And tomorrow we begin to leave Pirsig’s influence and go into the Turning Point: I Ching hexagram 23 as I used to call it before I grew up. Hideous nonsense. Leave it for now, the day’s walk is over. The Fool. No, tomorrow we’ll talk about the Fool and we’ll break with Pirsig. No more today.
Ivry-la-Bataille has various places to pitch a tent, not cheap but I need a shower so I spend half my day’s budget. Shops, supermarkets, cheap beer in one litre bottles for a euro. Take-away pizza! There’s a kebab shop too. Lamb kebab? Relax: we are within budget today. It’s stopped raining and there’s a red sunset. Good sign. Red sky at night, sheep on fire.
I am aware that some information here may not be up-to-date and I was curious to see on Google if the railway line was indeed now a voie verte. What I found was inconclusive and would appreciate an update from anyone local (Amis de Saint Jacques de Normandie?)
What I did find however, which interested me greatly as a geography teacher, was this curiosity in the train tracks at Chambray station. Was there a geological fault line here? Or some fold in the Google mapping?… C’est bizarre! https://firstname.lastname@example.org,1.2996818,3a,75y,320.54h,56.73t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sDXvVcSKikzXe532YENd6Ow!2e0!7i16384!8i8192?hl=en