Day 19 of Walking Out of the World: a two thousand kilometre walking pilgrimage to Compostela. Today pass through the Fôret de Dreux and I continue on the theme of visual communication. Then through the Vallée de l’Eure again and onto the great plain of Beauce, on the pilgrim route to Chartres.
Previous post: Louviers to Ivry-la-Bataille
Today the walk will be forty kilometres, from Ivry-la-Bataille, leaving the river Eure by the village of Anet to climb into the Forêt de Dreux then back into the Vallée de l’Eure and onto the plain of Beauce where we hope to get a glimpse of Chartres cathedral on the horizon. It can usually be seen from thirty kilometres away, walking from this direction on the Chemin des Anglais. The weather has improved. “Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight,” is nearly always fail-safe!
I’m going to try adding precise geolocation in the virtual pilgrimage now for selected photos at key points. We’ll see how it works, and if not too time-consuming to set up, we will continue with it down France. Simply click on the link below the photo if you want to see the exact point on the map and also get a GPS reference. I will also sometimes upload a higher quality photo to the mapy.cz site, as they accept larger file sizes than I wish to use on the blog.
Looking north over Anet and up the Vallée de l’Eure, we have our last glimpse of Evry-la-Bataille beyond the trees on the right. I have been saying the Jesus Prayer and have now coiled the 100-knot woollen prayer rope back on the bourdon. On the Walking Out of the World drop-down menu there is now a Devotions page with an Orthodox priest explaining – in a very pastoral setting – how the Jesus Prayer is said. Other points about Christian spirituality and pilgrimage will be added there, as we go along.
I enter the Forêt de Dreux. It is a sudden change: from a tractor path through wide fields with green rows of early wheat, to a tree line and within two steps I am underneath a vast canopy of forest. There are tracks criss-crossing through it and it will be technical: always looking out for waymarking. I’ve never walked through this forest: always the cycle route to Chartres took us along the straight road through the middle of the forest and there was no room for error: just follow the tarmac. Here in the labyrinth of tracks, through undergrowth, saplings, mature trees, and occasional patches of bramble, there was the possibility of getting lost.
Many people enjoy the stimulus of a long walk in order to reflect on matters, develop creative ideas, work through some emotional difficulty, or simply to allow the busy left cortex to idle and the right brain to enjoy its freedom to roam the vacated mental space. On a solitary walk, the conversation is with oneself; when pilgrims meet along the way and walk together for a while – sometimes for a few days – they share their story. Who are we, where have we come from, where are we going? It is what the people of Israel did in the Jewish Bible – or Christians call the Old Testament – and it is more of a library than a book. It contains many books of various kinds and different genres, and it tells of so many false starts and times of trial, so many pauses in a strange land, trying to find a new way forward. Listening to the competing voices of prophets at the crossroads, wondering who is right about the path to be taken to the promised land.
Back in Rouen Jean-Noël had photocopied the map of the Chemin des Anglais to Chartres for me. Six A4 sheets. I had left them on the kitchen table in Rouen when I set off. Somewhere here I needed to go right, but was it here?
There is a sudden fast pounding noise behind me. I immediately think, “Wild boar!” The blood instantly goes cold in my forehead. I freeze in my tracks. Before I can turn around, the animal brushes past me at speed. It is a smoke grey colour. It had brushed against my rucsack. Hardly touching me. Like a ghostly visitation. The lower rucsack strap is buckled higher than the waist band of my trousers, so I know the animal is more than a metre high. It is a dog. I now see it from behind. A blur. One of those dogs the size of a pony. Grey like a pony. Ghostly grey. Its paws hardly touch the ground. It goes straight over the crossing and disappears three hundred metres ahead in ten seconds. That’s as far ahead as the forest undergrowth and slight incline allows me to see. A hunter. One of those big hunting dogs you only see in France.
My heart was pounding. I felt a little giddy. Anyone who travels as a solitary pilgrim in a wild place knows the feeling of sudden danger, then relief, and the absence of the cathartic moment of sharing the experience with another and the reassuring laugh about the silliness of the panic. I knew there was a pavilion on the main road, halfway through the forest where cars stopped, and people had picnics. That was where this path ahead was going: the dog maybe came from dog walkers parked there. A good clue, so I followed the dog and went straight on.
So many stories in these books are about a nation, a people who are on the road, seeking a new land and trying to understand where God is leading them. It is our story. Even if you are not Jewish nor Christian but educated in a European culture, you cannot escape the fact that it is your story, and the very stones of our monuments and the words in our languages are based on its foundations, as much as on the learning of the Greeks and Romans. We no longer follow its teaching as a culture, for there are competing visions of what road we should take into the future. But you cannot ignore the Book. For it is the foundation of our collective psyche.
At the next crossroads in the forest track, there was clear waymarking to the right. The Chemin des Anglais follows the main GR route – a long-distance walk – between Paris and Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy.
There was a small group of people at the pavilion in the forest clearing where the main road passes and the car park gives access to paths in all points of the compass. At one time in the belle epoque this pavilion would have been a rendezvous for Sunday hunters in the Forêt de Dreux. But the postcard is not from the belle epoque, it is postmarked 1917 and not far north from here in the trenches men are hunting each other in the mud. Nobody here owned the big dog. There was a nasty little yapping Pekinese who took exception to my bourdon, as they all do.
“No, monsieur we have not brought a big dog. We have not seen any big dog. No other car was here this last half hour with a big dog. Peut-être que monsieur a vu un renard?”
The rain had started again. I could see above the forest canopy in this clearing and the skies were darkening once more. I decided to keep to the tarmac road, straight on in the Dreux direction then turn off to the river route again. A new song was born… To the tune of la Marseillaise again, of course.
“La pluie d’apres-midday, le pèlerinage est ruinée…”
But it seemed insufficiently joyful for the good hope of reaching Chartres next day. So I stopped the song after two half-hearted choruses. Abba would have refined it and made it into a worldwide sensation.
I had been lost for some years. After writing a few one-act comedies for London fringe theatre – well, community theatre really, a sort of thespian poor relation – I did a degree in Visual Communications at Goldsmiths College. It was a sort of souped up graphic design and multimedia course that was the brainchild of Richard Hoggart (1918-2014) The uses of Literacy man; so it had a high-powered theory element including linguistics, semiotics, psychology and sociology.
When it came to the final show, I created a multimedia presentation which involved weeks of work travelling around Surrey and Kent country parish churches, photographing stained glass. I took the idea of Victor Hugo, “This Will Kill That” (mentioned on Day 15) about architecture being eclipsed by the printing press, and I explored the idea of medieval stained-glass stories as ‘a kind of early television.’
My tutor was a bit wary. (Ros Coward is now Professor of Journalism at Roehampton University.) She was sure the academic panel would fail me on the practical. “Simply showing photos of stained glass doesn’t demonstrate your own craft skills,” she said. But the audio-visual was skilled and crafty: in those pre-digital days the 3×3 banks of carousel slide projectors were sequenced by a cassette tape in a primitive console, but the fade and mix of light and images produced more stunning end results than live-action film.
It was a story about visual communication, and it used only visual communication. No spoken narrative at all. Like silent film. And it was backed up with well-worked out theory. And it was not a ‘fail’. And I was awarded the only 1st Class Hons for our cohort. And with a 1st Class Hons you get every teaching job you apply for.
But something else had happened that I still wasn’t aware of: in all those hours spent in parish churches, silent apart from the gentle sounds of the good parish women sweeping or dusting, I had absorbed the stories from the stained glass and I knew how to recognize early and late mediaeval glass, and who was the Lady dressed in blue, and Who the Alpha and the Omega represented. On Day 3 of this pilgrimage, when I was sitting in that church in Wycke Rissington after the cleaning ladies had made me a cup of tea and given me biscuits for breakfast, I knew that was Saint Laurence without reading any label on the wall below.
I knew because of his attribute: the grid-iron. Yes, any Catholic knows that. But here in the Forest of Dreux I suddenly realized today that I knew these things before I was a Christian. Why had I begun to know about them? Who was it that wanted me to learn? Were the real experts in Visual Communications the guildsman of the 13th century glass furnace and the mason who framed the window tracery?
To me, the audio-visual presentation – with images of stained glass transposed with run-down urban cityscapes dominated by miles of corrugated iron fences around late-1970s demolition sites in London’s docklands, and discarded televisions on rubbish dumps – was an exercise in weaving together semiotic layers of meaning. A clever pyrotechnic display of Saussurian-inspired postmodern homage to Victor Hugo. The Hound of Heaven knew otherwise and was now in holy pursuit.
There would be no escape. The rain came down again hard on the tarmac road downhill, out of the forest, winding around a steep hairpin bend before a junction where I turned off sharp left on a narrow lane with old uneven asphalt towards Cherisy. Back onto the river valley route beside the shallow pure waters of the Eure flowing down from Chartres.
In Cherisy I found a café to shelter from the downpour. I had a coffee and phoned Patricia Bigot at Le Boullay-Thierry. I told her I was in serious rain but my estimated time of arrival was more or less OK, but subject to navigation problems. I had left my photocopied maps in Rouen. I was concerned she was preparing food that would spoil.
“Cherisy?” she said. “Another fifteen K. It’s a stew – slow cooker – so any arrival time will be fine. Pilgrim stew!”
She assured me about the route; the way-marking was frequent from here to her village. She dictated from memory half a dozen key junctions and things to look out for and I made a few notes. Sound woman, Patricia: a friend of the English Confraternity and a member of the Association Saint-Jacques de Notre Dame de Chartres. And master stew maker. If you were stuck in a rainstorm in the open mountain up from Rabanal del Camino, you wouldn’t get instant clear instructions over the phone about waymarking on the Camino Francés from an aromatherapist wellness coach in Foncebadón or a retired Knights Templar trade union convener in Manjarín, would you?
On the roads to Santiago de Compostela, since the popular revival began in the 1980s, the pilgrimage route has been flooded with thousands – hundreds of thousands – of genuine enquirers. They seek self-knowledge, enlightenment, and in many respects they ask all the right questions. Or to put it simply: they ask THE questions. We all know what the questions are. Who am I? What is the point of it all? Why is there suffering in the world? What must I do to be a Good person?
The great metaphysical question is best summarised by 19th century London music hall artist, Dan Leno who put it quite succinctly: “Ah, what is man? Wherefore does he why? From whence did he whence? Whither is he withering?”
No New Age spiritual enthusiasms will answer Dan Leno’s questions, though they might – with a bit of luck – cook you a vegan stew. The good and faithful Christian might tentatively suggest that the faith preached ‘even unto the ends of the earth‘ by the Apostle Saint James himself would be a reasonable starting point for the answers. And that good and faithful Christian will be familiar with the common response: “Oh no! I don’t believe in organised religion…”
That always struck me as odd coming from those apparently walking the Camino to end it embracing a man who helped organise the religion, the Apostle at Compostela. Is this reflex against “organised religion” a fear of having to contribute something? To commit to Someone? To give as well as receive? Or simply a continuation of the Reforming project: we Reformed away the superstitious holy oils from our religion; and now we’ve Reformed away the religion from our worship of the essential oils. We fled Him down the New Age.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven (1893)
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind;
and in the mist of tears I hid from Him.
Here at Boullay-Thierry tomorrow morning I hope to see Chartres cathedral in the distance, but tonight I cannot see anything and it is raining. There is a good stew at the bed and breakfast, Le Jardin du Presbytère – a name that rightly suggests a solid spiritual port in a storm – and it has a pilgrim with a bourdon as its sign.