Day 31 of Walking Out of the World. Rain all day to Châtellerault, a new guardian angel at lunch, and the pilgrim is rescued in a storm. Then… donkeys!
(Previous post: Day 30 Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine to Dangé-Saint-Romain.)
There is nothing to describe on the morning’s walk from Dangé-Saint-Romain to Châtellerault, as I had my head down against the driving rain. It was the wettest morning I had experienced so far, which was saying something as most days walking from Dieppe have been wet for at least a part of the day.
The church of Saint-Jacques was consecrated in 1066, a date which is famously the only historical date most English people can remember. Much of the structure was ‘improved’ in the 19th century, so does not invite further interest, but the highlight for the pilgrim is the polychrome wooden statue of Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle dressed and equipped as a 17th century pilgrim. It stands in a corner of the church. Since I had the place to myself on a rainy day, I spent a mischievous few minute substituting my 15th century replica bourdon for his. It was a bit naughty, taking out his bourdon and temporarily replacing it (mine – with the metal base fitting – was too wide to fit between his fingers). Then I struck a pose next to him. I imagine it’s the sort of thing everyone does on a rainy day in Châtellerault. The gourd tied to his waist-band is a good illustration of the way pilgrims carried their drinking water, or more probably wine. I began to think that refilling my water bottles with wine was the only way to make this weather bearable.
The church office was on the corner of the road opposite the church door. The parish secretary put the Châtellerault pilgrim tampon in my credencial, which pleased me as it was the best pilgrim stamp I had collected during the first half of the journey through France. She remarked on my bourdon. For a fleeting moment I panicked and I checked to make sure I hadn’t come out of church with the 17th century one by mistake!
As I made my way out of Chatellerault along the river Vienne on the well-marked Chemin Saint-Jacques, I remembered my plan had been to buy food for lunch before leaving the town but I had forgotten. Buying provisions from supermarkets is the way to survive in France: eating out is impossible on a budget of twenty euros per day. I looked forward to Spain and a three-course daily menu peregrino for under ten euros!
It was only a few kilometres to the next small town of Cenon-sur-Vienne but all the shops were closed. I was very hungry after walking since early morning. There was a restaurant and I looked at the three-course lunch menu posted outside. It would take all my budget for today and some of tomorrow’s. It was a difficult call. I abandoned the budget and went in.
While waiting for the soup course, I opened my CSJ booklet, Roads to Santiago and read a page about horse-riding pilgrims. I was surprised it took four months to go from Canterbury to Compostela: a full month longer than my plan for the walk from Worcester. The Dutch pony cart pilgrim, Martin Breukers was also travelling more slowly: some German cyclists in Châtellerault today told me they saw him ten kilometres further back. I was thinking a lot about this equine theme now, without really knowing why.
Something now happened in the restaurant that echoed another story in the little red booklet that I mentioned earlier in this virtual pilgrimage. I put away the booklet when my soup and wine arrived and a French man at the next table, who was also dining alone, started to ask me questions. Was I a real pilgrim to Santiago? Where had I begun? Had I walked all the way? When was I going to arrive in Compostela? Once I had answered all his questions, he said “Pray for me at the shrine of Saint-Jacques.” I said I would. I carried on with my meal and he with his. He was doing lunch-time work with an account book and calculations on his phone. I supposed he was a travelling salesman or something.
He finished before me, but as he got up to leave and pay for his meal in the foyer, he asked me if I was going to have a coffee at the end of my meal. I thought it was an odd question (maybe this place was especially well-known for its coffee?) I said yes I would end with a coffee, as it was still raining outside and it would warm me up for the road. He said goodbye and wished me well. I finished my meal and had a coffee. Then I loaded my rucsack on my back and went to pay on the way out.
It had happened! Just like that. Just as it happened to William Griffiths in the story he told about the ‘guardian angels’ in Roads to Santiago. The waiter smiled and said, “There’s nothing to pay. It was all paid for by the man sitting next to you. Including the coffee.”
Every day I had met people who asked questions about pilgrimage, or simply shouted out “Bon courage, monsieur!” as I walked along, but this act of kindness – paying for a three course meal – was especially moving because I could never thank the man. He had gone. He could not have known how concerned I was about breaking my tight budget either! And this meal had not cost me a centime. In my notebook I added him to the prayer list for Compostela: Man in La Renaissance restaurant Cenon-sur-Vienne, “Prie pour moi.”
A wise Franciscan spiritual director once told me never to say you will pray for someone and neglect to do so. Once said, it becomes a holy obligation. It was one of those special moments that stand out, on a pilgrimage, but the next few days were to be even more memorable. The equine theme was to develop in a way I could not possibly have imagined and it would carry forward as a life changer, long after this pilgrimage was done.
The plan for a rest day on the route had been worked out several weeks beforehand in London. A fellow Confraternity of Saint James pilgrim Barbara, who lives a short drive from Poitiers, was going to collect me for a rest day at her farm when I reached Poitiers. I kept her up to date with my progress by text messages.
What happened instead was an emergency rescue in a storm. The rain had been constantly falling all day and by late afternoon turned into a full-scale violent thunderstorm with a gunmetal sky, thunder and lightning crashing all around me. When the hailstones began raining down (shall I mention wheelbarrows?) I managed to find shelter in a Bar-Tabac-Lotto in a nondescript row of shops on the road to Poitiers.
Nobody in the bar dared go outside. It was violent out there. People were afraid the wind and hail would destroy their cars outside. I phoned Barbara to see if it was a convenient moment to be rescued. She said apart from the appalling driving conditions it was a suitable moment, as she is a flying instructor and there was no more flying today in this weather!
Within an hour I was rescued. As Barbara was to say later, “It was a splendid wet Pilgrim I collected….” And the very wet pilgrim was soon being introduced to Barbara’s donkeys, Dalie and Rosie. The curious equine theme developing over the last few days had now found its focus. While all my things were drying out in front of a log fire, a welcoming hot farmhouse supper was an opportunity to recount all my adventures walking from Worcester to here, halfway down France.
Barbara in turn told me all about walking with a donkey on the Way of Saint James to Compostela. Dalie had been a pilgrim to Compostela more than once and there were photographs to illustrate the story. I did not need more convincing: walking with a donkey must be tried! Maybe not all the way to Compostela, not this time. Barbara suggested walking Dalie for a few days, along a spur of the Chemin Saint-Jacques nearby. I said I could then return to my original route and continue south from Poitiers.
As Barbara said, “It sounds like a plan…”
To be in the presence of a donkey requires humility, stillness and confidence. They are creatures more ancient than ourselves and worthy of veneration. They don’t meet us on neutral ground, the territory is theirs entirely. They are willing to discuss anything and they permit us a fresh start.Michael Tobias and Jane Morrison, Donkey: the Mystique of Equus Asinus (2006)