Walking with donkey to the river Vienne

Day 33 of Walking Out of the World which continues donkey walking from the Gartempe valley to the river Vienne and some thoughts from John Ruskin.

(Previous day: Day 32 Walking with donkey from Antigny to Montmorillon.)

Today’s donkey walking route on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques GR48 is from overnight camp, by the river just before Montmorillon to Lussac where there is a campsite by the river Vienne. (Here is the map of the route.) Breaking camp in the morning was my first solo donkey-loading experience. It took nearly an hour to get the donkey properly loaded. Much of the equipment carried by the donkey is to serve the donkey’s needs: food, electric fencing kit, donkey first aid kit, tools. It was a load far in excess of my accustomed eight or ten kilo rucsack for walking.

Above the bridge in Montmorillon, shown in the photo above, there is a street of secondhand bookshops. This can be a hazard with donkey, because donkey will see stacks of books laid out in trays outside a shop as potential food. Having parked donkey safely away from the books and left her to the attention of a family group (“Ooh look a donkey…” etc.) it was possible to spend a quick few minutes looking at the English language shelves in the nearest shop. I came away with a battered old two-euro paperback copy of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice to put in a side pocket of the donkey panniers for later.

In the French countryside – the further south you go – donkeys are still common and we encountered various single donkeys or groups as we walked. It was an opportunity to observe their social interaction with Dalie. I did not know what was being discussed but there was always an urgent conversation between them. After climbing out of Montmorillon away from the river Gartempe, most of the day was spent walking on pleasant shady forest tracks across the ridge into the next catchment basin and the river Vienne. This was also an opportunity to build on the relationship with donkey: talking to her, encouraging her up the climbs, giving occasional treats and above all learning to walk at her rhythm.

At the campsite by the river Vienne I was relieved that they accepted a donkey for the night. I put up the donkey electric fence, then put up the tent in donkey’s enclosure, gave donkey some food and I went for a swim. The water in the river was hardly deep enough to get wet, but I found a spot in mid-stream where there was a waist deep pool and I ducked under the water. There was a commotion from riverbank. Dalie donkey was braying and staring anxiously at the river. She was alerting everyone to what she thought was her new walking friend drowning in the river! I quickly made my way back to shore and reassured donkey that I was quite safe! It seemed we had formed a bond already.

I went for a shower and came back to find Dalie had rewarded herself for her vigilance in saving my life by helping herself to my supper. She had undone the velcro tent entrance, unzipped the shopping bag and she was halway through eating the melon. The carrots were already gone and the potatoes and the baguette were half chewed.  My special treat of sausages remained uneaten: the bag had been pushed to one side with disdain.

I lay down on the grass outside the tent, next to the donkey, in evening sun and opened John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice at Part 2, Chapter IV, “The Nature of Gothic”, where there is a remarkable passage – all in one continuous paragraph – in which he imagines a bird flying over Europe and looking down on the changes as he flies north from the Mediterranean. (I have copied it from the book in a PDF file here, the start of the passage marked in pencil with an arrow.)

This entire passage about the changing landscape as you travel from south to north in Europe – or in my case on foot from north to south – is how Ruskin illustrates the difference between the architectural styles of the Mediterranean lands and the “rude and wild” architecture of the north, the Gothic influence. He starts with this element of “savageness” as he sets out his characteristics or ‘moral elements’ of Gothic.

On this pilgrimage – this three month journey on foot from Worcester to Compostela – I realize that I am not only moving gradually from the northern European to the Mediterranean climate, but – as Ruskin reminds me – I am also moving, at walking pace, imperceptibly from the Gothic to the Romanesque in historical and cultural influences. Geographically I am at the halfway point and tipping into the Romanesque now. What implication does that have for the spiritual quest? I want to explore that. From now on, after the donkey walking interlude, as the foot journey continues from Poitiers to the south, we will see less of the Gothic – of which Chartres has been my main beacon on this route – and more of the Romanesque.

It would have been good also to see more of the melon, but I content myself with the sausages, and the remains of the potatoes with donkey teeth marks. There is a brief phone call to check in with my flying instructor at donkey control, back in Antigny. Barbara says, “I warned you Dalie understands velcro and zips.”


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