Into the Charente Maritime and Aulnay

Days 41 & 42 of Walking Out of the World, from Saint-Romans-les-Melle to Aulnay on the road to Saint-Jean-d’Angely, and we consider the essential text in the pilgrim’s rucsack: a pocket Bible.

(Previous post: Days 39 & 40 Lusignan to Melle.)

The church of Saint Hilaire in Melle is one of three Romanesque churches in the town and this is a good moment to link to the UNESCO World Heritage list of the Way of Saint James patrimony. This PDF file is a 700-page document listing the architecture and sometimes sections of the paths themselves, in the three main branches of the Chemins Saint-Jacques in France. The document is an exhaustive resource with maps and photographs, and I shall refer to it again when reaching Ostabat, the junction of the main French routes.

Just seven kilometres beyond Melle is Saint-Romans-les-Melle which is a good place for a pilgrim to camp for the night. One of the usual disadvantages of stopping at camping grounds after a whole day of walking, is that they are often at some distance from the urban centre, and that means more walking. But not here: it is a compact place with a riverside municipal campsite and shops and cafes within a very short walk.

Our route brings us now into Charente Maritime where there is new waymarking: the usual balisage of the GR655 Via Turonensis is now supported by white wayside stones decorated with the coquille Saint-Jacques. Place names are picked out in red and an arrow shows the next town on the route. The first of these stones is in La Villedieu, a misnamed place which doesn’t deserve any mention (!) for the guidebook tells us “the Romanesque church was demolished in the 19th century to improve the main street.”


At the church of Saint-Pierre d’Aulnay we find the lyre-playing donkey mentioned in Rubí’s blog, an image that reaches back into the Babylonian past, as we see from the Compostela website of Georges Meisner (photo used here with permission). The harp-playing ass is tremendous fun for a pilgrim newly enthused by donkey-walking, but entirely unbiblical, unlike the wise and foolish virgins who adorn the Romanesque archivaults and are straight from the words of Jesus.

At this point in the virtual pilgrimage I ask, if we are not carrying a Bible, how do we interpret religious images and symbols that confront us every day? Once, any traveller staying in a two-star hotel would find a copy of Gideon’s Bible on the bedside table. Why would we even set out on pilgrimage to Compostela without a Bible?

The Christian pilgrim will not be mystified by the figure of an upside-down crucifixion on the tympanum of the door of a church dedicated to Saint-Pierre and will not ask the same questions other observers may ask. (“Why is Jesus the wrong way up in that picture, mummy?”) But where is the passage in Scripture that tells us this is Saint Peter? Is that event written in Scripture, or is it rather in the Tradition of the Church? If you are unsure, or if you think you know but cannot think where you read it, then this is the moment to sit down before that sculpture and get it clear. Why would you not, on a Christian pilgrimage? And those wise and foolish virgins… Yes we can count them in the Romanesque sculpture here: five wise virgins and five foolish ones. But do we find the parable in Matthew, Mark or Luke? Or all three Gospels?

My pocket edition (weight: 300 grams) has many pencilled notes in the margins and post-it notes tucked into the pages. In the end-paper there is a photograph of Brother Roger Shutz the founder of the Taizé community. It is a simple reminder of the place where I first learned how to read the texts of the various books and distinguish between them.

At the beginning of this virtual pilgrimage, you remember, I made a choice about boots and I bought a pair of Scarpa walking boots that would see me all the way to Compostela without a single blister. There are three other things that are essentials apart from the boots: (1) lightweight sleeping bag – preferably filled with down – that is of mountain safety standard; (2) rucsack which is properly fitted and adjusted to your back and waist; and (3) a pocket Bible containing both New Testament and the Hebrew Books of the Old Testament.

Now, I’m not suggesting we should be using our pocket Bible as a kind of “I-Spy” book, but if not now, then when will be the right moment to become more familiar with it and match the words to the visual allegories in stone and stained glass? There are plenty of places where you can read about the architecture and the sculpture to be found on this pilgrim road (and here is an excellent essay about Aulnay) but what makes the pilgrim different from the art-history tourist? Surely there must be some sense in which the pilgrimage involves a deepening engagement with the faith? And if the Bible is the book of the faith, then why would you not have a pocket edition in your rucsack?

Tomorrow we arrive in Saint-Jean-d’Angely where we meet the head of John the Baptist and finally meet up with the Worcester Pilgrim, Robert Sutton on his route from Cherbourg. The replica bourdon will now walk alongside the 15th century original, in spirit, for the rest of the way to Compostela.