Day 47 of Walking Out of the World takes us across the Gironde estuary at Blaye into the flat lands of the vineyards on the way to Bordeaux. The long stretch across flat countryside is made harder by lack of waymarking and the weather, but some progress is made with listing helpful saints.
(Previous post: Day 46 Mirambeau to Blaye.)
I bought my ferry ticket to cross the Gironde and went for breakfast in the café nearest to the landing stage. In 1423 the situation in Blaye was more complicated for Robert Sutton with a difficult military situation after many years of conflict and the sacking of the local abbeys that looked after the passing pilgrims.
There were various options and prices for boats crossing the Gironde, or you could take a boat all the way to Bordeaux itself. Robert Sutton chose the short route across the estuary to the Médoc, more or less on the same line as today’s ferry, so I was following in his footsteps again.
Apart from a tanker truck and two car-loads of passengers the ferry had few passengers and I was the only pilgrim. The idea that I had walked all the way from Worcester and was nearly in Bordeaux began to strike me as remarkable.
Many days pass at walking speed and you do not seem to be getting anywhere near the end of this great country, and then suddenly in the wide estuary crossing you realize this is the last big river before the Pyrenees, and the hundreds of kilometres behind you, walked while thinking, praying, struggling against the elements, seem to take on a new significance. There is less attachment to the long-ago past. To a past life. Yesterday was waking up in a room in Mirambeau, and the day before that it was a pilgrim hostel in Pons, and then a battle against wind and rain with a great lunch. But what came before that had almost disappeared already. It was a kaleidoscope of changing images of churches and roads and people. The person who set off from Worcester six weeks ago was definitely me, but also seemed like someone else, not me. I was walking out of my world one step at a time.
“The tide had turned before the boat nosed into the bank, and a score of relieved pilgrims disembarked on a rough jetty over the grey slimy mudbanks of the Médoc foreshore.” (Katherine Lack, The Cockleshell Pilgrim.)
Mudbanks on the Médoc side, a wooden jetty and the distant shore at Blaye: a landscape just as Robert Sutton may have seen it in 1423.
With no guidebook, no way-marking, and no roadsigns, there were two walking options. Number 1: walk along the D2 – the only signposted road towards Bordeaux – which was a sure-fire suicide plan, with fast lorry traffic and no footpath. Number 2: get lost on muddy tractor paths through the Médoc vineyards and ask for directions at the châteaux of the wine trade. After Arcins there was for a while no alternative to the D2 (map) for a couple of kilometres and it was a dangerous and frightening walk!
I had also forgotten to pray to Saint Médard (a lesson soon forgotten) so a significant vast tower of cumulo-nimbus started gathering overhead by midday. Soon I was back in the average apocalyptic deluge that had characterised most of the walk through France, ever since I stepped off the boat in Dieppe.
After a walk of nearly forty kilometres – including the times when I had to retrace my steps and find another way south in the vineyards of the Médoc – I arrived at Le Bouscat where there is a four-bed refuge des pelerins run by the Association Saint-Jacques en Aquitaine. It is in the suburbs of Bordeaux and serves as a good stopping point if you intend to walk through Bordeaux and out the other side next day. I was given the key after getting my credencial stamped. There were no other pilgrims. It was a dismal little cell-block with security grilles over the windows and iron ex-army bunk beds, but it served as a good shelter from the rain for the night and the suggested donation was only three euros. I put five euros in the box, thinking they deserved it more – to keep this place open for pilgrims – than the Benedictine sisters in Tours who wanted twenty-five euros for the night.
It was the very first time in six weeks on the road that I had felt lonely. Perhaps it was due to the oppressive little concrete refuge and the sound of the heavy rain beating on the steel door outside, and the single electric lightbulb in the ceiling with no lampshade. I did not know how this mood had come over me because the day had started with the excitement of crossing the Gironde, as if entering a different country, and feeling very close to the Worcester Pilgrim’s viewpoint. Had it been the experience of getting lost too many times, which is always frustrating? Was it because I had walked with enjoyable female company for a few days recently, and not yet completely adjusted to being back on my own? Or was it some spiritual malaise – some form of accidie – sweeping over me from some irritating little bunch of demons stirring up trouble?
I went to the nearby grocery shop and bought a tin of ravioli, some bread and cheese, a cheap bottle of Bordeaux – the most expensive was seven euros – and a packet of mass-produced croissants for breakfast. There was coffee in the refuge next to the two-ring cooker. The fact that I had got soaking wet again going to the shop and the poor man’s tinned supper magnified my gloom. While preparing supper, I decided I needed to snap out of this. It was time to produce my intercession list of saints and I would start tonight. A new project is often a way to overcome temporary gloom.
I turned my mind back to the start of the pilgrimage, to Worcester and I thought of the great Saxon saints. Saint Dunstan would have to go on my list: the most popular saint in England before the martyrdom of Saint Thomas of Canterbury. He was an old favourite because I just liked the fact he was a part-time blacksmith! I thought of walking through Oxford and the Cardinal Newman centre. Newman must go on the list, to mark my Anglican journey to Catholicism, and in any case he understood it better than me…
As I passed through Sussex on the way to Newhaven I had considered Saint Bruno – looking west in the direction of the Carthusian monastery where I had once been encarcerated while wondering if such a life was for me – and now I decided not to put him on the list. I found Saint Bruno as cold and characterless as the view from my hermitage window, the plain stone wall of the cloister. It gave me a momentary thrill to strike Saint Bruno off the list. I had to endure his cold white plaster statue on my monastery bookshelf because he came as a standard fitting, like the wood stove, the prie dieu and the wooden panelling. Serves him right! My mood was improving.
Saint Francis and Saint Clare had to be in the picture-card set in my pack of saints. Like the King and Queen of Hearts. Who else would I include in that category? Saint James the Greater of course, but even then I hesitated, while knowing he had to go into the list – how could a Compostela pilgrim not put Santiago on the list? But now I felt it odd that I felt more from my heart for Saint Roche (San Roque) and Saint Labre as emblems of pilgrimage than I did for Saint James, whose peregrinations in the Iberian peninsula seemed more theoretical.
This was a good project. My mood had improved already. Sorry, Saint Médard! I should have prayed about the weather earlier, but you’ll forgive me if this is a new routine and I didn’t learn quickly enough. The Bordeaux wine was awful. I had just walked through nearly forty kilometres of the stuff, but foolishly did not buy the seven euro bottle at the end of the day. There had to be a lesson in that, somewhere, but I left it for the next day together with my list of saints. At least I had made a start. The next step would be how to pray to them, and after Bordeaux I was coming to the flat lands – the Landes before the foothills of the Pyrenees – and a lot of mental focus would be needed there, on long straight roads in a featureless landscape.
I spread out my sleeping bag and looked around my cell. Yes, just like a prison cell. Dietrich Bonhoeffer should go on the list too. Maximilian Kolbe. They would have been more than happy in their prison cells with a tin of ravioli and a bottle of bad Bordeaux. I turned the light out and felt good. I was no longer lonely after considering the saints.
I went to sleep with a last chuckle about Saint Bruno. “Yes mate, I left you off the list.”