I was on day two of my pilgrimage in France, having walked from the ferry terminal in Calais to the remains of an abandoned fortress overlooking the seaside town of Wissant. Already that morning I’d walked the remaining few kilometres into Wissant, and after picking up a pastry for breakfast, was preparing to tackle the challenging walk inland to Guines.
Little could I imagine that this adventure would end with me firmly back on a ferry to Dover, swearing never to visit France on my own again.
Yes, the day ended in disaster – and while I try to keep this blog positive I also intend to keep it honest, so here goes the story of my first really frightening adventure experience!
Wissant was sunny and cheerful, seeming to promise a pleasant day even though my body was ominously already beginning to ache despite the fact I hadn’t even properly started.
But what was I going to do? Give up and walk back the way I came? Ha! I’d rather see something new! At the end of the town I found a signpost for the Via Francigena and followed it on to a rutted road that headed into tilled fields.
I am an exceptionally directionally-challenged individual, and now I didn’t have an ocean on one side to keep me on the right track. Add to this the fact that the only source I could find online for my intended route was in Italian, and that signposting for the trail was somewhat inconsistent, and I soon had to take a guess.
My guesstimated route took me on a roundabout way through the fields as the mist rose and the temperature dropped. The signs I was following seemed to be taking me around in a circle, and I soon came out close to where I’d started with a much clearer Via Francigena sign pointing in a different direction. I could only conclude that I’d managed to take a several kilometre long unnecessary detour. Fantastic. My pack was beginning to rub unpleasantly against my hips so I alternated between letting my shoulders take the weight and fastening the hip strap so I could carry it around my waist.
I slogged through the village of Saint-Inglevert, stopping only to talk briefly to a woman who had lost her dog.
I was less than half way to my intended destination and already every part of my body was throbbing. I was determined to make it further, so I crossed the highway, passing an enormous pile of root vegetables (I assume potatoes?) and passed through a wood.
Then it was through more effing fields to approach the town of Ladrethun-le-Nord.
I rested for a while on a bench opposite the church, where apparently some sort of meeting was taking place as several people pulled up into the parking lot while I tried to soothe my aching feet.
The route according to my Italian website was supposed to continue through the countryside but I somehow found myself slogging along the highway on the final long stretch toward Guines. By this time I was thoroughly fed up and eyeing every hedgerow I passed as a potential freedom camping spot. All I needed was somewhere sheltered and private, but the landscape offered precious little of the type.
Just as I was losing the will to live, two women pulled up next to me. Through the tiny smattering of each other’s languages that we possessed, I managed to communicate my intention to go to Guines, and they offered me a lift. As I gratefully climbed in, I reflected that France’s reputation for hostility toward foreigners must be completely overblown.
Since I’d stated I was intending to camp, they brought me to the first of two camp sites in Guines, which was closed for the off-season. So off we went to the second, where we could find nobody. I assured the kind ladies I’d be alright and farewelled them, fully intending to sneak off somewhere secluded and set up my tent.
But just as I was about to leave I encountered a gentleman on his scooter, who brought me to the camp site and helped me sort out a spot with the owner even though it was also technically closed for the season. Relieved, I began to set up my tiny tent. As I finished the fellow with the scooter began gesticulating to me from a nearby cabin before bringing in a friend who spoke slightly more English. They were offering me some tea.
At first I declined, but then I remembered my days with Cesco, jealously watching as he easily made friends wherever he went, having loads of fun in the process. Well I don’t need him! I can do that too! And also, I kind of needed a good cup of tea after my long and frustrating day.
So I joined the two men and one woman in the cabin for a cup of tea and eventually a big bowl of cassoulet for dinner. They were horrified to learn that I intended to sleep in my tent that night, imploring me to sleep in the cabin instead. I declined, but they insisted that I would be the only one there – and I would have the key. Sounds safe enough I guess, so I gave in.
The lady left, leaving me with the two gentlemen – although it quickly became apparent to me that one of the two, who I shall henceforth refer to as “Creepy Jacques”, was not much of a gentleman at all! I could tell from the way he grabbed me by the wrist to encourage me to follow him and kept trying to pressure me into joining him alone in his caravan to watch TV that he was one to avoid. I needed a ploy to get rid of him without ending up alone in his presence, so – having picked up the French word for sleep – I began to insist that I was tired and needed the two fellows to leave so I could go to bed.
I patted myself on the back as the true gentleman lead Creepy Jacques away, and was about to lock the door when Creepy Jacques returned under the pretence of bringing me a pillow. I reluctantly took it and then waited for him to leave. However he had no intention of doing so, sitting on the bed I was supposed to be using and smoking up a storm.
After many failed attempts to convince him to leave, I felt I had no choice but to grab all my stuff and walk out. Luckily I still had the tent I’d pitched earlier, so I crawled inside and cocooned myself safely in my sleeping bag.
But Creepy Jacques wasn’t done! Faced with a woman who was already literally hiding from him, he decided matters could be improved by yelling, shaking and grabbing at my tent. He jangled the cabin keys to entice me out, which I guess that sometimes works on babies, but did not work on me. Eventually he gave up, and I huddled in my tiny tent until first light, when I hurriedly packed everything up before anyone had stirred.
Then I power-walked to the nearest bus stop and boarded the next one back to Calais. It was shaping up to be another beautiful day, but I would not be taking advantage of it. I paused only briefly in Calais to take some pictures of some things I’d missed on my last visit when I was too sick to properly explore.
Then it was straight on the next ferry from Dover, dirty, exhausted, and still aching from yesterday’s walk. This experience, coupled with the guy who’d followed me down the street in Lyon, and another who’d been very pushy in Nice, had severely discouraged me from further adventures in France. I hate to judge a whole country by a few bad apples, but I never had this sort of trouble in England or Italy.
France, sort your creeps out, and then maybe I’ll come back for your fine beaches, history and cuisine.