I enjoy reading about the adventures of lone travellers, particularly when they are travelling under their own steam. In the middle of winter, its particularly good to read of someone setting off on a spring morning to see where their journey is going to take them.
I’ve already reviewed Susie Kelly’s book The Valley of Heaven and Hell in which she cycled with her husband on the trail of Marie Antoinette as she fled from Paris to Rheims (only to return later to meet her death). Now, Blackbirdebooks have published Susie’s earlier book, Best Foot Forward in which she walked alone from La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast right across France and into Switzerland, carrying a flimsy tent and a few essentials – an adventure indeed.
Having done quite a bit of walking in France myself, I could only marvel at Susie’s ability to find her way through such a great distance in the French countryside. Many’s the time I’ve been lost while walking in France even when walking for just an afternoon and with the car usually waiting for us just over a nearby hill. While there are way marks on all the major routes, a west-east journey like this required a lot of route-finding across dull terrain which the major walking routes never passed through. Susie was equipped only with a large scale map which frequently misled her and often had to rely on the knowledge of passers by who turned out to be far from reliable.
Many times she turned up in a village only to find it was the wrong one, or that the camp-site she was aiming at was located elsewhere. I could almost feel her fatigue on encountering situations like this,
After a long and hot safari . . . I arrived in a village which should have been just one and a half miles from Brioux. Everything about the surroundings corresponded with the map, apart from the cemetery which although very clearly marked on the map wasn’t there in the village. The name on the village notice board was not the same name as the name on the map. There were three merry ladies chatting like budgies nearby, and they waved me cheerily into their collective bosom.
“I am in Pontioux, aren’t I” I asked hoping that is I said it positively enough it would be so.
“No, but it’s not far away” said one of the ladies helpfully. “This is Arsanges. Le Pontioux is just three and a half miles in that direction”
She pointed northwards. That meant nearly five miles to Brioux. Another two hours agonising walk.
The walk was quite early in the year and even when Susie arrived at a campsite they were often far from ready for visitors. Sometimes she was the only camper, separated from the world in the middle of the night only by one wall of nylon tent, but she has a great ability to trust to fate (and a mobile phone – which presumable was often out of range). The campsite facilities varied from pristine to filthy and the distance from shops and restaurants meant that she was often faced with another walk to find her evening meal. She seemed to be un-phased by eating alone in restaurants and was sometimes rewarded by exquisite meals which enabled her to forget the difficulties of the day.
Having worked for many years in London I found a long time ago that on one of those head-achy days when tiredness and dehydration has set in that two paracetomol and a Diet Coke can be the best pick-me-up. It was interesting to find that Susie agrees with me – “Now it was a funny thing, I used to really hate that drink (Cola), but since I started out walking it had become the elixir of life, the only thing that quenched my thirst and gave me the energy I needed”. (Note, there is normally no product-placement in my book reviews!).
Of course, on a journey like this, you meet a vast range of people, some helpful, others less so. Often her fellow campers were affluent folk in mobile homes (the French seem to love these even more than we do in Britain). The appearance of a lone back-packer often went un-noticed by the leisure campers but sometimes people recognised what an arduous task Susie had set herself. I can imagine what a wonderful respite the couple Berdien and Ab gave her -
They were both fit and very tanned, and wanted to know why my feet were sore. I explained. Berdien said something in Dutch to Ab, and disappeared into the caravan, emerging a few moments later with an electric foot spa. Ab was despatched to find an extension lead, and five minutes later I was installed in an armchair, plumped up with cushions, with a large whisky in one hand and both feet immersed in warm, fragrant water. After half an hour in the spa, Berdien took my feet in her lap, patted them tenderly with a fluffy towel and then massaged them into a state of bliss.
Susie is well-up on French history and culture and provides a lot of background information to her readers. At one point she met a group of elderly people speaking the Creusois dialect derived from the langue d’Oc, the ancient language of the southern part of France, “the original language of the Troubadors”. While walking through the hilltop village of Charroux we read of the plagues and militiary battles which scarred the area in previous centuries. It is details like this that made me want to visit new areas of France to see the beautifully described sites she saw on her travels.
I have read many books of “great walks”, but few which show an ability to trudge on day after day through terrible rain and furious heat. Susie’s nights were beset by flooding and insect infestations yet she carried right across France, with feet blistered into a pulp and with terrible pain – a journey lke this cannot be made in comfort. Many people would have given up but eventually she reached Lake Geneva and walked into the lake, filling her battered green jungle hat with water and pouring it over her head. The end of an incredible journey which provided this reader at least with a sense of having travelled with the author through her struggles.