In the night I hear rain like pebbles on the skylight. And I wake to a grey and windy morning.
As I eat my breakfast – alone in the large, black-leatherette and pink-paint dining room, from a small round tray on a small round table, portion control – I check the weather forecast. No rain, but a steady 25 mph south-south-west wind. This is bad news: it will be in my face all day, on the longest leg of my journey. And I will be climbing, onto the plateau of Artois, from 30m up to 600m. ‘That chalk rise,’ as Ruskin puts it, ‘is the front of France; the last bit of level north of it the last of Flanders; south of it stretches now a district of chalk and fine building limestone. This high but never mountainous calcareous tract, sweeping round the chalk basin of Paris, away to Caen on one side, and Nancy on the other, and south as far as Bourges, and the Limousin. This limestone tract, with its keen fresh air, everywhere arable surface, and quarriable banks above well-watered meadow, is the real country of the French. Here only have you real France.’ For Ruskin, this was the home of the Franks, whose straightforwardness was in their name. This was the founding tribe of France, and Clovis’ conversion to Christianity in 496 the generally-acknowledged ‘beginning of France’. In the Franks lies the root of the Gothic, for Ruskin France’s greatest gift to culture. I will be climbing up onto the chalk plateau, out of the water world of reclaimed polders, to a land where the problem is lack of water. Artois, Artesie in Dutch, the land of the artesian well.
I climb up through the mist, out of St Omer, past one of those parks peculiar to France, a wide expanse of flat lawn dotted symmetrically with geometrical trees, like chess pieces. It’s like a Resnais film, and I expect flitting figures, held poses, and a voice-over of existential angst. It begins to rain, and it doesn’t stop for three hours. In spite of jacket and cape I am soon wet and cold. There are shreds of mist, cloud, in the air.
Just outside St Omer I pass La Coupole. It is a bunker-complex, built in 1943 to prepare, store and launch V-2 rockets. Abandoned for 50 years, it has been opened as a museum of the rocket programme, the Occupation, and the use of slave labour. It is a grim, chilling place, with the mist swirling round, and another reminder of how much France has been occupied, fought over, trampled on, by foreigners. This area occupied three times in 70 years by Germans, fought through twice by British and Americans. There’s all the difference in the world between a bomb blowing your door off, and a boot kicking it in. Apart from 1066, and 1688, England has been little stepped on by foreign boots. Perhaps it’s an element in the apparent contradiction of France’s prickly nationalism, and yet willingness to negotiate. For years the language of diplomacy was French. Whereas England, Britain, has always had its moated redoubt to retreat to, and has cultivated an adversarial politics.
More foreign interventions happened at Thérouanne, ten miles south of St Omer. It is the site of the ‘Battle of the Spurs’ in 1513, where Henry VIII and Maximilian the Holy Roman Emperor, fighting on behalf of the pope, routed the French cavalry and captured the town. It was a minor battle, of little significance. But a great propaganda opportunity at a time when the visual had primacy over the verbal, when style, as pageantry, was all-important. So, Henry and Maximilian met, in full armour, in a gallery of cloth of gold. And the occasion was recorded in paintings (showing Henry of course at the centre of the battle, when in fact he was kept well away from the fighting) a Dürer woodcut, and a joint celebratory account.
While Henry was engaged in the vanity project of leading his army on the field, Queen Catherine was organising the defence of England against the invading Scots, culminating in her victory at Flodden. She sent James IV’s bloodstained shirt to Henry in France.
Having made no gains, and run out of money, Henry withdrew, and made peace with France.
The weather at the Battle of the Spurs was described as ‘the foulest ever’, and today is trying to compete. The land is rising, with great sweeps of open field, and occasional ridges against which villages shelter in the lee, but I am riding into a wind blowing untrammelled across open fields.
And now I’m having mechanical problems, with my gears slipping. Eventually I have to lock the derailleur. Instead of ten gears, I have two, one too high, one too low. I smile grimly as, rain-battered, and fixing the gears in the shelter of a hedge, next to a vast prairie, I remember Hilton’s description of ‘the old-timer’s’ bicycle: ‘the transmission – chainset, chain and back sprocket, the heart of the bicycle – is expertly and beautifully maintained.’
This is not good. I had set out, having ridden a few dozen miles each week for the last 4 months, after a two-year lay-off; I am not very fit. It is fifteen years since I have done a cycle tour. The bike, fully loaded, is very heavy. And now I have mechanical trouble, and no idea of how to solve it. I am beginning to wonder if I have taken on more than I can handle. But, remember – ‘it’s a grand life’.
St Pol At Cauchy, Pétain’s birthplace, I turn south-west, into the wind. By the time I reach St Pol, less than half way to Amiens, I am struggling.
I stop there, and fuel up on pizza and chips from a van in the square. Then I go to a café. As I’m drinking hot chocolate in the dark café, run by a middle-aged woman of the old school, who sniffs as she serves, I begin to shiver. My energy drains away.
As I sit, a needy-looking young woman comes in and asks if she may use the toilet. The patronne, drawing herself up, purses her rouged lips, says, no, it is out of order, the plumber is working on it right now, desolé. The young woman droops, goes out. The patronne sniffs, and smiles that tight, petit-bourgeois smile of victory. She has given nothing away. When I ask to use the toilet, she smiles the saccharin smile, bien sûr, tries for complicity, then sniffs at my lack of response. I had forgotten it. What was so common once, is now so rare, that possessive lack of generosity, the French jobsworth.
St Pol has a railway station. This is the last place I can decide. I have stopped shivering, and am feeling better, but I have little energy. I head for the station.
Could I have cycled it? Perhaps. But cycling into a strong, relentless wind is like cycling with a giant hand on your forehead, frustrating as well as hard. I am three days into a twenty-six day ride – what if cycling on makes me ill? What if I so drain myself that I’m knocked back for the next days? My hotels and youth hostels are booked. I am on a schedule. It’s not worth it. But a problem like this, so early, is disconcerting.
Of course the rain stops as soon as I’ve bought my ticket. But the wind still blows.
There is no longer a direct line to Amiens, and the train goes out to the coast (‘the Opal Coast’, which the Rough Guide glosses as “the sea and sky merging in an opalescent oyster-grey continuum”, but which means – grey) where I change trains. It proceeds to Amiens along the Somme valley.
The gift of this is that I enter Picardy on Ruskin’s route. His Bible of Amiens is written in the convoluted, clotted style of his late writing, and yet I find its innocence and passion moving. Especially as he is writing in the 1880s, when the Somme was still just the name of an attractive chalk river in France.
He writes this, about arriving from Calais at the Somme: ‘You stopped at the brow of the hill to put the drag on, and looked up to see where you were: – and there lay beneath you, far as the eye could reach on either side, this wonderful valley of the Somme, – with line on line of tufted aspen and tall poplar, making the blue distances more exquisite in bloom by the gleam of their leaves.’
The train from the coast pootles along the valley, picking up and setting down, students, commuters, travellers, a modern train behaving like a train of times past. The fields along the wandering river are little-cultivated, mostly rough-grazing among copses of aspen, and stream-following lines of willow. There are small herds of white, very white cattle. Not segregated, as is usual, with milking cows here, bullocks of a specific age there, but mixed up, like a natural herd, unusual, old-fashioned and heartening. I begin to revive.
At Noyelles we pass a narrow-gauge steam train, with small, wooden carriages, packed with waving schoolchildren, and alert men with long-lens cameras. I wonder if it is from the Great War, when hundreds of miles of narrow-gauge line were laid to supply the Front, the carriages then packed with troops going up, casualties coming back.
Amiens So I enter Amiens with Ruskin. Although I deny myself his arrival, with which he opens The Bible of Amiens, at the railway station. I want to cycle in.
I leave the train at St Sauveur. Close by is the important Celtic tribal capital of Samarobriva. It is where Caesar spent the winter after his second invasion of England. It is now the site of a reconstructed Iron Age settlement. And it is on Robb’s Celtic Meridian, the key to his ‘lost map of Celtic Europe.’ He notes the importance to the Celts of ‘The Cult of the Severed Head’.
I cycle among the commuter traffic, through industrial terraces that lead down to the canalised river, remembering that this was then an industrial town. Ruskin first sees the flêche, the spire of the cathedral, not as a church spire, but as one black chimney among fifty ‘or fifty one, I am not sure of my count to the unit’.
About a mile out, the traffic locks up, and I get off and walk. I note again the change in French driving in the years I’ve been coming here. Not only the consideration for cyclists, but the absence of horn-sounding, of extravagant, theatrical gestures, expressions of fury. The drivers sit placidly as I walk past.
My first distant sight of the cathedral produces a sudden and unexpected emotion. I realise how much I have looked forward to experiencing it. I remember Ruskin’s first view of the flêche, ‘a minaret, vanishing into air you know not where, by mere fineness of it. Flameless – motionless – hurtless – the fine arrow; unplumed, unpoisoned, and unbarbed; aimless – shall we say? It, and the walls it rises from – what have they once meant? What meaning have they left in them yet? …’
To find the youth hostel, I ask at an estate agent – they’re the best places to ask, as they have knowledge, maps, and their job is being nice to people. I’m soon there.
It is a big hostel, very friendly. They give me a two-person room on my own. There are many immigrant families staying, and I wonder how that works, but it is well handled. As the young receptionist takes me to the bike park, she asks me how far I am travelling. I tell her that I’m following la Meridienne verte. She has never heard of it.
The cathedral is closed by now, but I can’t stay away from it. Reading Ruskin, studying the Gothic has made me eager to come close to this ‘Parthenon of Gothic architecture’.
I cycle in, along narrow streets lined with brick terraces, not unlike English industrial towns. Although I notice, as so often in France, that some of the houses are decorated, with distinctive courses and colours and reliefs in brick, or glazed tile courses and panels. Perhaps to distinguish the houses of overseers, or even managers? It is called, in France, variously art nouveau or art deco. But has more the feel (and is of the period) of the English arts and crafts. You find it in many French towns, and with its understated decoration of the utilitarian (and demonstrating how little is needed), it adds a spark to what is so often grim regularity. I wonder if some genius – perhaps a jobbing builder? – could invent the equivalent for our flatly-functional housing developments? (As a change from the usual dull mock-Georgian embellishments.)
I pass Jules Verne’s house, which is now a museum. Jules Verne lived here from 1871, and was attached to the town. For long he was seen by the literary establishment as a writer of pot-boiling romances. Now he is included in the canon. To the extent that, for example, his influence has been traced in Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat. Reminding us that, at the same time as the sixteen-year-old was writing that most incendiary of poems, the great poet of rebellion and altered states was a romantic adolescent, reading adventure stories. Although it took Roland Barthes to point to the essential difference between their boats: Verne’s Nautilus is an enclosed world of objective observation, whereas Rimbaud’s Bateau ivre is ‘the boat which says “I” and, freed from its concavity, can make man proceed from a psychoanalysis of the cave to a genuine poetics of exploration.’ From the world of objective observation, to a genuine poetics of exploration, a journey I have attempted to take …
Close by is the circular Cirque Jules Verne. It is one of only two permanent circus buildings in France. It has nothing to do with the author; the intention is to add the aura of his name to what is one of those specialist-shaped, nineteenth-century buildings that no longer have a function.
There is a sign to the Unicorn stadium. And there are two unicorns on the town’s crest. I can’t stop myself looking for the mystical and esoteric on this most prosaic of journeys.
The Cathedral From a distance the cathedral looks like an enormous aircraft carrier docked in the middle of the city, its flêche a communications antenna. Closer, I expect to find it crowded in and trapped by smaller, meaner buildings (as in Rilke’s ‘ancient houses sit like fairground booths’ around Chartres), a Gulliver in Lilliput. What I find are decent buildings set back at a respectful distance. (The old buildings were bombed away in the war.) And a building that in spite of being almost absurdly of a different scale, rather than looming formidably, fits.
It belongs. It’s like a giant and friendly elephant. Barthes called the great Gothic cathedrals, ‘the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object’ (in a passage likening them to the 1950s automobile). I find myself circling around it, this giant building, trying to get to know it. Which of course reminds me of the blind men and the elephant, each touching a different part. But ‘know’ is the wrong word – trying to experience something that is, at first overwhelming, in whole, and in part. The size, yes. But also the complexity. And the detail.
I am especially excited by the East end, where the chancel and the chapels and the flying buttresses and the tall expanses of glass, all innovations of the Gothic, are. Radiant chapels, flying buttress upon flying buttress, water-spout gargoyles stretching far out like dragons about to fly, and all soaringly high, an ever-changing interlaced intricacy as I move around, that is stimulating, arousing.
And not just visually. I’m aroused too by the technical bravura, sharing the thrill of those builders-for-God trying something, new thing after new thing, that had never been tried before, the triumph of the new, when it came off. And more thrilling because sometimes it didn’t come off. And each new thing having a meaning, a purpose, a place in the rationale of the faith. I love this radiation of chapels and buttresses and water-spouts – for do they not represent in experience both the radiance of the word from the head of Christ, the nimbus, and, through the great, new expanses of glass (‘not windows, openings pierced in the dark shell, but large spaces of empty air,’ writes Barthes), the entry of light, of the worldly as well as the heavenly light, entering the sacred space, and the hearts of those within?
I find myself writing, now, as if I believe. It has that power, if not to feel what they felt, but to imagine feeling what they felt. I can, here, believe; this formidable and yet light presence, its aliveness and vividness and energetic beauty, enable me to experience as if.
I roam restlessly around the outside, along the long nave walls, past the stretched arms of the transept, around the radiant nimbus of chancel and chapels.
And finally, after all the movement, I arrive at the great, static set-piece of the two-towered, three-doored West end. Static, until, as I look, it begins to move, unfold, and my eye follows the narrative of its story. It was once vividly painted, and the colours are projected on, in summer nights. But I am two weeks too early.
I leave, without looking back, letting it sink into my memory.
Back at the hostel, I realise I hadn’t thought about food. I can find nowhere open near the hostel. Then I remember the enormous cheese burger, of astonishing construction, and the heap of chips, that I ate only half of last night in the square at St Omer (drinking ch’ti beer, as I promised a friend I would. I sent him a photograph). I brought them with me, ‘just in case’. I go to the kitchen, put them in the microwave, peer at instructions, push buttons. Nothing happens. What to do? The girl who is sitting silently in the dining room, absorbed in a TV sketch show, enters silently, presses buttons, the machine hums, the plate turns, I thank her, she smiles knowingly and silently returns to her TV programme. Sitting close to her, tethered by the cable from his computer to the power point, is a thin young man with a wispy beard. They are entangled, but they don’t acknowledge each other. They are held together, waiting, in thrall.
I eat well. And I am suddenly very tired.
Hilton One More Kilometre and We’re in the Showers. See the full quote on Day 1.
Ruskin The Bible of Amiens.
Robb The Ancient Paths, p67, p75.
Barthes Mythologies, ‘The Nautilus and the Bateau ivre’, ‘New Citroën’.