Meeting my niece in London after the meeting yesterday was the thin end of the wedge. Several beers later I arrived home in Reading and then tackled a bottle of wine so, as I write, I have a little bit of a hangover. What follows is a more detailed review of the day up until the point that I met her.
I actually felt quite nervous before the meeting. I had no idea what kind of people would be there, how many people there would be or whether they would welcome me or not. I rattled the door at basement level in the alley to the east of St James’s Church in Piccadilly. It seemed a bit strange that they had locked themselves in! They hadn’t of course; I had simple gone to the wrong door. A passing caretaker (?) did open the door as I shook it vigorously and I explained that I had come for the meeting. He pointed to the end of the corridor where I could see some people mingling around and drinking tea. Entering the room I was able to answer two of the three questions above quite quickly; there were about 20 people and the average age was probably somewhere between 55 and 65. None of them turned round to acknowledge me (why should they?) so I just stood for a few moments looking blankly around the room trying to work out what was happening. After a minute or so, one of the members did notice me and came to chat. She quickly explained what was happening; a tea break. She had only recently joined the Confraternity and seemed to be in a similar position to myself. From Skipton in Yorkshire we chatted about bits and pieces to do with walking. Eventually, proceedings got under way again (the morning had been the annual AGM of the association; the afternoon was the “practical pilgrim” session open to all comers) and the meeting was opened by William, the Chairman of the association. I had forgotten to bring the agenda with me (see previous post) and had forgotten which topics were going to be addressed in which order but first up was a bearded 70-year-old Mancunian called Joe who has walked the route of the Via Francigena three times. He talked a little bit about the history of the route, especially the more recent history which has involved a renaissance of pilgrims walking to Rome. He had an affable style and was an engaging character to listen to.
More tea followed and I had a couple of interesting conversations. It’s always nice when you attend any event if you are not the oldest or the youngest person present. I certainly wasn’t the oldest person in the room but initially I was the youngest. Until that is, a guy called Patrick arrived. He was only 19 and was planning on walking to Rome before heading off to university to study philosophy in the autumn. We chatted about our respective plans and he may well be reading this as I did give him the website address. Both of us chatted to a lady called Ann Milner who was up next on the schedule to talk about her experiences of walking to Rome. We grilled her on the more practical aspects of her trip, especially accommodation. She had camped using, not surprisingly, a Terra Nova Laser Competition; the sign of a real adventurer! That said, most of the people I either listened to or talked to had not camped but used hotels, pilgrimage hostels and similar. I also chatted with William, the chair of the association. Although he had walked the route, he had also cycled it, in three stages over an extended period of time and he provided me with a breakdown of his route. It took him 25 days to get from Canterbury to Rome. His stages were of varying length, the shortest just 34 kms – his penultimate day from Bolsena to Viterbo, just north of Rome – and the longest was 106 kms from Pontremoli to Lucca. He made the point of saying that the 106 kms didn’t feel like 106 kms and his description of that section of the route implies there was a fair bit of downhill! I have posted his itinerary in the “route” section of the website.
I suppose it was about this point in the day when I started to think about my own route and how it compared to the Via Francigena. I plan on following the Eurovelo 5 route which, instead of taking a straight line from Calais to Rome, turns left to pass through Belgium and then south along the Rhine. The two do meet up in northern Italy. The EV 5 takes the St Gotthard pass over the Alps, the VF takes the St Bernard pass. As mentioned below, how wedded am I to the EV5? Why am I following it? I can think of good reasons to follow both routes; the VF is slightly shorter and certainly more direct, it passes more through France, a country I know well and is certainly camper friendly, the EV5 is potentially more interesting as it passes through areas that I have not previously visited including Strasbourg where I plan to meet up with Claus, my friend who is based in Stuttgart and it is also a cycle route, not a walking route. On a more practical level I have also bought the maps for the EV5, not the VF.
Ann Milner spoke to everyone after the break. She had an interesting take on the whole experience as she discussed the practicalities of walking companions. All had not gone to plan and she had actually split from her two fellow walkers at a relatively early stage in what sounds like slightly acrimonious circumstances, which she clearly regretted. Her advice on how to avoid this was very useful and included such suggestions as deciding upon how far different people are willing to walk in a day, how much to spend on accommodation, in restaurants. This could be relevant if I do end up cycling any parts of the EV5 with anyone else. She has her own website here.
The afternoon drew to a close with a free for all discussion about a range of different practical issues involving socks, boots, underwear and the like. The event was wrapped up at about 4 o’clock and, after thanking Joe and promising to return in the future I made my way to Leicester Square to meet my niece.
I imagine that I will stick with the EV5. I like the idea of following a pan-European cycle route and there is something of the pioneer spirit in following it as it is still a route in development. My other main thought after having attended the event is about camping and how I really need to plan in a little bit more detail to ensure that the places where I stay do indeed have camp-sites. I am at risk of falling into the false belief that camp-sites in Belgium, Switzerland and Italy especially are as common as they are in France. I’m not sure that this is actually the case and I need to check in advance of setting off.