LA LIBÉRATION

by Ken Jones
Par un voile de suer
clair et blanc le sable
de la Voie Pélerine
Through a veil of sweat
the dazzling sand
of the Pilgrim Way

Beneath a livid summer sky, in slow and choiceless solitude, day by day we walk this boundary between two worlds. We two miquelots trudging the ancient pilgrim route from Winchester cathedral to Mont Saint-Michel. One hundred and fifty miles, StJames's scallop shells sewn on our packs. And on the route itself not a soul, till, on the 21st day, that lost Flemish pharmacist.
 
On the one hand is the world of the past, as we walk through D-day memories. Titanic, heroic and reassuringly simple. "No one to give orders to except a herd of cows", growls General Maxwell Taylor of the American 101st Airborne, dropped on a dark night into an orchard close to our route. He clicks his tin "cricket" once and two clicks back from behind the hedge announces one of the 15,000 others, half of whom were shortly to be killed or wounded.

War memorial
the worn names
pitted with shrapnel

Baguettes and camembert in the shade of tombstones. Angoville-au-Plein changed hands three times in three days. Inside its eleventh century church, bloodstained pews and bullet marks. Here Kenneth Moore and Robert Wright, US army medics, tended eighty American and German solders - and one French child.

Army Surplus -
"Shell Wound Dressing"
5 euros

The more ancient past is embodied in the lost churches and wayside crosses which thread our route. Noragh offers a wild flower in memory of Thadeus, an Irish pilgrim. Vowed to silence, in 1653 on his journey home he was robbed and murdered at this cross roads. Here, in the cool of a shabby little bar, an old man is polishing glasses. "M'sieu, madame - bonne route !"
 
In mouldering churches stand the pilgrim saints, battered and armless. Like Saint Roch, his trouser leg pulled up as usual to reveal his plague pustules in faded polychrome..

To a stone pilgrim
stained with bird shit
the brightness of this candle

Croissants and café au lait, each morning the pilgrim route awaits us, ten to fifteen miles ahead, skilfully wriggling free of tarmac and traffic. Just a few cobalt blue waymarks dabbed on the odd tree and gatepost. At the day's end, whatever food and lodgings present themselves - and sometimes quite grand:

Heraldic nouvelle cuisine
crossed carrots, quartered
on a big square plate

From time to time we get startling glimpses of that other world of speed and choice, on a Route Nationale. All wound up, cars and people in their hundreds, whizzing madly, back and forth. And sometimes at day's end we meet the tourists. A gentle but puzzled American couple: "Are you walking to keep fit, then ?"
 
Finally comes the traditional three mile walk and wade across the sands and inlets. Ahead rises our Celestial City in all its invincible splendour, now a "World Heritage Site" with three million visitors a year.

Across the bay
a windscreen dazzle
Saint Michael's parked cars

But not our journey's end, as Jean Debruyanne, a seasoned French pilgrim, reminds us:- I shall be a pilgrim and, in wearing out my boots, I shall wear out my ingrained habits of thought and feeling. I go not so much to the end of the way as to the end of my self.

Distance has swallowed the sea
and on the far horizon
cockle pickers

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