First steps in France
I left the hotel in the morning to find it raining gently on the square outside St Omer station. As I have mentioned before, in most circumstances I love the rain, and before I left for the day I took some time watching it patter on the cobblestones from under the station roof. Similar joys are so often available back home, in normal life, but being in a new place and a new situation helps you to notice them.
St Omer is a waypoint on the Via Francigena pilgrimage route. We know this because in 990AD, Archibishop Sigeric the Serious of Canterbury travelled to Rome to collect his pallium (a fancy piece of cloth) and helpfully left an itinerary listing the places that he visited en route, alongside a mention of lunch with Pope John XV. I took a couple of hours to look round the town before I left for the next ride, and started at the cathedral, figuring that this was the place old Sigeric was most likely to have dropped in on the way.
Inside a good cathedral, you can always count on a few things: awe at soaring vaults in the roof, constructed before fossil fuels could provide the energy to shape and lift the rock, and before computers could check your designs; a sense of deep age, the echoes of worshippers' footsteps from hundreds of years ago, and a hint of what the church must have meant in their lives; and a stillness which invites you to reflect whether you are religious or not. That is, unless someone decides to put on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, as I found in the otherwise spectacular Notre Dame de Laon. I love the soundtrack, but maybe not in a thousand-year-old cathedral!?
Emerging from a typical absent-minded reverie, I decided to go find coffee. One of the things I am trying to do as I travel, when time allows, is to find coffee in each new town. I love coffee very dearly, and it's slightly different on the continent, where you're much more likely to be given a dainty little espresso than a big mug of americano. A little cafe on a town square is also perfect if you want to spend a moment quietly watching as people go about their lives in a new place.
During the course of this particular coffee, I made a hugely important decision. Really, huge.
While I was preparing for my trip, I read a book by a lady called Anne Mustoe, which describes her travels by bike across the world. She went in 1987, at the age of 60, and went right round the world - quite a woman. It's mostly a semi-autobiographical interest read, but there was a lot of useful and still-relevant advice about what to take, how to organise yourself, and how to ask for help. There were also endearing little details, like the fact that she named her bike: 'Cube', to reflect its angular, geometric form.
I had thought of naming my own bike 'Cube' out of respect for his ancestor - but in the little coffee shop in St Omer, the idea of naming it (him?) Sigeric, after our favourite archbishop who also journeyed to Rome, struck me as being just right. It's partly because Sigeric the Serious strikes me as a hilariously un-serious name: imagine introducing yourself as Sigeric the Serious. I think you'd have about 15 seconds before the other side collapsed laughing. Also if I called him Cube, everyone would think I was a nerd.
|Sigeric, looking very serious, in rain gear|
I had a go at taking some film of St Omer while I was there, too, but a mischievous old frenchman had other ideas. As I was (quite clearly) filming from the front-facing camera, with myself and the market square in the frame, he smiled and blew kisses to the back-facing one, pretending to be the star of the show. I couldn't help but laugh and we joked around a bit in a very limited shared vocabulary; he said I was 'fou' for cycling to Istanbul, and my French is just good enough to know he's damn right.
There was one more errand to run in before I left. It became clear early on that both the weight and volume of my kit were serious issues, but looking through my carefully-chosen things, there were very few things I felt I could drop if I wanted to camp in a hammock as I hoped - and almost nothing that wasn't my kit for making real coffee when I did so. However, one set of non-cycling clothes could go.
They were chosen to come to Europe because they're some my favourite sports clothes, and so it seemed very sad to bin them. But on looking, I was pleased to find that there was a charity shop - just one - open that day in St Omer. I dropped them off, feeling that they were actually quite likely to sell and find a new owner, and set off towards Lens.
|Some miles in, I stopped by a closed farm shop to take a rest and eat. My French is very poor: I get 'produce of the farm', but my best guess at the lower part is 'the goat of truth'.|
|I am however a master of snacks: brioche and jam nabbed from the hotel breakfast, along with some other supplies.|
|After the rain cleared, I couldn't have asked for lovelier weather.|
The days' ride, again, was much shorter than the distances I had covered leaving England, but felt long and difficult despite wonderful surroundings and ended near 8:30, with the light fading and me desperate for food. However, I made it to Lens, and the evening was a wonderful one, so much that I think it deserves its own post.