Well, today is our first day on the Via Francigena.
Because all the lodging at the midway point of Shepherdswell (Siebertswold) were either full or no longer in operation, we had to convert the first two short legs into one long leg of 21.3mi. So…we are sore and tired this evening as I write this entry from the port city of Dover England.
But first is the account of our day…
We woke to thunder and rain in the forecast. The forecast, however, varied dramatically depending on which service you trusted. One said cloudy but decreasing chances of rain; the other said thunder and even hail from 70-90% chance.
So we had our hotel breakfast and then packed everything into waterproof bags and stuffed them in our backpacks*.
Next we donned our full rain gear (rain pants, rain jacket, waterproof socks etc). We said our goodbyes to Madeline and stepped out into a drizzle and under rumbling skies.
It was fun to be walking in full rain regalia for the first time, but it quickly got too warm. The rain tapered off after the first mile or two and we packed up the rain jackets.
The trail between Canterbury and Dover is clearly less travelled than earlier sections. It is marked well enough I suppose, but we never would have made it without GPS or a good map. At points we even reverted to dead reckoning when the proposed path took us diagonally across a newly plowed field. The tractor, I suppose, had obliterated any signs of the footpath. Folks, I’m not talking about a 2acre field here but an enormous one that took us about 15min to cross. (See video). Other times we were in chest-high hay, the path all but obscured in a sea of waving sheaves.
It was odd to be walking without Madeline. She’d quickly become a part of our routine. But the length of the day and the terrain would have made it very hard for her damaged toes.
We passed the cute church at Womenswold but it was closed and we couldn’t find the keys that were described as available. As a result we didn’t get a pilgrim stamp there.
We made it to the mid way point that is typically the end of the first stage, Shepherdswell, and stopped there on a shaded bench on the village green.
Shepherdswell is the perfect tiny village. The village green sits right in the center of town with the church across the street, the pub and inn across the green from the church, and a few small businesses. But what made it perfect was listening to a wedding service taking place while we ate lunch. Mark really wanted to be able to get a pilgrim’s stamp there but we could not crash the wedding ceremony. So far, no stamps for the day.
Near Ethorne we left a brightly lit field and entered into some gloomy woods. As our eyes adjusted do the dark we found and odd site. In the overgrow grass was a tall tombstone. It stopped us in our tracks because it was such a surprise to see. A few steps farther through the tall grass we found others and then many others. Clearly we were in a graveyard but the darkness of the wood and the unkept grass made it eerie. Soon enough an old parish church came into view.
We had been thinking that it was a shame to have allowed the gravesite to be become so unkept. But then we saw a sign on the parish church board said that the gravesites were being intentionally left overgrown for a season to establish some environmental purpose and would be tended at the end of the summer.
Still the setting was apocalyptic. We took a moment to look at a few of the stones. One near the church entrance was particularly interesting for two reasons. The first was the inscription on the grave marker below. The second was the angle of the tree just above the grave i.e. horizontal trunk hovering inches above the headstone as if to keep it from rising!
Along the way we love to stop and chat with people we encounter. And today we were blessed to meet Nigel and Diane who are farmers. They enjoyed telling us that many years ago the Archbishop of Canterbury came to walk the Via Francigena trail. In preparation, the town had to spruced the trail up. Diane said it has never looked as good since. And Nigel jokingly added that even the grass was mowed because no one wanted the bishops’s cloak to get wet or dirty while he was walking. We had to say goodbye as we still had several miles to go or at least 4 miles.
Finally, after cresting a little hill we could see Dover Castle. Dover is a steep city and after a long day it was a painful a downhill entry. To make life more interesting we had a little trouble finding our place of lodging at East Cliffs Road, Dover. We had to knock on a door to ask for assistance. The woman who came outside to help was not completely in touch with reality and wanted to know if we were reporters. My honest streak took hold and I said “no”. But I wonder what her reaction would have been if I said “oh yes”. She did point us in the correct direction. Another local couple helped us out by explaining that there were actually two East Cliffs Drives – an inner and an outer – who knew. Anyway, just around the corner the road continued and our place of lodging was just 3 buildings down.
Climbing the steeps steps up to our room was pretty much torture to our aching body parts. Our host Narata was very kind. She is from Lesotho and was sweet enough to wash our laundry for us. We will have to hang dry but that is better than smelly clothes. The little blessings are certainly adding up.
I know this is getting to be a long post but the evening just ended with a bang. Narata just knocked on the door brining up our twice spun clothes. She was also carrying tea service including some chocolate cake she had made. She said, “I know what it is like to be a pilgrim. I wanted to do something for you like I always wished for.” – Wow. Mind blown.
* For this pilgrimage neither of us brought pack covers. We’ve found they just don’t work well. If you are interested in what gear we brought with us, check out our Gear Review below: