Posted by: walkinghomebta | February 17, 2011

Walking Home.

Introduction

Walking Home formed the basis for my final major project for my MA. It worked over many of the themes that I had developed during my degree and delved deeper into the influence of my father’s death over the past two years of my life. St. Gallen has been a story I have carried with me my whole life, always stumbling over the question “Where are you from?”

I always said I was born in Switzerland but wasn’t from there, I grew up in Wales but I’m not from there either. Home was a question mark. My father’s death had brought me closer to my place of birth and throughout my MA I was getting closer to exploring these aspects of my life. Nostalgia, home, a sense of belonging, and a desire to dream are all universal facets of human life though, and through this personal exploration I sought to touch on these interests.

Walking Home was a simple prospect; to walk from my current place of residence back to my place of birth in Switzerland. The research and performative installation that included sculpture, writing, performance, photography, found objects and memorabilia was contained within a small wooden hut that I designed and built in homage to St. Gallus, the Irish monk who, in 641AD strayed from his pilgrimage route and set up camp in the vicinity of Switzerland that is now St. Gallen. The famous rococo abbey and library stand in his honour.

The installation was re-worked and shown in the Shed & a Half project space in East London. In June 2009 I set off from Hackney Central to St. Gallen, arriving in time for my 27th birthday. The first time I had been to the country since I contracted chicken pocks whilst on holiday in 1987.

Notes from the Medway

Before falling asleep in Farningham woods, I sat there amidst the large mosquitoes who seemed to be attached to me by small threads, dancing in the wind and realised that this is only the second time I have ever camped in a wood alone. The first being two weeks ago on Dartmoor.

I am not an expert at this, this is not a holiday, it is hard work. A large dog suddenly raced past and I crashed back to reality, dived into my tent for the first time and attempted to fall asleep, into dreams filled mainly with people retributing me for sleeping in a tent in a nature reserve.

At 7 am or so I woke up alive and reasonably well. I packed up, had flapjack for breakfast, as I had had it for dinner the night before and pointed myself out of the forest and down the hill. London seemed a distant memory just this side of the M25 strange how the constant raw of cars can almost sound like wind, or the sea in the night.

Following this post there is a gap until we rejoin the journey at Laon. This was due to a number of factors including a delay in Dover where I realised I hadn’t yet figured out how I was going to get hold of money whilst in Europe, several large blisters I had to lance on my heels, the logistics of an unsuccessful application to the Jerwood drawing prize masterminded from the public library in Dover, a desire to avoid the countryside around Calais that is awash with the unpredictable clashes between military police and illigal immigrant camps, the hottest week of 2009 and the dehydration that comes from walking the chalk downlands of sotuh east England.

Laon-Reims


I wake in the campsite cold. I wake in the campsite nervous. 40 minutes later I walk out of Carrefour having collected the necessary for the two days walk to Reims, some 50km. (Croissants, cheese, bread, apples, stock, soup and a pepper) My risotto plans in order I climb this knobble of Laon to the medieval old town, somewhat akin to Edinburgh in the sense that local people thought it good to build on top of the highest point in the vicinity a symbol of religion, wealth and power.

I follow the steep slope south out of town and the D54 towards the woodlands on the horizon, my direction being south southeast. In a little vlle called Vorges I post two cards, one on to Switzerland one back to London, and an old lady speaks to me for some time even though ive explained that I do not understand her.

There are no hedgerows here dividing the grains, just differing bands of colour and texture. I stare at a herd of hairy cattle who are staring at me, their large curved horns the colour of coffee remind me of highland cattle. I take a piss in the bushes. The skies are large here though the countryside seems small, the landscape gently rolling yet seemingly flat – the sky above seems vast, to stretch out forever, and one can watch the clouds drift and change from a distance, like watching armies march over plain. The cavalry charge in before nightfall and spots of rain patter down.

LAON – ARDON – VORGES – MONTHENAULT – NEUVILLE SèAILETTE – CHERMIZY AILLES – CRAONNE – PONTEVERT camp ROUCY – GUYENCOURT – HERMONVILLE – VILLERS FREQUEX  – THIL – REIMS

Notes from Bar-le-duc

This is the wilderness of Northern France; I have walked into a guidebook black hole. Bar-le-duc, indeed the entire area, receives no coverage at all from any major guidebook in the UK. In my brief direction notes I had written ‘RESEARCH THE AREA THOUGH!!?’

Some notes.

These are in many ways, the battlefield lands, I read somewhere before I left that “there is not a village in all of France that did not lose a son at Verdun” and that is now some 47km north of here. Every single tiny village or large town I have passed so far has had some memorial to those lost in the Great War, the foolish endeavour. The town of Bar-le-duc has a street named The Sacred Way, as it was the key supply line to Verdun for its long four years of torment. An old photograph of truck after truck after truck pulling up a hill marks the start of the way.

My torment was getting here. In Reims I was joined by a friend for her birthday and we walked out of the city together along the canal and into a downpour, my pedometer ticking away, her coat already lost off the back of her pack. We walked some 16km that day to a town called Val de Vesle, on a small River near the Marne, strangely split into three quarters, the fourth remaining an enigma. We drank Champagne, ate strawberries and produced a remarkably nice meal out of a very small cooking stove (dried mushrooms I had carried with me from Hackney Central put in a star turn here). The next day was not such a delight.

I said goodbye to El at an inane junction in the middle of nowhere, her with her thumb already thrust into the road. I walked off with 3 hardboiled eggs in my pocket and a large lump on my back. This was flat country where the perspective was skewed horribly, you would see the next church spire long before you could stand in its shad or utilize its tap. Before me was a huge Camp Du Militaire that I had to go round, large helicopters swooped low to the ground, beneath the horizon that barely existed.

At 3pm the rain swept across me and I hid in a wood that was the site of an ancient Celtic Barrow, little more than a hillock with some steps cut into it but it hid me well. I played with my compass for a while, an endearing but mainly useless item for journeying on this scale, my general direction still presently being roughly a quarter of the horizon ‘that way’. I passed another two-bit town, all farmers with suspicious glances and closed shutters. It was beginning to get late, what I wanted was to get past the forthcoming confluence of motorway, rail and road out into the pristine country that promised tiny tracks and days of fields. In a pine wood, not 40 metres square I slept that night, safe from everything though only 10metres from the road.

Notes from (2)

The odour of Mange tout rises from the fields beside me; thus far it’s been mange tout, spinach and some unnamed bean thing. For miles.

In the early morning, just after sleeping in the pinewood and whilst in a village that declares it self the ‘rock and roll village’ for reasons one can’t quite see at 10am, I get pulled over by the local Gendamerie, if a pedestrian can get pulled over that is. They questioned me a while, one of them spoke English, I explained I was walking to Switzerland, that I was Welsh (at which there was a slight giggle!) and that yes, I had a map and had told someone I was going. They wanted to see my passport and then, seeming quite put out that they couldn’t arrest me for anything went on their way.

This really was nowhere, tiny towns, fields of wheat, clouds and the occasional barn. All day. No shops for food, just fields of spinach. But this is when I began to discover that all little graveyards in France have standpipes so people can water the graves of the dead. And so it came to be that I found myself lounging in the heavily decorated graveyards of these small French Villages, Somme Vesle, Poix, Moivre, Charmont drinking water and squirting it in my face. I was planning to camp somewhere after Charmont but really wanted a nice little pine wood like last night, the landscape was not forthcoming.

After 28km I collapsed under an apple tree that wasn’t quite in someone’s orchard and wasn’t quite in someone’s field either, hoping to benefit from this indecisive ownership and the time of day I set up camp here for there was nowhere else for miles. I slept uneasily and got up at 6 just in case the apple pickers came.

Figures for the curious

We are a species awash with statistics and so here are mine… (Obtained courtesy of a pedometer I bought in Reims)

June 9th      16.46km    26,995 steps.

June 10th   29.23km    47,927 steps.

June 11th    28.48km    46,696 steps.

June 12th    18.68km    30,626 steps.

Snatches

One of the most tiresome things is that when you are online, in that moment of blogging, you are inevitably somewhere very unexciting indeed. Right now for example, I am in a room with a few computer terminals, some small windows barred to the world, beige tattered paint on the walls and the loud sounds of traffic spewing in through an unseen doorway. I could to all intents and purposes be in any anonymous internet cafe in Hackney. As it is I am in a french town called Colmar, some 30km from the German border. Everything has changed a great deal and is however still the same.

Blogging has a sense to it in one world; the place where you can be perpetually online, keeping yourself afloat and abreast of all those matters that seem to hold you in such high concern. But I’ve been sleeping in a tent for 8 nights, traversing a world of tiny lost villages and deep heavy forests alive with something other than the constant buzzing of a modem and a twitching of LED’s.

Yesturday

After waking and adjusting myself for presentation to the world I sit on a nearby tree stump, the one upon which I cooked last nights very tasty soup, and look at the place I ended up in for the night. A dry, sloping little cluster of tall skinny pine trees, many of which had tumbled into each other in past winds. To the west of this little field is a tumbled down stone wall that runs alongside a long since used track overgrown with grasses and buttercup, densely boggy. The old stonewall turns across the south of the field of pine and runs down the hill to a small mountain stream.

It is down in this southern corner that I see the answer to a mystery that had somewhat disturbed my night’s sleep. Two-thirds up a tree a sizeable mammal creeps, a bird in its mouth. It rests on a branch and lets out a small frog like bark before continuing up the tree, and then leaping from branch to branch, across the forest. It was this frog like bark that had perplexed me the night before, as it echoed through the forest from one side of the tent to the other, above the ground but without the flap of a wing, silent but for its own resonance. A stoat perhaps, a pine martin sized little critter. I remember an episode of springwatch I had seen days before I left the UK, in which the presenter was desperately trying to witness these animals in the hills around my parents house in North Wales. I set off for the day, 30 minutes from being asleep in sleeping bag to packed and ready to go, becoming quite efficient at this thing.

“By 2pm in the afternoon I sat on the crest of the Vosges Mountains above Lac Blanc trying to figure out whether the hills in the distance were part of Germany of part of France. It was with a hazy celebratory zeal that I sat there admiring the accomplishment; there is something about traversing a mountain range that entirely trumps walking across a plain all day. The feeling was one of splendour, I sat there and happily demolished the remaining pages of Conrad’s’ A Heart of Darkness as though the final episodes therein were some cheerful childhood tale. After several troops of German hikers had passed me along with a French couple, who’s young Collie eagerly became my friend, I began the days descent to the town of Orbey in the vicinity of which I planned to camp. I’ve just realised that this paragraph of my tale belongs not to yesterday, but the day before, its always quite muddled when the only thing that’s keeping you online is the circadian rhythm, which is at any rate always ever so slightly out of touch with our imposed 24 hour clock.”

Turkheim.  The evening.

As I have been crossing France in the month of June I have seen a great many signs for various village and town fetes, all of which I was a few days early for. Upon arrival in Turkheim I discovered I had finally managed to coincide my presence with a towns fete de la musique. The 16th century architecture of the town was quite in contradiction with the majority of music I heard there – the exception being a 20 choir of accordion players in the town square. Elsewhere I heard Celine Dion’s Titanic number spewing out of a cafe, in a pub called L’homme Savage they were selling Murphy’s with a live band playing cover versions of The Rolling Stones and The Doors. I decided to settle on a small hotel who promised live, original music from a local band called the Nose Shits. After being quite unsettled by their proto punk-funk I went and recovered in my tent.

Scraps from Bar-le-duc to the Vosges

This was a long way. Too far it turned out in the end, for it was immeasurably further than one had accounted for, one of those errors of scale and confidence.

The first day after a rest is always a painful measure of ones abilities. It was strikingly hot and though on my day off I had attempted to acclimatise to the heat I hadn’t been wearing my full pack, I’d been lying around in a park and even that not for very long. I struggled to my first kilometre baking myself along the banks of the canal, had to have a little nap after 7 and by 15 I was thankfully at the days end and nosing around for a campsite in Ligny En Barrois, a funny wee place of little note that had in its midst the most fantastic camping facilities one could ask for. Why else anyone would visit there though was something of a mystery to me. The dawn came up sunny but by 9am heavy thunder had swept in and was hanging around like a drunk in the vicinity of a pub. I stood in a doorway near a supermarche and a church hoping it would all go away.

After 3 long kilometres of downpour along the canal I found a small shelter the purpose of which I’m still trying to figure out, it was something like a bus shelter but not on a main road, without any bench in either. Here I treated myself to the last of the cereal Id bought in Bar-le-duc and the sky cleared off, ever, ever ever so slightly. You just have to keep going though, no point sitting in a shed all day. Further down the canal aqueducts the Ornain river and then we part ways at Naix Aux Forges, my path from there lies with the D29 and its air of mild drizzle. Armies of small snails have taken it upon themselves to try and cross the road while its sleek, some of them fall foul of my boots and others will one imagines, be eaten by Frenchmen before the year dies.

Adjusting my boots at another stone slab, beneath Chestnuts trees with swooping swallows, I rest awhile perched on the corner of my coat on the moss of years that clings to the rock. Walking does not feel like travelling in the same way airports and train stations do. It feels more deliberate or more free, and at the same time more out of your control. Or as though you were only planning to do it for that one day, you are perpetually just going for a walk, not crossing a country, that seems too incomprehensible for a footstep to understand.

The landscapes arrive in manageable chunks here. Neat small hills nearby line my route; all of them topped with small copses, out of some poke wind turbines that must be nearby as they are sizeable things here. Nearer and further, some still, others slowly turning like the oars of a boat rowed by tourists, gently watching the day

All that passes by me are tractors and birds.  Occasionally the same one sweeps back and forth, changing its wagon with each passing visit.

Another village comes,

And goes.

A farmhand, a fork in the road. An elderly lady at her door, two cats. Everything else is breeze and rain. For Vaucouleurs read 15km the signpost. For Vaucouleurs read tomorrow. I will not make it today. After a long unmentionable stretch I am forced into the hedgerow as I watch the landscape before me be consumed by a rainstorm. Droplets catch me through the hazel leaves. I sit on my pack for half an hour or more watching the horizon be swallowed up, and then as we pass through the other side watch it roll back to the forest of Vaucouleurs that forms my most distant horizon. Huge bright orange slugs crowd my hiding place in the hedgerow.

I creep towards the horizon in the rains wake though it continues to fall in a lesser form.

I am so tired.

I am so tired of the rain.

I am so tired of walking, in the rain.

What are the dreams of the people, who live out here I wonder, in these tiny villages where nothing seems to have changed forever. More tractors pass, more time. More rain clouds.

After some more distance the forest edge opens up before me. Attached to one tree is a worn and much faded sign, the only things that remain are the colour red and the word DANGER scarcely readable. Not knowing what one is in danger from I enter the forest in search of somewhere decent, somewhere dry perhaps, to sleep. Nowhere. 2 more kilometres pass. And nowhere arrives.

********************************************************************************************************

In heavy fog ones world shrinks, on the edge of mine a hut in the midst of the forest appeared. This strange hut, all boarded up, piles of wood out the back, an awning falling off one side, hiding a barbeque and a variety of spikes became the first place I hadn’t felt the rain sine I ate special K that morning. I sat there drying out, cooking tomato and mushroom soup, eating bread and cheese. A car pulled up. It was 8pm, I was in the middle of a very large forest with soup in my mouth and a car pulled up. It drove around the back of the building to the other side of a mercifully thick hedge, a door opened, boots got out and opened the back of the van, from which heavy objects were thrown onto a large pile. The boot was closed, the engine started and the vehicle I hadn’t seen drove off the way it had come. I panicked for a while, I looked through my phrasebook that said it had “useful phrases for every situation” in it and couldn’t come up with anything that I could use to explain my predicament should the car return. After an unknown time it came back, the man was metres away from me just the other side of the hedge, I had nothing to say, I just wanted somewhere safe to sleep. He drove off the other direction this time and the green Renault van crept slowly past me, I swear he looked me clean in the face but kept driving.

I camped in the forest, anxiously, the rain still coming down. In the night I heard a wild pig pass near my tent, snorting as it went.

A quick note on border crossing

Ok, so yesterday I walked from France to Germany. Doesn’t that sound dramatic.

Its remarkable how much, how easily, how casually reality can burst the bubbles of dreams. The border was a bridge and a building site, there were no intimidating border guards, no one asked to see my passport no one even spoke to me, apart from the woman in the shop just across the border after the McDonalds (yes, the golden arches were the first thing I saw in Germany), and she didn’t so much as speak to me as ask me for rather more money than one would have thought was necessary to buy a coke. But I was the only pedestrian in the whole place, this made me feel somewhat aloof and special, until I had to pick up my rucksack again and walk to Freiburg.

Scraps after the incident in the forest

Above the trees, the pockets made by leaves are already a deep azure, a sky blue of the most welcome shade. I had the night before read a chapter in Solnits´ Field guide to getting lost about Yves Klein and his adventures into the sky. Later, after crossing into Germany I would find a vinyl pressing of a conference he gave in Paris in 1959, I am sat next to it now, and I am still struggling to figure out what to do with it. It is number 488 of 500 copies, and tomorrow I’m planning to hike up a mountain. Its Saturday evening.

The trouble that the clear blue sky brings is its excessive array of sunlight, that though a joy becomes a burden after any number of short kilometres carrying a large pack. I leave the forest quickly, not wanting to hang around; I slept rather longer than intended and get going about 8am. I get to Vaucouloeurs in time for the 10am bells to chime me back to civilisation. A brief stop for supplies and I get under way again, beneath this Simpson’s sky that flitters high and wide in this gentle, broad valley, dotted with churches which all keep their own time. The further through France I walk, the more it seems to stretch itself before me. At Sepvigny I rest in the welcome shade of two oaks and the company of the Virgin Mary. Today is long and 12km already.

Time shrinks when you least want it to and has the ability to draw itself out forever when you need it the least. All this space, all these blades of grass, alive with hoppers and dragonflies of a black velvet hue.

Out of the village and the road turns to switchbacks as we climb the hill together, me and the tarmac under the cacophonous tones of the valleys midday bells which seem to clang in no particular order, for no particular time, merely for the sheer pleasure of ringing. A gentleman in the prime of life was here, off his scooter on the verge of the road plucking ripe cherries from the trees. He invited me to enjoin him to this activity and after discovering my inability to speak French engaged me in a conversation in English the likes of which I hadn’t had for sometime. His name is Remy (my apologies sir if this is not spelt correctly or accented as required) and he has been to London, he enjoyed it a great deal but it is not like here, he adds with something of a chortle. I explain I am walking to Switzerland and even confess to being an artist and we laugh at my having spent the night in the rain in the forest.  He whizzes off in his scooter, one of my business cards and several cherries heavier. I choose to rest here on a high bank above the road, partly to sit, partly to eat and partly to dry my tent off in the sun.

It is not often you meet people on the road and so it was to my very great surprise that after the sharp tang of the Cherries, whilst I was perched high off the roadside drying my tent in the sunlight, to see another person, struggling up the same hill as I had just done, a large pack on his back, the sort of stubble and tan that is only formed by days and weeks on the road. And yet, when we talked it was like nothing strange had happened at all. That a German walking to Spain and a Welshman walking to Switzerland had just intersected each other’s paths in this out of the way French backwater seemed nothing too strange at all. He perched on the roadside and I stayed on my patch on the hill as we experimented with having a conversation in broken English, his broken because he’s German, mine broken simply because I hadn’t said much lately. He was I think, a botanist on the trail of St. Jacques de Compostelle, who as far as I have managed to discover so far, became a saint simply because he walked around France a great deal and eventually to Santiago in Spain which was Oliver’s final destination – at his present rate he didn’t expect to arrive their until October, and so he is out there still, perhaps somewhere in the south of France now, an even deeper brown colour.

He told me about the velvet dragonflies that flew round-abouts and how they required only pure water in order to reproduce, or of which plants in the hedgerows one could consume. He also told me that he’d spent a week in the Vosges Mountains once on a botany trip and that it had rained, constantly. I told him how he could get drinking water from taps in any of the cemetery’s in France’s villages and towns, that it just made you look a little odd if their were any mourners there at the time. We walked a kilometre or two down the road to the next village where my path stretched eastwards and his south to Dom Remy, the birthplace of St. Jacques – I had by now been mistaken for a St. Jacques pilgrim impersonator that I was damn near tempted to go and have a look at his birthplace myself, but it was a bit out of the way. So I climbed my hill to the east and finally got to have my lunch, that the arrival of Oliver had to some extent delayed. I gave him an apple when we parted, and he gave me a big smile.

From St. Gallen. 08-07-2009

Arrival occurred with a change of tac. Accompanied by the artists Ben Connors and Laura Wilson, who joined me via train from London via Paris, the final steps were taken across the platforms of stations. From Schaffhausen down the Rhine and back into Germany at Konstance and down the edges of the Bodensee to St. Gallen, under a peal of rain clouds. Sleeping in a nuclear bunker, converted into a living installation by the Swiss artists Frank and Patrik Riklin.

Due to the abhorrent costs of Swiss internet Cafes I will, for now give a shorthand account of all the missing days, this will be added to upon my return to London when the blog will be adorned with images and fixed in a final state as a memorial of the journey.

Thank you kindly,

Bram Thomas Arnold. St. Gallen, Switzerland 08-07-2009

A disappointment in Charmes


It was 41km of hidden valleys that killed it. Virgin Mary’s and fading chugging tractors. The odd cow. My feet shed their skins like snakes and boiled away, producing heat like small power stations. Red raw we arrived, and camped. And could walk no more. With no time to stop. A short train ride to St. Die des Vosges carried the weight of disappointment and enhanced the loneliness of it all. It rained all night.

So yes, this was gutting. In my mind every determined self-righteous artist I had ever met derided me for my inability to stick to the plan, my failure to not walk all the way to Switzerland but I am too interested in failure, I found a quote in a book I was carrying to support the basis for my train ride, as though my own utter exhaustion was not enough “because failure is deeper than success. Failure is what we learn from mostly” (from Solnit’s ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ one of my travelling companions) and in many ways the pain of failure is an educator. Sat on a platform in the wilderness of France, nothing to look at and nobody to talk to, two other people on the pair of platforms, one of those stations that only goes two ways. Each of us waiting in our own private way, the girl on the other side, hiding from the sun in a transparent shelter that must have felt like a greenhouse in this heat, occasionally exposing herself to the wind to have a cigarette, a young guy two benches down listening to tinny hip-hop from his phone trying to look so urban in the midst of this heavy forest that walled all around. And me, writing self-pitying notes about some unnoticed journey and little snidey comments about the others sat there. The loneliness kicking in already.

I woke up that morning in a forest whose floor was scattered with the bright orange slugs I had by now become so used to. I was up later than planned and the little buggers had climbed all over my tent leaving their smear trails, I flicked them off into the forest and set off. Subconsciously aware that the distance I had planned to walk today, roughly planned out on maps in the British Library and now in the reality of yesterday evening was too far. Charmes. Parked on some nameless but sizeable river in this ‘rarely visited by anyone who isn’t French’ corner of France, I only knew of its existence because Werner Herzog, in his diary book Of Walking in Ice walked through it on his way to Paris. I walked out of the forest along lonely roads and was overtaken only by a tiny old chugging tractor pulling a trailer that looked home made piled high with logs. The tractor was being driven by an old man and perched atop each tyre were two strapping young lads who you imagine were his sons but could have easily graced the pages of magazines or the French rugby squad. The tractor passed me slowly and they all smiled and waved and then, as they started to climb a hill I began to catch them up, the poor old tractor nearly calling it a day at 9am. The first village of the day was further than I thought it would be and this was the way of it all day. Everything stretched. Indeed the further I went into France; the more it seemed to stretch out before me.

In the next village perhaps a man out watering his peonies talked to me for a bit about the fact that it was far too hot for walking anywhere. I agreed with him and attempted to explain that I was an artist, as though this was a do-all password for any manner of foolish activities. I do not know the French word for artist and he took me for a technician. But he did compliment me on my French. I think. I lay down in a field for a bit after this, watched the sky become hotter and little tractors turn grass into hay. This valley was barricaded at the far end by a big lump of hill like a great door. It had upon its flank some sort of giant memorial and though I knew my final destination was way beyond that horizon I hoped against hope that I didn’t have to climb the bugger. Eat a bit of chocolate. Lift up pack again.

I did have to climb that hill, or at least a bit of it, kind of over its flank, but that was quite enough, it was about midday and 30degrees, I scrambled from scrap of shade to scrap of shade, and looked with bitter envy at all the cows who just got to sit in the shade all day, until the day they get turned into dinner. Maybe not. It’s a steep slope down and a double check at the map that even confuses itself in this out of the way place.

Early on today I had passed a sign post for Charmes that didn’t have a distance on it and this gave me some hope, that the place was already sign posted, it must be fairly nearby right. At 5pm in the evening I cam across another signpost fro Charmes, only the second of the day, it read 11km. Another 11km. I was fucked. How quickly could I walk 11km, how long would that take me? I wasn’t really sure but estimated a couple of hours. At this point I’d walked about 30km over 9hours with a short break beneath the shade of a Virgin Mary to eat some Comte and a loaf of bread. The next 11km to some extent tore me apart. The last 5 of them were along a fairly sizeable, very busy road as there was no other way to do it. At some point I thought someone was going to offer me a lift but nothing.  But walking and road, and searing heat, the occasional comments from passers-by, I was running out of energy at this stage to muster up French words and my communication descended to grunts and groans, I crossed and recrossed train lines, the efficient sweep of carriages through the countryside boiled my blood, their air conditioned passage.  How did I know where I was going, in truth, I mostly didn’t, vague direction and occasional signpost. Compass points.

Cross the Auto route by a passover and you’re into Charmes by a, by some sort of French version of little chef and a large, incredibly large really, truck entirely decorated with a gaudy impression of Ayr’s rock and an aborigine in the left hand corner. God knows why. Truck drivers with obsessions. I imagine it being blown up in that desert by Thelma and Louise. God knows why. Odd what scraps of popular culture my memory chooses to throw at me out here. I have to walk past the town’s sewage deposits to get to the campsite. Its the most horrendous smell, through a fence there’s one of those big round pools of treatment works, but here its a bubbling broiling mass of shit water, waves a metre high. Next door to house and the campsite. One night I think.

I take my socks off. Heat billows in visible waves. My feet look like they’ve been in the bath all day, or a sauna. I can’t imagine them ever recovering. Blood trickles out of my heel and by god does my t-shirt smell something awful. In bed as soon as I can. For the record it took me 2 hours 15 minutes to find the campsite, a total 41km walked.

Saint Die

Rain rolled in upon the mountain town, crisp flat riverbed rolled through the middle. Corbusier’s only factory is still, only a factory. I escape at midday and walk off the depression. Making for the Col du Mandray, pass another military cemetery and a lonely flustered horse. The long straight roads point along the flat to the steep curves I have to climb.

Walking doesn’t feel like travelling in anyway, it’s just a day-long thing. You get up in one place and walk to another, it doesn’t feel, or rather one can’t imagine that you’ll ever be able to get anywhere by doing it. You do not visit heavily visited places. You drift through forgotten fields and empty villages. But getting on that train, sitting on that platform, fields racing through the windows. I felt like a tourist and I felt sick. I felt alone and lost. Arriving into St. Die des Vosges train station with a walking stick felt stupid. Being charged 14euros to stay in the campsite was stupid. It was the same fee regardless of whether you were just one man and a tent or a family of four with a caravan. Who thought that pricing system up? They mistook me for Dutch; it’s the name I explain.

I had a dabble at being a tourist in St. Die but I didn’t like it. All those people having fun with their friends. I went to see Corbusiers only factory that actually got built. It was, you know, a lot like all those awful copycat social housing projects that didn’t quite work. But its still a factory so I guess it worked to that degree. I was sold a piece of absurdly expensive cheese by a man from Nancy and went on my way, I did eat at a restaurant but that just enhanced the loneliness. I left town with a bar of chocolate in my pocket after finally convincing the people in the post office I was who I was so they’d convert my traveller’s cheque into real money. The small bar of Swiss chocolate was a celebration piece.

I ate it on the edge of town after all the hyper marches and out of town shopping centres. Today was to be a short walk to reintroduce my tattered feet to motion without trains. Just 16km to the Col du Mandray. A short stretch alongside the Meuthe river I believe, through a couple of small linear towns, lonely horses and dead cemeteries, giant memorials, the odd piece of public sculpture tucked out of the way, the river running off to my right, with the railway line and road tied to it by the tight valleys and mountain architecture. My road clambers over a little lip that leads us into another valley, a sudden gash of space, deep cut, split with a gushing fast little stream down the middle. Crowded on the back wall are steep hillsides painted in pine forest green, razor edged with woodland. A small fleet of cattle, that, though black and white are definitely more than Freshian, the white is restricted to a Mohican down their backs and a little bib, one has an eye patch. Two calves tussle each other, trying to bash the horns out of each other’s little underdeveloped skulls. Ah, yes, the grown-ups have horns. Not dairy cows.

Those long straight roads that speak of Death Valley, the rocky’s, the plains running across Canterbury in New Zealand. Highways forced into position by mountain fissures. I walked the straight road to Mandray, a village split into tiers across the map, lower, upper and haute Mandray, reached through the back of narrow twists sweeping up the hillside. I had my lunch on the high steps of the village church that expensive cheese, covered in its yellow mould like gold or sulphur. The school shared a building with the town hall, the ecole and the Marie. A fleet of children poured out of one end on the lunch bell, and scampered round to the playground behind. The sounds of a football game echoed off the valley walls and then, after lunch, the gentle sounds of communal singing. How 1900’s the whole place felt. I took the steep switch back that carried up behind the town hall and steep. So sudden, so brashly steep. Switch back on switch back, a house or building at each turn, each shied into the hillside, a damp backside. On the door of one, a small sign with a little black and white Felix cat, and ‘Wilkommen’. It took me some time to notice or acknowledge this was German, written on a door in France. The first blood of the Alsace.

Pine forests torn by the tracks of large diggers and forest machinery scraping through the way. And then I get overtaken by a car. This is not normal forest practice but there appear to be tarmaced roads running through this place like a fine web. The entire map of the Vosges is scored with these same paths that I took for forest tracks. But no! Roads with signs, and junctions and regular commuter traffic. A bit annoying actually.

Col to Col to Col


Shared the silence of a picnic bench with a girl. She read a “bad book” and used a grass blade for a bookmark, picked wild strawberries. I just sat there. Camped under dry pines above a town called Strawberries. Col du Bonhomme was all tourists and caffeine. Col du L____ brought the first cows with bells on and myrtle tarts. Col du mandray will forever be that girl, that silence.

Sat in front of an intimidatingly large slice of what I guess can only be called Black Forest Gateau I start again. (And stop here; I guess eating the slice of cake was enough of a venture for that cafe)

Backwards. On the only picnic bench at the top of the Col du Mandray sits a young girl reading a dog-eared novel. Her bike leans a nearby tree stump; in her mouth she has a blade of grass that she occasionally uses as a bookmark. We sit there and share a deep silence for some time. I plan to camp in the nearby pines and do not intend to do anything but rest and occasionally peruse the map. A lady cyclist joins us for a brief time, in broken French and English we discuss my plans to walk to Switzerland. The young girl has abandoned reading her book at this stage, she thrust it down on the table and forced out in English the words “Bad book”, and trundles off to gather wild strawberries from the edge of a nearby stream. We struggle for scraps of conversation across the language barrier but I treasure our silences more. I bid her au revoir and merci and vanish into the nearby pines to look for somewhere to pitch a tent. She stays, returning to her bad book and badly diminished pile of wild strawberries, the destruction of which I contributed to with a vengeance. She could have been there forever for all I know, I like to think of her as a permanent feature of the Col, traipsing through the last passages of that unwanted novel and waiting for the strawberries to fruit again.

My big toe on my right foot is still numb, like pins and needles. It’s been that way since Dover, or somewhere in England at any rate.

Written on the shores of the Schluchsee, Germany.


So many days to catch up on. I’ve never made a good diarist if I’m honest. A good cataloguer of existence perhaps, a grand annotator perhaps but never an efficient blow-by-blow account of events. Odd ripples form on the lake.

I camped under a high crop of pines on the Col du Mandray not far from two paths, completely exposed yet hidden I sat there for the usual hour ritual, listening to the forest, nervously on the lookout for dog walkers. It was a fine spot in the end, no trouble and a deep bed of pine needles, just an alarming amount of fallen down trees surrounding me caused minor worry.

I slept long into the morning, not setting off until 9am, winding down one of the innumerable roads to Fraize where I picked up the necessary articles for a day hiking in the middle of nowhere – bread, croissants, water (refill in the cemetery). These details completed I headed for the eastern edge of town and the climb up to the Col du Bonhomme. The path switch backed through farmyards still discovering Saturday morning, two coffee coloured mares looked sadly at the sight and one farmhouse was entirely coated in sheet metal, cast into plates like armour. Cherry pips on the path whilst looking down. Boughs heavy with crimson whilst looking up. I breakfasted on this steep stretch, some mossy rocks and a cherry tree.

On forest tracks above, we used to call them fire roads but I was never quite sure why, solitary jet black beetles, the size of butter beans marched hither and thither across the great plains. I noticed the corpse of one such, upturned on the path; its underside was a shimmering azure blue, electric patterns down its miniature legs. I never looked at these beetles in the same way again, a secret smile broke on my face very time I saw them hence, and this was an often occurrence, the electricity of their underbellies all the way to Germany. I climb steadily to 900m where a small, well equipped hut sat for the use of hikers who understood the system, who knew how to get hold of the keys and so on, payments and debts. Ticketed systems. I passed on after a brief sit down, following the little red crosses that were painted onto the trees.

We nosed downhill a little and beneath a steep sheer the road flashed between the trees snaking its striped back up the hill on the brink of the Col du Bonhomme. Ahead there were some old old people walking on the path, the only conclusion to draw being that we must be near a car park. They spoke German and at the subsequent car park a whole fleet of ageing Germans could be found, spilling out of tourist buses, buying coffee and naff souvenirs. I bought a postcard and joined them for coffee.

The path moved me back into the forest, deep pines. Not in plantation rows but naturally formed and all over the place, with life beneath them, other plants and mosses, deep spongy objects. After some getting lost, some bumping into other walkers – all with those damn poles – I sit at the next Col, the third col, the picture, look at the picture for reference, here I see my first cows with bells on. And there’s a small shop at the sharp corner selling all manner of local artefacts and food, myrtle tarts, ciders, sausages god knows. The next hour or so; the next route change; will see me cross from one side, to the other, from looking west to looking east, breaching the range as it were, where all the waters begin to flow east to the Rhine and the German border rather than into the meuthe and central France.

In the midst of a high mountain bog my shoes occasionally vanish into deep piles of gloop. There are a young couple ahead of me, they are, if I’m honest the only reason I know there’s a path here. I overtake them with the pace and efficiency of what I like to think might be a mountain goat, striding on, boundless, endless energy. I have never felt so in charge of my physical capabilities. Eager to explore this newly attained altitude. 1000m, 1100m, 1234m. |And a view of Germany| Myrtle bushes cover the ground in a bushy springy way, as an open alpine moor spreads off to the south, Gazon du Fang.

I sat now, on a precipice above Lac Blanc. Funnily I recall I had read a little about the path around Lac Blanc before I left. I remember thinking it sounded a tad dull, never having been much of a fan of Pinewood. I stood, or more likely sat, in awe. The mountains fell away, sheer faces to the deep blue, cold hard lake. The haze behind the mountains the flat lines that spread beneath the vanishing sky, Germany hidden and revealed here and there and definitely there. Real now. Walked across a bit of France, looking at the next country on the list.

Alpine flowers scattered the fields of my descent, through woodlands and farms, the echo of farm hands shaking across the valley, the giant power lines sweeping across hundreds of metres. The mountains full of Sunday walkers losing their way, finding themselves for the week ahead. On a high stone bank after 26km I sit and finish the last section of Heart of Darkness, the madness resonating out of the pages. The houses here are vast epics, half barns half houses dug into the hill, all with drive ways leading straight into the second floor from the back. Below a large and inviting B&B, bright colours, children playing, cherry trees, small dogs, I fall and stumble on the path, I still can’t figure out how, my staff stabs me in the face, just beneath my teeth drawing blood, it snaps beneath me as I fall upon it and I lie there, sprawled, bleeding and slightly shattered, a snapped memento left useless on the path, I snap it again and pack the handle on my back. Just keep walking I guess.

Lac Blanc…

Above a precipice, staring at Germany through the haze, a border collie befriends me wildly while her owner does an impression of a cow, illustrating her question. Descend through Orbey and alpine flowers, kill the heart of darkness and my staff – stabs me in the chin and splinters beneath my fall. In the night Pine Martins rush silently above me from branch to branch to branch, their frog like barks tracing their movements. In the morning they scamper in the light.

Interlude. (I killed a grasshopper by mistake*)

You realise you are as inconsequential as the last human, as important as the first. You realise there are so many people doing so many things, that everything comes to matter as much as everything else. Or as little.

Before I left I had a conversation with a man who said I had to be prepared for this journey to be completely inconsequential. For it not to matter at all, for it not to change anything, for it not to be noticed. And I think, and I have thought on this for all these days of farmland and villages, night and day, forest and gendarmarie, all the mornings I have woken having no idea where it is that I will sleep next. And it is a thing that makes me so sad I become happy again, when you have plumbed the depths of this thought, this possibility, when you have discovered that everything you thought mattered so much matters not at all you obtain a kind of peace usually only offered by the grave, or the open sky, the blue of distance and disappearance. The joy of presence, that the moment you are in is everything. A two-bit bar with flies and the noise of French pop music. Everything. As consequential as inconsequence, as nameless as defined. As Rebecca says, so easy to recall, so impossible to describe.

*The grasshopper to which this passage is dedicated died in the gap between the fly sheet of my tent and the inner bit as I rolled it up one morning, the next night I lay there and stared at its buckled dried out corpse and wrote.

You cross the Vosges, you get to see the Noseshits

Downhill today.  Just a touch of up to a strange site. A German military cemetery on French soil, how strangely must the psyches of people here be formed. Cold metal crosses under Scots pine trees, ringed in stone. Camp in Turkheim where Cranes circle in the skies. A music festival, an accordion orchestra and a punk funk band called The Noseshits. And Colmar, through a hypermarche and down backwater routes to St. Joseph.

At the end of a hard, yet amazing 36km I slept in a less than perfect stretch of pine forest, steep and rooty, with its fair share of bugs due to nearby boggy sections. A fleet of motorcyclists swept the mountain road down below my camp. I ate soup; amazing how amazing simple hot food can be at need. I had walked a long way off the path to find a place to camp so the next morning I woke early, pinecones digging into shoulder blades, roots wrapped around hips. And here, for the first time, my scheduling – or sort of scheduling – provided a slight of relief, two short days followed by two days off in the medieval town of Colmar. But first the two ’short’ days.

19km to Turkheim. I dragged myself downhill, snaking on a small lane round the nearby peaks to get back to the path and discovered I had walked 3km out of my way just to find somewhere very crap to sleep. The days path, marked by a blue x, took us off the road between a very shy gap between gardens, stepping above their lawns and a small stream, a pile of gnomes in one garden, a pile of vegetables in the other. The steeps little gulley worked my legs and I missed my staff, straining for something to drag me up the hill. I soon sat down, atop a sort of crest that fell steeply away to the watery cause of all this hill. I found the nearest staff sized object and set about carving a handle for myself. Then I ate an apple in its entirety, casting just the little stalk into the woodland, and rose again. Music was the hardest thing, not having much music, or the time to sit and listen to it properly. The path and I kept climbing, a neat gulley between pine on the left and steep fields on the right falling up. At some point the path I needed to take had been rudely taped off with something like police tape but in yellow, I stepped over it and the path broke out into fields either side, light streaming in from the ever widening sky. A pipe poked out of a wall nearby gushing water of a slightly foul nature onto the path, causing slipping and squelching. I arched round this low wall and onto the farm drive; a house behind me defended by a private sign and a picture of a dog. I kept climbing to this next crest, two balloons deflated from a party tied to a lamp post, bright yellow flowers dancing in a wind only my face could feel, an elderly man dressed in gentleman’s dress passed me by, was it Sunday morning? A church day, I wasn’t sure, he was well dressed though, that’s sure. An ancient tractor crept our way, a father and his two young children wrapped up in coats out to do a mornings work. I pulled faces at the kids as they went past, giggling, a stream of cows had just been unleashed on the fields below and they were gushing out mooing and braying in their freedom. I turned and set off to get over this last little uphill.

One of those sprawling villages the continent seemed by now to favour, no real heart to it just lots of space, extensive vegetable patches and me, perusing the gardens searching for a tap that might provide my first drink of the day. All attached to hoses or housed inside. It’s something like 8am. It could be a Monday. I press on and stop at a small field of goats and nibble precious items from a cherry tree. These are rich up here, bountiful this side of the mountains, high boughs cast in deep shades of purple, the edges depleted by people like me, and tall goats. A bunch of cyclists at a bus stop, all weeing on nearby trees, very strange.

My map confuses me here, there are a mess of paths, a nice looking hotel, and so many cherry trees. This is the flat crest, I have reached the final peak of the Vosges and they have built houses all over it. Cyclists and motorcyclists, by the time I reach a huge ants nest I realise I’ve gone the wrong way, I rest my stick too close to the nest and a hundred ants, in aggressive postures mount themselves upon it, they climb onto my boots and after watching them for a while, I shake the little buggers off and abscond, back the way I came. I am comfortable today, I know it’s not far, in the sunlight I sit on a bench, little statue of Jesus just over my shoulder and I listen to a few songs on my phone, sit there smiling. A house nearby is blaring out French Reggae and I really enjoy this too. I walk past a campsite where civilised people go to sleep, but they do not get to watch pine martins over breakfast. The paths multiply like rabbits under beautiful canopies of woodland, tempting pine beds and open stretches of broadleaf. I wiggle a bit there are so many options, like walking the streets of London, criss cross left then right being the same as right then left. Several cyclists, several walkers, all with enviably small looking rucksacks, a muesli bar a bottle of water, a camera perhaps. Lightweights.

I come to a bit of a clearing and behind some hedgerows is a large Chalet that seems to be hosting some not so secret meeting of Sunday hikers. Elderly couples arrive in fancy cars and try and figure out where to park, children’s voices rise in E-number fuelled screams. I sit on a bench here for a while, perpetually glad to let the floor carry my rucksack for a while. An elderly couple, fit and elegant as 17th century violins walk the path in front of me, and intrigued by the size of my rucksack they enquire as to where I am going. After explaining my intimidatingly poor French I tell them I am walking to Switzerland. I seem to have arrived at a geographical location where this is no longer a mad prospect. A long way yes, but not completely insane. I tell them I plan to do it in about 10 or 12 days from here, the man makes an impression of a buff, muscular man to suggest that by then I will be almost superhuman. I become tempted to explain I’ve walked the majority of the way from London but hold myself back, knowing my French is not particularly capable of the task of justifying this madness. They walk on, poles in hand. I head for the small town of Trois Epis where finally I can gather some water. I also stop for a coffee and cake, and a can of coke, and write the postcards I bought on the other side of the Vosges at Col Du Bonhomme.

This town is home to the German grave on French soil, a detailed list of all the soldiers is included in a hole in the wall, the pattern of the grave is different, the mood created by the setting much heavier. The whole experience is quite dark, hidden on the edge of town beneath a pile of pine trees and ringed in stone.

There is a visitor’s book as well but it is completely empty, at this I become intimidated and can think of nothing to say though I so much want to say something.

The rest of the journey is downhill, hundreds of little electric blue beetles are here. On one pile of poo on the path side there seem to be at least fifty all rolling over each other in glee. I eat lunch formed of Comte, Apples and hunks of bread on a neat little outcrop of rocks amongst a very open stretch of pine woodland, I treat myself to some more songs from my phone and text England to let it know I’m ok. A cyclist moving at speed is the only person I see all afternoon. I also pass several concrete bunkers built into the forest, small windows and scars of gunfire. I try and creep inside one but my rucksack doesn’t fit and I use this as an excuse to avoid admitting I find it a bit too alarming.

The edge of Turkheim is covered in vineyards, these are the first I’ve seen since champagne and these are dedicated to wine, caves are built into the hills beneath them as I arrive into the old town centre. I circle the campsite, desperate for an entrance, for a shower, for a sit down, to get this thing off and not have to put it on again for at least a few hours. I lie down in the sun in my own corner near my exploded pile of things and drift in and out of sleep. Opening my eyes occasionally a giant bird circles the air above. 3pm.

For the duration of my trip across France I have passed through villages that have just had or are just about to have fetes, festivals or parties of some sort, but now, in Turkheim was my time. I arrived into town the evening of the towns Fete De La Musique! On offer were several things, an accordian orchestra, a covers act playing Doors songs amongst other things and a young punk-funk trio called, somewhat incongruously The Noseshits. Hmmm. Choices.

Turkheim by the way has an incredibly quaint 16th century town centre, all bright pastel buildings and wooden frames, eccentric clock faces and shops full of tea towels, that sort of thing. Old town gates with rickety stairwells up the sides, a pub called Le Homme Savage, which was, at the moment I walked passed it blasting out Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler. Further down the street some kids were pumping trance classics out of their bedroom window and round the corner the ubiquitous French hip-hop also from some upstairs windows, somewhat reminiscent of La Haine. I enjoyed a bierre Picon in the backyard and was tricked into excitement by a Hummingbird Moth that fed on the pub flowers. I did not however, particularly enjoy the noseshits. The Accordion orchestra on the other hand were a bit fantastic.

Colmar and the burning

In this heat the Rhine flows the wrong way. I burn precious clothes in a tumble dryer and run out at noon, crossing little streams and out through the suburbs. I watch a Crane sweep the sky from the deep heat grass of a field, my fingers ripe red with Cherry juice.

In the morning I sit in the campsite in Turkheim for a little while, today is one of my shortest days, its only 5km or so to Colmar, I sit and watch an elderly Dutch campervan camper feed crisps by hand to one of the local Cranes. These birds are huge. Somewhat larger than swans with square wings like a herons. Atop the local church there is a nest built for them, a shallow dish like a giant tea light holder that they then fill with twigs and baby Cranes which are also massive and have an awful lot of trouble trying to stand up. Tourists gawk at them. So do I I guess. All the tourist shops sell little cuddly Cranes, or tea towels with Cranes on.  I set off down the river that runs through the town, the bakeries compete to sell me my breakfast and I eat bananas all along the footpath. Kids skate past on their way to school and I have to go for a piss beneath a very windy willow tree that nearly causes me some problems. The path arches round the local college and some vineyards that are sliced in half by the single train line. Kids playing truant, or perhaps high school dropouts hang about by the platform. I enjoy looking at all the tiny grapes just starting to take their forms. Pretty much at the end of these fields is the edge of Colmar. A huge dog untied lounges in a driveway and I hope to heaven it’s not the aggressive type due to its apparent freedom. Its placid and I scamper past onto roads looking for a route into Colmar. If I head directly east I shouldn’t miss the town centre. This sort of works. I buy thin socks and a clean t-shirt in a hyper marche on the skirt of town, one of massive places where the ceiling is miles away and you can’t really see the edges of the shop floor. Outside I eventually figure out that I can follow a small stream into the heart of town and find the tourist information after little effort. Then I find out where the hostel is and walk back the way I came only to find it doesn’t open for another hour. I sit down and eat the rest of my Comte and bread, drink all my water.

The hostel front man is a bit of an oddity, I am forced to buy a membership card and he kindly informs me that it is valid everywhere, even apparently, someone once told him, on the moon and into the depths of space. I am just relieved I’m allowed my own room, I further infuriate him by not wanting to pay for the breakfast because I don’t want to get up before 9am. Then I go off and buy a box of special K, which I eat for dinner and breakfast. The next day is the usual civilisation challenge, find a launderette, exchange traveller’s cheques and try and buy some more meths for my stove. These three things don’t quite go to plan. The launderette seems to be going well but after almost an hour of using the dryer my clothes are still decidedly wet due to the machines lack of heat, I switch to another machine which refuses to work so I try the third machine which does produce heat and does work. I am starting to feel like Goldilocks at this point, first too cold, then too hot. It then proceeds to produce far too much heat and burns all my precious base layers to high heaven, or perhaps hell is more fitting. They come out scarred and tight, very very tight. I am not very happy at all.

Something odd is going on in town, nearly all the shops are in the process of changing their window displays, naked mannequins stare across the street at each other. It’s a subtle but surreal little oddity. They have those big saucers for cranes to nest in here too and I join a gaggle of tourists near the cathedral to stare at some of this years brood attempting to stand on their gangly legs without falling out of the nest and down the side of the cathedral. Colmar is a beautiful place, a medieval city, all crooked buildings painted in Technicolor, eccentric buskers play bizarre little instruments wearing odd little hats to people enjoying bowls of ice cream on cobbled squares. Fountains here and there, a canal running through a part of town called little Venice. Houses that can only be reached by the water and a vague recollection of reading about one of the kings of France that hid in this quarter for a while.

The next morning I walk out of town at midday, through its centre and out east, and ah ha! The reason for the mannequins is explained to some extent. Like some cartel the entire town has started is summer sale on the same day! All the mannequins are now happily draped in red sale t-shirts and 50% off flags. But the entire town, in one go. I’m sure this doesn’t happen at home in quite the same way. Who knows? I don’t find any meths either though I do manage to change some traveller’s cheques. I leave town by way of the river I’ll that turns south for a while to run parallel to the Rhine that flows north to my surprise. I remember being a child and looking at maps, thinking that all rivers must run south because that’s kind of downhill, down the earth, how could rivers possibly run up the earth? On the banks I find a little spot that is for naturists though there are no naturists at the time I visit. I collapse in a field of deep grass under the midday heat, attempting to relax in the sun is a foolish idea when you have to get up and walk 20km with 20kg on your back.

The eccentricities of Louis XIV

Flat heat here, dead breeze. A Frenchman asks me where I’m going “Germany” I say in French. He grunts a bit and smiles, just points east. I follow his finger to Neuf Brisach. A conceptual military fortification built by Louis XIV built for mathematicians and battles, a web of triangles and deep trenches, 3 metre thick walls. Google Earth it.

I move on and at a roundabout a man in a car pulls over and, I assume, asks me where I’m going. Allemagne I declare. Germany’s quite close now so walking there is almost a normal thing to be doing. He grunts and points east. I follow his finger.

Neuf Brisach is the border town with Germany. It is a 17th century creation of Louis XIV’s, an eccentric example of a fortified town, a many pronged star constructed out of 30foot deep trenches and 3 metre thick walls. Walking into it felt like entering another world, I felt like a pilgrim nearing Rome, amazed that men could build such things. Geometry that is beyond my capacity to name.

Slept in the campsite here, arriving after office hours and leaving before them. Exiting town via the bakery at about 8am. By 10am I was sat in Germany outside a McDonalds opposite a Vineyard, long lines of traffic crawling either way. No border guards though, barely a border at all really, just a bridge from one side of the river to the other, one side in France, the other in Germany. I just walked in. Disappointing really, I was expecting a grilling from strict suspicious German border guards. And now the language change. I had been speaking half remembered, broken French for a month of so and now, in the space of a hundred yards I had to switch to German. I struggled with this, I really really struggled. And today was a long way. Into another city on the edge of the Black Forest.

Germany. Lost in Vineyards.

Across the Rhine, the border, no borders anymore, just McDonalds and Coca Cola. I climb through Vineyards in the heights above Oppfingen and lose myself in its veins.  Wine runs everywhere down the hills and Germany is not pushed to signposts. I find Frieburg the other side of a forest and sleep there for three days, struggling to change my mind to German.

The mind stuttered and stumbled like my feet. German sounds so aggressive, the compound adjectives that stretch on for oh so many syllables, literally compounding the problems of pronunciation. The border was easy, decorated with McDonalds, Coca Cola and grapevines, French people buying boxes of cigarettes. Streams of Harley Davidson’s heading for the Vosges and the soft cheeses. I followed a cycle path that followed the main road and I passed almost immediately the first of many allotments or Schrebergartens that Germany is somewhat famed for, maybe this fame was only really highlighted to me recently by Jeremy Dellars adventures in Muenster, but they certainly are neat and well used, little flags poking up here and there, a Swiss one a German one, one of the Schwarzwald area, or Baden-Baden. A pleasure. A little pond was nearby available for fishing but not for swimming, an impressive pedestrian bridge sweeps across the main road and Germany’s road signs are yellow, France’s were blue. Kilometres still though. The autobahn takes 24km to get to Frieburg from here, I plan to cut across the hills above Oppfingen and cut this distance a bit as I’ve already walked 10k this morning. I make for a village that may have been called Gundlingen and then pass down a track into a section of forest, just cutting east for the nearby hill line. Paths trace off to the left and right, I sit down for a spot of shade and listen to woodpeckers crack their way through the forest.

At the far edge of the forest a man emerges from the deep woods, I struggle to remember to say Guttentarg rather than Bonjour but he does not seem bothered about acknowledging my existence at all, a theme that will develop throughout Germany. I pass across some fields of maize to the main road that is gracefully small and follow it for a short way before trying my luck through the vineyards that cover the steep hill that protrudes before me. I sit beneath a cherry tree for a while before making this move through the vines that is definitely off any sort of path, the track I had followed dead ended at this cherry tree, it became field edges by grapevines. Stepped into the hills. I climbed from one step of vines to another, deep terraces with ladders in the corners for the vintners to utilise. The pack on my back trying to drag me off the ladders. The little baby grapes looking so eager under the sun.

I bring myself to a lane that cuts through the mess of vineyards and pass several unmarked junctions whilst climbing the hills. Fields left and right thick with grapes. Big men sat on small narrow tractors pass me by and I finally realise they are on little narrow tractors that can fit between the vines and spray their chemicals off the back. So many lanes, so many that seem to just dead end, it becomes a maze. At the crest of the hill I sit down, the landscape is almost check board for miles little houses poke out here and there, a large crucifix underneath one tree. Several little tractors puffing away like drones. A bench here in the sun, where I sit down for lunch, French bread, German soil. Apples from some far off land. Before me the whole of the black forest towers away, in the distant mug of heat I can see Frieburg nestled between the eaves of the wood, little towers. The hills climbing off to the south and east, steep and cloud topped, humid looking wet clouds.

Overlooking the Black forest, with French bread.

Swimming in Germany.

For the first time in ten years I swam in a swimming pool. A strange urge I confess. I saw a fork of lightening and immediately remembered every fork of lightening I have ever seen, for they are very few. I walk the medieval streets and lose myself blissfully among a dusty pile of vinyl.

I arrived in Freiburg long before I found the hostel I was planning to sleep in. The city is a spread out tram friendly, cyclist filled, country city often sited as one of the greenest cities in Germany, which makes it one of the greenest cities in Europe; all passive housing, healthy outdoor lifestyles and allotments. It also means that its quite wide and the Youth Hostel ‘in’ Freiburg is pretty much out the other side of the city, alongside the wide plains of the river that ploughs the city, one of those shallow fast flowing mountain jobs, clear as crystal and icy cold. But it’s hot today, really hot and my pack aches at my shoulders as I walk 7km across town, from one edge to other. The river runs through the heart of the city the highway running either side of it in a quirky set up. Trendy bars have gardens full of trendy healthy Germans; stretches of the river almost feel like East London, somehow.

I stay here for three days, sleeping mainly, occasional attempts at speaking German are made but they don’t really get very far. It’s hard to muster the enthusiasm and energy to do it as I’m only in the country for a few days really. On the foolish front I don’t take any photographs at all, I buy a pair of vintage shoes for 15euros, on the basis that they would cost me about £50 in London, and then I find the towns record shop, late on a Saturday afternoon. The double LP I buy (a 1959 recording of a conference hosted by Yves Klein in Paris limited to 500 copies) has to accompany me for the next 90km until I reach Switzerland and an open post office.

Freiburg is one of the greenest cities in Germany, trams trace their lines through the city on grassy beds, old cobbles line the streets and new build passive housing springs up everywhere. The city itself is built on thin flat sections between sudden sharp peaks that form the black forest, and every day, fork lightening strikes the streets, the heavy rains cause the shallow river to take on swift personality changes and I soak myself in the warm storm whilst cycling to the swimming pool. In this humidity I heal my blisters and sleep in a room with 20 other people, or barely sleep. I try and make notes but by now, by here, I am very detached from this process, very tired of documenting it, I just want to do it for a while, without having to think how I will later account for every second. And so I probably miss some things, there is no documentation of my shirt, slick and dripping, or the bike I rode around on, no evidence of my attempts at speaking German, no documentation of the sense of panic when I struggled to find somewhere to convert my final travellers cheque into cash, no documentation of a conversation I had with an elderly lady in the forest the day I walked out of town.

I left on a Sunday, morning sunlight, double LP slipped into my rucksack, and walked south out of town and straight into the forest, thick black eaves, dense foliage, along an arborial path that every now and then labelled the tree with its Latin and Germanic name, the forest busy with people. Nordic walkers, young runners, elderly couples, dog walkers, a large bunch of people doing some sort of dance with sticks, all kinds of energetic healthy people. Only the size of my pack and my inability to speak German really picked me out. The path wove up into the woodland, signposts poking off here and there, up and down, every now and then the path became a forest track thick with pine needles patterned like ripples on the sea floor from the recent thunderous downpours. My boots occasionally vanished under thick mud. The Germans, unlike the French, do not talk to strangers whilst walking, in fact they seem strongly to ignore you, as though you are ruining their attempts at solitude as they are ruining yours.

Two days there then a long day out.


I am tired of living with the insect kingdom. They are too efficient at eating blood, too omnipresent. One very nice shortbread jam cake thing, and a Dutchman called Jacob who span a good line in anecdotes and spent several years saving baby jackdaws who had fallen from the church tower. For years after he could visit the tower and call down his Jackdaws. I want my own friend; maybe I will make a Jackdaw army. The weather becomes clockwork. A rush of sun till 12, a rumble of thunder by 1 and a full storm by 3. Bright sun again by 6. At 2 one day, 5 cows get killed by lightening. At 3 I reach a strange fort, a ruin in the forest, at 4 German and Swiss people play golf beneath a giant thunderstorm. This seems foolhardy, and by 5 I can see Switzerland for the first time in 22 years, fork lightening striking its distant hills.

The weather spent the day being fairly threatening, I spent the day wondering how far I would get and where I would sleep, trying not to notice the no camping signs that could be found at the entrance to the Black Forest. The clouds rolled up and down the hills occasionally enveloping everything in a dense fug, the air was thick with bells resonating off the hills. A fancy 4 star hotel on the footpaths side hosts a car park filled with German, Swiss and French vehicle, the way the countries in Europe seem to overlap at the corners, freely blending together, mixing people culture, flavours, flora and fauna. I take the wrong path at some point and double back after a few kilometres, the first moments of uneasiness above the rapidly moving cloud line. Still Sunday walkers though, enough people for safekeeping.

Technically the peak of the Feldburg is somewhat out of the way for my route, just a few kilometres or so, and as I near it I conclude it really doesn’t look that exciting. Its one of those large bare nipples of a mountain, a rolling knobble, hard to define the actual peak. The Germans have also decorated it with heavy weather monitoring equipment, buildings painted like lighthouses, red and white stripes, satellite TV junkies, and deep brick. Its getting quite late in the day and I sit down on a little well used perch, just off the path at the edge of a deep and sudden precipice. Swathes of dead trees mingle with the living down the valley and the ghost of Caspar David Freidrich is everywhere.

I get to within 2km of the top of the Feldburg, at about 6pm, not knowing where I can sleep and just conclude, sod it; I’ll just go up and over the top and see what happens. The clouds sweep in heavily, and fast, cows are being moved across the mountain by locals who also run taverns built on the side of the peak. 3 other people are still up here walking about too. I think for some reason that they are English, but I never hear them speak. We head off the peak in different directions. The run of peaks off to the southwest from here, incomprehensible, atmospheric, deep with riches, no thunder today, too high for that humidity to climb. I keep to the south, the path is lined by poles three metres high, painted bright colours, I try and imagine the depths of the winter snow that necessitate them.

In a deep gorge to the south of the peak runs the mountain pass. Another of these winter sports destinations decimated by summer. Empty and silent. I look about for the hostel and find it, like some deserted hotel from a horror movie. I decipher a German note on the reception desk and dial 13, a young boy answers in German. From the guest book I decipher that there are three other guests that night, the place must be able to accommodate several hundred people at busy times, but for now, just three of us. I am a little bit alarmed and mainly exhausted but I have made tomorrows journey much shorter by getting past the Feldburg in today’s 36km hike. Breakfast is served between 8 and 9; I have to be out by 9.20. As there are only three of us one would have liked to think they could relax the rules just a little.

Morning rose clear blue, and at 10 am I warmed myself on an alpine bench like a lizard. The bus from Freiburg drove over the crest of the pass and unloaded a few day-trippers who vanished into the hills here and there. My path lay down hill for now, off

The south side of the black forest towards its largest lake. And as I descended the temperature rose, the clouds broke and the humidity built. I criss-crossed paths through the forest whose heavy silence was augmented with the deep subtle humming of a thousand bees, busy amongst the canopy. I sat a few times on the hillside, where the forest broke to display its distant sides, and watched the weather changing, the heat building humidity, the humidity building clouds and the weather tumbling across the vast sky. A small hut in the forest provided a mildly alarming place to rest for the cheese, bread and apple lunch before moving off out of the forest and down into the valley at the head of the lake. Some cows watched me eat an apple. The lake ran off for miles. And I watched the rain come in, speeding my footsteps to avoid its droplets. In the porch of someone’s summerhouse I hid from the worst of the rain as the first rumbles of thunder boomed around the rim of the Lakeside Mountains. Huge roars but little affect on the downpours. The rain came back though in a bit, and this time I perched on the beach, eating the remnants of some Brie with some disappointing bread from Freiburg. On the lake little fishing boats bobbed with hoods on, hiding the men with their rods trailing off the back. The path kept on down the lakeside, occasionally veering off to swing round some private boatyard. The rain never really got into it, but it never really went away either.

In Schluchsee itself I found a campsite that kept me company for two nights. As I woke up after the second I realised it was the first time I had camped for two nights in the one place. It made for a very messy tent. I got there some time just after 4oclock, that day’s thunderstorm was still booming around the valley and the occasional raindrop fell on me as I collapsed in a pile by my tent. The next day was officially a day off; I didn’t even have any laundry to do. I walked by the lakeside, read some books, ate a slice of cake in town, wrote a couple of postcards. It was almost like being on holiday. And as such, it went very fast. I cooked a couple of decent meals while there, the local shop in town providing a fantastic range of locally grown things and fresh produce. I ate yoghurts, which I always got really excited about; it’s the things you can’t carry that are the most exciting. Muesli as well, with fresh milk. For dinner.

On my second night I had agreed to have a drink with a camper called Jacob who was from the Netherlands. He gave me a small glass of spirit, and I’ve completely forgotten what it was called. I got a bit tipsy after one if I’m honest; it had been several weeks since I’d had any liquor whatsoever. He was a multi-lingual – he even got as far as a spot of Hungarian – Dutch man who was a dab hand at anecdotes. The previous night he had engaged some Lithuanian campers in conversation late into the night, and this evening it was my turn. He was a whole world of stories, something sad hung about him, he loved Jeff Buckley, and we sat there in the near dark as Hallelujah blasted out from his car stereo speakers, I think we both nearly cried, we also drew some strange looks from the rest of the campsite. I told him about my father dying, he told me about his wife leaving him to become a Buddhist.

Every year he rescued crows that had fallen from their nests in the church in his village in Holland. He would look after them and bring them up and then release them once more into the air. He could often visit the village church tower and call down his crow, ‘Arken, Arken!’ and Arken would swoop down and settle on his shoulder once more. This was particularly poignant for me, earlier that day I had come across a baby bird in the path down by the lake, it was just crouched, all shut eyed and trembling, initially I wondered whether anyone would be able to do anything for it and I thought of Jacob, even though he had not told me about his crows yet. I put the little bird up in a crook of branches knowing it must surely die. On my way back the little bird had fallen off again and was getting attacked by wood ants. With the heel of my shoe I put it out of its misery. I could not bring myself to tell Jacob what I had done.

The next day was a long hard slog to the border town Stuhlingen. I started at a sociable hour, getting on the path for maybe 9am; I had time to wave goodbye to Jacob and left him a copy of my business card in his camping chair. I don’t know whether he ever got it. I followed the lake shore up and round past the town, and through a pass at its southern end, all the peaks around the sides of the valley pass a 1000m, but they do not look so high. The lakeshore was my highest camp at 900m asl. I climbed over a pass and past what must be the highest brewery in Germany, Rothaus, is tiny wee village, seven houses, maybe a few more and a giant brewery building, emblazoned on the side is its gloriously dated logo, shiny copper towers, and a tour can be taken. I cross the road and dive off across a field heading for woodlands that weave past a tiny lake called Schluchtsee. This section is still arboretumised, little signs with information on bugs, beasts and all the trees, eccentric carvings appear on tree trunks, and the forest is full of insect friendly nesting boxes, bat boxes and bird boxes, an eagle swoops over an open field as a dog scampers off through the deep grass. I stop for a coffee near the tiny lake. Some naked German bathers below. Old wobbling flesh and a hollow instant coffee. The clockwork weather is winding up again, heavy clouds rumble darkly over the way. I get going down fire tracks, descending off the obvious routes down into sections of forest that feel primeval, that feel like they are just mine. I am so alone, I am so happy here. The heat is gentle under the shade. I feel in control of every millimetre of my body, I leap over fallen trees I sing out scraps of songs that hang in my head. The sound track to the Wicker Man, Casiotone for the painfully alone, the mountain goats ring out amongst the trees. That bench we sat together on a thousand years ago. My spine tingles. The stream beside me increases its size, I have followed it from its source, I cross it by a stone bridge and pass a crowd of elderly walkers, barbequing away. Its just hot heat now, open sky. The humidity’s rising. As I sit down on a high winding path to adjust my shoe, empty it of stones, the first raindrops fall, the first thunders crack.

I am stood now, on the edge of a forest and it feels like the edge of the forest, the borderline of a thousand thousand acres of solid forest, the first field for days, I cross it in trepidation, the aluminium on my back, the five dead cows, hit by lightening the other day. Five pregnant cows, struck down by lightening whilst sheltering under a tree, those bells around their necks, sucking the electricity down. I eat wild strawberries on the field edge, looking out across a skyline that must surely stretch to Switzerland. On this high plain I pass a golf course, how strangely suicidal I feel, forks of lightening are all around, striking the nearby hills, the clouds are billowing up so quickly you can watch them bubble up thousands of feet into the air, the storm like a sky from Hades. Vast ominous washes of thick grey. And little rich men holding sticks of metal in open fields. Adventure golf perhaps. Risk of death. Feeling like a long day now, only 26km but I’ve had enough.

At this final field, this final day of Germany, crossing into Switzerland the land becomes arable again and it feels like an accumulation of everything I have passed these days, the arable lands of northern France and southern England, the same crops, the fields of barley and wheat, that weird little bean plant, scare crows. A gibbet at a junction in the road and rare orchids in the eaves of a woodland. I walk down into Stuhlingen through some glorious broadleaf, trees snapped by the winds and the steepness of the gorge. I collapse in a campsite one last time. I say goodbye to my tent and Allemagne.

Over a bloody steep hill.

I sort of just walk over the border. I just walk in. Dissatisfied with the casualness of this I go back to the border and see if anyone wants to look at my passport. I point out the date and place of my birth but they do not need to stamp my passport anymore. The tranquillity of the 21st century. I walk into Switzerland. The sky is bluer here, the water clearer, the fish in the water look happier, the farmers smile, the dogs don’t bark, the shade seems cooler, the cherries more scarlet. And the hills, steeper. But for this thundery haze from this small peak I would be able to see the highest peaks in three countries. This glorious dappled light and these calm bees. I Walk down the hills under the shade of thunder clouds forks flash in my mind, too fast to see, I scuttle across the fields, aluminium strapped to my back. I walk into Schaffhausen, Switzerland. I sit down and I sit down and I sit down, And I sit.

Stuhlingen, Germany, is literally on the border, its just the other end of town, I wake up late, casual, look round town a little, picking up pickles and trying to find a plug converter. There are little footpath signs that have in km the distance to places like Schleitheim, Hemmental, and Schaffhausen; they all have a little (CH) in brackets after them. Confederatio Helvetica. Switzerland. This is as exciting as it is surreal, and as it is normal. I’m just going for a walk, just 20km or so, nothing too taxing, a hill in the way but really, I feel like a crow flying to whom borders are meaningless, a gesture that exists for maps and for language but matters little to rivers, or to trees, the air or the birds. Walking flattens nations, disempowers them. I just walk in. The border guards are busy talking to a man in a Jaguar and I just walk in. This is certainly unsatisfactory. I want someone to notice me for once, so I turn back and go and knock on the little door of the booth. They notice my place of birth and the date, I ask for a stamp in my passport but they don’t even have a stamp anymore, only airports or international trains they explain. Their English is excellent, they wish me a happy birthday and a good days walking. I make for the beginning of my route, the town of Schleitheim, then Hemmental, then Schaffhausen over the hill line. I follow the road for a couple of kilometres, breathing easily, wave at a few farmers in a few fields, tending vineyards, it is hot, the sky is a crisp clear blue rising forever. The buildings have an air of age to them, the traditions of the place seep out of the very ground.

I had forgotten, really, that Swiss-German is an entirely separate language. At a shop I visit in Schleitheim the people in the shop smile so warmly, they say words that are incomprehensible to me, but that feel honest and welcoming. I buy yoghurt, a small lump of Gruyere and an apple and a banana. I walk through the village; the wealth adorning its church spire, glittering, the multicoloured tiles that pattern the roof. Past a farm on the edge of the village I sit in a small orchard no fences, in the shade of a cherry tree, rich with fruit, smothered in wasps. I eat the yoghurt, rich deep cream. I eat handfuls of cherries bursting with juice. I watch an eagle circle the sky from here across to Germany. Back and forth. The clouds build across the border. But this crisp blue holds above me. I turn to climb the hill beyond. The Randen range, a small line of steep edged mountains, just beneath the 1000m mark. Just hills here. But the steepest hill I have climbed, it rises 300m in little over 1 km, up through broadleaf, birches and beeches, oaks, the dappled light glints off my sweat drenched forearms. I have to down tools several times, using my rucksack as a seat. It gets so steep it switchbacks and turns to rocky paths. Loose white stone, that shatters into jagged shapes so easily.

The peak of the hill is still crowned with trees, no breaks for a view, however, the Swiss have built a high tower that reaches 20 metres to above the tree line so people can see what they can see. It is a spiral of metal stairs with viewing platforms at halfway and the peak. Etched metal maps of all the peaks you could see were it not for this thundery haze. The Matterhorn, Mont Blonc, The Feldburg, The Great Ballon. The Swiss Alps, the French Alps, the black forest and the Vosges. I look into that haze. I crossed the Vosges in three days, I spent five days in the black forest, and I will visit the alps ere I leave this place. I have amazed myself. I have tortured myself too.

Just the other side of the peak is a campsite Swiss style. A place for picnics and barbeques, there is a tipi, little stools carved to look like mushrooms positioned round campfires, a bus timetable, no road, picnic benches that could seat a hundred youngsters. I sat in the tipi for a moment before moving on through the forest, down a track, one white rock in my pocket. I look at places on google earth and cannot believe I walked through them, a small gathering of fields just past the forest, incongruously called Chesterfield, where forks of lightening flashed quickly through the sky, and I made for the shelter of the forests. I still burst out laughing with disbelief even now. I sat on a bench for a while there, listening to the roar of thunders, booming all around but no raindrops. All I want to do is be there again. This forest track turns into a road and this road turns into Schaffhausen, I pass through its outskirts, little kids with uniform rucksacks make their way home from school, its that time of day, it has not rained a drop. I turn for the way that I think will lead me to a youth hostel, and it does, some eccentric castle of a youth hostel, turrets on the corners, gable windows, ping pong tables, an excellent little coffee machine and the kind of staff I could have kissed.

I was exhausted, they put me in a dorm room, and they did not put anyone else in my dorm room, they did my laundry for free. I told them I had walked out from London 6 weeks ago, and that I had walked nearly 700km since then. That I had had to admit defeat in parts of France taking 2 train rides to keep me on schedule, that I had failed, but that I had succeeded in something. Their English was immaculate, I could even mumble a little. I sat down in my room in love with my arrival.

In a small room in North Wales, heavy silence. The only interruptions a solitary bluebottle fly, circling from door to window and back again, a fizz of buzzing every time it comes up against the glass panes and the occasional play for attention from a Border Collie called Quinn. I am home again, in a different place, and will begin my attempts to fill in the past with coherent descriptions and photographs that were collected across Europe over the past 6 weeks, the past 600 kilometres or more. I find myself, between moments, sat in the midst of north Wales, reading a book devoted to Hackney whilst trying to recall the fine details of what happened whilst I was walking to Switzerland. Somewhere I am trying to weave together this trio of locations that have all, somehow, come to define large parts of me.

It has taken me weeks now, to get used to being back, London is still proving exhausting, the constant barrage of people. I return to the countryside often.

Within the borders.

Everything changed inside Switzerland really. I was joined in Schaffhausen by artists Ben Connors and Laura Wilson from London who were to travel with me for the final few days to St. Gallen. The walk in many ways ended with their arrival, it became something else, though there was one final leg of the journey that I completed on my own after their departure.

In short we took a boat down the Rhine from Schaffhausen to Konstance in Germany on the shores of the Bodensee and then took a short train ride round the lake into St. Gallen, arriving on the 6th of July. Upon our arrival to St. Gallen we instigated the first round of Performances now known as The St. Gallen School of Performance. The School is to reconvene on the streets of London in September 2009.

We ate Fondue for lunch in St. Gallen and then Ben left for Zurich and eventually London. Laura left Zurich on the 9th of July and I then returned to St. Gallen for the final leg of my journey. Throughout the process of this walk in the past two years I have been in communication with a family I have never met, the family who currently live at the house I was born into in Engelburg on the outskirts of St. Gallen. On the afternoon of July 9th 2009, I walked out from St. Gallen to Engelburg to finally meet them, walking down the track that leads through the village from the house to the bakery.

I am nervous as I type this, as I recall this family, this experience. I want to do them justice and yet not invade their life anymore than I already have. I felt so privileged and honoured by the way they welcomed me into their home, and into their family in the subsequent days. Two years ago I wrote them a letter explaining my project, this insane venture, and they responded in an elegant and simple letter, that though they were currently doing some extensive house renovations I would be welcome to stay a week with them. In many ways it is this response that led me to feel that I had to try and walk there, that I owed it to them, to their hospitality to get there. I walked across a field talking to my mum on the phone, explaining I had found the track between the house and the bakery, which was about the only thing she could recall about how to find the house, a young couple were stood in the back garden smiling, waving, or maybe they were just stood their quite nervously, its all a bit of a blur to be honest.

I took a track between houses to get to the front of the house and a small fleet of children ran into me at the corner, giggling and following me in a little troop to the house. As I walked into the driveway Tunc (pronounced Tunch), the man of the house as it were, said “Welcome home”. I can’t remember how I reacted, I think I laughed a great deal, or smiled on the edge of laughter. I think we were all as nervous as each other. They showed me to my room, which was the room my brothers occupied when we were children. I should mention here that Erika, the family’s grandmother, bought the house off my mum, though my mum can’t remember this, Erika had me t me and my brother when we were children. She met me when I was a baby. This whole situation was the most surreal, the most amazing experience I have ever constructed for myself. The family made up of Erika, Tunc & Mirium and their two children Lara and David (a Welsh name, I rapidly noted in my mind) became the most amazing experience I think I’ve ever enjoyed as a member of the human race. We had raclette for dinner, I was relieved it wasn’t a sausage based meal and Mirium had for some reason suspected I was vegetarian, maybe its because I’m an artist, maybe its because I walked a lot, I’m not sure. Piles of melted cheese and grilled vegetables. Birthday cake for pudding. (Yes, they cooked me a birthday cake!) That evening we went through photo albums and talked in broken English translated between us by Tunc.

I stayed with the family, in their home, for two days and in this time explained my plans for Switzerland. I wanted to visit the other Engelberg (note subtle spelling difference) deep in the Alps and also wanted to visit a family friend in Solothurn. I had planned to do this on my own, but the family insisted, they were on holiday for the summer and I was their guest, their sister lived near Engelberg so we would travel together. I walked, 650km or so, to a house full of complete strangers, who welcomed me into their family, and then took me on holiday around Switzerland. I didn’t know what to say, I’ve never said sorry and thank you so much in my life. I felt so cheeky, so grateful, and so sorry to have invaded their life, so touched by their generosity. So we drove to the Alps together. I sat in the back with their kids Lara and David and we played travel games together, lacing little jigsaw cubes together into brightly coloured masses. The kids were better at this than me, they were more tenacious, or just better, I don’t know. Whatever it all was, it was all amazing, I feel like they adopted me for a while, like I have annexed myself to their family or that they have annexed me to theirs. I look forward to seeing them again, to welcoming them to Britain one day. Or their Children, or their children’s children, there is a generational debt between us, I owe them and am forever grateful for what they showed my between the places on the map in Switzerland.

All images and text © Bram Thomas Arnold 2009

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