If walking from Tergnier to Laon after having had a rest day in Laon sounds a bit back to front, then it is. Remember Day 34, when, because there was nowhere to stay overnight in Tergnier we got the train to Laon? We then took a rest day, and then had to get a train back to complete the route.

Having left most of their contents in our hotel room in Laon, our rucksacks were considerably lighter as we set off. What luxury! What can we throw out to make them feel like this every day?

The luxury of a lightened load

The weather was perfect for what was to be the longest day of our pilgrimage so far. With more than 35 km to walk in the day, the combination of sunshine, a light wind and reduced loads was just what we needed.

The route took as through La Fere, and the small villages of Andelain and Bertaucourt before climbing up onto the Saint Gobain massif and the extensive Foret Dominiale where we spent most of the day. In Andelain there was some substantial work being done on the church, though we suspect it would not have got past a Diocesan Advisory Committee had it been at home, looking at the modern machined roof tiles!

Just after that we walked past a farm where cows in a shed were being fed through hatches by one young man on a tractor, whilst a second young man was closing the hatches. This may explain why we haven’t seen any cows out in fields but have seen notices about dairy farming. Julie was horrified by the factory conditions – a way of working which her parents would never have countenanced! Every calf was hand reared, named, and cherished as an individual for life. Needless to say her parents didn’t get rich, but they did inculcate a love and respect for the natural environment and all creatures living in it which seems to be missing from much of modern farming.

Walking between villages

Having left the villages behind we walked through fields towards the edge of the Foret Dominiale de St Gobain in glorious sunshine. By now the wind had dropped and it was becoming very warm for an April day, so some layers of clothing and woolly hats came off.

Heading towards the Foret Dominiale de St Gobain

Despite large fields of rape in full flower, we saw not one pollinating insect when they should surely have been buzzing but for the use of chemicals sprayed onto crops to keep them weed and pest free. Another agricultural practice which is unsustainable because it is destroying our natural environment. How does the oilseed rape get pollenated if there are no pollenating insects around when it’s on flower?

Entry into the forest looked reasonably benign, but in fact there were several quite long and steep climbs to get us up onto the ridge. We were very glad not to be carrying full rucksacks.

Gaining height above the surrounding farmland

We were intrigued by a couple of caves in the forest, but there was nothing marked on any of our maps and no information boards about them – though there was information about other features of the forest. Both caves looked viable as refuges for pilgrims struggling with this long day section of the VF but who constructed them, when, and for what purpose remains a mystery.

One of the caves hollowed out of the hillside

Other features of interest in this area include several ruined abbayes, presumably destroyed during the Revolution, and evidence of sand quarrying for making glass. St Gobain is, of course, one of Europe’s biggest makers of glass, and this Tertiary sandstone is where it has its origins.

Benedictine Abbaye de Saint-Nicolas-aux-Bois

Several hours later we had crossed to the other side of the forest where the trees were smaller but still too dense to allow views, but the walking was easy going on good tracks which contoured along the hillside.

By late afternoon we were back off the ridge, down into agricultural land and walking between small villages. In Cessieres a very kind woman working in her garden refilled our water bottles for us. We had foregone filling them at a spring in the forest, only to find there was an isolated house just above it, no doubt with septic tank sewerage!

Tom made a bit of a mess of our map reading on the way out of Cessieres and so we had to retrace our steps, wasting about 20-30 minutes. On catching sight of Laon cathedral in the distance we should have realised we should be walking towards it!

Laon cathedral visible from miles around

The last part of the walk was a long slog along minor roads to the edge of town, and then what felt like endless pavement bashing to get back to our hotel, exhausted but glad to have survived such a long day!

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