In which half of France is conquered, though not without sacrifice

Paul Holder July 31 at 1:31pm

I am now in Clermont-Ferrand, taking a much needed day off. It’s about 30 degrees centigrade outside, so nice not to be out in it today avec le sac! This marks roughly the halfway point across France; and hopefully about a quarter of the overall trip. So far I’ve notched up 331.74 miles, and my body is furious at me. Main problems are my lower left back (bag is starting to buckle and all the weight is falling that side), and my right knee (can’t straighten leg or put too much weight on it). Anyway, that is all quite irrelevant, as I’m in no way prepared to stop. In fact the past couple of days have been the best so far. I feel broken in, like a well groomed stallion or a good pair of loafers.

So, the interesting stuff. I left Limoges last Sunday morn (25th). The terrain changed quite drastically from there on in. For about four days I was pretty much constantly climbing, and open countryside gave way to dense forest, increasingly of the pine variety. And cows, HUGE COWS. This was the Limousin region; a vast and remote area bang in the middle of France. In the six days it took me to walk from Limoges to Clermont-Ferrand, the largest habitation I went through was Aubusson, a small town of about 5000 people, famous for its tapestries (of which I successfully saw none). The path I took across this region was so remote – I only recall meeting one other walker in the first three or four days – and there were times when I went the best part of the day without seeing anybody. I didn’t really feel lonely; it was peaceful, and though I struggled for a couple of days with the weight and the heat and the constant upwardness, the landscape always seemed to keep me on an even keel. It’s impossible to describe how safe and right you feel when you wake up in a soft wet forest to the sound of woodpeckers. Try it.

By the fifth day, lakes had started to appear quite frequently, and I began wondering if I had accidentally strayed off course into Alaska. And then the mountains came into view. Between me and Clermont-Ferrand, there was a chain of extinct volcanoes (this is the area that Volvic comes from),which form the beginning of the Massif Central, and they became visible through the trees from about 25 miles away.

Seeing them gave me a whole new lease of life. Although I knew it would be back breaking work, I resolved to scaling one of them, and me being me I settled on the tallest, Puy de Dome. So on the fifth night I camped at the bottom of the final ascent to the summit, about 900 metres above sea level, and then in the morning made my play for the peak.

It was agonising, and the temperature soared that day, but as I climbed above the tree line, the vistas that opened up invigorated me. From the top, 1464 metres above the sea where I began a little over two weeks ago, it seemed like I could see for hundreds of miles (I’m sure it wasn’t that far, but let me dream, ok?). I looked back into the West and I think my spirit went another 1000 metres up. I had just walked across ALL of that.

Truly it is impossible to convey how strong and able I felt. I stayed up there for a couple of hours, knowing that moments like this come rarely in a lifetime, before making the descent and staying on a campsite, where I washed for the first time in six days (and made slightly too much pleasurable noise as I swam in the pool). And then this morning I walked into Clermont-Ferrand.

I have a lot of time to think. Mostly, my mind doesn’t wander far beyond the necessities of the immediate moment (where can I pitch the tent, have I got enough water, is that farmer pointing his 12 bore at me), but in the early morning, as I am walking into the sun – for my path is ever eastward – I seem to be in some sort of heady philosophical mood. I won’t bore you with all of it, even if my ego wants to, but the important thing I really want to tell you all is this: We are highly adaptable creatures. Within a very short space of time, we can become familiar and comfortable within almost any given situation and set of circumstances. And the feeling that this adaptability brings when given the right to roam is one of strength, and assurance, and readiness. Only we don’t allow this aspect of ourselves to surface often. It is only frightening before you begin a voyage into the unknown. Every step thereafter is successively bolder and brighter. I’ve never been less afraid in my whole life. I’m not sure if any of this makes any sense, and I’m sure it sounds totally pompous, but I mean it. Push yourselves and be amazed at what comes out.

Thank you for all those who have donated since I last checked. It means so much to me, and you have done something positive for our world. The total is £921.15 – PLEASE chip in what you can to those of you who haven’t yet

Love

Paul – The Feral Boy xxx

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