My poor parents watched my ponderous preparations with undisguised gloom. I had told them that I would only see them again after I had encircled the globe.
Then at last, like Laurie Lee, ‘I walked out one midsummer morning’. It was among the hottest days (7th August 1975) on record, reaching 35°C (96°F). I was accompanied for the first couple of miles by my parents and their cairn terrier, Brenny. From the stile into Merryhill Lane I shed a tear or two as I watched them wend their way back across Bushey Fields. My Mum and Dad looked so old, and yet my father was a year younger, and my mother eight years younger than I am now!
I walked over Bushey Heath to the Holly Bush at Elstree, where I ate my mother’s last sandwiches and had a pint. From there, becoming increasingly dehydrated, I crossed the M1, passed through Edgware, Hendon and Golders Green, made my way across the parched brown grass of Hampstead Heath, Regent’s Park, Hyde Park and Green Park, went over Westminster Bridge and so arrived at Tabard Street in Southwark. I had chosen this destination for my first days walk because it was from the Tabard Inn, long since no more, that Chaucer’s pilgrims set out. I would be following the Pilgrim’s Way for much of my route to Canterbury. (In fact pilgrims from London, as opposed to those from Winchester, would have gone straight down the old Roman Road through Rochester – now the A2 – but I wasn’t too worried about detail!) That evening was spent in Clapham saying a final goodbye to my girl-friend, Ann. On my way out of London the next day I was sorely tempted to become ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’!
To keep this part of my story in proportion I am going to have to hurry on. If you missed my talk on this adventure and/or want to know more, you’ll have to invite me again! I got to Dover in just under a week and took the ferry to Boulogne. From there I walked via Montreuil, Amiens and Beauvais to Paris. One night I set up my tent in what I thought was a field. In the morning, hearing cars coming from every direction, I looked out to find I was in the middle of a roundabout!
I reached Notre Dame in the middle of a thunder storm fifteen days after leaving Watford. My idea was to stay in France for a maximum of two months, possibly helping with the grape harvest. I ended up working in a Catholic hostel for ‘young ladies’ and staying until the following spring! My duties included serving breakfast to these nymphs, often still in their negligees, working as a barman at lunchtime, when the restaurant was open to the public, and guarding the door, once rather ineffectively against a CRS riot policeman, at night. I established myself in a ‘chambre de bonne’ (attic room) in the 12th arondissement and supplemented my income by giving English lessons. I enrolled on a course in ‘French Civilisation’ at the Sorbonne and was thereby committed to staying until well into the new year.
How can I summarise my time in Paris? Well, it was magical and it was painful. I had two serious girl-friends. Panny, a fellow-student at the Sorbonne, was Thai, had long black hair down to her bottom and, having lived in America, spoke English well. She was the driving force in the relationship, but I grew very fond of her. She was eventually ordered home by her parents and wrote me long heart-rending letters for some time after. I believed Claire, who was French, to be my ideal, but somehow we got in a terrible muddle and it was a relief when the time came for me to leave. On the other hand, living and breathing Paris for the best part of a year, and becoming quite competent in French, was a liberation. I had acquired a new identity.