Pilgrimage Cycle Ride to Paris Phase 1, 29-31st August 2015
Many yellow T-shirts on the Westminster Cathedral Piazza, many bikes and a few banners, singing and speeches were the noisy start to our Pilgrimage to Paris. After months of preparation it was hard to believe the morning had come at last.
Fr Joe Ryan and I had discussed the project of a cycling pilgrimage to Paris for nearly a year. We had worked on the environment for 10 years, with study days, environment statements and workshops. The disappointment of the 2009 Copenhagen Conference meant that the Paris talks would not be approached with such high hopes. On the positive side Pope Francis had just issued his inspiring encyclical, Laudato Si’, calling for all to collaborate to save ‘Our Common Home’. We thought something dramatic was needed – something like a 250 mile cycle ride to the UN talks themselves.
So we were taking to the road a few months ahead of the Paris talks to begin to raise awareness of their importance. We need to collaborate with the 193 UN countries as never before, not only to agree on strategies to reduce our carbon footprint, but to find a way to finance world development with renewable and not fossil fuel energy. We would follow the Avenue Verte, a cycle way which on the English side links up the National Cycle Network paths, and on the French side uses old railway tracks through Normandy and canalways into Paris.
The planning involved trips to France, which were not in the least restful: 3 of us from Justice and Peace attended the Pax Christi France study day on the environment and made contact with campaigners we hope to link up with later in the year, and booked some accommodation for the winter trip. A second trip followed the Avenue Verte route as far as is possible when a car tries to follow an off-road track! We called on parishes asking for accommodation on the way. All of this of course had first to be done on the English side, which involved much good exercise, and could even be called ‘work’ outside the office …
Then we needed cyclists, money, publicity, not to mention bikes and proper clothing. Judging who could ride a 35 distance every day was tricky. Enthusiasm needed to be matched by training and a good bike. Bikes were lent, serviced, adjusted. Two practice gatherings took place, though in retrospect there should have been more! St John Vianney Parish did a great job raising money, helping order Tshirts, and producing the pilgrim handbook.
Finally, who came? The Justice and Peace staff of course, Fr Joe Ryan and myself, along with volunteer Catarina Dias. David Murray, a CAFOD volunteer from Surrey and experienced cyclist, John Fogarty and Ama Owusu-Afriye from Welwyn Garden City, Fr Tom O Brien from Hitchin, Tim Devereux and his brother Chris from the Movement for the Abolition of War, a mother and her son, Jacky and Ben all the way from Chester, who had cycled to Copenhagen 6 years earlier, Fausta Valentine from Pax Christi, Katrina McGrath, a teacher from Acton, Chi Gadziekwa from Tollington Park and of course our great support team, David and Liz from St John Vianney Parish West Green, and Hygenus Valentine, husband of Fausta.
Day 1 was the ‘urban’ trek, through the suburbs stopping first at Carshalton, where we had a great welcome lunch provided by the parishioners of Holy Cross Parish. On to the North Downs, where some of us had trouble getting up some fearsome hills, and a ‘whoosh’ down to Redhill, and Horley English Martyrs parish for evening Mass. Alas the rain had started and we dripped over the pews, glad to get dried and warm at the Gatwick Travelodge. Catarina’s bike packed up: a seat that wouldn’t fix, and no bike shops to hand.
Day 2: Fr Tom and Ama had had to leave from Carshalton and Katrina McGrath left us for the day, to attend a family function so we were a smaller number on Sunday morning. I had been asked to tell the parish at our next destination more about our aims, so Catarina borrowed my bike for the morning and Hygenus took me to St Thomas of Canterbury Parish Church at Mayfield, East Sussex, where I was asked to talk during the sermon slot. Most people were delighted to hear of our venture, though I was told one person had muttered, ‘What has this to do with religion?’ ! Katie Treherne, ( a lot of Katie/Catarina/Katrina’s in this account!) a parishioner who was my contact here, had arranged for us to stay at Mayfield Girls’ School, and introduced me to the Head and Deputy. I hope to go back to the school to talk to students about our venture at some point shortly.
The main group had discovered the lovely cycle tracks of Worth Way and Forest Way, though lost their way shortly after Horley: some people can’t manage without a satnav! Joining the group at lunchtime at a lovely village pub, I had the harder part of the ride to come. We struggled up 2 or 3 continuous hills for 4 or 5 miles back to Mayfield, a ride which sorted the average from the serious cyclist (I was definitely of the ‘average’). At Mayfield we had been generously allocated the Junior Boarding House, with our own catering facilities. Alas Tim had to leave us (his brother had left earlier). Keen cyclists, they had contributed a huge amount of moral and technical support. Our efficient back-up team got busy cooking up spaghetti Bolognese by the time we emerged cleaner and less smelly from our rooms. Teachers Sarah and Elizabeth came to visit, as did Katie, our friendly parishioner, and her family. We couldn’t have had a warmer welcome.
Day 3: The super-efficient Katrina arrived by 8am, having left Acton at an ungodly hour, and we set off on the last stage, via Heathfield, the Cuckoo Trail, Polegate and Seaford to Peacehaven. Leaving in heavy rain, we cycled or plodded up steep hills to Heathfield, We relied on Katrina and John Fogarty to lead and bring up the rear of our group, and it became clear that we would need some discipline in how we approach the Paris ride, as different cycling speeds can be difficult to coordinate. I had promised a delightful tea stop at the Arlington Tea Rooms near the Cuckmere Valley but on this Bank Holiday Monday it was closed, dank and dripping. In compensation the next stops mostly revolved around food. We dripped instead at the Berwick Station Inn, consuming huge slabs of chocolate cake, Katrina urging us, ‘Get some calories into you!’ We needed little persuasion here, nor at the fish and chip restaurant in Seaford, and nor at the Parish of the Immaculate Conception at Peacehaven, where Emilia, the Justice and Peace rep, and Margaret and another dozen parishioners, had prepared a cream tea, of gigantic size.
Successes and Lessons to learn!
Nine of the original 14 achieved the full 100 miles, whether cycling or walking! The support vehicles did a great job backing up the ride with supplies, taking the bikes of those who couldn’t manage the whole distance, providing first –aid and carrying all bags and belongings between stops. The welcoming parishes were wonderful: Carshalton, Mayfield and Peacehaven. During the actual riding, we were not as good at sticking together, or getting up all the hills. More training rides are necessary. Some of us also needed more rainproof clothing, though one experienced cyclist said he wouldn’t bother with rainwear at all: ‘You just get wet, then dry off!’ Another aspect we need to brush up on is our communications. An ongoing blog of the ride would have been desirable. We will do this on the Paris run. We will be reviewing our requirements for the ride to Paris. This summer expedition provided an excellent trial run for this, and we will build on it to make it even better.