A 21st Century Pilgrim Passing through Sussex by Nigel Bentley
It was a chance meeting in Milton Street that brought me to chat briefly with Jean-François Aillet. Our exercise group members were just leaving our fitness studio to head for homes, on Tuesday afternoon of the second week of April. Out of the shadows along the lane appeared a colourful trolley with a sun-shade canopy on four metal masts … and above all a display of red flags.
Thus, we met Jean-François, pushing his Medical Walker or ‘Veloped’, along the lane towards us … and so towards the A27. We did wonder what it was! The days of itinerant knife sharpeners, onion sellers or organ grinders are generally a couple of decades into our past.
Jean-François stopped and we chatted. I took a couple of photographs of the Pilgrim with his BALTICA-ATLANTICA craft … and in so doing passed on advice that he best not try to push the ‘Veloped’ along the A27 heading towards Polegate, at least not until he reaches Wilmington, where pavement begins!
So, a chance encounter and after two or three minutes Jean-François turned in the lane and headed back the way he had come. Ever since, I have been following this Pilgrim’s Progress via his facebook blog … complete with so many pictures. He also has his website where you can find out more ~ www.aillet.com.
Jean-François describes himself as : a Pilgrim, walker, sculptor and designer; certainly also a writer and photographer. He is in the second of a three-year walking pilgrimage of Europe, that he has styled as ‘BALTICA ATLANTICA’. He will be completing 15,000 km through 17 countries, and all to the rhythm of the walk, pushing a Medical Walker of Swedish-manufacture. He has also been collecting the sands of the seas of the world ~ for his Solitary Tides Project. To that end he is also now presenting The Cube … containing 1,000 small specimens of sands from around the beaches of the world. He lives a seemingly nomadic life, or has done for the last couple of years ~ and in his lifetime has hitched and travelled in various ways around much of Europe covering approaching 60,000 km by his records.
He is evidently a deep thinker, who analyses what he finds along the way; and a scientist in love with our earth and its nature.
Jean-François is a very modern-day Pilgrim, armed not only with a staff and a scallop shell, but also with his ‘Medical Veloped’ designed and made in Sweden ~ a company from Stockholm. This craft is now kitted out as if to sail the seas, with masts, flags, a canopy, steering ropes, and a decking to carry not only his luggage, bivouac, food, essentials and water, but also ‘The Cube’ that was held by an astronaut (Jean-François CLERVOY ~ a veteran of three NASA Space Shuttle missions) and passed on to Jean-François, our Pilgrim. The Cube alone weighs in at about 25kg … to be pushed along, and up, and down his route! Jean-François also has his Pilgrim Passport, that records his pilgrimage formally, for the special sites he has visited, or the established trek routes completed.
The Cube contains 1,000 small phials of sand from beaches around the world. Many he has collected himself, others were donated to his ‘Solitary Tides Project’ from a vast collection held by research scientist, Stéphane Besnard ~ stored in a loft and donated to Jean-François … as a mass of boxes containing 30 or so plastic bottles each.
So, back in April, one month ago, Jean-François left us, and left Milton Street via Back Lane and headed up The Butts (byway), sloping sharply up to reach The Street. This was his amended route to bring him more safely to Wilmington village! There he was captivated by the Church, the Long Man and the Priory remnant. That afternoon and into early evening Jean-François explored and photographed the church with the yew tree, in particular. He then retired to the Giants Rest for his supper (a trend I noticed to be still popular as he journeyed eastwards a few days later!). Such interludes give a chance to meet local people, to talk and to consider the philosophy of regions and countries, and their peoples.
His pilgrimage has involved him with not only cathedrals already in several countries, but also the small local churches. His route started in 2017 from Valencia … heading west across Spain, via Madrid to Santiago; and then north on the Santiago de Compostela route. He pushed the Veloped north following the ancient Camino Way in reverse, up through the Pyrenees on its link into France.
He completed his wanderings for 2017 back at his home ~ spending last winter in Basse Normandie.
On April the 1st this year, he resumed with a ferry crossing into Portsmouth. When we met him he was several days into his eastwards traverse of the English south coast, heading gradually towards Ashford and then Canterbury (a key part of his pilgrimage) and then to Dover before heading on … but sufficient background, I believe.
In Wilmington he found not only the church and the Giants Rest pub, but the following morning he met a lady he came to call his ‘new mum’; and she served him with at least once splendid full English Breakfast at her home. Photographs of that breakfast prepared by ‘Margaret of Wilmington’ appeared on Jean-François’ facebook blog; and his many friends from around the world were in awe of what they saw. Margaret may well have other travellers pitching up to see her in the hope of similar fare in the years to come!
Our Pilgrim stayed in the vicinity of Margaret’s garden, I believe, for a further two nights before heading off again on his travels. Since the middle of April we have been following him on Facebook. From Wilmington over the next three to four days he headed along the coast to Bexhill and Hastings; eventually arriving at Ashford before heading north up to Canterbury.
In Canterbury Jean-François received special recognition of his pilgrimage, a certificate and special marks or stamps on his Pilgrims Passport. From there south to Dover over several days ~ meeting yet more interest and welcomes, drinks and meals bought for him of an evening, and invitations to pitch his bivouac on private ground. Quite often he has set up his bivouac for a night in churchyards as well, faithfully photographing the particulars and sculptures of the church.
I believe the current pilgrimage he’s involved with will see him reaching Stockholm by late summer to early autumn of this year. There he will overwinter; running an exhibition and conferences as well as writing to support himself through the winter. For 2019, he will resume his Pilgrimage of the coasts of Europe in travelling through a small section of Finland and then down through Poland and the Baltic countries before heading south across Europe to reach Italy. From there, the plan is take a ferry to Sardinia; and so further ferries to the Balearics, before finishing back in Valencia.
This is a three year, mammoth walk-project : and I can report that now, at the end of the first week of May, our Pilgrim has travelled not only through France but now completed his journey to the north-east along the coast of Belgium; and within the last day or so has arrived in the Netherlands.
It has to be said that he was REALLY impressed with the welcome received in most countries along the way, particularly so in England, and in his home country of France … and he loves it now he’s back in Holland. However, he was not fond of Belgium in the same way; although he loved the sculptures all the way along the coastal strip. He did not have much to say of ‘good’ regarding Belgium, or the Flemish in particular : mentioning a complete lack of welcome or interest in his venture; little or no fellowship received, hand shakes offered etc.; and so in complete contrast to almost everywhere else.
In this year, still to come his passage through Germany and the coast of Denmark, over ‘The Bridge’ & then through southern Sweden to Stockholm.
Bonne route, Jean-François.
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