About the Author - Terry Cudbird

Terry and Liz relaxing after a strenuous day’s walking
Terry and Liz relaxing after a strenuous day’s walking

I have had a passion all my life for walking and for France. After reading history at Cambridge and studying French history as a postgraduate student I embarked on a career in retailing, specializing in buying and marketing. In my fifties I found time to undertake some longer treks, notably in Tibet. I started my tour of France on foot after retiring from full time employment.

What made me walk around the circumference of France? Such a project quickly becomes an obsession. You set off for all sorts of good reasons but then the drive to complete the journey becomes an end in itself. I enjoy poring over maps, calculating distances and making timetables. The best sound in the world is the clunk click of the buckles when I actually put on my rucksack. It means the freedom to go where I want, to dream my own dreams and escape the complications of everyday life. Walking alone has been a voyage of self-discovery.

Perhaps the greatest attraction of walking long distances is that you are constantly exposed to the unexpected. However much you read in advance and study the maps, the landscape is full of surprises. It is never quite as you imagined it. Most important I would never have enjoyed so many unexpected encounters with unusual and fascinating people. All had an interesting story to tell about their lives, their homes and contemporary France. My walk showed it is possible to have an adventure without travelling to the ends of the planet and adding to global warming.

I am not a super fit professional explorer and I was not trying to join the ranks of those who have crossed vast stretches of impossible terrain in record time. I divided the circumference of France into a series of walks, usually about a month in length, and took a break between each one. Like many of us I have family responsibilities and taking a whole year off to roam around France would have been an impossibility. Adventure can be fitted into the pattern of everyday life.

By walking around the outside I wanted to experience the extraordinary diversity of the country, the characteristics of the regions of France which are most different because closest to the frontiers. And why France rather than Britain or any other country? I suppose it was all the result of a misspent youth in Paris, a lifelong battle to master the French language and Stevenson’s little masterpiece Travels with A Donkey in the Cevennes.

My first exploration of the French provinces happened while a student. In March 1971 I was living in a flat in the now fashionable Marais district of Paris and doing some research in historical archives in the French capital. I had tracked down some letters in the hands of a ninety year old lady living in the middle of la France profonde not far from Roanne in the Haute Loire. Chateau La Grye was a modest eighteenth century manoir in the village of Ambierle. I climbed the grand staircase to see Madame in her four poster bed. She asked her servant to fetch a metal box and give me the contents, several bundles of letters tied up with ribbon. The local inn provided a room, five course lunches and dinners for 28 francs a day (£4). For relaxation I strode along the surrounding lanes and realized for the first time that you cannot move past a house in rural France without causing a cacophony of barking from chained up dogs. The charm of the French countryside started to exert its magic. Madame talked to me about her life and introduced me to some of her friends. I made an effort to string a few sentences together in French and was embarrassed at the results.

Over twenty years in business intervened before I was declared no longer fit for the cut and thrust world of retail marketing and made redundant at the age of fifty. Now I had more time to combine walking with exploring the byways of France. My first sally in 1995 was to follow the trail pioneered by Stevenson in 1877 from Le Monastier south of Le Puy-en-Velay to St Jean du Gard near Nimes. The countryside was wild and romantic and adventures came thick and fast. On the third day I got soaked in a thunderstorm but was impervious to the rain after being plied with the local liqueur, Verveine du Velay, in a village bar. Another day of rain ended with a roaring log fire in a hostel filled with books. It was run by an ex- drug squad policeman from Nimes and when his stories ran out I enjoyed the company of two engaging Swiss from the Jura carrying their luggage on a donkey. I stayed in the monastery of Notre Dame des Neiges which Stevenson visited, strode over the bald summit of Mont Lozere, and marvelled at the blue lines of hills crossing the horizon which Stevenson described as the waves of the sea. I was completely hooked.