by Debs Wagner
With my sister’s 60th birthday approaching I had no idea what to buy her. I knew a jumper or book wouldn’t fit the bill and I wanted something special. I went for coffee with a friend of mine who suggested we should go and walk the Chemin de Liberte in the Pyrenees. She had brought with her the KE Travel Brochure – I was very enthusiastic as soon as she made the suggestion. I knew my sister would love to do this. I e-mailed her with the suggestion and the details and she replied immediately with a massive YES.
We all were slightly anxious that the walk would be a massive challenge. I had checked with KE Travel enquiring whether we would be able to cope. They confirmed that we would have to train – preferably with our rucksacks. They stressed that the walk would not exceed 16 miles per day. However the altitude and the steep uneven ascent/descent would be something we needed to practise.
The training began with a weekend away in the South Downs. Sally, Caroline, Debs and Barbara walked the Seven Sisters. We drove down on Saturday morning. Caroline and Debs were lucky enough to have a quick morning coffee in Alfriston before the walk commenced ! Sally and Barbara were waiting in the car park at East Dean. We set off. Sally and Debs with rucksacks on their backs. Seven sisters was a good test of stamina with uphill climb and downhill descent. The sky was blue and the sun was out. We were allowed to stop for a sandwich at lunchtime and a cup of tea at the end of the day. We walked around 10 miles.
We spent a fun night in a bed and breakfast in Eastbourne. Sunday a very hilly walk. Starting in Alfriston and walking over the Downs to the Long Man of Wilmington.
The Long Man of Wilmington is a hill figure located in Wilmington, East Sussex, England, on the steep slopes of Windover Hill, 9.6 kilometres (6 mi) northwest of Eastbourne. It was formerly often known as the Wilmington Giant, or locally as the Green Man. The Long Man is 69.2 metres (227 ft) tall, holds two “staves”, and is designed to look in proportion when viewed from below. Formerly thought to originate in the Iron Age or even the neolithic period, more recent archaeological work has shown that the figure may have been cut in the Early Modern era – the 16th or 17th century AD
Most weeks we have walked the perimeter of Richmond Park. It takes 2 hours exactly, is slightly undulating and is about 7 miles in total. Sally and Debbie have carried their rucksacks and have recently included walking poles to assist them on the walk.
Box Hill was another enjoyable trip. A more advanced walk through the woods with challenging ascents and descents. A beautiful sunny day Barbara, Sally and Debbie did a record walk of about 10 miles.
Day 1: Arrive Toulouse Airport mid-afternoon. John Howie our Team Leader and Matt, his assistant met us at Arrivals. We were introduced to the other members of the party and made our way in John’s van to St Giron to have some lunch. It was very hot and we were all feeling quite weary. We had a lovely lunch in a typical French café in the square. I had steak and frites and a beer. A perfect start to the holiday. John then took us to our hotel in St Girons where we were shown to our rooms. Us girlies decided to walk into the town and have a cup of tea in one of the Hotels. Sally, Rosie, Debs and Mandy began our holiday bonding process.
We met up with John in the evening and he took us to a lively restaurant in St Giron where we all had supper. On our return to the Hotel we were given our brief as to what we should take for the first days walk.
Day 2: We start our trek to Spain at Pont le Chemin de la Liberte, it was here that the driver sounded his whistle for the escapees to jump from the moving train and hastily collected by the Resistance for the first walk into the mountains. We were given our 4 days food at the hotel. We had to pack our rucksacks with the food we needed for that day and our other luggage was taken to Aunac by Mat. A long day but with little height gain. Harder than expected, very hot and about 8-9 hours walking. We arrived at Gite Aunac exhausted and in need of a very long drink of beer. We were shown to our dormitory where we left our luggage and re-packed our rucksacks for the next day. We had to carry all our belongings we would need for the next 2 nights with food and cooking utensils. Sleeping bags/mats which made for a heavy rucksack
Day 3: Through a beech forest and along a section of the GR10 we trek over two cols making our way deeper into the Pyrenees and soon into Spain. We stay in a simple cabane Subera (or camp) by the rock wall of Cirque de Lameza. Approx 7hrs walking, ascent 730m.
Day 4: Today we gain some height at last. We pay our respects to the crew of the Halifax bomber which crashed into Pic de Lampau before climbing the snow filled gully leading to the Col de Craberous (2382m) before a steep descent, past lakes and over boulder fields to the refuge de Estagnous. Approx 9 hrs walking, ascent 880m.
Day 5: Leaving the refuge we descend to Lac Rond before climbing again and scrambling through a small chimney and then a further 2 hrs to the Frontier Col at 2522m. From here we descend down to the Noguera Palaresa river and the village of Islil. Approx 7hrs walking. After a late lunch of some Spanish Tapas we transfer to Luchon. Overnight Luchon.
Day 6: The final day of the Trek we had a free day in Luchon. A pretty spa town and a ski resort. You could go for short local walk, or maybe some tandem paragliding, cycling or have a soak in the thermal baths, or simply relax in Luchon with its pleasant cafes and restaurants Some of the party went cycling to follow the route of the Tour de France over to Italy. We decided to go up on the chair lift and explore the extent of the ski slopes.
What was your overwhelming emotion when you set out – were you excited/anxious?
- We were all anxious. However very relieved when we met the other trekkers in the party. Each one of us were very excited but extremely apprehensive. We were all around the same age. I felt extremely protected as I was doing the walk with both my sister and a good friend and we all looked out for each other.
Would you do it or something similar again?
- Definitely however maybe not quite so extreme.
What would you do differently if you did it again?
- Prepare slightly better with more varied and undulating walks. Several times during the walk we all felt that we were struggling however once you are up in the Pyrenees you have no option but to continue!
Every year, hikers trek the “Chemin de la Liberte” in the Pyrenees, to commemorate the 800 or so Allied airmen and Jewish refugees who risked their lives on a 60km (40 miles) route escaping Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.
The weather changes as if someone has hit the fast-forward button on the seasons. One can experience dank drizzle, boiling heat, freezing mists, snow underfoot and then more heat in quick succession.
Reflect on what it was like, for example, to be shot down over Belgium when you are only 19 years old. Your parachute works – something of a surprise in itself, since you have had only the most rudimentary training – and when you land you find yourself behind enemy lines, with most of Nazi-occupied Europe between you and freedom.
Just think of the Jewish families who attempted the Pyrenees just one step ahead of arrest and deportation to the death camps.
I was told the story of a woman who carried her two-year-old daughter across in November snow. When the child cried in the cold their guide said she should be suffocated because the noise might alert the German patrols.
And what of the French helpers? One local supporter of the Chemin remembered his mother hiding escaping Allied airmen in her mountain bed and breakfast, where she was providing lodgings for German troops at the same time.
The Escape Lines Memorial Society calls the Chemin a “walking memorial”, and it has become a way of passing the idea of remembrance on down the generations.