From the North Sea to the Med: a 66-year-old Irishman’s long walk south

Sean Rothery cycled across Europe in 1950. When he retired, he walked 2,300km from the Netherlands to Nice

Thu, May 8, 2014, 01:00

I retired from a long academic career when I was 65. I had no choice, but the view back then and possibly still is that retirement is a good thing, a time to put your feet up, play golf or take up a new hobby.

I had an idea for quite a while before the due date of leaving would arrive and that was to undertake a long journey on foot. My motives were mixed. A challenge, perhaps, to growing old? A celebration of freedom? The cliche “because it was there” seemed reason enough since I am a long-time lover of mountains and wilderness. William Hazlitt’s essay,On going a journey, which I had read as a 14-year-old in Synge Street school, made a lasting impression.

The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty; to think, feel, do just as one pleases.

The taking on of a reasonably hard physical task was given an added impetus by my attendance at a “retirement” course, organised with philanthropic zeal by the institution which had decreed that every worker over 65 was no longer useful or capable. The various speakers were harmless if anodyne, but the doctor, an overweight forty-something, who came on to lecture the “senior citizens” about their health, was patronising with his admonition for us to take long walks, “at least two or three miles, down to the end of the pier in Dún Laoghire and back, for instance”. I resolved there and then to go on a real journey, not quite a Patrick Leigh Fermor walk to Constantinople, but something nearly comparable and dramatic – a long journey on foot through space and time.

Leigh Fermor walked to the Danube and then on to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland in the 1930s. This was long before the vast road network and monstrous traffic levels of the late 20th century made such a journey today seem like madness. After the second World War the French were among the first to establish long-distance walking trails through whole regions of their country. These were given the name Grande Randonée and cleverly linked up old bridle paths, forest trails, canal towpaths, riverbanks, transhumance paths, Roman roads, minor roads and mountain passes to create a huge and intricate lacework of walking routes. One of the earliest of these was the Grande Randonée Cinq, popularly known as the GR5, which originally stretched from the northerly tip of the Vosges mountains, through the Jura, before traversing the French Alps to Nice. In the last two decades the GR5 was extended through Lorainne to the border of Luxembourg and then on northwards through the Ardennes and across Flanders to Holland. In the 1980s the Dutch extended the route to the Hook Of Holland; thus making it the North Sea to the Mediterranean Long Distance Walking Trail – the GR5.

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