Pyrenees hikers remember WWII escapees

Part of the "Chemin de la Liberte" in the Pyrenees Hiking the 'Chemin de la Liberte' takes four days to complete

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 good escaper," says a 1944 British military document called Tips for Escapers and Evaders, "is the man who keeps himself fit, cheerful and comfortable.

"He is not a 'he-man' who boasts about his capacity to endure discomfort. He should be a man with sound common sense and above all a man of great determination."

I am certainly not a he-man. I hate discomfort, I am cheerful by nature, with a reasonable supply of common sense, I hope, and I like achieving my goals.

So I ticked most of those boxes. The problem lay in that unassuming little word "fit". I am 53 years old, most of my work involves sitting in studios or at desks, and I like the good things in life.

The Chemin de la Liberte (in English, the freedom trail or route), takes four days. It involves climbing 4,570m (15,000ft) up and 3,350m down.

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The weather changes as if someone has hit the fast-forward button on the seasons. We experienced dank drizzle, boiling heat, freezing mists, snow underfoot and then more heat in quick succession.

There was a point to putting myself through all this. Every time I interviewed a survivor who had done it "for real" during World War II, I found myself brought up short by the chasm that separated my own experiences from theirs.

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.

Start Quote

Phil Pegum (L) Ed Stourton (R) walking the Chemin de la Liberte in the Pyrenees

It has become a way of passing the idea of remembrance on down the generations”

End Quote Ed Stourton

You have to ask someone for help, even though you know they are risking their lives if they give it to you. And if you are lucky and they do not turn you in, there is still the long journey south to negotiate, past German checkpoints and patrols with, at the end of it all, the climb over these massive mountains.

Or 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.

Map showing the Pyrenees

All of these experiences are so far beyond our own that they seem to belong almost to another dimension. The walk, I reasoned, might help me build an imaginative bridge over that chasm.

At the pass where we crossed the frontier into Spain - 2,280m above sea level - we paused for a brief ceremony in remembrance of Maurice Collins, an RAF pilot who asked that his ashes should be scattered there.

Collins had needed real grit and determination to get home in 1941 - he crossed the mountains "up to my testicles in snow", as he later so vividly put it, and spent three months in a Spanish concentration camp before the British authorities were able to extract him.

It seemed ironic that he had chosen the mountains which had caused him so much pain and suffering as his final resting place.

French Pyrenees The Pyrenees has long been a magnet for keen walkers

But as I talked to my fellow walkers - like Chaucer's pilgrims to Canterbury, we shared our tales along the way - I came to understand what a powerful aid to remembrance this mountain journey has become.

Many of them had a personal connection with the past we were honouring, and some of them had kept coming back again and again.

There was one man who had completed the trek 10 times because he was so fascinated by his late father's account of escaping across the Pyrenees in 1941.

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.

There was a young man from Liverpool with us seeking peace with more recent history. He showed no obvious interest in World War II, but he was making a pilgrimage in memory of his brother, killed serving in Afghanistan two years ago.

He was using his brother's backpack and walking gear, and listened to his brother's favourite songs on his iPod as he swung along with the rest of us.

You can hear more about Ed Stourton's journey in The Freedom Trail, broadcast on Monday, 14 November 2011 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4.

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