An even more Unusual Bike & Hike

For many years now I’ve been a participant in the annual Beds and Herts Historic Churches Trust Sponsored “Bike ‘n’ Hike”, which is usually scheduled for the second Saturday in September. The Trust exists to provide grants to churches needing help to finance essential repair work, and to raise funds for this the Trust invites supporters to seek sponsors for walking or cycling on the appointed day to visit as many churches as they can.

Sue Oxlade has also been a very keen long-time supporter of the event and she recently provided a piece entitled ‘A Very Different Bike and Hike’ in which she detailed her progression this unusual year, dominated as it was by the Covid-19 crisis.

My first thoughts this year were that I wasn’t going to be able to do it, because I was going to be in France for the week that included the due day, which was also going to be the day we would be returning home. But then I had a thought - what was to stop me “Biking/Hiking” in France, and why couldn’t I do it on a different day from the second Saturday of the month? After all, there would be nobody to check on my progress, whatever day I went!

So, that was the plan. I chose the second Thursday of September (the 10th), found a bike I could borrow and looked up what churches I could visit. Normally I would aim to get to 20 or so churches in the day, covering 30 - 40 miles, but I soon discovered that this would be out of the question this time.

Why? Well, for several reasons - first of all, religion in France is dominated by Roman Catholicism, so there are not very many churches of other denominations to be found, and this difficulty is greatly magnified if you are far from major centres of population. And I was! We were staying in a big village/small town called Lapte, which lies in a fairly sparsely populated region of the Haute-Loire Département of France, known in times past as Velay. There is a church in Lapte, but I found out that there were only two others within a 5 mile radius of it. It was about 8 miles to the next nearest!

Lapte is surrounded by rolling countryside at an average elevation of about 2,500ft, but there is a small peak in the town, on which sits the impressive (Catholic) Parish Church of St. Jean (John). With its high steeple, it dominates the surrounding landscape for miles around - it is described locally (with, I think, a hint of fairly sardonic grandeur) as ‘le balcon de Velay’ - the ‘Balcony of Velay’.

The current church in Lapte was consecrated in 1876 and the St Jean to whom it is dedicated is Jean-Francois-Regis, an early 17th Century Jesuit evangelist. The Velay region was one of the areas where he exercised his evangelising ministry, which might account for his adoption as the patron of the church. 

The first of the duo of churches within 5 miles of Lapte is the church of St Joseph, in Verne. Lying two to three miles south east of the town, Verne is small enough to be classed as a village and is part the Parish and administrative Commune of Lapte. The church was originally built in the mid-nineteenth century, but was extended sideways around the turn of the century, with the result that the original bell tower is offset to the right of the porch.

The second church, situated about as far away from Lapte as Verne, but to the west, is in the neighbouring parish/commune of Grazac. There, the current parish church of St. Pierre (consecrated coincidentally in 1876, like the Lapte church) is built on the site of a 10th century Clunisian Priory. (The term ‘Clunisian’ is derived from Cluny Abbey, an important early Benedictine Monastery in France which promulgated strict adherence to Benedict’s Rules, and became a driving force in the advance of Western Monasticism. The Priory, rebuilt in the 14th century, was destroyed at the time of the French Revolution, but the bell-tower and porch from the ruins were restored and incorporated into the new church building.

Given that getting to the next nearest church would have more than doubled my ride, I chose to give that a miss and settled on just visiting the three churches of St Jean in Lapte, St Joseph in Verne and St Pierre in Grazac. The convenient fact that there is a route verte (a ‘green’ cycle track) linking Grazac and Verne via Lapte convinced me that it was a sensible target for the day - a round trip of a mere 10 miles or so, visiting just those three churches. That’s what I did, and took photographs as proof.