Category Archives: Food

France, Soissons and Making Sense of Unfortunate Nicknames

Soissons,_veduta_con_la_Cattedrale

It was too early to book into our holiday accommodation which was only just a few miles away so after a surprisingly good IBIS Hotel breakfast we set out to explore the town of Soissons.

The place was unusually quiet for a Monday morning and many of the shops in the town centre were closed (maybe it was a public holiday or perhaps they just don’t open on a Monday) but we didn’t let that bother us, we hadn’t come for the shops but rather to do some sightseeing.

It is a peaceful town today but it has had rather a turbulent past and on account of its strategic location was once a much more important place than it is today.

I was amused by a passage in a guide book which read – “The election of Pepin the Short took place in Soissons in the 8th century and in 923, following a battle outside the town walls, Charles the Simple gave up his throne in favour of the House of France”

I mention this because if I had been a King at around this time I would have taken great offence to names like these and would have preferred something like Andrew the Brave or Andrew the Wise, something altogether a little more flattering.

This is Pepin the Short…

Pepin The Short

Although in fairness rather like the unfortunate Pepin I wouldn’t have been able to effectively dispute the title Andrew the Short.

A quick look at Royal history reveals that the French had a habit of giving their monarchs uncomplimentary appendages, Louis II was the Stammerer, Louis V was called the Do Nothing, and Louis VI was known as the Fat!

My research throws up what simply has to be my all-time favourite – sometime in the late thirteenth century, Ivailo of Bulgaria was called the Cabbage! Rather like the England Football Manager Graham Taylor (1990-93) who was unflatteringly branded Turnip Taylor after a run of disappointing results and failure to qualify for the Football World Cup Finals.

turnip

I couldn’t help wondering if they were aware of these nicknames or if they were like school teachers who were all given names behind their backs by the students. Come to think about it now however, although we always thought that they were secret I am inclined to believe that each and every one of them knew exactly what we called them.

We used to have a geography teacher called Nogger Hickinbotham, a woodwork teacher called Plod Barker, an art teacher called Tap Underwood and a French teacher called Pluto Thompson but I am afraid that I am completely unable to explain the origin of any of those ridiculous names.

In the first year at Dunsmore School for Boys in Rugby my younger brother Richard helpfully recorded all of these names for posterity in the 1969/70 school Year Book…

Dunsmore School Teacher NicknamesDunsmore Staff 1970

Back now to Soissons.

During the Hundred Years’ War, French forces committed a notorious massacre of English archers stationed at the town’s garrison in which many of the French townsfolk were themselves murdered. The massacre of French citizens by French soldiers shocked Europe and Henry V of England, noting that the town of Soissons was dedicated to the Saints Crispin and Crispinian, claimed to avenge the honour of the Saints when he met the French forces at the Battle of Agincourt on St Crispin’s Day 1415.

The last big upheaval in the town was during the First-World-War (1914-18). In the German Spring offensive of 1918 Soissons fell into enemy hands but after massive bombardment by the French in July the town was recaptured. When I say town what I really mean is what was left of it after repeated attacks the centre including the Cathedral was almost totally destroyed and had to be almost completely rebuilt in the post war years.

soissons 1919

During the battle the Allies suffered 107,000 casualties (95,000 French and 12,000 American), the Germans suffered 168,000 casualties and the French High Command justified the deaths and the destruction on the basis that Soissons was an important strategic town that protected invasion and occupation of Paris. More about this later…

An interesting fact about the Battle of the Soissonnais and of the Ourcq is that during the campaign Adolf Hitler, the future Führer of Nazi Germany was awarded the Iron Cross First Class at Soissons on August 4th 1918.  More about him later…

Anyway we spent an enjoyable morning exploring the streets of Soissons, the Town Hall, the Cathedral (every French Town has a mighty Cathedral) and finally the ruins of the Abbaye de St-Jean-Des-Vignes. The Abbaye is a magnificent place even today but could have been even more magnificent but for the fact that in 1805 the Bishop of Soissons approved its demolition to provide building materials to repair the nearby Cathedral – there was no UNESCO World Heritage Committee to prevent this sort of thing in 1805.

We completed our walk and finished the morning with an ice cream at a pavement bakery and with the clock ticking towards check-in time we left and made our way the La Croix du Vieux Pont Campsite where we still a little bit early so we waited patiently for our lodge to become available and while the children swam in the swimming pool I acquainted myself with the poolside bar facilities.

Does anyone have a favourite memorable nickname?

France Countryside

Advertisements

France, The Annual Family Holiday and French McDonalds

France 2017

“The people of McDonald’s need guidance. They need to be told that Europe is not Disneyland…. It should look like a normal European bistro and nothing to tell you from the outside that this is a McDonald’s except for a discreet golden arches sticker on each window and a steady stream of people with enormous asses going in and out of the front door.” Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

Every year I make myself a promise and every year I break it.

Generally around about February/March my daughter gives me a call and tells me that her holiday plans are disrupted because someone has dropped out and she invites me along instead. This time I said that I would be strong and resist. These holidays require the sort of preparation and training exercises that are considered even too tough for the US Navy Seals or the British Army SAS.

When the inevitable phone call came I was ready and said no, I said no in a firm voice, I said absolutely no, I declined several times and then about an hour or so later I started making travel plans and ferry bookings because this year we were going to Picardy in Northern France.

Actually I booked some airline tickets to Paris with the intention of hiring a car to avoid the long journey but the costs started to mount alarmingly and eventually I had to abandon the flight idea and take a financial hit on the fares and accept that there was no real alternative but to drive which was something I wasn’t really looking forward to if I am honest.

P&O Dover to Calais

We set off early on Sunday morning and made surprisingly swift progress along the UK’s congested motorways, caught the scheduled ferry and then made the two hundred mile journey from Calais to the town of Soisssons where we were spending the first night in a cheap IBIS Hotel.

We were staying at an IBIS hotel because my daughter Sally had got the booking dates wrong. We were due to stay at a nearby holiday park but the reservation didn’t begin until the next day so we had no alternative right now but to find a temporary stop over.

We didn’t stop driving until we reached the ubiquitous edge of town shopping mall which are a disagreeable feature of most French urbanisations as everywhere it is almost certain that the approach to any historic town or city must now pass through an aluminium clad collection of temporary industrial units, supermarkets and fast food restaurants.

And this is another curious feature of France because every town we drove through had countdown signposts and specific directions to the nearest McDonalds restaurant as though the French need the constant reassurance of the nearest set of Golden Arches.

The poor French. There they were, with their traditional bistros serving cassoulet, soupe a l’oignon and confit de canard and now all the people really want is rectangular food-like objects that taste vaguely of chicken, and a side of dipping sauce.

Mcdonalds France

Well, actually it turns out to be not so curious at all because even though they maintain that they despise the concept of the fast food chain an awful lot of French people do eat there. Across France there are nearly twelve hundred restaurants (restaurants?) and in Paris alone there are almost seventy, with even more dotted around the outer suburbs. That’s much the same as London, but with only a third of the population.

McDonald’s, or “macdoh” as it is known is now so firmly a part of French culture that the menu includes McBaguette and Croque McDo and in 2009 McDonald’s reached a deal with the French museum, the Louvre, to open a McDonald’s restaurant and McCafé on its premises by their underground entrance.  That could almost be considered as sacrilege.

A consequence of the French love of fast food is a growing obesity problem in a country that has always prided itself on being slim and healthy with a belief that there is something in the French lifestyle that protects them against obesity, heart disease and diabetes. This is called the ‘French Paradox’ and is now being exposed as a myth because they are straying from the very dietary habits that made them the envy of the world – eating small portions, eating lots of vegetables, drinking in moderation, and only limited snacking.

Overall six and a half million French, that’s 15% of the population, are now classified as obese.

When in a foreign country I like to savour the local culture so after we had settled in and the children had finished dismantling the rooms I drove to the nearby McDonalds to get something to eat.

This was a tricky experience. The place was heaving and the only way to order food was by using the interactive display boards which is relatively straightforward in England but a bit difficult in France where there is no English language option and my assistant was a four year old grandson with faster fingers than me and who was impatient for nuggets and fries.

It took a while and I thankfully avoided a massive order of about 5000€ and then we waited.  And we waited.  McDonalds is supposed to be fast food but the preparation process was slightly slower than glacial and it took over thirty minutes to be served our order.

Back at the IBIS Hotel it took about thirty seconds to eat it and when the children were all safely in bed I poured a gin and tonic and drank it and then a second stronger gin and tonic and drank that and started to worry about the next ten days and what I had let myself in for.

Ferry over to Calais

Ireland, Street Art

Ireland Street ArtIreland Street Art MusiciansIreand Street Art iddlersStreet Art Sligo Yeates

Ireland, Westport to Sligo

Wild Atlantic Way Westport to Sligo

Westport Quay was busy today in the sunshine so we stopped for a while and walked around the harbour and the souvenir shops but it seemed rather modern and we didn’t find it especially thrilling so we didn’t stop long and carried on to the town instead.

Westport was a different place completely today in the sunshine and the grey clouds of yesterday had been replaced by a canvas of blue.  What a lovely place, flower beds in full bloom, drinkers spilling out of pubs onto the pavements, courteous motorists who always stop to let you cross the roads, free parking and friendly people everywhere.  We spent an hour or so in the town, found somewhere that we rather liked for evening meal and made a reservation and then had a Guinness in the street before returning to the B&B.

Westport Ireland Dancing and Music

We had a good night, an excellent meal and then an hour or so in a pub with more traditional Irish music and an overdose of Guinness and walked home later under a clear sky that surely meant good weather again for the next day.

In twenty-four hours our situation had improved one hundred percent and we looked forward to another good day ahead.

In the morning it was gloriously sunny, this was going to be a very good day indeed and then encouraged by Richard I made a decision that spoiled it.

Instead of taking the direct route to our next stop in the town of Sligo we thought it might be a good idea to head west for a while and visit Achill Island which everyone seemed to be recommending as an especially scenic experience so after breakfast and settling up our accounts we took the coast road into trouble.

At first things went well enough and we stopped regularly to admire wide sandy beaches, look out over Newport Bay across the water to Croagh Patrick and to examine sites where ships of the Spanish Armarda were wrecked on the rocks in 1588 and it was about at this point that Kim’s mood started to change and as usual I failed to spot the warning signs of rapidly emptying patience reserves.

Ireland Beach and Croagh Patrick

We carried on now to Achill Island and after about twenty minutes of boring countryside and nothing in particular to see Richard made the fatal mistake of asking Kim if everything was alright?  I was beginning to detect simmering discontent in the back seat and thought “oh dear Richard, wrong question”. “Do you want the honest answer?” she said and then the penny dropped straight through – the patience tank was empty and Kim was not enjoying this particular stretch of The Wild Atlantic Way as much as I had thought she might so after a brief debate we turned the car around and looked for a more direct route to Sligo.

This wasn’t very successful at all because we were some distance out of our way and I knew deep down that it was probably going to take a couple of hours or so, maybe even three, to reach our destination and Kim’s temper was rapidly reaching boiled lobster point.

From Achill to Sligo there is no alternative but to take a slow circuitous route around the Nephin Mountains because this is an especially remote part of West Ireland and no roads cross the peat bogs and the conifer forests that are a principle feature of the area. We stopped for a coffee and a visit to a National Park information centre but this didn’t especially help so the only thing to do was to drive as quickly as possible now to see how quickly I could get to Sligo.

County Sligo Postcard

I was driving like a rally driver but with stops the journey took almost six hours and Kim was keen to keep reminding me that she had earlier consulted Multimap and the direct route was estimated to take just an hour and a half! It didn’t help when I took another unnecessary coastal detour which proved especially pointless as it wasn’t particularly close to the sea and all of the pubs were closed for the afternoon.

To my relief we eventually arrived in Sligo at about four o’clock and luckily the hotel was a good one with pavement tables in the sun so we bagged an empty one and sat and calmed down (this was a process that took longer for some than for others) and later we made a first visit to the town centre to identify somewhere suitable for evening meal.

It had been a mixed sort of day, good start, bad in the early middle, very bad in the late middle and good again at the end and I was forced to agree with Kim however that on an exceptionally fine weather day it was a shame that we had spent so much of it in the car.

We agreed that on the next day we would do a few less miles!

W B Yeates Sligo Ireland

Cleethorpes Pier, Fish and Chips and Leicester City Football Club

Cleethorpes Pier and Beach

Cleethorpes is a seaside town that is attached to Grimsby like a barnacle to a rock.  This is unfortunate for the residents of Cleethorpes because they consider themselves to be superior to Grimbarians in all respects and snootily resent the association with its grubby neighbour.

The short train journey took only ten minutes or so as it passed through the site of old fishing docks, past the Grimsby Town Football Club ground (which is actually in Cleethorpes) and then alongside the estuary at low tide, sticky with mud before arriving at the station which really is the end of the line for this particular route.

The railway terminates here but is the starting point of many seaside holidays because this is where visitors to the resort arrive from towns and cities of Humberside and South Yorkshire because while people from Leicester and Nottingham go to Skegness in the south of Lincolnshire, Cleethorpes is the seaside of choice for people from Sheffield, Doncaster and Scunthorpe.

BR Cleethorpes

The station is situated at the western end of the promenade right in the middle of the tacky funfair and associated attractions.  The sort of place that children are drawn to like bees to nectar but which I cannot wait to pass through as quickly as possible.  I especially dislike those pointless children’s rides that do nothing in particular and seem to me to cost a disproportionate amount of money to the pleasure they provide.  I hate them outside supermarkets and in shopping malls and if I were Prime Minister the first thing that I would do is pass a law to make them illegal.

I hurried the children through this part of the visit with a promise that I would think about paying for a pointless ride on the way back later.

Cleethorpes Excursion Poster

Next we came to the pier.  The pleasure pier is quintessentially British, a genuine icon and one that I have never really understood. No one in England lives more than seventy miles* or so from the sea but when they get to the coast they have a curious compulsion to get even closer to the water and as far away from the shore as possible without taking to a boat. The Victorians especially liked piers and by time of the First-World-War there were nearly two hundred sticking out all around the coastline as though the country was a giant pin-cushion.

Cleethorpes Pier

Cleethorpes Pier now claims to be the site of the ‘Biggest Fish and Chip Shop’ in the World but I take that boast with a pinch of salt!

grimsby-fish-and-chips

The shortest pier in England is that at Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset (so they claim) but this one must be a true contender for the title.  It was opened in 1873 (financed by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway) and was originally nearly a quarter of a mile long but over its lifetime it has been severely shortened.

English piers you see are rather fragile structures and over the years have had an alarming tendency to catch fire – Weston-Super-Mare, Brighton, Blackpool, Eastbourne, and Great Yarmouth have all suffered this fate but Southend-on-Sea is probably the most unfortunate of all because it has burned down four times which seems rather careless.

The problem with a pier of course is that they are generally constructed of wood and are highly combustible and a quarter of a mile or so out to sea they are also rather inaccessible to the fire service so once they go up in flames little can be done but to watch the blazing inferno from the safety of the promenade until the fire goes out by itself and all that is left is a tangle of twisted metal girders and beams.

PIER FIRE DAMAGE

Fire isn’t the only danger of course because the coast can be a rough old place to be in bad weather and severe storms and gales have accounted over the years for Aberystwyth, Cromer, Saltburn, Southwold and Brighton.  Reaching far out to sea also makes them rather vulnerable to passing ships and the aforementioned unfortunate Southend-on-Sea was sliced in half in 1986 by a tanker that had lost its navigational bearings.  One unfortunate man was in the pier toilets at the time and only just made it out in time before they tipped over the edge!

Cleethorpes pier is no exception to disaster and it burnt down in 1905. It was rebuilt but was shortened again in 1940 and this is my favourite Cleethorpes Pier anecdote.  It was demolished to prevent it being of any use to the German army in the event of an invasion of England via the Humber estuary.  Quite honestly I don’t understand why the German army would need the pier to offload their tanks and equipment when they could simply have driven it up the muddy beach but that is not the point of my story.

The dismantled iron sections were sold after the war and they were bought by Leicester City Football Club who used them in the construction of the main stand at their ground at Filbert Street.  From about the age of ten my dad used to take me to watch Leicester City and we used to sit in that stand every home match and so although I didn’t know it I had actually  been on Cleethorpes pier fifty years before I ever visited the place.

Leiceter City Filbert Street

* Based on a direct line drawn on an Ordnance Survey map from location to the first coast with tidal water.  The village that is further from the sea than any other human settlement in the UK is Coton in the Elms in Derbyshire at exactly seventy miles in all directions.

Northumberland, Just Pictures

Cragside KitchenSeaton Sluice Shell ShipNorthumberlan Iron RivetSeaton Delaval Hall NorthumbriaDunstunburgh Castle

European Capital of Culture 2012, Guimarães, Portugal

When I woke I was encouraged to see strong sunlight leaking underneath and around the sides of the curtains and I turned over and slept a while longer confident in the certainty of a good day.  When we finally got up however there was some cloud and by the time we had finished breakfast and set out for the day it was overcast and threatening to rain.  We should have got up earlier!

On the advice of the nice lady at the car hire office we planned to drive thirty kilometres or so inland to the city of Guimarães which is ranked second in the country’s most livable cities survey published annually by the Portuguese newspaper Expresso.  As might be expected Lisbon is rated first and Porto is third.

We joined a deserted motorway and with the weather less than promising I drove at an appropriate Sunday morning pace because there wasn’t any need to rush.  I encouraged everyone to have ‘blue-sky thoughts’ and it must have worked because by the time we arrived and parked the car (free on Sundays) there was a brighter sky and little hints of sunshine.

Castle of Guimarães

As the first capital of Portugal, Guimarães is known as the place where the country was born – ‘The Cradle City’.  In 1095 Count Henry of Burgundy, who had married princess Teresa of León, established in Guimarães the second County of Portugal and on July 25th 1109 Afonso Henriques, son of Count Henry of Burgundy, was born here and it was where Duke Afonso Henriques proclaimed Portuguese independence from the Kingdom of León, after the Battle of São Mamede in 1128, declaring himself to be Afonso I, King of Portugal.

Today Guimarães is a busy and important University city with an industrial base of textiles and metallurgy.  It was quite relaxed this morning with groups of men chatting on street corners and waiting for the wives to leave the churches scattered in little clusters along the streets. The city is clean and smart and since Portugal and Slovenia and were selected to host a city as the European Capital of Culture in 2012 Guimarães was chosen by Portugal to represent the country.  Slovenia chose the city of Maribor.

Guimares Castle Portugal

We walked through tidy streets and open green spaces without high expectation of Guimarães but we found a street map that indicated a castle, a palace and a UNESCO World Heritage site in the old centre and so we walked to the top of the city and into the grounds of the twelfth century castle where there were some musicians playing tradional songs inside the delightful leafy gardens.  In 1881 the castle was declared the most important historical monument in this part of Portugal and in the 1900s a lot of work has gone into its restoration. We went inside and were struck by the fact that they hadn’t spent a lot of the renovation budget on basic health and safety.

The Castle is a disaster waiting to happen, with uneven surfaces, irregular steps and almost completely without handrails or safety barriers to prevent visitors accidentally slipping off of the high battlements and becoming a permanent addition to the rocky foundations.  In the middle of the castle was a keep where there was a stiff climb to the very top which was slightly perilous and hard work but the reward for tackling it were some excellent views of the countryside and the city including the football stadium where Rio Ave had narrowly beaten their neighbours only two days before.

Guimares

After the castle we visited the Palace and without explanation there was free admission today but where an officious attendant still insisted on issuing tickets and someone else insisted on checking them.  Inside the Palace of the Condes de Castro Guimarães there was a small museum containing family portraits and other paintings, as well as furniture, china, silver and gold objects and local prehistoric finds.  At just half an hour to walk round it was the perfect size for a museum and without crowds of other visitors to slow us down we wandered from room to room practically by ourselves.

The sun couldn’t quite manage to make a full appearance but there were bits of blue sky here and there and the weather was pleasant and warm enough to sit outside in the garden terrace of a trendy little restaurant selling fair trade products and local handicrafts and we had a drink in a charming shady garden surrounded by herbaceous plants, herbs and fruit trees and with the relaxing sound of a water fountain close to our table.

Guimares Portugal Castle

From the castle we followed the cobbled Rua de Santa Maria, that didn’t look as though it had changed a great deal since the Middle Ages, down into the heart of the old town, where there are superbly restored historic buildings including a former sixteenth century Baroque convent of Santa Maria, now serving as the City council offices.

At the end of the street were two delightful squares with outdoor cafés and balconied houses, Praça de Santiago and Largo da Oliveira.  At Largo da Oliveira is the old Town Hall and the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, with a Gothic shrine erected in 1340 standing in front of it. There are many legends about its origins, but a popular story says it marks the spot where Wamba, elected king of the Visigoths, refused his title and drove a pole into the ground swearing that he would not reign until it blossomed, and it then sprouted immediately.  We walked right the way through the streets of the old town and then reluctantly left Guimarães and returned to the car.