More memories, this time from Family Holidays in Northern France (1978-2017)…
Have Bag, Will Travel
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My favourite part of all of France.
Something like ten-million British travellers arrive in Calais each year and then without looking left or right, or stopping for even a moment head for the motorways and the long drive south and in doing so they miss the treat of visiting this Anglo-neglected part of France; the Côte d’Opale is a craggy, green, undulating and often dramatic coastline stretching for eighty miles between the port towns of Calais and the Baie de la Somme and the mouth of the river.
English tourists may avoid it but it has been long prized by the French and the Belgians, who enjoy the informal seafood restaurants in fishing villages dotted along the coast and the miles of intriguing coves and sandy beaches that run all the way down this coast that looks across at the south coast of England and leaks away inland to a glorious countryside.
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It was only a short drive from La Colonne de la Grande Armée at Wimille to Wimereux and after only a few minutes we were parking the car again on the seafront where a lot of people were gathered to watch a sailing race just a few hundred metres out to sea.
The tide was fully in and surf was crashing over the sea defences and onto the pavement so we had to take care not to walk too close to the edge and get a soaking and stayed close to the back edge and walked past the rows of beach huts, all painted a uniform blue and white and each with a charming, sometimes obvious, sometimes esoteric, nameplate attached to it.
Wimereux became a popular seaside resort at the time of the Second Empire, a hundred and fifty years ago and today retains an air of sophistication that presents a slightly faded but still elegant seaside resort with hotels, bars, cafés and restaurants, and an alternately sandy and rocky shoreline.
This was a charming place full of families on the beach and I was struck by the fact that if the French continue to take their children to cultured and sophisticated places to enjoy simple natural pleasures such as this lovely unspoilt place this tradition is passed on down through families and will forever be this way, down through the generations. Contrast this with an English family that take their children to Skegness for ‘Games Zone’, fish and chips, penny arcades, bingo, candy floss and football shirts, which simply perpetuate all of the the disagreeable things about the English seaside.
Wherever I go I am always struck by the fact that everywhere has a tale to tell and at Wimereux it is the story of the first recorded death in an aviation accident (not counting Icarus of course). Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier was a science teacher and one of the pioneers of aviation and he made the first manned free balloon flight on 21st November 1783 in a Montgolfier balloon. He later died when his balloon crashed near Wimereux on 15th June 1785 during, what must with hindsight surely have been, a ludicrously ambitious attempt to fly across the English Channel.
The sun was shining, the temperature was rising but there was a stiff breeze blowing in from the sea so we found a bar with protective glass panels and sat with a beer and enjoyed the view across the water, the competing sail boats out at sea and the beach activity that was increasing all the time as the tide started to retreat and more people were drawn down onto the caramel sandy beach.
After our walk along the seafront we left Wimereux and drove the short distance to our next destination on the beach and added the car to a ribbon of vehicles parked along the side of the road and next to the sand dunes that neatly separated the beach from the road. It was a short walk along a rugged path to the beach and when we reached it the tide was fully out and there was a wide expanse of sand that stretched for two kilometres all the way to the little town of Ambleteuse to the north.
Ambleteuse is a picturesque village that used to be a harbour and has a lot of association with England just across the Channel. The reason it is here relates to the temporary needs of various invaders for conquering people from either side of the English Channel. It is said that Julius Caesar used this convenient place to set out from for his invasion of Britain in 54 BC. Henry VIII of England had two forts built here to maintain a show of power towards the French kings. James II fleeing England after his abdication arrived here in 1689 and Fort Mahon, built to protect the harbour in the seventeenth century, was used by Napoleon to moor port of his England invasion fleet in 1805.
Nowadays Ambleteuse is a very quiet sophisticated seaside resort where fishermen’s houses line the seafront next to once grand nineteenth century villas which go back to a time when this was a popular place for holidays for people from Lille and Paris and it became a middle class holiday resort for those who enjoyed sea-bathing and hunting, shooting and fishing, playing golf, good living and fine dining.
At about this time our thoughts turned to dining for ourselves and a spot of lunch and we returned to Wimereux and returned to the restaurant that we had visited a couple of days earlier where we agreed not to order too much food and then went right ahead and did exactly that and worried again about spoiling our evening meal so we were careful and made sure that we left some on the sides of our plates so that we wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
As it was our final day we needed to purchase some cheap wine to take home and pulled in to do some shopping at a store called Auchan which was positively massive and for someone who doesn’t like shopping completely overwhelming in scale so we agreed to stay focused and after being momentarily distracted by the free samples of meat and cheese made our way straight to the wine section and made our purchases.
For our final evening we enjoyed drinks on the terrace where we chatted to fellow guests all of whom seemed to have stayed at this hotel several times before and were full of praise for the place and then we had a final excellent meal and at this point I think I knew that it was inevitable that I too would almost certainly become a returning customer myself.
2013 is a special birthday year for my mum as she noisily tips over from her seventy-ninth year to become an octogenarian and as part of the celebrations she invited my brother Richard and me to join her and her partner Alan to visit the north east corner of France and stay at at a hotel that they especially like, the Chateaux de Tourelles in the village of Le Wast, just a short distance away from one of my favourite French towns, Boulogne-Sur-Mer.
Normally I have a preference for travelling by sea and always enjoy the short, weather unpredictable, ferry crossing but they like the Eurotunnel shuttle so on this occasion we took the thirty-minute subterranean route rather than risk the choppy seas of the English Channel and the mad rush to the car deck upon docking. It was busy at the terminal and on the following day the service set a new record for numbers of vehicles at almost sixteen-thousand. I had been through the tunnel before on Eurostar but never on the vehicle carrying train so this was a new experience for me and overall I have to say that although it is quick and convenient I think I prefer the boats and the rugby scrum.
After arrival disembarkation was quick and we were in the Cite d’Europe, which is an international shopping centre that was constructed as part of the Channel Tunnel project and is designed to bring English shoppers across to France to stock up on cheap booze and cigarettes. The place has one hundred and forty shops and restaurants but we made straight for Carrefour and the substantial alcohol section where we piled the trolley with cheap beer and wine and then set off for the short trip towards Boulogne but avoiding the direct route down the A16 and driving sedately down the Côte d’Opale instead.
Something like ten-million British travellers arrive in Calais each year and then without looking left or right, or stopping for even a moment head for the motorways and the long drive south and in doing so they miss the treat of visiting this Anglo-neglected part of France; the Côte d’Opale is a craggy, green, undulating and often dramatic coastline stretching for forty kilometres between the port towns of Calais and Boulogne. English tourists may avoid it but it has been long prized by the French and the Belgians, who enjoy the informal seafood restaurants in fishing villages dotted along the coast and the miles of intriguing coves and sandy beaches that run all the way down this coast that looks across at the south coast of England.
The coastline is punctuated with history, most of it bloody and violent and as soon as we could we found a place to stretch our legs at the Cap Blanc Nez about twenty minutes from the port where we strolled up to the breezy hilltop obelisk commemorating the Dover Patrol that kept the Channel free from U-boats during the First World War and then walked along paths surrounded on all sides by German World-War-Two gun emplacements and bunkers that were built here in anticipation of an Allied invasion.
These concrete defences are so well built and inconveniently indestructible that it is difficult to easily demolish and dispose of them so the answer seems to be to just leave them where they are and let nature do its work and simply let the grass grow around and over them because no one really wants to be reminded of this grim heritage any more and this approach seems to be very effective because five years after I first saw them there is now a lot less to see.
Our next stop was Cap Gris Nez, where France pokes its large chalky white de Gaulle like nose westwards towards Dover and where there are more remains of mighty bunkers that are slowly disappearing under the earth because this is where the Germans aimed their big guns on Britain during the Second World War. Windblown, isolated and perched high above the choppy waves bathed in the iridescent light which gave the Opal Coast its name, the headland was an exhilarating place to watch vessels passing by below in the English Channel and then to become alarmed by a few spots of rain that blew in with the clouds racing in from the west.
It was time for lunch now but Friday in France must be a day when no one goes to work because every town that we passed through was busy and chock full of cars so we drove through Wissant, Audreselles and Ambleteuse without stopping and finally found a parking space in Wimereux as the lunch-time rush finally began to subside and we found a small bar for a beer and a snack before resuming our afternoon drive towards Boulogne and then to the Chateaux.
The sensible thing to do was to avoid Boulogne in late afternoon but we didn’t do the sensible thing and instead crawled through the traffic and then through the other side and on a thankfully open road to the small village of Le Wast and the Chateaux de Tourelles which lived up completely to the gushing reviews that promised us a wonderful hotel in extensive gardens, a good room and the prospect of an excellent evening meal.
We unpacked, sorted out the bar, poured a drink and sat for a while and simply enjoyed the place until it was time to eat.
Boulogne’s Old Town is built within the original Roman walls and has recently been well restored and it was in complete contrast to the concrete and glass of the sea front and the shopping streets. Here was the beating heart of a medieval city with a castle, one of the biggest Cathedrals in Europe and narrow streets lined with charming properties, little shops, cafés and bars.
There was not much of a chance of a lie in because Molly was up early and attracting attention with her persistent and annoying little machine gun cry (ack, ack, ack, ack, ack, ack, ack) which means she is ready to get up so I dragged myself out of bed and took over from Sally so that she could have a lie in and a rest. Three hours later everyone else was still asleep so Molly and I went for a drive to Carrefour in Boulogne for something to do and to get the breakfast provisions and by the time we returned there were finally some belated signs of life and the others were beginning to crawl out from their bedrooms.
Ambleteuse is a picturesque village that used to be a harbour and has a lot of association with England just across the Channel. The reason it is here relates to the temporary needs of various invaders for conquering people from either side of the English Channel. It is said that Julius Caesar used this convenient place to set out from for his invasion of Britain in 54 BC. Henry VIII of England had two forts built here to maintain a show of power towards the French kings. James II fleeing England after his abdication arrived here in 1689 and Fort Mahon, built to protect the harbour in the seventeenth century, was used by Napoleon to moor part of his England invasion fleet in 1805.