Tag Archives: Picardy

France, Soissons and Making Sense of Unfortunate Nicknames

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?

Entrance Tickets – Agincourt Museum

Agincourt Museum Guide

I am not really sure what I was expecting but I was certainly surprised by the place.  I had always imagined that France would have no real stomach for financing and building a museum to commemorate a humiliating defeat but inside there was an unexpectedly balanced account of the battle and the history of the Hundred Years War (which I suppose the French did win at the end of the day so they can afford to be magnanimous about it) and in some of the displays and the explanations I had to remind myself that Henry was the English King and it was the French who were defeated here.

Read the full story…

Northern France, Images of Pays De Calais

Boulogne Street Entertainer

Boulogne Old Town

Saint Vulfran Collegiate Church Abbeville France

Wimereaux Northern France

Northern France, The Battlefield and Museum of Agincourt

Agincourt Battle Site

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect”

William Shakespeare – ‘Henry V’

Having visited the British and Commonwealth War Graves, the site of the German coastal fortifications and Napoleon’s La Colonne de la Grande Armée in Boulogne we were getting an appetite for more military history so thought we might be able to visit a couple of sites that hadn’t previously been part of our plans.

Driving south our first visit was to the site of the Battle of Agincourt where almost six hundred years ago the English King Henry V defeated the largely superior French army of the time during the Hundred Years’ War (which incidentally lasted for 116 years, but the Hundred and Sixteen Years War doesn’t sound quite so catchy).

Agincourt French Knight

Our version of the battle is mostly informed by William Shakespeare in the play Henry V but as with most of his histories this was a highly dubious account of what really happened and modern historians have reached the view that far from being gallant and chivalrous and still celebrated as a golden moment in England’s history the battle was filthy, horrible and merciless.

Weapons were crude and brutal.  Arrows from the longbows of the Welsh archers rained down and where the sword of a knight would not penetrate the armour of a noble foe and did not have the weight to knock a man off his feet, a poleaxe (a long-handled axe or hammer, topped with a fearsome spike) wielded by a common foot-soldier would fell him fast and then it was easy to raise the victim’s visor and slide a knife through an eye.  That was how hundreds of men died – their last sight on earth a dagger’s point.

Sir John Codrington at Agincourt

It turns out that Agincourt is not a tale of chivalry at all, but rather of armoured men hacking at each other to break limbs and crush skulls.  At the height of the battle, when Henry V expected an attack on his rear that never materialised, he ordered the captured French prisoners to be slaughtered, an action today that would almost certainly be denounced as a war crime.

In the cold, wet dawn of October 25th 1415, no one could have expected Henry’s army to survive the day.  He had about six thousand men, more than five thousand of them archers, while the French numbered at least thirty-thousand and were so confident of victory that, before the battle was joined, they sent away some newly arrived reinforcements – it didn’t occur to them that they might need to make some half-time substitutions!

By dusk on that Saint Crispin’s Day, Henry’s small army had entered military legend.

After a short drive we arrived at the site of the battle, just a barren field that doesn’t seem anything special now after all this time and we may well have missed what is now a rather unremarkable meadow in northern France if it wasn’t for the roadside decoration where English archers and French cavalry faced each other once again in row after row of wooden statues.

We stopped for a while and surveyed the field which gave no clues to the battle and then we continued to the Agincourt Museum.

Agincourt Museum Guide

I am not really sure what I was expecting but I was certainly surprised by the place.

I had always imagined that France would have no real stomach for financing and building a museum to commemorate a humiliating defeat but inside there was an unexpectedly balanced account of the battle and the history of the Hundred Years War (which I suppose the French did win at the end of the day so they can afford to be magnanimous about it) and in some of the displays and the explanations I had to remind myself that Henry was the English King and it was the French who were defeated here.

Anyway, six hundred years is a very long time and I don’t suppose it really matters that much anymore?

It is only a small museum and it didn’t take that long to walk around, read the history and try the interactive displays and before very long we were out the other end, back in the car and driving north along the rows of archers to the site of a more recent conflict, the Eperlecques V2 Blockhaus north of Saint Omer on the road to Calais.

Agincourt Archers

Northern France, Boulogne-Sur-Mer

Boulogne-Sur-Mer France

After we left the British Military Cemetery at Terlincthun we drove directly to the old town of Boulogne and were fortunate to find the last remaining vacant parking space inside the old stone walls.  I have been to Boulogne several times before and I am happy to declare it one of my favourite cities in all of France.

The 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 is the beating heart of a medieval city with history oozing from every corner with a castle, a cathedral and narrow streets lined with charming properties, little shops, cafés and bars.

From the car park we walked along the main street full of interesting shops and busy restaurants and under the walls of the huge cathedral which was rebuilt in the nineteenth century as a symbol of the revival of the French Catholic Church after the 1789 Revolution in which the old cathedral was closed and worship forbidden before it was declared the property of the State and then dismantled and sold, stone by stone.

The medieval cathedral was the site of a shrine to ‘Our Lady of Boulogne’ a representation of a vision that appeared in Boulogne in or around the year 646 and which arrived in a boat without sails, oars, or sailors, on which stood a wooden statue of the Virgin holding the Child Jesus in her arms.  The French Revolutionaries didn’t have a lot of regard for this sort thing and so at the same time as they destroyed the cathedral they burned the priceless wooden statue as well.

Anyway, the church was rebuilt in the nineteenth century complete with a massive dome, one of the largest in Europe, and inside there is a modern replica of ‘Our Lady of Boulogne’ which is one of four that were sculptured in 1943 and toured France until 1948 when it was known as ‘The Lady of the Great Return’ and is today symbolic of the reconciliation between nations.

From the cathedral we walked along the Rue de Lille and negotiated the pavement table barricades scattered almost randomly across the pedestrianised street and then to the Hotel de Ville with its immaculate gardens like an oasis in the centre of the cramped city where we stopped for a while and enjoyed the hot sunshine and the contrast of a cool beer under the shadow of the city’s twelfth century UNESCO World Heritage Site medieval Belfry.

For the record France has thirty-eight sites, the same as Germany, but is six behind Spain (44) and eleven behind Italy (49) which incidentally tops the World table for the number of sites.

Inside the town hall there was free entry to the Belfry Tower that included a guided tour and history of the building which was helpfully given in English as well as French.  There was a long climb with a couple of stops for informative narrative and there were good views from the top of the tower and we were lucky to be part of quite a small group of visitors because we had time and space to enjoy the rooftop vista.

After the break we walked half of the walls and then returned to the car to go to the fishing port to find some lunch and after we had some difficulty finding a parking spot we strolled casually down the hill into the town past the Nausicaa Aquarium, one of the largest aquarium museums in France.  We walked along the busy docks that smelled of fish and this was a surprise because Boulogne, it turns out, is the biggest fishing port in France and there is a large fishing fleet including deep-sea trawlers and factory ships, as well as smaller sea-going and inshore fishing boats.  A third of France’s fresh fish catch is landed here, and a huge quay-side fish processing factory makes 20% of the nation’s tinned fish, and half of the frozen fish, fish fingers and other fish based ready meals.

We found a seafront restaurant and asked for menus but things went spectacularly wrong when an unexpected strong gust of wind blew my glass of beer over straight into my mum’s lap which put her off her lunch.  It was getting quite windy now so we tried two or three different tables and then abandoned the seafront lunch idea and returned instead to the shelter of the old town where perhaps we should have stayed in the first place.

Here we selected a restaurant on Rue de Lille and ordered what we thought was going to be a snack but turned out to be quite enormous meals which, although we didn’t know it at the time was going to spoil our evening meal.  Mum didn’t enjoy her Welsh Rarebit, Alan had an oversize omelette, Richard had a pizza that would have been sufficient for all four of us but I did get the pot of moules marinière that I had been promising myself.

Lunch over we tried to walk some of it off by visiting the other half the old town walls and alongside the Castle Museum and the gardens on the other side and then we called it a day and returned to the hotel where we made matters worse by opening the bar and drinking more beer in the couple of hours before our evening meal.

Boulogne-Sur Mer Moules et Frites

Northern France, Doors and Windows

Northern France Wissant

Northern France Wimereaux

More Doors…

Doors and Windows of 2015

Sardinia – Doors and Windows

Brittany – Doors and Windows

Blue Doors of Essaouira

Doors of Catalonia 1

Doors of Catalonia 2

Doors of Catalonia 3

Doors of Catalonia 4

Doors of Dublin

Doors of Northern France

Doors of Portugal

Doors of Siguenza, Spain

Northern France, Eurotunnel and The Côte d’Opale

France Côte d'Opale

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.

Wimereux France Pays de Calais

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.

Doors of Sigüenza 2