Peace among the poppies
A hundred years after WWI, northern France is a place of beauty and tranquility
Armistice Day will fall on Remembrance Sunday this year, marking the centenary of the cessation of hostilities of the First World War. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, church bells throughout the country will ring out much in the same way as they did 100 years ago, commemorating the time decreed to end the war to end all wars.
Around the world there was barely a family untouched. Photos are still displayed by later generations of loved family members who served, or were lost, along the Western Front.
One of the first houses I ever viewed in France had photos of grand-père and grandmère set in state in one of the bedrooms – he in the distinctive uniform of a WWI French infantryman, a poilu, with impressive moustache, she glowering with a similarly dour expression (and, it has to be said, only somewhat less facial hair!). Some years ago, with about 10 days to spare between contracts, I took myself off to spend time in the Pas-de-calais department and truly explore it for the first time. I found lush, softly rolling countryside, lovely towns, ancient villages clustered around bustling market squares with quaint names and an amazing coastline with stunning beaches. It was, quite simply, a revelation!
As I drove along beautifully maintained quiet country roads with luscious views as far as the eye could see, it was hard to reconcile the thought that this area once formed part of the Western Front. I saw signposts pointing to villages and towns with names with which to conjure – for this land had been the battleground of Europe for centuries.
Leaving Calais I saw a sign promoting the location of The Field of the Cloth of Gold, where Henry VIII and Francis I had met in a classic tale of royal one-upmanship – though fortunately with no fighting! I passed the site of the battle of Créçy fought in 1346 and, for anyone who studied Shakespeare’s Henry V at school, the village of Azincourt is just some 40km south of Calais. It is of, course, named after the Battle of Agincourt, fought in 1415. But I digress…
The First World War started, of course, in August 1914, the assassination of an Austrian archduke in Serbia serving as the trigger. What followed was one of the bloodiest stalemates in history, leaving millions dead, countries and lives changed forever.
Today, it’s hard to comprehend, especially as life now carries on as normal in this countryside and its towns and villages.
I drove down to the Somme valley and was astounded by its beauty, then hopped across to the magical seaside – the Côte d’opale – with azure-coloured sea even in a late wintry January. I skirted beautiful long golden sandy beaches and visited resorts such as Le Touquet and Berck-sur-mer. I drove through Étaples – known to the Tommies as Eat Apples – crossing the River Canche which empties into the English Channel here. I visited the seaport of Boulogne and dined at a fish restaurant on the quayside from literally the freshest catch of the day after spending time exploring its ancient upper city and Unesco-listed 12th-century belfry.
I followed the coastal road and found the seaside town of Wimereux, just north of Boulogne, with its lovely collection of Belle Époque buildings. I also discovered the charms of the town of Calais instead of driving straight from the ferry towards the péage and onwards towards Paris or scurrying immediately southwards. Inland I explored villages with quaint names such as Hucqueliers and Desvres (the latter famed for its faïence pottery). And
I found lush countryside, lovely towns, ancient villages clustered around bustling market squares with quaint names and an amazing coastline with stunning beaches
on a bitterly cold day I left red roses on the grave of an uncle on my father’s side who’d fought in the Highlanders regiment. It was a beautiful sunny place; it made me feel ‘connected’ to this land.
Roses of Picardy
The villages of Picardy – the historical province between Paris and Pas de Calais incorporating the Somme and parts of Aisne and Oise – are distinctive. Houses are made of red bricks often featuring a ‘lace’ framework of white stone and slate roofs. The area is the birthplace of Gothic architecture in its cathedrals. Amiens, capital of Somme, has the largest one in Europe and the tallest in France – Paris’ Notre-dame could fit into it twice over! Late last century it was discovered that in the 13th century its western façade had actually been painted.
Elaborate lighting techniques have since been developed to project the original colours onto its façade, now a highlight of son et lumière performances in summer, during the Christmas market (the largest in northern France) and over New Year.
Of course the area has its own cuisine. Ficelle picarde – a crêpe stuffed with mushrooms and luscious ham in béchamel sauce served en gratin – is deliciously heartwarming in the colder months. Or perhaps you might fancy a slice of flamiche aux poireaux, a quiche-like tart with leeks and cheese. Yum!
Despite its easy access to the UK by ferry, Channel tunnel or Eurostar, this beautiful part of northern France has the air of a hidden gem. Driving around, it is hard to reconcile the fact that the horrors of war once raged in a region that is now so peaceful and pleasant, which is why the Remembrance Day commemoration is so important. Lest we forget.
Cap Blanc-nez on the Opal Coast