Great es­cape: North­ern France

Nigel Hut­son and Clau­dia Dow­ell ex­plore north­ern France, a re­gion of great peace and beauty, de­spite be­ing steeped in the his­tory and mem­o­ries of war

Practical Caravan - - Contents -

Join Nigel Hut­son and our Clau­dia on a re­flec­tive trip to Com­piègne, in north­ern France, where the

World War I Ar­mistice was signed

Stand­ing out­side the beau­ti­fully con­structed wooden train car­riage, a replica of the one that saw the sign­ing of the Ar­mistice that ended the Great War, ev­ery­thing seemed so peace­ful that I was find­ing it dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend how it all be­gan. This tragic, com­pli­cated pe­riod in his­tory ap­peared to stem from the as­sas­si­na­tion of Aus­tria’s Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand in Sara­jevo. This rapidly es­ca­lated into dec­la­ra­tions of war, em­broil­ing first Eu­rope, then much of the rest of the world. I was learn­ing all about this in a small mu­seum in the Oise Dé­parte­ment in north­ern France, hid­den in a for­est near the his­toric town of Com­piègne, around 80km to the north-east of Paris.

Signed and sealed

Peer­ing through the car­riage win­dows at the long ta­ble in­side, I made out the names of six men who were present at the sign­ing. Mar­shal Foch, Com­man­der-in-chief of the Al­lied Armies, was in charge of the pro­ceed­ings, sup­ported by Ad­mi­ral of the Fleet Sir Ross­lyn We­myss, First Sea Lord, for the Al­lies. Rep­re­sent­ing the de­feated forces were Matthias Erzberger, Ger­many’s sec­re­tary of state, pres­i­dent of the Ger­man del­e­ga­tion Count von Oberu­dorff, ex­tra­or­di­nary en­voy and min­is­ter plenipo­ten­tiary Ma­jor-gen­eral von Win­ter­feldt and Cap­tain Vanselow of the Ger­man navy. The stand-in car­riage is now dis­played in the mu­seum, but the orig­i­nal, de­stroyed by the Ger­mans in World War II, oc­cu­pied a clear­ing in the for­est. The lo­ca­tion was de­lib­er­ately cho­sen by Mar­shal Foch to keep the ne­go­ti­a­tions pri­vate. The talks to bring an end to the con­flict took three days, but it was a hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat for the Ger­mans, and it was one that was avenged 22 years later, when Hitler in­sisted that the car­riage should be used in the sign­ing of doc­u­ments to mark the Fall of France in June 1940. For me, it felt im­por­tant to be vis­it­ing here, if only for a short time, be­fore the cen­te­nary com­mem­o­ra­tions of World War I draw to a close on 11 Novem­ber 2018. So close to the French cap­i­tal, the Oise re­gion found it­self at the heart of the Ger­man in­va­sion in 1914. Be­fore my trip here, I am ashamed to say I knew lit­tle of Com­piègne and the bat­tle­fields to the north; but now I was in a room full of wooden stere­o­scopes, packed with pho­to­graphic im­ages on glass slides de­pict­ing the ghastly re­al­ity of the Great War. The 3D im­ages of ex­hausted, fright­ened young sol­diers some­how had more im­pact than flat pho­to­graphs that I had seen be­fore; they be­came more real. Per­haps that feel­ing was in­ten­si­fied by the book I was read­ing at the time: the very per­sonal ac­count of WWI re­vealed by Vera Brit­tain in her book Tes­ta­ment of Youth, from her let­ters to her fi­ancé, the poet Roland Leighton, who was killed in 1915. The mu­seum holds a copy of the ledger spelling out the con­di­tions of peace, which were even­tu­ally to prove so in­tol­er­a­ble to the Ger­mans that they are thought to have con­trib­uted to the out­break of World War II. The mu­seum also records the name of Au­gustin Trébu­chon, the last French sol­dier to die in WWI, killed just 15 min­utes be­fore the bu­gle sounded the cease­fire. It’s heart­break­ing, even 100 years on. If only it had been 15 min­utes ear­lier – but then it would only be some­one else’s name that Pres­i­dent Macron would be hon­our­ing on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the cen­te­nary of the Great War, and in a dif­fer­ent vil­lage to that of Vrigne-meuse where Trébu­chon had lived. Out­side, the clear­ing hold­ing the train car­riage was closed to visi­tors, no doubt in prepa­ra­tion for the com­mem­o­ra­tions to come a few weeks hence.

Two World Wars

The mu­seum tells the sto­ries of both World Wars, be­cause this area and to the north was so im­por­tant dur­ing both, as the last front­line be­fore Paris. As you wan­der through the rooms, past cab­i­nets full of hand grenades and bul­lets, the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of war are sober­ing. The mu­seum is clearly ded­i­cated to these com­mem­o­ra­tions, rather than a more com­mer­cial en­ter­prise – there is no café here, and only a very small shop sell­ing slim vol­umes about the wars, and it costs just €5 to en­ter. This seemed to me to set the right tone. But it is in­evitably a place of some sor­row, and I needed cheer­ing up. Join­ing me on this tour was our Car­a­van Ge­nius Nigel Hut­son, and we de­cided that lunch and the beau­ti­ful Château de Pier­re­fonds should do the trick. It’s just 20 min­utes’ drive from the Glade of the Ar­mistice, on the edge of the For­est of Com­piègne, and is one of the key at­trac­tions in the area. Pier­re­fonds is a small and pretty town dom­i­nated by the beau­ti­ful château, whose pale stone and pointy tur­rets wouldn’t look out of place in the Loire Val­ley – favourite haunt of French kings – or a Dis­ney film.

But first, lunch, af­ter a visit to the Tourist Of­fice, where we picked up a town map. We were drawn to­wards the lake, where be­yond a large flock of ped­a­los, we could see a busy lake­side restau­rant, l’em­bar­cadère. We sat out on the ter­race in the late Septem­ber sun­shine – I tucked into a goat’s cheese salad and watched the an­tics of the wa­ter­birds. Re­fu­elled, we walked through the town to the cas­tle and be­gan to climb.

On­wards and up­wards

There are two en­trances to the cas­tle; if you visit, take the one a lit­tle fur­ther up­hill to the right, which is the less stren­u­ous route into the build­ing – as we dis­cov­ered when we were leav­ing and passed a group of el­derly visi­tors gamely strug­gling with the as­cent. We took the scenic route to the left that skirted the cas­tle’s walls, and gave us great views across the rooftops to the lake, and en­tered via the draw­bridge. The court­yard is huge – along one side is a por­tico, whose key­stones are quirky carv­ings de­pict­ing folk from dif­fer­ent walks of life. At this point, it’s worth men­tion­ing a lit­tle of the build­ing’s his­tory. It was built in the late 14th cen­tury by Louis de Valois, Duke of Or­léans and brother of Charles VI, as a state­ment of power in his con­flict with the Duke of Bur­gundy. In the 17th cen­tury, it was be­ing used as a base by the en­e­mies of Louis XIII – he or­dered it to be de­stroyed. The sub­se­quent

‘We took the scenic route that skirted the cas­tle walls and gave us some great views’

par­tial ruin was pur­chased by Napoleon I in the early 19th cen­tury and en­joyed fame as a ro­man­tic ruin, un­til, in the mid-19th cen­tury, Napoleon III com­manded its restora­tion as an im­pe­rial palace. For the project, he em­ployed prom­i­nent ar­chi­tect Eugène Vi­ol­let-le-duc, who based the de­sign on his idea of what a me­dieval cas­tle should look like. How­ever, the project ran out of money and the work was not com­pleted. To­day, it is a mu­seum. As well as those quirky key­stones, there are some won­der­ful touches to dis­cover here, such as croc­o­dile storm drains, the gor­geous painted ceil­ings in the state rooms, and what looks just like por­cu­pine wall­pa­per – I def­i­nitely want that in my house! The Or­der of the Por­cu­pine was an hon­our es­tab­lished by Louis de Valois.

Peck­ing or­der

Above a vast dou­ble fire­place at the end of a long room stand nine tall fig­ures: we imag­ined there would be a peck­ing or­der among the courtiers to get close to the warmth of the fire. At the tops of stair­cases, along cor­ri­dors, in the tow­ers and out­side we came across huge sculp­tures of lions, as well as griffins and other myth­i­cal crea­tures. For me, this place was a real joy to visit and it came as no sur­prise that the cas­tle has been used as a lo­ca­tion in films and fea­tured as Camelot in the TV se­ries Mer­lin. My car­a­van was pitched at Camp­ing Les Arau­carias in Car­lepont, a shady, wooded site 20 min­utes’ drive from the Ar­mistice Glade and 30 min­utes from the cen­tre of Com­piègne. In the ab­sence of any ob­vi­ous eater­ies near the site, I ar­ranged to meet Nigel in Com­piègne for din­ner. Af­ter a brief rest in the van, I headed into town to the Bistrot des Arts, a busy restau­rant close to the river, which has a great at­mos­phere, serves good wine and does a cou­ple of set menus, as well as à la carte. Dur­ing din­ner, we planned the next day’s ex­plor­ing. The For­est of Com­piègne earned its place in his­tory long be­fore the tu­mul­tuous events of the two World Wars. This was where Joan of Arc shel­tered be­fore she was cap­tured in the town. When I asked in the Tourist Of­fice about the sig­nif­i­cance of her heroic statue in the gar­dens in front of the town hall, I re­ceived a rather wither­ing look for my ig­no­rance, par­tic­u­larly be­cause she was, of course, try­ing to save the town from the clutches of the English – oh dear. To­day, Com­piègne is an at­trac­tive, busy town ly­ing at the con­flu­ence of the Rivers Oise and Aisne and it has two build­ings of par­tic­u­lar note, as well as the old part of town, which has some very in­ter­est­ing tim­ber-framed build­ings. The town hall or Hô­tel de Ville stands in front of a large gar­den square, packed with flow­ers, in the mid­dle of which that statue of Joan of Arc stands. The build­ing is an as­ton­ish­ing Gothic cre­ation, erected in the first half of the 16th cen­tury. At the cen­tre of its highly dec­o­ra­tive fa­cade is a statue of Louis XII on horse­back. The town hall’s bel­fry houses a 14th-cen­tury clock, one of the old­est com­mu­nity clocks in France. If you can time it right, try to catch it on the hour, when you will see the three fig­ures at the top of the bel­fry strike the hour with their mal­lets. It re­ally is rather spec­tac­u­lar.

Toy sol­diers

The Tourist Of­fice is at ground level and next door is the Mu­seum of His­tor­i­cal Fig­urines. Toy sol­diers don’t hold much in­ter­est for me, but I rather wish that I had popped in for a look: the mu­seum is said to hold 100,000 fig­urines, all ar­ranged in dif­fer­ent bat­tles. In­stead, we walked to the Im­pe­rial Palace of Com­piègne. Com­piègne was a favourite among the Roy­als and the Em­per­ors, we dis­cov­ered. The Palais de Com­piègne looks enor­mous

and it is in­deed one of the three largest royal and im­pe­rial res­i­dences in France, the oth­ers be­ing Ver­sailles and Fon­tainebleau. Built by Louis XV and XVI in the late 18th cen­tury, it was looted in the Revo­lu­tion, and re­mod­elled by Napoleon I and III in the 19th cen­tury. To­day, the neoclassical build­ing houses the mu­seum of the Sec­ond Empire, a car mu­seum and a mu­seum of tourism. Sadly, it was Tues­day, the only day of the week when the palace is closed, so we had to make do with a visit to the gar­dens. I was par­tially con­soled by the thought of tea in the Rose Gar­den. But the tea­rooms were closed, too. In­stead, we made our way back into town and found Fleur de Thé, rather aptly on the Rue des Patissiers. Tea and cake were a treat and a wel­come break. Our time in the area was sadly brief. Nigel helped me to hitch up the van and we got on the road; we had a cou­ple more stops to make on the way north, be­fore catch­ing the ferry home. First, we were head­ing to the Thiep­val Me­mo­rial to the Miss­ing of the Somme. The Bat­tle of the Somme was one of the bit­ter­est and dead­li­est of WWI and on the Bri­tish side, saw the first de­ploy­ment of in­ex­pe­ri­enced vol­un­teers on the front­line. On the first day alone, Bri­tish ca­su­al­ties num­bered more than 57,000. Thiep­val Me­mo­rial, de­signed by Sir Ed­win Lu­tyens, is the largest Com­mon­wealth me­mo­rial in the world. The names of the 72,337 miss­ing Bri­tish and South African ser­vice­men who died at the Somme are en­graved into its Port­land stone. Sadly, we did not have time to visit the mu­seum, in­au­gu­rated 100 years af­ter the first Bat­tle of the Somme. We did visit the Con­naught Ceme­tery, which hon­ours more than 1200 Com­mon­wealth ser­vice­men aged 15 to 60 – a lost gen­er­a­tion. You can­not help leav­ing WWI memo­ri­als with a heavy heart: it is all too ap­palling to con­tem­plate, es­pe­cially be­cause it hap­pened again, just 21 years later. Time to re­flect Our spir­its lifted a bit as we headed to­wards Calais and our DFDS Sea­ways ferry. Pri­or­ity Board­ing (£10 per ve­hi­cle) meant we were among the first on board and the Pre­mier Lounge (£12 per per­son) gave us the pick of com­fort­able places to sit. As we en­joyed our free cof­fees and pas­tries, we re­flected on the anx­i­ety the sol­diers must have ex­pe­ri­enced as they crossed the Chan­nel to face the un­known. They were prob­a­bly as clue­less as I was about how the war started and why they were fight­ing, but vol­un­teered none­the­less, be­cause their coun­try needed them. Just as I felt af­ter my visit to Ypres last year, I was so glad to see the peace­ful Oise and Somme of to­day, and I learned a lot – al­though there is still much to dis­cover about those very tur­bu­lent times.

The Com­piègne Me­mo­rial is just one of many places for con­tem­pla­tion

CLAU­DIA DOW­ELL is fea­tures ed­i­tor of Prac­ti­cal Car­a­van; she loves ex­plor­ing great des­ti­na­tions

you From the cas­tle, get a great view across the rooftops be­low

TOP Pier­re­fonds’ fairy­tale-like ex­te­rior MID­DLE The Im­pe­rial Palace of Com­piègne’s far­reach­ing es­tate. The por­tico of Château Pier­re­fonds’ court­yard BOT­TOM Clau­dia loved the quirky croc­o­dile storm drains. Dec­o­ra­tive key­stones rep­re­sent fig­ures from all walks of life

CLOCK­WISE FROM MAIN Pier­re­fonds is a reimag­in­ing of a me­dieval cas­tle. Fine in­te­ri­ors. Griffins guard the stairs

BE­LOW Pay­ing re­spects at the Con­naught Ceme­tery RIGHT Thiep­val’s renowned Me­mo­rial, de­signed by Sir Ed­win Lu­tyens

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