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Sour Grapes and Sodding Croissants Part Four. On a Frolic of My Own

October 15, 2012

The finances were improving! I could buy a car.

An aged Austin A30 which, despite the single wiper and the trafficators popping out from the door columns could give more lofty cars a run for their money at the lights as someone had souped up its engine.

While the more lofty car would soon make up the ground, London’s traffic light system would ensure that we met again at the next red light, at which point the determination of the male driver to grind this relic into the ground was palpable.

So I didn’t accelerate. Not until we met again at the next red light.

With a car I could extend my holidays from one day to two…or if lucky, three so the early hours of  Saturday morning would find me at the docks…about to undergo the most nervewracking thing I had ever done.

Board a car ferry.

I was petrified. What I wanted was a clear run, to avoid having to stop and start on the ramp while cars ahead manoevred. The attendants wanted cars on the move.


I sometimes got away with it…the chaps thinking the combination of ancient car and woman driver indicating the path of least resistance…but usually not and the tension of the whole thing had hardly subsided before it was time to reverse the process and drive down the ramp on the other side.

It was worth it, though, to be able to see more…and, equally, not to have to carry anything, so Northern France became my weekend playground.

Mention Dunkirk and the mind turns to the evacuation of the troops from the moles and from the beaches between the 27th May and 4th June 1940, but British troops had been there before on a 4th June…. at the Battle of the Dunes in 1658 when the troops of Cromwell’s New Model Army, allied to the French, stormed a one hundred and fifty foot sand dune to rout the stoutest troops of the Spanish army, the cannon of the Commonwealth fleet clearing the Spanish troops from the beaches to secure a victory….and possession of Dunkirk for the British.

Needless to say, Charles II, Louis XIV’s pensioner, promptly gave it back once restored to the throne…even though he and his brother had been fighting on the side of the  Spanish at the Dunes.

It is often thought of as a dull countryside…and so it is from the main roads…drainage dykes and canals running through the flat lands, but it has a quiet beauty, pale skies reflected in still waters and a few places spared the destruction of the warfare which has been the portion of this area for centuries.

Such as Bergues, where I stopped for lunch on one of those rare days in the north when the wind had dropped and the sun was hot and strong.

I had intended to explore the town for a long time…but lunch came first.

Not being a tourist town…at least at that period before it became famous as the place where ‘Bienvenue Chez les Cht’is’ was filmed…there was not much choice of places to eat, but I found one with a menu outside…and knew exactly what I wanted to order!

Grey shrimp fritters followed by a potjevleisch with a Jupiter beer to accompany it and consumed in a cool dining room. Bliss.

Potjevleisch is a dish of rabbit, veal and chicken cooked together with onions and thyme and left to cool…served in its own jelly. Very bliss on a hot day!

I had wanted to visit Bergues as on one of my railway journeys I had spent the last day in Paris at the museum in the Invalides…and had found the wonderful relief maps of fortified towns made for the French army staff since the days of Louis XIV tucked away in a quiet section of the building.

Among them…Bergues.

Fortified to designs by Vauban in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as part of a chain of fortresses guarding the northern frontier of France from attack from what was then the Spanish Netherlands the relief map shows the provision for interlocking fire and the use of the existing canals for further protection….and what works of art all those relief maps were!

Houses, churches, trees all produced to scale…..the state secrets of France!

And after lunch I could walk the town ramparts and see for myself that the majority of the fortifications were still  in place….could walk where the garrison had grown bored watching the horizon for threats which never came as the frontiers were pushed back and war entered a different phase.

Until May 1940, when Bergues was the hinge of the defence line holding the perimeter of Dunkirk while the ships and men of Operation Dynamo tried to lift off the armies of France and Britain from the bombed and blazing beaches of Dunkirk.

  1. I have to say I have never heard of Bergues before I read your post. It looks nice too.

    I like that strange area of northern France. We travelled down through when we moved to Spain. The town centres are quite tiny and travelling through with a Land Rover and a military trailer I wondered how on earth the troops had managed it as I thought we were going to get stuck more than once in narrow streets. We learned to take the by-passes after that.

  2. Very touristy since the film was made there….I think tanks made their own by passes…

  3. Third time lucky, I hope. 🙂 This isn’t a part of France I’ve ever been to except to pass through by coach, so I enjoyed this post. What fun to be able to make weekend trips like this and get to know an area which is often neglected. I’ve never even heard of Bergues and it looks gorgeous!

  4. I was footloose and fancy free…keen on military history and – at last – able to afford not only the little car but also petrol to run it, cheap hotels and simple meals. I prowled about all over the place!

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