Part Five. It Walks by Night….
Most of my memories of touring in northern France are of grey days and drizzle, with the odd day of hard winter sun, for by now I had my first little house to pay for and a garden to make….so escapes were made when nothing useful could be done at home.
A look at the weather forecast, a glance at the sky…and I’d be off, my small bag on the back seat and a map on the seat beside me. They weren’t always wonderful, those maps…but as long as they showed the main towns and villages I was confident I would not get lost.
After all, I was touring, not hareing down to the Riviera to the sound of Trenet and ‘Nationale Sept’.
I can’t remember whether the French Tourist Office had started christening every bit of coast in sight by some name or other at that time…..I was certainly not particularly aware that an area I liked to visit was called the Cote d’Opale, I just liked the area from the sands of Belgium to the estuary of the Somme.
Up north the land was flat, drained by ditches and canals…further west the hills started, villages strung out along the little rivers while the coast was marked by cliffs and inlets. Inland was the area I thought of as ‘the War’…the battlefields, the cemeteries, the waste of life…I stayed away.
Driving down from Boulogne on the main road was the sign to Montreuil sur Mer…..miles inland from the sea it had once been one of the main ports of medieval France perched on its hill high above the Canche. When you look at those ports…like Barfleur, the port used by the Angevins between their French and English domains…it brings home to you just how small were those ships which carried wool, grain…and armies… across the short seas of the Channel.
From port to fort…as the Canche silted up the town became one of the fortresses guarding the border of France with the Spanish Netherlands until sacked by the troops of Charles V who, as was usual for soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire, indulged in their traditional sport of pulling down the churches.
Rebuilt by Francois I, remodelled by Vauban under Louis XIV, war wandered away from Montreuil just as had its medieval commerce, leaving it a sleepy small town on the road to Boulogne, which is how Victor Hugo saw it in the 1830s when on holiday at Etaples and some twenty five years later used it as the setting for part of ‘Les Miserables’….Jean Valjean being maire of the town before ‘revealing all’ to save another from the galleys.
Pretty, a bit touristy even then, it was a gateway to the little valleys surrounding it….pretty villages, watermills, quiet stands of trees….and on the coast the seaside towns…more Hove than Brighton….where the litterati spent their holidays while the glitterati went to Deauville.
I could not efface all contact with’ the War’. At Etaples where nine base hospitals had operated the graves stretch into infinity…English laid with English, Africans with Africans, Chinese with Chinese….discrimination or solidarity..who can now know.
Etaples had been an artistic colony in the nineteenth century…as had Wissant before it.
Forget Monet and Giverny…look at Manet. Rejected by the Navy he never lost his interest in boats and seascapes.
While of a lesser order Chigot celebrates the shrimp catcher.
Those grey shrimps which have the taste of the sea……a pain to deshell, a delight to eat.
On this occasion I was returning to Boulogne to take the ferry because I wanted to see the column commemorating the army assembled under Napoleon I to invade England and, having decided not to climb to the top, drove into Wimereux to seek lodging for the night.
By this time I was broken in to French hotels…..you paid, had your passport confiscated and then carried out the French national sport which should by now have achieved Olympic recognition.
Charging up a flight of stairs with luggage in hand before the time switch on the light cut off, leaving you to find your room number in something resembling a wartime blackout.
This experience alone explains the theory of farce.
Having found the room, clean, but sporting a bedside table upon which every travelling arsonist had put in a training session with matches, you then had to find the bathroom.
It would be somewhere in the corridor, so you had to open your bedroom door while holding your keys and washbag and in the light from your own room identify the light switch.
Then, leaving the light on in your room, sprint up and down the corridor looking for the unnumbered door which would, with luck, be the bathroom.
It wasn’t guaranteed to be.
Someone’s granny could get a terrible shock as the visitor burst in looking for a loo.
‘Allo, Allo’ had nothing on it.
And don’t think about a bath…if one existed at all it would be one of those tiny tubs with a seat upon which you sat while soaping yourself.
Let no one say that the French lack innovative talent.
They’d invented the shower stool before inventing the shower.
Bit like minitel and the internet, really.
No, you usually had the loo, an occasional bidet and the wash basin. The hook on the back of the door served as towel rail and place to park your garments.
You’d forgotten your towel?
Another sprint along the corridor. And get some soap while you’re at it.
However there was usually a loo roll.
So the amenities at the hotel came as no surprise. Monsieur had two rooms available. Would I like to see them?
Indeed I would.
Monsieur led the way and opened the door. The walls and ceiling….but not the floor… were covered in blue grey shag pile carpeting.
Monsieur showed me the second room…shag pile again, but in a vivid flame orange.
I settled for the first, hanging a scarf on the door handle to indicate the exit.
It was like a night from Edgar Allan Poe….I felt the shag pile descending to smother me while outside there was a distinct and repeated sound of heavy breathing.
At dawn I gave up and drew back the curtains…grey but not shag pile.
Outside the window, on the leads, a large Alsatian regarded me solemnly, then turned his back and defecated mightily.