Thursday, 12 May 2011

Backwards and forwards in time

Good places always have a clear identity, so that you recognise them and remember them. Often it's just the lie of the land, or the angle of the paths, or some other almost unconscious element, so you can hardly say what it is which you've noticed, but still, you know where you are.
Strangely, some places are very reminiscent of other distant places, and it's a pleasure to contrast and compare. Today after lunch at St Valery-en-Caux (of which more later) we tootled back to Fecamp along the tiny coast road, and found ourselves in North Norfolk. Here are the same little flint-and-red brick cottages and gardens with battered hedges, ancient lanes, poppies in the verges, and a hot dry chalky feel to the place. Just as in Burnham Market or Cley-next-the-Sea you feel you could reach back just with one hand to the bad old days of hard graft and lowly status, but in front of you is a sense of prosperity and rejuvenation, with the labourers' cottages modernised, and the old potato patches turned over to lawns and other leisurely purposes. This Norfolk idyll is particularly attached to one village, the others looking more Normandy-French... you will find it if you take the coast road around les Petites Dalles and xxx (forgotten, will fill this in!)

This is called the Alabaster Coast because of the light coming from the sea and the stunning line of chalk cliffs which stretch in either direction, 350+ feet high. Calm farmland up top and dangerous beaches below. Tiny valleys pip down to the sea from time to time – you can drive down these timeless little hideaways, with their calm cattle and expensive herds of horses. In the cliffs themselves are the inevitable remains of German fortifications – heavy concrete bunkers in Art Deco style.

We had lunch at St Valery-en-Caux, which is another port-in-a-valley, like Fecamp but smaller and with more of a tidal race. It too has its lifting bridge, lock and basin, plus casino, market, defunct railway station, bomb damage etc. We had an ok lunch at Resto les Bains, enjoying the powerfully coloured fake flowers and stylish lamps. It's all so well organised, wherever you go in France. It works. It's a total mystery to me why we can't organise this in England.... but then, our revolution was 130 years before the French and our class system, property-owning system, community-mindedness, and common sense are totally different. Neither did we have Napoleon.

We watched a few fishing boats loading the last of their catch up the huge wharfs to the stalls above. We watched a middle-aged couple gingerly working their way along a tiny ledge by the water's edge: she fishing for something – crabs? shellfish? - with a shrimp net, while he watched. It seemed timeless. They could have come from the Stone Age, apart from their clothes. We watched two young herring gulls pulling in a tug-of-war over some scrap on a sandbank in the harbour as the tide slowly filled around them. We admired a huge mural (60 feet high?) on an end wall.... depicting the sea, which in reality was only a couple of hundred yards away. We looked at the amazing carved wood on the front of the medieval merchant's house, with lots of women carrying bounty or spinning, or standing around... dating from the 14thc? Gorgeous.

We drove back past the thermo-electric nuclear power station at Paluel, with its ferocious razor-wire fence. We crossed the Paluel beach which in formation must be how Fecamp looked before the Abbots or nuns or whoever decided to develop it back in the 9th C.

Our tootling was helped by the satnav, which led us down roads with grass growing in the middle, and past thatched cottages with irises planted neatly along the roof-ridges, and past the gates of a smart 18thC chateau commercially named after Sissi (because she stayed there one summer. Not many English have heard of Sissi in my experience, but every Austrian and most French have. She's worth researching).
Actually the chateau is a Logis and is really called Sassetot and has a Salon de The - so we called in. It's quite nice, very reminiscent of Digeon which is my favourite Chateau so far, back in Picardy..... and see, we are back at one place being like another.

Here's the story. Sissi's chief courtier checked the place out a year in advance and then recommended she visit for the healthy sea air. She pitched up in July 1875 with 70 servants and had a great time. Not only did she cause a sensation by the size of her retinue, but she also swam in the sea. To remain private she did her daily bathing inside a double line of colossal canvas screens stretched out on the beach. The 'histoire' does not fail to have a dig at the English... it was an ENGLISH riding master who constructed some jumps for her horse, but she fell to the ground during her riding exercise and was UNCONSCIOUS for a while. Luckily a FRENCH physician was on hand to restore her to health and she totally recovered. She left a fortnight later at the end of September... back to Vienna, I suppose. Reading the notes provided by the waiter in the tea room, I wanted to shriek with laughter but restrained myself. The sense of anxiety and drama surrounding this long-dead aristo/Empress is almost palpable... the lady has fallen, she is hurt, we are all affected, we are deeply moved to hear she has recovered... Oh, please!!! Citoyens! What are you thinking?

Tonight, our last night, we are having supper with Michelle – a friend of the lady who owns this marvellou apartment. It was Michelle who let us in, showed us round. She is the one in the house with all the ornaments. I love it. We leave after breakfast, boo hoo. As usual, our holiday has passed by in a flash.

I meant to say – this morning I was able to meet with Mme Desjardins, the Conservateur from the fishing museum, a lovely lady whose office is in the old museum building no longer suitable for public access due to fire regs. The fine circular staircase is a model of elegance but is now deemed unsuitable, apart from municipal officials who risk their lives every day by working there. She was friendliness itself and has agreed to stay in touch with the Faversham Creek Trust – we can do with all the help we can get.

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