Among the millions of trees we see as we sweep through France, some remain in the memory because they are so special. For instance, when we stopped for lunch on Wednesday in the charming little bistro called le Roquetin at Laroque Timbaut, there were behind the church two huge and expansive black cedars about 200 yards apart. They must have been at least 150 years old, and probably planted at around the same time and maybe by the same person. Planting them was certainly a grand gesture. These had no practical purpose. Whoever did it would have been very unlikely to have seen these trees more than 20 or 30 feet high. Now they add grandeur and delight to an otherwise typical village.
It is also clear that some small districts were also inspired to plant specimen trees - for instance, the Hospital at Flers has two enormous creatures - Giant Redwood? Sequoia? Swamp Cedar? I am not very good at identifying these magnificent things but I love them. Their great height and commanding presence dominates their surroundings, but without any aggression or bullying. One imagines that sometime, somewhere, a single individual who knows about trees and also supplies seedlings can inspire a whole neighbourhood to do something - maybe the local landlord or rich man takes an interest - and there you are. A hundred or so years later, we get a spread of utter magic - great living artworks. I read some years ago that the arrival of the blue Atlantic cedar was the end of the traditional black cedar beloved of English landscapers, and that these older darker trees cannot now be found in any nursery. That may no longer be true, but whereas I see quite a few of the glaucas in small and medium size, I cannot think of a single young Cedar of Lebanon anywhere in England or Ireland. We saw none in France either.
I will have to take back some of my rude remarks about Flers, or at least I should bolster up my enthusiasm, because this morning on our way out of town we diverted to see the chateau, which was a miraculous survivor of the 1944 bombardments. It is not huge, and is made in an L-shape, but it is very pretty and sits surrounded by water - lakes, moat, etc. The reflections are gorgeous. The whole chateau, with its park and watergardens was presented to the town by the mayor at the end of the 19th century and now houses the Mairie, the Museum and the Tourist Office. We saw it in bright sunshine, with small groups of very small children being shown round the grounds by their teachers. A lot of careful attention was paid to some of the artworks installed for the summer as part of a fête. They were asked to observe colour, subject, form and scale and seemed to be paying careful attention. The behaviour of French children is also remarkable from an English point of view, as described in that famous book 'Bringing up Bébé', otherwise known as 'French children don't throw food').
At this moment we are on the ferry back to England - amid cloud, drizzle, darkness and damp. We are looking at our suntanned arms in amazement. The mood is sombre - the party is over. But - I will just mention one of our discoveries today - a café-bar called Le Frescot at St Romain de Collbosc, which is a small vill just 3km south of the motorway near le Havre. Vaut le detour for the whole experience - free parking in the street, convivial, bustling atmosphere, firm handshake from the proprietor (M Pascal Ledoult) after we had sat down, about thirty local working people very enthusiastically having their lunch there - presumably they go there every day - and a delicious four course lunch for just €12.95. That meant fresh local produce, freshly cooked by Madame (signed outside as 'cuisinier professionel' and we would expect no less), and included bread, wine and water. Coffee would have been an extra €1.50. So, suck that, Thatched Inn, Hassocks, West Sussex.
We are bringing home some fancy secateurs, red peppers, wine of course, cheese, olive oil, rice, dried beans to cook and to sow in the allotment next year, honey, bread, black pudding, Iberian ham packed under vacuum, sweet Spanish onions, and sweet red pimiento pepper. This is of course, an attempt to prolong the fabulous culinary experience which has been at the heart of our trip. We've driven just short of three thousand miles. We've had loads of fun and sought out some very memorable places to visit. My eyeballs are almost scorched with plain old looking. Tonight we'll be home. I can hardly believe it.