Postcards from Normandy
We are in Normandy. Except that we’re not. We had rented a house at St Floxel, a small village in the Manche. It would have been half term week, and we were to have been sharing it with the children and grand-children. Getting there from Edinburgh was an interesting challenge. We had booked to fly from here to Jersey, and then to take the Manche Iles ferry to Barneville Carteret. But thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic, all travel is off. Which just leaves a few stray memories.
For me, and I guess for a lot of other people, Normandy has been a place for passing through rather than a place for going to. My earliest memory is of an Easter weekend trip at the end of the 1960s. David and I went to Paris with two girls, sisters, one of whom had a Mini. We took the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry, and the fan-belt broke on the outward journey We stayed the night in a cheap hotel in Gournay-en-Bray. I see that James Bentley in his book Normandy: A guide for the civilised traveller describes Gournay as ‘a lovely little town’ with old-fashioned Normandy houses and a stern, Romanesque, twelfth century church dedicated to St Hildevert, whose bones rest there. But I can remember nothing of the place. [For the rest of the weekend David and I stayed with my friend, Clive, at the Porte de Vincennes, and ate memorably, for the first time, at La Coupole, the period brasserie in Montparnasse.] On our way back to Dieppe we had lunch on a Normandy farm, with a family for whom one of the girls had previously au-paired. And I was greatly impressed when it transpired that every delicious thing we ate and drank – crudités, chicken, assorted vegetables, tarte-aux-pommes, thick cream, cider, and calvados – was all produced at their farm.
A year or two later I was back at Dieppe, returning from a holiday at Sarlat in the Dordogne. A. and I decided to eat before catching the night ferry, and ordered a big bowl of moules marinières. It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it then transpired that we were sharing the boat with the annual outing of the Brighton and District Licenses Victuallers’ Association. It was a very long and bumpy crossing, and I’ve never eaten mussels since then.
Dieppe was a favoured Channel crossing for a time. It was the nearest port by road from Paris. When we lived in Paris in the 1970s for a few years we often used that route. More than once we missed the ferry by stopping for lunch at a roadhouse restaurant on the road up from Rouen. That was where we first encountered the trou normand; a small glass of Calvados taken after the main course which supposedly helps make space for the cheese and pudding to follow. The food was certainly good enough for us not mind at all missing the ferry.
A decade or so later I transferred my car-ferry allegiance to Southampton. Le Havre is unlovely, the centre almost entirely rebuilt in concrete after taking a pounding in the Second World War. I once arrived at a small hotel in Ste-Adresse to be met by the elderly, Polish proprietor, stalking the streets with a loaded shot-gun in search of a sneak-thief. One of the problems with that crossing was that driving to Paris involved crossing the dramatic 1959 Pont de Tancarville; 51 metres above the river and 1400 metres long. As someone who suffers from severe acrophobia, a form of vertigo, I became adept at negotiating the bridge very slowly with both eyes largely closed !
Staying with Francis and Madeleine
One summer in the 1990s we stayed on the way to Brittany with our friends Francis and Madeleine. Francis was a Paris dentist, who came back to faith after horrific crash on the Normandy autoroute which led to his being carried unconscious off the road by a passing lorry driver. They had a holiday house in Normandy, not far from Lisieux, all exposed beams and doubtful wiring.
‘Would we like to go to church with them on Sunday ?’ Yes, we would. So we drove south for the best part of an hour, and parked with difficult in a small village. There were lots of cars. And the church was very crowded. The priest was short-ish, with a monocle, and flanked by le Suisse with a large sword. The service was in a mixture of Latin and French, and the priest was incomprehensible in both languages. The congregation was part of the [then] Lefebvbre tendency [now known as the Society of Saint Pius X]. Many of the congregation made their way to the presbytery after the service with bottles of whisky as gifts. The priest’s name was Quentin Montgomery-Wright; and yes he was a nephew of General Montgomery. He came to dinner later in the week [the priest, not the general], accompanied by a young seminarian from Birmingham; and we ate and drank copiously before he roared off Mr Toad-like into the night in a large motor car. We never saw him again. I believe he was killed in a car crash a year or two later.
Other memories are just isolated fragments. A weekend in Rouen in the 1970s for the Congrês des Anglicistes, at which William Golding was the main speaker. A weekend in Bayeux in the 1980s for a book exhibition when the children were quite young, and visiting the Bayeux tapestry with them. An autumn day at Etretat looking at the chalk cliffs painted by Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet, and wondering where we might have a modest lunch. Climbing a lot of steps up from the beach at St Valéry-en-Caux, where the 51st Highland Division surrendered in 1940. A night in a hotel set back in the woods twenty minutes drive south of Caen. Was that at Goupillères ? Stopping at Falaise on the way south to look at the castle where William the Conqueror was born; the bastard son of Arlette, the local washer-woman. And climbing over another ruined castle at Domfront, set on a promontory above the river Varenne. Escaping from an extended summer heatwave further south into the cool sea mists of Cherbourg on the way back to the UK
On the wish list
Compiling a wish list is always a bit optimistic when there are six adults and four small children. I’d like to visit the D-Day Landings museum at Arromanches, which [disgracefully] I’ve never seen. And relatedly I’d like to visit the grave of Henry Desmond Penkivel Minchin in Bayeux Cemetery. Desmond was a Lieutenant in the 6th Battalion of the KOSB, and was killed at the age of 21 fighting in Normandy. I spent a decade sitting next to the window which was his memorial in Christ Church, Duns. And periodically taking Home Communion to his elderly mother, Mrs Kathleen Winifred Minchin [née Molesworth] who lived at Cruxfield in Berwickshire.
And I’d also like to walk round the ramparts at Granville. And to explore a bit the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula, including Portbail where my friend Clive spent many summer holidays. And to go in search of lunch at the Auberge de l’Ouve, ‘miles from anywhere’ on the banks of the Ouve according to my Routard Guide, which specialises in eels and smoked ham in cider. I wonder if it’s still there.
I miss all this stuff in a time of lock-down. But I’m grateful for the memories. I think I’ll go and look out a bottle of Calvados and my recipe for coquelet pays d’Auge.