Montebourg is a small town in the Cotentin peninsula, just off the N13 road that leads up to Cherbourg. The town was 90% destroyed by fighting in 1944, so there are very few historic buildings in the town centre. But there are three bakeries, two butchers, one advertising prize-winning tripes and pieds de porc, both local specialities in the Manche, and a fishmongers with a big basket of spider crabs. We had rented a house there for a twice-postponed, three generation family holiday for May half-term.
It was a curious house, with eleven or so rooms on three floors, not counting the basement, shielded from the road by some leylandia trees that would have benefitted from pruning. The owner who came to open up on our arrival is a Belgian vet from Liège. He was coolly unfriendly and showed us round the three floors in a rather perfunctory manner. The rooms were in good condition with well-painted walls and wooden floors, but the decor was totally random: a vast collection of toy animals, some very big colourful paintings including Mickey Mouse, a blow-up rabbit, a brown leather chesterfield with US army style cushions flanked by plastic chairs. There were enough plates and glasses and cooking pots for about forty people. Sadly some of the crockery was broken and a couple of glasses cracked. The garden was a delight for the children. Part jungle it housed a small swimming pool, sadly out of operation during our visit, and swings and a rope ladder up a tree and a giant trampoline.
Susie and I had trained down from Edinburgh to Newhaven. We had a night in the Premier Inn, where we met up with children and grand-children. Newhaven-Dieppe is perhaps the oldest of the cross-channel routes, and the car ferry service dates from the early 1960s. But it has lost ground to the Dover ferries and the Channel Tunnel in recent years. We used this route a lot in the 1970s; when we lived in Paris and my parents were living in Sussex. And we were happy enough in those days to miss the ferry on a couple of occasions, which gave the opportunity for a leisurely lunch at a restaurant outside Dieppe.
Leaving Newhaven there is a good view of the Seven Sisters, the rolling chalk cliffs of the English coast. And there are similar chalk cliffs on the other side of the Channel, most strikingly at Etretat. As you approach Dieppe you can see very clearly the massive problems encountered by the disastrous Dieppe raid of 1942. Landings on the flanks totally failed to knock out the heavy German gun batteries on the cliffs at each end of the beach, leaving the Canadian soldiers dreadfully exposed as they attempted to get off the beach and across the wide esplanade. There is a new book on the Dieppe Raid by Patrick Bishop coming out next month. I see that my copy of Terence Robertson’s book Dieppe: The Shame and the Glory is stamped Shakespeare and Co., in Paris, where I must have bought it in about 1976. .
From Dieppe we drove [were driven, to be precise] inland to pick up the Le Havre motorway. In the 1980s I often used the night ferry into le Havre, and drove down to Paris across the Pont de Tancarville, an imposing suspension bridge that was first sanctioned by Pétain in 1940, but not actually completed until 1959. But the motorway now crosses the significantly newer and bigger Pont de Normandie. At a total length of just over 2,100 metres it was when it was built in 1995 the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world. There are splendid views from the bridge across the river Seine. Being a total wimp about heights and mountain roads and big bridges, I was glad that I was not driving.
Montebourg is a short drive from Ste Mère Eglise, where units of the US 82nd Airborne and the US 101st Airborne divisions landed in the early morning of June 6th, 1944. In the central square a dummy paratrooper hangs from the church tower. This commemorates the story of paratrooper John Steele whose parachute caught on the tower. He hung there limply for two hours witnessing the fierce fighting below until the Germans cut him down and took him prisoner. [He is played by Red Buttons in the film The Longest Day.] Ste Mère Eglise is today effectively the centre of the Utah Beach tourist industry. When we were there we saw large numbers of American military personnel, who are currently deployed in Poland but temporarily in Normandy for the D-Day commemoration ceremonies. Replica US Army jeeps were for hire in the square, and significant numbers of American tourists were driving around channeling their inner Lee Marvin. The Airborne Museum at Ste Mère Eglise is the biggest of several local museums. We were struck by the frailty of the WACO gliders, each carrying 13 troops in addition to the pilot and co-pilot. They were made of fabric-covered wood and broke up all too easily on landing.
l’Auberge de l’Ouve
Eating is of course a serious activity in France. In our Montebourg house different branches of the family took it in turns to cook for us to eat at the splendid dining table. One day we went out to lunch at l’Auberge de l’Ouve, an address which I had found in a 2008 Routard guide. It turned out to be a stone building in a hamlet overlooking the quiet river Ouve, flanked by mature trees. We were very fortunate. The inn had been closed for four years, but reopened earlier this year.
Our hosts were a young Norman chef who previously worked in Corsica and his Thai wife. From a quite short menu, the adults variously ate effiloché de porc [pulled pork in a cider sauce], filet d’eglefin linguine [haddock on linguine with slivers of chorizo and leek], lamb chops, and a steak. Followed by a chocolate pudding and an almond and pear tart. And we drank rosé and local cider. All their produce is locally sourced. The food was excellent. I want to go back for my birthday !
We came back by boat and train, and realised that we had missed all the Jubilee Celebrations. The photo on the front page of the Sunday Times made me wonder whether the Queen was inviting Paddington Bear to form a new government. [Before he is deported to Rwanda as an illegal immigrant.] I am very sorry that we did not celebrate the jubilee by taking the opportunity to remove Boris as prime minister. Martin Kettle writing in The Guardian accuses the Tory party, and the Cabinet in particular, of being spineless and gutless for their failure to act. I think he is right.