I’m Back!

Okay, I’m sorry not to have warned folks that I was taking some time off, but that’s why I’ve been quiet and not responding to emails and comments. I’ve been away. The first two-week holiday my family’s ever had, and it was wonderful.

I have had the ambition of travelling to France for a long time, to see the location for my next book (set around the battle of Poitiers), and also to fulfil a long held desire to see some of the Great War cemeteries. However, there’s a lot of France to see. So we chose to rent a camping car (camper van to the Brits) from a firm in called France Motorhome Hire in Véron just outside Sens, and started driving.

France Motorhome Hire - and no, I don't get a cent for mentioning them!

France Motorhome Hire – and no, I don’t get a cent for mentioning them!

Now, first, we all know French roads are rubbish, don’t we?

I wish. My old Subaru makes so much noise that we’ve been thinking about selling it, just so we can chat in the car. Except in France, with their smooth, well-tarmacced road surfaces, we could chat at 130 kph perfectly easily. The roads are a delight. Of course there are French drivers … but I wish more English drivers were as generally courteous and careful as the French. In all my driving there (and I drove about 2,000 miles in total) I didn’t experience as much bad lane-hogging, undertaking, incompetence and rudeness as I’d see any afternoon in two junctions on the M25. French driving is very good (I should just add the rider that I didn’t drive into Paris. My opinions may be altered by that kind of experience).

However, we drove first from the port to Béthune, where we spent a night, and next morning drove on to the lovely old city of Arras. This is one of the cities that has always enjoyed (if that’s the right word) and adventurous life. It has been a battlefield in many wars, and as a result has a magnificent old fortress that is being renovated now. However, right next door to the fortress is the grand memorial designed by Lutyens to honour the dead of the Great War who fell near that city. In the cemetery there are some 2,650 graves. A shocking sight. However, on the walls of the massive monument are carved the names of almost 35,000 young men who died in this area, as well as a further 1,000 airmen who were lost. These 35,000 and 1,000 airmen have no known grave.

Some of the 2,650 graves at Arras.

Some of the 2,650 graves at Arras.

It was a very humbling sight. My wife had not realised that the British Empire had volunteers from all parts of the globe, and the sight of Indian and Sikh graves, all looked after with the same careful dedication as the English, African, Canadian and other graves, was very touching. As was the little group of German graves.

I will not bore you with details of the whole journey, but there is one last stop that is relevant.

In the past I have mentioned the strange coincidences that have affected my life and career. Well, we had another this time while on holiday.

I am writing a book about Poitiers next, and while in France naturally I wanted to view the site where the battle took place. So I dragged a partly reluctant family all the way down to that famous city, and started trying to learn where the battlefield was.

Now, you may think it would be easy. But a battlefield from the middle ages is all too likely to have been built over (in Britain, anyway – we don’t have enough space to celebrate victories, let alone disasters). And there is the little detail about being in a foreign country and asking about a major catastrophic defeat for that nation. It could be considered … insensitive.

Inside the Church of Notre Dame, Poitiers

Inside the Church of Notre Dame, Poitiers

Still, the lovely ladies in the tourist office were very happy to find out all they could about the battle (“Which battle of Poitiers?” they asked – they had thought I meant the 800AD battle during which Charlemagne held back the Muslim advance and stopped Europe from being swallowed up by Islam). Having a little time to kill, I wandered into the beautiful church of Notre Dame, and was blown away by the medieval paintings. It was stunning!

And then, while meandering round taking photos, I saw a face that I instantly recognised. Well, I should do. I’ve drunk many beers (and wines) with him and his family over the years. Yes, it was Ian Mortimer, who lives only a few miles from me, and who had also decided to holiday in France, and who had picked that day, by sheer coincidence, to visit the same church in the same city!

Ian Mortimer and I outside the great doors to the church

Ian Mortimer and I outside the great doors to the church

Coincidences like that would be rejected by any self-respecting copy editor.

But there was one more thing that I must mention about Poitiers.

This was a disastrous battle, leading to the Treaty of Brétigny, which gave up almost a quarter of France to add to the existing English territories. In all, England held almost half of France after this battle. It was a terrible battle, with thousands killed. And now, if you go to the site of the battle, you will find a memorial. The French have put this up to honour the “Barons, Knights and Men-at-arms of the armies of France, Gascony and of England” (my italics) who died on that day. It is hard not to admire a race who can be so generous, and I confess I found the memorial enormously touching.

And now I am back in the saddle and ready for the next book. Wish me luck. I need it!

The Poitiers memorial

The Poitiers memorial

3 Responses to “I’m Back!”
  1. Old Trooper says:

    Thank you for the tour and commentary.


  2. Lynnette Jalufka says:

    Wow, what trip you had! Thanks for sharing.


  3. Hans van der Boom says:

    Sounds like you had a great trip. We did the World War I sites and cemeteries with my son years ago and drove the “Road to Freedom” (beaches of Normandy to Bastogne) the year after that. As somebody on your fb page mentioned, that is very good education :) And… France isn’t what it used to be, it’s perfectly drivable. Almost all of it :D


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