Week 1 – the Côte d’ Albâtre

18th May 2023

It’s Bank Holiday Thursday in France and we are chillin’ on a lovely campsite in Étretat at the end of our first week on tour.

I’m sorry that this is the first post of trip but that’s because we have been too busy having a good time and everything so far has gone quite smoothly. There have been no major disasters, accidents or even hiccoughs. (I realise that most of you will now stop reading any further)

This trip differs from our recent European escapades in that we don’t plan on doing a big mileage. We plan to explore Normandy over the next four weeks and have mapped out a vaguely ‘figure of eight’ route that will take us from Dieppe to Caen and cover some of the coastal and inland highlights of part of France that has such strong historical links with Britain. I wanted to focus on the Normans, the Plantagenets, and the late 19th Century blossoming of La Belle Époque; and leave aside the horrors of the two World Wars, mainly as a reaction to the almost fetishisation of the Second World War by British, right wing politicians, who seem to have a grasp of reality drawn from old issues of the Hornet and Victor comics and trashy war films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

We’ve spent the last week toddling west along the coast from Dieppe. It’s a coast of undulating hills, of chalk cliffs studded with flints, of shingle beaches and some very pretty villages and small towns.

Dieppe looked very inviting as our ferry arrived, with a big lawn on the seafront hosting a couple of marquees and lots of camper-van parking, but we couldn’t stop as we were booked into a campsite in Quiberville a little village about 5 miles west of Dieppe. Quiberville is very small and good example of the many little seaside resorts that sprung up along this coast in the second half of the 19th Century, thanks to its proximity to Paris and the new-fangled railways. It has one general shop, a couple of hotels and restaurants (shut) and a shingle beach with some sand exposed at low tide. At the far end of the beach was a great little bar (open, thank goodness) where we were able to toast our arrival in France as the sun began to set. We made plans to explore more of the area the next day by following a walk that takes us up the river. 

Part of our thinking in planning this trip was the awful weather we had this time last year in Scotland and Cumbria. Friday we woke up to find that Scotland had come to us! It was pouring down and continued to do so for the whole day. It was a good day for reading, puzzles, films and cups of tea! During the day we also came up with a five point scale for a day’s degree of wetness; and Quiberville scored a 5!

It was still drizzling on Saturday as we drove into Veules les Roses and its pleasant little campsite on a hill on the outskirts.

I guess few Brits have heard of Veules les Roses? It claims to be one of the oldest settlements in France with history going back to the 6th Century and it is built around the shortest river in France that flows directly into the sea. The river Veules is only 1.1km long, it rises at a spring, where the water bubbles up through the limestone, at one end of the village and pours into the sea at the other. We walked along it and found water cress ponds that saved Dieppe from scurvy, and three or four mills in various states of renovation that used to power the textiles industry in the Middle Ages and more half timbered houses than you can shake a stick at.

The trail we were following then took us along the esplanade and up the hill side and my mission for this trip collapsed! There on top of the hill were a couple of rusty cannons retrieved from a ship that had run aground and capsized during the attempt to rescue 15,000 British and French troops three days after Dunkirk. Over 6 days the troops fought a rearguard action, against what was to prove to be the last battle of the German offensive of 1940, thousands were killed, thousands captured and only three thousand made it to the thirty  British, Belgian and French ships waiting for them just offshore; some had to abseil 40m down the cliffs to get to the small boats waiting for them.

The villagers, those that had survived the fighting, then had four years of occupation.

And then it struck me. France, Belgium, Netherlands and the other countries who were occupied by the Germans had a very different experience to the the Brits. When we see our coast line dotted with WW2 fortifications, they are our fortifications. In France they are enemy fortifications. The block houses, machine gun emplacements and bunkers are every day reminders of the humiliations and the deprivations of occupation and the bitter aftermath of recriminations for collaboration, real or imagined. We, who were lucky enough to have been born after WWII, and were brought up on the stories of the Victor and the Hornet and the hoary old films of the 50’s and 60’s, forget this.

Our couple of days in Veules les Roses were chilly and overcast, but still only a one on the Quiberville Scale (QS). As we left it began to rain and by the time we arrived in Fécamp it was pouring – QS 3. Too wet for Wendy to leave the van to book us in. But not heavy enough to hide the bars on the Reception building’s windows. When it finally eased a little, we were shown to a scrubby little pitch we could just about squeeze on to diagonally, that had a great view of the grey clouds that stretched below us. We decided that this was going to be a one night stop.

By the time we’d had lunch the rain had stopped and the sun was making a gallant effort to break through the grey clouds. It became clear that the campsite was a series of terraces stretching down to the beach and we were at the top with a good view of the sea, over the roof of the casino.

Guide books rave about Fécamp, but really it is just an old fishing port (herring and Newfoundland cod) that has seen better days. The highlights for us is the Benedictine Palace, a bonkers building built at the end of the 19th Century by an entrepreneur who nicked the recipe for the liqueur from the monks, the Abbey which was built by the ancestors of William the Conqueror and hosted his victory celebrations after the Battle of Hastings (it made a fortune from pilgrims in medieval times by saying it had a fig tree that contained the blood of Christ) and opposite the Abbey are the remains of one of William’s many boyhood homes.

And so to Étretat. Here we are on the last stop on our journey along the Alabaster Coast and what a jewel! The only drawback is that dogs are not allowed on the beach, not anywhere, not when the tide’s out, not under the cliffs, not even early in the morning. The beach is all pebbles so Bryn didn’t want to go on it anyway! It didn’t matter as behind the campsite is a wooded hill with a path wending its way through it – ideal for dogs.

As if on cue, as we arrived in Étretat the sun came out; and for the first time this trip it was finally shorts weather.

The rest of the village is idyllic, lots of half timbered buildings (many rebuilt after the depredations of WW2) a great choice of bars and it is framed by the iconic cliffs, the Falaise d’ Étretat. Both the east and west cliffs have been eroded by the sea into arches, stacks and pinnacles and the further you walk along the cliff tops the more you find. At the top of the east cliff there is also a marvellous 60s needle-like sculpture; a monument to Nungessor and Coli, two French First World War flying aces, who, in 1927, set out to be the first people to cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane. They left Paris on the 8th May, were seen crossing the cliffs of Étretat and again over Ireland, but never seen again.

A sign on the supermarket window told us that Thursday was a Public Holiday, and given the French predilection for ‘bridging days’ to make a long weekend of it we dashed back to the campsite to book a third night. And we were just in time, that night and for the whole time we were there the site was full and no end of people were turned away. 

The weather has continued to warm up, the last three days have been straight QS1, so we have ditched an idea to abandon our proposed route and head to the Vendee for some sun. From here we plan to leave the coast and head inland for a week or so. Tomorrow (Friday) we are booked into a campsite on the banks of the Seine.

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