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Beside ‘ze’ seaside in north France


I COULDN’T get away from the Disunited Kingdom for my usual 10-14 days on the Red Sea, Black Sea or Mediterranean on my last working holiday there as — believe it or not in the midst of severe Pommie economic recession — every packaged deal flight and “all inclusive” hotel deal was fully booked.

Travel with with Dusty Miller

Having spent frustratingly fruitless hours on-line and personally visiting Thomas Cook and Thomson’s in Dumfries, I finally gave up.
Snorkeling off Sharm-el-Sheikh, Tabas or Hurghada in Egypt; in Jordan’s Gulf of Aqaba or its inland Dead Sea shared with Israel; at Sousse in Tunisia; Agadir, Morocco…on Cyprus, Malta, the Greek isles; Turkey; Balearic or Canary Islands or even a week in Spain’s Costa Plenty were just not to be…this year. I even toyed with revisiting the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Florida or Mexico.

Again . . . everywhere… there was no room at the inn and on no-frills flights. The Brits had reportedly gone booking bananas at the 11th hour, following their successful Olympics hosting.

But that last bit was fortuitous; Hurricane Isaac had stonked those Caribbean paradise destinations for a week!

Main reason for a sanity break away from the boring politics, creeping inflation and constant Zesa outages and outrages of Ha-ha-ha-rare (Africa’s fun capital) was to do the fond Oupa bit. My delightful then six-year-old grand-daughter was on English school vacs.

So when new passports for her, her parents and a first travel document for my then 21-month-old grand-son dropped through their letterbox, half way through my stay at their Oxfordshire home, and I was asked would I join them in sharing a gite (pronounced zheet) for a week, in the Pas-de-Calais, inland from Le Touquet, France’s swankiest, swishes, sleekest, holiday resort (with the possible exception of Juan-les-Pins) it took a Nano- second to accept.

Gites are professionally and tastefully converted agricultural barns or some other farm outbuilding which can accommodate parties of two to, perhaps, two dozen on a self-catering basis.

It’s supposed to be home-from home: a brief taste of the Good Life. Ours was allegedly designed for four pax, but five stayed there more than comfortably. Seven or eight in a family, or close friends, wouldn’t be inconvenient or uncomfortable.

There are thousands of gites across northern Europe, especially France and Belgium; it’s not a concept I’ve encountered in the UK.
To get to northern France from the Home Counties, one obviously must cross over (or under) the English Channel.

The last time I made such a crossing was 1969 and I’m sure the return passage for two of us and my then brand new Ford Corsair was 50 pounds sterling (Calais-to-Dover). Imagine my glee, therefore, when, 43 years on, the fare for a slightly longer ferry service — from Dover to Dunkirk, return — with another Ford sedan, three adults, a child and a toddler was just 81 pounds!

We sailed by DFDS service and speculated that one “D” probably stood for Dover, the other Dunkirk (or Dunkerque, in French.)

But consulting Prof Google and Dr Yahoo proved the abbreviation was of Det Forenede Danskibs-Selskab: Danish for United Steamship Company!

Of course, on a blissfully mild, sunny, calm weekend day in good company (even if two of them called for eyes-in-back-of- head to be constantly wide-open) a two-hour sailing across the Channel, on a beautifully engineered modern ship, is a vital and enjoyable part of an actual holiday.

We munched sandwiches and sipped innocuous drinks as noble and historic Dover Castle slipped out of sight and the majestic White Cliffs of Dover faded slightly in a thin sea-mist. These Kent cliffs are clearly visible in fine weather from several north French ports; especially from Cap Griz-Nez (Grey-Nose Cape) just 34km from Dover: the Channel at its narrowest point.

Apparently this infuriated Herr Hitler when the Fuehrer visited his front-line troops in World War II. The country which stood, with its then far-flung Empire, alone against a Nazi-ruled world was a mere frustrating 25 miles away: so near yet so far.

We were content enjoying sunshine and sea breezes, watching shipping: mainly cross-channel ferries, fishing craft and container carriers plying the waves… and marine bird-spotting, but the ship offers duty free shopping, bars and restaurants, live TV news channels, a cartoon loop and well-patronised child’s play area.

Embarkation at Dover and disembarkation at Dunkirk were seamlessly smooth, though on the return leg, possibly due to increased security; and the fact that all customs and immigration formalities took place on French soil before departure, sailing was marginally delayed.

As always, my kids asked had I been to Dunkirk before and, as so often is the case, I could say yes. We had a 10 day Easter holidays school trip to Belgium, Northern France, Holland and Luxembourg when I was 12 or 13.

Not only was I in Dunkirk, 16km from the Belgian frontier (it used to be in Flemish-speaking Flanders): in the days of my first visit the beaches, harbour and sand-dunes were still strewn with debris from WWII generally and Operation Dynamo and the Miracle of Dunkirk, perhaps 18 years after the event.

Somewhere I have monochrome 2,25 inch square prints of the wreckage of what I later learned were landing craft, Bren carriers, half-tracks and the like, mainly abandoned when an armada of British, French, Belgian, Dutch and Norwegian naval ships and countless hundreds of tiny civilian boats plucked 338 226 Allied soldiers safely off the beaches there as the German army surrounded the city.

Trained fighting men were more valuable than even hard-to-replace military hardware, ruled Winston Churchill, who’d been British PM just 16 days when the evacuation began. It lasted from May 27 to June 4, 1940. French military escapees from the beaches totalled 123 000.

Some 40 000 Allied troops were left behind; many were captured, some fought on, escaping back to the UK via neutral Spain.

Some 933 ships took part in Op Dynamo of which 236 were lost and 61 put out of action. Most tragic was HMS Wakeful. Hit by torpedoes, she sank in 15 seconds with the loss of 600 lives early on the morning of May 29.

My daughter thought that quite enough war and bloodshed, we were here to enjoy ourselves. While I agreed, we were on our way to a gite in the rolling peaceful agricultural countryside of Hesdin: in the department of Pas-de-Calais and near its borders with The Somme and Picardy: land fought over and on from before the Norman Conquest almost non-stop until the end of World War II.I suspected we (or at least I) would live with history for the next week.)


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