Postings may well be intermittent for the next few weeks. This is due to our attempt to make an escape from the continuing winter of the UK and undertake one of our frequent journeys south. At the moment we are somewhere in mid-France, a journey we have made too many times to count, having spent more weeks holidaying in France than anywhere else-either en route to somewhere or as a destination in itself.
I can still remember the feverish excitement of my first foray into ‘abroad’ with my parents, when I was fourteen. Back then it seemed unutterably glamorous and thrilling to be driving on to a cross channel ferry, showing my passport, going through customs and entering the other world that was a foreign country. I seem to think we were boldly striking out to Switzerland, via France; staying in dark, olde worlde hotels in out-of-the-way places, attempting to communicate [I recall it was all down to me, the ‘expert’ after 2 whole years of learning French], trying to decode the menu, tentative tastes of the strange, unrecognisable fare we’d ordered. My father made the mistake of idly pressing a button, only to summon the elderly chambermaid up the stairs-an event that rendered us helpless with mirth and my father reduced to red faced embarrassment.
We’ve made the trip too often now to sustain that kind of novelty. We are accustomed to the long drive to Dover via the M25, the grey, choppy traversal of the channel and the less than lovely entrance to the port of Dunkirk. Well aware of the canteen food, we take lunch with us. On arrival we know there will be a slow crawl out at ‘Gravelines’-the unlovely environs. Sometimes we go straight out via the coast, by way of Calais. This time we’ve come across to Lilles then down. Either way you have to travel across part of flat, French Flanders. Flanders has a language and a charm that is all its own, although it is only to be discovered by plunging into the bucolic, agricultural hinterland, where the views are all reminiscent of a van Eyck or a Brueghel painting. This is a safe, sturdy landscape with fields of stocky, white cattle, solid, ploughed clods of mud studded with heaps of manure. There are clusters of houses surrounding squat churches and neat, industrious farms.
Sometimes we stop to spend a night or two at a hamlet where a couple have built a campsite –and a reputation as gregarious and extrovert hosts. The land is flat for cycling, with quiet lanes or tracks by canals. There are peaceful roads from one village to the next and an occasional, small bar-open if you’re lucky. The area is overlooked by most people but in the summer it can be a gem of a place to escape to.
But we are not staying this time. The weather is no different. We are heading south as far as necessary to get warm sun, or at least warm. Fingers crossed…