Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Roses are Blooming in Picardie

Picardie, where I spent a long weekend, is the land of Joan of Arc, hunting and oddly shaped spires.

Joan of Arc (aka La Pucelle) is a local heroine; there are monuments and plaques to her everywhere describing how she sacrificed herself to liberate France (from the wicked English) in 1431. They skip over the fact that it was the French (Burgundians) who sold her to the English and that the French king could have ransomed her but didn't. I suppose that when you have been consistently thrashed by another country, any hero is better than none, even a cross-dressing woman who hears voices. This is the version of her at Le Crotoy. She was known for wearing men's clothes but this statue has her in a more ladylike skirt. Unless she is the inventor of the culotte.

Picardie is a big hunting area. While the English traditionally hunt with horses and dogs, the French prefer guns - because they kill things they can eat. Including any rare bird that is foolish enough to fly through their airspace.

The tabac in Crecy, where I was staying, also sold guns and hunting accessories. There are signs all over the area reminding everyone that the countryside has been preserved by la chasse - hunting. Even the wildlife reserves also double as hunting grounds. The lakes in the reserve at Cayeux had decoy ducks in and hunting hides. And Icelandic ponies, for some reason.

It's an area that has seen a lot of battles. In 1346 the French were beaten by us at the Battle of Crecy during the Hundred Years War. They were led by John of Luxembourg, the Blind King Of Bohemia. We were led by Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, both of whom had eyes that worked, which might have given everyone some indication of how it would turn out. There is nothing to see at the battlefield site now apart from cows although there is a viewing tower and a sign that acknowledges our superior fire-power.

Crecy is also the only place I have ever been woken in the morning by a noisy donkey. It makes a change from bin men.

Not far away is Agincourt (or Azincourt in French) where we beat them again in 1415. This time, the French King, perhaps remembering Crecy, made his excuses and stayed home. It's the battle which allegedly gave rise to the English V sign. The English longbows were state of the art and, it is said, when the bowmen were captured their two fingers were cut off to stop them shooting any more arrows (you shoot arrows, not fire them). Showing the V sign was a defiant way of saying they were still in action. Allegedly.

The area also includes the Baie de Somme, where bigger and bloodier battles were fought. The carnage is re-enacted every year when migratory birds fly over and are shot from the sky by local hunters in massive quantities. And then eaten.

There are some unusual spires in the area. This one is in St Riquier, a former northern stronghold of Charlemagne, once a city, now a small town.

While we're in St Riquier, it has a large and intact abbey from Charlemagne's time. We couldn't go in because some bugger was selfishly getting married but there are some great gargoyles on the outside. I'm not entirely sure this is a gargoyle (from the French: to gargle) as, to be one, it has to have a water spout in its mouth. This could just be a grotesque.

Back to spires, the one on the church in the village of Machiel was unusual too. The graveyard was full of tall, very ornate, but rusty iron crucifixes. It looked a bit like a scrap yard - which a cemetery kind of is, I suppose.

In St Valery, the owner of the restaurant where we had lunch was wearing a Welsh railway T shirt and we made the mistake of asking about it. He was a huge train enthusiast and talked a lot about all the trains he had been on in Wales and elsewhere. Every holiday involves trains for him and his wife, who kept very quiet on the subject then told him to stop talking to us because our food was getting cold. Incidentally, smoking is no longer allowed in French restaurants but dogs are.

On two evenings, we went into Crecy forest to look for deer. We heard a stag (and a lot of owls) and glimpsed a few deer but that was all. It got dark while we were there and suddenly, all my rational, urban sense went away and I was scared. Partly of getting lost or falling over in the dark - which was entirely sensible - and partly of what might be lurking in the darkness. No matter how scientific you are in your thinking, there are times when primitive instincts kick in and your body starts to react in an alarming way, making you feel vulnerable and jumpy, more than keen to be inside with the door locked. My forest companion thought this was hysterical and led us deeper in as the light failed. At one point, all I could see were his pale legs in shorts ahead of me.

I felt a bit wimpy at first but consoled myself with the thought that, although it has been a very long time indeed since such instincts were useful, I am descended from a long line of early scaredy cats who survived to pass on their genes while the braver ones got eaten by something that really was lurking in the dark.

Finally, there is one thing the French are currently doing much better than us - postage stamps. The latest range celebrates chocolate and is even impregnated with chocolate scent.

The latest offering from our Post Office features a set of rather naff mythical beasts. Unicorns, mermaids and pixies cannot compete with choco-timbres.

1 comment:

  1. Have only just found this particular article - what a lovely piece of writing :-)

    Annoying Pedantry: I always thought that the Burgundians weren't French, just as Welsh people aren't English. But what's in a name? Oh, apart from several hundred years of war over who really owns that bit of old Gaul....

    Keep up the blogging TK! These are little gems that amuse and inform and I wonder why it is that you haven't been offered a job with a national paper, with your own column.

    I wish I could write as well as this...