When I was eleven, my mother bought an old rundown farmhouse in the Pas de Calais, just near the market town of Desvres. There followed a life of regular weekend Channel hops and school holidays spent roaming around the woods and farmland of the Seven Valleys region of northern France. As children do, we very quickly made friends with our contemporaries in the village and so began a pattern that marked our visits to France for years.
Freddie (whose parents ran the local Auberge) and his friend Philippe would appear on our doorstep in an old battered Renault 5 to whisk me and my sisters off for a day out. Our destination was usually a mystery until we got there as we could rarely understand their explanations of where we were going. We learned from experience that a match de catch is a wrestling competition, and a kermesse is a village fete (not a French version of the Muppet show which was our random guess!).
It was great fun to experience French village life for ourselves and the local people were invariably warm and welcoming. I remember walking to the village cobbler with Freddie to get his shoes re-soled, or being shown the local dam where many of the villagers learned to swim as children. Another time, a girl who worked at the equestrian centre in the next village turned up out of the blue on a pony and we all spent the afternoon taking turns riding up and down the lane near our house. Once my sisters and I decided we’d attend Sunday morning mass at the local church. We arrived early and (something I’ve learned since never to do!) seated ourselves at the front of church. It was only after the service had started that Helen turned round and noticed all of the women were sitting on the other side of the church to us. We were grandly heading up the men’s section!
The Saturday morning market in Desvres was one of our favourite occasions. We were always on the lookout for the local man who wandered around with his cat sitting draped around his shoulders. After the market, we’d challenge our friends to a game of babyfoot (table football) in the local café. These matches were fast and furious and taken very seriously by all of us. It was a sad day for all of us when eventually my mother sold the house.
Life seems to have a funny habit of bringing you full circle, and to my surprise, a few years ago, I found myself once again a regular visitor to northern France. I started working for a French ferry company and much of my time was spent researching and writing up all the fun things British visitors can do and see in this part of France. That was over eight years ago, and I’m still loving my job. It’s been a bit like opening a treasure box and taking out some of my favourite things to show everybody.
Relatively little has changed since my mother owned her house in France. The countryside is still unspoiled: gentle rolling hills, fields of mild-mannered white Charolais cattle and streams running along wooded valleys. Of course, there are also the miles of gorgeously golden sandy beaches along the Cote d’Opale, and if you venture an hour or so further afield, you come across the wild beauty of the Baie de Somme, the vineyard-covered slopes of Champagne and the majestic forests of Picardy. It’s a magical part of the country to explore.
I’d like to share with you some of my favourite activities and places to see in this part of France. I’ll aim to go off the beaten track as much as possible, and introduce you to locals like Benoit, who takes people walking with his llamas, Emmanuel Brasseur and his snail farm, Valérie Magniez and her charming herd of goats, Bruno and his Citroen 2CVs that you can drive around the countryside for yourself and Hubert Delobel who makes the most divine sparkling redcurrant juice.
If this is a part of France that is unknown to you or just seen from your car windows as you whizz down the autoroute, I hope to encourage you to stop off and spend some time there. If you know the region, then I’d like to think there are plenty more reasons to visit again.
Ellie Philpott is d a published author, she spent most of her childhood holidays in France on her mother’s farm and continues to spend as much time as she can in France.