A life time of adventure in France began at St Omer for Bob Lyons who reminisces on his first visit to this grand northern French town…
Many years ago, I sensed a yearning to see more of Europe. I had visited France before as part of my work as a pilot but had not ventured far from the hotel room. I had developed a secret curiosity and desire to experience more of this country. I purchased a ferry ticket and a one man tent and took off for Dover.
When the day came, I stuffed all my camping gear and supplies for a week into the boot of my car and set off. It was a horribly early hour of the morning and the roads were empty. The drive to Dover port at the start of my trip was filled with anticipation. More than twenty years later it still is. Nowadays, the tent has gone but the youthful passion and exuberance has not. I don’t think that I could ever live in France permanently because I find starting the journey from home to the port and the ferry so much an important part of the experience.
I arrived in Calais by mid morning and declared quietly to myself that ‘I was in France’ and sped off. I was working for an airline at the time and received valuable travel concessions as part of my remuneration. I could have used my leave to travel anywhere in the world for just ten percent of the normal air fare. But here I was, just off the channel ferry with a tent in the boot, about to start my first exploration of northern France. I was excited and full of gleeful premonition.
My first French port of call was to be St Omer, not far from Calais. Driving on the wrong side of the road seemed so natural. I wondered if we ought to change over in England. I found a local campsite on the outskirts of the town and set up my tent. It was rather chilly, damp and breezy and I set off into town for lunch to fuel my new taste for adventure.
St Omer represented for me a classic characterisation of France. The streets are wide and the town centre square is broad and accommodating. It lay under the comforting view of the splendid and imposing town hall. The square was surrounded by restaurants and shops. When I arrived, the market stalls from the morning were being dismantled and cluttering the roads. I hardly spoke any French and the local people not much English. It was somehow a new and intoxicating experience – France was so much the same yet somehow so different from life in England. I have never lost that enticing sense of change that exists so close to home.
In St Omer, the Notre Dame Cathedral dominates the city skyline. It was completed in the 14th. Century and is the home for much great art and architectural heritage so characteristic of France. The Cathedral contains Biblical paintings (including one by Rubens) and several magnificent statues. The chapel located in the transept is preserved and highly decorated. Within it rests a wooden sculpture of the virgin which attracts pilgrims to this day. As I viewed it, I felt that I could sense the permanence and reliability of French culture.
On the edges of St Omer lie other features that symbolize the historical experience of France. The city has an active aerodrome. The one today was built by the Germans in World War II. It sits on the original site that was the headquarters of the Royal Flying Corps during the Great War. Over fifty squadrons of aircraft were at some time based there. The aerodrome has a memorial at its entrance reminding all visitors of the appalling short life expectancy of young pilots between 1914 and 1918 serving in northern France.
The Germans built their V-2 rocket launching site on the edge of St Omer at La Coupole. The old underground tunnel complex makes for a fascinating visit. There are also the remains of ancient defensive ramparts that can be visited on the western edge of the city. They are preserved now as a public garden for all to use.
St Omer has a history that is connected to Britain in other ways as well. Henry VIII, The Tudor King of England, employed an executioner from the city to behead his wife, Ann Boleyn. He felt that the London public axe man was not good enough for her apparently. I am sure that Queen Ann would have felt very flattered to be despatched by a man from St. Omer.
That night I returned to my tent on the campsite. It was still damp, gloomy and getting dark. I faced the prospect of a long and uncomfortable night under my canvas roof with the drizzle coming down outside. In the end it was not so bad – a glass of French red wine and a cake from the lovely boulangerie eased my impending pessimism.
I felt the subtle freedom that can only come from the great outdoors once again. I tuned my radio to an English news station which muffled the sound of the wild creatures that I could hear rustling outside. The wine was going to get me off to sleep alright. I would worry later about the chilly and damp morning that awaited me. For now, I felt surprisingly warm and secure and delighted to be where I was.
Getting up the next day from my tent was in reality quite a challenge. The act of camping once again had given me a sense of youthful exuberance, a sense of individuality somehow. Now though, the raw morning with the squelchy walk to the shower block awaited me.
I had planned to camp in France for five nights and had to persuade myself to remain in my tent for a second night. I found myself a welcoming hotel for the last three nights and indulged once more in the finer comforts of life.
That first camping excursion to France for me occurred over twenty years ago and I have never lost the feeling of excitement and expectation about my next trip. I visit France frequently and know much of it quite well by now and travel across the channel as often as I can afford.
I have been the proverbial Francophile for many years. I love the French sense of life and living. I love the way France guards its culture, language, art and architecture. I love the always changing French climate. I love the French intellect and in a way, somehow, the femininity of French society.
I felt a sense of belonging and attraction to France and French life all those years ago and still do. Now retired from my main career, I have more time on my hands and my yearning, enthusiasm and anticipation of the early morning drive to the Dover ferry port is as strong as ever.