June 30 saw the lovely town of St-Valery-sur-Somme at the mouth of the Somme river in Picardy hold their annual celebrations to honour William the Conqueror and, throwing caution to the wind, or rather my rain coat into the car – off I went to join in.
The village is incredibly picturesque and has quite a history. There has been a community here since before the Roman invasion but it was the Roman settlers who teased this peaceful little hamlet into a full blown village. Plenty of Roman coins and jewellery have turned up in the mud over the years though there’s nothing left of the Roman architecture. The town takes its name from a monk known as Valery who arrived there in around 611 BC and who was buried in an abbey built by his faithful disciples in the town.
In 1066 William the Conqueror assembled his men and his fleet of ships at St-Valery-sur-Somme before sailing to and conquering England. A thousand years later and the locals still celebrate this auspicious event in their village. Local villagers dressed in costumes of the day, tents were set up on the village green and there was a demonstration of arts and crafts of the day. Market stalls lined the fabulous old streets in the town, a band, bagpipers and costumed parade complete with horses wandered about. It was alternately sunny and raining but it didn’t dampen the spirits whatsoever because St-Valery is stunningly lovely and the people are incredibly friendly.
At the entrance to the town there’s a lovely marina filled with boats of all sizes and ages. Alongside the quay a fabulous steam train sat waiting to go off on its scenic route round the splendid Bay of the Somme. There is a medieval hill top village at the arched stone entrance of which is a plaque which tells how in 1431 Joan of Arc, then a captive of the English forces was held prisoner here. The cell where she was held can still be seen and it was from here that she was taken to Rouen and burned at the stake.
The view across the Bay of the Somme, the historic buildings and the fabulous light to be found on this part of the coast attracted many artists and writers in the 19th Century. Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Edgar Degas and Alfred Sisley all had villas here. The great French poet Anatole France and writer Collette holidayed in the town. The magnificent mansions that line the path running alongside the Somme and the quaint and colourful fishermen’s houses are fabulous. We wandered along a road lined with spectacular flower beds – a plaque on the wall stated that all the flowers had come from the Himalayas.
In the town we visited wonderful shops, had lunch in Le Drakkar restaurant – the service was fantastic and the food was sublime. There was a sign for boat rides to see the local seal population and a magnificent chateau less than 30 minutes away but we just didn’t have time to fit it all in.
This place has bucket loads of charm and character, and at a little over an hour from Calais – I’m definitely going back for the Festival of the Sea on the 4th and 5th August.