Summer in the glorious countryside of the area now known as hauts de France (Nord, Pas de Calais, Picardy), offers the chance for a charming, relaxing break. Picturesque villages, lovely seaside resorts of the old fashioned bucket and spade type, wonderful places to picnic, authentic cafés and restaurants, fabulous street markets, heritage and family friendly outings… Ellie Phillpot reveals why she loves summer in northern France…
When I was a child, we spent the summer holidays wandering around the woods and fields near my parent’s house in Kent in the south of England. Most of the time we didn’t have any meaningful activity, we simply walked around, stopping whenever something caught our eye – a funny plant we didn’t know, an unusual tree, a little beetle or ant’s nest. Of course, streams and water were always a big draw.
When my mother bought her house in France and we would pop across the Channel for weekends and holidays, we continued our rural meanderings. Bournonville, the village where her house was located, consisted of two roads and forty or so houses surrounded by miles of rolling farmland. It was also on the edge of a huge forest that led towards the market town of Desvres, so there was plenty of space to roam in and nobody ever stopped us. Far from it – the local villagers were always happy to talk to us or smile at les anglais.
A reasonably sized stream ran through the village, so we often congregated at the little bridge that spanned it. On the other side of the road, part of the stream had been diverted to form a pond containing the trout that were cooked in the auberge that stood at the crossroads. Next to it was a brick oven that they used to smoke salmon – and then serve it in huge chunks. The menu never changed – why bother when you’re on to a winner? It was always heaving with people and the large room at the back played host to countless parties and receptions. We made friends with the owners’ children and sometimes they joined us on our walks.
One of our favourite routes started off at the little bridge in the village. Beyond it lay a large meadow that was often used to graze cows or sometimes cut for hay. Watered by the stream that ran alongside, it was always lush and the grass smelled divine. I remember to my shame the day we decided to tease a guest that had joined us on that particular trip. Once we’d got to the meadow, we all pretended to look very carefully around us until he asked us why. We explained that the field was infested with adders and you had to watch out for them and make sure you didn’t tread on one and get bitten. At a given moment we all screamed and ran and our victim ran with us, his face a picture of fright. The irony is, the field probably did have the odd adder or two living in it although I don’t remember seeing any. We did see plenty of huge ragondins – river rats – that hung around the stream and in the field at the bottom of our garden on the other side to the meadow.
After the meadow was a stand of trees which had been planted in uniform rows and were now fully grown. It was so pretty with the waving leaves above, long grass under our feet and stream chuckling to itself as it ran alongside that I decided I wanted my ashes scattered there when I died. I was so in love with the place. I must have been about thirteen at the time – what a morbid child!
But beyond the trees was an even greater treasure – a dam that blocked the stream and spilled huge swathes of liquid silver water out of its green moss-covered sluice gates. We played ‘dare’, walking along the wooden dam walls, pretending the upper pond had sinking sand at the bottom which would swallow any of us that was foolish enough to slip in. Years later, I met an old lady in nearby Desvres who told us that she grew up in the village and learned to swim in the dam. All the villagers learned there, according to her. By the time we visited it, the lower pond was too small to swim in, but it was perfect for paddling and generally getting wet. It never really mattered, as we dried off in the summer sunshine on the walk back home.
Bournonville lies just above the tip of the Vallée de la Course, which runs from Desvres down to Montreuil on the edge of the Seven Valleys region, so called because of its seven beautiful river valleys following the undulating paths of the Canche, Créquoise, Authie, Ternoise, Planquette, Bras de Brosne and Lys rivers. Drive into the heart of the countryside around here, on the tiny winding roads that twist and turn along the valleys and you will still (thank goodness!) find tiny traditional villages, lush water meadows with their herds of sleepy cows, willow trees lining the river banks and trout splashing in the streams. You could plan a route on the map, but one of the best ways to explore this heavenly part of France is just to hop in the car and see where the road takes you. Along the way, you may well come across an old abbey, a watermill, and any number of gorgeous little villages. There are plenty of organic farms around this area where you’re able to buy the best of the local produce, including goat’s cheese, sheep’s milk yoghurt, wonderfully unusual varieties of vegetables and even snails if you fancy.
Of course, it’s also well worth exploring on foot, and there are plenty of footpaths that criss-cross the region. Many of the local villages still have their own café, where you can quench your thirst on some of the local beers and enjoy a snack, before you set off again. And if you’re up for trying something a bit unusual, you can hire a donkey or two from A Petits Pas and follow one of their suggested routes. The donkeys will gladly carry your pack and entertain you along the way, stopping for a mouthful of grass en route, of course. I’ve never done this, but I have tried walking with llamas towards the north of the Pas de Calais and it was such fun we were very reluctant to say goodbye to our furry friends at the end of the walk! Perhaps the best time of all to visit the region is from the Spring to late Summer, when the grass in the meadows is lush and the air is filled with the scent of blossom- just perfect!