If you head off roughly westbound towards Normandy from the Calais ferry port, you will almost certainly bump into a town called Abbeville. It’s a good place to stop for a break and reflect on the past.
Abbeville’s historic architecture
You might see the Belfry poking its nose above the horizon, it is amongst the oldest in France going back to 1209 and it has UNESCO World Heritage status. It is a piece of the good stretching to 30 metres above the ground with walls two metres thick at the base. There are ancient dungeons underneath where the town’s Alderman continue to meet and store their treasures there.
The Eglise St. Vulfran in the town is a wonderful feature to behold. It originates from a time of solid local prosperity in the 15th century. A very striking Gothic decoration confirms this as it shows itself off on the western internal wall. The mouldings, traceries, pinnacles and portal carvings might just leave you speechless. The bad bit is that other parts of the church were severely damaged during WW2 and have never been properly restored.
In the summer months, visitors can admire the Carmel convent. After the French Revolution, some nuns were kicked out of their long standing home elsewhere for a period of about 30 years. They eventually came to the Carmel convent by the Parc d’Emonville in 1881. They were able to remain there until 1998 within the splendid historic architecture with graceful gardens.
Chateaux of Abbeville
The Chateau de Bagatelle is a beautiful castle is open during the summer to visitors displaying its very elegant gardens that have been kept so carefully tended. Built in the 1700’s by a rich textile industrialist, it has splendid wrought iron railings internally adjacent to a double revolution staircase. Callers will also find the fabulous wooden panelling associated with the salon de musique. This was home to a number of famous early twentieth century composers.
Take a look though at the Chateau de Eaucourt-sur-Somme, just beyond the southern limit of Abbeville. It has been left unoccupied since the end of the 18th century. Now it is an exhibition centre. Children can find out about earlier local trades such as stone and iron work and carpentry. Younger people can also try on medieval style armour and practice their crossbow firing skills.
The legend of the holy boat of Rue
History records a story of an unmanned boat that was without sails. It was washed up on the coast close to Rue, a town just a little to the north, in the 12th century. The boat had arrived from the Holy Land and contained the crucifix of the Holy Spirit. Abbeville wanted it for itself to attract visitors. The elders of the town sent a horse drawn cart with their lackeys to go and fetch it. The horses suffered from a temporary and mysterious paralysis when they arrived and couldn’t shift it. The crucifix stayed in Rue where it belonged as a gift from God.
History of Abbeville
The Forest of Crecy lies very close to Abbeville. This was where the Hundred Years War started in 1346. The English came to take their revenge long after the Norman invasion. They did not leave quickly or indeed without satisfaction. The English ultimately departed leaving a viscous trail of carnage, destruction and death in their wake.
In July 1766, a certain Chevailier de la Barre was convicted of failing to salute a religious procession, failing to remove his hat and loudly singing ungodly songs. He was publicly executed in the Abbeville market place where his legs were crushed and his tongue was torn out. His right hand was removed and he was decapitated. The remains of his corpse was burned alongside a copy of Voltaires’s Dictionaire Philosophique close to the town hall. That certainly taught him a lesson. The spot is marked with a paving stone bearing his name and date of death.
The Battle of the Somme was fought within earshot of Abbeville during WW1 in 1916. This was a ferocious period of war. The Somme valley nowadays though is a wonderfully peaceful seaside area to visit. The slaughter of the Great War during 1914-1918 is marked at various memorials all around Abbeville.
The aerodrome on the northern edge of Abbeville was used by the French military during the Great War and is still in use. Visitors will find there the most splendid example of a French Mystere fighter jet supported on metal supports by the roadside to catch the visitor’s eye.
Things to do in Abbeville
Check out the weekly open air market held each Thursday and pick up some delicious seasonal ingredients for a picnic on a sunny day. There are several good restaurants and for a little bit of authenticity try La Picardière (101 rue de Paris). Local, seasonal and traditional dishes that are deliciously prepared and a friendly service.
The town of Abbeville is a place of real contrast and makes for a great place to stop off and visit.
Bob lyons is an ex-pilot turned travel writer and a complete Francophile.