Back to Normandy

Monday 24th November 2008, Bayeux, Normandy
Life can be very strange sometimes. After the confines of Modestine over the past months, we now find ourselves living in a lovely apartment high in the roof of an 18th century French "hôtel particulaire" right in the very heart of the historic little town of Bayeux, about twenty miles from Caen. The word "hôtel" in its French context implies a large and beautiful old townhouse. This one is charmingly preserved, constructed in the elegant style of Louis XV with creamy white, embellished stonework and steep, towering roofs of black slate. We have stopped at the entrance on earlier explorations of the town, wondering what it must be like inside, never dreaming that one day we would actually be staying there! We remember peering through the wrought iron gates at the immaculately manicured trees with the gravelled drive curving to the doorway, where horse-drawn carriages would have waited for their passengers to alight. This building was designed and built in the 1730s especially for parties, with a huge ballroom extending the length of the first floor, while behind there are communal gardens which in warmer weather would provide a pleasing ambiance for the French belles and beaux to stroll or take the air between dances. High on the centre of the façade there was once carved an elaborate coat of arms. In common with other beautiful buildings belonging to the French aristocracy, it was effaced during the French Revolution leaving no more than an unsightly scar.

Our winter residence in Bayeux

Main staircase, Bayeux

Detail in the main entrance, Bayeux

View back towards the street, Bayeux

View from our window, Bayeux

Our presence here is entirely due to the kindness of Liz and Gordon whom we came to know through a mutual friend and former London work colleague of Ian. Some years ago they retired to deepest Normandy where they now live in a 19th century château surrounded by orchards and several hectares of countryside which Gordon, a sculptor, painter and garden designer, is busy landscaping. Having occasional need of somewhere less isolated they decided to also purchase this garret flat in Bayeux with its pretty views across the shining wet rooftops of the town towards the splendid spires of the cathedral.

Learning of Ian's need to explore the libraries and archives of lower Normandy in continuance of our late friend Alain's research, Liz suggested their flat might prove a warmer and more spacious alternative to Modestine during the wintertime. It was just in time! Last night it hailed and snowed, pattering on the sloping window above our bed. This morning snow has collected in the rooftop guttering and the gardens are sprinkled with a dusting of white. Modestine seems happy enough standing on the nearby Place Charles de Gaulle but we are happier still to be spaciously snug in this lovely apartment. Modestine even had the option of a huge dry garage down in the courtyard where once carriages would have been housed - however, she is taller than we thought and couldn't fit under the entrance lintel.

This visit is intended to be very relaxed to give me a rest from driving and both of us time to stay for some time in one place. Hopefully it will also give us time to see more of the friends we have made in and around Caen over the years. We actually arrived in France several days ago where we have been staying with Geneviève while Ian beavered away amongst the ancient books in Caen library. Since we were last in Normandy our Caen library friend Bénédicte has moved to live in Bayeux. She now has a house in the next street, commuting daily to work. She has agreed to drive Ian into Caen with her whenever he needs to continue his research there! Everything seems to be tumbling so easily into place!

Friday 28th November 2008, Bayeux
We have already developed a routine and a delightful one it is. While I am still fast asleep Ian is up and off to Caen with Bénédicte before it is even daylight. He has spent entire days burrowing amongst the books while I have been developing my new role of bored French housewife. I lie in bed reading, potter on my computer, hone my skills for French cuisine without a real oven and spend happy hours around this delightfully unspoilt town. I'm saving the cultural bits to discover with Ian, concentrating on the main street of select, individual and extremely chic shops.

The window displays are all stunning as shopkeepers prepare for Christmas. Bayeux is too small for department stores so I've been particularly concentrating on ladies clothes shops. Each seems to have picked a different colour combination. French fashionable "must haves" come in purple with grey, orange with black or turquoise with chocolate brown. As in England, stripes are in. However, the prices here are far higher than in England and Bayeux does not have the benefit of cut price versions from Primark. Eurodif is as near as it gets, but even so …

There are numerous clothing shops for men too, selling casual wear by Ralph Lauren. The windows are filled with models wearing smart shirts with colourful jumpers draped around their shoulders. They are all wearing baseball hats and look wonderfully suave. I dream of walking in with Ian and walking out again with someone looking just like that. (Ian just asked, what would he do, left behind in the shop?!)

In the parade of jewellers, mobile phone shops, bakeries, flower shops, launderettes, antique shops, bookshops and countless bistros and restaurants are a healthy scattering of delicatessens and charcuteries. These are quite fascinating selling everything from bottles of locally produced apple brandy – Calvados – to snail pies! If you fancy pigs brains in jelly, goose gizzards in cream, a couple of trotters or a dish of braised cows nostrils, there is a charming little place just a couple of steps from our residence. They even do a dish of the day to save work at home. Today's choice was langue de boeuf (cow's tongue.)

Next door is the most chic, and therefore expensive, torrefactor in Bayeux. Here you can be served at miniscule tables with miniscule cups of coffee accompanied with even more miniscule patisseries. The only thing about the experience that is definitely not miniscule is the bill! We are noticing the reduced purchasing power of our money. The value of the pound has plummeted against the euro since Modestine began her travels three years ago when the euro was worth 64 pence. Now it is approaching 90. For the English who have retired here on British pensions the situation must be dire.

Today I have discovered a branch of my favourite French supermarket, Leclerc, just ten minutes walk from the centre. Here I spent a pleasant afternoon browsing the aisles and watching the French doing their weekend shopping. There was a heavy concentration around the fish section with its displays of crabs, lobsters, squid, mussels, prawns and of course oysters. Compared to the English, the French eat huge quantities of seafood. They are also partial to the odd piece of horsemeat – there were as many trays of horse steak on display as there were beefsteak. Might give it a try before we leave.

We have not been negligent as hosts. Already we have received two sets of visitors. Bénédicte joined us for an aperitif on our second night and Geneviève joined us for the day yesterday. I tried, not quite successfully I fear, to wean her tastebuds away from unctuous sauces and paupettes de veau, to more standard British fare, like Caribbean curry with bananas. She was very polite but has probably made a mental note to pack herself plenty of tripe à la mode de Caen, rabbit pâté and foie gras before venturing across the Channel to Exeter again.

All has not been total happiness however. We have lost another French library friend, Mlle le Cacheux. She died a couple of days ago after a long illness. When Devon first developed official twinning links with Calvados she was director of the library service in Caen and later of Le Mémorial (the Museum for Peace). She did much to foster links with Exeter. It was thanks to her support and intervention that the exhibition of Napoleonic caricatures from Devon's collections, organised by Ian in 1985, went ahead in Caen despite serious misgivings by the Conseil Général de Calvados. She always made us welcome, even after our visits became personal ones. It is because of her we came to know Alain, Geneviève and all the library friends we now have here. We will all be united tomorrow as we take part in her funeral service in the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen.

Monday 1st December 2008, Bayeux, Normandy
We have been here a week already but seem to have hardly started with the various projects we had planned for our stay in Normandy.

It was a cold, wet, dreary day for the funeral on Saturday in Caen. The Abbaye was packed with family, friends and former work colleagues. The Catholic service was accompanied with a Mass and we all filed past to pay our respects, each of us sprinkling the coffin with holy water as it lay before the altar.

We returned home in the evening in time for a concert of British music given by the Philharmonie de Bayeux. We walked to the venue through the wet, dark cobbled streets. The music included works by Henry Purcell, Gustav Holst and Vaughan Williams as well as several traditional folk tunes from South West England, Scotland and Wales. It was a strange sensation sitting in the midst of a French audience, stirred by tunes from the Scottish Highlands, and Men of Harlech or tapping our toes to the Cornish Floral Dance.

Yesterday we were invited to a family lunch at the home of Geneviève's brother Yves. The younger members arrived from Paris for the day and ten of us sat down together to celebrate several birthdays that all fall in late November. Geneviève made the entrée of terrine de saumon, a sort of savoury salmon gâteau served with homemade seafood mayonnaise, while Yves cooked a couple of chickens with rice. This was followed by a mild and creamy goat's cheese hiding beneath a thick grey blanket of woolly mould – just as it should be. Grandmother Germaine made the birthday cake – a wonderfully sticky nougat concoction of chopped candied fruits and nuts served with apricot sauce. She also made a desert of rich chestnut mousse. Several hours later we finally reached the coffee stage, by which time we were rather losing the thread of the various French conversations humming around the table.

As if we'd not already been spoilt enough, today we were invited to lunch with our English "landlords" Liz and Gordon in their rural château hidden away in the green Normandy countryside in a tiny hamlet twenty kilometres from Bayeux. Liz is a retired archivist and was keen to introduce us to a helpful contact for Ian's research. While seeking information on the history of her own house Liz developed a friendship with the director of the library and also of the famous Norman tapestry here in Bayeux. We all met over lunch in the huge, comfortable warm kitchen with its log-fired cheminée. It has been a really lovely day with everyone speaking in a cheery mixture of French and English. Liz cooked a superb, typically English lunch of roast lamb (from Normandy) with mint sauce and quince jelly followed by apple pie with cinnamon and cloves, accompanied by thick Normandy cream. Later we all togged up in wellies and between the showers, Gordon took us for a tour of the gardens. His shaped hedges, shrubs and avenues of trees have grown rapidly since we last saw them two years ago and the maze he had just planted is now a couple of feet high. There are several large ornamental ponds, a lake, a sunken garden and even a moat with a little island and an ancient folly on the top. The massive old cowshed with its original mud floors and huge timber beams is now a tractor shed below, and an art gallery above, where Gordon keeps his paintings and sculptures that have started to overflow from the main house! It was already dusk by the time we finally left and darkness had fallen long before we had made our way back along the twisting country lanes of the "bocage" to the main route back to Bayeux. Not only have we had a delightful day with new friends, Ian has also made a very helpful contact for his researches here in Bayeux.

Invited for lunch, Normandy

Admiring Gordon's progress in the grounds, Normandy

Pleasant garden perspective, even in winter, Normandy

In the sunken garden, Normandy

Bridge to the island in the green moat, Normandy

A couple of Gordon's sculptures, Normandy

Friday 5th December 2008, Bayeux, Normandy
Gosh, it really rains in Normandy! We are just so relieved not to be in Modestine, marooned in a soggy field. Ian has braved the deluge this morning and trotted off to rummage in the Bayeux archives, housed in the library and the cathedral. We called in yesterday to arrange for the documents he needs to be available and were both greeted with baissers from our new friend Sylvette. It's not every day you get a kiss from the director of such an impressive institution! The library was constructed in the late 18th century at the time of the Revolution and is adjacent to the home of the mediaeval tapestry depicting the history of the conquest of England by the Duc de Normandie, known to us as William the Conqueror. We have yet to explore this so more on the subject another time.

Over the last few days Ian has commuted with Benedicte into Caen where he has worked solidly all day. I joined them for a free ride on Thursday and spent the day doing trivial girly things, like taking coffee and lunch with various lady friends where we chatted about children, grandchildren and the caloric content of camembert and porridge – or whatever.

On Wednesday morning it wasn't actually deluging so we took a day out, heading up along the coast in the direction of Cherbourg, stopping off to visit the American War Graves cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer. We continued to the busy fishing port of Grandcamp-Maisy, where despite the icy wind and renewed rain, the fishermen, in their waterproof winter jackets and leggings, were all busy unloading their crabs and lobsters, rewinding their nets, noisily manoeuvring their tiny craft in the confined space of the harbour, or standing in small groups on the quayside smoking and shouting advice. We crossed to the bar where a dozen or so more fishermen were sitting at wooden tables on wooden stools warming up with an expresso or something stronger. Nobody smoked but the convivial atmosphere was otherwise typical of any local French bar. After a few initial protests, it seems that the no smoking ban has been completely accepted in France. This is amazing, given the individualism of the French character. It leads us to hope one day they may even accept that it is antisocial to allow their dogs to pollute the pavements. We ordered a couple of ham rolls and coffees and retired to a corner to watch the customers and peer out from the rain-splattered window at the harbour-side activities.

Fishing boats unloading at Grandcamp Maisy

We continued to find the main German war cemetery at La Cam, so very different from the American one. We will write about these separately. The days are almost as short as they can be now and the narrow lanes amongst the thick hedges of the bocage are not pleasant on a dark wet afternoon, so we made our way back to Bayeux just before nightfall.