Worth The Detour

22nd August 2014

Kathy Walton and family regularly spend time in the charming French town of Montreuil sur Mer. Out of the goodness of her heart she’s willing to share it with you. Just don’t all go at once…

Imagine catering for two million soldiers, delivering food, medical supplies and weapons across muddy roads and fields, caring for hundreds of wounded men in makeshift hospitals and plotting your next offensive under conditions of absolute secrecy, when your most sophisticated method of communication is a carrier pigeon.

This is what the five armies of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) managed to do in the little walled town of Montreuil sur Mer during World War I, when Field Marshal Haig established his GHQ there in 1916 and triggered the ‘friendly invasion’ of the town by British and Imperial troops, creating a virtual British colony on French soil.

Montreuil sur Mer is just under an hour’s drive south of Calais (and despite its name Montreuil ‘on Sea’, has been ten miles inland since the River Canche silted up in the 16th century). Most Brits drive straight past the town on their journey south, but the fact that it lies off the beaten track of mass tourism is part of its appeal; Montreuil is officially one of France’s 100 Plus Beaux Détours (100 Best Detours), a Ville Fleurie (Town in Bloom) and, thanks to the wonderful countryside that surrounds it, a designated Green Tourism destination.

From now on, a permanent exhibition in Montreuil will also tell the largely unsung story of the men and women who served in the huge ‘back office’ operation that supported the Allied troops of WWI from several small brick chambers (casemates) hidden away in Montreuil’s 16th century Citadel.

My family and I visited the first part of the British Expeditionary Trust exhibition when it opened in the Citadel in April. Based around five casemates deep in the bowels of the arsenal, it is a wonderfully atmospheric display of stills, film, sounds and general exhibits from the time.

It is mind-boggling to remember that it was from this nerve centre, employing both regular officers and civilian experts, that 1,300 kilometres of new railway track were built, half a million horses fed, dozens of field hospitals administered, fuel supplied for tanks and lorries, munitions sent daily to the Front and two million soldiers cared for, all without the aid of a computer.

Logistically and technologically, GHQ’s challenges were unprecedented (the BEF’s new multi-channel telephone ‘switching’ facility really did have to work alongside carrier pigeons), leading Haig to praise this ‘rearward service’ as having developed “the most perfect supply system in the world [upon] which rests victory or defeat.”

There are postcards, newspaper clippings, personal testimonies, love letters, posters for the soldiers’ drag show ‘The Queerios’, tins of bully beef, weapons and state-of-the-art (for then) electronic equipment, all evoking life in battle and off-duty for the ‘visitors’ and the people of Montreuil.

Almost universally, the soldiers loved the town and the locals welcomed their ‘friendly invaders’ with open arms, sometimes literally. Needless to say, not all the men heeded the official instruction (on show) from the Army’s top brass to ‘be invariably courteous, considerate and kind…[but]…on your guard against any excesses…both in wine and women.’

The exhibition is imaginatively curated, often very moving and genuinely succeeds in putting the enormous scale and achievements of the ‘rearward’ operations into context. It’s a must, especially if you are planning to visit the battlefields or military cemeteries afterwards, but, of course, there’s plenty more to see in Montreuil besides the exhibition. In fact, every time we go (we spend a few days there most years for our annual French fix) we find something new.

You could call it ‘France for beginners’: within easy reach of the Channel ports and the seaside resorts of Le Touquet, Berck Plage and Merlimont, it is the perfect place to relax and stock up when your wine lake runs dry or when your cheese mountain is reduced to a molehill.

We love to take in the Saturday market (which sells tatty clothes and fake leather goods, but fantastic food) in the Place Général de Gaulle and then walk along the ramparts of the old city walls to admire the timeless view across the Canche valley below.

There are well tended allotments immediately below the wall and then nothing but fields and small villages as far as you can see. The region is largely agricultural, so the tallest buildings are church steeples.

We usually take time during our stay to do a leisurely circular walk in the Canche valley between the nearby farming villages of Alette and Montcavrel. The latter’s splendid chateau (where King Louis Philippe took refuge in 1848) has 11 ‘Cottages Nature’ for rent in its grounds and a gloriously rustic restaurant dining room, converted from an old barn, still with its original beams.

Montreuil is the perfect weekend escape. Even so, I find it sobering to think that the final journey to London of the body of the Unknown Soldier, chosen by Haig, began there. When you stand on the town’s ramparts, you feel a frisson of sadness when you reflect that this is pretty much the same view that an off-duty Tommy would have enjoyed when strolling with his French sweetheart and that this might have been the last thing of beauty he saw before dying on the battlefield.

One thing we haven’t yet done (but have promised ourselves we will; it’s always good to have something to go back for) is the open air ‘son et lumière’ production of Les Misérables, which is performed within the grounds of the castle every summer, in mime, by some 300 townspeople, all amateurs. As every Montreuillois citizen will tell you, their town inspired Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

The writer visited Montreuil, apparently with his mistress (who else?) in 1837 and stayed at the Hotel de France, a former 13th century coaching inn, just as the Irish novelist Lawrence Sterne (and his mistress) did while he was writing A Sentimental Journey in 1765.

Local pride has it that the hotel’s restaurant Le Relais du Roy became the Inn in Les Mis and that the largely unchanged street Caveé St Firmin was where Hugo witnessed the carriage accident that became a pivotal episode in the novel. His doomed heroine Fantine lived there and his hero, Valjean, was for a time mayor of Montreuil, under the assumed name of Monsieur Madeleine.

The appeal of Montreuil is that you don’t need long to get a flavour of the town. A good place to start is the equestrian statue of Haig in front of the town’s theatre on the Place Général de Gaulle. From there, the town radiates into ever narrower cobbled streets and alleys, which can unexpectedly open onto a yet another pretty square. Don’t miss the rue du Clape en Bas, once the potters’ quartier in the 18th century. The original cottages are still there, with bright blue doors and shutters, many of them now artists’ studios and craft shops and in one case, a delicious ‘soup kitchen’. Twee, but lovely.

It’s wonderful to forget the major chains and supermarkets ; the town’s shops are fiercely independent and a joy to pop into. There are fromageries, patisseries, chocolatiers and restaurants aplenty, some within elegant 18th and 19th century townhouses, others in endearingly shabby half-timbered properties, with painted shutters and (in summer) window boxes overflowing with geraniums and petunias.

And since this if France, it’s not unusual to find a knitting shop sitting perfectly comfortably between an up-market wine store and a boutique selling saucy lingerie.

Vaut le détour. Definitely a place worth going out of your way for.

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