We needed to head north before the predicted stormy winds and wet weather swept across France. It was the only topic of conversation with fellow motorhomers all weekend long and, whilst they boasted that they had time to spare, we now needed to get back to work!
Early on Monday morning we headed north up the fast-moving toll road to Arras. It was an unplanned stop as we wanted to get as far as possible, but heavy traffic meant we pulled off the road and enjoyed the afternoon meandering around the very stately town and provincial capital of Artois.
Its large public squares, impressive churches, opera house, theatres and tall merchant houses were mostly rebuilt following damage during both the First and Second World Wars. The masonry and timber-work looked pristine and the late autumn sunshine gave the town a very pretty look. I was pleased to see the former home of Robespierre, not hard to find along Rue de Robespierre, but not open to the public.
Remembering a farm aire not far from Arras (from a visit five years ago) we set off to find two farmers’ wives who are also makers of spectacular Normandy tarts. We found the farm and a young farmhand but he was confused by our arrival and we surmised with disappointment that the farm was no longer a stopover.
We visited Mont St Eloi on our way back to Arras to look at the huge ruined towers of its Abbey where composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was photographed on a sight-seeing trip whilst being stationed nearby at Ecoivres.
It was a treat for Simon to see on his birthday, having studied and enjoyed listening to so much of RVW’s compositions for his WW1 BBC radio work. We walked around the monument and watched the light changing the landscape as bright sunshine shone between dark clouds.
The night in the Arras aire was a nervy one as we were the only ‘van in a curious area of parking off a roundabout and near a run-down residential area with a heavily advertised but now derelict Carrefour. We were left alone but had little sleep.
It was with some relief that we set out the next morning for two final WW1 stops. The British cemetery outside Arras bears the name of 35,942 soldiers, including Robert “Pom Pom” Whiting, a Brighton goalkeeper who swapped the football field for the battlefield.
North of the town in an unassuming field we wandered amongst thousands of black iron crosses, most without names or dates, marking the mass grave of German soldiers. It felt right to pause there.
In blustery and icy winds, we continued up the A26 toll road and ended up in Lens, on a purpose built motorhome aire a short walk away from the new ‘mini Louvre’ and next to McDonald’s.
Sadly the art was shut for the day so we camped in McDonald’s drinking coffee and making gratuitous use of its free wi-fi to update the blog and book our passage on a Calais to Dover ferry. Understanding the grim weather forecast for the week ahead, we booked the ferry for 24hrs time.
Over the course of the afternoon heavy rains came down and more ‘vans arrived filling the aire creating a feeling of happy camaraderie. There was no problem sleeping safely that night but the rain and gusting wind meant sleep came in snatches.
Wearily we decided the next morning to drive to Calais and stay overnight at the large Cite Europe shopping complex. Arriving along the free motorway it was evident that the growing camps of immigrants were causing unrest locally as armed riot police lined up alongside the road facing groups of desolate-looking and exhausted people. It was shocking to see, and sad.
In the Carrefour car park police patrolled by regularly and a nervy northerner travelling alone in a caravan pulled up alongside us for company. We cooked off a rotisserie chicken with some Bertha oven frites, not something we had done before but enjoyed, and shared a plate of hot food and conversation with our grateful neighbour.
Despite the plummeting temperature and strong windy gusts we talked late into the night about the desperate situation just a short way down the road for the people who had found themselves to be unwanted refugees.
Dreading the drive to the ferry it was actually swiftly done as it seemed the police activity was focussed on the Channel Tunnel that morning – there were miles of tailbacks after a security alert.
Our crossing felt subdued after such a lovely trip but it would have been ignorant of us to ignore the plight of so many people so close to us, but so far removed from our own happy circumstances.
Entering the port at Dover and joining the inevitable queue through customs, we reflected that the usual inconvenience was actually a privilege when just 28 miles across the water, thousands of people who had been forced to leave their own homes were now trying desperately to reach our country to make a new life.
It was a thoughtful end to our trip.