As Cherbourg came into view through the ferry window H and I looked at each other with one unspoken thought between us. We’ve really done it. We’re really here. And what a wonderful ‘here’ it was, both to introduce us to France and to camping exploring. Normandy is big and flat and wide and so completely unlike both the coast where I grew up and the gently rolling hills of our rural Warwickshire. And with big and flat and wide you get the most incredible skies. We drove down from Cherbourg and headed east along the coast for our first campsite, up on the coast above Caen, and it was beautiful in its emptiness.
No big towns, nothing high-rise, just beautiful little villages backing onto sand dunes and then the sea.
The Norman people were so lovely too; wandering through Sallenelles on our first morning we met a very sweet couple (Michel and Madame Michel) who relieved us of a nappy that we really wouldn’t have wanted to carry around in the car all day, and got chatting to us and the children. It wasn’t particularly deep and meaningful stuff, just that the children were cute and Pip waved at them and Elma gave her best effort at Bonjour and we talked about the weather (because maintaining the British stereotype while abroad is as you know a condition of receiving your passport) but it gave H and I confidence in our French and set the tone for our stay in Normandy. Everywhere we went we found people who were kind and welcoming and happy to chat and to help us out with a few gaping holes in my vocab. I’ve alway felt that there is a degree to which travelling without interacting is missing something. It’s the people who bring a place to life and make it more than just a beautiful film set, and Normandy was full of life.
And being on the coastline, the beaches and the Normandy Landings are ever-present. There’s a memorial in even the tiniest beach car park, and the roads are signed for Omaha Beach or Sword Beach or this museum or that museum. I studied the landings as part of my history A-level and the area has always held my interest, both because of all the reading I did at the time and the fact that the bit of the Devon coast where I grew up was used as a practice ground. As a military feat the landings are incredible, and the human cost is one that should never be allowed to fade into history. On our first morning we drove back to explore Pegasus Bridge, and on a whim, turned into the visitor centre. I’m so glad we did because the centre and the memorial that goes with it is really really well done.
Pegasus Bridge spans the Caen canal. It’s the first bridge inland from the sea and in simple terms its capture and subsequent defence meant that the might of the German Army stationed to the east had to go the long way round on D-Day. To call it a key target for capture is rather understating it. And so on 6 June 1944 181 men left England in Horsa gliders (made out of balsa wood and canvas) towed behind bombers heading for the French coast. They were released by the bombers at the coast and then flown by map and stopwatch inland, turned and landed ready to attack the bridge. The closest glider landed 47 feet from the bridge itself, it was quite a feat of flying. The bridge was captured in 10 minutes, held and the rest is history. But a very alive history. All around the centre are the stories of the men who were there on D-Day, in English and in French. The visitor centre runs free English language tours during the day and it was superb. Not just because the lady giving the tour knew her facts, but because she knew or knows the people. She could tell what happened that day because she’s heard it from the veterans, and not just in an interview, collecting the facts kind of style, more of a ‘sat down and shared a whisky’ anecdote. The midges that were worse than the Germans, or the time when the teenaged guard returned to the bridge for the first time since he’d legged it into the wood at the first sign of trouble, and the first person he met coming down the bridge was Major Howard (who’d been in command of the attack).
The current Pegasus Bridge is actually a replacement, it needed to be bigger and stronger and longer and the old one was dumped in a field until 2000 when the centre was set up and the real original bridge purchased from the French Government for one franc (they haven’t paid yet!) and walking along it, noticing the bullet holes everywhere you look is sobering.
The new bridge has been made in the image of the old one (minus the bullet holes) and later that afternoon we got to see it in action when it opened to let a couple of yachts through. It’s a pretty impressive piece of engineering and made some decent sized yachts look tiny in comparison.
From Benouville we headed up the coast to Ouistreham for a beach picnic and as soon as you set foot on Sword Beach you can see why it worked as a landing-place. It’s surprisingly solid, none of the two steps forward one step back feeling that I automatically associate with sandy beaches, and according to another Brit we got chatting to, the Allies had sent marines across the channel in mini submarine to sneak ashore, take core samples and bring them home for analysis. All of us stood there looking out over sunshine, blue seas, and all the trappings of a beach in the summer holidays and tried to imagine it as it was 71 years ago, but I think it defies imagination. What you do sense is simply the scale. It’s huge.
I don’t think it’s really possible to explain a world war to preschoolers. We gave a vague explanation and left it at that for now and in some ways it was nice to step out of the history of the beaches and just enjoy cake, sand, waves to jump, and the joys of watching a ferry look like it’s about to hit the wall (it doesn’t, it goes behind it).
But as I said, the impact is everywhere. We were pooltling around the countryside one afternoon with the children asleep in the back of the car when we tried to take a shortcut, realised it was really a farm track not best suited to our nice big heavily laden car, and turned to find ourselves facing the lytch gate of the military cemetery at Hermanville-sur-mer. H stayed with the children and I went to explore.
I was the only person there, the only person in a sea of white stones, all labelled, some with names, some just with a regiment, and some not even that. I wandered along the rows, spotting the different regiments, the different nationalities represented, the names, the ages, and the words added by their families. I was once told that the best way to get a handle on the WW1 and WW2 cemeteries is to find the record and look for your surname. At the biggest memorials you will find it.
Hermanville is only little, but it seemed a good place to start. I got through my surname, my maiden name and I was working through a few family names without finding anything when a word on the opposite page jumped out. Not a surname but a town.
Arthur Francis of Oundle.
I come from Devon but I went to school in Northamptonshire. It’s a bit complicated but essentially I went to boarding school with my whole family because my Dad taught there. So my Remembrance Sunday Parades, first as a Brownie and then later as a naval cadet were at school. In my final year I was the wreath bearer; I laid it on the step that somewhere bears that same name. If I’ve remembered rightly his family were still living in Oundle when I was little, my parents used to have their car serviced at Francis Marshall and his parents probably weren’t much older than my grandparents.
His final resting place is beautiful now, filled with sunlight and a strong sense of peace. I’m not sure I can ever quite explain how moving I found it, but I know that I will not forget.
The juxtaposition of old and new becomes even stronger when you go a few miles down the coast and discover the seaside resort for Northern France. Deauville-Trouville is polished and shining and has a distinct aura of wealth about it so it was no surprise to see the big casino, or to read that this is where the Parisian elite come for their summer holidays. With all the glitz and glamour, the lavish houses and the beautiful beautiful yacht we watched sail into the harbour it felt a little like a film set; beautiful, but not quite real and I think my heart belongs to the more rural areas.
Our next adventures took us further north and then east, first to harbours and cliffs and then inland and away from our big skies until we returned right at the end of our trip and I’ll save that for another postcard, but I leave you with an evening on the beach as we watched the sun sink into the sea.