Britain is well served with ferries to Europe and if you are heading south to the sun and want to avoid the traffic and the heavily populated are around Paris, it is well worth looking to the west and using Brittany ferries out of Portsmouth.
Shortly after driving our car on board we found that our cabin was a comfortable affair with larger windows that I expected. This was a good thing because as our ship headed out to sea there was really a lot to take in. You are immediately reminded that Portsmouth, (the home of Nelson’s HMS Victory,) is steeped in naval history and you sail past ships that range from today's battle fleet to ancient craft that you can visit at The Historic Naval Dockyard.
If you plan to travel via Portsmouth, try to get there early and explore some of the things that are on offer. It was difficult to fit everything in, but attracted by flags and a large tank outside we visited the D-day Museum. It deals with the history of the Normandy landings in World War Two and has for it’s main attraction a very large tapestry of the invasion. Wearing headphones you walk around the thirty four panels that tell the story of ‘Operation Overlord.’
All is peaceful now on the leafy bye ways of Normandy, but if you saw the film "Saving Private Ryan" you will have a clear image of the battles that took place there during World War Two when in June 1944 a hundred and thirty thousand men and seven thousand ships crossed the channel. The Overlord Embroidery which tells the story of the Allied invasion, just as 900 years earlier the story of William the Conqueror's invasion of England was told in the Bayeux Tapestry. Each panel in the Embroidery is 8 feet long by 3 feet high and together they tell the complete story of the D-Day operation, from the planning and preparation of the invasion to victory in the Battle of Normandy in August 1944. A sound track dramatises the scene and as you look at the needlework, your imagination really brings it to life.
You begin to sense the tension that must have existed as the invasion force gathered.
You examine detail such as the midget submarine shining a green light out to sea to guide the invasion fleet in and other panels that feature the troops landing in Normandy and moving inland for the battle of Caen. It was the last British battle fought in Europe, and the first for two hundred years.
We sailed out at three in the afternoon and below decks in the giant car ferry some four hundred cars lay in wait for their part in the annual holiday invasion.
Caen has a hundred churches and they all seemed to be ringing their bells when we arrived. Back in World War II the Germans resisted the capture of Caen for a considerable time and much of the city was destroyed in the heavy fighting. In spite of that action we managed to find some houses with medieval beams and winding alleyways before joining the traffic and tour buses that poured into the little town of Bayeux.
It is just seventeen miles down the road and is of course famous for the Bayeux Tapestry and that portrays a much earlier cross Channel invasion, ‘The Norman Conquest,’which I found it absolutely fascinating. You follow it round with a sound wand and pick up a repeating commentary. “The Norman archers, formidable marksmen, fire indirectly on to the enemy troops....”
This interpretation really makes sense of it all, so you must make sure that you hire the listening device. There is such great detail, on one side the Saxons in a square formation brandishing javelins and axes and on the other you see horses and knights both in chain mail. There are swords and battle axes and here and there the odd head being lopped off, not to mention the chap with the arrow in his eye. Little boys will love it!.
This part of rural France was certainly peaceful but if we had hoped to leave thoughts of war behind, it was not to be. We passed many signs for war graves and entering a small town we had to pull into the side to let the local brass band pass by. Children and adults played with equal vigor. Trumpets and cymbals seemed to dominate as they produced a sound that was uniquely French.
It was the 8th of May, but it wasn’t until we rounded a corner at Villeres Bocage and saw the furling of a flag and fresh flowers on the war memorial that we realised that it was Armistice Day in France.
In the middle of a square a dog was asleep in the sun and elderly men with medals pinned to their Sunday suits moved towards the local bar.
We followed them in and almost immediately sensed a coolness in their attitude, we had in fact arrived at the end of the Armistice Sunday service and, with my son being fair haired, they had mistaken us for Germans but the atmosphere immediately switched from cold to warm when they found I was Scots.I tried to order some drinks but the local Mayor insisted on paying and then started to recall his good times in Glasgow.
We would, I am sure, have been there for quite a long time but his little grandson came in to tell him his Sunday lunch was waiting. Now for us to be late for the meal of the week would be bad enough but for a French man, “c’est formidable!”