We drove up the winding contours of the steep hill leading to the historic centre of Laon, where we reached comfortable camping-car only parking set adjacent to the medieval walls. We walked through the walls and into the old town, following the grey stoned cobbled streets to reach the large square that opened out in front of the impressive Notre Dame cathedral. Built between the years of 1150-1235 CE, this Gothic cathedral was a precursor and inspiration to many more famous local cathedrals, such as those at Chartres and Reims.
We continued our walking tour through the city, busy with commerce and traffic, to the Abbey church of Saint Martin. From a raised promenade near here we could enjoy views out across the local countryside. The hillside city, known by the Gauls as Lugdunum, was set on a large mound in the centre of the wide valley, providing the opportunity for great views and leaving it prominently visible for many miles around. The towers of the Notre Dame cathedral dominated the skyline, but the green forests at the base of the walls, locally called the ‘lungs of Laon’ provided the natural, softening backdrop.
We moved on, deeper into the quiet northern flatlands, where we stayed overnight in a French Passion aire in the small village of Sancourt. Les Canards de la Germaine, a farm selling produce such as duck, fois gras and cider, were our friendly hosts. We bought some eggs and a bottle of demi-sec cider to see us through the night, before retiring to Benny to listen to the howling winds and bleating sheep. The following morning we continued into the Somme.
Thiepval and the Somme
Driving on tiny roads barely the width of Benny and with no passing places, we fretted on the possibility of meeting another vehicle and having to reverse for several miles, but thankfully none appeared. The fields either side were farmed right to the road verge, and with the overnight rain, we would have no chance of getting out without heavy assistance if we had slipped off into the sodden mud. We passed numerous memorials and cemeteries, many dedicated to specific regiments or countries that fought with the Allies, such as South Africa, Australia and Canada.
We visited the Thiepval Memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to commemorate and remember the fallen in the Great War. The site was completed in 1932 and has been continuously updated to reflect the names of those whose remains have since been identified. We walked around the museum in silence, reading the displays and soaking up all that we could. We walked out to the memorial, and for a short window we were the only visitors. From a distance the large stone and brick arches dominated the form, but up close the volume of names carved into the walls of stone made the monument deeply personal, a connection to all the individual lives, with so much youth, vigour and potential, lost unnecessarily to the futility of war. The grey skies and slow, persistent dripping of the light rain that followed us seemed apt for our visit, adding a damp, reflective poignancy that blue skies and sunshine could never deliver.
” The unreturning army that was youth;
The Legions who have suffered and are dust. “
Prelude: The Troops, Siegfried Sassoon
We overnighted in Doullens, north of Amiens, before cutting west through thin countryside back-roads in thick, plodding rain. The deep, splashing puddles slowed our progress, but we were in no hurry even if we now felt a little impatient for home comforts. Our sightseeing and exploring was mostly over; it was mainly about practical necessity now.
We reached the northern coast and the chilly waters of La Manche on the edge of a small village of Criel-sur-Mer, where we had planned to stop overnight but the aire here was closed as the large sea defences were being either rebuilt or reinforced. The water looked green with minerals, and we could see only a short way off shore in the close, wet air.
We took a satisfying moment to stand on the stony beach and look out towards home, thinking of our journey to date and how we were, after six months, about to close our first full loop. We then relocated, in more heavy rain, to the village of Saint-Nicolas-D’Aliermont to overnight, before heading to Dieppe in the very early morning to catch the 5.30am crossing back to Blighty, our first foreign adventure in Benny at a close.