A HOLIDAY IN FRANCE
Maison Pannier in Chateau Thierry is to be recommended as a champagne house to tour. A charming young lady took us on an English tour with a couple of Scots whose broad accents had us, let alone her, puzzled at times. The cellars are in a converted 13th Century quarry and fascinating. The tipple is also very pleasant! Leaving here, Dave spotted an excess of oil under the car, an unusual feature for this particular vehicle. He checked - we had a full complement of oil and said that he wanted to check the oil levels at our next stop. I spotted an interesting looking church and so we parked to have a look around. Calamity! The oil pipe had sheared off and we had absolutely no oil at all, all lost in about three miles. Of all the multitude of spares Dave had carefully packed, nothing seemed to fit the bill and he endeavoured a temporary repair hindered by a curious French motorcyclist who continued to talk at him all the while. Patiently explaining that we were English and needed a garage where we could purchase more oil he gave directions and then proceeded to address the rest of his conversation at Dave who still was trying to fix things up and could only grunt back. Yes, I agreed, soldering would be ideal, but..... The temporary repair held, the oil was replenished and we headed to our accommodation and several much needed beers. I was just extremely relieved that I hadn't been driving during the day and it wasn't therefore directly my fault.
The next morning and the repair, a 2BA nut and bolt through the union at the crankcase with fuse wire wrapped around the thread to stop it undoing acting as a stopper, was still holding and so we set off to the heart of Champagne and Epernay. This time we visited the most famous champagne house of them all, Moet & Chandon. The English tour was very slick and we were continually having the grandeur and dominance of Moet impressed upon us. Once again we had a little sample.... Nobody seemed to mind us leaving the Chummy parked in the Moet car park as we went off into the town to buy coffee, lunch and postcards. Generally all the tourist stops seemed very relaxed about a small, charming car adding to their interest. The afternoon saw us heading down a different section of the 'route de Champagne' and onto the flat plains outside Soissons. Vast fields of grain, arrow-straight roads, whistling winds and lumbering trucks. A big difference in scenery from the gentle slopes of vines. We stopped in Pleurs and peered hopefully into several overgrown garages trying to spot something older than a Renault 4. All to no avail.
Our champagne quest being finished, we now switched our attention back to war sites, both wishing to look around the Somme. I was particularly keen to visit the Thiepval Monument, designed by Lutyens, having seen the model and plans for it at Castle Drogo, Drewsteignton, Devon. On the way, we wished to visit the car museum in Compiegne as by now, we were feeling that there could be no old cars left anywhere in France as we had not seen anything, unlike a similar trip around Britain where old cars appear regularly on all our minor roads. Booking accommodation ahead again meant that we had a lazy drive back through the countryside and could meander our way on the smallest of roads shown on the Michelin maps. Our rooms turned out to be an entire suite in a converted mill. Very chintzy and pretty. I suspect that the car's photograph will be in next year's publicity material as the owner enthused over it.
On the way to Compiegne the next day we visited the Armistice Clearing where 1918 saw the ended of WWI but also where Hitler insisted the surrender of France was signed in WWII. A real case of rubbing one's nose in it. There is a museum there with an awesome collection of war-time photographs contained in little 'what the butler saw' type viewers, introducing a 3D aspect. Very sobering and thought provoking. In Compiegne we were disappointed to discover that the car museum only permitted guided tours and we would have to join one in French or return another day. Another day it will have to be, at least it makes a good excuse for returning!
Despite not feeling up to a guided tour around motorcars in French, we joined a French tour of the 'Caverne de Dragone' underground military site situated on the famous 'Chemin des Dames'. The route owes its name to pre-revolutionary princesses but marked a strategic ridge in WWI, much fought over. In fact, the film loop inside the caves showed that it had been fought over in Roman times and in the Franco-German wars of the 1870s. During the First World War, its ownership had changed many times, including a period when two walls and an eight-foot gap separated the French from the Germans. Much observation of each other took place, but no fighting. The surrounding fields produced shrapnel, an eighty-year old souvenir.
Further journeying returned us to Coucy-le-Chateau to stay, a fairly remarkable chance, as we had not remembered its name when booking ahead. The hotel owner waxed enthusiastic over the Chummy and told us of the Bugatti his father gave away in 1942. There were some spares if he could just lay his hands on them....! We left for our tour of the Somme. The Thiepval Monument is huge beyond imagining and bears the names of some 73,000 missing British troops who fell somewhere on the Somme. There is also a small graveyard to known and unknown British and French soldiers. As we approached we could hear the eerie wailing of bagpipes and found a coach party from Sheffield ahead of us, complete with their attendant piper. We found them again later in the day at the monument to the Newfoundland Regiment. This counts as a British site, as one of Britain's colonial regiments and it is here that a series of trenches have been left. They are grassy and full of wild flowers now, but I really had a sense of being spooked as I looked across the one field, which was the distance to the German lines. On a brilliant August day with the sun blazing down from a bright blue sky, it did not seem possible that this tranquil place could have been a site of such destruction, mud and blood. Recreated trenches are available in the back garden of the cafe Tommy in a neighbouring village. Sitting over a beer we listened to a tape of war songs and looked into trench scenes.
A last night treat staying in up-market Peronne and we aimed back to England. I drove first against a strong and gusty headwind. The first really difficult driving conditions I'd faced and needing complete concentration. After a while I was thankful to hand the wheel over to Dave, especially for the busy section around Calais and back onto the Eurostar. We took a scenic route back through Kent to his home, completing about 800 miles of mainly trouble-free motoring. Our route included the now customary beer stop. Back in England and the questions from the admiring crowd mirrored those of the French: 'How old?', 'How fast?', 'Where do you get the tyres', but then, the question that only the English seem to ask, 'How much is the car worth'. Welcome home!