At eleven this morning Montreuil resembles one of those perfect and utterly empty villages that The Avengers stumble across in black and white – sometime around 1965. In those old television shows everything was happening around the corner and underground, and Montreuil has the same sense. It is Sunday, after all: even if it is really Thursday.
Henry IV of France came here a few years before Thomas Coryat and declared the town Fidelissima Picardorum Natio, which means “quite nice”. Two years after Coryat was here Henry was assassinated on the same dateas Thomas and I set sail, but that is for Paris, perhaps.
High up and to the north west of the town on the Citadel, built in 1567, it is easy to feel content. There is a great view across the country; ramparts; sheep-flocks of people with audio guides; and even a Shell-Suit, though it is a rare sight in northern France these days, like an old Citroen DS or a George Sand novel. I can imagine Tom up here, checking out the cows.
From 1916 this was the British Army’s communications centre: its internet hub, only its wi-fi (if only) was more like wi-fly, as the major form of message-sending was carrier-pigeon. Douglas Haig who led the British forces lived a chateau a few miles away, but this was where plans were sent, and lives first lost.
Montreuil has pleasingly winding streets, and is high: thus its long-term military importance; once it was the northern most point of France. It wouldn’t be so great a surprise to see Binoche selling spicy chocolate here in a shop on the main square; no sign of Depp in bad Irish accent though, or Leslie Caron (of whom more soon). There are more bikers (ditto) in town, taking a pit-stop, and I’ve read that the Knights Templars made this a centre for a while.
As I will be hot on the grail-trail in Paris, I search Montreuil’s churches, including the one Coryat visited, in search of a bloodline, or a painting to misinterpret. I even try making an anagram of Montreuil-sur Mer. I quit on Coca-Cola two and: “Um, Les Mort Rien". There was this mysterious symbol though.
In the courtyard of the Hotel de France there’s a lively outdoor painting of Laurence Sterne looking every inch the late-starter success story. I’ll write more about Sterne later, but it is worth remembering that his classic, Tristram Shandy, was an immediate best-seller in France, some time before the English got it. Here, on his – as it were – promotional tour, he picked up a Press Officer.
“Nor was it till I got to Montreuil, upon the landlord's asking me if I wanted not a servant, that it occurred to me, that that was the very thing.
A servant! That I do most sadly, quoth I.--Because, Monsieur, said the landlord, there is a clever young fellow, who would be very proud of the honour to serve an Englishman.- But why an English one, more than any other?--They are so generous, said the landlord.- I'll be shot if this is not a livre out of my pocket.”
It’s easy here, compact, circular, carefully nurtured, customer-friendly (very friendly); cyber café-less. A tourist town though, with its West Indies bar and quotes from Hemingway, but restrained; not theme-park. The visitors are older, largely, driving through.
The bronzed quartet from Ramsgate recognize a fellow Brit with a smile – what is it that gives us away, even without the England shirt on? The four often travel in Northern France, they enjoy the food and drink. “It’s more civilized than Kent, you can stay out to eat and drink without the fights.”
How is Abbeville [the next stop] I ask.
Katie says: “It’s beautiful. We go there often, but you could try Berck as well.”
Katie’s partner has a great-great grandfather who died at the Somme.
“It was sentimental really, to start,” she says.
We return to roots, and then we just return.
“I’m on a route, I have to follow,” I say.
Her partner finally speaks: no hostage to familial emotion.
“Then it’s straight down the N1. Easy”
Everyone’s a car driver now. Or a biker.