TALK about giving a dog a bad name … in this case two of ‘em – Kent and its cross Channel counterpart Nord- Pas de Calais which, along with Aisne, Oise and the Somme form part of Hauts de France. In much the same way the South East Tourist Board includes not just Kent but Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, East Sussex, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Oxfordshire, Surrey and West Sussex. Which while undoubtedly helpful for the first time, and often foreign, visitor touring by car or coach, it waters down the unique individuality which each component offers in abundance. And, boy, they need highlighting in these troubled times !
Even Essex, teased for its TOWIE image, escapes the regular media references to Kent’s lorry clogged roads, with drivers trapped in vast lorry parks, let alone doom laden coverage of Covin 19 dragging in Faversham surely one of the most attractive and conservation conscious towns in the South-east. All of which must have Visit Kent, Explore Kent, Produced in Kent and a host of similar promotional outlets tearing their hair out about the image this creates of the county in which I was born, wrote about regularly for nearly ten years and now feature on this website.
Hurray then for Paul O’Grady for 22 years one of Kent’s most famous celebrity residents, who, during ITVs Great British Escape, delighted in discovering the ‘beautiful county’ on his doorstep demanding to know ‘Why do you always hear about Devon or Cornwall or the Yorkshire moors.?
‘ I think it’s about time Kent was given a fair hearing because there’s some lovely stuff down here and a hell of a lot I haven’t seen.’ He hammered home his message by using his inimitable sense of humour to delve into history while laying a new stone at the top of Canterbury Cathedral, ride on the Kent & East Sussex Railway (See left) and, as a true animal lover, cosying up to a falcon and an alpaca.
He also headed to Broadstairs, once the favourite holiday spot of Charles Dickens, where he met the author’s great-great-great-grand-daughter Lucinda Hawksley. It was here Dickens wrote parts of Bleak House, David Copperfield and Our English Watering Place. Other literary links include Gad’s Hill Place where he penned A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The annual Dickens Festivals likewise reflect his love of Rochester.
Like me, he shared a passion for cross- Channel France – even if he, too, seems to have struggled with convincing his readers. They listened, he admitted, then headed for Cannes instead. Back home the staycation trend is towards the West Country, with Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset now getting a decent look in, but still leaving Kent all too often in the cold. Yet for sheer diversity of interest, not just in scenery but in history, festivals and local fare, both Kent and Nord-Pas de Calais take some beating – which, without any easily fitting overall identity, tends to work against them. There is a vast difference, for instance, between the undulating landscape of the Kent Weald littered with castles, gardens and oast-houses and Romney Marsh where Pip met Madgwick in Great Expectations. It is now a paradise for lovers of the great outdoors not least the nature reserve at Dungeness.
Nor can you compare The Pantiles in Royal, Tunbridge Wells with Chatham, whose Historic Dockyard is the setting for TV’s Call the Midwife. Add Tracey Emin’s home town of Margate, the setting for J.M.W Turner’ s stupendous seascapes and the attention-grabbing Turner Contemporary museum, and you’re lost for choice. The resort is also number 39 in a survey on the top 50 British beaches: the others are Broadstairs 22, Whitstable 37 and Folkestone 47. And don’t start me on the prize-winning vineyards or the apple orchards.
OVER in France, the Calais and to some extent, Dunkirk, again tend to hog the headlines with reports on refugee camps, fishing quotas. strikes and huge delays at the ports, both before and after Brexit. Thankfully, and I speak as co-author of the best selling Bradt Guide to the World War I Battlefields, the Great War commemorations introduced a new generation of British and other involved nationalities to a landscape no longer scarred by conflict but looking remarkably like the continuation of Kent – but tinged with a unique Gallic charm.
But don’t just take my word for it. On ‘one grey dismal day’ Janine Marsh, herself having lived in Kent, came home from a day trip to Pas de Calais with not just wine, but as owner of a rundown old barn in the Seven Valleys of which I once wrote as being ‘ a tranquil landscape of rippling rivers, lowing cows and a string of cottage industries.’ It is also home to a number of retired Brits, often from Kent, with the bonus of being back home in Thanet just a few hours even in a post Brexit era. Janine likewise drew on the views of Charles Dickens who in 1853 wrote: ’If it were but 300 miles further off, how the English would rave about it.’ ‘ He was’ said Janine ‘ speaking of Boulogne-sur-Mer, a small but vibrant city of Art and History ‘ on the Opal Coast, Pas de Calais. His theory holds true to this day.
Enthusing about ‘ miles of beautiful beaches, silky sand and soaring cliffs – their tops smothered in crimson poppies in late spring.’ she also cites ‘ Secret bays where seals frolic in plain view and traditional fishing villages where fishermen sell direct from their front gardens. This is what you will discover along the coastline either side of medieval Boulogne-sur-Mer, an area hardly known to overseas visitors or even to the French. It’s true, the sun doesn’t shine as much as it does in the south – except in the heart of the locals, who have a reputation of being the friendliest folk in France. But for lovers of fabulous French food and wine, charming street markets, welcoming cafés, ancient towns and memorable cities, glorious countryside, superb seaside resorts … Pas de Calais is an authentic and surprising corner of France that you’ll fall head over heels for.’ All of which is revealed in her best selling books My Good Life in France | In Pursuit of the Rural Dream and My Four Seasons in France | A Year of the Good Life, www.thegoodlifefrance.
For Paddy Daly his eureka moment came after working as a travel PR able to visit almost all of France’s regions at least once. ‘ When we decided to relocate our family and business from the Welsh border town of Chepstow I thought I was relatively well informed on what was on offer over the Channel.’ he told me. ‘However, this depth of knowledge is also a curse. Every area has its own merits and I was starting to lose hope of settling on one ! Luckily I then read an article by Janine Marsh, singing the praises of Pas de Calais. One hour from central London by Eurostar, but a world away in every other sense, I already had several travel industry friends, including Janine, living in the area.
‘ I had spent one night in Montreuil- sur- Mer some 19 years earlier but had no recollection of the town, but on arrival I felt immediately at home. We met up with Janine for a pre dinner apéro in the main square, but then France won the football world cup and the place went crazy. Singing, trombones, trumpets, car horns and the quick apero turned into at least five and no food. As we wobbled back to our accommodation (thankfully a short walk away) with a French flag, gifted to us by a jolly local, I knew I had found a spot that could be home both professionally and personally. Over two years later our teenage daughters are in local schools, fluent in French and we have a French company to run alongside our UK one. The climate is coastal, so we get our fair share of rain but also avoid the wilting heat of summers further inland. We may be in the north of France, but we are still south of Cornwall and summers are glorious.’
All of which justifies the 20 years I have taken to explore and sing the praises of Le Nord as well as Pas de Calais. It began with taking the less hectic D940 coastal road from Calais rather than the A16 discovering the likes of little known Ambleteuse along with Hardelot-Plage which, surrounded by woods and trees and well upholstered homes, is where Charles Dickens stayed with his mistress Ellen Ternan; close by the Château d’Hardelot celebrates l’Entente cordiale between Britain and France. Don’t miss the adjoining Elizabethan theatre. Equally intriguing is Le Nord basically the Flemish area which boasts Cassel, voted France’s (and mine) favourite village, and rural Avenois the rarely mentioned green face of what was formerly the 19th century centre for glass and ironworks fuelled by the coalfields of Lens and Lille, itself voted European Capital of Culture back in 2004. Deservedly so, for what was once rapidly losing it centuries old role as a textile and industrial city, with even its local coal mining tradition collapsing in the 1980s, is now a chameleon of a city creating a colourful canvas, be it drawn from the highbrow or the café culture of its vast population of students. But beware: it’s large. The best way to explore the Old Town is on foot, preferably after a scene setting coach tour through a confusing pattern of increasingly narrow cobbled streets.
Mind you, even the French take the mick. In the award winning film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis basically Welcome to the Sticks, Phillippe, a postmaster seeking a transfer to a charming town along the Riviera, is instead banished to the distant unheard of town Bergues in Le Nord leaving his child and wife behind. Even a cop on his journey north lets him off a speeding fine on hearing that the poor man was heading for such a cold and frightening destination, inhabited by hard-drinking, unemployed rednecks, and speaking an incomprehensible dialect called Ch’ti. Philippe soon realises that such notions were nothing but prejudice and that Bergues is not synonymous with hell. Far from it. Lying 9km south-east of Dunkirk – itself well worthy as a base – its canals, bridges, cobbled streets and gates give a promising air of picture postcard perfection.
From here head for the Flemish inland and feast on a fine rural fare in tongue twisting villages such as Godewaersvelde (I still don’t know how to pronounce it) in Roald Dahl –type territory full of tales of the unexpected – and two gorgeously rustic estaminets basically bars-cum-cafes rivaling their equally rustic pubs in rural Kent. Which really says it all …
France: www.pas-de-calais-tourisme.com; www.amazing-cambrai.com; www.tourisme-avesnois.com; www.france-voyage.com/travel-guide/nord-departement.htm; https://en.lilletourism.com/ www.dunkirk-tourism.com.
STRADDLING both sides of the Channel in terms of sales, is George Ward, retail manager of the Cheesemakers of Canterbury’s flagship counter at The Goods Shed, Canterbury. ‘ We took over this counter 10 years ago, and in that time the majority of our midweek sales have been to Dutch, Belgian and French on short breaks to the area.’ he said. ‘They now expect, as a matter of course, to be able to buy good, local food and drink in Kent.’ George, whom I have known for many years as a fellow visitor to Nord-Pas de Calais, added that Parisians, over on a Eurostar day trip, also took back British cheeses to shock their friends over supper that evening.
‘We used to sell our Chaucer’s Camembert to a deli in the French-speaking area of Belgium, which preferred Kentish camembert to the French variety. Blue cheeses and cheddars were the most popular, cheddar for its strength and the blues for their richness. The pandemic,’ he admitted ‘ has hit that trade, and we have yet to really feel the effects of Brexit. But, sales apart, I just miss the delight of the mutual enjoyment of our cheeses. You can’t help but warm to someone who actually cheers when tasting it!
This limited edition book not only highlights the historic links between the cross-Channel neighbours but does so with stunning shots of both Kent and Pas de Calais. Despite Brexit, the respective tourist offices will continue to co-operate along similar lines to a previous inter-regional EU funded project. For the record, the six Kent towns the French know best are Canterbury (and the cathedral), Dover (and castle), Folkestone (Leas seawalk), Leeds Castle, and for the more knowledgeable Royal Tunbridge Wells, Deal and Ashford. The corresponding towns the Brits know best are Calais, Boulogne, Arras (both for Vimy Ridge etc and the Christmas market) and Le Touquet; A few more may mention Wimereux or Lens (for Le Louvre) and possibly St Omer. In Le Nord Dunkirk (though mostly as a port) and Lille.
John Ruler is author of the Bradt guide to Cross-Channel France