Friday, 26 August 2016

A fabulous kind of bleak.

We've visited some beautiful places over the years in Belgium and North East France . Bruges, Nancy, Langres, Stenay, Dinant, I am sure there are many others we have yet to discover. What is equally true is that we have also driven across some very dreary landscapes and through dismal looking places in these regions. So, when we planned our trip to the Ardennes I don't think my expectations were particularly high. The plan was hatched as much around being cheap as being lovely. 

Perhaps our prejudices concerning this part of the world results from the majority of our previous journeys being made in late March as we scooted south at Easter towards the Italian Lakes. Anticipating snowy mountains beneath deep blue skies, sparkling lakes and valleys full of cherry blossom, the long haul south from Reims to Mulhouse always seemed to unfold beneath grey skies, the foothills of the Vogses ever locked in sepia transition between an unremitting winter and a recalcitrant spring. So associated were the Vogses in family lore with the dismal that we actually began to look forward to driving through them. They became a feature of Easter breaks. In order to keep ourselves entertained on the long journey south we arranged competitions with such categories as 'grim concrete edifices of note', 'floral housecoat of the year', 'most bewildered by-stander' and awarded additional points for the most incomprehensible of the odd wrought iron rond-point. sculpture.

I  wonder if these early spring trips through eastern France were the source of the interest I developed more recently in dismal, disregarded places, not just becoming a rare tourist in Mansfield, Milton Keynes and Droitwich Spa, but reading books that explored and explained the post war enthusiasm for raw concrete and dystopian sprawl. Documentaries such as Jonathan Meade's 'Birmingham', and more recent books like Owen Hathersley's 'A New Kind of Bleak' and John Gringrod's 'Concretetopia' go beyond regarding post-war British architecture as a series of architectural errors resulting in celebrated 'carbuncles' but a response to a social crisis that demanded ingenuity, ambition and optimism about the future. It is difficult to countenance the scale of the housing crisis which faced Britain in 1950: Millions of families lived in overcrowded unsanitary conditions without even running water indoors and sharing the use of a toilet with their neighbours. The slums inherited from the industrial revolution and the destruction of houses due to war time bombing coincided with the baby boom. No wonder given post war austerity that the housing programme demanded solutions that were quick, cheap and used concrete rather than traditional materials such as brick which was in short supply. Despite all this, in less than twenty years slums were eradicated, motorways built, the NHS established and university education opened to all. I have learned to appreciate 'concretopia' rather than deride it. 

So what has this to do with our current trip to the Ardennes? Well, all the snarky things I've said about Belgium and Eastern France in the past were founded on the same misapprehension that led people at home to dismiss post war developments as blots on the landcape, Not everywhere can be a beauty spot and even ugly places can be interesting. Armed with this notion then road travel becomes immediately more interesting as the parts of the journey previously dismissed as ' the bits in-between' take on a fascination of their own. I suppose this is the gift of having more time to wander. While in work a break of two or three weeks was the most we could manage. There was pressure to reach some beautiful destination like Corsica or Tuscany or the Basque country. Now we have more time to mooch and appreciate the understated charms of the unspectacular. Even the long straight road towards Belgium stretching from Maubeuge to Phillipville seemed pleasant enough. Givay, described in our decades old Dorling Kinderley guide as 'an unattractive riverside town' had some interesting corners after we took short post-lunch stroll. Given my new found enthusiasm for 60s tat, even the odd houses next to the aire which resemble vandalised mobile homes on stilts seemed worthy of a photograph. Given enough time everything is worth a second look and has some story to tell.

Was the guidebook right to call Givay an 'unattractive riverside town'?

I mean it's not horrible is it?

Some of the shops looked positively jolly.

The Hotel de Ville is a suitably homungous 'Belle Epoch' structure

and when the French do modernist blot, it's so ugly it is almost charming - like a pug.
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