Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The resurrection of Albert

By now we were getting towards our three day limit when living in aires becomes a bit gritty and both Maisy and her increasingly crusty owners need the services and facilities offered by a camp site. Cheap sites in August are tricky to come by even in France. In the end Camping Le Velodrome in Albert seemed to tick all the boxes (cheap, sort of on the way) so off we went. Albert was simply a spot on the map between Laon and Amien, we had no idea what to expect. As it happens Albert was the headquarters and supply depot for the British army during the battle of the Somme, whose centenary is being marked this year. When we booked into the site we were handed a clutch of glossy brochures. They explained the town's role in WWI, pointed out the sites and provided a map of nearby points of interest on the waymarked 'route of remembrance.

We needed bread for lunch so we walked into the town centre. You cannot miss Albert's most famous landmark. Notre Dame de Brebières is an enormous and rather ghastly basilica built in a neo-Byzantine style in the 1870s. The church's fame comes from the fact that the giant gold statue of the Virgin on top of the tower was knocked into a horizontal position when it was used by German gunners as target practice in 1916. This became a a subject of superstition among British soldiers who believed that the war would only end when the so called 'leaning virgin' toppled completely.

Neo Byzantine - is this the most ghasrly style of architecture ever?
WW1 artefacts outside Notre Dame de Brebières 
By the end of the war the town was utterly wrecked and rebuilt using the original street plan but in a modern art deco style. It's an interesting example of inter-war town planning especially as it is contemporary with Welwyn Garden City, so invites comparison with British ideas about urban renewal in the early part of the last century, well it does if you are an enthusiast for 20th Century vernacular architecture like me.

Albert 1916

Albert 2016
Re-built in a contemporary Art Deco style

Interesting 1920s decorative detail
We were unsure what the hall was behind the tourist office - a gymnasium perhaps?
Again, interesting Art Deco motifs, including, poignantly, stained glass poppies.

Sadly the redevelopment did not stretch to the monstrous church which was restored to all its pre-war ghastliness complete with gold topped belfry. In a way, like much of the area, Albert suffers from its association with the catastrophe of the Battle of the Somme which overshadows the subsequent story of renewal. For example from the 1930s onwards the town has had a thriving aviation industry. Through merger by the 1970s this had developed as the basis of Aero Spatiale, which then became a subsidiary of Airbus.

A publicity shot of the interior Aero STELIA's  factory in Albert
The visit to the tourist information furnished us with a cycle track map, and a snippet of information that the collection of blue cuboid buildings on the edge of town manufacturers the cockpit and avionics for the A380, the world s biggest airliner. As we wandered back to the van, baguette and paté duly purchased we mulled over the thought that rememberance may be necessary but we need to celebrate the here and now too. We  easily  become enmeshed in a narratives which dwell on the past or current news that concerns the corrupt and uncertain present, but not all human activity is negative; we build as well as destroy. Though as it transpired the afternoon was destined to test such optimism.

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