Friday, 22 September 2017

35 years later.....

In 1982, by chance we found we had a whole summer to spare. Gill had been teaching for a couple of years in Manchester and I had just completed a PGCE and was about to take up my first post at a Sixth Form College in West Lancashire. A six week summer break beckoned. Lots of exciting things were happening in our lives - we had recently bought our flat in Rusholme, we were reluctant beneficiaries of Thatcher's 'right to buy' policy. My new job in Skelmersdale meant we needed to buy a car. Up until then we had cycled everywhere. We bought a Renault 4, which seemed sufficiently lo-tech so as not to entirely compromise our 'green' muesli-crunching credentials. So we packed our camping gear, stowed our treasured hand-built touring bikes on the roof and headed for la Belle France. Gill's Dad gave us an RAC map of Europe and a dog-eared campsite booklet passed on from Uncle George which was at least a decade out of date. Undeterred we headed for Dover. We had cycle-camped in France - we figured, there's a Camping Municipal in most places, we'll be fine... and we were.

Somehow we managed to get from Manchester to the Loire in one hop. It took the best part of 24 hours. At that time I was the sole driver. I recall a sunrise behind the tall spires of Alencon cathedral, breakfast croissants at a place called Le Lude, then arriving at a campsite on an island in the Loire overlooking the chateau at Saumur. I fell out of the driver's seat and into the tent that Gill had kindly erected, crawled into a sleeping bag, and slept solidly for sixteen hours.

We wandered further south without a plan. What seems unremarkable now was new and felt exotic - a sea of sunflowers stretching towards the horizon under the deep blue sky, the tranquil beauty of the valleys of the Vienne and Charente, each village felt ancient, nested within a bucolic landscape. We bought fruit and pineau from roadside stalls. Often we were the only visitors at the camping municipals, even in July this part of rural France was largely unfrequented. 

After a few days we decided we needed a beach. Maybe the 'bac' across the Gironde between Royan and le Verdon-sur-Mer was marked on the Michelin map we had bought, perhaps I was nervous of urban driving and wanted to avoid Bordeaux. The result was we ended up camping among the pines at a remote spot near the northern tip of the Medoc next to a beach called 'le Gurp'. It attracted an eclectic bunch, families on holiday in big frame tents and minuscule caravans, beach bums in patched bivouacs and surfers in hippyfied camper vans. The soft sandy beach stretched for miles in both directions backed by low dunes and tall, spindly maritime pines. The only feature in the empty expanse of sand, sea and sky were a clutch of ruined blockhouses from the Atlantic Wall, now half submerged in the sand and daubed with graffiti. 

In this temporary republic of the recently tanned rules were minimal. For example, to encourage peace and harmony on the beach someone had placed a blackboard at the​ gate at the back of the site. The sketch map showed a picture of a towel and sandcastle in the area nearby - for families; on each side of this were cartoon characters falling off surf boards, and beyond the blockhouses a coy graphic of bare-arsed bathers suggesting that here was the place to go if you wanted to strip off altogether. People adhered this hastily chalked-up constitution and a good time was had by all. I remember our stay here fondly, a great couple of weeks in a laid back, civilised place.

We were amazed at how cheap everything was and marvelled at the quality of local fresh produce. Though we only had a small single burner Campingaz stove, with just a small frying pan and a little aluminium cooking pot, Gill rustled-up some seriously delicious food, specialising in a spicy ratatouille which she dubbed somewhat unromantically as her 'sweaty rat special'. Back then 'vin ordinaire' came in narrow returnable bottles decorated with glass stars around the neck and closed by a plastic reusable cap. We got through gallons of the stuff. However, we were not utterly immersed in our beach bum lifestyle. We made forays into the nearby Haut Medoc vineyards parking our proletarian basic Renault among the swanky Mercedes on meticulously raked gravel forecourts of 'named' Chateaux. We had only taken one guide book with us, a slim oblong shaped volume called 'French Leave'. It was short on history but great for tips about local gastronomy and viniculture. The result - we returned home with a dozen or so bottles a various cru bourgeois clarets, all from the 1978 vintage. I think the trip changed us, we became hooked on travel, Gill became increasingly interested in local cooking styles and we developed a shared interest in finding great local wines that rarely escape their region. The year before we had spent the summer cycle touring around Brittany. It was a very active outdoorsy holiday - all a bit minimalist. Somewhere during our Medoc trip we quietly ditched the hikerish vegetarian version of us. Though we remained adventurous, we developed a liking for the good things in life, seeking convivial places as well as wild landscapes. Perhaps the couple we became can be traced back to that summer we spent wandering around southwest France in 1982.

Why am I writing this? Because yesterday we drove Maisy onto the ferry at Royan heading towards the free Aire at le Gurp' beach. We never returned until now. In truth I felt a bit apprehensive, perhaps by now it would have developed into a ghastly beach resort like you find further south in Les Landes. Maybe going back anywhere you have loved is a recipe for disappointment.

In fact, I need not have worried, it still felt a little remote, if anything more so because we are here after the main season. The campsite closed last week. There were half a dozen vans parked on the verge outside. We joined them.

We walked half a kilometre or so to the beach, it was exactly as I recalled it, though emptier and more windswept than in August 1982. No families on the sand, but a couple of surfers braving the swell. The half buried bunkers were more graffiti daubed than ever. Beyond them, couched behind a single blue striped windbreak a couple stretched out sunbathing, one textile, the other bare.

I think le Gurp remains a laid back, left-field sort of place. When we woke this morning the two cycle tourists camped next to us were meditating outside of their tents, the Dutch woman from the elderly Hymer up the road doing her yoga.

It's easy to be cynical, but surely a respect for others, yourself and the planet has got to be a better alternative than the options on offer right now from from most of the West's leaders. A single glance at the BBC News app and I was ready to join my fellow travellers for a quick Surya Namaskar in the forest.

Being confronted head-on by a time lapse of 35 years is not something you can be wholly rational about, and it's not surprising that while we've been here I have been assailed by a few odd thoughts. For example, what would our mid-twenties selves make of the people they became? Impossible to tell, but, I sense they would have been OK about us, not dismayed entirely, and that is positive surely? I know we have a rule of thumb about always visiting new places. I am pleased we broke it. Coming back here has been lovely - another irrational thought, somehow I feel strengthened by the return, the word that occurs to me is 'validated' but that makes no sense really. Perhaps we will come back again one day, I hope so.

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