I'm writing this on June the 18th, 2014; the 199th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. As I sit tapping away under a tree on the campsite the towers of Beaumont du Périgord are just visible a couple of kilometres to the east. Beaumont is a classic bastide village typical of the region; a fortified settlement built to reinforce the boundaries of this region of Acquitane which, in the 13th century, was under English rule. Upstream in the Dordogne valley this morning at La Roque Gegeac it was apparent we English are still here in numbers; every other car seemed to have UK plates. From here in the south west we will eventually start moving north for a night en route at Orleans, where Jean d'Arc defeated the English in 1429, passing Rouen where we burnt her, and finally staying the last night before catching the Caen-Potsmouth ferry from the Normandy coast at Ouisterham, on the eastern end of Sword Beach, where the British 3rd Division landed in the early hours of D Day, 6th of June 1944; invading France yet again, but this time as allies. But the millennia or so of invading has been a mutual affair; Caen was the seat of the Norman King William the Conqueror, who, as his name implies, invaded and conquered us in 1066. I could go on; suffice to say every English visitor to France is tripping over the historical links that entwine our countries every step of the way. All of which goes to show what a complex relationship we English have with our neighbours just over La Manche; the French.
It's relationship that I've had much time to dwell on sat in the sun on campsites around France over the last 25 years, but I still can't really get my head around it. Wendy and I are fully signed up and committed Francophiles. By the number of English visiting and living here its obvious we are not alone, and yet there is something in the English national psyche that loves to hate the French. Pourquoi? For some reason we think they are still our natural enemies, and yet it's been 199 years precisely since we last fought. Since Napoleon met his Waterloo France has been our ally in every major conflict from the Crimea through two World Wars to Iraq and Libya, and yet even on the excruciatingly politically correct BBC the age old antipathy to the French still comes through. Its as if it's been inbred from birth. I just don't get it.
The Val du Fenouillet in the Corbiere region, with the Pic de Canigou & the Pyrennees in the distance, Languedoc.
What I do get is what a treat it is photographing this country with its rich culture, fabulous food, beautiful villages, appealing towns, captivating capital and enchanting landscapes. Those landscapes range from snow capped Alpine peaks of near Himalayan proportions to the bucolic sun drenched Mediterranean vistas of Provence, the cirques of the Pyrenees to the rocky Brittany coast, the verdant valleys of the Périgord where we are now to the limestone gorges of the Jura, the volcanic domes of the Auvergne to the Cathar Castle studded ridges of Languedoc, the green bocage of Normandy to the rustic paysage of the Aveyron, the misty Chateaux lined rivers of the Loire to the wetlands of the Carmargue, the vines of the Burgundy cotes to the rolling hills of the Pays Basque, the serrated Aiguilles of Corsica to the chic Cote d'Azur, and so on. France is routinely logged as the most tourist visited country in the world, and yet it certainly doesn't seem that way, not where we go anyway. A country with twice the square area of Britain but the same population just has more room, and much of it is all so unspoilt. In fact putting it like that I wonder why we are now one of only two tents on this wonderfully tranquil campsite. For us our annual roving French Invasion has become a rite of passage we look forward to all year.
St Cirq Lapopie, Lot Valley.
It took us a while to get into it. Maybe we too were inbred with a suspicion of all things French. In the summer of 1976 I inter-railed with 2 ex-school mates south to the Pyrenees. I'm deeply embarrassed to admit in our bulging backpacks were Vesta dried curries; as if France didn't have food! I don't remember our agenda then being high on bonding with French culture, and a few years later when my ship docked in Le Havre not much had changed. I do recall trying to chat up a French girl in a cafe by telling her she had nice feet; vous avais belle pieds was all the schoolboy French I could muster. It didn't work. Then early in my career as a professional photographer we came on a canal boat holiday, and there along the Canal du Bourgogne we started to get a feel of just how unique the French countryside is. It was also largely empty. Everywhere we went seemed closed; dead as a doornail. We'd tootle along the misty Canal all morning, tie up near a village and wander into town after lunch, just when everything in rural France is resolutely ferme. We had as yet to adapt to the baffling complexities of French opening hours; they still catch us out. Anything from a hypermarket to restaurant may or may not be closed at any given time, with no explicable reason. A bistrot in the tourist region of the Cote Vermeille closed for lunch on a Saturday in July? Bien sur! And again on Sunday? Tout a faite! Banks closed on Monday? Tante pis! Shops closed on Tuesday? Because its the day before the market! Boucherie closed on Wednesday? Because its the day of the market! Cafe closed on Thursday? Because its the day after the market? Maison du Presse closed on a Friday? Because its the day before the weekend! How they all manage to earn a living I have no idea. While we Anglo-Saxons work harder and longer just to stand still the French way of life appears intact; long lunches and Sundays are sacrosanct. Maybe they know something we don't. Only the French would miss the irony of the 8 à Huit convenience store in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie that closes from midday to 4pm every day, apart from on Sunday, when its not open at all.
Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France. L
I'll be heading out early tomorrow before dawn for another session in amongst the freshly cut hay bales. Even at that hour whichever lonely rural road I take I know I will inevitably have a battered Renault or knackered Citroen glued to my back bumper, whatever speed I drive. Its a fact of French life, just like the bizarre rules about swimming trunks (speedos only!), the manicured poodles and head waiters who take themselves just a bit too seriously. But just last week I was paying for a night's camping in the Marie of a small village near Blaye. The fee came to a whopping great 7 Euros, and included a complimentary bouteille du vin. It was a Côtes de Bourg, a classic Bordeaux. Except we English would call it a claret. Why? I guess it's yet another legacy of our complex shared history. Lets face it we go back a long way.
You can read the full feature and many more in my Chasing the Light Online Magazine which we publish monthly exclusively for our f11 Members; Chasing the Light