And then Somme
In an area better known for its battlefields, John Brunton enjoys wonderful walks, simple bistros and quirky B&Bs
Saturday 16 July 2005 12.52 BST First published on Saturday 16 July 2005 12.52 BST
The Somme usually conjures up sombre images of first world war battles and memorial graveyards, but there is another side to this little-known corner of northern France. The narrow road from the grand cathedral town of Abbeville accompanies the meandering river towards the Channel, passing through a sleepy countryside of vegetable allotments, orchards and meadows. But as the sea suddenly comes into view and the river dramatically widens out, there is a spectacular change. This is what the French call La Baie de Somme, one of the most beautiful and well-preserved bays in France.
At high tide, dozens of colourful sauterelles - toy-like shrimpers - navigate tricky channels to sail out to sea, while kayaks and canoes head in the other direction to explore the farthest corners of these pristine wetlands. When the tide goes out, the bay looks at first like an endless desert. Yet on closer view, it is alive with movement. Fishermen dig in the sand for clams, duck hunters trek out to their hides, shepherds lead their herds to graze on the salty grass exposed at every low tide, and thousands of migrating birds flit back and forth. This was where William the Conqueror hid his fleet before sailing over to England in 1066, and today it remains unspoilt, undeveloped and still undiscovered.
The Somme's bay stretches round for 14km, and each side is markedly different. Saint-Valery-sur-Somme is very much a picture-postcard village, with fishing and sailing boats bobbing in the port, medieval ramparts, a gothic church, and a long waterside boardwalk lined with 19th-century villas, artistic retreats for the likes of Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Sisley and Degas. Until recently, the obvious place to stay was the Guillaume de Normandy Hotel, a Victorian folly with great views over the bay built by an Englishman. But Saint-Valery now has some brilliant B&Bs. The Deloison family are well-known local antique dealers who not only offer stylish, elegantly decorated rooms above their boutique, but have also transformed an ancient wooden boat-house into a cool space that has featured in French design magazines. Anne Mancaux, an art curator, has opened her B&B, L'Usage du Monde, in a sumptuous mansion, which also doubles as an art gallery with artists-in-residence.
Saint-Valery is not great for eating out - all the best restaurants are over on the Le Crotoy side of the bay - but there are plenty of simple brasseries on the waterfront serving locally caught prawns and crabs, turbot,sole and the local speciality, mussels.
Saint-Valery is the best base for exploring the bay. From here, you can kayak, horse ride, follow the narrow road that hugs the perimeter by car or bike, take an ancient steam train or go up in a hot-air balloon. But once a day, at low tide, the most unforgettable experience is to join a nature walk that takes you right across to Le Crotoy.
Although the bay looks deceptively flat, be prepared for a strenuous three-hour trek. The guides kit everyone out in wellingtons, and these are very necessary as you start clambering through gulleys and up steep grassy mini-cliffs, known as "micro falaises", often sinking into thick mud. Arriving at Le Crotoy, the view is dominated by a huge, 19th-century hotel looking out over the bay. Called Les Tourelles because of its tall towers, this is a wonderfully stylish place to stay, looking more like a fashionable holiday retreat in the Hamptons on Long Island. Its terrace has the ultimate view over the bay and is perfect for sunset cocktails or a romantic dinner.
Eating out is one of big attractions around here, especially if you reserve at La Marinière. The place looks like a simple bistro, but the genial owner-chef, Marie Ange, creates delicious dishes in her tiny kitchen like a rack of "pre-sale" lamb that has grazed for a minimum of 120 days on the bay's salty grass, tiny lisette mackerel marinated in vinegar and onions, or queudière d'pichons, a Picardy fish stew served with tiny rattes potatoes from Le Touquet.
Alternatively, a jolly Scotswoman, Pippa Derbyshire, has opened up Le Relais de la Baie, a cafe-cum-art gallery serving bio salads and sandwiches, while La Clé des Champs is a serious gourmet restaurant with an outstanding wine cellar specialising in Burgundy and Bordeaux vintages at incredibly low prices.
Anyone interested in wildlife will not be able to leave before visiting Le Marquenterre, a 220-hectare protected park of windswept dunes that begins just as the bay peters out past Le Crotoy. This is a temporary home for more than 300 species of migratory birds that stop off when flying between Russia, Africa and the Arctic. Those up for another nature trek can take a fascinating 7km marked walk through the park. A tempting alternative for bargain hunters looking for a more relaxed afternoon is to ask at the tourism office for details about the location of each weekend's rederie. This is the local term for a boot sale, where hundreds of stands filled with antiques and bric-a-brac are set up in a village field for the day; it is impossible to go home without buying something.
Way to go
Getting there: SpeedFerries (0870 2200570, speedferries.com) sails Dover-Boulogne from £50 return for a car and five passengers. Eurostar (08705 186186, eurostar.co.uk) costs £55pp Waterloo-Lille. Carrentals.co.uk (0845 2250845) offers a week's car hire from £114 with pickup at Lille station.
Where to stay: L'Usage du Monde, 15 rue du Puits Sale, 80230 Saint-Valery-sur-Somme (+3 2260 9482, email@example.com); doubles from €75 B&B. Chambres d'Hôtes Deloison, 1 quai du Romerel Saint-Valery-sur-Somme (+3 2226 9217, picardie web.com/deloison/); doubles from €55 B&B. Les Tourelles, 2-4 rue Pierre Guerlain, Le Crotoy (+3 2227 1633, lestourelles.com); doubles from €60.
Where to eat: La Marinière, 27 rue de la Porte du Pont, Le Crotoy (+3 2227 0536). La Clé des Champs, Favières (+3 2227 8800). Le Relais de la Baie, 1 rue du Crotoy, Noyelles sur Mer (+3 2223 5020).
What to do: Rando-Nature en Somme, Mairie de Saint-Valery(+3 2226 9230) €8pp to cross the bay at low tide. Club Kayak de la Baie des Phoques, 22 rue de la Ferte, Saint-Valery (+3 2260 0844, baiedesphoques.org). Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme (+3 2226 9696, chemin-fer-baie-somme.asso.fr).
Further information: Maison de la France (09068 244123, franceguide.com). Comité du Tourisme 21, rue Ernest Cauvin, Amiens (+3 2271 2271, somme-tourisme.com). There are local tourist information offices in Saint-Valery and Le Crotoy.
Country code: 00 33.
Train time Waterloo-Lille: 2hrs. Drive time Lille-Somme: 2hrs. Ferry time Dover-Boulogne: 50mins. Drive time Boulogne-Somme: 1hr+.
Time difference: +1hr.
£1= 1.41 euros.
Since you’re here …