Travel: Normandy, France

Houlgate in Normandy, France. Picture: Contributed
Houlgate in Normandy, France. Picture: Contributed
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A FAMILY holiday to Normandy combines a ferry crossing and a fun camping trip with sobering lessons from history, finds Donald Walker

We were a couple of hours south of Zeebrugge when I remembered what we had resolved not to forget. In the excitement of waking up in a foreign country, and then quickly arriving in another, our intention to call in on great granddad en route from Belgium to Normandy had somehow slipped our minds. And by the time we realised what had happened, we were an hour beyond him. Never mind, we would be passing his way again next week, on our return journey. We would see him then.

With three over-excited children in the back seat of the car, there was no option but to press on. They had been on good form so far, helped by breaking the journey from Edinburgh into two manageable drives – first to Hull, then on to the great adventure of a superb overnight P&O ferry to Belgium, followed by the journey down to Houlgate. If you are travelling to Europe with children, the family-friendly ferry is definitely to be recommended.

When it was time to stretch the legs on our drive through France, an appropriate stop-off quickly came to mind. I have stood at the Heart of Midlothian War Memorial at Haymarket with eldest son several times on what always seems to be a sharp and bright Sunday morning in November, along with so many others who come to pay their respects each year. Today, we found ourselves at the other end of the desperate journey undertaken by McCrae’s Battalion in the First World War. As the car wound its way through the rolling fields of the Somme, we arrived in the pretty Picardie village of Contalmaison, where a saltire flies next to the tricolour, and a stone memorial is the resting place for a clutch of poppy tributes from Scotland to those in the ‘pals’ battalion’ who did not come home. How could it be, came the query from by my side, that this ceremony from home seemed to have taken place here as well, right down to the wreaths from Hearts and Falkirk football clubs, and from so many other familiar names? Young minds started to think.

Three hours of easy driving later, against the backdrop of the beautiful Normandy countryside, we rolled into La Vallee campsite at Houlgate. With the temperature in the 30s, any suggestion that we should have gone further on to Brittany for better weather in August was dispelled immediately.

A Canvas Holidays’ rep took us to our accommodation, a comfortable three-bedroom mobile home with kitchen, lounge, dining area, plenty of storage space, and – happily – two WCs. The home also featured a decked area, where we would have many memorable breakfasts with French bread, croissants and a selection of gorgeous Normandy cheeses. And a barbecue. Top tip: try heeding the words of the rep when told that the contraption is powered by gas, to avoid shelling out at the hypermarket for a sack of charcoal.

The camp site itself was as well equipped as we had hoped for. There was more for the kids to do than we could fit in during our stay, with the biggest hit being the outdoor (and covered) swimming pools, and outdoor slides. One surprise, however, was the local rule on men’s swimwear – no shorts. It was off to the hypermarket again to buy Dad what a colleague covering the Commonwealth Games’ diving had memorably described as ‘a pair of Tom Daley budgie smugglers’. Mercifully, an acceptable alternative style was available.

Other site attractions for children included archery, petanque, tennis, football, volleyball, a climbing wall, an assault course with zip wire through the trees – fancied that myself – and a daily kids club. For adults, there was a bar and restaurant, and a shop stocking freshly baked bread. And a surprise one-night visit from a travelling circus was a huge hit with all ages.

Where Canvas really scored was in the level of service from their on-site staff. Within a day, we were all on first name terms with the brilliant Christa, who took care of our every need, and Wayne, whose reason to be on this earth is to spread happiness. Tick.

Contrast this with one of the company’s main competitors, whose staff had barely said ‘hello’ during a similar holiday two years previously. We’d only ever go with Canvas again.

Our only ‘problem’ was finding the right balance between relaxing on the campsite and getting out and about. The lovely beach at Houlgate is only five minutes’ drive away, and it’s just a few miles to the high-class resort of Deauville, complete with yachting marina.

We took a trip to Pegasus Bridge, where the D-Day invasion began, and struggled to believe how glider pilots had managed to evade defences and avoid drowning by directing their craft to a sliver of land only a matter of yards wide in the dead of night, capturing a strategic position that would make the D-Day beach landings possible.

A tour of those beaches was also on our schedule, using a loop which would take us through Bayeux on our return. Alas, we only made it as far as the first beach, as a third world war threatened to break out in the back seat of the car. But what struck us at Sword Beach, where Lord Lovat’s brigade had landed under a hail of enemy fire, was the contrast of the black and white images of hell that we know so well, with the sunshine, sand and aquamarine sea of this tourist destination today.

When our stay at La Vallee was over, these five happy campers pointed their car to Zeebrugge with some reluctance, but with one more stop-off to look forward to: great granddad.

He wasn’t expecting us. That’s maybe just as well, because in an epic blunder of time zone awareness, I got us to within an hour of Zeebrugge with only 45 minutes left before the ferry check-in closed. At what seemed like 90mph, in a race against the clock we would ultimately win, we caught a glimpse of the road sign pointing left to where we could find great granddad: Arneke British War Cemetery, 500 metres. He’s been there for almost a hundred years, and has only ever had one visitor. It was heart-breaking.

After such a successful holiday, we were not short of reasons to return to France. But we have one more now.

FACT FILE

• P&O Ferries offer standard return fares from Hull to Zeebrugge for a car and up to two passengers including standard accommodation from £129 each way. For more information, or to book, call 08716 64 64 64 or visit www.poferries.com

• Seven nights in a Comfort Plus with two bedrooms (sleeps up to six people) at Yelloh! Village la Vallée in Houlgate, Normandy, arriving 22 August 2015 costs from £566 (accommodation only).

• For more information on Canvas Holidays or to book, visit www.canvasholidays.co.uk or call 0345 268 0827.

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