The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

If you ever head off roughly westbound towards Normandy from the Calais ferry port, you will almost certainly bump into a town called Abbeville. The traffic, the houses, the shops and the roundabouts will make you think of nothing more than how all French towns seem to be alive, colourful and gracious. Abbeville is exactly like that but its history contains much to love and much to hate. Stop off for a break and reflect on the past.

Church of Saint Vulfran in AbbevilleYou might see the Belfry poking its nose above the horizon. Abbeville Belfry is perhaps the oldest in France going back to 1209 and it has UNESCO World Heritage status. It is a piece of the good stretching to 30 metres above the ground with walls two metres thick at the base. There are ancient dungeons underneath where the town’s Alderman continue to meet and store their treasures there.

History records a story of an unmanned boat that was without sails. It was washed up on the coast close to Rue, a town just a little to the north, in the 12th century. This tale is a bit of a bad one for Abbeville I suppose. The boat had arrived from the Holy Land and contained the crucifix of the Holy Spirit. Abbeville wanted it for itself to attract additional tourist money. The elders of the town sent a horse drawn cart with their lackeys to go and fetch it. The horses suffered from a temporary and mysterious paralysis when they arrived and couldn’t shift it. The crucifix stayed in Rue where it belonged as a gift from God.

Back to the good things. The Eglise St. Vulfran in the town is a wonderful feature to behold. It originates from a time of solid local prosperity in the 15th century. A very striking Gothic decoration confirms this as it shows itself off on the western internal wall. The mouldings, traceries, pinnacles and portal carvings might just leave you speechless. The bad bit is that other parts of the church were severely damaged during WW2 and have never been properly restored.

Let’s stay with the bad. The Forest of Crecy lies very close to Abbeville. This was where the Hundred Years War started in 1346. The English came to take their revenge long after the Norman invasion. They did not leave quickly or indeed without satisfaction. The English ultimately departed leaving a viscous trail of carnage, destruction and death in their wake.

Damaged sculpture in EgliseThe hateful black plague also came to Abbeville in 1582. This was much like a similar period in London. The disease killed many thousands of French country dwellers as it thrashed across the area spread by the rats. Death was never far from the town of Abbeville.

There are plenty of other good things to observe in Abbeville of course. The Chateau de Bagatelle is one of them. This Beautiful castle is open during the summer to visitors displaying its very elegant gardens that have been kept so carefully tended. Built in the 1700’s by a rich textile industrialist, it displays splendid wrought iron railings internally adjacent to a double revolution staircase. Callers will also find the splendid wooden panelling associated with the salon de musique. This was home to a number of famous early twentieth century composers.

Back to bad events in Abbeville again, even the ugly. In July 1766, a certain Chevailier de la Barre was convicted of failing to salute a religious procession, failing to remove his hat and loudly singing ungodly songs. He was publicly executed in the Abbeville market place where the site is still recorded. His legs were crushed and his tongue was torn out.  His right hand was removed and he was decapitated. The remains of his corpse was burned alongside a copy of Voltaires’s Dictionaire Philosophique close to the town hall. That certainly taught him a lesson. The spot is marked with a paving stone bearing his name and date of death.

Another celebrated execution had also taken place in the market square in 1568. Francois Cocqueville and a few of his cronies, were convicted of plundering local towns, houses and churches in the Somme valley basin next door. They were all despatched publically in grotesque fashion.

Carmel conventGood things to reflect on though are still in abundance in Abbeville. Once again in the summer months, visitors can admire the Carmel convent. After the French Revolution, some nuns were kicked out of their long standing home for a period of about 30 years. They eventually came to the Carmel convent by the Parc d’Emonville in 1881. They were able to remain there until 1998 within the splendid historic architecture that is surrounded by such graceful gardens.

Returning to the less than savoury past of Abbeville, there was a furious gun powder explosion in November 1733. It killed 150 people and destroyed around a thousand houses. Abbeville was also affected by a severe hurricane in 1801. This caused nearly a million and a half francs worth of damage to local property and it severely spoilt local economic affairs for some months.

Take a look though at the Chateau de Eaucourt-sur-Somme, just beyond the southern limit of Abbeville. It has been left unoccupied since the end of the18th century. Now it is a form of exhibition centre. Children can find out about earlier local trades such as stone and iron work and carpentry. Younger people can also try on medieval armour and practice their crossbow firing skills.

Art in EgliseThe bad again. The Battle of the Somme was fought within earshot of Abbeville during WW1 in 1916. This was a ferocious period of war fought between the German and the Allied forces. The death rate, during a period of just a few months, was arguably the greatest of modern times. There is much exhibited in the Somme basin very close by to ensure such events are always remembered. The Somme valley nowadays though is a wonderfully peaceful seaside area to visit. The slaughter of the Great War during 1914-1918 is marked at various memorials all around Abbeville.

Much of the Second World War was also fought around Abbeville and some celebrated horrid events took place. On one occasion a group of determined French soldiers killed some enemy people and agents. The German army randomly selected a group of local French people and they were publically executed in Abbeville town square without trial. The location is still remembered.

In very recent times during 2001, there was severe flooding in Abbeville. It lasted for several weeks due to heavy continuous rain that dangerously elevated the water table. The station and railway tracks were cut off and the local economy suffered severely once again.

Modern day market placeThe town of Abbeville is a place of real contrasts. It has seen what has been the best and the worst of French times over the centuries. The town almost seems to be a pre – ordained confluence of intensely good and intensely bad events and cultural features that seem to mark French history.

One of the best places for me though is the aerodrome on the northern edge of Abbeville. It was used by the French military during the Great War and still actively supports flying activity today during our peaceful lives. There is the most splendid example of a French Mystere fighter jet supported on metal supports by the roadside to catch the visitor’s eye. Peace and good times prevail in the 21st century at last.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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