In an age when wars can rumble on for years and involve countless civilian casualties, it’s a surreal experience to look over a field where an international conflict was wrapped up before tea.
The Battle of Agincourt kicked off on the morning of October 25th 1415 and by mid-afternoon, the cream of French nobility had been cut down in the mud by the firepower of English archers. So it’s all credit to the French that throughout 2015, they will be commemorating the 600th anniversary of one of their worst defeats in history.
Look for Agincourt on the map and you won’t find it. The village is actually called Azincourt, nestled in the lush countryside of The Seven Valleys in the department of Pas-de-Calais. The change of spelling is down to a mispronunciation by an English knight when asked by Henry V for the name of the nearby fortress.
You can still see the field where the face off took place, most of it now farmland and all of it bordered by quiet country roads – a 4km circuit on foot or by car. In the heart of the village, the Medieval History Centre details the events leading up to the battle and gives visitors the chance to look through replica visors, handle medieval weapons, and discover the force needed to shoot a longbow – a popular destination for school parties and history buffs alike.
It’s a modest museum, opened in 2001 and starting to look a little dated, but work is scheduled to begin late in 2016 on a new Medieval History Centre which will encompass the whole Anglo-French conflict dubbed The Hundred Years War.
The existing Centre is still well worth a visit however, and many special events are planned for this anniversary year.
Visit over the weekend of 16-18 May, for instance, to see The Battle of Agincourt reproduced in Playmobil, whilst a huge medieval festival will take place over the weekend of 25/26 July with re-enactors from 22 countries. And on 25 October, the day of the battle will be commemorated with a remembrance ceremony, parachute displays by the military, and riders from the Republican Guard.
But Azincourt isn’t the only reason to stop over in this delightful area of gentle, rolling farmland dotted with small villages and farms. Five small rivers flow south to join two the larger Canche and, Authie, hence the name Seven Valleys. Drop into the Tourist Office in historic Hesdin, for information on outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling and fishing. In summer, a number of private gardens also open to visitors.
I soaked up the peace and tranquillity of the Sept Vallées with an overnight stay at Un Matin dans les Bois, a delightful B&B set in a wood just outside Loison-sur-Créquoise. Marine and Laurent are passionate about nature and have tastefully converted a historic brick stable block into beautiful ground-floor bedrooms, each with woodland views. The rooms are themed to natural history pioneers, my own accommodation named after 18th century English ornithologist, John Latham. Guests can enjoy a walking trail round the property, borrow bicycles and binoculars, or just chill out in a hammock and listen to birdsong.
Follow the Canche through the Seven Valleys towards its estuary at Le Touquet and you pass through Montreuil-sur-Mer, worth a stopover in anyone’s book for its rampart walks, historic citadel and associations with Victor Hugo who set part of Les Misérables here.
But Montreuil has also become a hot destination for foodies, thanks to an indecent number of good restaurants for a town of just 2,500 people. Enjoy Alexandre Gauthier’s Michelin-starred fare at La Grenouillère beneath the ramparts or try his new restaurant, L’Anecdote, in the cobbled streets of the old town. I also enjoyed good classic fare in traditional surroundings at Le Darnetal, just round the corner from my delightful accommodation at Maison 76.
After a long restoration project, British ex-pat and long-time Montreuil resident Tim Matthews opened the doors of his stylish town centre home to B&B guests earlier this year. Relax in the lounge on arrival with tea and cake or, weather permitting, enjoy the walled garden and outdoor pool.
Montreuil has plenty of interesting independent shops, the sort you rarely see on British high streets nowadays. Cheese fans should pack a cool bag to stock up from Fromagerie Caseus on Place Général de Gaulle, where a large market is held on Saturday mornings. On the opposite corner, Aux Douceurs d’Antan stocks a range of local products from chocolates and biscuits to soup, jam and beer. Children will love Dragibonbons, a sweet shop on rue d’Hérambault that makes its own themed ‘cakes’ from sweets, whilst Vinopholie near the Citadel is an Aladdin’s cave of wines, spirits and kitchen items. And for handmade jewellery using Murano glass, drop in at Fileuse de Verre.
Finally, for a real insider view on the town, book a guided tour with English-speaking Greeter Colette Martel – one of a network of volunteer Greeters across the Pas-de-Calais department. The service is free to visitors; their knowledge and welcome, priceless.
For holiday inspiration in the Pas-de-Calais countryside visit www.la-belle-vie.com