After All: Cobbles, flowers and bric-a-brac among ancient ramparts
Image credit: Christine Bohling
Montreuil-sur-Mer and its unique engineering heritage.
Nothing about Montreuil-sur-Mer is what you expect. To begin with, it’s not quite ‘sur mer’, but is built on a silted-up river estuary, about 20 miles away from the actual sea.
First-time visitors tend to be swept off their feet by the unexpected charm and beauty of that seemingly unremarkable small town in the north of France, a mere 45-minute drive from the Port of Calais. It happened to me about 20 years ago when I first stepped on the town’s ancient cobbles, still remembering the touch of the wheels of the cart in Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ that ran down the old man Fauchelevent, only for him to be saved when reformed convict Jean Valjean famously lifted up the cart with his bare hands.
Yes, Hugo adored Montreuil, visited it often and used the town’s ancient streets as real-life settings for his best-known novel. Hugo’s creative time in the town is commemorated each summer by a special son et lumière festival when the best-known scenes from the novel and its numerous stage and movie adaptations are re-enacted by the locals with the help of specially engineered light and sound effects.
Montreuil has always encouraged creativity and innovation – artistic, literary and technological. The town’s amazing engineering heritage began in the year 987 with the construction of the first fortifications on the promontory above the Canche river valley. Over the next thousand years, they were constantly improved and modernised to keep up with technological progress. With the advent of artillery, for example, the medieval defence system was adapted to suit new attack techniques and the archers on top of the towers were replaced with cannons. By 1567, military engineers had made the town a French border stronghold against Spanish forces - which had captured Calais and Amiens - with bastions, earthworks and new fortifications in one weak point, which had a gentle slope to the river.
In the 17th century, the town’s ramparts were improved first by Jean Errard, engineer for King Henri IV, and later by the noted military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, who added to the Citadel its distinctive ‘demi-lune’ (half-moon-shaped) entrance, the arsenal and – in line with his own famous “more powder, less blood” doctrine – a large powder house.
The pillboxes, added to the bastions in 1845, came to good use during the First World War when they housed a telephone exchange for the British Army General Headquarters (GHQ).
Yes, it is not widely known that the British GHQ was based in Montreuil from 1916. According to a rare book ‘G.H.Q. Montreuil-sur-Mer’, penned by an anonymous author under the nom-de-plume ‘G.S.O.’ (General Staff Officer), and published in London in 1920 (I own a copy): “Military convenience alone dictated the choice of Montreuil as the site of the General Headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force in France as soon as that Force reached to such a strength as to take a full share of the campaign.”
Undoubtedly, the fact that the town had already been heavily fortified played a role, too. To quote the same mysterious G.S.O. again: “Had it not been for those Rampart walks, the toilsome life of G.H.Q. at Montreuil would have been hardly possible. The road from anywhere to anywhere, if time allowed, was by the Ramparts and most went by the Ramparts unless work was hideously pressing.”
G.S.O. goes on to say that the already existing fortifications of an old fosse were converted into “hard tennis courts”, which were not used a lot, because “really there was not time to follow tennis or any other sport”.
Walking along the same ramparts today is a fascinating experience for those who do not suffer from acrophobia, for looking down at the valley deep underneath, with birds floating above the tree tops well below your feet level, can easily take your breath away. Not a big fan of heights myself, I looked up and was delighted to see some local lads kicking a ball inside the same enclosed “old fosse” that used to house the tennis courts.
Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the British Commander-in-Chief, resided with his entourage at Beaurepaire, a country house on the outskirts of Montreuil. A keen horseman, he could often be seen riding through the town and the countryside in the company of his aide-de-camp. When in 1928 the question of erecting a statue in his memory was raised by friendly Montreuil townsfolk, an equestrian version was opted for. The Nazis, who occupied the town in 1940 (they turned the Citadel into military barracks), removed the statue and melted it down. After the war, the people of Montreuil recovered the original mould from the sculptor Paul Landowski and cast a new one.
Thus, Field Marshal Haig can still be seen on horseback in the middle of the Market Square. In summer, the famed Commander-in-Chief becomes hardly visible in the ‘camouflage’ of plane trees and flowers surrounding his statue and filling the whole town. Montreuil is an official ‘ville fleurie’, the second most beautiful (according to the latest competition) in the whole of France, with overabundance of wisteria-covered balconies and window boxes, bursting with petunias and geraniums.
On 14 July, Bastille Day, all the natural ‘guardians’ of Field Marshal Haig’s statue are joined by countless stalls and makeshift tents of the annual brocante – one of northern France’s largest flea markets, specialising in antiques and bric-a-brac.
From 6am, the town turns, Cinderella-like, into one flowery market place, with stalls filling all of its streets and squares – a cross between a somewhat chaotic open-air art fair and a history-of-technology museum. Or a proverbial scrapheap of history that came to life.
Among the goodies on sale at the 2019 brocante, I ticked off: old motorbikes and spinning yarns; tobacco-flattening machines and coffee-grinders; antediluvian Nikon cameras and electric salt grinders, as well as knives, swords, saxophones, bath tubs, sewing machines and an early 20th-century American ‘Warbler’ phonograph (“Worm-driven governor, can be wound while laying”) that could easily be mistaken for a modern analogue record player.
Yes, the ‘phonograph’ was genuine and in good working order. Just like Montreuil-sur-Mer, my favourite French town.
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