23 August: We spent much of today sitting on trains, or in railway stations between connections. We travelled from Valenciennes to the village of Chaulnes, in Picardie. As we had been unable to find accommodation there, we’d booked two nights in a chambre d’hôte (B&B) in Hattencourt, an even smaller village nearby, which is mentioned in Pa’s book. There is supposed to be a rail coach between Chaulnes and Hattencourt, and we’d bought tickets which included that. When we arrived at Chaulnes, about 7pm, there was a bus waiting, but no driver. Eventually the driver turned up, and we tried to board, but he announced that he was going in the opposite direction, and there were no buses to Hattencourt that day.
What to do? We’d been given the numbers of taxi companies, but could not get through to any of them. And just then it started to rain! In desperation we phoned the B&B and the kind owner came to collect us. On the way back we explained why we were visiting, and mentioned the local names in Pa’s book. He knew all the families, and one lived next door!!! We know you are more likely to make contacts in small places, but even so this seemed incredible.
Monday 24 August: An amazing day – despite the awful weather! Not just heavy rain on and off, but incredibly strong winds that swept across the flat fields of Picardie. We began by taking the early bus (it ran today!) to Chaulnes station, and started walking from there, just as Pa and Frans did in 1943. We walked first to the village of Lihons, where we were pleased to find an open bar, which offered coffee and shelter from the rain. We then walked to the nearby ‘Lihu’ farm, where they were given hospitality by the Vanneufville family. It was exciting for us, because it was the first time we had been able to identify the exact place where they stayed.
We discovered that the farm is now in the hands of François Vanneufville (grandson of Pa’s host) and his wife Joséphine. After we explained why we were there, they invited us in, gave us coffee/tea and the address of François’s father in the village of Rosières. We decided that was worth a detour, especially as François said there was a restaurant in the village! Again, we were warmly received and glad that we were able to hold some sort of conversation, despite our very shaky French!
After leaving the farm, Pa and Frans walked south to Hattencourt, via the villages of Chilly and Fransart. After our detour, we rejoined their route at Chilly and followed it back to our accommodation.
Tuesday 25 August: Pa and Frans walked from Hattencourt to Chaulnes via Fonches, a route they considered safer. We could not walk all the way with our luggage, so decided to walk to Fonches and back, before taking the bus to Chaulnes. In Fonches we saw a war memorial with the names of three Blondels; in the churchyard several members of that family were buried. Arriving back in Hattencourt we spoke by chance to a roadsweeper, who was able to tell us which house used to be the cobbler’s shop, where Pa and Frans got their boots fixed. The present home of the Herpoël family was locked up and we could get no response. But perhaps that was just as well, given that the things that Pa said about M. Herpoël were not entirely flattering!
This afternoon we took the train to Paris – changing at Amiens, as did Pa and Frans, and arriving like them at the Gare du Nord. They had coffee at a nearby ‘caféterasse’ – we had drinks at one later, but there are so many, there is no way of telling whether it was the same one. Their waiter was surly, but was able to direct them to a stationer’s shop where they could buy Michelin maps. Our waiter was charming, but had no idea where maps could be bought!
Pa did not stay in Paris, but we did – overnight in a cheap hotel and the evening in Montmartre: dinner in a vegetarian café and fabulous views of Sacré Coeur at night!
Wednesday 26 August: Despite our resolution (see last blog) about no sightseeing, we took a day off from our research to enjoy Paris, as it was ten years since our last visit. We did a lengthy walking tour of the city, seeing lots of familiar sights and discovering a few we’d not been to before, such as the Canal St-Martin. In the evening we treated ourselves to a dinner cruise on the Bateaux Mouches, something we did on our first joint visit to Paris in 1975. It seemed somehow appropriate to do it again 40 years later! The food was good (at least Sandie thought so; Ian was less impressed with his options) but we were disappointed that, from our side of the boat, we were unable to see Notre Dame lit up. And (after a beautiful sunny day) there was rain in the evening, and the raindrops on the windows did not make photography easy. But when we landed the rain had stopped, so we did a detour to the Arc de Triomphe before getting the Metro back to our hotel.
Thursday 27 August: Like Pa and Frans, we took the Metro to the Gare d’Austerlitz, and then the train to Orléans. They however left the train at Fleury-les-Aubrais, a stop just before the city, in order to avoid paying, since they had no money. We however went all the way to Orléans, checked into a hotel near the station and left our luggage, then took the train back to Fleury.
They were given food and accommodation by an Italian family – but no name or address given, so impossible for us to trace. Next morning they walked into the city, so we did the same. On the way, Pa said they passed a very high wall, and later discovered this was the prison. We paused to visit a huge cemetery (including graves from both world wars) which was surrounded by a very high wall. We wondered if there was some mistake, but later we came to another very high wall, surrounding a building which looked as if it really could have been a prison. Later research confirmed that this was indeed the place, and it ceased functioning as a prison only last year.