Beautiful Autumn, Exploring, Lockdown Returns
Posted on 31st October 2020 by Julie and David Thomson in General News.
As the month turns it is All Saints' Day - Toussaints here in France. Autumn is definitely here. There have been winds, rain, sunshine, mild days and the light has softened from summer’s bright halo to a golden crown which accentuates the turning leaves and patchwork fields.
Our friends and farmers Yves and Thierry have been harvesting maize, sugarbeet and potatoes, so across the fields of The Somme there has been a lot of farming activity. At month end some crops still linger in the fields like mother earth is loathed to give them up, but in most cases there is ploughing, scarifying and reseeding going on. The agricultural wheel never stops turning.
Despite having no guests again this month due to travel restrictions, there has been plenty to keep us occupied and we have enjoyed the opportunity to discover the landscape in its autumn glory and visit some new places. But at month end, things have changed and we are now under National Lockdown.
It is hard, having no guests, we miss everyone, but we know as long as we and those we care about are safe, that Covid is under control soon, we have a 2021 diary getting fuller with those who have had to postpone their trips and want to come as soon as possible. We know you all miss the Somme as much as we miss you.
Covid 19 Update
The Somme has not been in a high case category, but things change so quickly with Covid. Cases have been rising sharply all around our little bubble in France and estimates put the health service coming under stress by mid November at current levels. So on 28 October President Macron announced a new National Lockdown with effect from 30 October. No distinction between rural or city, it is the right thing to do we believe. One clear message of solidarity and citizenship. We all have to work together to manage this virus.
It is a tough lockdown, very simliar to the one we had in the Spring, but the Government has learned from that and decided to keep schools open, but all children from the age of 6 must wear masks. For us it means we cannot go out unless it is an essential reason. Only essential shops are open and all bars/restaurants/cafes/museums/leisure closed. We are allowed to be out to exercise/take the air for up to 1 hour a day and only within a kilometre radius of our home. So while it has clipped our wings to explore further afield we know we are very lucky that we have plenty of countryside within that kilometre and it also means we can walk to Ovillers Military Cemetery in one direction and Lochnagar Crater in the other. If we go outside our gate, we have to have a signed attestation with each of us, giving the time, date and one of a drop down menu of reasons for being out. Furlough has been extended for salaried staff and there will be help for businesses but the details will come out in the next few days. The Government estimate 15 billion euros per month will be needed for the aid package. Regulations last until 1 December but may be extended.
While the virus causes such damage, and France is rocked not only by Covid but by barbaric individual, unfathomable acts of terrorism, The Somme remains our beacon of peace even though it bears indelible scars of past horrors.
So while we could explore, what have we been up to in October?
This big village just a 35-minute drive from us has been on our list to explore in more depth for some time and at the start of October we spent a wonderful day there. Behind the lines during The War, there was a field hospital, aerodrome and tank depot there. Many soldiers passed through the village and strong links remain. The military cemetery, where many of those who died of wounds lie, is magnificent. It has a unique feature in a statue of a Poilu – a French soldier. It was paid for and installed by the commune of Vignacourt, in grateful recognition of the sacrifice of the Commonwealth soldiers who defended their village. The statue bears a moving inscription which translates as:
“ Brothers in Arms of The British Army, who fell in the fields of honour, sleep in peace, we will look over you.”
Sometimes the simplest words are best.
But the statue story does not end there. Most French villages have their French War Memorials in the middle of the village, but Vignacourt decided not to have a memorial as such, but to have a sister statue to the one in the Military Cemetery, and this would be in the Civilian Cemetery, at the other end of the village. It takes the form of a statue by the same sculptor, Albert Roze, a native of Amiens, representing the widow and child of the French soldier, depicting France’s grief and remembering civilian casualties too.
The village is worth a visit for the statues alone. Vignacourt, however has more secrets to give up. During the war, a farmer, and his wife, Louis and Antoinette Thullier, interested in photography, bought camera equipment and a backdrop and set up a little business photographing soldiers and civilians who were stationed in, or visited Vignacourt. Many soldiers sent the photos back home as proof they were doing well -reassuring their loved ones. After the war, the photographs and the Thulliers were forgotten about and for over a century the glass plates (the negatives) lay in the attic of the farm. Only a few years ago, the plates were rediscovered after research by Australian historians and media. They lay, literally in the dusty attic of the crumbling farmhouse. Miraculously the plates had survived and it was possible to make new photographs, which became known as The Lost Diggers. While the original plates and backdrop have been taken to Australia, the farmhouse has been turned into a museum and displays some of the photographs and tells the story.
We went not knowing what to expect, but the museum is a little gem. We had a personal guide – not special for us, they always try to give a personal tour - and her knowledge and passion was wonderful. The history pours out of the walls and seeing these amazing photos of all nationalities – British, Indian, Chinese, French, Australian, helps with that bridge back to a moment in history.
So Vignacourt, thank you for sharing your secrets with us, and please do visit when you have an opportunity to do so.
On the weekend of 9-10 October, we were due to have Stephen Benson with a group to stay with us. Stephen is responsible for The Cheshire Roll of Honour, and does great work on the history of Cheshire men and their role in the War. With Stephen having to postpone his visit to next year, he asked if we would carry out a small ceremony at Grandcourt Road Cemetery to remember the men of Cheshire who fell on 9 October 1916 as the 10th Cheshires attacked Stuff Redoubt, a German stronghold which had plagued the British, due to its commanding view on high ground above the battlefield. So, with French friend and musician, Eric Brisse, who has also been in contact with Stephen, in Autumn sunshine, we visited Grandcourt Road and carried out a little ceremony. The Cemetery sits in the middle of a field, a small battlefield cemetery, on the site of a trench just below Stuff Redoubt. Here, we remembered the fallen, and on a light Autumn breeze, Eric played The Last Post on an Australian military bugle. We wondered, as the sound carried, what the neighbouring villages of Grandcourt and Thiepval made of the sound and the 3 of us, in a cemetery, in the middle of a field, remembering…
We streamed the short ceremony live on Facebook for those who could not be there in person. We will remember them.
Last month we wrote about our adventures teaching English to 14 year old Cheyenne. Our “lessons” continue each week – with her English teacher telling her mum Sophie that her confidence has definitely improved. That is probably more to do with David’s jokes than Julie’s insistence on a proper “TH” sound. The French mouth does not easily make the TH sound just as us Anglophones have problems with the French “R”!
With extra time at the moment, we have added more students, this time our dear neighbours 4 doors up, Real and Arlette Delplanque.
David did it again, as we were discussing Aidez- moi/ Help Me – David launched into The Beatles song and then for the word Felicitations/ Congratulations he turned into Cliff Richard. Though we are not teachers by profession, we take it is an honour that our French friends want us to help them with their English. But we benefit too – from friendship, community spirit and a chance to give something back. Sadly with lockdown we cannot continue face to face for the moment.
Birthday Girl at The Zoo
Julie had a birthday this month and despite rain all day we decided in celebration, to go somewhere we had never been – Amiens Zoo.
Very close to the centre of Amiens, it is a lovely oasis. It is extremely well laid out, very leafy, and you would not know you’re so close to The City. It has an emphasis on wildlife preservation and education and we thought it brilliant. Lots of endangered species, birds and small mammals. David was particularly taken by the Capuchin monkeys (wonder why?) and Julie loved the wise old owls – the Snowy owl in particular. A brilliant way to spend a rainy Birthday afternoon. Oh, and of course David sang Simon and Garfunkel’s At the Zoo.
Now, we like a good mystery, and we have 2 of our own mysteries to solve this month. Some kind souls have been sending us little presents through the post. Around Julie’s birthday, she received a UK postmarked package, no more clues as it was a printed post label, which contained 2 lovely hen painted eggcups. No note, so no chance to say thank you directly. So whoever the mystery sender is – they are lovely and will be well used!
Then blow me, 2 days later, another mystery parcel. Different handwriting, UK again but no further clue from the postmark. This time a book called Doing His Bit, the story of a Shetland Soldier in The Great War. A book we don’t have – so thank you to this mystery benefactor, David is currently reading it.
These little packages cheered our hearts, it is lovely to know someone is thinking of us, and your gifts are appreciated. So ,whoever you are, thank you!
With the clocks turning back last weekend, we realise November is upon us and thoughts turn to Armistice Day. We had a Zoom call with Richard Dunning last week before lockdown was announced. He would have liked us to conduct a short act of remembrance at Lochnagar and lay a wreath there, at the village French memorials in Ovillers and La Boisselle and also at Fricourt German cemetery on his behalf. Now, with lockdown, we will be unable to visit Fricourt as it is outside our 1 km radius. We are liaising with our Maire Christian Bernard as to what is possible within The Commune while obeying all regulations.
We read yesterday that due to lockdown, the annual commemorations at Compiegne, where the Armistice was signed, have been cancelled for the first time since the German occupation in WW2.
Marge and Flo, our 2 remaining hens, our old girls, are doing OK. Egg production was on the wane with just Marge laying, but now with shorter days, we are getting zero oeufs. So they are enjoying retirement and will continue to do so until the natural end of their days.
Shere the cat is fine too. He prefers sunny autumn days when he can stretch out in the car park. He always lets David know when his food bowls are empty. David is the soft touch.
All is well at No.fifty6. Be safe. Stay well. Stay cheerful. See you soon we hope.