When I was a child growing up in Kent in the Seventies the highlight of any holiday or half term would be those bright sunny mornings when my father sniffed the air and suggested an impromptu trip to France.
We would pile into my parents’ Mini, speed across Romney Marsh to Lydd Airport (Lydd Ferryfield as it then was), head directly onto the asphalt apron and then – taking a bit of a run at it – straight up a ramp through the open nose doors of a British United Air Ferries Bristol Superfreighter and deep into the aeroplane’s belly.
These cumbersome craft could carry three cars and twenty passengers and little over 20 minutes later we would be sur Le Continong in Le Touquet, swanning along the Côte Opale. Don’t laugh, Lydd was once one of the busiest airports in the UK, handling over 250,000 passengers a year.
I live in Brighton these days and now that the Art Deco treasure that is Shoreham Airport (ridiculously renamed Brighton City Airport) has ceased scheduled flights to France, the best way for locals to cross the Channel is from Newhaven.
I still love these short trips to France – who doesn’t? – and so it was, the other week, that Mrs Ray and I found ourselves on the all-but deserted 10am ferry to Dieppe. We were off to France for a restorative weekend à deux, sans the bloody kids, and the last time I was on a ship of any size at all was Cunard’s MS Queen Victoria during our notorious Spectator spin round the Med.
I’ll be the first to admit the DFDS Seaways Seven Sisters isn’t quite in that league, but salty old sea dog that I’ve now become I felt instantly at home. In fact Marina and I were almost the only folk at home. It being the fag end of winter barely anyone else other than a handful of truckers was hardy enough to tackle the four hour trip to France.
The minute we left Newhaven a thick fog enveloped us and the fog horn kept up its merry tooting every five minutes for the entire journey. I’d been rather dreading the voyage but in fact I just treated it as a morning’s work. I sat in the empty lounge, opened my lap top and got stuck in, with pauses for a jolly decent lunch in the caff (a piping hot boeuf bourguignon avec legumes since you ask) and the occasional coffee. It really wasn’t a bad way to travel at all. It was clean, comfortable and the staff were lovely.
After a completely hassle-free disembarkation we were gunning down the autoroute towards Le Mans. I had forgotten what a joy it is to drive in France. The roads are immaculately well kept, they’re virtually empty and the service stations have excellent grub and clean loos. You have to stump up a fair bit at the péage but it’s money well spent.
Four hours and several coffee and pee breaks later we were seated by a blazing log fire in the bar of the Hôtel de France in the small but bustling town of La Chartre-sur-le-Loir. Confused by some of the road signs, it had taken me a while to work out that we were in the Loir Valley (no ‘e’) which runs parallel to and slightly north of its bigger, brasher sister, the Loire Valley (with an ‘e’).
The hotel has been privately owned for over a century and, given its proximity to Le Mans, is beloved of petrol-heads the world over. The walls of the bar are covered with pictures of such fabled drivers as Jackie Ickx, Graham Hill, Derek Bell, Jochen Rindt, Jackie Stewart and Stirling Moss, all of whom have stayed here. Even the bedrooms are named after heroes of the Le Mans 24 hour race; ours was the Carroll Shelby room, named after the 1959 winner.
But it’s not all about motorsport here (about which I know nothing and have no plans to learn more) and there is much else to do. We had a fine dinner that first night, washed down with local wines, a gloriously honeyed but bone-dry 2014 Domaine Gigou ‘Clos St. Jacques’, from the Jasnières appellation and made just down the road (and, as I later discovered, available for £16.70 a pop at our old chums Yapp Bros) and a vibrantly fresh and fruity 2014 Château de la Bonnelière Chinon.
I love the wines of the Loire Valley (and Loir Valley). The Sauvignon Blanc whites such as Menetou-Salon, Pouilly Fumé, Quincy, Sancerre and Savennières; the Chenin Blanc Vouvrays (dry, medium, sweet or sparkling), the scrumptiously sweet Coteaux du Layons and the Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir reds such as Bourgeuil, Chinon and red Sancerre.
So taken with the first wine were we that the following morning we strolled out of town to meet Ludo Gigou who, with his parents and sister, made it. Jasnières is one of France’s smallest AOCs, the wines made from unblended Chenin Blanc, and Ludo laid on a splendid impromptu tasting for us in his cave, cut deep into the rocky outcrops which surround La Chartre-sur-le-Loir.
Ludo makes a dry Jasnières and a deliciously, teasingly off-dry, sometimes downright sweet one and we tasted several from bottle and barrel. He also makes Coteaux-du-Loir, an AOC wine of which I’d never heard. The white is made from Chenin Blanc too, whilst the red is made from Pineau d’Aunis and, nope, I’d never heard of that either. It turns out that it’s sometimes known as Chenin Noir and is a relative of Chenin Blanc.
As the designated driver I spat and as the designated passenger Marina swallowed and I have to say that she was quite the merry companion as we headed next to the ancient town of Tours. On the recommendation of Sally who runs the Hôtel de France, we made straight for Les 3 Escritoires for lunch.
A tiny, heaving hangout for locals complete with commendably well-stocked bar and gingham cloth-covered tables crammed tightly together, Les 3 Escritoires is pretty much the perfect lunch spot. We were the only non-locals in the joint and by the end of our magnificent meal we felt as local as the best of them, joshing with the waitress, barman and our neighbours on either side.
Marina had a starter of os à moelle, two six inch ox bones, split in half full of marrow, and I had enough pâté de compagne to feed six. Marina then had veal sweetbreads and I had a satchel-sized entrecote steak served blue and smothered in more bone marrow. I’d hate you to think that we quailed in the face of such fare. We did not. We then proceeded to share a platter of eight different cheeses and one of four chocolate puddings. Our shirt buttons were fair popping in all directions. Marina also managed best part of a bottle of red on her tod too.
We attempted to walk off our gluttony with a wander through the old town. We visited the glorious 12th century cathedral with its stunning stained glass windows and the Musée des Beaux-Arts with its 31 metre tall cedar of Lebanon in the courtyard and its famous stuffed elephant (shot in 1902 when it went on the rampage through the streets of Tours during a visit of the Barnum & Bailey circus).
In fading light we then drove to Château de Villandry for a quick spin around its celebrated formal gardens and then dawdled back to Hôtel de France along arrow-straight roads through the forests and rolling farmland.
We really didn’t do justice to the excellent dinner at Hôtel de France that night although we did our best, tucking into foie gras, sole in black butter and Marmite Sarthoise, the local speciality of rabbit and chicken in a tasty cream sauce. But pudding and cheese were bridges way too far.
The next morning we had a potter around La Chartre and then drove to Le Mans. I’d always understood it to be a bit of a dump and, well, most of it is. But there’s a charming old town that’s definitely worth a stare and a striking cathedral, started in the 6th century. Again, the stained glass windows alone make it worth the visit.
Then it was time to head back to Dieppe. We had a jolly time getting lost around Rouen and then lost again but still had just enough time to stock up on mustard, wine, coffee and tins of cassoulet at the Auchan supermarket near the port. It must be said, though, that thanks to the fall in Sterling the days of the booze cruise are long gone. Many of the wines were much the same price as in the UK, although I managed to cobble together a mixed dozen of very well-priced Alsace wines and some really tasty Monbazillac. Oh and some cracking Calvados
We booked a cabin for the journey home and had a decent supper and snooze on board. We docked at Newhaven at 10pm and were home for digestifs (of Calvados of course) by half past.
It was a splendid weekend. There was a lot of driving, for sure, and the weather was crap, but France is such fine place to potter about and we felt mightily refreshed.
Prices for travel with DFDS from Newhaven to Dieppe start from £49 each way for a car and two people. Crossings take four hours, with two departures a day each way from October to April, and three sailings per day from May to September. Book at www.dfds.co.uk.
Rooms at Hôtel de France start at €78/£67 on an accommodation only basis, with breakfast €10/£8.60 pp. Visit www.lhoteldefrance.fr or call +33 (0)2 43 44 40 16 (English spoken).