French Trip with School – 22 to 26 July 2010
Thursday, 22 July 2010
At 5:30am, Mum woke me up. I washed and dressed, and packed the last things into my suitcase, before loading it into the car boot.
We had to be at school by 6:15am, but we arrived a short time earlier. After transferring my suitcase from the car to the coach, I took my seat at the back of the bus, ready for the drive ahead.
At 8:00, we pulled up at the services. We were told that, on Mrs Hales’ trips, there are two types of breaks: ‘tea breaks’ and ‘wee breaks’. This was a tea break, so after buying a couple of bottles of Diet Coke and receiving a free glass with my purchase, we continued to Dover.
The P&O crossing wasn’t until 11:45am, and with the coach’s air-con turned off, the beating sun turned the bus into an oven.
Finally, though, we were allowed to roll up onto the boat. We were all shown exactly where a member of staff would be seated at all time, before being allowed to go off in our self-determined groups of three to five. Me, Ali, and Rory went off together, and then sat down and ate our packed lunches.
Upon arriving in Calais, we piled back onto the coach, and drove to Bunker d’Eperlecques, where many German V2’s were launched during WWII. We also saw the holes where 377 1-tonne Allie bombs had landed in 1943 in an effort to stop the doodlebugs.After this incredible tour, and a well-needed leg-stretch, we hit the road for the site where we would be staying for the next few days.
En-route, we stopped at the nearby St Omer, where we did a town trail. Whilst completing the question sheet, I discovered a lovely ice-cream shop, though the lady wasn’t all that impressed with my French! As we left the parlour, a man approached us. Slowly, a small crowd of the others saw us, and came and joined us. He was very strange, and took a very special interest in Chloe. After kissing Ali’s hand, and flirting with a local, Mrs Hales came to see where we were, and quickly bid him good riddance.
Situated just off a motorway, the accommodation boasts a large field for sport and leisure activities, plus a games room, shop, and – for the teachers – a bar! After dumping our bags and cases in the designated dormitories, we went for a quick guided tour of the site, and then sat down for dinner. The first course was soup, and to be honest it was less than delicious, but the rest of the meal was alright.
After dinner, we had a couple of evening activities to do. One involved crossing from one side of a skipping rope to the other, by taking it in turns to skip, but should any of us ever get caught in the rope then the game stopped and anyone who had successfully made it to the other side already had to go back.
After this, we had around 45 minutes of free time, and then settled into our rooms for bed.
Friday, 23 July 2010
We woke, washed, and dressed, before making our way down to the communal dining room for our first breakfast together.
Our first outing of the day was to a traditional snail farm. After half an hour on the coach, we arrived, and were immediately shown the vast enclosure where the snails are grown. While the owner gave a very interesting talk, he did speak French and only French. But nevertheless, Mrs Hales translated very well, and we learnt that because the species of snails he farms are from Africa, and aren’t acclimatised to European weather, every October he moves 3 metric tons of snails to the warmer indoor greenhouses. All in all we were given a great insight into the making of this iconic French delicacy.
Following an opportunity to handle the snails ourselves, we were invited to taste some gourmet snail snacks. Firstly we were offered snail pâté, then snail and cheese mini-pastries, followed by a garlic dish. Happily, Jason had a packet of Tic-Tacs, making him the most popular person on the bus, as we travelled to a small cheese factory.
When we arrived, we were separated into halves, and then my group went and saw the milking process and machinery. Then we swapped with the other half, and were shown the underground cellar where the cheese is left to mature. There is no real way of describing the smell, other than by imagining the damp odour of one’s feet after a camping trip, and then multiplying that stench by ten!
After finally emerging from underground, we were taken to the factory’s dining room, where we were served a cheese meal. We had a cheesey pie for the starter, a delicious main meal of chicken and chips (coated, of course, in a cheese sauce), and a cup of this weird, thick, liquid cheese stuff for dessert. After ‘leaving through the gift shop’, and buying a toy cow as a souvenir, we got back onto the coach, where we were taken to a small sweet factory.
When we arrived, we were shown the process of manufacturing homemade lollypop sweets, how sugar-glass (a brittle form of sugar which looks identical to glass, making it ideal for film stunts) is made, and were then shown the ingredients of jelly sweets.
Like the snail farm, the owner spoke in French, though his personal translated was on-hand to assist. However, while the owner had a good sense of humour, making jokes like “the windows are made of sugar-glass too!”; his translator was far less interesting to listen too, and was described by Mr Neill as “the female version of Stephen Hawking”.
“She [the translator] is like the female version of Stephen Hawking.”
– Mr Neill, drama teacher on the trip, 23 July 2010
When the factory’s own sweet shop was opened, we were allowed to spend as much as we like on the man’s produce. However, the prices were really quite high (€4,50 for a smallish bag of boiled sweets ≈ £3.75 at the time), so I only bought one assortment.
It was then back onto the bus, as we hit the road for a French supermarket. Bearing in mind that the last time I’d visited a supermarket in France I had accidentally crashed the drivers for one of the new touchscreen computers, I vowed to stay away from the technology department. Instead, then, I bought myself a packet of biscuits and sat myself down in close proximity to the nearest Wi-fi connection, and used my iPod to keep me in contact with the outside internet world that I had missed so much. Following a tweet, an email, and a check on my Facebook, it was time to return to the coach, and drive back to the accommodation.
In tonight’s evening activity, we would be dressing up as a new superhero for the modern age, and – naturally – my group volunteered me to do it. So, after a session of Beth vandalising my face to look like a pirate (with what later transpired to be a permanent marker), and Ali sourcing me a pirate hat, we were ready as a group to show me off.
Unfortunately, our brilliant pirate idea had been shared by another group; but other superheroes included Rory as a topless ‘Monsieur Français’, and Leah as an ‘eco-witch’.
Then, we were given free time, before settling into bed.
Saturday, 24 July 2010
Morning broke, and after breakfast we drove to a market in Arras. Like Ypres in Belgium, much of the architecture has been rebuilt following extensive damage during the first World War, but looks as it would have before the war. Specifically, the Battle of Arras unfolded in mid-1917, and resulted in 158,000 Allied casualties and 125,000 German casualties.
Of course, today there is but a trace of this horrific battle which happened just over 90 years ago. And with it being market day, the whole city (which is the capital of the Pas-de-Calais department of Northern France) was alive with the hustle and bustle of any Saturday morning market. Before setting off in our small groups, us ‘back row gang’ from the bus decided to buy Mr Sheppard a small present each. The rules were simple. One must not spend any more than €1 on a present, and it must be the silliest or most tatty thing one could find.
Off we set into the square, and soon I found my present for Sir: a fake gold necklace. It was exactly one euro, so this was perfect. As we went around the stalls, Ali bought himself some AA batteries for his iPod dock, after I pointed out its ability to be truly portable. As the time drew to an end, we returned to the designated rendezvous, and gave Mr Sheppard the gifts. Jason won the game, after finding an enormous bathplug – beating a plastic frog and a bent clothes hanger. I was also given a little present – a baby-pink bandana! It was from my friend Molly, who had been wearing a green one since the start of the trip, and after noticing my clear jealousy, promised to buy me one when she next saw one!
Things became serious though, as we made our way to Vimy Ridge – another site of a World War I battle, which took place at the same time as the Battle of Arras. A striking thing as we drove to the area was the number of tress in the surrounding countryside. We were told that the reason for so many trees, considering the land would have been devastated by the end of the battle, was that at the end of the war a tree was planted for every one of the 3,598 Canadians who died.
The 250-acre site, now owned by Canada, still retains the extremely long tunnels dug by the British, and we were lucky enough to be shown around one of them – several feet underground. It’s incredible how vast these tunnels really are, especially when you take into account that – surrounded by Germans – the excavated earth had to be successfully removed unnoticed. Pickaxes were the only option, an explosion would make too much noise. The tunnels were some of the first to be fitted with electricity – candles were realised to be too hungry for precious oxygen. However, while today the tunnels are well illuminated, the little light that the electricity would have provided then was barely enough to see even where you were going.
Following our look around the trenches and tunnels, we visited the nearby, recently-restored Vimy Ridge memorial. Two towering pylons are made of 6,000 tonnes of Croatian limestone, and represent France and Canada – bearing maple leaves and fleurs-de-lys. Figures around the pillars represent Peace, Justice, Truth, and Knowledge. At the bottom of the monument are carved the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who died in France but whose final resting place was unknown.
Before making our way home, we drove to the French national Wold War I cemetery Notre Dame de Lorette. In total, the cemetery and ossuary holds the remains of over 40,000 soldiers, and also the ashes of many concentration camp victims. The basilica and memorial buildings were built between 1921 and 1927, and were designed by French architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier and his son.
We were shown photos of the devastation of the surrounding area and the horrors of the battle, before being admitted to a trench which – unlike Vimy Ridge which has been made permanent – has been left to go back to nature.
Following a rather poignant and thought-provoking day, we drove back to the accommodation for dinner, the evening activity, and some sleep.
Sunday, 25 July 2010
We were woken quite early today, as we had to get out and on the road. After breakfast we started driving to a theme park in Belgium, called Bellewaerde. It was very busy, and despite arriving before it opened at 10:00, by the time we’d sorted out tickets and the meeting point, the crowds were allowed in. This meant that I couldn’t do my usual sprint to the first ride of the day! However it wasn’t too much of an issue, as the ride we queued up for first didn’t open until 10:30am anyway.
Mr and Mrs Hales were happy to look after everyone’s bags all day, as this allowed them to catch up on some summer reading, while we went on all of the rides.
The first one was a rapids one, with the dinghy made of four connected bits. This meant every time you went down a rapid, you’d each go down sort of individually but together. It’s hard to explain, but it was good fun!
The other rides we got to go on included a Ferris wheel, a log flume, and a great rollercoaster called ‘boomerang’.
This coaster starts by backing you up onto a near-vertical section. It then releases the brakes and sends you onto its 267-metre track, with a top speed of 90 km/hour (55.9 mp/hour). At the highest section, you’re 38 metres off the ground, giving you an exhilarating, hair-raising, 2-minute ride.
As the park was so close to Ypres, we drove through the beautiful city. Driving through the Menin Gate brought back fond memories of the time I had spent with school back in October, on the fascinating battlefields history trip.
As we pulled up on the drive of Le Chateau d’Ebblinghem, we were all tired and ready for dinner. Following dinner, we all seemed to gain a new lease of life, and a game of Capture the Flag was organised by the boss of the centre. He was really quite an angry chap though, and appeared – ironically – to hate children. He seemed to lack any experience in teaching the game, which resulted in many children wondering what on earth they were meant to be doing.
Admittedly, some of his yelling was perhaps justified; like the time when Rory tied his bib to the top half of his leg to stop it from being taken by any of the other team. But even still, the ban from the rest of the 45-minute game that Rory was issued was deemed to be a little over-the-top.
Even still, it was a good end to the week, as everyone saw the funny side of the angry man. After lining up on the stairs for a group photo, everyone was given a certificate. And then, with most of the rooms tidied, Ali got out his now fully-portable iPod dock and played British-Indian musician ‘Punjabi MC’ at full volume. Everyone was dancing along in a Bollywood-type fashion, as we marched through the site, following Ali with the music and me with the costume (my pink bandana).
All of the dancing, however, took its toll on our tiredness, and made us all rather enervated. So we headed to bed for the last time on the trip.
Monday, 26 July 2010
We packed the last things into our cases and loaded them into the bus; stripped the beds; and enjoyed our last meal in France, before driving to our first stop of the day at ‘Les Chocolats de Beussent’, a ‘designer’ chocolate factory.
Once there, similar to the other tours, we were shown exactly how the artisan chocolate is made – from bean to box – and then a chance to buy from the shop some posh chocolates made on-site. While the talk was very interesting, the products were really very expensive (far more so than even the sweet shop). As a result, I bought just a couple of small bars of chocolate to take home.
Our next stop was ‘La boulangerie Romain Magnier’ – a traditional French bakers. We were split in half again, and both halves did a different activity and then swapped. Firstly, my half learnt how wood-fire baked bread is made, and how such is the demand for the delicious bread, that a team of five from the bakery work through the night, every night, to produce enough croissants and bread to meet the town’s needs.
As I said, following a go at playing with the dough, we swapped with the other half, and went and learnt how French croissants are made. The man teaching us, who I guess was the owner, was adamant to drill into us all of the French words for the ingredients. These included sugar (sucre), yeast (levure), salt (sel), butter (beurre), and water (eau). Rather terrifyingly, he kept beating this cane down on the table, and we were all slightly afraid he might use it on is if we get it wrong.
Nevertheless, when he asked for volunteers, my hand was the only one to shoot up, amid a sea of frightened faces. That was a mistake. He made me come forward and take a piece of flat mixture, and roll it into a croissant. Remembering that I hadn’t had croissants for what seemed like years, I suggested perhaps someone else may be better. But he wasn’t having any of it, and made me roll it as best I could. He wasn’t impressed, telling me “English Croissant”, and showed me how to do it “the French way”. Even still, I couldn’t make it look nearly as good as his, so he threw the challenge out to everyone else. Finally, he saw some he like the look of, but still none of them good enough to sell in his shop, so he told us they would be “pigs’ food”.
And with that, we left the session, and sat and ate our packed lunches outside on the picnic benches.
Then the coach pulled up outside the bakery, and we drove to our last stop before Calais – the vast ‘Cité Europe’ shopping centre in Coquelles. Ali had organised a collection for Mrs Hales (whose last trip this would be), and dispatched himself off to go and sort out a bottle of wine with Mr Sheppard, and some girly smelly stuff with Miss Tomlin.
Some people bought just general junk, but with just a Coke, I was happy to go with the rest of my group where the wanted (we had to be in groups of 3 or more).
And then, the time came to return to the rendezvous, and make our way onto the coach.
As we drove to Calais, I remembered the great, great times we’d had across the trip, and this was summarised when Ali presented the gifts as we waited to board the ferry.
After passing through UK Border Control (note that I had removed my terrorist-like bandana), we were finally allowed to roll up onto the boat. We made our way upstairs, and after buying myself a newspaper, sat on deck with everyone else as we waved goodbye to the great time in France we’d all had.
At 7:30pm (BST) we arrived in Dover. The driver had to get off at Folkstone and change, thanks to the Coach Driving restrictions. He kept fishing for a tip – and whilst one had been set aside in the budget – because he was so bad and was constantly getting lost, it was decided that he would not receive any additional money.
The new driver got us home safely, and we arrived back at school just five minutes behind schedule. We were welcomed by a massive crowd of parents and siblings, bringing a fantastic end to one of the greatest holidays of my life.
To Mum and Dad for paying for me to go, and the staff who gave up their time organising and running the trip itself, thank you.
Andrew Burdett, July 2010
If you would like to download a PDF of the diary with images, click here (10.4 MB).