Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Dieppe No.1. The Place

We have been to Dieppe - again. This seaside town in Normandy has been my favourite foreign destination for years.

Shortly after the war, in the late 1940s, when we were severely rationed at home, and when we were allowed a mere 20 Pounds to take abroad, it was the nearest, easiest and cheapest way of finding plentiful food and winter warmth.

At Victoria Station stood the boat train waiting for passengers, bound mostly for Paris. Then it was one to the main ways for people to reach France's capital city.

The steam engine hissed away, oozing the industrial revolution smells of steam, burning coal, and lubricating oil.

The platform at Newhaven and the dock for the French cross-channel ferries was the same. So we all descended from the carriages and crossed through a shed of customs and passport control to the dock and boat at the ready.

Food aboard was excellent, and lavish compared from that allowed us by ration in war-torn Britain.

This availability of plenty continued in France as if the war had never been.

Most of our passengers disembarked immediately on arrival in the centre of Dieppe, should the crane driver, putting the gangway in place, be sober or not at lunch. The French train would be waiting to take the majority on to Paris. I walked for five minutes to reach my hotel.

To enjoy Dieppe it is best to be a little aware of its history.

When the Vikings arrived they found a gap between high cliffs with the land behind guarded by an enormous barrier of round stones. Through these stones, draining the hinterland, flowed the fast Arques river, navigable with difficulty, except at high tide.

Behind the stones was a quiet haven where their ships could be pulled ashore, mended and provisioned. No doubt a bit of rape and pillage took place, but they, like us today, were customers for the local produce, which must have been sold on market days as it has been ever since.

In the 14th century, a fine castle was built on the cliff at one side of the pebbled shore. The structure remains more or less intact today.

In 1694, the town was razed to the ground by a combined fleet of English and Dutch men-of-war - though no one seems to record just why.

Dieppe then became one of the busiest and largest ports in France, with a fishing fleet, mainly for shellfish, and docks for the import of goods, especially African fruit and vegetables.

In Edwardian days, when seabathing had become popular (it had actually started in the late 1820s), it was the pleasure place of kings and queens, then artists.

The Germans fortified Dieppe in the war and, in 1942, slaughtered a mainly Canadian force from the gun emplacements that are still there to be seen.

The town with its inhabitants recovered quickly from the war and, as a gateway to Paris, it bacame the Dieppe that I visited and have revisited many times since.

Dieppe is a seaside town (with sand only seen at the lowest of tides) that has remained essentially the same over the last 50 or so years - the main changes being the destruction of concrete sheds used as a station, to be replaced by a wide vista of polished granite and stainless steel at the quay for a marina of boats large and small.

The ferry, now a car ferry, docks in the outer harbour, so that to reach the town it is now a five minute drive instead of a few minutes walk.

And one side of the harbour entrance has been extended out to sea, making a sort of pier.

In Part 2, I will describe the town and its food, then its people.