Brit Ricky Beets runs tours of Armentières, chosen by the British Commonwealth troops as their headquarters during the Second World War. We find out about her life in France and how the town is marking this key commemorative year
This year sees the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, while June marks 70 years since the D-Day landings of the Second World War. The events of the past may be long gone but they are not forgotten in France, where areas of the country are home not only to sites of remembrance that continue to resonate in the present, but also to those who have chosen the area for their new life across the Channel. Five of them share their experiences and connections with us, and explain why they chose to start a new chapter in France.
Ricky Beets is a tour guide in the town of Armentières (Nord; Nord-Pas-de-Calais), used by the British Commonwealth troops as their headquarters in France during the Second World War. Sometimes, things are just meant to be – and that was certainly the case for Ricky Beets when she attended a twinning association meeting in her hometown of Hastings back in 1972. “That’s where I met Pierre, who was over from Béthune, our twin town,” she remembers fondly. “By April 1973 we were married, and I was living in France. At the beginning it was very hard, and a cultural shock, I can assure you!”
Since their beginnings as a married couple in Béthune, life has seen Ricky and Pierre make their home just outside Armentières, where Ricky now works as an English language guide for the tourist office. “I knew the head of the tourist office as we went horse riding together. When I retired, 10 years ago, from the Catholic University in Lille where I was head of languages and international exchanges, I had a little more time on my hands. They were looking for someone to show Armentières to Anglophone visitors, so that’s how I came to be working for them.”
Armentières is known for its role in the Second World War as the French headquarters of the British Commonwealth troops. With the front some three kilometres away, the town was dubbed ‘the nursery’ as it was the first place soldiers stopped at on their way to, and, if they were lucky, back from the front. Home to the Cité Bonjean cemetery, it has also been immortalised in the well-known song Mademoiselle from Armentières, which tells of the heroine’s brave endeavours carrying messages to and from the front, while maintaining her everyday appearance as a waitress in the town’s estaminet café.
“For the centenary this year, we have recreated her estaminet,” explains Ricky, adding: “People don’t often realise that she was a real person. We’re also running a series of guided walks along the front, including the site of the commemorative stone near Armentières marking the area’s version of the famous football match of Christmas 1914.”
“What I enjoy most about living in this area is that it’s rich in history, but it’s also rich culturally. The French in the north of France are so friendly and welcoming; they’re so charming. It’s very diverse and cosmopolitan. Much of the workforce employed in the textile factories after the war came from Spain or Portugal, as well as North Africa, and even further back the same is true. Pierre’s family, for example, came over in the 19th century from Holland to work here, so our surname ‘Beets’, although not French, doesn’t stand out as there are so many people here with non-French surnames. It’s a wonderful area, and one which I’m very glad to have made my home.”