Bay watch

There’s more to Picardy than meets the eye. Deborah Curtis heads for an idyllic expanse of marshes and saltwater meadows

There’s more to Picardy than meets the eye. Deborah Curtis heads for an idyllic expanse of marshes and saltwater meadows Ask most British people where they’re heading for a holiday across the Channel and they would probably reel off the Mediterranean, Paris and the Alps as being among their favourite destinations. One region they’re less likely to visit is Picardy – just an hour-and-a-half south of Calais and home not only to spectacular beaches and a wide variety of wildlife, it’s also an area rich in history with a regional pride to rival that of anywhere in France.But a family camping break in Picardy was just what we had planned as, shunning the A26 motorway following our arrival in Calais, we headed south on the coast road, winding our way along the tops of white cliffs which mirror their twins across the Channel. The views from Cap Blanc-Nez and Cap Gris-Nez, complete with wheeling seagulls and white-crested waves, offer spectacular panoramas of a seascape which forms one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, but appears as empty as the wild Atlantic.Breaking our journey at Boulogne, we headed for Nausica�, the national sea life centre where the children spent a happy couple of hours learning about the plethora of life which teems beneath the grey waves we had just been admiring. The centre is vast and you could easily spend a whole day exploring its many levels and learning about the 400 species of fish on display. Particular favourites were the sea lions and the sharks which can be viewed from above and below; the former a clowning comedy of infectious enthusiasm, the latter a circling shiver of monotonous menace. Between Boulogne and our destination, Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, the beaches are vast expanses of white sand; a magnet for sand yachters and kite fliers, swimmers, windsurfers and sunbathers, who flock to the coast from miles inland on summer evenings and at weekends. The populations of Hardelot Plage, Le Touquet and Berck-Plage swell in numbers spectacularly and yet you hardly hear another English voice – the Anglophones having swept past on the motorways to destinations further south. The place we were aiming for was tucked away in the countryside barely two miles from the centre of Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, up a sweeping gravel drive and flanked by mature trees.  The Ch�teau de Drancourt, a 19th-century relais de chasse, stands as commanding sentry at the entrance to a 150-hectare estate where, after a simple check-in, we were shown to our Eurocamp three-bed Comfort mobile home.Now the location of one of the region’s most impressive campsites – the four-star Domaine du Ch�teau de Drancourt – the estate was established and the ch�teau built in 1860 by a distant relative of the current owner, Xavier de Ramecourt.Once a hunting lodge for the bourgeoisie and a working farm producing wheat, barley, potatoes and sugar beet, the land is now an idyllic setting enjoyed by holidaymakers from across northern Europe.

From farm to castleWhen De Ramecourt took over the site in 1972, it was a small concern with just five pitches. Now there are 350, with some given over to mobile homes and the rest to tents and touring caravans.De Ramcourt is justifiably proud of his success. “When I took over, we were just a camping � la ferme, but I did a lot of work on both the ch�teau and the campsite to save the property and to modernise. Now, we are the only four-star campsite in the region. It is very expensive to run such a large property, so really I started the campsite to save it.”The setting is delightful, with large pitches divided by mature trees and shrubs. There is an overwhelming feeling of peace and tranquillity – the happy shouts of contented children and the song of more than 40 species of birds notwithstanding!Situated where the River Somme becomes a vast bay of the same name – although technically the bay is formed where the Somme meets the River Maye and opens out into an estuary combining both rivers – Saint-Valery is a pretty fortified town with its foundations laid firmly in the Middle Ages. It was here that William the Conqueror’s fleet took shelter, before heading off to invade England and claim the English crown in 1066. Today, there is plenty to see that provides a strong architectural link with the town’s past; reminding the modern visitor of the historical strategic importance of this estuary port.The Saint-Valery trail is a 5.4-kilometre walking tour, which starts and finishes at the tourist office. It begins in the Courtgains district of the lower town with its characteristic narrow streets lined with restored sailors’ houses, and winds its way through the lower and upper towns. Here, the remaining portions of the ancient perimeter walls weave their way through an eclectic mix of buildings that traverse the ages from ancient to modern. Not least, though, the tour offers breathtaking views of the Baie de Somme which stretches out towards Le Crotoy on the northern side of the estuary. Said to be one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, the Baie de Somme, which takes its name from the Celtic word meaning tranquillity, is a vast expanse of open water, marshes, dunes and saltwater meadows covering a total area of 70 kilometres squared. Here, the sky, sand and sea seem to merge into a single expanse of space and freedom… to stare out on it makes you want to throw your arms wide and twirl in circles, filling your lungs with salty sea air.The bay is a major French stopover for migrating birds: widgeon, shield duck, curlew and oystercatchers mix with seals in the water and sheep on the salt marshes. At low tide you can walk over the sands, but don’t even think of setting out alone, for this seemingly benign and beautiful expanse harbours hidden quick sands and powerful currents. Take an organised walk with a nature guide to maximise your enjoyment and minimise the risk.And don’t worry about the walk back. Once you reach Le Crotoy and have wandered around the shops and stalls nestling around the Place Jeanne d’Arc adjoining the quayside, you can hop on the Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme for the return journey.But before you do so, cast an eye over the working fishing boats moored here. These coastal fishing trawlers or sauterelliers – so named after the sauterelle, a grey shrimp found in local waters – bring in flatfish, shrimps and herring, some of which are sold on stalls under the shady trees at the centre of the square.Happily, it’s almost impossible to miss the train, thanks to its merry steam whistle, which regularly echoes across the town, announcing an imminent arrival or departure. This pretty vintage steam train, which dates from the early 20th century, snakes its way past sheep grazing on the salt marshes between Le Crotoy, Noyelles-sur-Mer, Saint-Valery and Cayeux-sur-Mer every day from May to mid-September. It is a gloriously relaxing and picturesque way to travel between Saint-Valery and Le Crotoy, not least because it offers spectacular views across the bay, which can be enjoyed uninterrupted; free from the necessity of having to keep one’s eyes on the busy road which sweeps in a wide and boring arc between the two towns. Le Crotoy itself was once a fortress built to guard the north side of the Baie de Somme. Its castle, now in ruins, once held Joan of Arc, who was imprisoned here by the English in 1430 before being taken via Saint-Valery to Rouen, where she was burnt at the stake.Luckily, the locals haven’t held this against us and welcome English visitors with a warmth and pride, which is justified by the sights and scenery of this much-overlooked region of France.FRANCOFILEGETTING THEREDeborah Curtis and her family travelled Dover to Calais with P&O Ferries Tel: 08716 645 645 www.poferries.com

WHERE TO STAYThe Curtis family stayed at the Ch�teau de Drancourt courtesy of Eurocamp, a tour operator which specialises in family camping holidays. A seven- night break at Eurocamp’s Domaine de Drancourt parc, in September 2010, staying in a 3 bed Premier’ mobile home with decking, costs from �614 for a family, accommodation only. Ferry crossings, fly-drive packages or rail travel can be arranged through Eurocamp at a supplement.For further information on Eurocamp tel: 0844 406 0552 or visit www.eurocamp.co.uk

THINGS TO SEE AND DONausica�  Centre National de la MerBoulevard Sainte BreuveBP 18962203 Boulogne-sur-MerTel: (Fr) 3 21 30 98 98www.nausicaa.fr

Le Chemin de Fer de la Baie de SommeGare de Saint-ValeryBP 80 03180230 St-Valery-sur-SommeTel: (Fr) 3 22 26 96 96www.chemin-fer-baie-somme.asso.frNo booking required. Tickets can be purchased from 30 minutes before departure. The train runs from April to December, but the timetable varies, so pick up a leaflet from the tourist office or check the website to plan your journey.

TOURIST INFORMATIONCRT de Picardie3 Rue Vincent Auriol80011 Amiens Cedex1Tel: (Fr) 3 22 22 33 66www.picardietourisme.com

Office de Tourisme Saint-Valery-sur-Somme2 Place Guillaume le Conqu�rant80230 Saint-Valery-sur-SommeTel: (Fr) 3 22 60 93 50www.saint-valery-sur-somme.fr