It started, as these things so often do, with a misunderstanding. The small cottage at the end of a lane in southern Normandy – owned by friends, and, for years, open to guests at very generous mates’ rates – would not, after all, be available in the last week of August. Somehow, somewhere, wires had been crossed. Someone else would be making the drive from Calais to Rouen, then on towards Alencon and Lassay-les-Chateaux. And the garden behind the property, with its apple trees and its view down to the River Mayenne, would not be a secure playground for a toddler’s faltering steps. Not our toddler, anyway.
Ah well. Hey ho. No harm done, no offence taken. These things happen with informal arrangements; with “bookings” scribbled into paper diaries and not followed up since March. C’est la vie, et pas de problème. There’s no use crying over spilled holiday plans.
But then, there was one problem. It was already the third week of August, we had paid for a ferry on the coming Saturday – and, as it stood, we were about to set off for a break in France with no idea of where we would stay. Fine, perhaps, if you are a new couple, in need of barely more than each other’s company and a few bottles of fizz for a getaway that flies by on the breeze. Not so simple if you are strapping a two-and-a-half-year-old into the car – with all the related gear, gadgetry and many changes of clothes this entails.
Still, no reason to panic. In this modern age of accommodation apps and short-term-rental specialists, sourcing an alternative des-res surely wasn’t going to be a problem. Not even in high season – at barely 72 hours’ notice, during a paradise summer in pre-Covid, pre-Brexit times, when the sky had been unblemished for what seemed like months. A last-minute substitute? There would be hundreds of options, perhaps even thousands. Our only difficulty would be in narrowing down our choices. Why, this mildly unfortunate scenario might even prove to be a positive, allowing us to delve into an area of France we hadn’t seen for a while – or at all. Where would it be? The Loire? The Vendee? Was Brittany too close to home? Was the Dordogne too far away with a nipper? Should we find a villa with a swimming pool, or just go to the coast? Decisions decisions, ma cherie.
It took me approximately four minutes, on all the obvious websites, to realise that my wild optimism was, well, wildly optimistic. The entire French shoreline seemed to be sold out. So did anywhere within half a day’s driving range of Calais. There were a few “possibilities” with price tags that only a space billionaire would consider meeting – and only then, with a grimace. There were a few “outliers” too, illustrated with grainy photos of windowless bedrooms – perhaps taken by the serial killers who had last inhabited them in those final fly-blown hours before the police had kicked the door in. Actual, genuine hideaways for tired parents and an inexhaustible child were conspicuous by their scarcity.
Which is why we found ourselves, on the penultimate Saturday of August, driving south-east across the torso of northern France, through towns – Arras, Cambrai, Caudry – that have long and noble associations with the sacrifice and slaughter of the First World War, but precious little to do with family tourism. We had further to go too. On into the Aisne department – where I had ultimately identified a “two-bedroom cottage”, in a hamlet near Hirson, which didn’t cost the same amount as a privately-financed mission to Mars. Nor did it obviously appear to be the most recent address of a reclusive man, now incarcerated, who had left various human body parts decomposing in a barrel in the shed.