What were your first memories of France?

Mine were of lying in a bunk with my mother on a ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. I was four years old and very sick; my two elder brothers were prancing around being terribly brave on the horribly bucking and rearing old ship.

Old sealink ferry in Dover 1973
Sealink Ferries Horsa and Maid of Orleans in Dover 1973

It was not a good start to a summer family holiday to Mers-les-Bains on the north coast of France.  

My parents had booked a small hotel overlooking the beach. It was very old-fashioned with iron shutters at the bedroom windows, big heavy furniture and lumpy beds. We loved it.

2 kids around 5 years old playing with buckets on sand in shallow sea
Small children on a beach. Feeling nostalgic?

I can remember hot days with a shrimping net. Going back to this part of France I realised that it must have been quite difficult to catch anything with a shrimping net. There are no rock pools, though the pebble beach might have yielded the odd catch. Perhaps I was just proud of having a shrimping net.

Brightly coloured villas on front at Mers les Bains
Mers-les-Bains villas Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I remember the owners who went by the outlandish name of Monsieur and Madame Pompilliou (at least that’s what I remember; my brothers can’t remember at all). I don’t know if they had children of their own, but two days into our stay they offered to look after all three of us so my parents could go to Paris for the weekend. I was 4 and my brothers 8 and 12. Absolutely unheard of today, but then? The Pompillous were just being kind.

Bus in Paris in 1950 – before my time. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I remember my parents coming back with toys, particularly a small model of a Paris bus. It had an open back, a bell and was green (I would describe it as British racing green, but that would not be tactful, and perhaps not true either).

It was a little like this bus, but ignore the date!

French Baguettes upright in basket
Oohh…just the sight of this makes me hungry Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I remember the breakfasts: hot chocolate in slightly cracked French bowls (much better than porridge), freshly baked bread which was crisp outside and warm inside and joy of joys…unsalted butter and sweet sticky apricot jam.

Childhood memories are fragmentary things that catch you out when you least expect it.

I had forgotten all about Mers-les-Bains until one year when we were returning from a holiday with my husband and small son in our house in the Auvergne. On our way back to the ferry I decided to revisit the past. It was fiercely stormy; the wind roared along and the waves crashed on the beach. It was all we could do to stand upright and we took bets on which of the beach cabins would be the first to fall over.

Mers les bains houses shut up grey skies
Out of season in Mers-le-Bains Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It was out of season so most of the small restaurants were closed. We walked along the front feeling discouraged but eventually found one that was open. We pulled open the door and staggered inside, the door crashing behind us. The windows were steamed up from the warmth; it was full of locals and smelt of fish.

moules in bowl with chips
Forget the knife and fork, use your fingers and the shell to extract the mussel Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We ordered mussels and chips and along came steaming bowls of the molluscs and double-cooked chips with sachets of mayonnaise.

My son looked rebellious; this was the first time he had encountered a mussel. He opened his mouth to refuse this disgusting looking pot of shellfish. “Ah, monsieur” the waiter smiled at him “Voici comment on fait”. He picked up an empty shell, using it to extract the mussel flesh from another shell, ate it and put the shell into the upturned lid. “Et voilà!”

Les mouettes restaurant exterior in mers les bains

Perhaps it was Les Mouettes along the Esplanade du Général Leclerc? Until I know otherwise I will keep getting my mussels and chips here.

My son has been a fan of mussels and chips ever since. I wonder what he will remember and treasure from holidays in France.

More about seaside resorts in northern France from this article. Take a short break in any of the wonderful resorts (think northern Riviera!) that stretch down the coast from the Opal Coast and Boulogne to near Dieppe.

Or stay in one of my favorite cities, Calais, which has an intertwined history with England and all kinds of attractions including…a dragon.