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Neighbours with a unifying bond

PUBLISHED: 11:41 17 June 2010 | UPDATED: 18:02 25 August 2010

In World Cup summer you may not believe this. France, especially northern France, has more in common with Kent than any of our own English counties.

In World Cup summer you may not believe this. France, especially northern France, has more in common with Kent than any of our own English counties.

Somewhere around the end of the third ice age we were part of the continent of Europe and the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine. The 'French' Neanderthals walked here and made their mark in places like Dartford. So did elephants, jungle cats and woolly bears.

Calais was under British rule for nearly two centuries. In 1914, 10million men went through Folkestone and northern France on their way to the Western Front. Thousands didn't come back - they are buried in those beautifully maintained Commonwealth war graves which are littered across the region.

In 1939, and early 1940, the Kent- based squadrons established their airfields in Pas-de-Calais. When we were driven out by the Nazis, we fought our battles over their skies.

Today, there is a tunnel from Kent to France and we go there by Eurostar, or ferry, to collect our wine. We love the historical provinces in Nord Pas-de-Calais - Artois, Boulonnais, Cambresis, Flanders and Hainaut. Many of our Kentish towns are twinned with communities in this region and we share a sense of civic pride.

Some of us don't speak their language but many of them do speak ours.

So, it was a great privilege to be invited by P & O Ferries and the tourist offices in Lille and Cambrai to see a few of the many attractions that this region has to offer. It was also a privilege to meet our hosts from the two towns. They are both called Delphine so it was in order for me to christen them the "Delphiniums".

This part of north France is made up of two departments - Nord, stretching along the border with Belgium and Pas-de-Calais which covers the long tract of wonderful sandy beaches and the villages and towns beyond.

Those expansive views which seems to stretch for miles give the lie to the fact that Nord Pas-de-Calais is a densely populated region with 4million inhabitants - the fourth most populous in the country. Calais which serves as a major economic and transportation hub with Dover is the second largest city.

Lille is the largest and it is in that elegant, sophisticated, vibrant city - capital of French Flanders - where I spent my first night, courtesy of the Carlton Hotel.

Preferring to explore on foot I saw the Queen of the Citadels, built on the orders of Louis XIV in 1670 and today an army barracks open to the public. I saw the Vielle Bourse, constructed in the 17th century in Flemish barique style. The Lions of Flanders sculpted over the doorways recall Lille's days as an outpost of the Netherlands.

I marvelled at the Notre Dame de la Treille, a neo-gothic cathedral, the Palais des Beaux Arts, the best-known museum after the Louvre, the Hospice Comtesse Museum and was intrigued by a small museum at 9 rue Princesse. Here, in his parents house, Charles de Gaulle was born and, had there been more time I would have told the curator there that the great general came to live at Petts Wood in Kent during his exiled years.

There are hundreds of restaurants in which to have dinner but our hosts recommended the small but quite exquisite Le Champlain on the rue Nicolas Leblanc where I was given a view of the rooms and a meal to remember.

Earlier that day I had visited the new Commonwealth War Graves Commission's new cemetery at Fromelles - the first to be opened in 50 years. Here, the bodies of 249 British and Australian soldiers lay forgotten in an anonymous mass grave but the bones have been carefully removed, paired with DNA samples given by the soldiers' living descendants and carefully re-buried following a remarkable identification process.

Families from the two countries will be invited to the cemetery's dedication ceremony on July 19.

There is something rather humbling about a visit to this area of northern France. One moment you are learning about an 11-hour bombardment in July 1916, and the massacre that followed when the men went over the top, and the next you are visiting one of the historic chateaux that exist in every town and many villages.

Lunch at Le Château de la Motte Fenelon in the heart of Cambrai was an unexpected surprise. Built in 1850 by one of the great Parisian architects, the chateau boasts two Louis XV and Louis XVI state rooms.

Downstairs, in a former wine cellar, under an ancient vaulted ceiling the very best in cuisine is served in a restaurant known as Les Douves. The chateau itself is now a hotel with 40 rooms and a huge park.

After a journey from Flesquieres to La Cateau I visited the birthplace of a man who once wrote that the unremitting labours of his life were to "reveal a little freshness and beauty of the world... on behalf of the greater human family". His name was Henri Matisse and he gave 82 of his works to start a museum in his home town.

Matisse was born in 1869 and the citizens of La Cateau, spurred on by Ernest Gailliard, architect, wanted to create a museum in homage to the artist. In a letter to all the citizens the great man wrote: "I did not feel I could refuse this offer". The message was read on the day the museum was inaugurated.

Today, it is housed in an 18th century building, the Palais Fenelon, formerly the residence of the Archbishops of Cambrai.

With collections by other artists including Herbin and Terriade the collection gives the visitor an insight into the working class life of this region and how it was dominated by the textile trade.

Self-portraits, landscapes, sculptures and contemporary art stand side-by-side with the masterpieces.

It was not difficult to make the journey from an 18th century palace housing artistic treasures to the 12th century Chateau de Ligny, a four-star "hotel restaurant

gastronomique".

It was not difficult to enjoy the gourmet delights or the banter as the French tourist board girls teased my journalistic colleagues over their misunderstanding of Flemish customs.

This hammer-shaped hotel in the purist Flemish Renaissance style and reminiscent of a Loire chateau was built on the site of a Roman villa. That night I dreamt of the Roman legions gathering in the expansive grounds before sailing to a new life over the water in 'Cantium'.

There was one more excursion to make before embarking on this same journey - a visit to the village of Ors and to the exact spot where the English soldier poet, Wilfred Owen, lost his life.

Owen spent his last hours in the Forester's House where he wrote what was to be his final letter to his mother. The next day, November 4, 1918, he was killed on the banks of the canal and a week later the Armistice was signed to end that brutal war.

The last sentence of Owen's final letter home was this: "Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here".

After my three-day adventure I can echo these sentiments, urging you to explore the region that is Nord Pas-de-Calais, remembering that this is not a wine-growing area but one that produces a sensational choice of beers. I took a bottle of Vivat Bio (6.5%) home with me from the Brewery du Cataeu Cambresis.

A votre santé.

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