Just south of Paris, the weather changed. Blue became grey. Rain replaced warmth. Gusting winds rocked the Benault on its soft suspension. The pleasure of the slow drive north was eroded by the weather turning against me, and so rather than linger like an unwelcome guest, I made a dash for the ferryport.
Northern France is an open sweep of rolling farmland and melancholy towns which never quite seem to have escaped the weight of their history. As I left Ile de France and headed towards the Somme, the sky swept down towards the earth, pummelling it with torrents of rain. Despite it only being mid afternoon, darkness overtook us, broken only by the strobing lightning which smashed into the earth all around. On and on through the maelstrom we pushed, the rain becoming heavier, the thunder more frequent, until we were passing through one of the worst storms I’ve ever experienced. The road became deserted, other road users seeking shelter in lay-bys or on verges. Horizontal hail strafed us with a deafening roar, threatening to smash the Benault’s windows and blasting branches off trees into our path, which we swerved around, tyres spinning on the muddy torrent of water which the road had became. Thunder and lightning came as one now, as if an artillery barrage had finally zeroed in on its target. And through it all, through the bombardment and shrapnel and lightning and driving hail, the little French car soldiered on, its wipers flailing, its wheels sliding and against the odds, its demeanour still one of aloof disinterest.
And then, as we reached the Somme, it cleared. The hail stopped and the roar of thunder withdrew to become the distant rumble of artillery, echoing through the ages. The air was still, the light sombre. I parked at Vimy Ridge, where 100 years ago one of the pivotal battles of the First World War had taken place, and walked across the still-cratered, pulverised landscape to a memorial, upon which 12,000 names are engraved. The names of those who were never found. A poppy wreath lay against the limestone; a token, futile gesture to those lost. Around me the humid air felt heavy; charged. Sheep grazed among the craters as I stood alone, imagining. A kestrel swooped on its prey. And then the thunderous rumble which sounded like artillery fire drifted closer, and the smoky darkness returned. And as I hurried back to the shelter of the car, the sky began to weep.