It is rewarding work being a gite owner

It’s always nice to hear from our guests when they have enjoyed a holiday in one of the Sandboys gites.

This week we’re feeling happy because it’s still early in the season and we’ve heard from two families who have just left the Sandboys houses after enjoyable holidays.

First, Elke and Joop and their family from Belgium, who stayed at Sandboys Dune, left some very nice comments in our Visitors’ Book and also a note asking if they could book another week at Dune later in the year.  Of course we were delighted and we’ve already reserved their dates in July.

Kettle family comments in Sandboys Pearl guest book

Next it was the Kettle family, Peter, Amanda, Max (age 4) and Chloe (5) who left Sandboys Pearl today after their second long weekend this year.  They left a long note in our guest book, telling us what a great time they had – again – and how much they loved the place.

Last week the charming Gogo family presented us with a very nice flowering houseplant on their departure.

We hope we’ll see all our happy guests come back time and time again.  It’s the best reward we could have for our small efforts.

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Two Sundays in Northern France

Boats on moorings at Le Hourdel

Two Sundays have passed since I last wrote here.  On the first we were treated to lunch at the Restaurant “Le Parc aux Huitres” at Le Hourdel.  This little fishing village stands on a spit of sand and shingle at the mouth of the Somme estuary, and it’s a favourite spot for tourists in spring and summer because of the the huge wide skies, great views across the bay – and the colony of seals that have made the place their home.

Not far away is the historic and picturesque old port of St Valéry sur Somme, which has an almost perfectly preserved “old town” quarter entirely within its ancient formidable protective walls.

Le Parc aux Huitres - recommended for lunch!

Le Parc aux Huitres serves mostly seafood, as you would expect, and we were very impressed by the quality of our meal which we chose from the fixed price menu.  My Sole Meuniere was excellent, and Sue judged her Aile de Raie (Skate wing) one of the best dishes she has eaten in France. We’ve been here 10 years, so that is high praise.

I have to mention my desert, “Moelleux au Caramel” I think it was called. It was a fabulously soft and buttery pudding with an intense caramel flavour surrounded by a little moat of Creme Anglaise custard.  Think of the most deliciously moist sticky toffee pudding ever, remove the sickly sweet sticky sauce but double the caramel toffee intensity, and you might be getting close.

As we were being treated I don’t know exactly what the bill came to, but I think it was about 110 euros for 3 people including wine, aperitifs and coffee.

Hesdin, in the Seven Valleys region

On the following Sunday we took part in a Treasure Hunt organised by some friends who live near Hesdin, in the “Seven Valleys” region, about half-an-hour inland. About the arguments that took place between our team-mates, a very competitive and apparently very happily married couple, the least said the better.  I simply drove, as fast as I could, to the places the navigator told me to go – when he wasn’t being interrupted and contradicted by his wife.  Sue worked out some of the cryptic clues and ran around spotting answers to questions.  Somehow we managed to come second.

At the end of the outing, with drinks in hands and all the arguments over and done with, our team-mates related the story of their first meeting. It was on a motor rally when she had been “volunteered” to navigate for him.  We expressed some surprise that they had ever got around to a second date, let alone ended up married!

It was a beautiful warm and sunny day, and in our search for the Treasure Hunt answers we saw some wonderfully pretty villages, as well as woods, valleys, streams, old mills and other sights, that we might otherwise have bypassed or missed in passing.

If you spend a holiday in this area we recommend at least one day taking in some of the pretty countryside in the Seven Valleys, and, of course, a trip out to Le Hourdel to see the seals – and maybe lunch at Le Parc aux Huitres.

Restaurant “Le Parc Aux Huitres”
Le Hourdel
80140 Cayeux Sur Mer

Tel: 0033 (0)3 22 26 61 20

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A Saturday night out for the Sandboys

Saturday is usually a working day for us. Every Saturday in the summer, and many out-of-season Saturdays, are “changeover” days for our holiday gites and apartment. As we insist on preparing each gite ourselves it can be quite a hard days work. We now have 3 gites, and on a 3-way changeover day they all have to be thoroughly cleaned and prepared between 10am and 4pm. This gives us just enough time to do all the jobs – and a little over for any unexpected problems such as defrosting fridges, fixing blown fuses and breakages, unblocking washing machines, etc. There’s sometimes even enough time for a quick sandwich at lunchtime.

It used to be tougher. There was a time when we had 5 gites – 2 at the seaside and 3 in the country – but we decided to reduce the number when we found we needed to employ helpers to cope. We are supposed to be semi-retired, after all!

So, on Saturdays if the work has not been too tiring, we often treat ourselves to a meal out at one of our local restaurants. One of our favourites is the Restaurant La Terrasse, on the seafront at Fort Mahon. It’s only about 10 minutes from our home, and it’s open almost every day of the year, so it is particularly handy in winter when many other places have closed down. But the main reason why we like it so much is that it is very French, usually busy, but always ready to find space for you if it’s possible, even without a reservation. The fixed price menus start at the reasonable price of 18 euros, but for a special occasion you can go for the Menu Gourmand which includes lobster and champagne at 55 euros per head. We’ve never had a bad meal there.

Last Saturday, however, we made a typically late decision to eat out, and decided to try the newly refurbished brasserie restaurant at the Hotel des Freres Caudron, at Rue, a pretty market town about 13 kilometres away.

Brasserie "Les Freres Caudron" at Rue - formerly the Lion D'Or

This hotel used to be called the Lion D’Or, but last year it was taken under new management, greatly smartened up over the winter, and reopened under its new name in February. We thought we would give it a try, and strolled into the place, early for dining, at about 7.15pm. It certainly looked smart, and the menu was enticing, too, so we were very disappointed to be told that we couldn’t dine because they were already booked up. As we’re still in March, with not many tourists about, this must mean the place has already become very popular with the locals. In France there is no higher recommendation. You can forget your Michelin and Gault Millau guides, if the locals crowd into a place it must be good.

We made a mental note to make sure to book next time, and not to wait too long, because if there’s a really good new place to eat in our area, we need to try it out and make our own judgement. So far the indications for “Les Freres Caudron” are good.

So we ended up once again at La Terrasse – not that there’s anything wrong with that – and enjoyed an excellent meal with, in spite of a full dining room, the usual exceptionally attentive service.  Not bad for only 48 euros.

You really can’t go wrong when you stick to the places where the locals eat.

Brasserie Les Freres Caudron,
5, rue de la Barriere,
80120 RUE
Téléphone: +33 (0)3 22 25 00 66

Hotel La Terasse,
Avenue de la Plage

Téléphone: +33 (0)3 22 23 37 77

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First bike ride of the year

Originally posted at 1:00 am, March 24th 2011.

Yesterday I pulled my bike out from the back of the garage and went for a ride in the sunshine. As it was my first ride this year I didn’t go very far, and I certainly didn’t try to go very fast.

The village we live in really is a perfect place to have a bike. If you just want a gentle ride there are miles of country roads and farm tracks that enable you to get from here to almost any other place you want to go in the area without ever having to go on a busy road. At worst you might have to cross one.

Stick to the seaward side of our village and of the D940 coast road, and you’ll always be riding on the flat, but if you want a bit more exercise, or a change of scenery, head East and you’re very soon going uphill. The further you go the more energetic your ride will become. Not for nothing do they call the region inland from here “The Seven Valleys”. Between the valleys are steep hills – thankfully the climbs are not too long and you don’t have to be Greg Armstrong or Alberto Contador to get up them. The reward for your effort will be not just a pleasant ride through beautiful countryside, but that, as everything to the East is higher than the flat coastal strip, your ride back home will be almost all downhill!

I took the farm lanes that run close to the River Authie estuary and soon came to the tiny harbour of La Madelon. The boats there all look as though they’ve had no use since last year. They need a bit of a clean-up and some maintenance, but no doubt some proud owners will be along soon to scrub, sand and varnish where necessary before taking their boats out for a few hours of coastal sailing.

Left high and dry by one of the highest tides of the year

Some of the highest tides of the year always occur in March, but it was still a bit of a surprise to find one yacht high and dry on the grass several yards from the river. It looked as if it might have broken free from its mooring and drifted ashore on an exceptionally high tide. One thing’s certain, it’ll be a long, long wait for another tide high enough to float it off. I expect they’ll have to come and get it with a crane and a lorry.

The restaurant at La Madelon, which has developed quite a reputation over the last 4 or 5 years and is highly regarded in French dining guides, is offering a lunch menu at around 13 euros. A very small price to pay for carefully prepared food in a superb setting. Unfortunately I was there on a Wednesday – their weekly closing day.

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Apologies to our Dutch friends – Verontschuldigingen aan onze Nederlandse vrienden

Originally posted at 1:00 am, March 22nd 2011.

When you have a business website, it’s a good idea to keep having a look at it from time to time, to make sure it’s all working properly.

I did just such a check on the Sandboys site this morning and found that the Home Page link to our Dutch language pages wasn’t working properly. Well, it was working, but only if you managed to find a tiny invisible slot just on the right-hand edge of the Dutch flag and then manoeuvre your cursor into it.

In terms of marketing cock-ups, it was if Harrods had a big door with a sign on it saying “This Way To The Shop”, but then installed a tiny secret latch that would only open the door if you happened to know where to push.

I hadn’t noticed this before because I used to have a second Dutch flag on the Home Page, also linking to the Dutch language section, but I removed it a couple of weeks ago – leaving only the dodgy link that didn’t work.

Why, you ask, did I do that?

Because I needed the space to insert a link to this new Sandboys Blog!

Oh, how easy it is to mess up when you’re trying to make improvements! I’ll have to remember that next time I’m asked to redecorate.

Fortunately I have now made the link work more easily, and, at the same time, found a place for the second Dutch flag link. Welcome back to all you Dutch visitors!

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Oh, No! Not Gatwick Again!!

Originally posted at 1:00 am, March 19th 2011.

We’ve just got back from Guernsey where our son and daughter-in-law live with our adorable grandchildren. Each time we visit them we take what looks like a rather roundabout route. First we cross from our home in France to the UK. The Channel Tunnel terminal near Calais is an easy and comfortable hour’s drive from our home. We usually have only 20 – 30 minutes of waiting for our shuttle, then we’re whisked through the tunnel in just 35 minutes. Unfortunately our arrival at Folkestone heralds another 75 minutes or so of driving on busy British motorways to Gatwick Airport (otherwise known as Hell-On-Earth).

And that’s where the worst part of our journey starts. Here we endure a couple of hours of waiting, among crowds of other anxious but hopeful travellers, before boarding a Flybe no-frills flight to Guernsey. After 10 minutes or so of sitting on the plane waiting for the ready signal, we enjoy a 10 minute trundle across the airport tarmac before bracing ourselves for take-off. We’re usually in the air for only about 50 minutes, so there’s hardly time for the staff to wheel the coffee trolley the length of the aisle before the landing. There’s a 3 minute walk from the plane across the tarmac into the airport building, a mere 5 minutes wait for our baggage and finally, at last, a pleasant 10 minute car ride to our destination.

So, after a long 7 hours of travelling we have arrived at our destination – just 200 miles, as the crow flies, from the place we started from.

Dinard Airport - the Islander aircraft boards for Guernsey

The only reason we take this route is because the alternative is an almost 5 hour drive – albeit on wonderfully quiet and unobstructed French roads – to St Malo where a rather unreliable and spasmodic ferry service operates to Guernsey. It doesn’t run in fog or other sorts of bad weather, and they sometimes cancel scheduled crossings if there aren’t a lot of passengers booked.

True, there are flights from Dinard airport. It’s only 15 minutes or so more driving time than the ferry terminal at St Malo, but unfortunately the tiny Islander aircraft operated by the Channel Islands Aurigny airline, are just as weather dependent as the ferry, perhaps even more so.

So, to be sure of a relatively reliable journey, mostly unaffected by fog or strong wind, we are obliged every couple of months to brave the horrors of Gatwick airport, where families queue sometimes for 15 minutes just for the opportunity to remove their shoes, belts and any metallic contents from their pockets before being frisked by someone they’ve never met before. Many of them will undergo the indignity of having their hand-luggage unpacked and searched in full view of all, and everyone has an unnecessarily long wait in a shopping centre so that the airport can make a profit on shop and restaurant rents.

Fortunately for most Sandboys customers, getting here from UK usually involves no more than taking a ferry or the channel tunnel for a quick, comfortable, reliable and relatively cheap start to their holidays.

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A Bit of Local Tourism

Originally posted at 1:00 am, March 9th 2011.

We’ve lived and worked in the Pas De Calais region of France for almost 10 years now, and it’s perhaps because we feel so much at home here that we haven’t explored all the tourism possibilities as much as we should have. Or maybe we’ve just been too busy.

Well, today we decided all that’s going to change.

As it was my birthday today we decided to take a day off work. Well, not completely off, as we had to go to the post to send our business mail off, and then to the shops to pick up supplies for the great gardening offensive that’s going to kick-off any time now. Anyway, for this day of relaxation we thought we would investigate a place called St Joseph Village, a sort of open-air museum in the form of a 1930’s French country village. It’s at a place called Guines, not far from Calais, and very close to the site of the Field Of The Cloth Of Gold, where Henry VIII did a bit of tourism and showing off about 500 years ago.

It turned out to be an excellent choice. The village is full of interest – you can see the inner workings of a windmill, a water-wheel powered sawmill, a smithy and many other disappearing country sights and crafts. There are replica shops of the period, a garage, bicycle shop, printing works and a huge collection of old farm machinery. There’s also a decent gift shop and an authentic estaminet bar/restaurant where you can get a meal or some refreshment.

However, the star of the show for me was a modest display in a faraway corner of the agricultural machinery sheds. A glass display case contained some fascinating and uniquely personal souvenirs of the life and career of the great Bernard Hinault. Hinault is considered the greatest cycle racer of his generation, and arguably one of the 2 or 3 greatest of all time. He won the Tour De France no less than 5 times, which makes him a God in the eyes of most frenchmen. His other cycling victories, stage wins and podium placings are just too numerous to mention – look them up on Wikipaedia if you want to find out just how great he was.

Hinault retired from racing in 1986 and donated two of his bikes, several of his Tour jerseys and other memorabilia to his great friend M. Baclez, the founder of the St Joseph Village museum.

This little display of items so personal and important to the great champion was the big surprise of the day.

We rounded off the day out with lunch in Ardres, at the restaurant La Griotte which we can heartily recommend, and a leisurely drive home through the beautiful scenery of the Pas De Calais countryside, which is so varied it ranges from flat marshy fenland to roads of Alpine steepness with tortuous hairpins. I wouldn’t recommend a fast cycle ride on the back roads from, say, Desvres to St Omer – unless you happen to have the stamina and hill-climbing ability of Bernard Hinault, that is.

This won’t be the last of our tourism days out. We’re scheduling one day every couple of months to find out more about the local tourist opportunities in our part of Northern France

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Spring at The White House

Originally posted at 1:00 am, March 8th 2011.

There have been some beautifully sunny days here in the Pas De Calais during the last few weeks, but today at last the air felt comfortably warm. The trouible with this is that it’s the signal to start outdoor work that I’ve been able to leave undone all winter on the grounds that it was too cold outside. That excuse won’t wash any more. Now, what line can I spin to get me out of the gardening?

The White House - It's big and it's white!

Not that gardening’s the only outside job to do around here. First the cables from the satellite dish have to be renewed. I’ve never seen or heard of this problem before, but the cable’s outer cover has gone all brittle and it’s cracked in dozens of places. This, we reckon, must be the cause of the poor TV reception we’ve been experiencing for months. I think it might be that the cable is simply laid across our flat roof, so it is sometimes lying in puddles, sometimes frozen, and often baking in bright sunlight. The exceptionally bitter cold of the last two winters has probably been chiefly to blame, and possibly the cable was not the best quality to begin with. Anyway, new top quality cable has been bought, and I’m going to route it through a black plastic tube which I’ll seal at both ends to keep out the weather. Hopefully this will protect the new stuff and keep it from cracking up like the last lot.

The house will need painting, too. On an ordinary house that could be a daunting job, but on The White House it’s a truly terrifying prospect. It’s a huge place and every inch of its surface is painted brilliant white. Most of the house is rendered with a sort of roughcast stucco which, I suspect, will be hard work to paint. Oh, well, at least it shouldn’t need to be done again for 5 to 10 years – that’s what it says on the tin, anyway!

Modern art in our new gallery at The White House

We haven’t been totally inactive all winter, of course. a new modern art gallery has been created in a downstairs corridor, with lots of magnolia emulsion, eggshell white on the woodwork, designer lighting and bare wood flooring. On top of that, it was the Garden Studio apartment’s turn for a facelift this year, with a new bathtub and a completely redecorated bedroom.

No work tomorrow, though – it’s my birthday!

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