Travel: Somme fine day ...

Take advantage of northern France's new motorways to explore the quiet coast of Picardy. By Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS a time when a day trip across the Channel to Calais or Boulogne meant sticking to your Channel port of destination - or a timid excursion as far as one of the prettier villages in the Pas de Calais (and there are some). A rich stuffing at a restaurant later, and the duty free beckoned before the journey home. The motorways have changed all that. The final piece in the jigsaw of new autoroutes that have been slicing through the vast, flat plains of northern France over the past 10 years fell into place last month with the opening of the A16 between Boulogne and Abbeville. For a toll of 40 francs, it is now possible to reach the fringes of Normandy well within an hour of leaving your Shuttle or ferry at Calais, and some interesting destinations have been opened up to the quickie traveller.

Foremost amongst these must be the Bay of the Somme, where the Somme canal, built by Napoleon to connect the river Somme with the English Channel, filters into the sea. It's one of the quietest, oddest and least explored corners of France, and now it's within an easy burn of the Channel ports.

Perhaps it's the Somme's associations with the slaughter of the First World War that puts people off - but the river's wide estuary saw none of that, although St Valery, at the western side of the bay, was a British freight port in those dreadful years. The town saw action again briefly in May 1940, before reverting to its accustomed state of dreamy slumber - of big skies, opaque light, birdsong and colourful shrimping boats stranded by the low tide.

When driving down the A16 from Calais and Boulogne, come off at Exit 24 and head for St Valery-sur-Somme or Le Crotoy, which bookend the Bay de Somme. Both have their charms, although I prefer St Valery, home of Colette and weekend retreat of Jules Verne. Le Crotoy, not to be outdone, is where Joan of Arc was imprisoned in 1430 before being taken to her date with destiny in Rouen. Legend has it that Harold of Wessex was an another illustrious prisoner of the region. One of history's great transit camps, it seems.

As it happened, I approached the Somme from the other direction, along the coast road west from Dieppe. This gives you the chance first to take in the faded seaside resort to beat all faded seaside resorts - lovely, pebble-beached Cayeux-sur-Mer with its white beach huts, the largest number in one resort in Europe. The landscape around here is reminiscent of the Suffolk coast. The ambitiously named Brighton-les-Pins, however, reminded me of nothing on Earth. Apparently built to attract visitors from England, this now sandswept huddle of shuttered holiday homes would make a superb movie backdrop. Early Roman Polanski, perhaps, or a French version of The Avengers.

The coast road, which is shadowed by an impressive cycle path, takes you into St Valery, and lunch at Le Relais Guillaume de Normandie (that's William the Conqueror to you and me). It's not obligatory, but the views of the bay from the turn-of-the-century dining-room make it very worthwhile.

As does the use of pre-sale lamb in the menu. This is lighter and saltier than the norm; the lambs have been grazed for a minimum of 120 days on the bay's salt marshes. On the 87F menu at the Relais I took it in the form of a delicious warming stew - a bit too warming, in fact, on such a humid June day. And, in honour of the fact that I was in the province of Picardy, I started with a ficelle picardie, a savoury crepe filled with ham, mushrooms and onions. After lunch a walk was obviously in order - and there are some adventurous and highly unusual walks to be had in and around the bay. Potentially dangerous, too. If you want to go hiking on the bay itself, then you must make sure - as signs everywhere make clear - that the tide is at least three-and-a-half hours off being at its height. It can come crashing back in more quickly than you can walk in the boggy mud. Tide timetables can be bought for 5F at the Tourist office in Place Guillaume le Conquerant. That William the Conqueror again.

It is also heavily advised that you hire a guide, although there were none available until the high season, according to the tourist office. So, with slight relief, I must admit, I headed off to Le Marqueterie Bird Park, a supremely well organised preservation area set amidst 2,300 hectares of marsh and sand dunes to the north west of Le Crotoy. It is a temporary home to more than 300 species of migratory bird, stopping off between Russia, Africa and the Arctic; only the Camargue region plays host to more avian passengers than the Bay of the Somme.

Having never lifted a pair of binoculars in anger before, I was seduced by the park. Two itineraries are on offer: a 2-kilometre-round ramble, which takes about an hour, and a more ambitious 6-km hike, for which "binoculars are strongly recommended". I was there last week, and ducklings learning to swim were stealing the show. It's exhilarating just to be ambling along and have a heron or a stork swoop by at head height - although the party of noisy French schoolchildren ahead made me wish for something more predatory.

Motorists can sail to Calais from Dover on Hoverspeed (01304 240241), P&O Stena Line (0990 980980) or SeaFrance (0990 711711), or travel through the Channel Tunnel on Le Shuttle (0990 353535). Fares for short breaks are good value, and a return journey for a car and two people could cost as little as pounds 50.