Channel Ports: Seeking to solve the puzzle of Picardy: What beauties lie behind the slag heaps? Where is Amiens, and why did William Morris go there? Frank Barrett spent a weekend finding out

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The Independent Travel
I DECIDED on a weekend in Amiens without being absolutely sure where it is. You see it signposted on the Calais to Paris motorway, not far from Calais. Or was I confusing it with Arras? I knew only that Amiens is in Picardy. Somewhere.

However, what you can see of Picardy from the autoroute as you approach Calais is not enticing. You know those little French autoroute signs that pick out sights worth seeing as you drive by: a 13th-century church, a famous battlefield, a beautiful chateau? Well, the attractions of Picardy don't need signposting: the slag heaps themselves are clearly visible.

The thing I do not understand about this countryside is how different it all looks in Kent, which joined Britain to the Continent before the English Channel wandered through, several millennia ago. Kent, the Garden of England, lying across the Channel just 20 miles away. Picardy, bleak industrial wasteland.

Well, don't judge a book by its motorway cover. Amiens and the valley of the Somme can be as picturesque as anything to be seen in Pop Larkin country. Just across the border from Normandy, the countryside often has that hazy, lazy look of bocage country.

In Amiens we stayed at the Hotel Postillon, which lay reassuringly across the road from the police station. Nobody is likely to break into your car here, I observed at the hotel desk. Well, er, yes they do, said the receptionist, who advised me to park in the Postillon's locked courtyard.

From our room we had a stunning view of Amiens Cathedral, awarded three-star 'worth a journey' status by the hard-to-impress Michelin. It certainly impressed William Morris, who visited the city on a walking tour as a theology student in 1855. 'I think I felt inclined to shout when I first entered Amiens Cathedral; it is so free and vast and noble . . .'

Morris was so affected by the cathedral, the largest Gothic church in France, that he immediately resolved to abandon theology and study art and architecture instead. The cathedral also impressed Ruskin, inspiring him to write the Bible of Amiens, translated into French by Proust.

There is much more to see than the cathedral. The Museum of Picardy has a fine archaeological collection, paintings and tapestries, all housed in a handsome building near the centre.

One of the town's most notable claims is that for 35 years it was the home of the writer Jules Verne, who served as a town councillor (and wrote a short story, Amiens, an ideal town in the year 2000). Verne is buried in the Madeleine cemetery, and his tomb shows him rising rather alarmingly from his grave.

Also worth a look is Saint-Leu, the handsomely restored ancien quartier. Nearby are the hortillonages, an extraordinary network of gardens and allotments laid out along a series of canals and waterways of the Somme.

One of the main charms of Amiens is revealed when you simply wander around. The market, in a Le Corbusier-style building, is a gem: everywhere there are piles of cheese, fresh fruit and vegetables, and dainty sweetmeats.

At the Saturday street market I was buttonholed by an old woman who told me her grandson had just returned from Leeds. 'Did he like it?' I asked. 'Marvellous . . . magnificent,' she enthused.

In the countryside around Amiens you do not have to wander far to find memorials, monuments and graveyards of the First World War. On the short drive to Peronne, there is a cemetery almost every mile, each full of countless plain white headstones.

On one stretch of the road, beyond Albert, you pass roadside markers showing the various positions of the front line during the war. A stretch of ground it took two years to win or lose - at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives - can now be crossed by car in a few minutes.

A new museum, the Historial de la Grande Guerre, opened earlier this year. Housed in the Chateau de Peronne, it provides an account of the Great War. By skilful use of film, newspapers and other archive material, the museum weaves a fascinating account of history.

Most sobering is the early part of the exhibition, which explains how the war was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo - a video monitor shows the state funeral. Everything is explained in English, French and German.

Peronne has also seen its fair share of trouble. In the Franco- Prussian war of 1870, Peronne was taken by the Prussians. And by the Germans in 1914. And again in 1940. Within a single lifetime Peronne was invaded three times - and several houses in the town were commandeered by the German army on all three occasions.

The Chateau de Remaisnil near Doullens offers the perfect escape from thoughts of war. This handsome 18th-century chateau, set in ravishing countryside, was once the home of Laura Ashley. It is now a 20-room hotel, and many rooms are still furnished in their original Laura Ashley prints. In the 19th century the house was owned by a coal baron whose miners built him a tunnel from the house to the kitchens. This tunnel is still smartly lined with tiles of the type used on the Paris Metro.

A short drive from Remaisnil brings you to Crecy where in 1346 Edward III used the skill of his British archers to defeat the French. This skill was so renowned that when British archers were captured, the French cut off their first two fingers to prevent them using their bows again.

During the battle of Crecy it was said that the English archers, in their turn, took pleasure in showing the French that their bow-pulling fingers were still intact. Thus the V-sign was born - and it still seems to be in use by some English against Europe generally in these Maastricht-obsessed times.

Getting there: P & O European Ferries (0304 203388) has sailings from Dover to Calais and Boulogne. A three-day return for a car and two adults with up to three children normally costs from pounds 110. Hoverspeed (0304 240241) has services from Dover to Calais: prices for a three- day return for a car, two adults and two children start at pounds 110. Sealink Stena (0233 647047) operates between Dover and Calais: a three-day return for a car and up to five adults costs pounds 110.

Accommodation: The Hotel Postillon (22 97 72 22) is pleasant and unpretentious. It offers a complete do-it-yourself breakfast: you even have to make your own coffee. The rooms have Minitel sets (terminals for France's elaborate computerised directory inquiries service) which are fun. Rooms are good value from pounds 30 per night. The hotel has a split level family room from pounds 50 per night. The Ibis (22 92 57 33) has rooms from pounds 30 per night. The Chateau de Remaisnil (22 77 07 47; fax 22 32 43 27), between Auxi-le-Chateau and Doullens, has rooms from pounds 80 per night.

Museum: Historial de la Grande Guerre, Chateau de Peronne (22 83 14 18): until 30 November, open 10am to 5pm every day except Monday; closed from 1 December to 14 February. Adults Fr42; children six to 18 Fr20; war veterans Fr25.

Further information: Office de tourisme, 1 rue Jean Catelas, Amiens (22 91 79 28; fax 22 92 50 58, open Monday to Saturday 9am to 7pm); French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (071-491 7622).

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