The Best Laid Plans: Collapsing Cathedrals And Great Military Surrenders

An hour's drive north of Paris might not seem the most exciting part of France to visit – no Alps, no Mediterranean coast, no vineyards, just woods and farmland. But it's full of surprises for the current visitor, just as it was for its past inhabitants. If you really want the unexpected, the one-hour belt north of Paris has it in spades.

An hour's drive north of Paris might not seem the most exciting part of France to visit – no Alps, no Mediterranean coast, no vineyards, just woods and farmland. But it's full of surprises for the current visitor, just as it was for its past inhabitants. If you really want the unexpected, the one-hour belt north of Paris has it in spades.

The most spectacular part must be Beauvais, easily reached now by MyTravelLite and Ryanair. Much of the town centre was destroyed in the Second World War but its crowning glory, the cathedral, escaped. Although it has just a choir and transepts, it testifies to the ambition and folly of its medieval builders.

It has the highest Gothic choir in the world; at 47 metres, almost as high as the towers of Notre Dame in Paris. It was completed around 1272. But the builders did not just want height: they wanted the choir to appear to float towards the sky. So they risked large gaps between the pillars supporting it, with the not wholly unpredictable result that, in 1284, parts of the choir collapsed.

It was repaired – you can see the extra pillars – but by then the Hundred Years War had begun and all building was halted.

Work resumed in the 16th century and the transepts were built. Money was raised to build the nave. However, instead of that, the architects decided to build a 500ft spire. It was run up in just six years, 1563-69, but without the support of the nave it was unstable. In 1573, as the procession emerged from the Feast of the Ascension, it crashed down. Apparently only two people were injured, but the remaining money had to be used to repair the building, which remained as it is now: astounding but incomplete.

About 30 miles to the east is Compiègne. Most people think of it as the place where the 1918 Armistice was signed in a railway carriage, and where Hitler accepted the French capitulation in 1940 in the same coach. (The present replica carriage commemorates the first of the two signing ceremonies rather than the second.) Compiègne, however, is also the site of a royal palace, extended and rebuilt by Louis XV because, I suppose, he felt Versailles needed a rival. At any rate, this huge edifice was completed by Louis XVI in 1788, just a year before the revolution.

You might imagine that such unexpected outcomes would discourage grand projects. Not at all; the palace was taken over by Napoleon, who evidently felt it was not impressive enough. He built a magnificent, barrel-vaulted ballroom, with 15 chandeliers, gilt pillars and mirrors – which was completed just a couple of years before Waterloo.

You can also find the unexpected a few miles away in Chantilly, twinned with Epsom because of its equestrian connections. Its chateau was built by nobles, not kings, but in one sense is even more impressive, for its Condé Museum has the best collection of paintings in France outside the Louvre. It also has a racecourse, and grand 18th-century stables.

Our final surprise was Senlis, where we based ourselves. For most people it is just the penultimate sign on the motorway to Paris before Charles de Gaulle airport, the M4 equivalent of Slough. But it could not be more different; it's a Gallo-Roman settlement – still with its Roman walls – that is now a picture-book French provincial town, complete with street market and citizens clutching bundles of baguettes. It feels like sleepy, rural France, not a town less than 30 miles from Paris. And that, perhaps, is the most unexpected element here. You go to what would in our terms be the Surrey of Paris and you find, not endless commuter dormitories, but towns that are scrupulously individual, each with their own history of surprises.

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