Mum: (snatch of conversation through kitchen door, while making tea) Nick’s the one who’s getting Parkhurst…
Me: What’s Parkhurst?
Dad: High security prison on the Isle of Wight.
Me and Nick: Er.
Be advised those with no interest in or comprehension of war-nerding can freely skip the first paragraph. The rest is about food and castles.
The Musee des Blindes in Saumur, the French version of Bovington or Kubinka, was just about as fantastic as I was hoping. They had no evidence of a Char de Rupture 2C (obviously, the real things were all totalled back in 1940, but I was hoping for at least a picture or a model) but that was the only thing lacking. They had otherwise a full quota of Cool French Armour I’d never seen in the metal, including a huge, ominous looking Char B1, a Schneider CA of ‘16, and my favourite military-industrial-corruption failbomination, the Char St. Chamond. There was a Nazi Germany gallery, a general WW2 gallery, a Warsaw Pact gallery, a modern French gallery, a modern everyone-but-French-and-Warsaw-Pact gallery, and a “stuff that doesn’t really go anywhere else” gallery including a broad selection of missiles, fancy cars, fancy cars with missiles, APDS rounds, recoilless guns, spooky murals involving tanks rolling out of rivers, and the mad Vespa TAP (yes, that is a Vespa scooter with a 75mm gun, and yes, you can technically fire it while driving, though it’s not a very good idea.) Highlights of the whole thing included a FT17, a Merkava mk2, a shiny new Leclerc (which proudly considered itself the best tank in the world, just like the Challenger 2 at Bovington, the Leopard 2 in Munster, and I’m sure an Abrams in every American museum that can afford it), the utterly insanely huge AMX-50, and a mobile tactical nuclear missile launcher. A++ would warnerd again.
We visited the underground chateau at Breze, which was unbelievable – a circular artificial canyon a dozen metres deep with hollowed-out dwellings and fortifications positions dug into the soft stone of both sides (and about as much wine-making infrastructure as defensive infrastructure – French priorities). It had been built up and down over the thousand years since people first dug there, so musket casemates became parts of the winery, and now the central oldest part has a traditional fairytale chateau built on top of it with its own set of Renaissance attractions, but the eleventh-century defensive posts and grain stores of the troglodyte castle beneath are the most amazing part.
The other chateau at Saumur-proper is of similarly mixed heritage but far less original, with a pretty pointy-turreted chateau built atop a brutal bastion-and-ravelin-style trace italienne. Parts of the crumbling outerworks (it really is soft stone in those parts) were covered in scaffolding, with the flaking bridges and ramparts being replaced by fresh new stonework, masons rebuilding the same bridge with the same skills as five hundred years before. This we probably do still have somewhere in Britain, but it’s much more poignant and miserable to lament on the lost skills etcetera don’t make anything in this country any more etcetera etcetera, and you honestly don’t see much of that sort of reconstruction around. Then again, just at the foot of one of the crownworks was a stoneworkers’ guild, courtyard littered with half-carved fountains and gargoyles, so it’s entirely possible this is a vanity project of theirs rather than a Civic Reconstruction Project to show us rosbifs that Everything is Better in France. Off in the hazy distance, the white golf ball of a nuclear power plant gleamed.
Lunch that day was had in a sort of greasy spoon version of a French restaurant, which is to say that while the food was relatively cheap and certainly deliciously unhealthy, it was still a five-course meal. The steak was blue, and classically French, and the chips just like Mum’s homemade ones; the starter course(s!) taught me that pickled beetroot was pretty alright stuff, and never to exhale through my nose while my mouth was full of pungent French mustard. There was a fantastic picture of the proprietor, cigar and glass of wine in hand, expression of well-fed smugness on face, above the counter. It looked like it had probably been painted thirty years ago; he and his wife were the dignified side of seventy, and it pleased me to think of all the delicious meals they’d made and sold through their lives.
Then there was a mushroom museum, which was a thousand specimens of strange French-labelled fungi on the way to miles of visitor-accessible caves full of mushroom growing infrastructure. I’m going to leave it at that; it requires no further explanation.
Journey back by car ferry (so even if we’d tarried long enough, we wouldn’t have been cut off by this volcanic Second Sign of the Apocalypse – how boring), and a long drive home through the swishing darkness. Have reams of pictures but still looking out for good gallery software. Facebook, alarmingly, is looking like the best option here.
By the way, it turned out to be a mug with Parkhurst on it.