A mid-week jolly

La Rochelle

We took a mid-week trip to La Rochelle, a seaport on the west coast about 90 kilometres from Poitiers, and our nearest seaside destination. It has a rich history and is probably most famous for the 1627–28 siege, during which the Huguenot city’s population fell from 22,000 to 5,000. The siege ended with complete victory for Louis XIII’s Catholic forces. Not being of the same persuasion, Madame and I tend to see this event from divergent perspectives.

Harbour Entrance

I like La Rochelle more and more with every visit. The quays around the harbour are lined with cheerful bars and cafés, and from here one can enter the town proper by passing through La Grosse-Horloge, a fifteenth-century city gate topped with an impressive clock tower. The main streets are lined with pretty arcades, and in the area around the indoor market, which is filled to bursting every morning, there is another lively cluster of bars and restaurants.

La Grosse-Horloge

We arrived mid-morning on Wednesday to find roadworks everywhere. The ongoing pedestrianisation of the harbour area is scheduled to last for another year. It’s noisy, but judging from the progress so far, it will look quite impressive when finished. After petit déjeuner at a small cafe on Quai Valin, we took a 45-minute bus ride to Île de Ré, an island just off the coast, now accessible by a 2.9 km bridge built in 1988. This was one of the reasons for our trip, as I’d been looking forward to visiting the island for some time. Sadly, it turned out to be a bit of an anticlimax. Nobody’s fault. The weather had changed. After a couple of days of bright sunshine, it was suddenly overcast, with an annoying blustery wind, the sort that Madame’s mum describes accurately as ‘making your hair sore’.

We took the bus to Saint-Martin, the island’s main town, only to find that the bus terminus is about a kilometre and a half’s walk from the town itself. Given the weather, this was not ideal, and I could feel distinct twinges of Eeyore-like gloom. On a more positive note, we did get to walk past the Saint-Martin Citadel, France’s largest long-sentence prison. Having lived in Wandsworth and worked for many years near Wormwood Scrubs, I regard myself as something of a connoisseur of prison architecture, and the Citadel is certainly worth seeing (overnight accommodation is probably a different matter entirely).

Saint-Martin Citadel

Saint-Martin itself is a pretty little place, a cross between Southwold in Suffolk and Cowes on the Isle of Wight, with a similar clientele. My guidebook says that August here is best avoided, and I can well believe it. Even on a cloudy June day it was very crowded. You can see all there is to see in less than an hour. Some expensive-looking holiday accommodation, a sprinkling of shops selling ‘crafts’ and chic sailing apparel, and that’s about it. I toyed with buying a bright yellow sou’wester but figured that opportunities to wear it in Poitiers would be limited.

There are various restaurants around the small harbour, and all were doing well. We had a very good lunch at La Marine, and by the time we walked back to the bus stop a couple of hours later, I was in a distinctly more expansive frame of mind.

Back in La Rochelle, things continued to improve as we spent the evening cheering France on in their Euro 2021 match against Portugal. This was in Corrigan’s, a bar in Rue des Cloutiers that serves excellent draught Guinness. Chatting to le patron, Barry, who hails originally from Cork, we were told that we’d dodged a bullet by changing from our original plan of staying overnight on Friday. The town’s rugby club, Stade Rochelais, would be playing their old rivals Toulouse in the championship decider, and the town’s bars and restaurants would all be packed, most of them booked out weeks in advance by regulars.

Allez les Corsaires!

This is another thing I like about La Rochelle: how the town gets wholeheartedly behind les Corsaires. Club shirts, hats, and scarves are very popular, and every other Covid mask you see is emblazoned with the club crest. Mind you, it’s debatable whether I’d be quite as enthusiastic about this if we’d arrived on the Friday and found all doors closed to us.

La Rochelle has several interesting museums, and the second reason for our trip was to visit the Musée Maritime, which currently has an exhibition of Robert Doisneau photographs, Allons voir la mer avec Doisneau. We saw this on Thursday and really enjoyed it. Some fine photos, and just enough to stop you getting ‘exhibition fatigue’. It is worth seeing if you are there between now and November 1st.

A poster from the Doisneau exhibition. Note the numbers. The likely obesity of English speakers is obviously a worry.


There is a sad postscript to our trip. Friday’s result: Toulouse 18 – Stade Rochelais 8.


Things I’ve learnt this week:

The first pet cemetery opened in Paris in 1899, after the introduction of a law that banned throwing dead dogs into the Seine.

In 2016, Australian police offered cash prizes to any drivers they found to be sober.

The quinine in tonic water is effective against malaria, as long as you drink 300 gin and tonics every day.

On my back and on my bike

I was due to go to my Pilates class on Thursday, but on Wednesday evening I got a text message from Sandra, the instructor, saying that the other students had all cried off, either because of being on holiday or from fear of catching the virus. Instead of cancelling the class, Sandra offered me an individual introductory session on her new workout device – ominously named The Reformer – which I accepted.

When I got to the studio/gym, I saw that Sandra had actually bought two of these devices and had had a small outer extension added to accommodate them. As you can see from this catalogue photo, they are fairly complicated-looking, but once the rudiments are explained you quickly realise that they are a very effective way of doing a workout.

Sandra showed me how to do a warm-up routine and then started on some leg exercises. One of these involved my lying on my back and putting each foot into a stirrup, leaving me in a position more suited to a gynaecologist’s consulting room than a gym. At this point, the phone rang in the inner office. Sandra went to answer it, leaving me alone in the room, still stirrupped and stretching my legs in and out as fast as I could. Suddenly I heard the outer door open, and someone entered the gym. Lying on my back, I couldn’t see who it was and thought the best thing to do was to say nothing and continue my exercise. After a short pause, a female voice said, ‘Est-ce l’endroit pour le Pilates?’ (‘Is this the place for Pilates?’) Red-faced and panting, I slowly managed to raise my head just enough to see, between my outstretched legs, a plump, middle-aged woman staring back at me. ‘Oui,’ I managed to blurt out before my head fell back onto the workbench. There was silence for a few seconds, and then I heard the door quietly close again.

When Sandra returned I thought it better not to mention any of this.


Thee harbour at la Rochelle

We went to La Rochelle on Friday and stayed overnight. It’s one of my favourite places in France. The harbour area is lovely to wander around in, and the back streets are full of friendly bars and restaurants. There is always a jolly bustling atmosphere, and this was even more the case this weekend, as the French Rugby season was about to kick off and La Rochelle, one of the top French sides, were at home to Toulon.

Saturday lunchtime saw us having a glass of rosé outside Chez Marie, a little wine bar next to the market. A group of burly rugby fans were sitting next to us, tucking into plates of oysters, cheese and sausage washed down with several bottles of white wine.

By contrast, across the street, outside another café were two men, I would guess in their late thirties, with a small boy, aged about two, in a buggy. The child seemed very happy, and both men seemed very attentive to its needs. Madame S and I then got into a long discussion about surrogate parenthood, and its ethics and practicalities. We covered Elton John and his partner’s children, the plight of Eastern European orphans, and the different adoption regulations in Europe and the USA. While we didn’t necessarily share the same views on everything, we agreed that the two men opposite seemed to be exemplary parents, and we wished them and the child all the luck in the world. It was just after this that two women came along, pulled up two chairs and joined the men. One of them, obviously the boy’s mother, picked him up and perched him on her lap.

We watched them in silence for a few minutes, and then I quietly suggested a visit to the aquarium.


Despite the virus and its problems, my old friends the Ely Jolly Boys are continuing their monthly rambles. My good friend Pete Bunten has sent me the list of conversation topics covered on their last two outings, and I hereby pass them on as prospective agendas for any similarly-inclined groups of individuals.

Ely, 31st July

· Matrons · Drinking behaviour at Cambridge colleges · Polish drinking clubs · Kent · Hattie Jacques · St Martin · Miss Immigrant competitions · Corfu · One-legged rugby players · Marianne Faithfull · Hermann Goering as an unexpected object of veneration · Goring-by-Sea · 747s out of the sun · Peterborough · Stig of the Dump · Albatross guano

Cambridge, 28th August

Old people’s homes · York Races · Getting banned from pubs (unjustly) · Tractor festivals and associated dancing girls · Early Christmas cards · The virtues of Limerick (not Limericks) · Drinking in New Zealand · Kentish Men and Men of Kent · The man who was killed by a London tram · The concept of creating a beer called ‘Workshy’ for the jobless · The Wee Frees · The virtues of dank in pubs · Yellow hands and brown fingernails · Fictional bars (bars in literature) · Short measures · Drinks cabinets · The lack of meaningful violence in modern society · Station bars · Leonardo DiCaprio.

(I would only add that the use of “dank” as a noun is surely something to be encouraged.)


The Tour de France has started after a delay of two months due to the coronavirus, and after eight stages, Britain’s Adam Yates is currently wearing the maillot jaune. On Wednesday the riders reach Poitiers, at the end of stage eleven. There have been some small displays in shop windows and a Tour-related photographic exhibition in the mairie but, if I’m honest, I’m a little underwhelmed by the general level of enthusiasm so far. Perhaps this will change over the next few days. Or maybe they have seen it all before and have become a bit blasé. Madame S made the intriguing suggestion that the Tour might be looked on as something akin to the Eurovision Song Contest. After the novelty of the first experience, it becomes an expensive and inconvenient burden for the towns selected.

Be that as it may, your intrepid reporter (just out of shot in the photo below) will be waxed and lycra-ed on Wednesday, sitting astride his Raleigh Explorer and ready to give them all a run for their money. Ding ding!