Airborne adventures in France

We rarely get to take holidays in the summer because it’s the busiest time of year for the flying club business, but with a big event having closed the airfield for a few days last week, it was the perfect opportunity for us to have a much-needed few days off. As it turned out, the timing was impeccable, coinciding with a ridge of high pressure that gave us virtually uninterrupted sunshine for the entire duration of our holiday. We’d had in mind that we’d do a flying adventure to France to see the First World War battlefields, so it worked out really well.

Of course, this being aviation, we could only plan it all at the last minute once the weather forecast became clear, so it was a mere 24 hours before we left that I was frantically researching hotels and car hire in France for what turned out to be one of the busiest booking periods of the year: the French August bank holiday. Nevertheless, we managed to secure affordable accommodation and car hire for a night in Le Touquet, and then three nights in Amiens (longer than originally planned, owing to the fact that the car hire place would be closed until after the bank holiday). The timings didn’t allow much margin for error, and that was just one of the things that made us feel really nervous as we drove to our local airfield to start our long flight to France in Gwenn the Dimona. There’s always an element of apprehension when one embarks on a trip like this, particularly to places we’ve not been before. We knew we were heading into the unknown, and it was that rather than the donning of lifejackets in readiness for the Channel crossing that made us feel nervous!


We needn’t have worried. The flight, though bumpy from thermals, went smoothly, and we landed in Le Touquet after an hour and 50 minutes of flying – our progress helped by a 20kt tailwind. The weather was glorious as we “coasted out” over Dover, the air becoming miraculously smooth over the Channel thanks to the lack of thermals over the water. We did our usual division of labour: I did all the flying, and Lee did all the navigating and radio work (and thanks to his superb radio skills, we got to go straight through Luton Airport airspace, which saved time!).


There was a bit of low cloud once we got to the French side, but it wasn’t problematic and it was quite fun flying a bit lower along the beach to Le Touquet.


I was anticipating loads of extra security at Le Touquet following various horrifying events in France, but although there were customs officials who looked at our passports (a first), that was it. Everything was very normal and Le Touquet, very well set up for visitors from across the Channel, was as friendly as ever.


They called us a taxi and we went into town to enjoy a few hours of wandering around and eating. Le Touquet was pretty rammed, but not oppressively so. There was a plane flying up and down the beach with a banner in tow, and there was a nice holiday atmosphere about the place.


The sunset was spectacular, so we walked down to the beach again to watch it in all its glory.


I certainly felt that the trip helped me regain my joie de vivre, which I think I must have misplaced somewhere in a mountain of work!


We had a nice meal on Rue de Metz in the evening – steak for Lee, salmon tartare with avocado for me, with a slightly bizarre side of a bowl of pasta – before heading back to our hotel (the Red Fox) to plan the flight for the following morning.


The following morning was when the planning was going to have to be annoyingly precise: the car hire place at Amiens would close at 12pm, so we needed to be able to take off from Le Touquet in enough time to land at Amiens, check in with the flying club there and walk to the car hire place to pick the car up before it closed for the long weekend. With the weather “CAVOK” (“ceiling and visibility ok” – in other words, glorious blue skies) at Le Touquet, the point of concern when we awoke was the current reading of “IFR” (instrument flying rules – in other words, terrible weather; in this case, fog) at Albert, the nearest weather station to where we were going. Having done a lot of stressing and weather checking we decided to give it a go anyway, because we knew the weather was amazing in Le Touquet, so we could just turn back if it wasn’t good enough to land at Amiens. This was the weather as we climbed out in the circuit at Le Touquet – the airfield is just the other side of the river.


We took off about 9.30am from Le Touquet and had a lovely smooth flight of about 45 minutes down to Amiens – no weather issues at all, and it was gorgeous at Amiens as well, so again we needn’t have worried.

There’s nobody in the control tower at Amiens at the weekends, so you just have to make what are called “traffic calls” with your intentions so that anyone else flying locally will know where you are and what you’re doing. Although English is the international language of air traffic control, the smaller French airfields don’t bother with it, so we had to make our traffic calls in French. Lee kindly delegated this terrifying task to me, so I had to cobble together our intentions in broken French in the hope that the one other plane in the air at the time could understand what we were doing. It was a jump plane with a load of parachutists, and the pilot responded in very broken English to advise us to avoid the overhead until all the parachutists were down. I felt a right moron talking in fragments of terrible French – talking on the aircraft radio is scary enough in English – but it all worked out fine and we landed safely and parked at the local aero club.


There were a couple of other British planes there, though nowhere near as many as at Le Touquet.


The aero club gave us a warm welcome and said we could stay as long as we liked, and that it was free of charge (especially great given the dire exchange rate at the moment)! They also gave us some really helpful maps and English language booklets detailing the local things to see and do, including a couple of guides to the Somme battlefields, which was the whole reason we’d come. So that was lovely of them!

It took less than 20 minutes to walk to the hire car place (Europcar – who were really nice and didn’t try to upsell us anything, which makes a change, and it cost just £55 for a whole three days!) and then we checked in at the hotel, which was just 5 minutes’ walk from the airfield, making it nice and handy for keeping an eye on Gwenn. Having done all that, we could finally relax, so we went to the nearby massive supermarket and picked up some bread and pate for lunch before making our way into Amiens city centre to check out the famous Gothic cathedral, which is really quite magnificent. Work on it started in 1220, and it replaced an earlier structure.

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It’s the largest Gothic cathedral in France, but the most impressive thing is how ornate the statuary on the outside is. I’ll come back to that a little later in this post…

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There’s a fair bit to see on the inside, too, and apparently it’s the largest medieval interior in Western Europe. It seems miraculous that it survived the destruction to which Amiens was subjected in both World Wars.

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The area around the cathedral is a pleasant place for a stroll, with plenty of quiet side streets on which to escape the crowds.

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The focal point for the city centre, other than the square by the cathedral, seems to be the Saint-Leu quarter, which is packed with bars and restaurants all lined up along the river. God knows what the creepy statue in the water is all about.


There are lots of canals with bridges across them, and colourful old buildings either side. It’s for this reason that it’s sometimes known as ‘the Little Venice of the North’.


That’s the spindly spire of the cathedral towering over the river on the left.


After a glass of wine at one of the bars near the river, we went back to the hotel to rest for a bit. When we returned to the city centre, the cathedral was bathed in beautiful evening light.


We had dinner sitting by the river in the atmospheric Saint-Leu quarter, before making our way back to the cathedral for the famous light show.


The light show takes place throughout the summer when it gets dark (around 10pm in August), and it’s also shown at Christmas. It’s absolutely stunning, and well worth sitting around waiting for. The front of the cathedral is illuminated to pick out the architectural details, and the statues are lit up in vivid colours to illustrate how they would once have looked.


It was relatively recently, during a deep clean of the exterior of the cathedral, that it was discovered that the statues were once painted bright colours, and the light show does a great job of showing you what it would have been like. In fact, during the day, you can still see some faint traces of paint.


The show has a soundtrack of various composers – I think I picked out Debussy, Bach and Monteverdi – as well as a voiceover telling you about the history of the cathedral. The voiceover is in French, but there are pillars in the square that turned out to be speakers, and if you stand by the one with your flag on it you’ll hear the voiceover in your language.




The crowd initially sat on the steps opposite to watch the show, but after a few minutes everyone got up and started moving around to see the statues up close. It really is extraordinary! It didn’t really seem to be advertised anywhere – we only knew about it because the in-laws mentioned it – but it’s definitely an unmissable part of a visit to Amiens.


We spent the rest of the trip exploring the battlefields of the Somme and Arras, a thought-provoking experience that I’ll talk about in separate posts. On our final morning, we awoke to another gorgeous blue sky day.


Ready for the flight home with our life jackets and hi vis vests!


We made the flight home from Amiens all in one go, which took 2 hours and 45 minutes (in an amazing stroke of luck, the wind had changed direction since the journey down and we got a 20kt tailwind going home, too!). The conditions in France were wonderfully smooth thanks to an inversion layer, which you can see here causing the strange brown air. This stops thermals from forming, or at least from reaching up too high, so the air was nice and calm.


It was a bit bumpier once we got to the English side (you can see the cumulus cloud bubbling up on the horizon, indicating thermals), but we were still happy to see the white cliffs of Dover!


We were quite glad to land back home after such a long flight. In case you were wondering how much luggage we travelled with – this is how much! We even managed to squeeze in a bag of shopping from the French supermarket.


It was a really great trip, and we’ve vowed to do more of these kinds of adventures as and when our diaries and the weather allow. I’ll be sharing two more posts about the trip, focusing on the First World War sites we visited during our time in Amiens, so look out for those coming soon.

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