For twenty years now I’ve been crossing the channel to France to stay in my parent’s simple stone cottage in the Pays de la Loire. I visited first in my late teens, when days were leisurely, evenings were late and sleep was plentiful. Back then, my holiday always began in the Brittany Ferries bar. Nowadays, I travel with my own children, which makes for a livelier trip, but the chance for them to make their own memories in the place that I hold so dear could not be more precious to me. The boys are unequivocal in their assertion that the Brittany Ferries trip is the ‘best part’ of the holiday. At just four, the smallest is still awed by the fact that his car can fit inside a boat, and all three of them love the familiarity of the little onboard rituals that we enjoy every crossing- waving England goodbye; a drink on deck; a magic show; supper at a table with a view of the sea, and then at sundown, as the French coast appears on the horizon, changing into pyjamas ready to doze their way through the last leg of the journey.
Arriving at the cottage late at night, we carry the children in to their beds, retiring shortly afterwards. Awakening in a quiet rural valley, all we can hear is birds singing and cows lowing, the early sunshine creeping through the curtains, making patterns dappled by leaves. There are roses around the door and croissants and coffee for breakfast, the scent of elderflowers is in the air.
The pace of our days is slow and gentle. We visit favourite towns, wandering the cobbled streets, admiring shuttered windows and the valerian that grows up through the cracks. It is June, and there are roses everywhere. Food is never far from our minds: a trip to a local market to buy soft cheeses and plump nectarines; a sweet crêpe from a van in a town square; a leisurely three course lunch at a simple hotel; aperitifs in the evening sunshine; a barbeque smoking whilst the children run and swing.
In the lanes around the cottage, wild flowers grow prolifically. There are daisies and poppies, aquilegia and scabious, vetch, cow parsley, red campion and stitchwort. In one cornfield at the edge of the village, I find a swaying mass of poppies mixed with cornflowers, the blue flowers that I wore in my hair on my wedding day. One evening, as the light grows golden, we walk together down the lane to the chapel at the end of the road. I pick a posie, knowing that the verges will soon be cut, and the next morning, I awake to find that the tractors have already been, and the cow parsley has been mown down for another year, the stems gracing my windowsill are the last of it.
Two of my boys celebrate their birthdays whilst we are away, so there are streamers and parcels, candles and gateaux, songs and laughter. These are the first birthdays we have celebrated in the house in our twenty years of visiting, and it feels momentous somehow. Of course, the stone walls of the cottage are hundreds of years old, so they have borne witness to birthdays, and no doubt births as well, the whole cycle of life. We are but a small part of their story, although they have become significant to ours.
Family, familiarity, freedom- this time together has been a blessing for us all.