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French affair the family can afford
Mike Laycock crossed the Channel for a camping holiday on a budget.
With families facing their biggest cutbacks in household spending in 70 years, many are choosing to ‘staycation’ at home in England.
But it is possible to enjoy a holiday abroad without spending a fortune. One option is to nip over the Channel and sleep under canvas, as I found during a late August camping break with my family at Guines, just ten miles from Calais.
We found we could get a return Dover-Calais crossing with P&O for our car and four people for as little as £84, a 90-minute journey that leaves just enough time to check out the shops, have a snack and go for a stroll on deck before docking on the other side.
An alternative crossing, which avoids the long drive to Dover but is more expensive, is to travel overnight with P&O from Hull to Zeebrugge.
We stayed at a splendid site, La Bien Assise, set in the parkland grounds of a chateau, at a cost of about £30 a night for our tent, car and four people.
In England, campers are typically directed to a big open field and told to pitch their tent where they want.
This site was beautifully landscaped with plenty of trees, shrubs and flowers to separate the pitches and shelter us from the strong winds blowing on our first couple of days there.
There was a swimming pool, with a covering which could be retracted when the sun came out, a takeaway, a shop, a play area and, most importantly, clean toilets and showers.
The grim but undeniable reality of camping is that if it’s raining, it’s miserable, and we were undoubtedly taking a gamble. The week before we left for France there was frequent, heavy rain in both England and northern France, and it looked as if we might be about to lose our bet. But the clouds departed just as we arrived and we were truly blessed with a week of gorgeous sunshine, our only problem being heavy overnight dews which sometimes left the tent walls dripping by morning.
The sunshine allowed us to explore the tremendous coastline between Calais and Boulogne, which has spectacular cliffs – the Cap de Gris and Cap de Blanc – and where we found some superb sand dunes above a large empty beach near Ambleteuse.
Boulogne itself was also well worth a visit, with a picturesque historic core inside the sturdy ramparts and city gates. There’s a cathedral with a spectacular dome, a cobbled main street full of pavement cafés and restaurants, and a square imaginatively planted with flowers and vegetables.
Guines itself was good to walk into on market day, when the central square was packed with stalls.
The area has historic links, somewhat surprisingly, to Henry VIII. Near to the town is the ‘field of the cloth of gold’ where Henry met the French king, Francis I, in 1520 to improve their bond of friendship.
Each king tried to outshine the other, and the tents and costumes displayed so much expensive fabric woven with silk and gold thread that the site of the meeting was named after it. A huge mural has been created recently on the walls of a building in the town centre to commemorate the event.
While planning our holiday, we had faced a dilemma: we really wanted to pay a brief visit to Paris but without stretching our budget too far. We decided expensive hotels were out and instead opted to stay for one night at Cité des Sciences youth hostel (auberge de jeunesse) in the suburbs at Hoche, with a nearby Metro link into the city centre.
The staff were friendly and helpful, and our family room provided basic bunk bed accommodation and breakfast at 25 Euros per person.
We had an exhausting but superb day in the capital, which included a visit to the Sacre Coeur and the delightfully bohemian Montmartre area, a stroll through the Tuilleries and a visit to the superb Musee D’Orsay, built in a converted former railway station and home to a stunning display of works by all the great Impressionist artists, and finally glimpses of the Notre Dame cathedral and that old icon of Paris, the Eiffel Tower.
Chateau Camping, Le Bien Assise, Guine
Tel: 0033 321 352077, or camping-bien-assise.fr
P&O Ferries, call 08716 64 64 64 or visit poferries.com
Youth hostel: Paris - Cité des Sciences, 24 Rue des Sept Arpents, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais 93310, Paris.