Travelling to Avril’s in the off-season is not the enjoyable adventure that it is most of the year round. The ferry crossing was expectedly bumpy, but thankfully halfway across the swell relented, making it possible to walk along the passages on the boat without making it look obvious that I don’t really have sea-legs. Calais, if not at its windiest, was at its greyest and wettest. Splashing along the ‘English Motorway’ was not a pleasant experience, and passing the lorries that frequently appeared out of the gloom took a bit of nerve, as visibility had a tendency to vanish during each overtaking manoeuvre.


Often, as I’m sure many of you have also discovered, the weather changes for the better by the time you reach Arras. Not this time. The grey clouds were glued together from one horizon to the other, with the rain cascading down relentlessly. But beyond all this gloom was the image of Avril’s wonderfully cosy and comfy lounge to look forward to, with sofas to sink into, while basking in the glow of a roaring log fire.


So far, things haven’t quite turned out like that. The lounge has very recently had its walls redecorated, and the floor is due for particular care and attention tomorrow. So, although looking very well for its update, the lounge is currently without any pictures on the wall, which makes things look a little odd. However, this situation means that Avril can give a lot of consideration about how to display things on the walls again. So far, it has been about putting up the photos where there was space. Now she has the time to arrange things ‘just so’.


These are the kind of things that go on at Avril’s during the quiet months of winter. Avril herself, has just come back from a holiday in England. This year has been a tremendously busy year, which of course is marvellous; however, Avril has had more work on her plate than she should have to deal with, and consequently was very much in need of a holiday. The break has been just the ticket – Avril has regenerated her enthusiasm and energy, and is ready to deal with the many immediate projects going on. I’m only a few hours into this visit, and I’ve already heard plenty of ‘We’ve got this to do, we’ve got that to do…you’ll help me with such and such, won’t you?’ How many of us have heard that sort of thing before? Life is certainly not boring in this corner of the world.




This morning I awoke to the howling of near gale-force winds, and the sound of rain lashing down upon the skylights. Not the greatest welcome into consciousness, but I’d slept well, and knew I had plenty of indoor jobs to get on with, so I wasn’t unduly worried. That is, until I had to contemplate the dash from the kitchen to the conservatory doors that lead into the inner sanctum of the tearooms for breakfast. A deep breath, and then I fancied I achieved a personal best for that well-known early morning sprint! Yes, the fastest thing in the garden this morning, me, I thought! Until I looked out over the breakfast table and saw that idle boast melt before my eyes. With the sun making a very pale but noble effort to light the morning up to some degree, amidst the constant wind and rain, all residents using the garden at breakfast time were not hanging about! A number of the cats, who would normally pass along the side of the conservatory in a languid manner, were showing unmistakeable signs of being in a hurry, and if you were in any doubt, a cat showing any sign of being in a hurry is more than a match for me in any sort of speed contest. Then it appeared that all the chickens (and they now number in excess of twenty) were on parade at the double. Instead of that nonchalant laid-back search for food around the front garden, chickens were diving left, right and centre, dashing from piece of cover to another.


Thankfully, the strong wind blew the rain away, and remarkably, by lunchtime, there was plenty of blue sky to be seen. The afternoon continued to be pleasant, although there was a lot of standing water to be seen. The approach road to the Thiepval Centre was noticeably under attack from the lakes of water along the side of the tarmac.


I was driving along to Thiepval with Miriam, Avril’s sister, who is staying in her bungalow for a few days. Miriam has a couple of soldiers that she’d like to buy plaques for on the ‘Wall of Remembrance’, and wanted to collect more information on them than she already had. Admittedly, we could have used the CWGC site with any internet connection, but the Thiepval Centre really does come up trumps with its availability of the Soldiers Who Died CD Rom. This can so often provide the researcher with that extra bit of information. I am just so impressed that this aid is available right on the battlefield area.




One of my favourite lines on Avril’s ‘Oceanvillas tearooms website is the one that suggests that while coaches are welcomed, booking is advisable, to ‘prevent disappointment, and let’s face it, chaos.’ I cannot help but smile when I read this, and this morning, I quickly realised how true this could be. At 11.20, it was a very wet, cold, and quiet December morning; at 11.25 it was exactly the same – apart from the coach that had pulled up in the meantime, with it’s party of 30-40 lads now crammed into the tearooms, which had a sudden shortage of bread! This to be fair, wasn’t chaos, merely chaotic, just for a few minutes. Visualize the Ocean Villas rugby team – in the scrum, facing the opposition (customers) head-on, Celine and Avril, who passes the ball (in this case the message to get more bread) to Miriam, who as ‘half-back’, makes immediate tracks to within shouting range of me, in my room. A splendid pass is thrown out to me (the message is shouted up the stairs), and I collect money from Avril as I dash down the wing to the try-line (I get in my car, and drive to Mailly-Maillet with instructions to ask for ‘cinq pains’). By 11.40, the crisis is over, the bread has been replenished. However, it turns out that most of the lads have bought doughnuts instead!



As mentioned previously, this is the season for redecoration and refurbishment, and the part of Avril’s property that was the recipient of such attention today was the apartment. A large part of the floor space has already been covered with new laminate wood flooring, which looks terrific with the newly painted walls throughout the apartment. Today, the bath was taken out of the apartment, and will be replaced with a brand new shower. The admittedly rather tight circular staircase is also being adjusted to give the user more room to manoeuvre when going up, and most particularly descending. All in all, the apartment is going to be a really good place to stay when at Avril’s.




As is so often the case at Avril’s – one day just turns into the next, and the next, and before you know where you are, it’s the day before the homeward journey.

The weather was pretty inhospitable at the start of the week, and it wasn’t until Wednesday that it was really worth sticking your nose out of doors.


As it turned out, it was a bit of luck that the weather had turned out sunny on Wednesday, as it led me to go down to the roadside in front of Avril’s, for a breath of fresh air. To my concern, there in the middle of the road, was a black, chicken-sized shape, rather too still for comfort. “Dead chicken” I thought, as I approached the heap in the road. I was therefore surprised for a little head to pop up from out of the feathers, and show she was still very much alive, although not appearing to be able to move. Having digested the knowledge that the chicken would appear to be in a position to be saved, I naturally thought that attracting Avril’s attention was the next thing to do. However, it became immediately obvious that I couldn’t just leave the hen at that moment, because Rue Delattre suddenly became the most popular road for people to drive along in the whole of rural Northern France. There didn’t seem to be anything for it other than to stand in the middle of the road, as close to the ‘stricken chicken’ as possible, and therefore attempt to make sure that the oncoming vehicles slowed down, and kept to their own sides of the road. That accomplished, making sure there was nothing coming in either direction, I chased across to where I could shout to Avril, for her to do whatever needed doing. The road had stayed cleared during the short time it took for Avril to arrive at the scene, and in one movement, she scooped up the chicken, and then took her straight to the chicken house. Once inside, Avril deposited the hen underneath the ultra-red light, used for gentle warmth, and then it was a matter of waiting to see whether the victim would be able to pull through. I’m glad to say that now, two days later, this particular hen has rejoined the tribe, and seems to have fully recovered. Below is a photo of one of the groups of chickens found on the premises nowadays.





I say one of the groups, because the poultry population is now huge. There are eighteen of this year’s chicks, plus older hens and more roosters than Avril feels happy having. Below, another picture of poultry – some of the more senior members.



The weather had also stopped me until Tuesday, from taking in the most noticeable change to Avril’s premises during the autumn months. As expected, Sam’s Abode has been given a tremendous makeover. This metamorphosis was carried out by members of the Military Provost Guard Service Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, as stated on the plaque that now sits in the top corner of the rejuvenated sentry post.




As regards the rest of the animal life that usually features in the newsletters, there is good and bad news. Bonnie is still fighting fit, and the back garden has been adapted (fences have been put up) so that she can be let out to roam around outside safely. A photo of the queen of all she surveys in the winter sunshine…




There is concern about the cat population. Whilst the newest member, Frankie, has settled in very well (and earning the nickname ‘Hannibal’ for being an effective killer), the aforementioned unsympathetically named Crappit has been absent without leave for the entire duration of my stay. This is quite upsetting for all, as she does seem a bit more vulnerable than the other cats.


Larry the ram is apparently doing very well for himself, now running with the crowd in the field behind the barns. There is talk that one or two of the ewes are looking a little ‘overweight’…could the young ram already be practicing for his forthcoming career?


Indoors, a lot of paperwork of different kinds has been done, though generally concerned with only two things – Christmas, and the ‘Wall of Remembrance’. The Wall project was launched on 11 November, and orders have already been received, and the first plaques produced. These can be seen on the Wall’s website at www.ww1wallofremembrance.org. Christmas cards have been written, and put in their envelopes en masse, this year with the added insertion of flyers advertising the Wall. These flyers have been thought of, designed, printed, folded and inserted with the cards in a rather frenetic couple of days. Further Wall-orientated paperwork this week, has been in the form of letters, a feature and, yes, forms! All doing their part in bringing the public’s notice to the ‘Wall of Remembrance’.


I think that just about brings things up to date for now. Avril, Mark and all the staff wish everyone a very Happy Christmas, and a Healthy New Year, during which of course, they look forward to seeing everyone, when you can make your way to Auchonvillers.