A Day at the D-Day Beaches

Utah Beach, Normandy

One of the other main reasons for wanting to visit Normandy was to see and explore Les Plages de Débarquement, the Normandy Landing Beaches. My son had been learning about D-Day at school since a couple of years before and had been fascinated by this period of history, and had been reading lots of of books and watching the films and footage. Early in the pandemic we all watched Band of Brothers (which was amazing, but very graphic) so we all started learning a bit more. Of course we all grew up knowing the story, and D-Day was celebrated in the UK every year on June 6th almost more than VE Day. In 1066 the Normans sailed across the Channel (no mean feat by the way, it’s a treacherous body of water) to subjugate England; in 1944 their descendants made the return trip to liberate not only Normandy, or France, but Europe and the free world from the Nazis. One of the great moments in world history, bought with a great many lives. It was an on-off rainy day when we went, and we started out at Utah Beach, one of the more prominent of the landing sites, and one of the most successful. This was led by the Americans, and along with Omaha Beach this will always be a little piece of America in northern France. We arrived and walked out to the wide expanse of the beach itself, and it’s good that it was a more overcast day than we’d had. There was a statue of some soldiers disembarking from a Higgins Boat landing craft (I sketched above, with the Museum in the background. The Museum at Utah Beach itself (https://utah-beach.com/en/) was really fascinating and well worth a visit. I sketched the large warbird “Dinah Might”, a B-26 Marauder, in the expansive hangar. I do love those old war planes.

Utah Beach Plane 072522

Outside, I drew the Sherman Tank guarding the entrance. I didn’t have long to draw this so I did mostly just the outline and a few details and drew the rest on the plan coming home. So many details in those treads, they really were mighty little machines. I didn’t do any more sketching on our tour of the sites, due to time, but we still packed in a few more places on our way back to Bayeux.

Utah Beach Tank

We drove through towns we knew from the history documentaries, Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Carentan, Grandcamp-Maisy, imagining what it was like during that horrifying time. We can’t imagine it. We went on to La Pointe du Hoc, a high point jutting into the sea on the other side of the river mouth to Utah Beach, full of German bunkers and artillery that saw a famous battle on D-Day, a victory for the Allies led by the US Army Rangers. We went on to Omaha Beach, a name that brings a bit of a chill. The other main US landing point, Omaha looks like a beautiful place today, but saw some of the most terrifying fighting of the landings with thousands of soldiers killed. Nearby was our next destination, the American Cemetery, at Colville-sur-Mer. This was incredibly moving, I knew it would be but to be there among all those pristine graves, all those names of all those young soldiers, stretching out for what feels like miles, it was overwhelming. 9,388 people are buried there, of which 307 are unknown. The bugle from a memorial service echoed over the stones, and the rain switched on and off. We moved on to Gold Beach, at Arromanches-les-Bains, which was the main landing point of the British forces, spent a bit of time around Arromanches itself, and went up onto the cliffs to see some of the memorial spots. You could still see the artifical harbour installed by the British troops on D-Day to faciliate the landings. We had an ice cream and looked out over the channel.

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We started toward Juno Beach, the main Canadian forces landing point, but the day was getting late so we headed back to Bayeux, which was very close by. That was a day of seeing some of our most important history spots, for sure. We left Normandy the next day for Paris, but we left wanting more, there is a lot more to see and learn about in this part of the world, and it feels like it’s all our history.

Mont St Michel

mont st michel, france

A couple of years ago at the beginning of 2021 I started another Virtual Tour sketchbook, this time around France, a much bigger prospect than my tour of Britain. I only got as far as Le Mans before I stalled, probably because I have now been to France in real life twice since I started it. Still, I’ll get back to it. I didn’t even get around to posting half the drawings on here yet. One of the ones I drew was Mont St. Michel, a place I’d never been to but always wanted to see, and now I have. We drove from Bayeux down to the very edge of Normandy, to the place where it meets Brittany, one of the most beautiful spots in France. Mont St. Michel is a rocky outcrop in the sands of the English Channel (the French don’t call it the English Channel, they just call it La Manche), and a shiver runs down the spine when you first see it out there in the sea, rising like a fantasy island. The tides rise and recede around it, and the long beaches are known for quicksand, but much of the area is made up of salt marsh meadows upon which sheep graze (and get very salty wool). We parked by the visitor’s center, and then there is a shuttle bus ride out there for about a kilometre or so, dropping us off on the long elevated causeway that leads to the Mont. Great place for the photos, and also where I sketched the above (though I actually stood slightly underneath the bridge on the sands, to stay in the shade). It was a pretty hot day, and there is a lot of climbing once you get into the Mont itself. We walked about the narrow winding streets with all the usual kitschy touristy souvenir shops, and made our way up to the Abbey, which was quite a hike. It’s pretty labyrinthine inside, but the views once you get to the windy top are amazing, out over the bay. We couldn’t see England, but I thought I could see the Channel Islands, though my eyesight is so bad it was probably a smudge on my glasses. I did attempt a sketch looking up to the abbey’s spire, with the golden Archangel Gabriel looking back towards France, but it was a difficult angle so that’s as much as I could do. There were many seagulls. Mont St. Michel appeared in the Bayeux Tapestry actually, in a scene where a bunch of people got stuck on the sands. There is an equivalent place in England, in Cornwall actually, called St. Michael’s Mount, which is smaller but still pretty impressive. This place reminded me of Minas Tirith from the Lord of the Rings, partly because I have no imagination, partly because the film-makers were inspired by the Mont when designing it. Picturesque place though, well worth the trip.

mont st michel (top)

We had a nice day out at the Mont, and the drive through the Norman countryside was a big bonus. My phone’s navigator was having fun trying to say all the French names. “Street L-O-Circumflex” was an interesting one it kept repeating for St-Lô. We passed through little villages and down hedgerowed lanes, and near one farm we stopped as there was a little cat in the road that was not in any hurry to move along, so my son got out and gently led it it the side, where it sprawled out expecting a belly rub. We looked out for the cat on the way home, and sure enough there it was again, so this time we parked up and my son got out to say hello again. A little moment we’ll always remember from this trip.

Bonjour Bayeux

Bayeux Cathedral, France
We spent a few nights staying in the little city of Bayeux, a good base to explore Normandy. There are a lot of places in Normandy we didn’t get to that we’d like to have seen – Rouen, Honfleur, Giverny, I mean it’s a big place – but for what we were going to see Bayeux was perfect, especially being so very close to the D-Day Beaches. For me though Bayeux was the place for the thing I’ve wanted to see forever, the Bayeux Tapestry. It did not disappoint! It has its own museum, and while we went when it was early and not yet too crowded, the line has to keep moving along it. It’s long – about 70 metres – and while I’ve learned about it for many years there’s nothing like the experience of seeing it all in one go, and constantly moving along, with the commentary in the headphones explaining it, made it feel like watching a long comic strip, a cartoon about the Norman Invasion of England. And it was funny, too. There were a lot of willies. The inventiveness and use of colours is incredible, and the sense of movement you get in the horses and the battle scenes is something a few modern movie directors could learn from. The Bayeux Tapestry was made sometime in the 1070s with the Conquest still fresh, is of course, neither a tapestry (it’s an embroidery) nor from Bayeux (Made In England, by Nuns in Barking and Canterbury, likely under the instruction of Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent) but so what, as Macca would say, it’s the bloody Bayeux Tapestry, it sold, shut up. It wasn’t about Peace and Love though. A brilliant piece of Norman propaganda, perhaps, but as I said to my wife, for me this is like going to see the US Declaration if Independence or something (but in reverse, I guess), 1066 being such a crucial moment in British history and in the history of the English language. If it wasn’t for William the Bastard getting all Conqueror on our medieval asses, we’d probably be speaking a language much closer to Dutch and German than the way it looks today. Either way, the gist of the story is that the Normans totally stitched up the Anglo-Saxons.

The Bayeux Tapestry used to be kept in the cathedral but isn’t any more. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux (above) is pretty massive and as in many French towns you can orient yourself by looking up and seeing where the spire is, and it’s visible for miles around. While we didn’t get a chance to go inside, I did sketch it on one of my morning walks, though it started to rain so I finished it off inside. It was consecrated in 1077 with William the Conqueror there, so it fits into the timeline of the Tapestry. It was supposed to be here that William got his promise from Harold that he would support him to be King after Edward the Confessor died, starting that whole thing. The little courtyard in front of the cathedral’s main entrance is very pretty, I stood at the rear a little way down the hill where the view was pretty magnificent. Even when looking at this, I keep thinking, I must go and get a pain aux amandes for breakfast.
Bayeux rue st Martin and rue Franche

The narrow street we stayed on, Rue Saint-Patrice, was full of little shops (many closed on both Sunday and Monday, when we were there) and many very old looking buildings. I don’t recall what this building was called, on the corner of Rue Franche, but I drew it on my evening walk after we had eaten dinner and had a busy day touristing somewhere else. There are flags lining the streets in Bayeux. I love a timber-frame building, it’s like a puzzle when drawing to make sure you get all the bits in the right place, but a little personality goes a long way and you don’t want too many straight lines. The weather was nice, the sky had dappled clouds and of course the sun set so much later, so after this I went further into town and drew another scene, below. This pretty postcard view is across the little river Aure, that trickles through Bayeux with the Cathedral in the background. Every evening we would take a walk down this way, and around the corner we ate some nice Norman food at a restaurant, though on one evening I walked up to a little store about a mile up the road (the supermarket in the centre-ville being already closed) to buy some dinner supplies, and was brought back to living in France years ago, standing in line in a small shop for about 20 minutes and then carrying heavy bags up and down streets and up a narrow staircase, it was like going back 20 years. I really liked Bayeux, and my family loved it, we had no ‘Bayeux remorse’. Bit quiet, but a good base to explore.

Bayeux river view

And of course, I drew a hydrant! More Normandy sketches to come…

Bayeux hydrant

Norman Style

Normandy map

In July 2022, we finally visited Normandy! My wife had actually been talking about visiting Normandy since we first met twenty years ago, to see Mont St Michel and the D-Day Beaches among other places, but France became so much further away after we moved to America. I’ve wanted to go to Normandy for many years, mostly to see the Bayeux Tapestry, but also those other places. I’ve always liked the idea of the Normandy cuisine as well, hearty and full of apples. We loved it there, a land of green rolling hills and white cliffs, not unlike the south of England but everything was in French, and the towns were more charming. We stayed in Bayeux itself, taking the train out there from Paris, and we rented a car and explored for a few days. Normandy is big, and we could have spent a lot longer there, trying all the cheeses, and we got our fair taste of history. I also did a good bit of sketching, especially around Bayeux. I would wake up early and leave our little apartment in the centre of Bayeux to wander about with my sketchbook before my family woke up, bringing back the pains au chocolat and other pastries for breakfast when I’d return.

SNCF train to Bayeux

Our SNCF train ride to Normandy was pretty pleasant. We had taken the Eurostar down from London, easy enough from St.Pancras. We had to take the Metro to connect to a different station for the train to Normandy, and there was a bit of a wait, so we went out and had a nice lunch outside, got a bit of the busy Parisian urban ambience before our quieter time in Normandy. I did have a run-in with a weirdo in Paris Nord station while my son and I were waiting for my wife who was in the bathroom, just one of those odd people who come up and start acting weird that you get in stations. Initially ignoring him, I asked him in French to please leave us be. I don’t think he was French because he said something in Dutch, maybe he thought we were Dutch. Then he started growling aggressive swear words in English at me and getting in a bit close, so I stepped forward and in my best Burnt Oak told him to F off out of it, and F off out of it he did. “Welcome to Paris,” I said to my son. “Not my first time here.” We didn’t meet any other train station characters, though we kept awake for them, and there were a lot of police around prowling for pickpockets and occasionally grabbing people in the act. I remember my first trip to Paris as a kid with my school, and we first saw a Paris policeman outside a Metro station, carrying a gun. We kids from London had of course never seen such a thing before, except on the A-Team (where of course nobody actually got shot). I remember a few years in the 90s later seeing some French armed soldiers with machine guns on the Metro, just patrolling in case of terror threats, and being a bit gobsmacked having never seen a machine gun in my life, let alone one being carried by soldiers on the underground, except at the start of the A-Team, when the only thing that gets shot is the title card. Of course now I live in America. anyway, I knew that Paris stations might have their train station troublemakers, but were pretty well defended. That first school day trip to Paris though back in 1989 or 1990 was pretty brief, but the other thing I remember that stood out to me the most was the very particular smell of the Metro itself. Not a bad smell, more a particular flavour of industrial that you don’t get on the London Underground, and was specifically Paris. Every time I’ve been back and been on the Metro that smell has always brought me back. It’s funny, I don’t remember smelling it as much on this trip. Many of the trains are so modern now, and the stations pretty well kept, and the occasional whiff of it here and there was maybe all in my head.

Speaking of the A-Team, did you know that in the French dub of the show, they added words to the theme tune? No word of a lie, they gave the A-Team tune lyrics. They call it “L’Agence Tous Risques” and you can see it here. Magnifique.

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So after our late lunch we caught our train from Gare St Lazare, a beautiful historic station that I may draw one day if I’m back, and was basically a luxury shopping mall inside. The train zipped through the city centre, the suburbs, and the green French countryside with occasional glimpses of the Seine as it accompanied us on our way. Our neighbour across the table on the train was carrying a very very small rabbit in a plastic case, which was sat on the table and we just adored. I sketched the scene on the train, while my wife and son watched France whizz by, and my son listened out at all the French language, absorbing it all since he is learning it at school, before we reached the small station in Bayeux. I’ll add my sketches from Normandy over the next few posts. Bon Voyage!