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Lost in France

Published 20 July 1997
Style Magazine
211th article



Home from home: Roger Vickery and Michael Winner at the Chateau de Tertre (Vanessa Perry)

Clecy appeared on no maps. Not even a very bog one of Normandy. I set out to find it, nevertheless. It had been recommended most highly by Gerard Feuillie, the excellent chief concierge at the Normandy Hotel. It was, he assured me, a village of particular charm set in the Suisse Normande, an area that resembled Switzerland. Odd that, because Normandy, like Norfolk, is very flat.

I did have a photocopy of a map, given to me by M Feuillie. On it he had written in his own hand, somewhere in the ocean, the word "Clecy". On the map itself he had pencilled a largish blob south of Falaise and north of Pont Ecrepin. I pride myself on being one of the great place-finders of all time, so my limited paperwork didn't worry me. It was a day when many weathers appear in quick succession: rain, cloud, bright sun - and then they all rotate again. The Normandy countryside is fine, the architecture olde-worlde and nice, but the trip needed the boost of discovering Switzerland off the beaten track.

Things were not made easier when my rented Renault Safrane kept talking to me. As it only spoke French, I wasn't sure what it was saying, but lights flashed and a female voice of grave urgency reduced me to terror. It was particularly annoying that, when the fuel tank nudged into the final quarter of emptiness, the voice went hysterical.

"Get petrol at once!" she instructed, and little petrol pumps flashed all over the place.

But we should have miles and miles to go, I thought, if the petrol gauge is accurate. Who do I believe: it, or this madwoman trapped somewhere under the bonnet?

It was 12.50pm, we were on the road and at the spot where there should have been a sign on the left to Clecy. There was none. No looming Swiss mountains - if anything, it was flatter than ever. It is rare for me to get depressed, but a teeny-weeny bit of it was trying to get in. Vanessa then spotted a bedraggled wooden sign that read Chateau du Tertre, with an arrow and the word Ouvert".

I turned off right, and soon we were in a very pretty stone village. We followed the signs to the chateau and suddenly, there, like the gold at the end of the rainbow, was this marvellous, un-mucked-about chateau set in fields and gardens that had not been overcivilised. It didn't look ouvert. Only one car, no sign of life - except, as we drove up, a small, tubby man appeared at the top of a flight of stone steps and welcomed us in French. When I said: "Good morning," he replied in English, which well he might, as his name was Roger Vickery and he came from Somerset.

He showed us inside to a magnificent, beautifully done-out mansion. He had come to France at 14, because Taunton was twinned with nearby Lisieux, and thus had ended up with a French wife in an apartment in Paris, and this place as a dream hobby.

"Separated?" I asked in discreet fashion.

"Not yet," said Roger. "I'm just going to Paris to see her."

A few moments later, he decided to deal with me himself and delay his trip. Quite right, too.

Let me say clearly: make a note of this place. it is only one hour from Le Havre, half an hour from Caen. It is an important find. Up a well-worn marble staircase with it's original wrought-iron balustrade are nine rooms, all decorated exquisitely in 18th-century style and with stunning views. The Suisse Normande, with great hills and gorges and beautiful villages, is adjacent. this is turning-the-clock-back time. The food is absolutely spectacular, the dining room elegant and comfortable, with the most excellent hand-carved wood that looks like fine plasterwork, but isn't. Only two other customers, which suited me fine.

We had breast of chicken, with slivers of black truffle under the skin, cooked in fresh Normandy cream with white wine, leeks, onions and carrots, and served with spring vegetables. Good as you can hope for. So were my langoustines and scallops. So was the chocolate tart with honey ice cream and crystallised lavender from the garden.

Then Roger took us on the scenic tour. He must be a genius because he knew Clecy well. As we entered, I saw white plastic tables, plastic boats and lots of cars parked everywhere. A nice waterfall and an old mill house. Well, it was a Sunday, and it's a much-sought-after village. Bit like the Cotswolds - but I'm yet to find anywhere there as good as the Chateau de Tertre.



Winner's letters

Last summer, we found ourselves at the Relais du Silence near Aix-en-Provence, France. The waiting staff had elevated indifference to an art form. Hors d'oeuvres came and went, and then - nothing. Our empty plates lay before us. Teenage daughter simmered. A large party of French revellers cast sympathetic glances in our direction. Finally, my peace-loving, non-complaining, non French-speaking husband had had enough. He gathered our plates, and, in true Winner style, strode the length of the restaurant and deposited them into the hands of the maitre d'. The party of French diners rose to their feet and applauded. Thank you, Mr Winner, for a technique that can be employed in any language.
Vicki Bradley, West Sussex

I am writing to you from the 19.15 to Norbury. I have just bought a Veggie Whopper from Burger King at Victoria Station in London, for which I paid £2.34. This may not seem like a vast sum to pay for such a delicacy. But the fact is that at Burger King on Oxford Street, the very same burger costs just £1.99. The Victoria version was, as far as I could see, identical in every way. While I do not wish to appear churlish, I fail to understand why it should have cost an extra 35p. The only explanation seems to be a cynical exploitation of famished commuters.
E Moran, Norbury

In his column of June 29, Michael Winner refers to the English as "too stupid to learn French". I do not feel I need to justify my anger at this offensive and racist statement. Mr Winner should apologise.
G Cartwright, London SE16