We arrived in Le Touquet amid scenes of devastation. Huge mature trees toppled and uprooted, telephone lines and power cables lying torn and tangled in the mud and along the pavements, the driveways and lawns of gardens transformed to lakes, flood alerts blaring unbidden from our mobile phones in alarming fashion… Had we come a few days earlier, the place must have resembled a war zone. But the main roads were open now, great sawn trunks alongside gigantic piles of brash and branches at roadsides demonstrating a successful municipal effort to get the community on the move again after the recent devastating storm. EBTS France president Patrick Salembier and his team had messaged that we should ignore the flood warnings – roads were passable and EBTS France’s long-heralded 20th anniversary celebrations would proceed as planned.
Four of us attended from EBTS UK. Our noble driver, Cookie Dakin, transported Annette Balfour Lynn, Brigid Wakehurst and me to Le Touquet through the Channel Tunnel from Kent on the morning of Friday 10th November 2023. Conditions though no longer stormy were unfriendly – heavy rain followed by a tense, chilly drizzle, and gloomy skies. But we were cheered by a fine evening meal in town at Perard, premier traditional seafood restaurant (with its fabulous fishmonger’s shop and oyster bar next door), where we were joined by EBTS Belgium chairman Karel Goossens and some of his compatriots, before we all retired for a night’s rest ahead of the action of the coming days.
Miraculously, on Saturday the clouds parted to reveal blue sky and sunshine for the day’s first event, a bracing morning walk along the sea shore, among the protected dunes and through the pine forest of the Parc Nature de la Baie de Canches, with guide Isabelle Poidevin.
At lunch at the Orangerie nearby we were formally welcomed by Patrick Salembier, President of EBTS France and joined by the Mayor of le Touquet, Daniel Fasquelle, who made a speech crediting Patrick for the fact that there are so many Jardins Remarkables (an official designation) in and around the town.
Then onwards into the town centre, for a wander through the landscaped woodland park with its Buxus collection originating from Herman Geers of Boskoop, and its handsome yew topiaries in Versailles planters arrayed along the smart shopping esplanade. We also had pointed out to us the holiday home of French president Emmanuel Macron, guarded by armed police personnel. Embedded in the town is the magnificent Hotel Westminster, its title (along with many royal street names) a clue to the famed once-passionate love affair between the English and the resort of Le Touquet-Paris-Plage. We also admired the fantastical architecture of the town hall, designed by Pierre Drobecq and Louis Debrouwer and opened in 1931, but could not enter because of building works.
In the Suzanne Lenglen room of the massive sports centre (the English crowds may have retreated, but Le Touquet remains a hugely popular resort for the French and others), Patrick Salembier gave an illustrated talk on the history of the town, and then showed a fascinating 1968 film made by Alan Whicker about the monumental but doomed Hotel Picardie. Entitled ‘The Most Beautiful Hotel in the World’, the film is richly informative, highly entertaining and well worth watching . It includes astonishing footage of the hotel both in its prime and at its demise. Near its site now stands a remarkable modern building which we had seen on our walk through the town – ironically, a distinguished college for hotel management training – designed by Pierre-André Dufetel in the form of a pine cone, referencing a dominant plant form locally.
Next, our esteemed EBTS Europe president Comtesse Véronique Goblet d’Alviella gave a talk about the history of the European Boxwood and Topiary Society. She emphasised its origins in the UK where for 20 years she lived in Windsor and where, following her introduction to Mark and Elizabeth Braimbridge, she with them founded the society. The Suzanne Lenglen event closed with Patricia Déchin introducing key people in EBTS France, including Hubert de Cerval who besides being vice-president and general secretary of EBTS France is the French advertising executive for TOPIARIUS, counterpart to the UK’s Mark Hopkins and his now successor, Stephen Fenny. Without the stalwart and indeed essential work that they contribute, generating revenue for the magazine, TOPIARIUS could not continue.
A smart gala dinner later took place in the charming tennis clubhouse with its astonishing chandelier. French élan and elegance was in evidence all around, and after-dinner entertainment provided by a community rendition of the Beatles number ‘All you need is love’, its lyrics loudly replaced with ‘All you need is BOX’! This was followed by dancing to a disco, our French colleagues’ endearing enthusiasm for grooving demonstrated by the dance floor being instantly filled to overflowing with bopping EBTS members from the moment the music began.
Sunday consisted of a comprehensive tour of private gardens of Le Touquet arranged by Bruno Lamandin and ending at his own magnificent home where we were warmly and generously welcomed with champagne and tours of the house by Bruno and his wife Giliane. Beyond his sadly flooded garden, Bruno pointed out the house where PG Wodehouse and his wife settled and he wrote Jeeves and Wooster stories before being detained and interned by the advancing Nazi powers in 1940. Like many houses on our itinerary today, the PG Wodehouse villa was designed by the prolific local architect Louis Quételart (1888-1950). One of these we visited, newly replanted with fruit trees but currently without electricity and with nearly three foot of water in the basement due to the recent storm, was La Prairie in Golf Avenue. This was inhabited during the German occupation by Marshal Rommel and his staff. Evidence of the storm and reference to 20th century French history was seen everywhere on our tours of both the town centre and the suburbs of Le Touquet over the weekend.
My thanks and those of my companions in the EBTS UK delegation are due not only to Patrick Salembier and his staff for their organisation, and to M e Mme Lamandin, but to all our French and Belgian colleagues who were utterly charming and welcoming to us, embracing us with their warm enthusiasm and fellowship, which we noticed and very much appreciated. More than 80 people attended the weekend from the UK, Belgium and across France. EBTS France is the largest of our country groupings within EBTS Europe and in its current form is the creation of Patrick Salembier, who revived the French group early this century after a period of a few years in the late 1990s when it was organised by Laurent Michel. Current EBTS France is the product of Patrick’s dynamism, his charismatic leadership and his networking skills par excellence, for which enormous credit is due.