Before the freeze
18th January 2012
Many, many moons ago Sandra and Peter had told me about a village on the banks of the Somme called Long. Apparently it was very pretty and bordered by a number of small ponds and lakes. It sounded a bit like the area around Vaux and Frise on the battlefields so: given a very sunny afternoon and fortified by the buffet following on from our Maire’s new year State of the Village address I set out down the road.
Like so many wee places this is a village that I have passed close to on a number of occasions. It lies just below the main coastal road that I use to go down to Amiens. This this time instead of turning left I cut across the main road and continued the few kilometres into Long.
As you come down the slope of the hill into the valley of the Somme it is instantly obvious why Sandra and Peter had found it so pretty. The ponds and marsh stretch away into the distance and the village is built on quite a steep hillside at the bottom of which is a magnificent château from the time of Louis XV.
I drove down into the village and across the bridge turning left at a sign telling me that there was a Hydro-Electric Plant to be seen. I was intrigued because the river is not very wide and I rather imagine these things as enormous structures with foaming torrents of water, great turbines going critical and James Bond arriving in the nick of time to stop the bad guys pushing the large red button (If it’s not a large red button it’ll be a huge lever with Never Do This in block letters on a panel next to it).
What I was not expecting was a small elderly building in red brick perched on a weir.
The first thing to understand about the village of Long is that it became immensely rich because of the vast local deposits of high quality peat which the locals sold in the markets. The sale of peat created enough wealth to pay for all the major buildings in the village including a town hall that is completely out of proportion to the size of village.
Back to the Hydro-electric station. At the end of the 19th Century the local council pondered the idea of whether or not it would be possible to bring running water and electricity to the villagers. A study was carried out and in 1901 the construction of a hydro-electric station was given the go-ahead. It was paid for by the sale of peat and built by local craftsmen. Inaugurated in June 1903 the change in life to the villagers must have been incredible. It takes a power-cut for us to fully appreciate how much our lives now depend on power coming down a cable.
The metre and a bit drop for the water was enough to generate 300 HP in the two turbines and convert that to a stable 60 kW of 110 volts. Of course in those days about the only thing that ran on electric was the lighting so there was no requirement to keep the turbines running during daylight hours.
Although modified over the next fifty years it became evident that the generator could not compete with the national grid in terms of power and reliability (when the river flooded for example there was no longer a drop in the level of water to drive the turbines). And so, having been one of the very first villages to have electricity the village became one of the very last to attach itself to the grid in 1968. I read however that that it was all so well constructed and maintained that you can visit the station – and – it still works.
Having duly read the information panel I walked across the weir and then along the banks of the Somme back towards the village. On the far side the wide lawns of the château stretched away with a gaggle of geese patrolling the grounds. Near the bridge and just below the main building is a huge green house that would give Peter ideas far beyond his means.
The château (built between 1733-1743) is privately owned but can be visited at certain times of the year. Far from being run-down the ensemble of buildings look as though they have been rigorously maintained.
It was quite a steep wee climb up to the church whose emplacement was more interesting than the structure itself (Like most village churches it was locked). The war memorial was personalised to the village by a plaque showing the enthusiastic crowds of 1914 sending their men off to fight the Boche. The easily identifiable Hôtel de Ville behind the citizens makes it evident that the scenario takes place in the village and I rather wonder if the faces are real. Alongside were the names of those who never came back from the great adventure.
The wealth created by the sales of the turf allowed the village in 1869 to invest in a Hôtel de ville as opposed to a village Mairie. In the garden at the back overlooking the river is a most curious tree. It looks as though it only flowers when the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor makes his return.
It was all very pretty in the sunshine but by 1700 hours it was also getting cold (Little did we know what was to come in February) so I recrossed the river and walked back to the car.
The final point of interest that I noted on my dander was a small monument made from the propeller blade of a Lancaster Bomber from 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF. On the night of the 19th/20th May 1944 a large scale bombing raid was mounted against Amiens railway station but the weather was so bad that the attack was aborted. Lancaster ND689 KM-O however never made it home crashing into one of the lakes. Five of the crew were killed and the other three captured.
In 1995 the Air Association of Le Bourget began searching the lake and over the next few years dragged up three engines, various other bits and pieces and five bombs ! Rather unusually three of the crew including its Canadian pilot, Flying Officer Robert Barber are buried at Abbeville whilst one of the others (WO2 Donald Scott — another Canadian) is buried in Amiens. The only Rhodesian in the this crew, Pilot Officer Stuart Ingram is commemorated on the Runnymede memorial.
Wherever I go, I can find dead people !
Posted : 9 February 2012