France 1999

So what happened to the Rector and his wife after they disappeared from St Mary's on 19th September?

Well, the next nine days were spent clearing up. Eighteen years of ministry gives plenty of opportunity for collecting paperwork, so the black sacks were filled rapidly. The shelves of books were sorted so that we could actually find things; two dead filing cabinets consigned to the garage; and all that music sorted into files. Very therapeutic.

On 28th September, we made our way to the West Country - scene of quite a few of our favourite post-Christmas breaks. We spent the night at a delightful hotel, the Belfry House, in Yarcombe, before leaving the next morning to catch the ferry from Plymouth to Santander.

The boat is a convenient, enjoyable way to travel - if the weather is calm. It wasn't. We spent the next twenty-five hours feeling very rough indeed (and one can hardly choose to get off halfway) - lying down in a darkened cabin and eating as little as possible!

However, we were finally relieved to see the coast of Spain, on a glorious September lunchtime. Somewhat nervously, we disembarked, muttering our mantra "Drive on the right - drive on the right"... We filled the car with petrol (which cost about £14, as opposed to the £25 or so it would cost in the UK) and set off along the coast road towards the border with France. We were on our way to Montesquieu, south of Perpignan and just north of the Spanish border, where we had borrowed the house belonging to Chris & Jill Holmes for the next couple of weeks.

We had decided to be adventurous, and not to book ahead for our first night's hotel... so out came Chris' copy of the Michelin Guide. We needed a hotel a little inland from Biarritz, so made our way to the village of Ustaritz, where we found a lovely old country house hotel called La Patoula. We'd have loved to be there in summer - there was a large lake beyond the hotel, and one could breakfast outside, or barbeque in the evenings. We stayed indoors for our wonderful meal, and had our first experience of the quality of local wine - an astonishingly dry white from just a few villages away.

The following day, we decided that we would try to make it all the way to the house in Montesquieu in one hit - as it turned out, 320 miles. Driving across the south of France, we passed through many beautiful but mountainous areas, which made progress slow - the roads wandered so much that we covered only small distances "as the crow flies". However, it was worth it to see the glorious views, to drive along narrow roads with cliffs overhanging - the tendency was to duck as you drove under them - and to see the still-green landscape of midsummer.

We arrived in Montesquieu after dark. The house is tucked down a tiny cul-de-sac, where it's impossible to park if all the spaces are taken at the top; parking in the garden at the rear of the house is easy, but you then have to find your way back into the house... We finally succeeded in climbing up through the steep and rocky back garden to the road at the top (not, as we found later, the approved method) with the help of the next door neighbour and his mystified dog!

The house is beautiful. From the outside, it looks much smaller than it really is; it's on four levels, and is very long from front to back, so the effect is much like a Tardis - you walk inside and find loads of space. The terrace (and several windows at that side of the house, including our bedroom) commands a thirty-mile view towards Perpignan, on a clear day - and we were lucky enough to get many of those. On our first day there, after such a long drive, we were happy to explore the house and the village, and sit with books and a lager in the sun on the terrace. Heavenly.

Our explorations in the first few days didn't take us very far afield. The nearby towns of St André, St Genis, Elne and Sorede provided the supermarkets, the lunchtime drinks and the churches to explore (and attend). A little further across to the coast, and we spent a great lunchtime - glorious sunshine and Sangria - at Port-Vendre, by the harbour. A crêperie, open every day, was found at the end of another winding road - a dead end, as the mountains and Spain got in the way - in Lavall. Tables and chairs in the rock garden, shaded by trees, hosted a Sunday gathering of locals - one party of which appeared to be having a particularly raucous birthday, and none of them a day under seventy. Lunches in France are meant to last at least three hours, and be followed by a siesta. Do you think we could get away with that in England?

Feeling more rested after a few days, we started to explore further afield. One drive that was recommended took us northwards through the mountains again, calling in at the Trinity Chapel on our way to the Prieuré Serrabonne. The Trinity Chapel, out in the middle of nowhere, is left open with candles burning - from tiny votives to two-foot-tall tapers - all round the walls. The atmosphere is wonderful, tranquil and spiritual, very welcoming.

Before ascending another long, winding, steep road to Serrabonne, we stopped at a shop-cum-café at the junction with the main road. This little paradise contained a huge selection of local pâté, ceramics, bread, cakes, soaps - and of course, loads of wine. We had a coffee, and decided to return for our lunch after seeing the Prieuré.

The Prieuré is no longer used as a church, but is a stunning building, large and clean, full of the beautiful rose-coloured marble that one sees in so many places in this part of France. The tops of the columns are engraved with various weird and wonderful figures, both mythical and Christian. The acoustic inside the main building is stunning - it would be lovely to give a concert in there! The smallest sound reverberates throughout with no effort at all.

The day was perfect for seeing this sort of site - clear, blue and still. Wandering around the outside, we saw lizards and butterflies, and stood back to appreciate the huge building. We then returned to the little shop for our lunch, and were rewarded with cold rosé wine and sandwiches of the most delicious pâté we'd ever tasted. Sitting under the trees in the picnic area opposite the shop was comfortable and memorable.

Another favourite memory is of our visit a few days later to Villefranche, an old walled city, from where we caught "le petit train jaune" - the little yellow train, which weaves its way through the mountains, in and out of tunnels in the hillsides, and with some stunning views. There are also photographs, which we saw in a magazine back at the house, taken of the train as it crosses various spectacular bridges.

Some of the best street markets we've found have been in France, and this area was no exception. Our visits to Céret on two successive Saturday mornings were great, with stalls selling dozens of different kinds of olives, bread of all shapes and sizes, the most seductive cheeses, lavender, wine, plants that we loved but which would never live at home (such as bougainvillea and citrus fruit trees); crêpes for lunch, and a brilliant gang of buskers, with the most battered instruments you've ever seen!

A trip to Carcassonne, a lovely walled city that Cassie had visited many years ago with her parents and has fond memories of, was very interesting but a bit marred by the only day of really heavy rain that we had in the whole trip! The photograph of Selwyn looking pathetic in a dripping anorak is one to add to a similar gallery - taken in Wales, in Ireland, in Paris, and in several different corners of England...

A trip made later in the holiday to see Rennes-le-Château was also extremely memorable - for a number of reasons. Firstly, the route took us through more of those glorious mountains - and we realised that "fall had fallen" in a matter of days. The landscape was summer when we'd crossed from Spain two weeks before; now the colour of the scenery had changed completely, and the sides of those mountains were covered in New England-style autumn hues.

Rennes is famous - or at least, notorious - for the situation that arose there around a century ago. The incumbent, Berenger Saunière, mysteriously started to spend a huge amount of money on the church, the presbytery and various other buildings on the land. His housekeeper, Marie, appeared to have been the only other person to ever know the true source of his sudden wealth, and she took it to her grave in the 1950s. The church is (or was) a tiny, simple village church, which is today simply suffocated under the weight of paint and plaster. The Tour Magdala, the presbytery, the conservatory and the whole garden are now kept open to the public, commanding breathtaking views across the countryside, but in a sad state of disrepair.

The money was reputed to have come from a trove of treasure that Fr Saunière had found beneath the church. All sorts of speculations and mysteries have sprung up around the story, ranging from speculation that the body of Christ is actually buried in a nearby hillside and the Vatican paid Saunière to keep quiet about it, to documentary evidence of the marriage of Jesus Christ to Mary Magdalene... Whatever the truth was about Fr Saunière, Rennes is a sad and disquieting place. If ever we'd been to a place for unquiet spirits, this was it. We were glad to have experienced it, but frankly equally glad to leave.

Finally, after seventeen days of the most restful holiday we've ever had, it was time to make our way back across the border. Our hotel this time was in a village rejoicing in the name of Itxassou - this is in the Basque country, but it would be easy to wake up and think you were in Austria from the style of the buildings, all with identical red- and green-painted shutters, and the startling church - with balconies on three sides with balustrades of dark wood, and an amazingly ornate altar. Unlike Rennes-le-Château, however, this church was large enough to cope with such ornate decoration.

We approached Santander with some apprehension, but were very relieved to see that the sea appeared much calmer. The return crossing was much better, just a little choppy towards the end, and it was great to be in a fit state to eat our dinner at the Belfry Hotel again when we arrived on the evening of 19th October.

So what comes next? Well, after a few days' "re-grounding"ourselves, we returned to the West Country - this time to deposit Selwyn at the retreat house that was to become his home for the next seven weeks. Settled in his beautiful little flat, laptop at the ready, he was left to think and research and write; while Cassie returned to the Rectory, and to a new job at Epsom Council, starting the following day! But that's another story...