There was a thriving Polish club and church (Stella-Maris), and there was the place we stayed, Maison Maternelle (on Avenue des Plages, between the top end of Boulevard Edmond Labrasse and Avenue Francois Godin), a former maternity hospital, which from the early 1950s on belonged to Polish girl guides (harcerki) - Hufiec Bałtyk.
Maison Maternelle is where we stayed. There were hotel-style rooms and barracks for the scouts, guides and cubs - (zuchy - as I was in 1969). The cuisine was Franco-Polish - garlicky salads and boiled potatoes sprinkled with dill, pureed beetroot, chicken. Milk soup and chicory coffee served in large bowls.
Stella-Plage itself was (and still is - looking at photos on Google Maps Street View) a beautiful small resort on beautiful sandy beaches that stretch on to Le Touquet to the north and Berck-Plage to the south.
My main impression of Stella-Plage (and by inference, France) was la difference. You drove on the wrong side of the road in completely different cars. Citroens (DSs and IDs - low and sleek, 2CVs - flying dustbins, the odd Traction Avant); Peugeots (203s, 204s, 403s and 404s); Renaults (4CVs, Dauphines, R4s, 16s); Simcas (1000s, Arondes, Vedettes). Ah - and the odd Panhard (PL17, 24). All of these cars were then very rare sights on British roads. The UK was not a member of the European Economic Community as the EU was known at the time. Commercial vehicles were different too. Corrugated steel-sided Citroen vans, Renaults, Saviems, and Berliets. So - what was on the road was exotic - as were the roadsigns (quite different to the British ones at the time, before they standardised on the 'continental' ones we now all have).
But it was not just the roads. Everything was different. For a start, France smelt different. Arriving by sea at Boulogne-sur-Mer, the smell of rotting fish at the harbour was overpowering. And lack of proper drains gave the countryside between Boulogne and Stella-Plage a familiar odour that I notice when our septic tank is being emptied. But not just unpleasant smells (though the association with pleasure removed any sense of disgust). Sand after a rainfall. Pine trees in the heat (there's a splendid forest behind Maison Maternelle stretching right the way to the sea). And of course the food and drink. Proper coffee (not the powdered muck the British drank). Fresh baguettes, red wine, overpoweringly ripe Camemberts, vanilla-flavoured icing sugar and liquorice sweets - and Pernod, and creme de menthe. As you walked past the holidaymakers' rooms in Maison Maternelle, you could pick up the smell of Piz Buin and various exotic eaux de parfum.
And shops were different. Peaches, apricots, yoghurts (in dozens of flavours!) and saussicons secs. Hypermarkets in rural Pas-de-Calais when London was only beginning to get supermarkets. Different typefaces, crazy, imaginative typefaces, on the boulangerie, the quinquaillerie, the brasserie, the boucherie - and the cafe tabac, the smell of the newsprint (La Voix du Nord, L'Equipe and those bandes desines for children of all ages) mingling with the distinctive tobacco smoke of Galoises, Gitanes and strong black coffee. All of this as far away from dull old West Ealing as could be imagined by a small boy. And here I could buy les miniatures de Norev. Tiny French cars in 1/87th scale (or 1/43rd with opening doors). Plastic rather than the metal Corgis and Dinkys I played with at home, but exotic and collectable. Most of those cars listed above I had in 1/87th scale as little models in little plastic boxes.
And visual difference. Just 22 miles across the English Channel, 20 miles south of Boulogne, the climate was so different to that Miserable Grey Little Island across the water. The sky was dazzlingly blue. Children would get nosebleeds from the heat. And the architecture. Not England's oppressive Victoriana with its fusty gas-lit strictures, but airy moderne houses built so that their owners can enjoy the sensation of sun and sea on their skin.
My childhood seaside experiences had been limited to places like Eastbourne, Bognor Regis or the Isle of Wight. Pebbly beaches, close, wracked, pooled; Stella-Plage's beach was endless clean white sands dotted with sand yachts and WWII German bunkers. For 10 year old boys, this was heaven. And the pommes-frites stand by the beach.
Above: Polish cub scouts, or Zuchy, in Stella Plage, 1969. So many familiar faces! There's my brother in there; and there's blog commentator AdtheLad, plus ace photo artist Rysiek Szydło - and do I see the managing partner of PwC's Warsaw audit practice here as well? And my parents' dentist, ah - and there's Stan!
The hinterland behind Stella-Plage, Cucq, Trepied, Rang-du-Fliers, I'd later explore on future trips as a teenager and young adult. I've not been back here for 30 years, and would love to return.
Above: Petrol station, between Stella-Plage and Merlimont Plage. Today, a private house (below) photo courtesy of Google Maps Street View.
Childhood summer holidays would be over all too soon, and we'd return by British Rail Ferries to Dover; as the ferry berthed in the dock, I'd see a red phone box and a helmeted (and unarmed) British bobby and feel a mix of reassurance at returning to the certainties of British Democracy but a twinge of regret of leaving somewhere so exotic and exciting as France was then.
Today, signage right across Europe is one variant of Helvetica or another; cars are all the same everywhere, the same shops (pretty much) appear in the same malls. One homogenous sameness - the price one pays for economic progress. You can drive from northern France, through Belgium and Holland into Germany and not see a tad's difference. What a shame.
And yet... and yet. Having writing this post on a hot July night, it all comes back to me with a freshness, a lingering ambience, spirit of place. By way of afterword, the morning after writing, I step out onto our sunny balcony overlooking Jeziorki and am still there in my mind enjoying summer in the Pas-de-Calais.
Maybe it was watching the sun set over the English Channel as a nine year old boy that the conscious search for the Sublime Aesthetic began...