In 2001, inspired by Nancy’s story of her escape from France in June 1940, Bob and Barbara Applin from the Basingstoke Archaeological and Historical Society retraced the route which Gerald, Blanche and Nancy took. They have kindly provided us with their record of that trip, which you can read below.
We started from Nogent about 1.45 pm, intending to follow the secondary roads to Le Theil, but the signs to Le Theil directed us to the main road and the complex of hew housing estates and new roads meant we weren’t able to pick up the one we wanted. So we took the D 955 (Berd’Huis), then the D 11 to St Hilaire sur Erre, then the D 286 as we intended, to Le Theil.
Now on a country road, we could begin to imagine the feelings of the Powell family. In one car containing all they could pack in, with a mattress on top to protect them from machine guns. Trusting to Mr Powell’s knowledge of minor roads to avoid the main ones with road blocks and heavy traffic. How well did Nancy herself know these roads? She’d travelled about with her father. Did they have a map?
We thought the countryside would have been less open then, smaller fields with hedges (bocage) but later I was told there were many large fields at that time. In any case the minor roads often travelled on a ridge with long views, and they must often have felt exposed – or in wooded areas did they feel trapped?
It was a sad irony that this very day so many Afghans, with all their possessions, were fleeing Khabul, fearful of American reprisals for the terrible attack of 11th September.
We need to check if Bonne Vallée was really a mis-typing for Bonnétable, which is right on the route.
We thought they would have skirted La Ferté Bernard, so went through Avezé and Sauvigny, then on the D 6 to Ballon and the D 388 to Conlie.
When we first worked out the route on the map we thought at first that Suzanne was a mistake as we couldn’t find it on the direct road to Evron, but in fact St Suzanne is south of Evron, so that led us to this southerly route.
We reached Evron about 6 pm (80 miles).
We decided to go back to the gîte for the night (1 ½ hours to Mamers by main roads, stopped at Mamers for a meal). It seemed fitting that we too should turn back at this point, as Nancy and her family spent the night at Evron then tried to go on to Mayenne but they were turned back and had to spend a second night with their friends.
This did mean, though, that we were later starting again from Evron the next day (11 am), from the Ring Road, making for Chateau Gontier. We wondered how well they knew the route between Evron and, say, Bain de Bretagne. Their car, being heavily laden, would probably have been quite a bit slower than ours up hills and round corners; was there a lot of traffic? I wondered if Mr Powell drove all the way (we think Nancy couldn’t drive. In fact, their friends thought Mr Powell couldn’t drive either, but we have found no evidence of anyone else being with them so perhaps he normally had a chauffeur and only drove in exceptional circumstances like these. If so, the strain must have been even worse).
I noticed a sign to a house called L’Espérance and wondered if that was there then, if they noticed it and felt it a good omen. I wanted to take photos of old farms and cottage by the road, or views of the road through woods etc but the right views were all in places where traffic or road bends didn’t allow us to stop. We noticed the differences in agriculture as we moved on – many open range hens here, and a lot of maize and sunflowers all the way, even in Brittany – doubt if this would have been the case then. Towns are now much bigger, with new housing and industrial estates around, new roads, roundabouts, ring roads etc. More new country little houses too.
We avoided centre of Chateaubriant, as we had La Ferté Bernard, thinking they probably didn’t always go into the centre of each big town, though there wouldn’t have been bypasses or ring roads, but it was probably possible to cut through country lanes around the towns, especially when they got into Brittany, where Mr Powell probably knew his way more.
Then we came across a road closure and had to take a deviation for Bain de Bretagne.
We tried to identify where the smallholding at Guer might have been, where they broke down and spent the night, but Guer is more than 20 km from Maure so Nancy probably over-estimated the distance. Nor could we find any sign on the road from Josselin to Pontivy of any likely place for their lunch stop. I had imagined a track in woodland, but nothing seemed suitable.
The modern roads were now bigger and faster, sometimes you could see the old road alongside ours. But we still had a feeling of the length and slowness of the route – and the gradual change in landscape, the rising hope when at last they were really headed north west, the sudden change to a rocky landscape a sign they were almost there.
We had to deviate to Guémené for petrol.
Reached Landivisiau about 7.45. I had hoped it might be possible to find that Hotel Guillou still existed there, but it was getting dark, no signs for it and there wasn’t even a room at the one hotel we found; they rang round to Lampaul-Guimilliau and Morlaix and advised us to go to Roscoff or Brest! In fact we went back to Huelgoat and found a hotel there.
220 miles from Evron, so 300 in all!