Landes is one of those French departments that tends to be overshadowed by its more famous neighbours: to the north is the department of the Gironde and the great city of Bordeaux, to the south Pyrenees-Atlantique and the elegance of Biarritz. Landes lies contentedly between them, inland there are vast green forests, on the coast, huge beaches sweeping as far as the eye can see. If you want somewhere to sit quite alone watching huge Atlantic rollers crashing onto the shore as a fiery orange sun sinks below the western horizon, then Landes is a perfect place. Walk ten minutes from any of the beach car parks and there will be solitude.
In 1989 we stayed in a tiny place called Messanges. There wasn’t much there then, and it remains a quiet and unspoilt spot. We drove there one evening last week to revisit the place.
The beach was as spectacular as ever, and, although cloudy, we got something of a sunset. There was a timelessness about the place – the sea and the sand have been there for millennia and will be there for millennia to come. There was a reassurance that human powers are trivial and insignificant; that the highest political figure was a momentary flash compared to the enduring years of the handful of sand that I picked up.
Memory does rewrite the script though. In my recall, the beach swept forever in both directions. Last week it had changed, it swept southwards until it hit the Pyrenees, which loomed up out of a misty horizon. Almost tempted to say, “I don’t remember those last time we were here”, I realized how ridiculous it would sound. Memory does that – it irons out the bumpy bits, smoothes out the creases, repaints the landscape. Even edges as jagged as the dark Pyrenean mountains can be rounded off in our recounting of the past. A reminder to me, particularly in the life of the church, that golden ages weren’t as shiny as they appear in retrospect.