The first thing you notice as you approach the Normandy coast from the direction of Albion are the magnificent towering cliffs that march east and west horizons. Strutting atop these cliffs are massive wind turbines, capped by twinkling strobes that are every bit as recognisable after dark as the reassuring light on the end of Fécamp pier. The port itself wriggles along a valley fold, deep carved from limestone over millennia by a river that must have been home to the regions first fishermen thousands of years ago.
Fécamp is a perfectly placed deep water port with a locked inner harbour that provides secure all-weather protection, although in a north westerly blow the relatively narrow entrance becomes a marine bowling alley that requires plenty of water and a firm hand on the tiller. Pilot books and local sailors agree that in a NW F5 it is for the brave hearted, in F7+ it is only for the fooolhardy or desperate.
Motoring into the outer harbour alongside the wooden piers and walkways that line the approach, Fécamp port opens up to reveal a large yet relatively undeveloped town that’s home to a fishing fleet and increasingly, leisure craft. The outer harbour is where most of the Royal Escape squadron moor to floating pontoons, linked by walkways to the quaysides far above, their elevation testament to the substantial tidal range.
Stepping ashore, sailors are quickly charmed by the cosmopolitan and cheerful atmosphere with a hubbub of cafés and restaurants lively with mainly French voices. Long ago, the port was the refuge of choice for deep-sea fishermen who set out on incredible adventures to the north Atlantic and the fabulous old fishing grounds off Newfoundland. These voyages were made in sailing vessels with the fish salted and stored in barrels for the return journey and there’s a fascinating fishing museum dedicated to these hardy Bretons on the seafront.
The old offshore fishing industry may have declined, but the coastal fishing fleet is still very much in evidence, with a small fresh fish market on the quay and a larger indoor wet fish market nearby. It comes as no surprise to find the port restaurants specialise in sea-food, though if you prefer your food to have never swum beneath the waves you won’t be disappointed for the menus are rich, varied and very satisfying. Tables and chairs spill out onto the pavements in the organised chaos the French do so well, and it is one of life’s pleasures to sit with friends outside 'Le Big Ben' and order a coffee and cognac to savour as you watch the world go by.
Gazing out over the harbour that’s alive with angling boats, sailing school dinghies and yachts waiting for the inner harbour to open, it's hard to imagine such a different atmosphere can be found just a few miles away from Shoreham across ‘La Manche’.
The Fécamp Yacht Club (Société des Régattes de Fécamp or SRF for short) dominates the seafront, positioned near the entrance to the harbour, with panoramic views out to sea from the friendly bar, which seems to remain open for the whole of the Royal Escape weekend, though we are assured that the DJ will turn down the party at a reasonable hour so we can all get a little sleep! The club had a recent refit and the bar really does look great with the new decor. Showers and loos for those berthed in the harbour are situated below the club house, as is a video weather station that’s always marked by a huddle of sailors.
Fécamp is also famous throughout France for its Benedictine monastery, where the aromatic components of that delightful liqueur were first assembled. A tour of the building is a must to savour the baroque splendour of the architecture, but lets be honest, the real reason so many walk up for a visit is to try and of course buy the fabulous liqueur. Almost as famous as drinking it neat is a 50/50 mix with brandy, known as the B&B, which for a few is the official tipple of the Royal Escape.
Close to the harbour there are at least two wine Caves including the Cave Berigny which is a very good friend to the Royal Escape Race. With the much lower rate of duty in France, they offer a broad range of beautiful French wines and liqueurs, at reasonable prices despite the appalling exchange rate. Talk to Max Lambert if you want to try something new and need some advice – he’ll even get his two young chaps to deliver wine straight to your boat.
There are several supermarkets where you can fill up with food and of course cases of French beer ‘stubbies’. There’s also an outdoor and very colourful market near the large church at the centre of the town. Diving into the thronging stalls on Saturday morning (get there before 11) to find the makings of the perfect cockpit picnic is a highlight of any visit to Fécamp. Just wandering amongst the fresh produce, the cheese, the pastries, the herbs, the saucisson is enough to make you look in the estate agent windows and consider the benefits of a French holiday home!
In short, the town of Fécamp has always welcomed ‘le rostbifs’ for the Royal Escape weekend as it is an important date not only in their calendar, but for all the competitors and support crews who enjoy this wonderful long weekend.