I take a meandering route to Le Mans next day, through rolling landscapes and forests. A few more calls on dealers on the way. Fleeting, drive-past glimpses of grand houses down allées of trees. Eventually negotiating the tangle of dual carriageways around Le Mans I find my chambre d’hote, a picturesque 19th century residence in its own park, with four lanes of traffic roaring down one side of the property. Madame shows me to my room and invites me to join the other guests for an aperitif on the terrace. These are six Englishmen on their annual jaunt to see the classic cars at Le Mans. They are about to go for dinner in town and invite me to join them. (A solo supper on the terrace was more what I had in mind, but I let myself be swayed). One problem – their cars are all sporty two seaters. So I find myself on Paul’s knee, trying not to crush the poor man and avoid the gear stick! We head to a restaurant in the old town, the walls covered in photos of cars and races. These six are charming and kind, and insist on buying me dinner.
I have a day at leisure before the big Dealer’s market and lunch on the terrace of a restaurant by the river at La Fleche. In the afternoon I enjoy the sun dappled park. A group of infant school children are playing “social integration games” nearby. “Toc, toc, toc, je suis le vagabond.” Delightful to watch these little tots both at play and learning the fundamental business of group inclusion/exclusion.
That evening a few dealers arrive and say they’ll show me a way into the market to avoid the queues. We sweep into the massive car park – a sea of white vans – ready for the 8am start. The two enormous halls and a large outside area are packed with vans and dealers. Nothing happens until 8am precisely, then buyers leap to action, some running, others rummaging in boxes that haven’t been unpacked yet. It is a great market with plenty to buy. Porters hurry back and forth carrying large pieces of furniture. I spot one or two London dealers. Loading takes a while. I take my van round to the back of one of the halls and get a beautiful painted bureau de dame in first, a pair of stunning stone urns, cupboards, paintings, a table. It’s a hot summer’s day, people are weary and overheated, something gets dropped and breaks, another dealer realises that what he bought is not what it seemed, husband and wife get shirty with each other, but finally vans are loaded and the vast car park is pretty much empty. Open all the windows, swig some water and en route for Caen and the night ferry.