There is such a thing, based not in one of the great cities – Caen or Rouen – but in a much smaller place, Evreux. It exists despite the fact that officially Normandy doesn’t exist. Officially, it is two separate regions, Lower Normandy, based in Caen, and Upper Normandy, based in Rouen.
Although there is a long-standing campaign to re-unite the two half-Normandies, there are also deep-rooted Jacobin desires to magnify, not lessen the harm to regional identity. Both half-Normandies live under the constant threat of reorganisation by a centralist State that regards regional geography as malleable in the interests of its own survival. There is the recurrent possibility that one will be merged with its Celtic neighbour to the west and the other with the area round the national capital. Sounds familiar? Can we learn from Norman regionalist resistance to this? The WR Secretary-General, David Robins, recently made a brief visit to investigate.
French vehicle registration plates are wonderfully colourful, including besides the actual number an area code for the département and the regional logo. You can buy stick-on labels for the département and region of your choice. And, for once in France, choice means choice. At Carrefour in Ouistreham you can buy stickers with the Lower or Upper Normandy logos. Or you can be a true Norman patriot and prefer a sticker that displays the ancient ducal banner of two gold leopards on red.
(You can even buy a sticker that has the number 44 – for Loire Atlantique – beneath the Breton ‘gwenn-ha-du’ flag. Even though, in the eyes of France’s leaders, Loire Atlantique isn’t in Brittany, because they say it isn’t. In Wessex terms, ‘région Bretagne’, without Loire Atlantique, is like ‘the South West’, without Hampshire, since in both cases the historic capital is excluded.)
That Norman flag gets everywhere. In Ouistreham it flies over one of the largest hotels, and over the wartime German blockhouse that towers above the port. Even where you don’t spot the flag, you see not-so-subtle references to it in red-and-gold colour schemes, on buildings, in furnishings and on road signs.
Yes, the road signs. Tourists are welcome in Normandy and their needs aren’t neglected as they are in Wessex. The authorities know what they’ve come to see and are pleased to remind them. Drive along the main roads to and from Caen and you’ll see the signs. Images from the Bayeux Tapestry or from Norman architecture, done in pastel shades of pink and yellow. Pointing out Caen – the city of Guillaume le Conquérant, Falaise – the birthplace of Guillaume le Conquérant, Bayeux – the tapestry of Guillaume le Conquérant.
Now imagine something similar on the A34 or the A303 – Winchester, the city of Alfred the Great, Wantage – the birthplace of Alfred the Great, Athelney – the refuge of Alfred the Great. You have to imagine them because they don’t exist. We don’t want tourists to come to Wessex, because there’s nothing to see here, right? Because there’s no such place. There’s the London commuter belt, and beyond that there’s the deckchairs and donkey rides. And nothing more. A Wessex Tourist Board? Perish the thought. The next thing we know the locals will be saying they want to cast off the London yoke. Queue for the Brittany Ferries service at Portsmouth and you can watch the attractions of Normandy unroll slickly on the big TV screen. What do we offer our visitors queuing on the Ouistreham side? ‘South West England’. They’re not even there when they disembark, but in the other ‘region’ next door, ‘The South East’.
So what impressions remain of Normandy? Devastated after D-Day, Caen today is largely a modern, practical city, with, like many cities of the European mainland, an entirely new tram system, opened in 2002. Purists will call it an electrically-powered guided bus and it’s due to be replaced with a real light rail system rather shortly. George Ferguson, Mayor of Bristol, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Costing the Earth last week. He said he'd love to spend billions giving Bristol "a fantastic new tramway system" like the one in its sister city of Bordeaux – the regional capital of Aquitaine – but Bristol doesn't have that sort of money. And why ever not? Answer that one George and you could be on your way to becoming the first Wessex Regionalist mayor.
Then there’s Bayeux. Which has a lot more to offer than just the Tapestry. No reproduction of that can ever convey the impact of the original. The final scenes are full of revealing detail, once you get up close to the stitching that shows the two wyvern standards, the first fallen, the second held up defiantly against the imminent victors. The first is gold, the second is red with a gold underbelly. And so the registered colours of the Wessex flag too are red and gold, echoing both the Tapestry and the chroniclers’ references to a golden dragon.
We share rather more than you might expect with the old enemy. Just as Cornwall and Brittany share black and white as their flag colours, so we share red and gold with the Normans, as we share geology, climate, a love of apples and pork, cheese and cream (though our cooking lags a little behind), caution, and a justifiable distrust of the national capital’s intentions. They invaded us once. We invaded them many more times in return.
It’s a bit like Scots-and-English at times. You emphasise the differences or the similarities according to the agenda. For every unionist who reminds us of Britain’s shared cultural and political heritage there’ll be a nationalist reminder that Scots have a shared cultural and political heritage with France. It’s one that’s arguably been much more important in defining Scottishness – in terms of distinctive architecture, law, a sense of being European that is still resisted in England, and so on. In a European context, Wessex, bound by its ferry routes to the mainland, has at least as much reason to make common cause with Bretons and Normans as with Scots or Northumbrians hundreds of miles away, the other side of Mercia.
And Wessex has a lot to learn. Ouistreham’s high street has a small shop devoted solely to all things Norman. It sells flags, foods, drinks, books, badges… well, just explore the website. It’s the sort of thing that might be found in Cardiff or Edinburgh, and these days possibly Truro too, commercially focused but with definitely a nationalist crust to the artisanal loaf.
Despite it all, despite the occasional insistence that Normans are not to be considered as French folk, Norman nationalism is not, yet, mainstream. It may not need to be. Reality could in fact run ahead of ideology if budgetary pressures upon France force Normandy’s re-unification. If the broader-based regionalist campaign to achieve that goal succeeds, to whom does a Norman regional government then look for reciprocal arrangements on our side of the Channel? Who will speak for Wessex?
If we want to 'think Wessex', we have to be willing to look beyond jingoistic Britain for issues that resonate in the context of an entirely Wessex-centred geography. Today, while we’re all thinking our brains out about what Scottish independence might mean for us if it comes to pass, let us not forget the much older associations of Europe’s Atlantic and Channel facades that have shaped us too. ‘Fog in Channel; Continent cut off’ is a misconception that can raise a smile; too often it seems a political fact of life that does us no good at all.