French village raises a fresh glass to Stockport

Mention the village of Haybes to anyone in France, and they will recognise it as an important symbol of The Great War.  Mention that same place to the people of Stockport (especially in a real ale pub) and there’s a chance that someone there might show a similar degree of recognition.

One of many interesting towns and villages in the protruding finger of northern France which digs deep into Belgium’s underbelly, Haybes (pronounced “Heb”) today sits quietly in the peaceful Meuse Valley.

It’s all so different to what happened here 100 years ago, as Colonel (later to be “Marshal”) Pétain plotted his campaign to defend this part of France from the relative safety of the cellars in an attractive Napoleonic house in Haybes.

Another young officer, going by the name of Lieutenant Charles de Gaulle had already been brought here for treatment, having been injured during some early skirmishes with the Germans.

What no-one had anticipated, however, was the ferocity of the German attack between August 24 and 26 in 1914 – as inhabitants fled into the slate mines to escape a bombardment which saw 594 houses out of a total of 610 completely destroyed by shelling and fires.

The grand Napoleonic building – today, ‘Le Clos Belle Rose’ – was one of the few survivors, and would duly become the German HQ for the rest of the war.

The story of the town’s destruction, and the heroism of some of its inhabitants, has entered French folklore, and been the subject of several films and documentaries.  But one of the most surprising spin-offs was the relationship which developed between Haybes and Stockport.

In 1919 an appeal was sent out to all the French departments and some allied countries for financial help to rebuild Haybes.  The town of Saint-Etienne in France sent some money, followed by a donation from a school in Switzerland.  And in October 1920 Stockport Council enquired about the aid that was needed.

The following year the mayor of Haybes, Louis Bouvart, and his deputy visited Stockport to meet the town council to plead their case. Times were hard in northern England, but to their credit their hosts recognised the need of Haybes and responded: “It would be a real joy to the people of Stockport if they could help in some little way to rebuild this village”.

Marcel Dupré, a celebrated organist of Notre Dame, Paris – and an internationally renowned performer – generously offered to give an organ recital in Stockport, which attracted a large audience and raised a substantial amount of money that was put towards the rebuilding of Haybes.

Over time, the close relationship between the two towns was gone…but not forgotten.  And a recent set of events – once again involving Le Clos Belle Rose – has helped both sides raise a glass to a revival in the historic link between Haybes and Stockport.

At the centre of all this is Julien Dejente – an amiable figure who runs the popularHôtel Saint Hubert in the centre of Haybes.

“This part of France is different to other parts,” he begins.  “Where most of the rest of France produces wine, we have a history and a heritage of brewing beer.  I saw a pub in England which had a micro-brewery and wanted to do the same for my bar.”

Also the current owner of the Le Clos Belle Rose, Julien put its cellars to good use, and asked a good friend and fellow micro-brewer from Sedan to help him create he local ales that would put this part of The French Ardennes on the beer-brewing map of the world.

His first ale, Haybois, was followed by Cerf Blanc and then – to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War – Julien created another special brew called “Stockport”: an Ardennes Pale Ale aimed at commemorating the Anglo-French connection.

Since then, delegations have travelled in both directions, and the old relationship between the two towns is once again starting to flourish.

But you don’t need to be from Stockport to visit Julien’s pub, or enjoy his beers.  Haybes today is on the tourist trail in The French Ardennes – and the gardens of the famous house tumble down to the Green Track, a popular trail for walkers, cyclists and horse riders which follows the path of the River Meuse.

The house itself is also a gîte; and Julien’s pub serves his full range of ales – as well as huge bowls of moules cooked in beer.

It’s also the location now for a mini-beer festival, which takes place at the end of April and draws many of the local breweries.