_We usually speed through Pas-de-Calais on the Eurostar. But there are compelling reasons to stop awhile. Simon O'Hagan goes for a walk
Here is a story I heard while I was walking in a forest just outside Hesdin, in the Pas-de-Calais. If it hadn't happened in the countryside you might call it an urban myth. So we'll call it a rural myth (though the French companion who told me the story had no doubt that it was true).
Two men were driving along a road when a wild boar ran out in front of their car. There was a terrific bang and the poor creature was left sprawled on the tarmac. The men stopped and got out. The boar was not dead, but it had been knocked unconscious. Could anything be done for it? The men weren't sure, but they lifted it up and put it in the boot of the car and continued their journey.
Soon afterwards, they heard noises from the boot. The boar was coming round, and it wasn't happy. The next thing the men knew, the animal was forcing its way out of the boot - via the back seat. The men slammed on the brakes and fled, leaving the boar to complete its exit from the car, which it pretty much destroyed it in the process. The moral of the story: don't give lifts to boars.
Let me be clear: the boar-in-car tale was set hundreds of miles from the forest where we were walking. But perhaps it was the sheer tranquillity of the spot on this late July morning that got us thinking about what wildlife may be lurking: boars, no; snails, yes.
A few feet ahead of us, a pair of them - huge things - were entwined in a manner that would have done David Attenborough's Life in the Undergrowth proud. We looked down at this extraordinary sight, and then up, to the tops of the trees, a couple of hundred of feet above. In that moment, it seemed, lay the essence of the forest experience. Yet amazingly, we had popped across from England only that morning and were a mere hour out of Calais.
The Pas-de-Calais is the roughly oblong-shaped département that extends south-east from the Channel and has Arras at its opposite end. People generally associate it with the drab, flat landscape you pass through on the Eurostar or on the motorways that take you south. But those heavily farmed fields are a very poor advert for a département that contains, away to the west, the magical area called Les Sept Vallées, and the forests that make for such great walking.
Les Sept Vallées may not be la France profonde - everywhere is a bit too tidy and prosperous for that - but it has a feeling of remoteness delightfully at odds with its position.
Hesdin, the main town here, is an attractive place with an imposing hôtel de ville that dates from 1572. For a lot of British people, it is synonymous with the Wine Society, which until 2005 was based here.
The town is small enough for a forest walk to be possible from its centre. The edge of Hesdin is a stroll away, and soon the last houses are left behind as the land rises towards the forêt domaniale, with its myriad trails and glorious trees. For two and a half hours, we were in a private, silent world in which every rustle of a leaf seemed magnified. In spring, the forest floor is covered with bluebells.
Locals tell you every valley has its own character, and the possibilities for exploring them are almost endless. You could spend a week in Les Sept Vallées and still walk only a fraction of the mileage on offer. The journey out of Calais will never be the same.
The author travelled courtesy of Eurotunnel (08705 35 35 35; eurotunnel.com), which offers fares from £49 one way, and Pas-de-Calais tourist office (00 33 3 21 10 34 60; pas-de-calais.com). He stayed at Le Commanderie, in Les Sept Vallées (00 33 3 21 86 49 87), and also at the Hôtel du Centre, in Wimereux (00 33 3 21 32 41 08).