Our tale really begins in 2010 and it is not really about two sickly men, but about a sickly man and a sickly woman, although the man is, in fact, not really sick but considered ‘old’ (although not really that ‘old’) and it is the woman who is considered ‘sick’ (although she is in fact making a good recovery). In 2010 Julia and I were on an extended break down in the south of France. Julia had been suffering from ME but the extended rest was doing her good and she was improving steadily. We were both looking forward to returning to ministry when we got back to Beckenham in a couple of week’s time.
We were staying nearby at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, but we came to Menton (just along the coast) quite often. We first visited Menton to 2004 when we were on holiday near Frejus. We had long wanted to visit Menton again because we knew that it was the place where the famous Baptist Pastor, Charles Haddon Spurgeon himself, came every year (in the latter years of his life) from mid-November to early February, in order to aid his recovery from illness. Spurgeon suffered from gout, rheumatism and Bright’s disease (which affected the kidneys) and the cold, damp and foggy London winters incapacitated him from preaching. A change of climate was therefore prescribed, so in 1871 he began his annual visits to the south of France. How wonderful to have such a supportive church that so valued their Pastor’s ministry that they were prepared to allow him extended time off in order that his ministry might be maintained. Unfortunately for us it didn’t work out the same way, and when we returned to the UK it was to discover that our ministry had been terminated.
Today is the first time that we have been back to Menton since 2010. We are looking forward to it. It will not only enable us to ‘lay a few ghosts’ but return to a place we really love. We have been to Menton several times and understand exactly why Spurgeon loved it so. If we ever came to live permanently in the south of France, Menton is most probably the place we would choose to live. Spurgeon chose Menton as his principal holiday resort, not only because he found it a charming place, but because it was the most temperate town in Europe because of its exceptional micro-climate. In winter, the lowest temperature is about 55ºF in the shade, and 72ºF in the sun.
We walk up to Nice Central Station from our apartment and, with the help of a very nice station employee, purchase our return tickets to Menton. Spurgeon, himself, would have travelled by train from Victoria Station to Dover, then by ferry to Calais, and again by train to Menton, using the services of the Christian travel agent Thomas Cook. We find our way to the appropriate platform and join the commuter crowd, most of who seem to be travelling to Monaco for work. There are various signs telling us that we need to validate the train tickets we have just bought before boarding the train. We can’t manage to get them to fit the various machines scattered around the platform that will enable us to do this, however, so Julia asks a nice railway employee what we should do to validate our tickets. He smiles at her, pats her affectionately on the head, and tells her that we are now ‘officially validated’!
When the train arrives it is a double-decker and very posh! We go upstairs so that we have a better view since the train travels right along the coast. We find ourselves sitting across from a couple of very nice young ladies who both work in Monaco. They answer all our questions about the ‘whys and wherefores’ of travelling on the French railways. We are busy taking photographs out of the train window as we pass all the amazing resorts and incredible sea views along the coast as we pass right by the Mediterranean … our two new friends ignore the views completely!? Of course, they do it every day so we guess it is not the same for them as it is for us! For us, however, this must surely be the most amazing commute to work anywhere in the world!
The train is packed with commuters, even though it is about 11.30 a.m., but most of them disembark at Monaco. We eventually arrive at Menton – the journey only takes us about 35 minutes from Nice – and after a stop for coffee, we mooch down into Menton and the beach we know and love so well. We recall all the various places we have been before – Saint John’s Church, the restaurants along by the sea front – and decide that we will have an early lunch before re-visiting the old town again. Our favourite restaurant is closed but we find another right by the beach that has an interesting menu. It is a good job that we are on holiday because the service is ‘leisurely’ to say the least. The view is wonderful, however, and the weather perfect, so we are in no hurry and just ‘go with the flow’. An interesting couple join us at an adjoining table – he is British and she is Swedish – I think I should know who they are somehow? Perhaps they too – like us – are ‘famous’?! It is very entertaining. She has a lot to say for herself, but his conversation seems to consist entirely of three words – ‘Eh?’ ‘What?’ ‘Sorry?’
After a delightful lunch we walk through the old town – re-visiting old haunts and sharing old memories – and climb up to the Chapelle de la Conception and the Basilique Saint Michel-Archange. We have been here several times before, but this time both are open and we are able to go inside. The views from here are amazing, and we take lots of photographs. We walk down the amazing staircase to the sea front. It is just along from the site of the hotel that C H Spurgeon stayed at some times – although the hotel is long gone now. Spurgeon himself, apparently, used to sunbathe on the beach in front of us?! During his sojourns in Menton, Spurgeon had free access to a wonderful garden, belonging to a Dr Bennet, and here he would relax and enjoy happy hours of conversation with friends. Spurgeon often travelled with his friend and publisher Joseph Passmore, Passmore’s business partner James Alabaster, and his personal secretary Joseph Harrald. Spurgeon would often retire to a sheltered kiosk in Dr Bennet’s garden where Harrald would read to Spurgeon a book such as The Life of Cromwell, and Spurgeon would dictate to Harrald notes for sermons and articles. On one occasion the two men were seated, hidden from view, when they overheard a conversation between an American mother and her daughter. ‘O mother, do come here!’ said the daughter, ‘There are some lovely sickly men just here … and I do just love sickly men!’ Spurgeon and Harrald looked at one another with consternation … before realising that the young lady was in fact referring to cyclamen flowers, of course?!
We walk around the old town, recalling fond memories and recognising the various improvements that have been made since last we were here. Finally it is time to head back to the station to catch the 4.20 p.m. train to Nice. We have to rush because we love this place so much that we are dawdling. We need not have worried, however, because the 4.20 p.m. train to Nice has been cancelled … or to put it more correctly, it just didn’t bother to turn up?! This is not unusual we gather. When we ask a fellow traveller about it he just gives us the ‘Gallic shrug’!? It is o.k. however because the 4.30 p.m. train to Cannes turns up on time … and it stops at Nice! We walk back to our apartment. Julia is so full of energy these days having made a good recovery from her ME. Hopefully when we return from the Côte d’Azur this time it will be to good news about returning to ministry for us?!