It is hard to encapsulate this day in a simple diary entry. It feels at once unreal to have been told the story of two major military campaigns, nine hundred years apart, and then to have walked on the ground where much of the action took place. There is at once an immediacy and a distance: so many graves, so much suffering by soldier and civilian alike, yet all in the winter countryside of Basse Normandie, where so little has changed in centuries.

We survived the trip to Bayeux in the shitbox, which proved to have no acceleration or turning circle, but did seem to be able to stop. Madam, our bossy TomTom, got lost in the maze that is central Bayeux, so we lost the chance to see the cathedral, which looked amazing as it rose above the roofs of the old houses by the river.

Bayeux, unlike Caen, was captured on D +1 and escaped undamaged from the war. This means that only the locals dare drive a car through it. We parked on the periphery and walked ten minutes to the town and the Tapestry Museum. I won’t attempt to describe the Tapestry except to note that it is the little realisms of the scenes that you notice when you look at it for “real”: the donkey, the bloke in the border taking a crap, the dismembered bodies in the frieze below the battle, Harold’s moustache. The museum exhibits were excellent and, as we are finding, the French insist on at least some quality on their souvenir boutiques.

We were taken by minivan to meet Karen, our guide, who proved to be a highly skilled and knowledgeable local. We met at the German Cemetary, which put everything into perspective. We shared the trip with an American family – mum and two late teenage children. The latter were uncommunicative, but that may have been due to the below zero temperatures and the gale blowing across the coast. They had already done Utah and St Mere Eglise, which was a shame, but Karen wisely paced us and did not attempt to show us too much.

From the seventeen thousand dead in the quiet of the German Cemetary, we went to Pointe du Hoc, where a couple of compagnies of Rangers had scaled the cliffs between Utah and Omaha to disable a battery. The bomb craters and bunkers created a powerful impression. The details perhaps often missed are the use of slave labour to build the battery and the fact it was not even in commission on D Day.

Even with shingle gone and the draws widened, Omaha still looks suicidal. Paula commented that the bluffs were as bad as Gallipoli, but the Anzacs weren’t covered by 88s and machine guns in bunkers. Along the coast, private museums have saved artifacts from the day and from what followed: roadway sections from the Mulberries, Pak guns, 88s, turrets from forts and bunkers, vehicles, guns and
mantlets from Tigers, wrecked aero engines…

The new visitors’ centre at the American Cemetary was a fine and dignified introduction to the graves, but it is hard to keep things in perspective even when the memorial has the dead from the whole French Campaign. Teddy Roosevelt jnr’s grave, beside that of his brother – killed in the previous war – was a remarkable tribute to a brave man, but the impersonality of the headstones was interesting. Unlike the Australian markers, they have only state, unit and date of death. The intimate British cemetaries, grouped around the places of conflict, have a stronger sense of pathos, but it says much for the families of these soldiers, sailors and airman that they chose not to have the bodies repatriated but to leave more than half in the soil of France.

We had our last look at the bluff overlooking the remains of the Mulberries at Gold Beach. The century-old statue of Our Lady seemed to provide some closure, but we were mentally and spiritually spent by the time we had traversed the twilit lanes to Bayeux. Dinner was thoughtful and sleep came quickly.