Welcome to Normandy and forget the beef war
Undeterred by quayside demonstrations sparked by the mad-cow phoney war, the party of 27 A-level science students and four staff pressed on to the Normandy town of Le Molay-Littry, and Le Prieure, Exeter College's residential centre.
The eighteenth-century stone longhouse, once the presbytery for chaplains to the local chateau, now acts as a base for students of all disciplines - including scientists - to gain a taste of Europe. As part of a deliberate policy - believed unique by college managers - of boosting Euro-awareness among all students.
Exeter includes compulsory European education on every 16- to 19-year-old's timetable and sends as many students and staff as possible to Le Prieure for first-hand experience.
Some groups use the visits to pursue their A-level or GNVQ studies, brushing up their language skills or making the Calvados landscape their inspiration for artistic or literary creativity.
Others, like the science group visiting last month, spend time on outdoor pursuits and cultural visits, but count achievements such as catering for 40 or shopping in a foreign language towards their "ASDAN" general studies award - a personal and social education programme compulsory at Exeter for all 16- to 19-year-olds.
The college's purchase of Le Prieure in 1992 caused the odd ripple of suspicion among staff, with some questioning the wisdom of investing substantial sums in a "chateau" across the water. But since then over 1, 000 students have had the chance to experience la vie francaise at dramatically subsidised rates, and agreement is growing that the cash has been well spent, according to Nicola Golby, a senior lecturer in French and coordinator of European visits.
A surprisingly high number of teenagers in the South West have never been abroad, and rarely even venture as far as Bristol, she points out. "It is easier to live at the centre than to do an exchange with a family, and less daunting if students aren't confident. Setting foot in a foreign country for the first time is often very frightening for them, but this is affordable, accessible and supported."
The experience can give even the most fearful a taste for another country - some students enthused by a Normandy trip have found the courage to try a one-to-one exchange which in turn spurred them to work abroad.
Ignorance of foreign parts is no bar to prejudice, whipped up by tabloid jingoism during the science students' visit in the war-mongering coverage of the Euro 96 football competition. A key aim of the college's European programme is to encourage healthy scepticism of Euro-phobia, says Nicola Golby. "It is not until students go to France that they realise that people can be different without being threatening, and that the European Union is not trying to make them all the same."
New and existing staff at Exeter are also encouraged to visit the centre and to attend college-based sessions on how residentials can be used for the benefit of students of all disciplines. If staff suspect chateau-style luxury at Le Prieure, many students arrive expecting youth hostel-style basics. A scientist on the July trip cheerfully confessed: "I thought it would be a dump."
Although the house, extended with barns and stables by generations of French farmers, is no five-star hotel, it is comfortable and characterful. One 16-year-old, from a group of Baccalaureate students, admitted: "The priory was nothing like I had expected. I hadn't visualised the wooden beams, the rickety spiral staircase or the croquet lawn."
Accommodation, including simple shared bedrooms, kitchens and a large main hall providing space for indoor study, has been adapted and improved by Exeter's own construction and decorating students. Le Prieure's overgrown garden and run-down exterior have been transformed with rose bushes and neat white shutters.
Staying an average of five days, students take full responsibility for catering, including planning healthy meals and shopping in Le Molay-Littry's "supermarche". Even this experience can be eye-opening - one scientist admitted his request for oven chips had been met with "a look as if I'd come down from Mars".
The college now employs an "animatrice", Agnes Vernizeau, to keep a check on the centre, organise activities and strengthen local links - including work experience for the Exeter students. Also a local councillor, she has helped embed Le Prieure and "les etudiants anglais" further into the life of Le Molay-Littry - a pretty Normandy town neatly summed up by one visiting student as "a cross between the villages in Emmerdale Farm and A Year in Provence". Visits from the mayor and local newspaper articles are signs of local acceptance.
Regular trips for visitors to the centre inevitably include sites of past European conflict which place the beef war firmly in perspective. The tapestry in nearby Bayeux documents one invasion, while the beaches still scattered with gun emplacements and other debris of the Normandy landings prove moving for the most laid-back students.
Chemistry student Tom Hutchings, 17, had found the impact of the Americancemetery kept him awake one night, while Rachel Troke, 17, studying for four A-levels, noted: "The boys we are here with are the same age as the soldiers buried there." Physics lecturer Katie Carr, a supervisor on the July trip, felt even the French farmers' protest had given students a useful insight into how their country is viewed abroad.
Internal research by Exeter on its Euro-education programme found a quarter of students were still not involved in 1995-6, mainly because some staff had still to be convinced of its value and relevance.
Those on the residential had fewer doubts. Emily Ryder, 17, had found the visit "really useful for lots of different things. It is not just the language practice, or the historical side - it gives us a broader idea of what different people's lives are like in other parts of the world."