STARING out over the peaceful Dives valley in Lower Normandy, it's hard to imagine anything out of the ordinary ever happened here.

With its fields, picturesque villages and the occasional church spire piercing the sky, it's the picture postcard of France.

Yet it was here, just 70 years ago, that one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War took place, described by General Montgomery as "the beginning of the end of the war".

Most people associate the Battle of Normandy with the events of June 6, 1944 - D-Day.

On that day, 135,000 troops and 20,000 vehicles crossed the English Channel and came ashore as part of Operation Overlord - the beginning of the major Allied offensive against the Germans that led to victory in Europe. At Arromanches, the remains of the Mulberry Harbour - a temporary port built of concrete blocks towed over from Britain - are reminders of the scale of D-Day.

But June 6 merely marked the start of the Battle of Normandy.

As events are held in Normandy to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, it seems an appropriate time to visit. Arriving by ferry at Le Havre, we drive to the Orne region of Lower Normandy, staying with Sylvie and Frederic Leblond in Sainte Opportune, an hour from Caen.

The couple run La Bergerie, a converted farm where the barns have been turned into guest bedrooms in an idyllic setting.

Former tour guide Sylvie and taxi driver Frederic have a novel way of showing guests this part of Normandy and its war role: they conduct tours in a purple London Hackney cab, with Union Jack cushions and solar powered waving Queen on the dashboard.

We begin our tour at the tiny Musee de la Liberation de Berjou, in a village high on a ridge in countryside thick with trees and hedgerows. This was where British troops successfully fought the Germans in August 1944 to take the heights of Berjou during the campaign to force the enemy into the Falaise pocket.

Three years ago, local man Roman Bon started scouring the fields with a metal detector. He found items such as helmets and shells, and soon collected enough to open the two-room museum. This prompted locals, many of whom had never spoken about the war, to talk, and they too found artefacts from their homes.

THE resulting collection is one of the most personal I've seen, and includes a German helmet, used for the past few decades as a tool to scoop up chicken feed.

Before we leave, we stop at the field where the most intense fighting took place during the Battle of Berjou. Pinned on a fence is a simple wooden cross.

After lunch next to Falaise Castle, the birthplace of William the Conqueror, we continue to Montormel and the Dives valley, where 100,000 Germans were encircled in August 1944, in the Battle of the Falaise Pocket.

The memorial's museum tells that by the time the battle ended on August 22, 1944, some 10,000 German troops were dead, 40,000 captured, and the countryside was littered with bodies.

To mark the D-Day anniversary, the Circuit Aout 44 route has been created to guide you around 10 key sites.

Revisiting the events of 1944 is challenging, but hammers home the horrors for those who fought, and those who didn't.

Natalie Marchant was a guest of Orne Tourism (

n The Normandy Weekend (00 33 2 33 28 07 00) includes two nights at La Bergerie from £210pp.

n DFDS (; 0800 917 1201) Portsmouth to Le Havre, from £59 each way.