There was a cycling tour that never happened leaving three of us with a hole in our diaries. Let’s do one together and let’s do it in France we decided. Nick came up with a route and Martin booked the overnight stops. Sorted.
Except I mentioned it to TomTom & Jeremy during a Sunday Ride re-hydration stop at the Barley Mow, Tandridge. They took the bait. It would be TomTom’s first continental tour and Jeremy would be his room mate. The Anerley contingent now made it five. Three other old friends brought it up to eight.
DAY ONE: Saturday 9th September to Aire-sur-la-Lys: 35 miles
Seven of us joined up at Dover, Mary would be meeting up with us later. We set of in style with the blessing our Dover’s own beauty queen onto the midday DFDS ferry to Dunkirk. Then south into a wind that was to fight us for the next five days. But at least the sun was shining as we traversed the Marais – a swampland at exactly zero ft elevation swarming with wildlife and and intricate web of waterways and discrete homes.
It also included our first bout of ‘comedy off-roading’ as a road became a track, a path, a muddy path and then – A BRIDGE – well a rusting metal bar supporting a couple of handrails just too narrow for Martin’s bike until he involuntarily shed his bar-end mirror. Somehow we pushed or carried the bikes including the other Martin’s recumbent to the other side.
Back to tarmac and a bar stop but it was becoming dark by the time we found the only restaurant in Aire-sur-la-Lys. A town instantly familiar as the Anerley Tour de Bullecourt had passed through back in May.
DAY TWO: Sunday 10th September to Amiens: 67 miles
The Hôtel Le Logis de La Lys was a family run place which had housed our bikes overnight on their conference room. Very nice, very hospitable. Off we set south into the wind again. In the middle of nowhere we were being passed by an increasing number of motor bikes. As we approached a village the noise of many more filled the air. Was it a scramble event? Nope – it was the Sunday Parade of every two wheeled vehicle in Northern France. A vast number were sweeping down the main road through the village pristine examples carefully marshalled while parishoners queued to get to church and seven cyclists stopped and gawped.
The bikes were followed by trikes, then some classic cars and finally Lorry units. Within moments the roads were clear and quiet again. We had a little issue with a closed road which we just ignored and climbed up to a high plain. The wind intensified. It felt like we were doing 30/40 mph whilst actually struggling to get into double figures. It was tiring but the hedge free vistas of that part of France were unforgettable. The clouds were gathering but not spilling. We pressed on.
By late afternoon we were flagging and being a Sunday – everything was closed. Eventually we came across a cafe up a potholed road beside a stream and lake that catered for fishermen and caravans. A dead ringer for our very own Hensfold Lakes.
Refreshed we pushed on to Amiens arriving exhausted. La Chambre d’Amiens was the finest hotel of the trip with a receptionist Ian will never forget. Just one problem – the nearest restaurant was a mile and a half away! Desolation as we had packed our bikes carefully away. What to do? Ian’s fantasy saved the day with a phone call. The local pizza take-a-way was summoned and three big’uns washed down with three bottles of wine did the trick – and in style as the staff set up the tables, cutlery and even a corkscrew.
DAY THREE: Monday 11th September to Compeigne: 66 miles
Recumbent Martin was determined to eschew the comfort of hotels for the invigorating discomfort of the local camping sites. He showed up and Jeremy and t’other Martin thought they might try recumbent riding. I’ll spare you the videos – it looks easy but it ain’t.
We tootled into Amiens to find the huge Gothic cathedral and Ian’s history lesson on William Morris who was impressed almost as much as us.
We were less impressed by the slow climb onto another plain and the even stronger wind in our faces. If France is closed on a Sunday – this part of France has nothing to close on a Monday. no bars, cafes, anything.
Eventually we found a hilltop town with ONE restaurant about to close. Its repertoire was more Turkish than French and most of it was ‘off’. But what was on filled seven very big holes washed down with beer and wine. All for 53 euros. Bargain!
The destination for the night was Compeigne. Famous for the nearby forest clearing where the 1918 armistice was signed in a railway carriage. The same carriage Hitler retrieved and humiliated the French by making them sign their surrender in 1940. There is no carriage now and we scurried into town as the storm clouds gathered beating them to the PremierClasse by seconds. Not our favourite hotel with rooms smaller than Martin’s tent – but it was at least dry and the receptionist put our bikes in a safe place (visitor’s loo).
Scrubbed and polished with the rain gone we set off for food across a typical ‘Zone Industrielle’ to Les Trois Brasseurs – a sort of cross between a micro brewery and an upmarket McDonalds. But it dis the trick. Their amber ale was unforgettable.
DAY FOUR: Tuesday 12th September to Beauvais: 45 miles
We turned westward – and so did the wind.
PremierClasse breakfasts are – modest. Not nearly enough for the calorie hungry cyclist. But it was a Tuesday and France was open at last. Martin delivered a short classification of the art of French Boulangering. We merely demolished the first one we found. Scrumptious!
We pressed on. Another hill top town, another lunch – and the time for another downpour which was so lucky for us. Minutes either way would have seen us drenched. But now we had a target the 17:20 train bringing Mary from Paris to Beauvais. The sun came out to greet us, a replica Big Ben gonged away and all was well. Well until, now eight up when we got to Beauvais Cathedral. It had just shut and the heavens opened again sending us into a huddle in a shop doorway.
That night most of us were at the B&B hotel – voted best value hotel of the trip and conveniently placed right opposite a Buffalo Grill. Another slightly unauthentic French gastronomical experience.
DAY FIVE: Wednesday 13th September to Rouen: 54 miles
The forecast was grim. Not only the wind but added moisture. Nick’s meticulous GPS routing took us along quiet roads and the morning was, at least dry. At last we passed from Picardy into Normandy. Hedgerows, timbered houses and rolling hills. But still the wind. By the time we had got up onto the plain it was drizzling, we were sapped and getting very hungry. Nothing to be found. Jeremy, Mary and myself went ahead and found the only restaurant before Rouen. And an excellent one too.
It was supposed to close at 13:30 and it was now nearly 14:30. Mary was dispatched in to charm. She succeeeded. I’m not sure La Patronesse knew what was about to hit them. But it was great. Without that gorgeous meal I’m not sure how the day would have ended. As we pressed on the drizzle turned to rain and the rain to a continuous downpour. We deserted the quiet back roads for the quickest/shortest route to our hotel.
We arrived in batches absolutely drenched. No comedy off-roading today but we did have comedy hotellery. Fawlty Towers is alive, well and re-positioned as the Hotel-le-Vert-Bocage. The rooms were OK, the food downstairs (with the continuing downpour the idea of going out was simply not on) was OK – but the management was well short of hopeless. A bit rude too. Perhaps the least said the better.
DAY SIX: Wednesday 13th September to Dieppe: 46 miles
People were still drying out. The forecast was not good except the wind was dropping at the point it might have become useful. Hence the five elected to train up to Dieppe. Jeremy and TomTom decided, as it was their last day to ride it despite everything and I decided to go along with them to help keep the Anerley tradition alive.
There was an enormous very wet hill through a forest. But at the top the sun came out, the vistas were magnificent and we had the best riding of the tour so far. We planned a tea stop in Saint-Saens but just before a huge black cloud appeared, a swirling wind gave us a buffering and we dived into a bus shelter built to withstand a nuclear attack. Which was quite useful as for the next 15 minutes we cowered from a ferocious hailstorm.
Back on route we cantered down to Dieppe to meet up with the others at Le Cafe des Tribuneaux. Here Tom & Jerry took their farewells and headed off to the ferry port after just over 300 miles of riding while the rest of us rode onto Le Treport and eventually Calais.
As ever cycle touring isn’t about the bike, and the route is really only a background to a group of disparate people who use it as an excuse to build a tight bonhomie for a few days and a memory for life. So thanks to my fellow riders:
Nick the Navigator
Martin the Polymath
Martin the Camper
Ian the Historian
Mary the Inspirational
Jeremy the Garmin Man
TomTom the All-Up Man (as usual)
We must do it again. Lisieux 2018?