Day 1 – Dunkirk to Boulogne. (62 km)
I had delayed my departure because of bad weather until I felt that I couldn’t really wait any longer if I was to get the job finished this year. But as I headed towards Dunkirk in a friend’s car with the Solex in the back it didn’t look too good as the rain beat down ominously on the windscreen.
It was a three hour drive and as we approached the Belgian border the clouds became darker and darker.
After a pose for a photo by the town sign of Dunkirk, it was time to put the wheel of the Solex back on, (it had to come off to get the bike in the car), put on my waterproofs and get going.
This was the first time I had actually ridden the Solex with a full load – with my own body weight and all my equipment and spares I was expecting this tiny 49c.c. engine to transport about 117kg all the way around the coast of France.
Now I have to admit that most of the 117kg was made up of me but then I do have quite a few metal fillings in my teeth and two titanium knees which no doubt accounts for this. However, it was clear from the start that ascents of hills that she would normally have managed perfectly well on her own were now going to need a degree of pedal assistance.
Within a few kilometres of Dunkirk the wind seemed to get up to a strength that causes the shipping forecast to express doubts about the safety of ships setting out to sea and it was blowing straight into my face. I was by now having to give pedal assistance even on the flat bits which were becoming fewer and fewer. It was somewhere around here that I decide to christen the Solex and named her ‘L’escargot’, (‘The Snail’).
On the approach to Calais I passed by the ‘jungle’, the makeshift camp that is now home to a few thousand immigrants all of whom were in Calais in the hope that they could somehow get themselves across the Channel to England. I was intending to stop and look around the encampment but the rain, the mud and the presence of dozens of armed police all encouraged me to press on into the town.
Calais is a fairly uninspiring sort of place. That’s mainly because it was heavily damaged during the war and much of it was obviously rebuild in the post-war years in the ‘couldn’t care less’ style of architecture.
I was interested to see if I could find any sign of the fact that Lady Hamilton, (Lord Nelson’s mistress), had lived and died in the town. Lady Hamilton was actually born Amy Lyon, the daughter of a humble blacksmith in 1765 and she grew into a good-looking teenager who was certainly out to have a good time.
By the time she was 15 years old she was being kept by Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh and was the life and soul of the many stag parties that he regularly organised. It was at one of these that she is said to have danced naked on the dining table for the benefit of the guests.
Having conceived Featherstonhaugh’s child she tired of him and moved on to be the mistress of the Hon Charles Greville, the son of the Earl of Warwick. Amy was moving in high society at a very young age.
It was Greville who persuaded her to change her name to Emma for some unknown reason, but when it became time for Greville to look around for a wife he had to ditch Emma. He did this by sending her on what she thought was to be a holiday in Naples with Greville’s uncle Lord Hamilton who was the British Envoy. In fact she was just being passed on to Hamilton to become his mistress.
As you can imagine Emma was pretty much pissed off when she realised what had happened but she soon became accustomed to the high lifestyle that she was able to live and eventually married Lord Hamilton, (Hamilton was 60 and Emma was 26 years old).
She first met Nelson when he visited Naples to drum up support for his ongoing fight against the French and there was an instant mutual attraction between the two of them.
Lord Hamilton seemed to encourage Emma to have an open affair with Nelson and the three of them often stayed and travelled together. In fact, when Hamilton’s time in Naples came to an end the three of them returned to London and set up home together.
Emma gave birth to Nelson’s child, Horatia, in 1801 and the threesome bought a large house in south-west London. By now Nelson was a national hero and the newspapers of the time reported every move they made – Emma loved the attention and the lifestyle.
Lord Hamilton died in 1803 and Nelson returned to sea while Emma kept the house as a shrine to her beloved Horatio. On 21st October 1805 Nelson was fatally wounded at the battle of Trafalgar and Emma was distraught, refusing even to speak for some time.
She fell into heavy drinking and gambling and the cost of this started to use up the money that had been left to her. She eventually had to sell the house to pay off her debts and became bankrupt and had to spend time at the debtor’s prison in Southwark. On her release her friends decided that she was somewhat of an embarrassment and would be better off out of England. They clubbed together and sent her off to Calais where she lived out the rest of her life with her daughter in drunken oblivion at a small cottage in the Rue Francaise.
I found the Rue Francaise, clearly part of the town that had suffered during the war, and there were blocks of apartments lining the road. There was however a small barely readable plaque mounted on a brick wall at an intersection that commemorated Lady Emma Hamilton’s death. I asked several passers-by if they knew who Lady Hamilton was but no one had any idea.
Nearer the centre of Calais I walked around the Richelieu Park, a quiet oasis of green where there was a striking memorial to Emma – erected in 1994 and funded by an American philanthropist it looked down on a small lake surrounded by trees. I felt that Emma would have approved of this.
I didn’t bother to ask any of the young skateboarders in the park if they knew who she was, nor did I tell them that they were all wearing their baseball caps back to front.
Skirting the port of Calais where the cross-channel ferries were plying their way back and forth to England I made my way gradually uphill to the rolling countryside around Cap Griz Nez where I was able to look down from the top of the tall cliffs to the rocky shoreline below. This is the closest point to England, 21 miles as the seagull flies, and is the place where cross-channel swimmers head for.
The grey choppy water looked cold and uninviting and I couldn’t help but think of the first person to swim across in 1875. It was Captain Matthew Webb who set off from Dover in August that year having covered himself in porpoise oil to help keep out the cold, (where on earth did he get porpoise oil from in Dover? Did the local Sainsburys have it on special offer? Was there a cross-channel swimmers sundriesman on hand?) Not far into his swim he was badly stung by jelly fish but Webb took a shot of brandy and carried on – Webb I suspect was no mamsy-pansy.
Surely the most difficult part of his crossing must have been the time when he was within sight of the French coast but due to adverse currents he made no forward progress for five hours. Eventually, after a total of 21 hours and 45 minutes he came ashore more or less where I was standing– incidentally David Walliams made the swim in 10 hours and 34 minutes in 2006, due I suspect more to the superior knowledge of tides and currents that we have today rather than to Webb’s lack of ability.
Webb became a national hero and went on to become what must have been the first professional swimmer giving exhibitions and carrying out various swimming related stunts over the next few years. On one occasion he floated in a tank of water for 128 hours for which he was paid £1,000 – no mean sum in those days. Imagine what his skin must have looked like after that time – if I stay in the bath for more than half an hour I look like a pink prune.
Unfortunately Captain Webb attempted one stunt too many when on 24th July 1883 he tried to swim across the Whirlpool Rapids on the Niagara River below Niagara Falls. As he approached the whirlpool he started to encounter difficulties with the ferocious currents and he soon threw his arms in the air and was sucked under the water. He reappeared very briefly before being drawn under once more into the whirlpool and was never to be seen alive again. His body was recovered downstream some four days later.
Pressing on from Cap Gris Nez I came to the first of quite a few hills where I had to walk alongside ‘L’escargot’. It wasn’t so much the steepness of the hills but rather the length of them. My legs just became too tired to continue pedalling for more than ten minutes or so. However, with the engine still running she was more than able to pull herself and the equipment along and I just had to walk and steer her along.
At one point on a descent I was overtaken by a bright yellow, rocket-shaped bicycle – one of those contraptions where the rider is more or less lying down. He came past me like a streak of lightening and although I did make up a bit of ground on the next uphill section he was soon away again and out of sight.
During the afternoon my legs seemed to improve and I was certainly pedalling up the hills rather more effectively than had been the case in the morning. As I approached Boulogne the wind was now coming from the side and it made progress much easier.
Boulogne is a pleasant, clean town with a terrific beach where lots of those surfers with kites strapped to them, (there must be a name for them), were hopping on and above the waves as the wind lifted them up.
‘L’escargot’ had performed exceptionally well all day and I was very pleased with the first day of my journey. Lots of wind, somewhat less rain, but a day that was perhaps to be a sign of what was yet to come – the wind will no doubt be my biggest enemy over the next few days but there must surely come a time when it will be at my back and then I just might have to brake to control my speed – one can but dream!
Day2 – Boulogne to Eu. (111km).
The day started with a walk up the hill out of Boulogne and onto the coast road towards Le Touquet. The wind was still blowing strongly and as before straight into my face. There were however quite a few cyclepaths on this stretch and although I don’t think a motorised vehicle such as a Solex is supposed to use them there weren’t many cyclists around and I certainly found that they were a much safer bet than riding on the road.
No need to be constantly looking in the mirror, no need to stay as close to the edge as possible, no need to worry about a sudden draught when a massive truck comes by and no need to worry about keeping a straight line so as not to be clipped off the road by a car.
I was soon riding through beautifully leafy, forested areas where the villages were all rather attractive.
I came to the small village of Condette where I looked for the ‘Chalet Dickens’. There was a street named after the great English writer that lead up to a private house with a tall wall surrounding it and heavy gates. At the side of the gates was a bust of Dickens with the inscription, ‘’Charles Dickens stayed here 1860-1864’.
But there was an intriguing story behind that simple inscription. It is true to say that in the mid 1800s Dickens was the most revered person in Great Britain and possibly in the whole World – he was the equivalent of today’s pop stars and was universally worshipped. But Dickens had a big secret.
Although he had been married for twenty two years and his wife Catherine had borne him ten children in the course of fifteen years, the marriage was an unhappy one. Dickens felt that his wife was not his intellectual equal and somewhat despised her. She was no great beauty, was overweight and could not really converse with Dickens in the way that he wanted.
Sometime around 1854 he met Ellen ‘Nelly’ Ternan, an eighteen year old actress who Dickens invited to take part in several of his plays. He became infatuated with her although he was twenty seven years older than Nelly and he started a relationship with her.
In Victorian times it was very much frowned upon to have a mistress – especially for someone as famous and highly thought of as Charles Dickens. Their liaison therefore had to be kept secret and out of the public eye.
Nelly was provided with a house and was well looked after financially but she had to accept that she would have to live a life of obscurity if she was to continue as Dickens’s mistress.
Dickens made regular trips to Boulogne and eventually started to stay over at Condette with Nelly, although this was all kept away from the press and even from most of his friends.
There has been much speculation in recent years that he had taken Nelly to France to give birth to his child. It was not uncommon for those who could afford it to go to France to have a child delivered that had been conceived out of wedlock. The general consensus of opinion is that their child died in its infancy although there has never been any conclusive proof of this.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it is certain that the ‘Chalet Dickens’ at Condette was a love nest for one of the greatest authors of all time.
Having lived in France for ten years or more I have found that it’s fairly common for married men to have ‘a bit on the side’ and this is often accepted by their wives, (no such luck for me I might add). After seeing how first Nelson and now Dickens carried on, maybe it was the English who started the trend!
Just before Le Touquet a cyclist tucked in behind me to take advantage of my slipstream and stayed there taking pace from me for about 2 kilometres. He then accelerated, drew alongside me and shouted that motorised vehicles weren’t allowed on cyclepaths – the cheeky bugger.
I opened up to full throttle, pulled ahead of him and then cut him up sending him into a mass of stinging nettles in a muddy ditch at the side of the cyclepath and at the same time raising a solitary finger to him in salute. Well, that’s what I would have liked to have done but in fact I just ignored him and continued on my way taking the attitude that as the French don’t give a shit about rules and regulations, why should I?
Into the Bay de la Somme and Le Crotoy where I was hoping to have ‘moules frites’ for lunch. Impressive views across the bay make this a popular town and the seafood is renowned. As a result I found that all the restaurants with outside seating were full and so I went to the outskirts of the town where I found a quiet little spot at the side of a harbour and tucked into four hard-boiled eggs and a tomato that I had forgotten that I had in my panniers.
I was just into my second egg when a group of 60 or 70 schoolchildren turned up. They sat down all around me, took off their shoes and socks and launched into their sandwiches. Now I’ve nothing against young children, (well, not too much), but I do wish that they wouldn’t all talk at the same time shouting as loud as they can in high pitched voices.
I tried to see it out but in the end it was too much to bear and so I donned my riding gear, (takes me about 10 minutes to do that), and started on my way again.
From Le Crotoy the road leads around the bay to St Valery sur Somme which is pretty much opposite Le Crotoy. The views from here are equally stunning and I found the town to be very much to my liking. The cobbled streets were very pretty but gave poor old ‘L’escargot’ a good shaking so I had to proceed at a slow pace. That was alright though as I was able to appreciate the flowers in the town, the waterside attractions and the steam locomotive that takes trips around the bay.
‘L’escargot’ has been running very well again today although I did have a bit of a scare as I was going around the Bay de Somme when she started coughing and spluttering and then came to a stop. Turned out that she had run out of petrol – as a result of the heavier than usual load and the headwinds she had used far more fuel than normal and I hadn’t topped up soon enough. I had plenty in my reserve tank so it was no problem to refill and carry on.
I was making good progress as the roads were by now much flatter than before so I made for the village of Ault where I sat for a while in the sunshine enjoying the views across the long sandy beaches to the east and the tall chalk cliffs in the direction of Le Treport to the west.
There was a steep hill going down into Eu, my stopping place for the night, and I had to carefully control the speed of my descent as with a VeloSolex it is best to brake a bit to slow down to a speed at which one can still keep a bit of throttle open thereby ensuring that there is still a supply of fuel, and more importantly oil, going into the engine.
Don’t laugh, but I stayed the night at the Youth Hostel in Eu which was in part of an old chateau. All the rooms had beautiful vaulted brick ceilings and the walls were several feet thick – not so good for WiFi reception but full of character.
Eu is a charming town with a nice clean river flowing through middle and a pleasant cobbled square.
Accumulative – 173km
Day 3 – Eu to Le Havre. (153km).
Once again the day started with a degree of walking to get myself up out of Le Treport and onto the heights of the coast road atop the majestic white cliffs where I passed the top station of the funicular railway. Built originally in 1908 the railway has recently been refurbished and provides an easy way down to the beach area.
The wind hadn’t lessened in its intensity since yesterday and again it was blowing straight at me. I took a small road down to the beach at Mesnil-Val where according to my map I would be able to continue at the side of the beach – the road didn’t exist and so I had to walk back up a very steep hill and on to the main road to Floques.
I found that as I was approaching Dieppe there were a great many trucks wizzing past me, no doubt on their way to the ferryport, and I therefore headed for some minor roads where there was less heavy traffic.
And so down into Dieppe to mingle with lots of urban traffic for the first time. The Solex is I must admit ideally suited to town riding and it was a joy to cut up the side of queues of cars as they waited at traffic lights.
Through the centre of Dieppe several cars hooted at me but when I looked to see what the problem was they were all giving me the thumbs-up sign showing their general approval of the VeloSolex.
There were a few showers at Dieppe but nothing serious and soon I was back on the coast after an annoying diversion due to a road closure – wouldn’t be much of a problem if you’re driving a car but on the Solex it adds a fair amount of time to the journey.
I decided to take a short detour inland to visit a place that I had been interested in for some time. Near the small village of Ardouval, to the south of Dieppe, is one of the many German V1 rocket launch sites that were used during the Second World War to send pilotless missiles across the Channel in the hope that they would flatten London with their payload of high explosives.
In the Seine-Maritime department alone there were 117 such sites and there were lots of others further along the coast towards Calais. The majority of these sites have now collapsed, been pulled down or are being used by farmers to store tractors and animal feed but the installation near Ardouval however is one of the few that is relatively well preserved and gives a good idea of how these launch sites operated.
It is tucked away inside the Forest of d’Eawy where the trees would have largely concealed its presence from Allied planes. On the day I went there I was the only visitor – the place is not manned and one is free to wander around freely.
Most of the cast concrete buildings are still in reasonable condition although a few are crumbling with age or from the effects of the bombing that took place once the Allies knew of their location.
Walking around from one dilapidated building to another there was an eerie silence about the area – totally quiet, no rustling of the leaves on the trees, not even any birdsong and my imagination could not help but see the countless numbers of German troops scurrying around preparing the rockets for launching across the Channel to drop, as they hoped, in the centre of London.
The V1 rocket was launched from a sloping ramp accurately positioned so that it pointed exactly towards London about 200 kilometres away; the launch ramp at Ardouval has a replica rocket mounted on it. Once launched the rocket had no controllable steering system but was just propelled along its pre-set path until it either ran out of fuel or a special control valve came into effect to cut off the fuel supply. The V1 would then plunge earthwards and explode on impact. The system was very simple but not so accurate and the majority either fell short of their target or overshot London.
Thanks largely to an active local French Resistance group, the location of most of the launch sites was known to the Allies who carried out intensive bombing raids
The Ardouval site was originally hidden away among a forest of beech trees but most of these were smashed to pieces by the bombing and the present day pine forest was planted after the war as part of the war damages agreement. I could see many of the bomb craters in the ground between the trees.
It was a pleasant ride towards St Valery en Caux passing through several villages where they were selling oysters, fish and other shellfish at the beach as the fishing boats arrived back from their day’s outing.
The very pretty village of Veules les Roses has the shortest river in France at only 1,200 metres long and it sports a watercress bed and most of the little cottages do indeed have roses in the gardens. There was a long uphill section out of the village and I stopped at the side of the road for a rest next to a field of cows. Within minutes I was covered in flies and had to move on – obviously a sweaty Solex rider is far more attractive to flies than a herd of cows.
Beyond St Valery I passed by the nuclear power station that looked menacingly as if it really meant business – this was the third such power station that I had passed so far and I was happy to drop down into Veulettes where I have previously had many a plate of ‘moules frites’ at the restaurants on the long promenade with our dog Ellie and our friends’ dogs. No such luck today as it was overcast, cold and oh yes, did I mention that the wind was still blowing from the direction in which I was headed?
The road goes through a heavily wooded area around St Pierre en Port with lots of hairpin bends and short sharp hills all of which I managed to pedal up. Towards Fecamp the rain started again and stayed with me, on and off, for the rest of the day – very heavy at times.
Perched high up on the cliffs above Etretat and overlooking the famous arches and cliffs immortalised by Claude Monet’s paintings is a monument to two French aviators.
It was in 1919 that a wealthy American offered a prize of $25,000 for the first aviator to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, or vice versa, within the next five years. Flying was in its infancy at the time and there were no takers so Orteig the rich American renewed his offer in 1924.
By 1927 Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli were ready to take up the challenge in a specially adapted single-engine biplane made predominantly from plywood and fabric with a two man side by side cockpit and a wingspan of some 15 metres.
It was painted all in white to help with identification and it’s that that gave it its name ‘L’Oiseau Blanc’, (‘The White Bird’).
To save weight the intrepid couple took no radio with them and stocked up on meagre rations of tinned fish, bananas and rum. They carried almost 4,000 litres of fuel in the aluminium fuel tanks, enough for about forty-two hours of flying time.
They took off from Le Bourget airport in Paris on 8th May 1927 and were escorted as far as the French coast by four military aircraft. It was over the present day monument on the cliffs of Etretat that ‘L’Oiseau Blanc’ passed, heading out across the Channel and towards Ireland.
Later that same day the Captain of a British submarine noted in his log the sighting of the plane some distance to the south west of the Isle of Wight.
As it passed over Ireland the priest in the small village of Carrigaholt saw the aircraft and this was the last verified sighting.
As time went on and they failed to arrive in New York, it became clear that their fuel could not have lasted and it had to be assumed that the plane had come down and was lost.
Extensive searches were carried out but these were abandoned after nine days when no sign had been found of the aircraft.
Initially it was thought that bad weather in the Atlantic had caused the plane to crash but more than a dozen witnesses in Newfoundland and Maine claimed that they had heard an aircraft passing overhead – some even confirmed that they had seen a white plane circling in the fog.
It was only twelve days after Nungesser and Coli had set off from Paris that Charles Lindbergh started his flight in ‘The Spirit of St. Louis’, this time from New York to Paris. He completed the flight successfully in thirty-three and a half hours and claimed the $25,000 prize.
And this is where the story would normally have ended had it not been for Bernard Decre’s interest; Decre was the originator of the Tour de France Yacht race and was an experienced mariner who was anxious to restore the name of the two French aviators albeit some eighty or more years after the event.
Decre’s searches, which he has organised on an annual basis for several years have been centred on the tiny French island of Saint Pierre some ten miles off the coast of Newfoundland.
He believes that the disappearance of the ‘L’Oiseau Blanc’ may well have been covered up by the U.S. and French authorities so as not to detract from Lindbergh’s achievement. He believes that with fuel running low the pair attempted a fateful landing on the water just off Saint Pierre in a heavy morning fog. The plane, he asserts, may have broken up on impact killing both pilots.
He has unearthed a telegram from the U.S. Coastguards reporting that they found wreckage of a white aircraft floating about 200 miles off the coast in August 1927.
Since 2008 Decre has used sonar and magnetometers in an effort to locate the plane’s engine – the only part of the aircraft that would still have survived underwater after all these years. The task has been made no easier by the presence of many shipwrecks in the same area.
To date he has not found any clear evidence that the ‘L’Oiseau Blanc’ did in fact make it to the American continent but Decre is determined to continue his searches.
By the time I had gone past Etretat the rain had set in and I was happy to know that I was only about 30 km from Le Havre and I now just concentrated on getting to my destination.
As I came up to Le Havre airport the traffic was building up so I cut down to Ste Adresse and made my way into Le Havre town from there. I was relieved that the day was over, mainly because the rain had made the last section rather unpleasant, but nevertheless I was pleased to have completed some 153km, my longest daily tally to date.
Accumulative – 326km
Day 4 – Le Havre to Grandcamp Maisy. (114 km).
Opposite Le Havre on the other side of the river Seine is Honfleur, a beautiful town centred around the Vieux Basin, an inner harbour which has offered protection for boats for four hundred years. The jewels in the crown are the houses that surround the dock; labelled as the first ‘skyscrapers’, they are seventeenth century terraces which are up to eight stories high. Most of them have restaurants at ground level and I enjoyed a morning coffee at one of them at the waterside before heading off to the Boulevard Charles V.
Here I visited an interesting museum dedicated to Erik Satie, composer, writer and pianist but best of all an out and out eccentric. Satie was born in Honfleur and spent his early years there before moving to Paris to become a caberet pianist. At one point in his life he always wore black, sported a bowler hat and carried an umbrella – a bit like Charlie Chaplin. Later he would only wear grey velvet and apparently ordered a dozen identical suits wearing just one of them until it wore out when it would be discarded and he would move on to the next one.
There was a time when he only ate white food, thinking that it helped him with his musical compositions – a diet of eggs, coconut, fish in white wine, veal, turnips, rice and pasta.
When he died in 1925 of cirrhosis of the liver, brought about by his heavy drinking, his apartment had not been visited by anyone for 27 years – he lived there as a recluse. When his friends did eventually go inside after his death they found the place a filthy, untidy mess. The bed-sheets had obviously not been changed for years, there were two grand pianos, one on top of the other – the top one had been used to store letters and files.
There were over a hundred umbrellas in the room, 84 handkerchiefs and an empty cupboard, which it was thought Satie used to go into to meditate. In the museum Satie’s eccentricity is manifested in a series of rooms, decorated perhaps as he would have wished. One is painted completely black, (the floor, walls and ceiling), and in one corner, suspended from the ceiling is a giant golden pear with wings that flap. Now if that’s not eccentric I don’t know what is.
Honfleur is definitely on the Seine estuary but just a few kilometres further on and I was descending into Trouville which is certainly on the sea. A hop across the bridge over the River Touques and I was in Deauville – I must confess that Deauville is not really my sort of town as it gives the impression that it has been dropped into the Normandy countryside purely for the pleasure of visiting wealthy Parisians – which is of course exactly what it is.
The Duke de Morny, the half -brother of Emperor Napolean III had an ambitious vision to turn the tiny village of Deauville with a population of eighty people into a resort; he drained the surrounding marshland and started construction of the town in 1860.
It was in 1907 that what still remains today as one of Deauville’s most sumptuous houses was built – known now as the Villa Strassburger.
Baron Henri de Rothschild bought this land from Gustave Flaubert’s family, ( he of ‘Madame Bovary’ fame), who had to sell up to pay off their debts, and he built a wonderful house which was a mixture of half-timbered walls, towers, pagoda cornices and Swiss chalet style roofs. Unfortunately the house wasn’t open so I had to make do with a photo of me on the Solex outside the gates. Weaving around the Maseratis, Lamborghinis and Bentleys through the streets of Deauville I continued along the coast and couldn’t help but pose in front of a masterpiece of topiary at Villers-sur-mer – a giant dinosaur which was being trimmed by the local council workers as I passed.
I pulled over at Dives-sur-mer for a short break before pressing on through Cabourg and on to Pegasus Bridge which spans the River Orne and the Caen Canal.
It was in the early morning of D-Day, (6th June 1944), that the bridge was taken by the British 6th Airborne Division in a surprise attack when the troops landed in gliders. They took and held the bridge in a relatively short space of time and this proved to be a major triumph for the Allies as it effectively prevented the Germans from getting reinforcements up to the Normandy beaches.
The bridge was named Pegasus after the emblem of the Parachute Regiment – the flying horse Pegasus. The cafe just across the bridge claims to be the first house liberated during the Allied Invasion and is still run by the Gondree family who were in occupation in 1944.
Once I had passed Caen and was onto the coast road beyond Ouistreham the going became very easy – flat roads generally close to the sea and very little wind to slow me down. I must have been cruising along at around thirty kilometres an hour!!
From the road that drops into Arromanche one can look down on the sea and there are the remains of arguably the greatest wartime engineering feat of all time. What is left of the Mulberry harbour appears to a greater or lesser extent depending on the state of the tide.
In 1944 the D-Day landings were to take place on the beaches at and around Arromanches and the plan was to land hundreds of thousands of men and equipment in order to liberate France.
Ideally this massive influx of material would have been brought in through one of the major ports, Cherbourg being the only one of any real significance within striking distance. The Germans though had control in Cherbourg and it was obvious that the Allies would be unable to take it in the near future.
Churchill therefore came up with an audacious plan – immediately after the landings on D-Day they would take their own harbour with them and within a few days the Allies would in theory be offloading supplies to the Normandy coast.
The mobile harbours, codenamed Mulberry, were to consist of a great number of individual prefabricated concrete caissons, (massive hollow box-like structures), that could be floated across the Channel and when assembled would form a series of breakwaters, pontoons and roadways where ships could tie up to discharge their precious cargoes essential to sustaining the troops already ashore. Floating ramps would allow the military vehicles to drive straight up onto the beaches.
Each individual caisson weighed between 2,000 and 6,000 tons and they were towed across the Channel, two tugs to a caisson, at a speed of three knots. Once in position they were flooded and they sank to the bottom of the shallow sea where they can still be seen as a curved series of concrete boxes which gave protection to the roadways that led ashore.
The harbour at Arromanche continued to operate for ten months and in that time some two and a half million men, half a million vehicles and four million tons of goods were brought ashore.
Stopping at Port-en-Bessin-Huppain for an ice cream I was able to stretch my legs for a while at the fishing port where they seemed to be a lot of ship repair yards all busy making as much noise as possible clanking hammers on decks and generally sounding very industrious.
Accumulative – 440km
Day 5 – Grandcamp Maisy to Cherbourg. (102km)
I found Grandcamp Maisy to be an attractive little fishing port with a fine beach and promenade. Unfortunately, due to the exceptionally high tides at the time of my visit, the beach was largely covered with seaweed and it did smell a bit.
Nevertheless I sat on a bench on the seafront, ate a sandwich and watched the world go by. An elderly lady sat down beside me and as always the Solex was a topic of conversation. Her name was Edith and she told me that she was on holiday in Grandcamp Maisy with her grandson – she was 84 years old.
Edith had lived all her life in Bayeux, about nine kilometres from the coast, and she remembered the time of the Normandy landings well as she was twelve years old in 1944. At the time the locals were aware that there was going to be an imminent Allied invasion but they didn’t know where or just when it would take place.
Eight days after the landings Edith decided to get on her bicycle to see what was going on and she pedalled over to Arromanches by which time the Mullberry harbour was in place and she described the sea as being black with the number of ships which seemed to stretch away to the horizon. The offloading of troops, transport and supplies had already started and over the next ten months the Mullberry harbours would prove to be an invaluable asset to keep the Allied troops supplied and make a valuable contribution to the liberation of France.
After passing through Isigny I had to make a small detour inland to cross the River Taute at Carentan, a much smaller town than I had imagined, but I was soon on my way towards the coast again on the route taken by the American army after they had landed at Utah Beach.
On reaching Utah Beach the road turned more or less to the north and hugged the wide expanse of sandy beach. I was surprised to see how many remains there were of the concrete German fortifications along this stretch – although on reflection, as they were made from reinforced concrete and had been built by the Germans it’s perhaps not so surprising that they have lasted over seventy years.
Most of the structures that remain seem to be used by farmers to store tractors or to house animals.
Once again the roads along the expanse of Utah Beach were perfect for the Solex and ‘L’escargot’ raced along at breakneck speed – well, at least that’s how it seemed to me.
As I approached Saint Vaast I could not help but see the numerous wooden structures built out in the sea not too far away from the shoreline. Line after line of long tables just a few feet high and rising up above the waterline with what appeared to be bags of something or other on top of them.
These were in fact the famous oyster beds of St Vaast where it is claimed some of the best oysters in France are raised.
Although I’ve eaten a fair number of oysters in my time I never really thought much about how they were produced commercially and just how they reproduced, given that they seem to live a fairly static life. Spawning takes place in the Spring when a rise in water temperature triggers the males to release sperm into the water as the females release their eggs, (between 50,000,000 and 80,000,000 at any one time).
Soon after fertilisation pin-head sized larvae hatch in about ten days and are able to swim around for a couple of weeks by which time a shell has started to develop and the ‘spat’ as it is by then known sinks to the bottom of the sea and attaches itself to a rock or more often to another oyster shell.
This two-week period is the only time the oyster travels on its own accord and it spends the rest of its life in one place simply opening and closing its shell to filter algae from the seawater.
It takes around three years for an oyster to grow to full size and it puts on around an inch growth of shell each year. If it can avoid being eaten by predators it can live up to ten years by which time it may have reproduced billions of times.
Farms such as those at St Vaast put the ‘spats’ in special rope mesh pillow-shaped bags which are left in the sea to grow to maturity. They have to be turned regularly and thinned out as they grow to give them ample room to develop, to ensure that they have a good shape and do not stick to one another.
Normandy oysters are renowned for their fleshy meat and being rich in iodine; those from St Vaast are said to have a singularly nutty taste that distinguishes them from those of other regions.
I sampled a dozen in St Vaast and although they were indeed very good I have to admit that the ‘singular nutty taste’ escaped me; but then I am rarely able to detect the ‘hint of gooseberry, raspberry or scented pine forests’ in a fine wine.
I rested for an hour or so at Barfleur where I found a bench at the end of the harbour wall and watched the tide come in. A solitary seagull hung above me as if suspended by an invisible thread from the heavens. The water in the harbour was crystal clear and the small wavelets slurped gently up the slipway in front of me. The church clock to my right struck ever half hour, the fishing boats phutt-phutted their way back into Barfleur with a following of expectant seagulls, the sun was shining and a gentle breeze caressed my face – all was well and I only had another 28 kilometres to go.
After Barfleur the road turned to the west and towards my destination for the day Cherbourg. There were few views of the sea until I had reached Anse du Brick when a wonderful panorama of Cherbourg harbour lay before me.
Accumulative – 542km
Day 6 – Cherbourg to Le Pirou. (111 km)
I stayed at the youth hostel in Cherbourg, (you’re not sniggering again are you?), which was close to the Arab quarter of the town – lots of kebab shops with tables outside where the only customers appeared to be of north African origin. In the evening sofas had been brought out onto the pavements with small coffee tables where the customers who had earlier been drinking orange juice and eating kebabs were now smoking hookahs. I don’t know what was in the hookahs but they all seemed to be very relaxed.
Despite an early start the traffic was very busy until I reached the outskirts of the town and made my way along the coast road towards Cap de la Hague. The coastline to the west of Cherbourg is beautiful; vivid blue sea reflecting the colour of the sky and a rocky coast of small inlets and coves. Only one thing spoils this stretch of landscape and that does so in a big way – the nuclear recycling plant near the village of Jobourg.
This facility is the largest of its kind anywhere in the world and takes in spent nuclear fuel from countries near and far resulting in frequent transportation of very dangerous radioactive products.
Greenpeace have campaigned since the late nineties for the plant to be closed down as it alleges that 1,000,000 litres of radioactive waste is dumped into the English Channel in front of La Hague every day – yes, every day.
Independent sources have tested the waters off La Hague and they have been shown to be 17,000,000 times more radioactive than normal seawater.
The radioactivity pumped into the sea here gets taken by currents northwards and has been detected as far away as Nordic and even Arctic waters. Just what effect this has on the local fish population and those who eat them one can only wonder – those oysters I had at St Vaast now didn’t seem such a good idea.
La Hague also regularly releases radioactive clouds of waste into the air raising the level of Krypton-85 to 90,000 times above natural levels and the isotope Carbon-14, which is generally considered to be extremely harmful to human health, is also emitted.
It should therefore perhaps come as no great surprise to hear that yet another independent study found that children who live close to the plant are three times more likely to contract leukaemia than those living elsewhere in France.
Of course, with 58 nuclear reactors in France, which supply 80% of the country’s electricity, someone somewhere has to deal with the spent by-products of the power stations and no one wants this to be done in their backyard.
I approached the facility from the back and several tall chimneys loomed up above the trees. As I gradually made my way around to the west side of the factory I could see a slowly rotating radar aerial – like an all-seeing eye. The whole area is closed off with a double row of tall fences with multiple layers of coiled razor wire inside. There were also several strands of wire inside the fences with very large insulators – I suspected that this was no ordinary electric fence for keeping cows in check.
I became aware of an eerie silence around the whole place. There were a few cars parked inside the plant but other than this there was not a single sign of any human presence. The buildings were like giant concrete blocks, windowless and austere. Nothing visible was coming out of the chimneys and there was no sound whatsoever.
Recalling several episodes of ‘The Simpsons’ I’d seen I suddenly realised that everything surrounding the plant was green – the grass, the leaves, the pine trees, the ferns at the side of the road, the field of maize swaying in the breeze, fields of cabbages and lettuces.
I pulled down my visor to protect me from any possible radioactivity and pedalled on. Within a couple of hundred metres my visor had turned green too and the plastic had started to melt. I held my breath and hurried on past the two-headed security guard at the main gate …………. Only kidding folks but I can’t help think that when stuff does come out of those chimneys it’s nothing too healthy.
I refuelled at Les Pieux and then made my way through some pleasant lanes around Sciotot, Le Rozel and Surtainville where I was able to enjoy some spectacular views of a number of great beaches and rocky promontories.
At the town of Carteret I decided to go out to the Cap de Carteret where the map suggested there would be an excellent panorama across the sea to the coast that I was yet to ride along. What the map didn’t prepare me for was the steepness and severity of the hill leading up to the top of the Cap. It was certainly the steepest and longest hill that I had so far tried to ascend, the weather was very warm and as I approached the summit, (walking alongside ‘L’escargot’ obviously), I had a few pains in my chest and hoped that it wasn’t the onset of a heart attack!
Clearly it wasn’t as I managed to struggle to the lighthouse at the top and indeed there was a brilliant view of the coast ahead – it looked like a very long way that I still had to go that afternoon. I bought some fruit at Barneville-Carteret to sustain me for the rest of the day and continued on south as far as Port-bail.
The layout of Port-bail is rather strange as from the village itself there is an old stone thirteen-arched bridge which links the two harbours and runs across a lagoon that’s very popular with canoeists and seagulls. Sailing appears to be popular and there is a good sandy beach on the other side of the bridge where I stopped off for a rest.
Once underway again I soon passed through an area of intense cultivation – carrots, leeks and celery were the order of the day and the fields of celery smelt good as I rode by. Now, I always thought that the carrots that you buy in French supermarkets that are covered with sand were as a result of them having been stored in sand to preserve them. Not a bit of it – they come from this region where they are grown in fields where the soil consists of almost entirely sand.
The landscape then suddenly changed for a few kilometres as I was winging my way through scented pine forests where the banks at the roadside were covered with beautiful pink heather – had I been able to close my eyes I could almost have imagined that I was riding through the bathroom deodorants section at Sainsburys.
My stop for the night was at Le Pirou, a small resort with a clean beach and a seawater swimming pool which fills and empties with the rise and fall of the tide – an ingenious idea that provides a good facility for the people at a small cost.
Accumulative – 653km
Day 7 – Le Pirou to Avranches. (66km)
From Le Pirou the road surface was a strange pink colour but it was at least nice and flat so I was able to cruise along at a reasonable speed. Had a bit more rain here for a short period of time and I was particularly careful to avoid riding too much on the painted white lines as I recalled an incident in this year’s Tour de France where several riders had skidded on the slippery painted bits on the road.
Twenty kilometres or so after leaving Le Pirou the road took me across the River Sienne where alongside the road bridge was an old Roman bridge with the middle bit missing – this was the Pont de la Roque.
During the Second World War this bridge was targeted by the Allies as the retreating German army had to pass across the Sienne as they moved south from Cherbourg and to have trapped them north of the river would have been advantageous. The bridge was in a valley which made aerial bombing very difficult and over twenty individual raids were carried out before eventually it fell to the R.A.F. who with pinpoint accuracy destroyed the three central arches of the beautiful bridge.
The Germans nevertheless managed to get across the river at low tide and continued their retreat to Granville. The damaged bridge has been left as a monument and I crossed the river on the new bridge which was built alongside the old just after the war.
I stopped for a coffee at a small bar and was approached by Ali who was obviously keen to practice his English – Ali was clearly of North African descent.
‘I know England’, he told me, ‘I went to the university at Green-witch near London.’
I corrected his pronunciation and told him that although it was spelt Greenwich it was pronounced Gren-ich.
‘Yes, I know’, he assured me, ‘very beautiful place.’
I asked him what he had studied.
‘Not study … I visit museum there … very beautiful.’
‘In England people don’t talk to you very much … what you say reserved? But they treat me very good, not like here in France. I came here from Algeria with my parents when I was a little baby to live in Paris. We had to live in a not very nice area and didn’t have much money but these days the French people all look at me as if I am a terrorist. It’s very difficult. I think that I would prefer to live in Green-witch.’
Ali seemed like a nice guy but life was treating him badly through no fault of his own – I sympathised with him and took my leave.
I next came to Granville, one of the bigger towns on the Cotentin peninsular where I slowly rode through the busy town down to the port area. It was a very busy place, both in the seafood restaurants around the port and on the water too. Quite large boats ferry tourists from here to the Chausey Islands which lie about fifteen kilometres west of Granville and there is also clearly a thriving fishing fleet operating out of the town.
I climbed the road out of town and headed forever southwards, through St Pair sur Mer and on to Jullouville which must be one of the longest towns spread out as it is for a long way along the D911 – all souvenir shops and ice cream parlours.
Just before St Jean le Thomas there was a wonderful view across the Bay of St Mont Michel to the Mont itself in the distance. From there I took a small road along the coast as far as Genets where I stopped at the beach at Bec d’Andaine for yet more ‘moules frites’; well, you can’t have too much of a good thing and the ‘moules’ here were the best I had tasted on the trip so far.
Genets is the starting point for those intrepid walkers who want to follow in the footsteps of the original pilgrims of many years ago. At low tide they are able to make the two hour or so crossing to Mont St Michel over the exposed sand, mud and water. They do normally have a guide with them or I suspect that some of them wouldn’t make it back.
Accumulative – 719km.
Day 8 – Avranches to Dinan. (110km).
I got onto a really pleasant little road that ran by the coast near Ceaux just past Avranches. The only other traffic was a few cycles and every now and then there were glimpses of Mont St Michel through the trees.
As I came closer to the Mont I had no choice but to use the main road which was very busy with tourists going to see the abbey. I decided to skip a visit, (I had been before), as I preferred the freedom of my Solex to standing in a queue with half the population of China and much of the rest of Europe.
I made my way to Beauvoir where indeed there was a ‘beau’ ‘voir’ of Mont St Michel. I crossed a little bridge over the River Couesnon and entered a region called the Polders.
The soil in the Polders, if you can call it that, was composed more or less entirely of sand and the flat landscape was planted with a variety of crops, mainly asparagus. Here the roads were very narrow but totally empty apart from the odd tractor. A slight breeze was blowing off the bay but the going was easy and this was what riding a VeloSolex was all about.
A short way to the west of Mont St Michel, close to the small village of St Marcan I came across an odd structure – a square almost windowless stone building measuring some four metres along each side and about five metres high with a wooden balcony running around the top. On the roof was what appeared to be an old-fashioned television aerial mounted on a high post but made from solid pieces of timber.
It turned out to be one of the few remaining semaphore or telegraph towers, which made up an ingenious system of communication across the length and breadth of France during the latter part of the eighteenth century.
The semaphore towers were the brainchild of one Claude Chappe, a French inventor, who came up with the idea in 1790. At that time France was surrounded by its enemies, Great Britain, Holland, Austria, Prussia and it was important that military and other information should be able to be relayed to Paris from the further flung parts of the country both quickly and securely. The only way of achieving this at the time was by sending a hand-written message by a rider on horseback which was both slow and not very secure.
Chappe’s idea was to construct a series of towers between the principal towns, each tower being within visible range of the next one and approximately ten kilometres away from it. A message would be relayed from one tower to the next in line and when received it would be sent on to the neighbouring tower and so on down the line.
After some experimentation Chappe found that the most easily read signal could be achieved by constructing a large wooden framework on the top of the tower. This consisted of a wide crossbeam about four metres long to which at each end was attached a hinged bar each about 1.5 metres long. These shorter arms could through a system of ropes and pullies be set at varying angles to the crossbar, (at 45 degree intervals), and the crossbar itself could be either horizontal or vertical.
These different configurations gave a possible combination of 98 positions which could be recognised in the neighbouring tower. Each position was allocated a number and by reference to a codebook the recipient of the message would be able to decode it, (each number represented a letter of the alphabet, a number or a short phrase or group of letters).
The initial line of fifteen towers was constructed between Paris and Lille in 1792, a total distance of 143 miles and a short message was able to be sent through within nine minutes.
The system was deemed a great success and further towers were built to link all the major towns. Most were built on high ground but in some cases existing tall buildings such as churches or cathedrals were used.
The tower at St Marcan, which has recently been restored to its original working condition formed part of the line of towers between Paris and Brest. The next relay stations to St Marcan were a tower at Mont Dol to the west and Mont St Michel itself. A total of 556 stations were built altogether throughout France but very few remain to this day.
Unfortunately for Chappe his success was relatively short-lived as the electronic telegraph took over in 1852 and his towers became obsolete and started to decay.
I returned to the road that runs around the southern shoreline of the Bay of Mont St Michel and as I approached Cancale I was able to enjoy sweeping views across the water with Mont St Michel faraway in the distance and partly shrouded in mist.
Cancale is a pleasant port and resort but has steep roads leading into the town so I was soon walking at L’escargot’s side before long as we made our way up and out of town and back onto the road towards St Malo.
Although the streets of St Malo were busy, most had a cycle lane at the side and so my progress through the town was both speedy and relatively safe.
The only link across the mouth of the River Rance to Dinard is a dual carriageway – which Solexes are not permitted to use. The alternative would have been to have made a detour inland which would have meant an extra 30km to my journey – I decided therefore to risk it and take the easy crossing on the dual carriageway.
Unfortunately there was no hard shoulder and the two lanes of traffic were moving at high speed and I was conscious of my slow rate of progress as cars swerved around me. I was very glad to get to the other side and will think twice before venturing onto such a road again.
I rested for a while at Dinard and enjoyed the view of the town from a sandy beach at the side of the Rance.
From Dinard I headed inland towards Dinan as everyone had told me that this was a pretty medieval town that was not to be missed. On the way the countryside changed to a rolling meadowland full of cattle, lots of trees and grassland.
Dinan is indeed an outstanding town but as with all outstanding places was full of other people who also wanted to see it. The architecture in the old town on top of the hill was well preserved but the streets were full and the cafes and restaurants were full to bursting point.
From the viaduct I could see the old port way below on the banks of the Rance and I headed down there where I found it to be less busy and the tranquillity of the place was more to my liking.
In Dinan I stayed at the youth hostel, (you’re not laughing again are you?), which was a rather nice stone watermill on the edge of the town surrounded by trees and the only sound was the babble of the mill stream.
Accumulative – 829km
Day 9 – Dinan to St Brieuc. (104km).
At the youth hostel the only other Englishman turned out to be Robin, an old chap who was 72 years old, (God, that’s the same age as me – but he really did seemed much older). He came from an ex-mining area in Nottinghamshire and had been a member of the Youth Hostels Association for more than 50 years. Since his retirement he spends his time travelling around mainly the U.K., France and Germany, using hostels all the time.
He told me rather proudly that he bought all his clothes from charity shops which was somewhat self evident from his appearance. He assured me that I could get a suit in the charity shop in Derby for £1 – could be useful next time I have to go to a funeral; although on second thoughts that will probably be my own so no need to worry.
Robin uses budget airlines when he goes abroad, (don’t we all?), and to make the most of his free carry-on baggage allowance he told me that he always wears 3 shirts, 2 pullovers, 2 pairs of trousers and a coat when he gets on the plane.
He flew into Dinard airport with Ryanair, which of course is actually nowhere near Dinard and is apparently in a field some way out of town. When he arrived he hitch-hiked to Dinan but as he was returning the day after I met him he was planning to take a bus to a nearby village and then walk the last 5km to the airport. It was very hot weather at the time and I couldn’t help but wonder how he got on walking in all those clothes in the sweltering sunshine.
From Dinan I made my way back to the coast stopping briefly at Matignon for some liquid refreshment. On then to Cap Frehel, a wild part of the Brittany coast which is a popular tourist spot. I parked the Solex near the lighthouse and went off to take some photos. When I returned I found that some of the tourists were taking photos of the VeloSolex!
To the west of Cap Frehel there were several wonderful and secluded beaches nestling in among the rugged coastline. This was one of the prettiest areas I had yet passed through and the next town, Sables-d’Or-les-Pins, was exactly what it says on the tin – a massive golden beach and lots of pine trees. The clear blue sea and the islands offshore gave it a special appeal. I took a break here and sat on the seafront and lunched on a baguette and some dried sausage.
To the west of Sables-d’Or-les-Pins there were a number of little fishing villages and quite a few seafood restaurants. The landscape became more wooded as I approached St Brieuc and it startedto rain as I entered the city. I had arranged to stay at a small hotel at Plerin which was on the outskirts of St Brieuc and turned out to be a pleasantly quiet resort just above the sea at St Laurent de la Mer.
The owner of the hotel recommended an annual barbeque that was being held that evening at the campsite just down the road from the hotel – I hadn’t eaten much all day, (don’t seem to get hungry when I’m on the move) – so I decided to go.
There was a choice of ‘moules frites’ or grilled pig – I opted for both as I thought that I could consider the ‘moules’ as a starter. The portions were certainly bigger than I had expected and I was pretty much stuffed by the time I’d finished. Unfortunately word had got around that I was going around the coast of France on my Solex and the chef came over with an extra portion of grilled pig; I tried my best but had to give most of it to the chap sitting next to me.
We were entertained by a Brittany style bagpipe player and someone playing a type of small clarinet which I assume was also something of local origin. Quite a pleasant sound but very repetitive. Later in the evening there were a couple of singers but I didn’t stay as I wanted to make an early start the next day as it was to be one of my longest day so far.
Day 10 – St Brieuc to Trebeurden. (129km)
The first 30kms out of St Brieuc were relatively flat and ‘L’escargot’ seemed to relish the ease of making ground without the strain of having to go uphill and so we flew along.
I called at Bonaparte Beach just above the town of St Quay Portrieux and close to the village of Plouha where a long and steep descent to sea level didn’t bode too well for my return to the main road. The small cove is remembered as being part of what was known as the Shelburne Line.
The Shelburne Line, set up in 1943 by the British Military Intelligence MI9, was the WW2 codename for an escape route from Paris to Bonaparte Beach and beyond to England for Allied servicemen and agents who had either escaped from German captivity or had managed to avoid capture in occupied France.
In all a total of 135 men were safely evacuated from the beach in eight separate operations and were returned to England without the escape route being infiltrated by the Gestapo.
The men destined for evacuation were initially gathered together in safe houses in Paris and when the operation was ready to start a coded message would be sent from London on the radio and they would then travel by train to various towns in Brittany. They received new names, identity cards, clothing and training and were provided with special passes for the forbidden coastal zone. Mostly they posed as foreign workmen who were supposedly there to carry out labour for the German defences.
Local volunteers and members of the French Resistance would then provide accommodation in the area until the night of the operation, which was always on a dark moonless night. They would be led in small groups to the top of the cliffs where they would wait while a courier checked out the track for mines. If he located any, a white handkerchief was placed on top of the mine and he would move on down the path. This in itself was a hazardous exercise as the Germans had lookout posts just along the coast
The Royal Navy sent an MGB, (motor gun boat), to stand some way out from the beach. When it had arrived the men would descend the cliff in single file with firm instructions to remain silent, don’t smoke and don’t tread on the white hankies.
They would then be rowed out to the MGB and once onboard would make the four hour trip back to Dartmouth in Devon. MGBs were chosen for the task as they were relatively silent, could accommodate up to 25 men and were fast, (about 35knots).
As the MGB departed the courier would make his way back up the cliff collecting the white hankies as he went.
Today the beach is accessed through a tunnel cut through the rocks and is a popular beach for swimming.
My return to the main road was indeed difficult due to the steepness of the road and I had to walk alongside ‘L’escargot’ for some time to get back level with the top of the cliffs. I was now in hydrangea country as they grew in virtually every garden and even wild along the roadside and in fields. The famous Brittany artichoke was also in evidence as there were fields of these all ready for harvesting.
The going remained predominantly flat as far as Paimpol, which I reckon must have the worst maintained streets in the whole of Brittany – you feel every bump on a Solex – but after this it became progressively more hilly; usually short sharp hills rather than long ones so these weren’t too bad. Lezardrieux was a pleasant boating-orientated town and I continued towards Lanmodez where I had my lunch at the side of a cemetery – nice and quiet at least.
Treguier was an imposing town perched above the mouth of the river Jaudy. Most of the buildings were built from a sombre grey stone and gave the impression of great solidity. It was somewhere around here that I came across a church with a very wonky spire – by far and away the most distorted that I’d ever seen.
At La Roche Jaune I must have taken a wrong turning as I unfortunately missed going through the village of St Gonery – surely dedicated to the patron saint of sexually transmitted diseases. Nevertheless I found my way on to Plougrescant and then on to the end of this particular point at Pors-Hir which was a tiny fishing port with a fine sandy beach.
All along this part of the coast there were excellent views of the many small islands and rocky outcrops that make this a difficult and dangerous coast to navigate in a boat. My destination for the day was Trebeurden, a west facing town that gave me splendid views of the sunset.
I stayed in the youth hostel which was opposite Ile Grande just a few kilometres from Trebeurden. I was one of only three or four guests that night and I used the hostel kitchen to heat up a tin of ravioli for my dinner. I had a room to myself with a small terrace and table and chairs which was a great place to relax after 129kms.
In the kitchen I met a young French girl – Charlotte – who was, she told, me there for a week just reading and going to the beach. She was at drama school and wants to be a comedian, (or maybe that should be a comedienne?) She seemed to be confident that she would find work after her studies – well, I guess the world could do with more laughter.
After my simple meal I walked down to the beach, sat on a rock and watched the sun go down. Deserted, warm and with a very slight breeze – I liked this place.
Accumulative – 1,062km
Day 11 – Trebeurden to Morlaix. (74km)
Rain once again in the early part of the morning but cleared up after about an hour and the sun shone intermittently for the rest of the day. The problem with the rain is that it obviously makes the road more slippery and therefore less safe, it reduces the traction of the motor onto the tyre and as such gives less power on the hills and it covers the visor and reduces vision and has to be wiped off at frequent intervals.
Lannion was very busy so didn’t stop but pressed on up the long incline out of the town – no alternative here to the main road and I found that I needed to concentrate well to stay as close to the edge of the road as possible and keep a straight line.
The beach at St Efflam was busy with windsurfers – it sweeps majestically around the bay and the road here is just a few metres from the sand. From here I took the short stretch of ‘Corniche de l’Amarique’ which hugs the coastline and runs through a shady pine wood.
Locquirec I remembered from a previous visit but it was full of tourists with most of the tables on the restaurant terraces full to bursting point. Without the people and their cars it would have been a pleasant place to stop, but as with all places that are pretty, there are too many visitors who all want to go there at the same time.
I tried to get to Beg-an-Fry which had been recommended to me but having taken a couple of wrong turns and paid the price by having to walk up two or three extra hills I was too tired to backtrack so had to give it a miss. Walking alongside the Solex is in fact quite gruelling insomuch that even at its slowest speed the bike still goes up the hill under its own steam a bit faster than one would normally care to walk up a steep hill. It’s not practical to stop as to restart the engine would mean going back down the hill, albeit not too far – so, one presses on without stopping until exhaustion sets in. Normally though, one can get to the top and then rest.
Heading south towards Morlaix I stopped briefly at the small fishing port of Le Dourduff where I was met by Gerard who took a few photos of me on the Solex – something that’s difficult to do on my own.
The ride along the side of the river down into Morlaix is very pleasing and was easy going.
Accumulative – 1,136km
This then is the end of the first stage of my journey which has taken me across the north coast of France from the Belgian border to Finistère.
A further blog of the second leg will follow shortly.