Day 12 – Morlaix to Brest. (155 km)
Although it was dry but cloudy when I set off, within five minutes the heavens had opened up and it was as if I was riding through a shower room. By the time I had found a safe place to pull over and get my waterproofs out of the panniers I was pretty well soaked. Of course putting on my waterproofs just kept in the dampness already on my clothes and body but I pressed on feeling rather uncomfortable.
I had to shelter for a while in a bus shelter near Plouescat and I did feel somewhat like a homeless person battling against the elements looking out at passing motorists sitting in their air-conditioned cars in perfectly dry comfort. As the sky showed no sign that the rain would abate I carried on through the rain stopping at a covered market place in a village the name of which escapes me.
By now I was totally saturated from the waist down and my shoes and socks were completely sodden. I now knew what it must be like to wear incontinence pants when on a night out to the pub. The ‘waterproof’ trousers that I had bought from Black’s in Norwich were proving to be anything but waterproof and in my head I was concocting a lawsuit against them for selling them to me under false pretences.
By the time I’d arrived at the village of Lilia, which is opposite the Ile de Vierge, the rain had stopped only to be replaced by a swirling mist which steamed up my glasses in double quick time. I pulled up at the view point to look across at the tallest lighthouse in Europe.
There now follows today’s competition; it’s called ‘Spot the Lighthouse’ and you have to look at the following photo and see if you can identify the lighthouse. By way of a clue I can tell you that it’s 82.5 metres high, made of granite, there are 397 steps to the top where there is a light that flashes every five seconds and can be seen from a distance of fifty kilometres; (50km my arse!).
At Portsall I pulled up at the port and hung up my outer clothes to dry – it had stopped raining by now and the sun was doing its best to throw some light on the proceedings.
Portsall is remembered for the tragedy that struck in 1978 when a super tanker the ‘Amoco Cadiz’ ran aground on the Portsall Rocks some three kilometres in front of the port spilling its cargo of 250,000 tons of crude oil and 4,000 tons of fuel oil – the worst ecological disaster up until that time. The steering gear on the ship had packed up and the hull soon broke into three. There was a strong northerly wind at the time and the oil was taken directly towards Portsall filling the harbour with oil to quite a depth.
The Portsall Rocks in the photo are to the right of the lighthouse in the distance.
I spoke to a couple of elderly locals who were there in 1978 and they told me about the time of the disaster.I suggested that it must have had a devastating effect on the village but Marcel said:
‘’Certainly the fishing was a disaster for all of those involved but by and large I don’t think that the village did too badly. There were a lot of people who came from all over France just to look at the pollution on the beaches, there were hundreds of workers here to clean up the rocks with high-pressure lances and the military were also here in large numbers. All of these people had to be accommodated and fed and it’s for sure that all of the hotels, restaurants and bars did very good business.’’
I asked him how long it took for the fishing to recover.
‘’It was all more or less back to normal within six months – that’s the fish. I suppose the fish were able to go further out into deeper water where there was no pollution and then return after the clean-up. The shellfish of course took a lot longer. But it was the birds that really suffered. It was pathetic to see them covered in oil – they tried to clean them up and no doubt some survived but birds are very fragile you know and they say that 20,000 died. I’m sure that there were a lot more that died out to sea and were not counted.’’
I asked if there were still any signs of the pollution today.
‘’Not really. Sometimes if large rocks are moved you can see the black marks on the underside but there’s normally nothing to see. There are now only one or two fishermen working out of the port which today caters for leisure – windsurfing, canoeing and diving mainly.’’
‘Amoco Cadiz’ anchor.
Marcel’s friend had left us but came back proudly riding his own Velosolex which he wanted to show me.
Back on my Solex I now had a very squidgy feeling in the region of my underpants as both they and my trousers were still very wet. I couldn’t help but recall that when I was a youngster my mother always used to tell me that if I sat on damp grass or on any wet surface I would get haemorrhoids – I’m not sure that I knew what they were at the time but I suspect that in a couple of days or so I will be able to let you know if there is any truth in this assertion.
South of Portsall the coastline was spectacular with dozens of small and large rocks or even islands breaking the surface of the sea and being pounded by the waves. Even though the steering gear had broken down on the ‘Amoco Cadiz’ one would still have to be very careful navigating around here in a sound boat.
I made it to the extreme point of Brittany at Le Conquet and then headed for Brest where I got completely lost before finding my accommodation for the night. Getting lost in any town or city with a population of more than a few thousand people is now becoming the norm.
Accumulative – 1,291 km
Day 13 – Brest to Concarneau (113 km)
Getting out of Brest proved to be a bit problematic as there are just two bridges that cross the River Elorn, the newer bridge is a dual carriageway and therefore off limits for a Solex and the old bridge, (my only option), was closed as they were setting up for a marathon. After riding around for some time I managed to persuade one of the marshals to let me ride through – I had to duck underneath the finishing tape and was tempted to throw my hands in the air as I crossed the line in the style of Chris Froome. Had I done so I would no doubt have fallen off to the delight of the spectators.
It was a Sunday and as such there were lots of cyclists out on the road – most of them were able to pass me with very little effort on their part but by now I was beginning to accept that and told myself that I actually saw and appreciated the countryside better than they did.
I paused for a while at a beautiful little village with the unlikely sounding name of Hopital Camfrout and sat at the side of the stream that flows through the centre.
Many of the houses in this area have shingles at the first floor level which seemed to be made from stone – very attractive.
I followed the ‘corniche’ as it clung to the south side of the River Faou where it flows into what is actually the sea but because of the convoluted nature of this part of the Brittany coastline it appears to run into a lake as you can see more land just across the water. The Pont de Terenez, which actually has a separate carriageway for cycles, brought me into the hilly wooded scenery of the Foret de Landevennec. I could see Landevennec Abbey tucked into the forest high above me on the other side of the inlet and there were a number of old rusting naval vessels rotting away beneath the hillside in the water.
I dropped down from the road on a narrow track to look for an old tidal mill; this involved descending several very steep hills and I was rather worried about getting back up as this was the only route down to the mill.
Arriving at the mill I switched off the engine, took off my crash helmet and was met with a barrage of silence. For once I had stumbled upon a beautiful place where there were no other people. I stood there soaking up the quietness and the only sound was the splashing of fish as they jumped in the mill pool and the jabbering of a few wading birds picking through the mud at the banks.
Landevennec tidal mill.
There are very few tidal mills left these days but they used to work on the principle of deriving their power from the rise and fall of the tides. As in this case the mills were often built across an estuary where a dam or causeway would be constructed with sluices or tidal gates which would automatically allow water to pass through on the rising tide into a mill pool behind the mill; they would close of their own accord just after high tide as the water started to ebb and the pressure on the gates was in the other direction.
Once the tide had receded somewhat another sluice gate could be opened manually and the water would then fall to the lower level where it would turn a conventional waterwheel. Usually the mills could work from three hours before low tide to three hours after. This six hour working period would occur twice a day but at different times each day. The miller therefore had to be flexible in his working hours.
It surprises me that they were not more popular as they operated with a totally reliable and predictable source which would never run dry nor would it freeze over in winter.
Cutting through some small country lanes and passing the village of St Nic the Solex started to run a little erratically – it was only when I had almost reached Locronan that I noticed that the fuel return pipe had fallen off. There being no other places around I decided that I needed to go into Locronan to seek help at a local garage. Problem was that the town which seemed quite big according to my map sat at the top of a very steep hill.
As petrol was by now pouring out of the carburettor and onto the hot exhaust pipe I felt that it would be prudent to push ‘Lescargot’ rather than risk her catching fire. It was not easy pushing her with all the weight of my equipment on board but I made it in the end. Unfortunately Locronan was one of those medieval tourist villages where there were only art galleries, souvenir shops and restaurants – and of course hundreds of people.
Calling into one of the souvenir shops I asked if they had anything that I would be able to adapt as a pipe to get me going again. The elderly shop assistant went out the back of the shop and came back with a handful of plastic drinking straws. Most of them were no good but one was larger than the rest and I was able to modify it so that most of the petrol would be returned to the fuel tank as it should.
I managed to get to the next village but now realised that it was Sunday and my chance of getting a piece of plastic tubing to do the job properly was fairly slim. As luck would have it though I spotted a depot where there were twenty or more large trucks parked – and the gates were open. I rode in expecting to be met by a ferocious Alsatian dog at any moment. There was no one there but I called at a small cottage in the corner of the compound where a chap came out, (with an Alsatian incidentally), and said he thought he could help. His brother, who I think was more the mechanic drove over a short time later and indeed he found a piece of plastic pipe which did the job. I continued on my way through Quimper where I got lost yet again and on to Concarneau.
Accumulative – 1,404 km.
Day 14 – Concarneau to Quiberon. (123 km)
The youth hostel at Concarneau is wonderfully situated just a few feet from the sea and looking out to the Glenan Islands. The building is a former sailor’s residence and it was very relaxing to sit on the terrace and watch the local fishing boats coming and going as the sun went down.
I met Cedric, a short, ruddy faced sixty or so year old Frenchman who was on a six week walking tour following the long-distance coastal footpath, the GR34, from Brest to the south. Last year he also walked for six weeks from Mont St Michel to Brest so this year’s walk was a continuation of his journey.
He walks about 25 km each day and stays at youth hostels when he can but otherwise at houses of friends, ‘gites’ or bed and breakfasts.
‘At the end of every day,’ he told me, ‘I am more or less exhausted and I wonder if I can carry on. But after a good night’s rest I am refreshed and keen to get started the next day. When it rains it is not so good, I am damp and you don’t see so much at the coast, but when the sun is shining there is nothing better than to be walking next to the sea.’ I knew exactly how he felt!
Now if any of you were thinking of trying to overdose on menhirs then Carnac is the place to be. These extremely large standing stones are everywhere – thousands of them.
Menhirs at Carnac.
I reckon that our Neolithic ancestors must have led pretty charmed lives. Okay, they didn’t have to cut the grass, paint the house, weed the garden, change lightbulbs or worry about paying a mortgage like most of us today. So what did they do?
Well, it seems that they scoured around the countryside looking for stones – the bigger the better and none that weighed less than a few tons. They then moved the stones into groups where they thought they might look nice and then stood them all up on end – and all this without a single JCB! Hats off to those guys is what I say, but I can’t help but wonder just what they did in the evenings for entertainment. And did the Neolithic teenagers help out or did they just mull around in the background kicking up gravel?
There are more than 3,000 menhirs around Carnac, which makes it the biggest collection anywhere in the world and they were put in position between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago.
Some appear to be grouped together in random patterns whereas others are lined up in straight or sometimes curved rows over hundreds of metres. Just why they were put there has been a matter of much speculation over the years but it is generally assumed that there was some religious significance, possibly related to burial sites or maybe an astronomical connection as with other megalithic sites across Europe.
A few more menhirs near Carnac.
Yet more menhirs.
From Carnac I made my way down the ‘Presqu’Ile de Quiberon’, which translates into English as ‘Almost an island of Quiberon’. Well, I reckon that something is either an island, (i.e. it’s completely surrounded by water), or it’s not an island. The ‘Almost an island of Quiberon’ is not in fact an island but is a peninsula, i.e. a narrow strip of land that sticks out in the sea, so why they couldn’t have named it as such is beyond me. Admittedly it is very narrow at one point and it is ‘almost an island’, but not quite.
However, it was edged with sandy beaches and halfway down the peninsula was a solid-looking fortress, Fort Penthievre, which was occupied by the Germans in the Second World War and formed part of the Atlantic Wall. Some 59 members of the French Resistance were tortured and then executed there in 1944 and there is a monument in memory of them.
Again I stayed at a youth hostel, this one consisted of a number of cabins nestling among the sand dunes at Penthievre right next to the sea. I sat on the dunes in the evening and watched the sun go down as it laid an orange reflection across the water to the beach lighting up several islands offshore and …. I don’t believe it, a group of tall stones about 500 metres away from the shore which appear to be standing on end – surely they can’t be menhirs can they?
I reckon that I am now more or less halfway around the cost of France.
Accumulative – 1,527 km.
Day 15 – Quiberon to La Baule (135 km).
Quite surprisingly I managed to find my way through Vannes, which is a sizeable town, without actually getting lost. ‘L’escargot’ seems to relish going through towns where I suppose her speed is quite modest and she can accelerate and pass cars without difficulty – almost as if she’s showing off somewhat.
Once out of Vannes the road that I was using ran alongside the new dual carriageway and so there was not much traffic to bother me and progress was good and relatively relaxed. Just after Arzal I crossed over the dam built across the River Vilaine and continued on small country roads leaving Brittany and entering Pays de la Loire to the outskirts of Guerande. I was able to cut through the old city, entering through the gateways in the medieval walls and dodging the tourists wandering in the middle of the cobbled streets.
Why is it that the majority of tourists deck themselves out in silly clothes in predominantly garish colours? They all seem to wear an odd assortment of footwear, awful shorts and strut around as if they are proud to look like idiots.
From Guerande I made my way towards Le Croisic to have a look at the salt pans where the famous ‘fleur de sel’ has been produced for centuries. Just out of town the thunder started to rumble and I was lucky to get my waterproofs on just in time.
The marshes here have a narrow inlet from the sea through which salt water floods at high tide. The water is guided into a series of channels to the salt pans where the action of the sun and wind evaporate the water to increase the salinity and most of the salt is deposited at the bottom of the pans. This tends to be greyish in colour and is the lower grade salt that’s sold as ordinary sea salt. There certainly wasn’t much evaporation taking place when I passed by.
The ‘fleur de sel’ however forms a thin fragile crust on the surface of the water and is so delicate that it has to be collected manually by workers who use wooden rakes to pull the crystals to the side of the pan.
Salt pans near Guerande.
Commanding a relatively high price as it does ‘fleur de sel’ tends to be used not during the cooking process but as a ‘finishing salt’ put on a dish just before serving. It’s said to have a slight taste of violets as a result of extra minerals, (whoever came up with that one?) – I can’t say that I’ve ever noticed a taste of violets when I’ve used it, but then I couldn’t detect the ‘nutty’ flavour of the oysters at Saint Vaast last week either so who am I to say?
From Le Croisic I made my way eastward to La Baule where I was to stay the night in a hotel just back from the beach. La Baule I found to be a rather characterless town made up of apartments and hotels with apparently little architecture of any note.
The hotel was full of old people and reminded me of ‘Fawlty Towers’ – I suppose that when I arrived there was just one more to the head count but I decided to eat out and was directed by the owner to the esplanade where he assured me there were lots of restaurants. Having changed from my wet day clothes to dry ones I set off in search of food.
The proprietor was right, there were lots of restaurants along the seafront but what he’d omitted to tell me was that they were all closed. I stopped yet another elderly man – this place was beginning to remind me of Worthing – to ask where I might find a restaurant and he directed me to the harbour which was about a kilometre away.
He asked if I was English – I don’t know how he knew that – perhaps it was my accent or possibly the bowler hat I was wearing along with my Union Jack shorts, but he told me that his mother was English and his father French. I listened patiently to half his life story as lightening strikes were flashing out to sea and moving closer to land at every flash and thunder roll.
I made my excuses after a while and started walking briskly towards the harbour. I was about 300 metres short of my destination when the heavens opened up and the heaviest downpour I’ve experienced since I was in the Amazon rainforest erupted around me. There was really nowhere to shelter so I ran to a boat parked on a trailer and crouched underneath it.
At first it gave me some protection but as the wind increased it drove the rain straight at me. Soon the boat appeared to have filled with water and was overflowing onto my head. I couldn’t get any wetter so I walked out in the pounding rain to the harbour where it turned out that all the restaurants were on the other side and it was necessary to walk yet another 500 metres or so to the bridge to get across.
Dripping my way into an Italian restaurant I dined on some fine ‘moules frites’ as a puddle slowly spread around my table. It did stop raining while I was eating but started once again when I left for the long walk back to the hotel – surely there can’t be a God up in heaven can there?
Accumulative – 1,662 km.
Day 16 – La Baule to Sables d’Olonne (144 km).
As I left La Baule the flags on the seafront were standing out straight with a stiff breeze coming off the sea from the south. It was at my side but I knew that I would be turning towards the south after Saint Nazaire and would have it in my face before long.
I made my way down to Saint Nazaire port where I confronted a gigantic and awesome concrete construction that totally dominated the harbour area – the German U-boat pens. The sheer size of this building was overwhelming albeit a rather ugly blot on the landscape it was a vivid reminder of times seventy or so years ago.
St Nazaire U-boat pens.
Built by the Germans between 1941 and 1942 it was one of five such bases in France, the others being at Brest, Lorient, La Rochelle and Bordeaux.
The actual construction was carried out by the Todt Organisation, a civil and military engineering group that built many of the defences on the Atlantic Wall. Todt were notorious for employing forced or slave labour most of who were made up of prisoners of war and workers from countries occupied by the Germans. By the end of 1944 they had 1.4 million workers in their service. No doubt most of the labour force involved in the building of the U-boat pens at Saint Nazaire were effectively slave labourers and many of these had to suffer such hard conditions that they didn’t live to see the end of the war.
There were, and indeed still are, a total of fourteen separate pens most of which were capable of docking two U-boats. Some of the pens could be drained and used as dry docks.
But it is the actual construction and the immensity of the complex that is so impressive. To withstand the onslaught of Allied bombers the roof was made up of layers of reinforced concrete, granite and steel beams with a total thickness of some eight metres in places – it was able to resist attacks by bombs of up to 3.5 tons.
And indeed it did withstand more than fifty Allied bombing raids with hardly a scratch – bear in mind that in those raids 85% of Saint Nazaire was razed to the ground and the town had to be evacuated in April 1943 to avoid further civilian casualties.
The complex was almost a town in itself with dormitories for 1,000 men, generators for both electric and steam, air-raid shelters, cold stores and food lockers, a hospital and dental facilities, kitchens, a bakery and messes, offices, first-aid centres, fire fighting and repair sections.
A few years ago the town council decided to demolish the whole structure but the cost of doing so would have been so expensive they chose to develop it instead. Today it houses the Tourist Office, a museum and several restaurants – one is free to wander around much of the building and visitors can also climb up to the rooftop.
Horrific though the memories of this remnant of the war are I had yet to face my own horror story as I needed to get across the River Loire to the south bank and the only way of doing this was to cross the Saint Nazaire Bridge.
Opened in 1975 the bridge is 3.3 kilometres long, which is a long way for a poor little Solex given that it rises to a height of 65 metres above the river, is treated as a racetrack by the majority of French drivers who cross it and to cap it all the chap who designed it allowed for a lane for cycles which is just 75 cm wide!
The approach road started off with just a slight incline but as I got nearer to the middle of the bridge it became very steep and with the headwind that I was now struggling against and the buffeting from the wind caused by passing cars I really thought that I would have to get off and push – something that would have been almost suicidal. However, ‘L’escargot’ did her utmost and we made it to the other side in one piece although my heart had been in my mouth for most of the crossing and I would certainly not want to repeat the experience.
Once over the bridge I continued as far as Saint Michel Chef-Chef, (now who thought that one up?), and then rested at a small cafe to get my breath back. From here along the coast were a number of unusual fishing nets known as ‘carrelets’.
Basically they consist of a platform which is built on top of a set of wooden stilts. On the platform is a small hut and a square net is suspended from a pole and can be raised or lowered into the water by a pulley operated system. I had seen similar devices in Cochin in India where they are known as Chinese fishing nets, although there they are operated from dry land with a longer pole to the net.
The net is lowered into the sea at high tide and then quickly lifted later on to catch whatever might be swimming above it at the time. These structures are rather susceptible to storms and high winds and I understand that many have been damaged over recent years.
I crossed into the department of Vendee and the countryside became very flat, lots of dykes, (drainage ditches that is), around the fields, many marshes, a lot of wind and for me the main preoccupation was dodging around the carcasses of dead coypus on the road – there were a lot. It reminded me very much of the Fens in England or of much of Holland.
Shortly after Saint Gilles Croix de Vie I stopped for a rest and ‘L’escargot’ wouldn’t start up again. There appeared to be no traction between the drive drum and the tyre and I suspected that either the drum had detached itself or the clutch had worn out. Given the amount of hard work the engine had been asked to do over the past week in climbing steep hills fully laden, either of these possibilities would be of no great surprise.
There is of course an unwritten law that says that when you really need a town they are invariably a long way apart – and this law certainly applied on this day. The nearest town to where I had broken down was Les Sables d’Olonne which was 25 kilometres away but as there appeared to be little choice I decided to press on using pedal power only in the hope that I could get there before nightfall.
The Solex, even at the best of times, is not designed to be pedalled without the engine running and I can tell you that 25 kilometres is a very, very long way to have to pedal one with well in excess of 100 kg onboard. The road went uphill for most of the way, which was surprising given that my destination was at sea level – agreed there were just two places where I was able to freewheel downhill for brief periods of time but for the most part I was struggling.
As I approached the outskirts of Les Sables it had become dark and although I had my battery-operated flashing rear light there was no front light without the engine running. I knew that the hotel that had been pre-booked for me was in the port but I was dismayed to see that there were three ports, Port de Plaissance, Port de Commerce and the Port de Pecheurs. They were not especially close to one another and there was no one around to ask. I chose the Port de Pecheurs and it was the right one – maybe there is a God in heaven after all!
Accumulative – 1,806 km.
The following day I was able to get in touch with Monsieur Valentin Giron who runs the Automobile Museum near to Talmont St Hilaire and he very kindly took ‘L’escargot’ to the workshop at the museum to see what could be done.
Unfortunately there was no one locally who could repair the Solex within a few days and I was left with no alternative but to arrange to transport ‘L’escargot’ back home for repairs and to restart my tour at a later date.
The museum at Talmont was an amazing collection of cars and motorbikes started in the 1950s by Monsieur Giron’s father. Certainly one of the best motor museums I’ve ever come across, it is well worth a visit for anyone in the Vendee area. Here is a link to his website:- (www.musee-auto-vendee.com).
Further blogs will be posted as soon as I resume the tour.
I would like to thank the following for their help with logistics, technical assistance and providing additional photos:-
Gerard Saffers, Yannick Malherbe, Lionel Cheron, Christian Famery, Caroline Prevost, Cedric Chambrelan, Jean & Christine Perot, Gildas Salam, Valentin Giron of the Musee Automobile de Vendee and members of the VeloSolex Club at St Gregoire de Vievre, Normandy.
I would also like to thank my wife and Martine Malherbe for the painstaking job of translating the text into French.