Monday, 21 January 2013

Rest and Culture

Needless to say , we slept very well indeed. By now our bathroom sharing routine was running like clockwork so happily abluted we headed down to breakfast. The expectation was of coffee and croissants. We were delighted to find that was the least of it. Everything leg weary cyclists could need was on offer from nectarines to scrambled eggs with a very friendly moggy thrown in. Bliss.
Once we had regained sufficient energy for sensible conversation , we realised that our synchronicity was getting a bit scary. We had both had the same thought at the same time ie. - stay another night here, make the most of the culture in Rouen and the environs ( Giverney), do some washing and rest those legs. Luckily the Hotel could let us have our room for another night so after cancelling the next proposed stop we proceeded to plan the day.
First stop laundrette. Can be tricky in England but in France with the extra layer of bureaucracy that simply has to be added to every transaction it was a minor challenge. The lady in charge was very sweet though and promised not to sell our lycra whilst we were indulging our cultural leanings.
The next stop therefore had to be the Musee des Beaux Arts. A truly fantastic collection . I would thoroughly recommend a visit. The art is arranged in chronological order which I railed against at first but soon saw the sense in it. There seemed to be a top notch example of every art movement from the 16th to the 21st century- and loads of Impressionists. The Museum was full of school groups. We were particularly taken with the primary age group listening with jaws agape to the bloody tale depicted in a huge 18th century wall painting- lots of beheadings, bodies being thrown from ramparts and much pillaging.They loved it!
After exiting via the gift shop we retrieved the laundry then headed for the train to Giverney.Stopped for lunch in a fab little cafe with very decent coffee then on to the very smart double decker train to Vernon. The station was linked to the Gardens and the village of Giverney by shuttle bus . The Village is basically one bijou street containing as many cafes and art and antique emporia as possible. All designed to ensure that the visitors part with as many euros as possible...We did our bit for the local economy with a stop in a pretty garden cafe.We just had to make the most of the fact it wasn't raining.
Monet's house and gardens were a delight. We had a great time admiring the beautiful flowers which also seemed to be enjoying a few hours without rain . It is by no means a grand estate in the National Trust style but cleverly arranged so that we were able to escape from groups of people with relative ease. The watery area was sublime and we were entertained by a veritable frog chorus. All we needed was for Macca to pop out from behind the giant bamboo with his acoustic bass guitar.
We had no idea what to expect from the house and studio and were therefore really pleasantly surprised to find a simple and elegant home. The use of colour in all the different rooms gave each one it's own character and ambiance and I would move in very happily. I particularly liked the blue and white tiled kitchen adorned with gleaming copper pots. No need for mirrors on the ground floor.
The studio space was very enviable and contained some atmospheric family photos including some of the great man at work.
We had to drag ourselves away to catch our bus and train. Perhaps in an effort to leave non french visitors stranded the bus was 10 minutes early but we had been warned by a friendly driver of a bus going in the opposite direction. Due to the earliness we had a wee bit of hanging about to do at Vernon which at best could be described as uninspiring. The intended destination for tomorrow was Conches en Ouche via train then a cycle to Montagne sur Perche. There was no direct route to Conches by train but tleast the wait meant I could have a lengthy discussion with a very patient ticket lady about a route which would only involve 1 train change and would not take a year and a day. PHEW.

Miraculously, it had stayed dry throughout our visit but by the time we returned to Rouen it was clear that was but a temporary respite. We returned to our lovely hotel via the Donjon de Jeanne D'Arc-where I think the saintly lady had been imprisoned. A very dark forbidding place made scarier by the building next door which had been the Gestapo Headquaters when Rouen was occupied by the Germans.
A more leisurely turn around before supper was very welcome. On the way back to base I had been seduced by the Monoprix and decided that as I had had enough of my one and only non cycling outfit I would splash out on a cheap and cheerful alternative. So scrubbed up and sporting new togs we headed to the Vieux Marche. This was supposed to be the hub of the nightlife of Rouen but I guess on a rainy Monday night before the start of the holiday season we were pushing our luck. We did find a lovely restaurant which provided me with a cauldron full of moules so I was cetainly not complaining.
We headed back with the happy prospect of another good sleep tempered by the marginally worrying prospect of negotiating a complex rail journey with our bikes and luggage. But given what we had accomplished so far we figured we could cope!

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

La Belle France photos

Here are the photos I failed to upload last time:
From grey old England to......yep grey old France
They let us in but would they let us out again?
It's on the wonk 'cos we were exhausted!

Friday, 11 January 2013

La Belle France

As the taxi navigated its way across more rolling English hills to deliver us to the ferry port at Newhaven we congratulated ourselves on having made the right decision and saved our energies for La Belle France.
We reassembled our bikes and checked in with no hassle. The passport had dried properly after its initial soaking and all was in order with the ferry booking. Surprise, surprise it was drizzling so we were allowed to wait inside the terminal building as opposed to with the other "vehicles". We were soon joined by 15 or so other cyclists all bound for Paris along the Route Verte. They seemed uber organised with support vehicles and luggage forwarding facilities. We felt intrepid but luggage going ahead in a van was definitely something to covet. Bizarrely the most well organised bunch were from New Buckenham.
The cyclists were allowed on first and it was hard not to feel smug as we boldly and greenly negotiated the entry ramp. We were directed to a small area of the hold where it was designated that our bikes could perch. If a storm were in prospect a major rebuild would be needed en France.
The ferry was french, perfectly comfortable and half empty. We made base camp in the bar, caught up with our text traffic when near land and took it in turns to seek out rare treats like a dynamo torch to replace my missing front light. I had a potentially nasty encounter with a pensioner whose eyes I inadvertently sprayed with Pure Poison in the Shop.I was simply attempting to disguise my 3 days on the road distinctive odour. Meanwhile back in the bar we tried to ignore the death stares directed at us by the immaculately dressed Parisian pair who obviously thought that lycra was beyond the pale in public. The route , in theory , looked fine and should have been flattish as it followed a valley for much of the time.
Disembarcation was slightly chaotic particularly as I had , surprise, surprise, chosen the wrong moment to go to the loo...Jousting with large lorries on the wrong side of the road from the word go was certainly a wake up call. The fencing around the port of Dieppe was intimidating enough to put off legitimate travellers let alone anyone else.
We studied the sketch map of Dieppe Ville from the photocopy of the out of date Rough Guide to France , realised it was useless and followed our noses instead. Our noses were in good form and the good news was that we hit the outer ring road in good time. The bad news was that the only way forward involved a mountain style climb complete with hair pin bends and a french auto touring club overtaking on every blind corner. And it started to rain...just mizzle at first but as on this trip things only ever get better it was soon a full on downpour.
At least we found our valley road and made earnest conversation about the quality of the charolais cattle who had the decency to be getting as wet as us. By this time there was virtually no traffic and the potential get out option of the train line was ominously silent. By 6pm we made it to the first designated stop of Aufflay. At the planning stage this stop entailed sitting outside a vibrant local bar drinking in the still warm rays of summer sunshine. In reality the weather was so abominable it was nearly dark already. The only place with any lights on was a very basic front room style bar populated by the surly proprietor and his beret wearing squat and surly single customer. Lesley was desperate for a coffee and I was desperate for the loo so in we dripped.
Having placed our order, I enquired about the loo. I was politely shown behind the bar, through the adjacent living room where Madame Bar des Sports was enjoying the telly and her supper, into the courtyard and to the outhouse at the end of it wherein lay the loo. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for a squat job. My brief prayer whilst crossing the courtyard was answered - it was ok, clean and the door locked. One small god was still smiling on me.
It was very hard to venture forth into the pouring rain knowing we were only 1/3 way there and had no hope of making it in daylight and absolutely no chance of an alternative method of transport. We entertained each other by passing comment on the rural architecture. The road was undulating at first then more determinedly hilly. On a beautiful sunny day the scenery and villages would have been worth a further look but we didn't have that luxury. Note to future self - must revisit Cheres.
So like the Grand old Duke of York's soldiers we marched up and we marched down. The rain did not let up one iota. It was a bit dispiriting particularly as the light was fading fast. To keep cheerful I did my usual wildlife watch and was rewarded initially with one solitary soggy buzzard but later on a skiddy wooded descent of  a particularly steep hill I caught a glimpse of a real red squirrel. That gave me enough of a buzz to power my tired little legs up the next few hills I can assure you! In fact we had enough puff to make it up Mont Cauviare ( yes really) and thought it really must be downhill from there. Sadly , once again, we were wrong. There was one final, vicious uphill ( Saint Guillaume?) and very uncharacteristically all 4 legs gave up at the same time. We pushed for a bit then re-gritted teeth and , again, unusually wordlessly carried on.
Still no signs to Rouen but at last we hit what seemed to be the outer ring road of somewhere. We ascertained this from the presence of a huge and scary roundabout but thankfully it was equipped with a cycle overpass...
This time it really was downhill all the way to what we guessed was Rouen ( it didn't look like Paris and my map reading is not that bad). But still no signs. Once again we used a join the dots map, the signposts to Centre Ville and our noses to navigate the sens uniques and pedestrian zones and find our Hotel . It was called La Cathedrale and was literally touching it.  9.45pm. Another long day.
We had learned our lesson from Greenwich and had the entry code to hand. We parked the bikes inside as tidily as we could. Our elation at arriving safely overcame the leg ache as we climbed to our first floor room. It was palatial with a fab bathroom but we were starving and well aware that at 10pm in a provincil city our food choices might be limited. A quick boy shower and a change of kit then straight out of the door in such of grub. Again , someone was smiling on us as just around the corner was an open and welcoming Pakistani restaurant.I refuse to be criticised for not persevering to find the perfect Brasserie. Exactly what we needed and plenty of non meat options. The best spinach and prawn curry in the world ever. And very well deserved large amounts of red wine. Phew.
Back to shower properly, unpack the hottie and collapse to sleeplike a veritable foret.
Normally I would illustrate this issue with well chosen photos. Sadly there is a technical glitch on that front so I will include those when I can...

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Due South

It would be an exaggeration to say we slept. We lapsed into unconsciousness for an all too brief period in a stuffy room with a distinct odour of wet labrador. We regained consciousness with fuzzy heads and an urgent need for caffeine. Clambering up and down several flights of stairs with aching thighs was worth the effort and we encountered real human beings at last. Luckily none of them complained about the arrival of 2 muddy bicycles in the middle of the night so I guess we got away with that one. We wondered about the very young couple breakfasting with us and concluded that they had to be runaways...
Suitably refuelled we discussed the plan for the day and had both concluded that option 2 for this day would be both wise and more enjoyable. We needed things to go rather more smoothly and to be less physically challenging. So having packed up our nearly dry clothes we headed downstairs and started to negotiate our exodus from the narrow hall and 2 doors to outside. I took my bike out first. Lesley followed with a couple of bags. The internal door slammed shut. Our key was back in the room and Lesley's bike and half our luggage were locked inside. As before, no real human was answering either the doorbell or 'phone. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The adjacent shopkeeper had no clues as to how we could get back in and we were reaching the tipping point where despair seemed appropriate when out of the blue the manageress appeared. Without batting an eyelid at our despoiling of her hallway with our road worn bikes she let us back in and helped us depart with all the right stuff in the right place this time. Perhaps we were destined to continue as we had started....
Gleefully I posted our first maps back home then we headed for Greenwich Park . In daylight it was surprisingly near.We did a few classic touristy things like straddling the Meridien and photographing ourselves with tout Londres behind us. We marvelled at the speed with which the Olympic stands and arena were appearing . So exciting to think that the whole world will be looking at London very soon. But that's the next adventure. Today's mission was Route 4 to the Tate Modern and London Bridge.
We found the route easily and discovered it to be a total joy - clearly marked and an interesting and diverse tour along small streets, the Thames Path and through secret parks like the Russia Docks Woodland Area....
Onwards to our cultural reward for all the hard slog of yesterday.Lesley was determined to see the Damien Hirst exhibition. It was certainly a welcome diversion but we each went into it with differing amicably opposed viewpoints. I think he is a very clever man who has manipulated the art market to his great advantage. The retrospective exhibition did not alter my views and I am still witholding my subscription to the fanclub.
Time was ticking on so a quick pedal around the corner to Borough Market and a snatch and grab excursion for a picnic lunch. So many delicious things to choose from especially the veg patties with spinach , nuts  and all 5 a day bases covered. At London bridge Station, after dropping my post prandial coffee all over the concourse , we hopped onto a Southern Train with easily located bike rack and headed South for Crowborough.
As soon as we emerged from the station -after negotiating the quaint Railway Children style wooden footbridge- we knew we were in the Downs. The first step was Castle Hill and the contour lines on the map did not lie. Which is more than can be said for "Downs" because I am sure there were more "Ups"....
We soon hooked up with Route 21 and once again delighted in it's clarity. Our faith was slightly shaken when slavishly following the signs suggested we should follow a steep dog walking path through a horse field and a boggy wood but a lone cyclist coming in the opposite direction confirmed we should not stray from the marked route. A couple of miles later we emerged from the woods, through a farmyard on to a track very reminiscent of my own home run. We blessed our hard shell tyres and in bright sunshine and brisk wind continued onwards and upwards until we found tarmac. In a short space of time we also found the "Cuckoo Trail" - a clearly marked , smoothly tarmaced former railway line. Bliss. And it was better than flat ie it inclined very slightly downhill.
We had a delightfully easy cruise until we found the village for our requisite cup of tea stop. On parking and locking our bikes we were chuffed to be able to offer trackside assistance to a teenage lad with a flat tyre. As our timing was a bit off kilter we discovered that the renowned tea stop was shut but the village pub was open. The landlord was a genial fellow who was sorely disappointed in our staid choice of beverages. He was intrigued by our expedition and couldn't wait to offer advice on our onward route. His physique suggested that he was probably not a cyclist and this was confirmed by his suggestion that our best route to East Dean was to cycle along the hard shoulder of the lovely straight A Road....
When it became clear to him that time trialling was really not our style he did offer sound advice about when and where to leave the Cuckoo Trail to optimise our chances of arriving in daylight for a change.
We did as he suggested and found the route easily. We also found more wind and more hills. Tired legs and heavy bikes made for a gruelling final push to the coast. I'm sure Grace Jones must have done a cycle touring holiday before displaying her hula hooping thighs for the Jubilee celebrations. My delight at reaching the apex of the final hill was tempered by my sensing of a double decker bus right on my tail. My descent down the 1:10 rain wet other side was executed as cautiously as possible. There was no hard shoulder just a solid stone wall. My heart remained in an anatomically incorrect position the whole way and all I could hear was the hissing of the air brakes every time the bus got too close for its comfort.
Thankfully the beautiful and very welcoming Tiger Inn was just around the corner. With shaky legs we parked the bikes under cover and congratulated ourselves on seeing our surroundings before sunset. We had time for a little walk, a call home on the payphone ( no mobile reception so a definite hideaway to return to), a comforting shower and clothes wash before installing ourselves in the dining room for a delicious supper. We took advice on our route to the ferry and after discovering that it would involve  at least 10 miles of hills opted for a taxi ride even though it required a certain amount of bike dismantling. Our hosts were fantastically helpful and arranged both the taxi and an early hearty breakfast.
I slept like the densest log in the most foresty forest ever, relieved at the thought of no more English hills...

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Day 2

L’Etape des Dames

Deuxieme Journee

London or Bust

The trouble with saying or thinking things like “it can’t get any worse” is that the elements will often do their damnedest to prove you wrong…

After a perfect breakfast of soul fortifying porridge and a damp tour of Judy’s beautiful Garden’s Illustrated cottage garden we set off in good spirits despite the grey sky and determined drizzle. The first challenge was the hill up and out of Judy’s secluded valley so we gave ourselves a good run up, rapidly switched to high gear and pedalled like mad waving a fond farewell. We were determined to leave in style if nothing else.

I hadn’t told Lesley but the forecast I had seen before we left Norfolk was stressing the potential for high winds on this day and the way the trees were moving around us led me to believe that, sadly, the forecast was likely to turn out to be accurate.

That part of rural Essex is very hilly – particularly if of one sticks to the back roads so the first hour at least consisted of many struggles up short sharp hills followed by all too brief descents.

We were aware of the wind but had to focus quite carefully on where we were going and avoiding being hit boy wide boy van drivers and yummy mummy 4x4 pilots on roads that were just wide enough for a car but vehicle + bicycle was a squeeze and those with 4 wheels were not going to give any quarter.

We were soon in that tricky bit of countryside which we encounter on every ride – namely the bit that is on the edge of 4 maps and not covered properly by any of them. We were relying on our own maps plus a couple of photocopied sections of Judy’s maps. By this time both wind and rain were very persistent so stopping to peruse any sort of map was not easy. Anyway excuses, excuses – we ended up making a fairly minor error in that the road we missed was small but the consequence was we set off for some distance on a major road going the wrong way with lorries bearing down on us with frightening regularity. Of course we then had to retrace our steps with the same traffic issues. How I did not end up sitting on the bonnet of one up close and personal Mercedes is a minor miracle. Once we had both made it safely to the relative oasis of a minor road we re-checked the map and were somewhat disheartened to note that if we made it to our intended coffee stop by lunch time we would be doing very well.

After re-fuelling with gloop and cereal bars we ploughed on just concentrating on the immediate next few miles and trying to ensure we stayed on track. In the meantime the threatened storm was whirling itself into gear. The wind – estimated on the forecast to be 40mph-was from the South West – i.e. our direction of travel – and the rain , although more sporadic than the previous day, did its best to ensure we were as drenched as possible as often as possible.

Eventually we limped into Great Leighs at 1.30 pm instead of 11 am and after enquiring of a friendly dog walker ended up in the village pub which claimed to be the oldest inn in the country and, therefore, one of its most haunted. The landlady was very welcoming and overlooked our dripping dishevelment.  I forewent the customary soup in favour of the more carb heavy jacket potato and beans and was even desperate enough to not demur at instant coffee. We took local advice and after the third story of a near miss in a car on the nearby potential short cut giving A road opted for the longer but quieter route. So once again and all too soon we headed off into the by now howling gale and horizontal rain with the good wishes of the other customers ringing in our ears.  One of the bizarre facts of the day as disclosed by the landlady was that one of those wellwishers Suzie Quattro’s daughter.

The next major landmark was Harlow – due west across the rest of Essex- where we intended to pick up route 1 and head off down the Lea Valley to London just like that.

This part of the journey was flatter but much more exposed. I swear there were moments when we were going backwards. We even had to rescue a mole from the roadside who had been flooded out of his run. Our spirits definitely revived when we hit Old Harlow without further mistakes and we were certain that the navigation would be simple from this point on as all we had to do was follow the Route 1 signs and like Dick Whittington we would arrive in London and find gold paved streets. (Perhaps I didn’t read that story properly?) All was going swimmingly until our internal compasses smelt a rat (probably another drowned one). We felt certain we were being directed in a circle and our map reading and close questioning of a passing dog walker confirmed our suspicions. So we were back to making it up as we went along….On that basis we just chose the nearest route to the Lea and  headed rapidly downhill with the fervent hope that no backtracking would be required.

On locating the river rather later than we had envisaged earlier in the day we decided that a regroup over hot tea and snacks in the nearby pub was required before our expected straight sail to the big smoke. 

As we set off it wasn’t raining – that was a first! The beginning of the route was great in terms of scenery and flatness. What was not so great was the fact that it was already 6pm not 2pm and the southerly gale was being funnelled very effectively by the geography of the valley. Again there were moments of no forwards motion but with dark approaching we had to dig deep and press on come what may. We were very buoyed by passing ecologically beneath the M25 at about 8pm but daunted by how far we still had to go. We had comforted ourselves with the thought that at least the navigation would be easy but then the Route 1 signs became very confusing – tempting us to leave the river and head into the wilds of North East London. We had to stop frequently to check signs and maps and with increasing frequency accost fellow cyclists on the route. The latter were uniformly amazed by our mission but were also uniformly gracious, kind and helpful. Our instinct consistently chimed with the advice – basically stick to the Lea until you hit the Thames.

So we did with the light fading and an ever narrowing path and random bridges and steps. Great to explore but not on this day.

Eventually we hit the mighty Thames to once again be met with a dearth of signs. Again we were rescued by kindly locals and before too long at 10.30 pm found ourselves in the middle of Canary Wharf with the Thames Path blocked by building works. The only way was down to Westferry Circus which is all very well but when down means steps and your energy levels are sub zero the end result is Crash, Bang – whoops there went fully laden bike – narrowly missing an ascending party of tourists. I resisted the temptation to sit down and cry as we were so very nearly there weren’t we? More Aaagh moments as we traversed Millwall and the glamorous Mudchute area. At last Island Gardens and the entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel came into view.

We were probably slightly delirious with exhaustion and hunger by this point but it did seem that we were in an outpost of Hogwarts. For those who have never been there – the entrance to the tunnel is a beautiful curved Victorian red brick gem with an interior lined with slightly lavatorial white glazed tiles. On turning the corner one is confronted by a brand spanking new 22nd century all glass lift which opened as if by wand wave as soon as we approached. A very genial fellow cyclist emerged from South of the Thames and proceeded to point out the numerous “NO CYCLING “ signs and gave us grave warnings about the crocodile. Having placated said beast with cereal bars and wasabi peas we arrived  gracefully in Greenwich by dint of another futuristic lift  to be met with the frankly rather hallucinogenic sight of the newly restored Cutty Sark illuminated in all her glory just for us.

We had made it (nearly ) . Now all we needed was food, showers and bed. We chose to sort number one before addressing numbers 2 and 3.By now it was 10.30pm. We looked at each other and realised that we were wearing the history of our journey thus far. Not only were we sweat soaked and all over bedraggled but we were so splatted with Thames and Lea Path mud and other detritus that we looked as if we had just escaped from the chain gang in deepest Texas.

Our one hope for food turned out to be the Mexican cafĂ© frequented by Luc and his student chums because it is open late and is not pricey. I left Lesley in charge of locking the bikes to the nearest fixture and prepared myself to grovel. As with every other human encounter that day the staff were welcoming, kind and gracious. We were rapidly ushered to a table – admittedly in the furthest corner behind a pot plant –and offered menus and drinks. I needed red wine in large quantities as well as lashings of usually off my radar tortilla chips. Both arrived in a twinkling and we were at last able to reassure the folks in Norfolk that we had made it thus far.( Earlier we had decided that stopping to answer calls under dimly lit underpasses in the East End would not have been a good call.)

Now all we had to do was find the B and B and collapse. We had made increasingly frantic attempts to contact the establishment throughout the day to warn them that we were running (extremely) late. Each time the call was put straight through to voicemail so we had absolutely no confidence that we would be able to get into the place even if we could find it. Luckily the red wine dissipated some of the trepidation and the fact that it was very dark and quite late didn’t seem to matter too much. Our lights were as effective as depressed fireflies so navigation was not too slick particularly as we were relying on a rain smudged photocopy of the relevant page of the A to Z. After reaching parts of Greenwich and Maze Hill that I had certainly never reached before, an hour later, we finally found our destination – 162. Our hearts sank when to all outward appearances it looked like no-one was home. In all our ‘phone messages we had asked how to get in after hours but received no reply. We were about to call again but decided we may as well give the door a shove and see what happened. Phew – Open Sesame. When in doubt brute force and ignorance can sometimes work wonders.

Lesley wrestled with the automated check-in system and finally we were inside with a hot shower and a warm bed in closer view than they had been all day. We checked the room number and due to extreme fatigue were thoroughly amused to note that we had been given a first floor room despite telling the owners from the outset that we were travelling by bike. Of course, trying to be thoroughly amused but quiet at 1am in the very narrow hallway of  a strange B and B is a recipe for near hysteria….

By this time my legs were unable to support my weight so I leaned back on the wall behind me      -   which gently gave way and I ended up nearly replicating the infamous Del Boy leaning on the non – existent bar hatch scene. Forget the near hysteria – full blown stomach aching , knee collapsing , rolling on the floor laughter ensued ( but all as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the other guests of course).

It took a very long time to recover sufficiently to realise that the ground floor room was unoccupied and likely to remain so. A perfect bike shed! Having tucked the trusty bikes into their beds we headed to ours via the customary showering of ourselves and our clothes.  The owners had provided heat so that we could dry our clothes which was great but our ability to dissipate it with fresh air was hampered by the uncustomary ( for us country folk) London noises outside.

We both agreed that it had been an EPIC day and hoped fervently that we would not have to dig quite so deep again during the rest of the trip…

So 90 miles, full  winter style kit, full on head wind and monsoon rain and god knows how long in the saddle. I think epic is not too far from the truth.

Another bizarre fact – the room we occupied cost less than £100 that night. During the Olympics the cost for the same room will be £700 per night and it is fully booked!

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Premiere Journee - Off we go!

The couple of days immediately preceding our departure were a blur of list writing, shopping, packing, unpacking , re-packing and general panicking. Up close our little idea looked preposterous and downright scary. The terror factor increased exponentially with each weather forecast I listened to or watched. The gods of wind and rain were clearly not going to be on our side and my dream of travelling light in and with summer gear only were swiftly swallowed by the nearest storm drain.
Despite making the night of 6th June last as long as possible by waking up every 5 minutes I still could not believe it when Thursday 7th June actually dawned and I still had not thought of an urgent and immediate need to be somewhere else....Even when Lesley and her family arrived at the appointed hour I was still in denial - particularly as my bike had only emerged from the pits 5 minutes before after the last second discovery of a faulty valve...

Our neighbours very sweetly set up a start line so  with many good wishes ringing in our ears we set off down our bumpy track with most members of our family in convoy behind. All except Lesley's sister and her partner stopped at the end of the track and headed home ( perhaps they were the wise ones? )The weather was hot and humid as we pedalled down familiar roads towards the lovely pub in Woolpit with Scottish smoked salmon firmly in our sights.I began to doubt the wisdom of packing my full winter survival kit.The lunch was suitably scrummy and the landlord's eyes were out on stalks when I replied truthfully to his question about our ultimate destination. The beginning was a slightly phony war in that Shaun had hatched a plan to meet us in Woolpit with most of the children and our panniers so that we could do a final goodbye.
That part of the plan all worked to a tee. However, as we were loading up properly in the pub car park , we felt the first splodges of rain on our helmets and tried to ignore them amidst the emotional goodbyes. We also failed to understand the message from the 2 ducks sitting on a nearby roof. It felt great to be on the road proper - just us and our kit off on the long planned adventure.
Before we had gone a mile , the rain became steady and by the time we were well into mid Suffolk it was a monsoon. We had followed much of this route on our jaunt to Long Melford and had joked about the hail on that trip...It's all about perspective I guess..By the time we hit Lavenham for a much needed wee stop I was literally soaked to the skin. I may as well have stood under a waterfall for the afternoon. The ladies in the Guildhall Gift shop were very understanding and excused our sloshing arrival and departure with good grace.

After Lavenham we hit previously uncharted territory - especially a housing estate in Sudbury which we tackled initially at first floor level then exclusively on "No Cycling " paths. At least the miserable weather meant that everyone was tucked and warm inside their houses not out spotting errant cyclists..

Sudbury meant crossing the Stour into Essex - the third county of the day. I had planned a gentle cycle along the side of the river where I grew up reminiscing about the enormous fish I used to catch at Henny but sadly we were so wet , cold and miserable all we could do was put our heads down and keep pedalling as best we could. It crossed my mind as we aquaplaned through innumerable puddles/shallow lakes that my new tyres were quite roadie in profile and I wasn't entirely sure of their grip in the wet particularly when fully laden.
The last push up out of the valley was a struggle particularly as the roads resembled Italian mountain tracks in places - their surfaces eroded by torrents of rain and cohorts of Porsche Cayennes. My chain tried to surrender on the last uphill and popped off but due entirely to Lesley's technical abilities was rapidly back in place and we coasted down to my friend Judy's beautiful and immaculate cottage.
I knew that our total drowned rat appearance would not coordinate well with cream carpets and fabulous artwork so we hesitated on the doorstep before knocking very timidly. Judy's welcome was wholeheartedly gracious and very warm . We were immediately ushered to piping hot showers, cockle warming tea and a delectable supper. Our clothing met a similarly warm welcome in the tumble dryer. I was pleased that my double plastic bag wrapping of everything including my novel and my hot water bottle had worked so that I had something dry to wear after the shower and in bed. After thorough route planning for the day ahead which took heed of Judy's local knowledge  and filled in the missing map corner we collapsed into our cosy , electric blanket heated beds with the comforting thought that it couldn't get worse than that ....

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

L'Etape des Dames

It's nearly time for the start. I have spent the most of my waking hours over the past few days asking myself how June arrived so quickly and how exactly did we end up dreaming up this madcap scheme in the first place?
I have packed and unpacked my panniers so many times and tried to convince myself that after circumnavigating Norfolk with just a bumbag I can really survive 6 days on the bike with 1 change of clothes and SHOCK HORROR! no beauty case.....I suppose there is still time to dash out and buy a little trailer?
I cycled to Aldeburgh on Monday with my best guess of full France kit. It was heavy and I unintentionally chose the hilliest part of Suffolk to traverse. Down was fine - except when the peacock got in my way - but up was a challenge. I have to fess up to walking up a couple of stretches. There - just blown the iron woman image in one fell swoop.
Anyone reading this please send positive weather vibes. I may try and update once we are in La Belle France but various important parts of me may have ceased to function by then like brain , hands etc..