July 17, 2017
‘Lord I was born a ramblin’ man’ sang Gregg Allman in 1972 and the riff from this classic Rock song is one that everyone knows because it became the theme to Top Gear. And so this is me again, the latest jaunt sees me load Samantha (Morgan Plus 4) onto the Hull to Zeebrugge ferry with a vague idea of where I am ramblin’. I enjoy driving the car, French camp sites, seeing new sights and generally being off the grid for a week or so.
Any holiday that starts on a ferry has a large frisson of excitement and despite spending a disproportionate amount of my children’s inheritance on this tug every year then I still have the same anticipation when I get on board.
The pleasure starts when you drive off and attempt to drill into your numbskull that Johnny Foreigner drives on the other side of the road. Anyway with the hood down I soon strode across Belgium under sunny and then stormy skies.
First stop was the Decathlon superstore at Lille, their head quarters. Daughter No 2 (or Number 1 in her mind) worked in London for the French sports retailer and I just love the selection and prices! So I got to the store with the hood down and came back to the parked car (hood up!) to be in one hell of a summer downpour. This deluge continued as I headed south east down the main motorways for several hours.
Eventually the sun appeared but my once immaculately clean car was filthy and with this dark cloud over me I headed into some motorway services on the French / Luxembourg border. I only ever thought of this little country as a tax haven and irritant by being involved in World Cup qualifiers but also I really don’t like its foremost politician – Jean Claude Juncker. With Brexit looming he made a speech in French eschewing English given that we will be soon gone from his club. I thought this was childish and the prevalence of the English language unstoppable. And so it was in the services with the cashier clarifying matters for all people in English!
Border security has now been reintroduced and at every border there are traffic jams as gun toting police scrutinise the cars and trucks as they file past them presumably in search of terrorists. The implication was that I lost considerable time on all the borders. The longest delay was between France and Germany. Ironic really because I’ve noted that the Germans do not indicate their borders!
Eventually the motorway became too wearying and monotonous and in the late afternoon I find some side roads and look for a campsite. The car is bliss on windy smaller roads providing the road surface is good. The two most horrifying words in French a Morgan driver can see are in the photo below:
Eventually I find one. I last visited it in 2011, by bicycle, in Verdun. I passed this way when looking at the French and German WW1 battlefields. Job done for the day.
A bicycle day starts early because there are big distances to pedal. However in the car it is a lot more leisurely. Also I was only sauntering down the road to Villey-le-Sec, near Toul. I have visited this campsite in the car in the last three years and some of scenery is staggering. The Morgan is wonderful with the hood down but if you take the temperature above the twenties then it is like being put under the grill. At McDonalds in Toul where I used the free wifi then the air conditioning was delicious. More memorable was the idiot trying to open my toilet cubicle door and twisting the handle until I came out. His face was a picture of contrition as he thought his work colleague was within (instead of me). Those crazy French eh?
At the campsite I take a familiar spot opposite the Moselle. I have previously seen working barges but over the time I’m there I only see a few pleasure cruisers. I pop out and get some provisions and when I return it’s a literal procession of people who come up and admire the car. Lots of questions about the engine, where it’s made and even one Belgian admirer has one at home. As much as I love the car my heart gently sinks as the next Dutchmen slowly approaches asking if it is still made with a wooden chassis. In fact such was the love that I started getting paranoid. The next morning as other campers passed me saying ‘morgen’ I had to stop and not confirm to them that they were correct and it was in fact a ‘Morgan’.
With this admiring audience I wash the car and then chat with two German cyclists who I tease about carrying too much luggage. They defended the lugging of a cold box several hundred miles on the basis that they always had cool drinks to hand. I wonder if they’ll be so smug when they find more hills as they push on to Marseilles. Also on occasion you come across a lunatic cyclist tourer who is doing it all wrong…
A chap on a mountain bike comes into view pulling a child carrier trailer. In the trailer is fido. However within the trailer are no tent, cooking equipment, clothes etc. So this deranged cyclist finds a tree next to the river to shelter under (a good idea given the heatwave and tropical rain storm combination) and unfurls his sleeping bag, ties up the dog and then goes to sleep. Surprisingly he’s still there the next morning despite the considerable risk of his rolling into the river and floating downstream to the lock.
I imagine like me he was woken by four rooks that are making a spectacular din as they play/fight between the tents. Given that the French seem to eat anything then I may have a solution that appeals to them.
So well awake and up I get on the road and decide that I’ll have a look at Strasbourg. First I stop at Decathlon in Nancy to buy Anna some cycling shorts. Apparently the padding is in a different place to boy’s shorts? I come out to lots of Morgan admirers. One besotted Frenchman after seeing my car and viewing the engine compartment drags me across to see the engine of his BMW Z3. Oh ffs
The decision to go to Strasbourg and avoiding the main roads takes me through some minor mountains on empty roads. Despite the midday heat then the wooded climbs keep me cool and I swoop and climb for many miles. My wife would have been thrilled as I saw a deer amble across the road as I slow for another hairpin bend.
What becomes clear here and in many parts of France is the rural abandonment that probably started 60 years ago but continues at a high pace. A lot of settlements have derelict hotels, mills, shops and houses. It seems the jobs went and so did the people. Whilst these places are not terribly remote then I can imagine, back in the day, telling a teenager who’s 25 miles from ‘civilisation’ that this is a fun place to be would be a challenge. Clearly if you’re a Brit with the dosh you can get a lot for a song.
In Strasbourg the intended campsite is reached, nicely within reach of the centre by walking. However, I am turned away as it is full! When I last drove to the site in 2016 it was shut as it was being refurbished. I don’t believe that I am meant to ever stay here! Positively, however, then I’m offered an option 5 miles away but it takes over an hour to reach. Kehl is on the other side of the Rhine but as there is a border then those cunning Germans have made entry on this busy route into a one lane affair and in the sizzling sun I broil as I inch toward the border. The campsite is super and the obligatory man over 50 appears to drool over the car (a bit like a scene from The Truman Show when a man on a walkie talkie advises the actors that I am now on the campsite and a man must appear to admire the car) and then a bloke from York seeks me out. He regularly comes here. So often in fact that he stays with the campsite owner! Anyway bonding done and I walk back to the bridge/border to get a free tram into Strasbourg.
What a beautiful city. Lovely architecture, probably owing more to German than French design but sumptuous and a magnificent cathedral. My mind wonders as to how much it would have cost to build originally. Mind-boggling.
Strasbourg is the other home of the EU and the MEP’s are meant to move between here and Brussels. The reality is that is a pointless double centre arrangement but unsurprisingly the French veto any talk of ‘shutting’ Strasbourg. ‘Non’.
So after a good walk around I find an outside restaurant and the result was excellent. I was only offered two cooking choices – ‘red or medium’! I get back on the tram to Kehl and then saunter back to the campsite. Another striking factor is the ethnic mix on the both sides of the border. There are many many people from the Middle East and Africa. I guess that there were a lot of newcomers long before Angela tore down the border for refugees.
Back at the campsite I find a German lady who is admiring the car. ‘Ageing crumpet’ will save me a lot of words in describing her (apologies to the Thought Police). She has come to Strasbourg on her bike to meet someone to do something but tomorrow she is planning to escape the heat by going swimming with a Russian girlfriend (…you think I make all this up!) Anyway back in the ’90’s she visited the Morgan factory on a professional photography assignment and was relaying this to me with considerable colour – ‘oh, you should have seen zee factory with all zee walls covered in porno’.
Why she is travelling alone is now becoming a little clearer.
Clearly it is a long time before Page 3 girls were prohibited from being posted on lockers but I remember those years well. Not a loss. All in all I’m disappointed that this was her main memory of the most exquisite of British motor engineering!
Anyway no rooks next morning but quite a bit of rain and being Sunday I drive into France to find a supermarket. Germany ‘does’ Sunday and no retail shops are open other than in tourist areas. A little face peaks through my car window as I park up and asks if I speak English? “A little bit”. “May I take a photo?” “Mais oui”.
The drive to Stuttgart up the E5 was horrid. I drank a litre and a half of water in 3 hours just sat still in the car as I toasted alive hurtling east. Along the way with pending late afternoon thunderstorms I decide on a hotel and find one on the internet. Through heavy traffic I get to the hotel in late afternoon to find the door in North Stuttgart locked! I ring the intercom and am advised to type in a code and a key pops out of a hole! The room was hot but it was good to get out of the storm and try and find my lost prescription sunglasses.
Alas they were not to be found and I decided to solve the problem by going ‘old school’ to quote Daughter No. 1 (who definitely knows that she is No. 1) and planned to get some clip on’s. Very ‘1985’ I hear you saying but continuing on my travels squinting was not an option. Up the road was an optician and in the morning he had the solution and was prepared to cut the lens to fit my glasses. All for €19.
In downtown Stuttgart I found an underground car park and went in search of Second Hand Records. This is a truly brilliant vinyl record store for anyone collecting older stuff. In fairness they had lots of new but I bought some Humble Pie, The Nice, Santana & McLaughlin, Millie Jackson, Ten Years After, Candi Staton, Cat Stevens, Average White Band and Alvin Lee. Blissfully happy I steered Samantha into the Black Forest on the B roads.
Now this was the sensible way to head south west again. It is lovely although I expected a larger area. I got to St Peter and found a campsite that for views and shower block immediately makes the ‘Tony Ives Top 10 Campsites’ and all for €9 with great wi-fi. In speaking to Anna I demonstrated the rugged side of my nature as she listened to the rain falling on the tent. However real manhood would have been demonstrated as she heard the thunder and lightning that I endured until the early hours of the morning. I genuinely thought that the ground would be so waterlogged that I couldn’t drive the car off the grass next morning. It wasn’t.
In gentle rain I continued south and made it to Mulhouse. Here I popped into the shop to buy a couple of T Shirts at the French National Motor Museum. I went around it in 2013 and it is probably the best car museum in the world. I replaced a much loved T Shirt I bought back then.
Now it was up the mountains in the Vosges. This is where the car excels and it is a pleasure to surge up the hills and take the corners tight on the way down! I pushed onto another Google find in St Maurice-sous-les-Côtes. This campsite was a field of mirabelle plum trees with spaces and a small mixed shower block. In asking a lady when Reception would open I made a friend in Susan and her husband, Immer. She was an English woman, married to a Dutchman, who tuned pianos and painted oil pictures of our currently conflicted world… Trump, Theresa May, discarded plastic bottles in the ocean and miners with bird faces (so very Tony, I know). Knowing that she was a gentle soul I felt compelled to discuss Brexit! ‘Light blue touch paper and retire’ comes to mind. Anyway I hope I assured her that the world will continue to spin and Boris Johnson’s mum loves him even if Remainers don’t. I return to the tent to find the ‘neighbour’ shaving her legs (and trimming her moustache, just joking about the second part) but the Dutch are really a practical nation as was another Dutch lady changing her top in the mixed shower block the next morning!
All in all a lovely very French site with an owner selling local produce and being so courteous and helpful that I must find his site on Trip Advisor to anoint him. Maybe we bonded when he talked about the car on a TV programme that he watched about someone refurbishing a Morgan.
In more rain I head north. Now I’m thinking about the ferry home and edging closer. Again Google finds a site as I’m sat in a McDonalds in Reims charging the iPad and using the ‘whiffy’. I drive to Guise and find a gem of a town with a fabulous campsite. “Where can I pitch the tent?” “Anywhere”. Correct answer. So that means away from the kids and other folk at the bottom of the site! Here in the now warm evening I wash the car. Originally I got the really grim dirt off it at a car washing centre with a high pressure jet but back on the site some further detail work needed doing. After is a stroll into town to meet Stella (Artois). Then back for another episode of House of Cards Season 5, nicely held on my iPad after a Netflix download.
Again a leisurely departure and a drive north through arable land and past French and British World War One cemeteries. All poignant. A stop at a supermarket in Roubaix to get some vittles for the ship and then onto the ferry.
There are signs warning about illegal migrants stowing away on trucks and at the ferry port security are checking cars. I am exempt from the search as it become plain that my fitting into the car with luggage is difficult let alone a bloke fleeing Afghanistan.
A routine sailing with me catching up on the blog with a pint of Guinness later.
Into the Hull rush hour and then home.