Category Archives: Travel

Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 4 (Final)

In my last blog (about being a tour guide this year) I write about some guest foibles and the highlights and that all tour should finish with tips!

Guest Foibles

One of my opening questions at the briefing is “what are you especially looking forward to during the week?” The men have no particular idea having scanned the itinerary months ago and probably having forgotten it by now. This can be true for the females but less so and there are always a couple of activities that excite. One was the Pilgrim’s Walk across from the mainland to Holy Island. This can only happen when the tide is out. I had one lady say that she’d gone into remission with breast cancer and this had been an ambition before and after her treatment. I was happy to help although the magic of the walk always escapes me. On both walks I’ve had two women fall over on their faces in the mud half way across. As a guide you’re horrified but they both saw it as hilarious and are probably still dining out on the story.

Nearly smiling. Two and half miles of waterlogged sand…

One guest advised that she needed to find a hairdresser to wash her hair. I half understood this. Obviously I have little fleece but having three females in my life I am always staggered by what they put on their hair let alone what they pay at the hairdressers. This was difficult to resolve as we were deep in the Dales and finding a sheep shearer might have been easier. One guest wanted details on what professional women’s football games were on in London at the weekend. Of course you can look at Google but where are the grounds, how do you best get there and how much?

The Highlights

I mentioned that a well curated tour is the most vital thing for success., followed by some decent weather. To think my ‘office’ was Hadrian’s Wall, the Northumberland coastline, Alnwick Castle, Malham Tarn, the Black Sheep Brewery or Fountains Abbey then you can appreciate that there was pleasure in introducing the guests, mostly southerners, to the magnificent landscapes. I never tired of that despite repeat visits. I have a sketchy knowledge of the history but that is improving and I enjoyed learning more, in fact I could have a dart at Mary, Queen of Scots, as my specialist subject on Mastermind. I did tell the other guides on our shared WhatsApp group that excitingly she stayed at one of the attractions I was taking the guests to. Quickly one wiser sage came back and said ‘Tony, she stayed every where!’ True, was in exile in England for 18 years and rolled from one stately pile to another with her entourage of over 50 people. She could fund this number as she was a widow of a former King of France on a very good stipend…enough now Tony.

There is considerable pleasure to gain command of the tour. You start hesitant but eventually you not only know where to go and what to say but you also get sufficient knowledge to deal with changes and variations without due concern. Another thing is that if the tour goes well for a couple of days the guests build up confidence in you and then if things go wrong they’re more forgiving and tolerant.

The ruins of Bolton Abbey, the Yorkshire Dales

Some guests are hilarious and or interesting. One American guest took it in her stride a night when the party took on itself to go for a pizza in Settle. The Italian owner was cook, wine waiter and maitre ‘d. He was also a wind bag who took ages to do any of these jobs. This led to delays in the food arriving. It was my night off and so the next morning they all told me about this frustrating night. Were they unhappy? My American guest described this as ‘dinner and a show’ in terms of entertainment!

The amazing Gordale Scar, in the Yorkshire Dales

Often the news headlines would be discussed at breakfast. I kept quiet as my politics were usually not theirs but there was one sad story about an aggressive dog being put down for some terrible attack. The consensus was that the owner should have been destroyed instead! Another guest produced a video on his phone of his dog. I was encouraged to have a look, not an obvious delight for Tony. To my amazement his dog was walking on a tread mill! This is how it often took its exercise. He also recounted a story where his wife popped out for an hour and a half forgetting that the dog was on the tread mill. When she returned Rover was still plodding along!

One driver who was with us for a few days was seemingly relaxed and experienced. However one incident was very tense where he met an oncoming car as he finished crossing a single lane bridge. The woman in the car was gesticulating suggesting he was wrong to not give way. This was a strange point of view given the size of the bus and the fact he was already on the bridge. Anyway, cringingly he stopped beside the grumpy driver, wound down his window and started to debate the merits of her analysis. Fortunately it was relatively brief and the guests thought it was hilarious. I can smile now but surely keep your emotions under control with drivers you’ll never see again and you’re with a bus full of customers? 

Warkworth Castle on the Northumbrian coast

There’s only a certain amount you want to learn about guests and certainly only a limited amount you want to tell them. However, conversations start and you can end up down a proverbial rabbit hole. One British resident male guest had a career in IT and ended up a US national. As ‘I peeled the onion’ of his life it had started with a period of time as an ice cream salesman in Kansas. If this wasn’t a very baffling progression then he had chosen to remain a dual national. From here a detailed expose on the tax realities of such a status were revealed. The gist being that Uncle Sam got first dibs before HMRC swept up the balance of the due levy. From here another conversation of why retain both citizenships ensued. It never came with an answer I thought was compelling but there again stuff like Brexit or Scottish Independence never hinge on the logic of monetary arithmetic do they.

As a guide then most of the other professionals you deal with whilst out and about are usually on your side and one meeting that touched me was at Hardraw Force Waterfall in the Yorkshire Dales. Leading the party I turned up at the counter to pay for the guests to walk up to the waterfall. The lady behind the counter was a little terse and sought our help on using the technology to pay for the visit. I also needed a receipt and this was another challenge for her. Anyway we did the transaction and the guests went up to see the attraction whilst I stayed behind. It transpired that she was nearly blind and that using the technology was a bordering on impossible. She told me she had terminal ‘blood cancer’ and that the treatment had led to her blindness. She owned this attraction with her family but she’d had to manage the admissions for the day.

Within Alnwick Castle on a private tour

As I helped her she was so grateful and I was offered chocolate bars and coffee for free. Frankly I was so glad I’d helped let alone needed to receive any gratuity. As they say ‘be slow to judge people’.

I must mention the camaraderie of the guides. This wasn’t just when working together but before, after or during a tour you’ve always got someone to ask about lunch solutions, train pick ups, walking short cuts, rescheduling and the like. If you have the experience then you’re happy to share and you know the pressure the guide is under time wise so that everyone responds with alacrity.

Tips

I worked for two tour operators on the four tours. Each operator’s brochure mentions tipping the guide/s on the holiday. Personally whatever I might receive then it was never going to be used to pay a bill or change my life. However, it does provide a fillip and boost for feeling you’ve done a good job. Everyone likes a ‘pat on the back’. 

The amazing Vindolanda

Before I started there were folklore stories about Americans being very generous and I knew what Anna and I had tipped on our holidays. Surely it’d be a pleasant surprise when they personally sought me out to press cash into my hand before they left? No, frankly it was miserable and I mainly came away thinking that the British were simply mean. The older the guest the lower the tip (or non existent) and as you’ve read then those are the guests who you help most, ask the most questions (sometimes repetitively) , re-arrange dining arrangements for and you have to listen to most to as they regale you with endless anecdotes. The simple fact is that many are lonely and this is a social event as much as a, say, sightseeing or walking holiday.

On average I received less per guest than they spent on cheese, as gifts for family and friends, when we visited the Wensleydale Creamery. For the hours spent, and the care given, this is awful. On my last tour I received no tips. In fact that’s not quite true as one guest organised a cash transfer for me. However, I needed a bank account in the country they originated from to access the dosh. I didn’t and so it remained uncashed. On this last tour I helped and accommodated one guest whose infirmity made their attendance very risky given the unavoidably difficult terrain we visited. If they had taken me to one side, at the end, and simply given me a heartfelt ‘thank you’ for my care it would have been lovely. If there’s one ‘take away’ from guiding then I shall have little or no expectation of gratuities on the next tour!

So next year? Well, I’m up for it and I’ve ‘learned’ my territory so that it should be less time consuming pre-tour and generally less stressful. During the winter I’m taking the necessary steps to get a Private Hire licence. (This is expensive and onerous but the land agent is helping financially.) In the uncertain world of recession and global headwinds who knows how the opportunities will work out but I’m hopeful it continues.

Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 3

This is Part 3 of my experiences of being a tour guide in 2022. In this blog I’ve attempted to tell you about the detail that goes on in running the tour that maybe the guest doesn’t see. Also the problems!

Guide Challenges

On my first tour I was supporting a lead guide. A nice easy introduction to this tour guide malarky? Not exactly, I was on the train between York and the start in Newcastle when later that morning I got a text. The lead guide had a puncture, he was 20 miles away from the Station and may be late. Don’t panic! Each tour has an itinerary and whilst there is some spare time it is quite tight with distances to drive. What would I do with the guests as our bus and lead guide were absent?  Anyway, the puncture, early on a Sunday morning, got fixed and by the skin of his teeth he turned up with the bus. The guests never knew about the issue. As this was all happening I was investigating taxis to transfer the guests to a pub 40 miles up the road where the bus might catch up with us.

As a guide you have an itinerary. It appears simple just to follow it when you turn up? However, it doesn’t run without a lot of intervention before and throughout the week. On Day 2 of this first tour we came under pressure as the guests worked out that the promised private guides, in the brochure, at the attractions weren’t in place. On this tour the guests, especially the females, knew exactly what they were entitled to. As a consequence one guest went ballistic and rang the tour operator to complain. Overnight the problem was sorted but the guides were left looking hopeless and that the decisions lay elsewhere. Needless to say the complainant was a generally disagreeable lady who took great delight informing the group that she had resolved the matter and that through her intervention it was all sorted. Strictly this was true but in reality she enjoyed being the battle axe that put things right and basking in the glow of her heroism. Separately I had caught her privately and apologised for this embarrassment. She knew the guides had no involvement in this omission but she didn’t have the grace to acknowledge our discomfort. (Overnight the guides without knowing her complaint had raised the matter with our management as well.) Your next thought is why did this happen in the first place? The land agent had failed to do this; maybe as a cost saving?

A view from Dunstanburgh Castle near Coaster

Our management (land agent) similarly were graceless. Whilst the next private guide at a castle was organised for us the lead guide was left to sort out a private guide at a further attraction. Where do you start when you’re driving the bus, handling guests and frankly very busy? To his credit he sorted it and that was another thing learned.

The guide tour information, prior to a tour, involve some details on the guests. However, some detail is missing including their health. Frankly as far as the tour operator is concerned then providing you’ve signed the disclaimer about your health, and have travel insurance, you can paraglide with one arm and a fear of heights as far as they’re concerned. I discovered on one dangerous section of a very wet and rainy part of Hadrian’s Wall that my 80 year old guest had a replacement hip and shoulder. I spent two and half hours as I helped her and waited with eternal patience for her to complete various sections privately calculating how long it would take the air ambulance to reach us from Newcastle.

Barter Books in Alnwick. A terrific second hand book shop (and great scones)

On two of the four tours I was sharing the same hotel as the guests. This was terrific for convenience but on two other tours I was located over 10 miles away. In one Airbnb I shared with a guide he got the proper bedroom and I got the spare box room with a child’s bunk bed solution. This wasn’t ensuite and required my going down the stairs through the lounge and then the kitchen to reach the loo. Being of a certain vintage this was necessary during the night. Clearly whoever booked the accommodation just did a crap job and I had three days (and nights) of this nonsense.

After a 12 hour day welcome back to my sleeping hutch with obstacles

However this was ‘topped’ by my turning up at a hotel specified in my joining instructions on another tour that was not only wrong but in the wrong town! I had checked in early and had just enough time to get to the correct hotel with the guests none the wiser. My last land agent problem is that those who book things in detail have no idea of the geography or distances. We took a train at a time decided by the land agent from Settle to Garsdale. I was suspicious this was the wrong train time but as a bus was hired to meet us at the other end I went with it. The bus collected and dropped us off as requested and we walked into Hawes. Sadly there was too little time for a Wensleydale Creamery tour and a sit down lunch. Knowing what I know now I’d have shortened the walk but sometimes you’re in the thick of a cock up when Plan B is impossible to deliver. (In fairness the guests were all on my side by then and I received forgiveness.)

Studley Royal views

Some things are also just sent to try you. The Queen’s Funeral fell on the Monday of a tour. This shut a number of attractions on the day. Worse was that it shut the cafes for lunch. This meant some itinerary juggling and the creation of a picnic. Where to get sandwiches? And, oh yes, one guest was on a gluten free diet! Knowing this was falling on this date I came armed to the tour with fruit, crisps, thermos flasks, a gluten free loaf and chocolate biscuits. The hotel kindly made the sandwiches and filled my thermos flasks with coffee and fresh milk. However this illustrates the tour ‘starts’ for the guide some days in advance.

All aboard

Obviously many things got easier on subsequent tours including remembering names of the guests. I had one tour with two Jennys and a Jane. I’m sure that the Jennys got called Jane and Jane Jenny. On the final night I commented that we should have been together for another week, not least, because by the end of week two I would know everyone’s name.

Walking down the rocky path from Malham Tarn I got a call from the ‘office’ asking in a reasonable way about the high hotel bills I was incurring with the guests? I didn’t understand. It turned out that two of the guests, albeit, strangers to each other, should be sharing. You’ll know that there is a premium for a single room supplement. Two guests had simply kept quiet when checking in and the hotel had given them single rooms. I should have known there were sharing guests but my information wasn’t clear and I never thought to ask/check as it’s unusual. I was all for turfing them out of their single rooms immediately but the hotel didn’t have accommodation with two single beds. In this situation the wider good of the party, its bonhomie and atmosphere comes into play and I was told to leave it be. Frankly I was enormously upset at the deception.

The castle on Holy Island, Northumberland

I mentioned that the females have a detailed knowledge of what the tour has included and what they pay for. At one castle I entered the ticket office to advise the person behind the counter that the guests would pay for themselves. ‘Ah’, she replied to me, ‘We have written down that we should invoice the land agent’. I thought that was wrong but didn’t have the operator’s brochure to hand to confirm it was wrong. Rather than have an embarrassing stand off with the guests and castle staff I waived them through. Of course checking later I was right and they should have paid and they probably all knew.

Inside Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

I only point out these two issues to highlight that an assumption that the guest is kind and honest could be over exaggerated for the naive and trusting. You’re by yourself as regards the policing of all this when you’re out there leading a tour.

In my last blog I write about the highlights and some of the things the guests might ask you and gratuities (or not).

Confessions of a Tour Guide Part 2

Following from Part 1 I’ve continued to write about other aspects and experiences of my inaugural year of being a tour guide.

Training

I was ‘selected’ and went through to training because I came across as having an outgoing personality (who could engage with guests), was demonstrably organised, physically fit, appeared trustworthy, had an attention to detail, was customer focussed and displayed some energy/enthusiasm for the tours. This is my conclusion at least! Whilst it reads well then I feel most folk have these attributes. However, you do need some agility and emotional intelligence to ‘read the room’ with a tour party and prevent or resolve challenges.

Kissing dummies for CPR training. Hope for a quick death beforehand should I ever need to get near you….

It started in February with a reconnaissance trip, with other newly hired guides, around Northumberland and very briefly in Yorkshire. We visited the walks, towns and attractions (albeit usually just to the outside of these great buildings.) The days were chilly, wet and bleak and we ended up with a curtailed programme as Storm Dudley blew in and we spent (too) little time in the Dales. The other guides were experienced, with other operators ,and I was the complete newbie. From here there was the plan for me to obtain a Private Hire licence so that I could drive the guests around in a small minibus. This was aborted after starting out to complete the process in Newcastle. You needed detailed street by street knowledge of the Toon to get qualified, I was never going to achieve that. Each council have their own specific requirements and other councils don’t necessarily stipulate this. This meant, this season, I’d be relying on other guides to drive or we’d have to use taxi minibuses.

Llama walking is on one of the tours and Anna took me along to get the experience. Okay, it was her birthday! (My boy was called Dec. Yes, I know, Ant and Dec)

Two other sets of training were mandated. First was obtaining an Outdoor First Aid Certificate. This was 16 hours of kissing dummies (or cardiopulmonary resuscitation – CPR) in the Peak District. It was a long two days and involved pretending to be half alive rolling in the grass whilst another course member had to establish your cause of injury as you lay ‘comatose’ (avoiding the nettles.) Anyway, I got the Certificate and if problems arise then I’m ‘off Go’ but apart from the responsibility of giving First Aid I’ve come to learn that the paperwork is horrendous if a guest has an episode or accident (on behalf of the tour operators.) I now request all guests mind their feet and take no risks just to protect me from endless form filling (rather then their health.) Some laugh at this but I’m being serious! I learned many things I never knew and in many ways I think all folk should do some First Aid training.

….and here’s a doggy on a kennel near Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales

Lastly, I had to complete a five hour online course for one operator. Most of it was about adopting their ethos and procedures. I suppose the issue is that the guest has bought one of their holidays and the operator wants consistency and maintenance of the brand equity. However this was a global operator and so much seemed irrelevant. Having been on similar tours overseas many issues and processes are different and it all seemed ‘box ticking’ as it wasn’t appropriate in the UK. For example the guides were meant to check the accommodation prior to arrival. In a shack in Nepal this seems a good idea but is it relevant with the equivalent of a Premier Inn in Northumberland?

On a walk near Rothbury, Northumberland

So that was the formal training but separately I must have visited the Dales on four separate occasions to familiarise myself with the sights or experiences eg. Fountains Abbey, Bolton Abbey, Aysgarth Falls, llama walking, location of hotels etc. This is time consuming and personally expensive in terms of car miles (round trip of 120 miles) but it was vital to give that, attempted, seamless experience and to be able to field those inevitable questions.

Guide Guidelines

It was important to develop a good relationship with all the guests and have a decent daily conversation with each one. However, there are inevitably places ‘not to go’ such as politics. Innocently you can be drawn into conversations on Boris Johnson or economic policy! If all that merits a swerve then you also may need to be discreet on your own life. I’m not sure if I was stalked or I let it slip about the blog but one lady kept coming up with cryptic comments about my writing. You have to remember that you spend around 12 hours a day with these folk and keeping mum on everything isn’t easy if they’re inquisitive.

Craster kippers

Our old friend GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) was high on the list of the operator. We were instructed not to share information between guests. So we always sought consent prior to any data sharing. Frankly, the guests had no concern about giving their telephone numbers not only so that we could have a link in case problems arose but also to set up a WhatsApp group. On WhatsApp, which it seemed 90% of the guests already had, we all shared, during the week, photos, restaurant options, menus and occasionally advance notice of coming weather especially if it was wet! Some women start the holiday with the usual ‘I don’t want my photo taken’, ‘bad hair day’, ‘wrong clothes for a photo shoot’, ‘I always look terrible’ etc. So, of course, I respected their wishes but after a couple of days they’re scouring WhatsApp for all the photos and asking to be included. They’ve now worked out it’s a great way of quickly passing the best images on to family and friends and they’ve relaxed to be a bit more confident in the group. Needless to say I quickly deleted all this information post tour.

Sheep dog handling demonstration just outside Hawes. A little wet but wonderful to behold.

I always was kept in mind of playing the role of Mr Carson, the butler from Downton Abbey. That is, you’re not part of the group but you are ever present literally opening doors for them as they walk serenely along, answering all sorts of questions with supposed authority, operate as the very personification of discretion, be able to communicate on their level but never let it turn into a conversation where you let slip your wealth or superior travel experiences, be prepared to resolve anything no matter whether it is large or small, attempt to be invisible and whilst you’re ultimately in charge you’re never as important as the guests. Again I know, Tony ‘Humble’ Ives does seem like a long week for me but it wasn’t. You’re working, and as we all do, you adopt different behaviours in a work place.

In my next blog I write about the challenges. There are quite a few!

Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 1

A good friend, Peter, asked if I was interested in becoming a tour guide? He was recruiting for the ‘land Agent’ he was working for. Land agent? If you were to pick a holiday that included a tour guide then that guide probably won’t work for the company you bought the holiday from but for their contractor or land agent. (The guide is often assumed, by the guest, to be a tour operator employee. Nope.) Peter seemed to have had a good time, got to ride a bike for a week and earned some money. I thought what’s not to like if you had the spare time? I signed up (but I ended up on walking tours!) 

Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast

So I thought I might write up a blog after a season of four separate tours in Northumberland and Yorkshire. Friends are always interested (and think they might like the idea of guiding.) There have been a lot of things to learn including the sights/attractions to swot up on, walking routes to know the stiles, streams and hazards and the location of every toilet on a day out! I never had a concern about dealing with the guests. I had been, with Anna, on similar types of holiday in Sri Lanka and South Africa, I knew the type who took these holidays and in many ways they were like me in interests, age, income and fitness. However, the statistics show, it seems that many are single and female. They are between 50 and 70 years old and 61% of my guests were. Of course all the guests were strangers to me to start with and expected a seamless experience from Sunday to Friday. Is that what happened? I thought I’d break down, in a couple of posts, the tours and my journey to competence.

On the Bolton Abbey Estate path to the ruined Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales

Before we do this then it does beg the question how many guides are my age? Err… not many I expect, the mould seems to chuck out 25 to 40 year olds who are outdoor types and actually live on the money they make. This is difficult I can tell you. This isn’t lucrative but if you want a part time, outdoor job with beautiful scenery and attractions it ticks many boxes. They typically work across many land agents and try and have a full diary during the season. I was happy to have a few weeks work: after all I had my own holidays to fit in!

Cragside House, Rothbury

You need to be fit, able to cope with five or six hours sleep per night, be highly organised, prepared ‘to go the extra mile’, sociable and able to talk with all sorts and not least able to lead and to be agreeably compliant, in the background, but often at critical points confident to be strict. I had been on this type of holiday, had several degrees from the University of Life, knew the parts of England I was working in, I was always eager to learn a new skill and very happy to be outdoors.

The Tours

Black Sheep Brewery Tour in Masham, North Yorkshire

I had three walking tours that were between five to eight miles worth of walking usually toward or around coastlines, castles, abbeys, waterfalls or in one case, happily, a brewery. The other tour was not as energetic and was focussed on the sights and had better dining and lodgings. The tours were curated between two operators and the guests had paid starting at £1,500 each for the pleasure. It was five nights each time and the size of the parties were four, twelve, eight and five, the low numbers are not lucrative for the land agent but their contractual commitment means they must proceed. (For the guide it was easier to organise a smaller group.) The accommodation was hotels and the day started at around 9am. Nothing on the itinerary started at the hotel and we had to drive to the start of a walk or sightseeing opportunity. Lunch was usually taken at a cafe, always reserved in advance and we’d be back at the hotel around 5pm. Restaurants were pre booked and the guide attended dinner although the rules were that we could have a night off. I didn’t always take mine. 

Dunstanburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast near Coaster

It was tiring as you’re always thinking ahead, stopping older guests walking out in front of traffic (!), dealing with changes or closures, trying to motivate the stragglers on a walk whilst not delaying the fit walkers who wanted to push on, dealing with hospitality issues such as tables, ordering and organising the bus to drop off or pick up in busy places, sorting out various tickets to the attractions when you arrived. All the time you’re working on creating a happy holiday. On one long walk, without a cafe break, I produced cream cakes much to everyone’s delight or attempted to add something extra to a tour that they call a ‘twist’ and didn’t expect. For example, Barter Books in Alnwick is always such a solution. Frankly despite all your hard work then dry and sunny weather and a well curated tour are the major ingredients for success. After the tour finishes the operator contacts the guests separately and requests the guide is ‘marked/rated’. The land agents pore across the feedback with interest. You’re always having your performance monitored.

In my next blog I’ll highlight some of the training and guidelines to operate by….

My Letters From America – Holiday Notes

Holiday Notes

Just a quick tidy up of some of the mundane, but maybe interesting, aspects of our time in the USA.

Anna struggles with me carrying a kettle and a stove to boil water. (Once a camper always a camper.) It came in useful. We ate out a lot but the food is very similar around the States and weariness set in or we couldn’t cope with two full meals a day. Anna has some food intolerances and some restaurant menus didn’t offer anything. In the room we made sandwiches or added hot water to stuff such as porridge. It worked well. Hotel breakfasts were entertaining as we watched Americans put eggs, bacon, melon/fruits and pastries on the same plate. Is it to avoid the need to revisit the buffet again or destroyed taste buds?

Brought my own tea bags as well

The distances between towns in the USA does mean that food tends toward being processed and I think, despite the supposed love of fishing, that I hear of in Country music, I could win a quiz, with a selection on Americans, asking what a tuna, salmon, trout, shrimp etc looked like before being filleted or frozen such is the rare sighting for most who live a long way from the coast.

Even I was knocked out by the convenience of Apple Play in the rented car. We switched on the phone in the car and the system wanted to pair. After this we were able to have in-car music, satellite navigation and could pick up either the BBC or Talksport. Listening live to Leeds United vs. Barnsley in the Carabao Cup driving through Wyoming was genuinely surreal. Some times you could receive live BBC football coverage but not the cricket. Somebody somewhere understands these exclusions?

We were here in 2016 and the exchange rate was a lot more favourable. Our trip coincided with the pound being at record lows against the dollar (£1 = $1.13) We found the USA expensive. However, even compensating for the dollar then prices appear to have risen dramatically. Salaries have risen as well but with these prices you need to earn a lot! Obviously we were often travelling in tourist areas and some prices were criminal. I bought six peaches in Colorado and the vendor is probably still telling his friends how much he charged…. and they paid!! Over and above Colorado then nothing was cheap. I used to have a shopping list when I came to the States but much of what I desired was cheaper back in Blighty. Beware.

We stayed a night in Lusk, WY. If described as a ‘one horse town’ then the animal only had three legs.

It seems there is a shortage of workers all over the western world. In the USA trucks that passed us advised us of ‘hiring’. At any retailer, food or clothing, interviews could be done on the spot for new recruits and on occasion the service was slow because of ‘staff shortages’. The reason is that Covid took a large number of people out of the workforce and the shortage is evident. The UK has this plus Brexit. I imagine all the EU workers who went home no longer needed to come back to the UK because geographically closer countries like Germany, Poland etc had to fill their Covid departed.

So much of our commentary in the media is about diversity and equality. You would expect America with its wider diversity to be more self evident. Not a piece of it. We saw few African Americans on our road trip around Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota. In Salt Lake City we saw a few Latinos and Indians (South Asians). If there was any ethnic group in profusion it was folk who lived or originated in the Far East, especially in the National Parks. I think most of these were tourists from out of State or country. You can see how different ethnic groups easily maintain their separation as they never mingle outside of the large cities in the USA.

The wonderful histories beautifully told

The message in Europe about reducing packaging and waste has been received. Not here really. Parking up leaving the engine running, with the windows open but the A/C on is one of my favourite crimes. In Walmart you still walk out with a lot of plastic carrier bags, in Europe having a bag to carry away your purchases is your problem. Buy sliced cheese and you get each slice separated by pieces of paper. Plastic cutlery at hotel breakfasts and disposable plates, bowls and cups made of polystyrene should be banned. Wake up! Don’t waste stuff we don’t really need. None of this is a good reason to process crude oil or chop down a tree.

We stopped in Spearfish, WY and Anna looked for free wi-fi and who knew the Americans had a sense of humour!

However for all my curmudgeonly xenophobic comments I love the USA. Being in these States where ‘woke’ never gets the time of day I was very comfortable, whether I am a dinosaur or not. I adore the space: wide roads, big rooms, enormous skies and landscapes that you can’t fully absorb due to their size. Surprisingly the Americans are very disciplined. If the sign says drive at 25mph, they do. If the road sign says ‘Stop’ even though there is no traffic, they stop. They don’t jump queues, they let you go first if you both meet at the same point and avoidance of aggravation is paramount. Through the centre of Cheyenne, the State capitol of Wyoming, the speed limit is 20mph. Often I was ready to cross swords but eventually I got the message and chilled (a little!)

On the Main Street in Sheridan, WY

In Britain parking is a pain. You never can. You have to drive some distance from where you want to be, pay a lot of money to do so and then, often, have to sandwich your car into a tight spot. In the States, we passed through, there were no challenges. To accumulate steps we voluntarily parked a distance from the intended destination but there was always easy parking wherever. Bliss. In parts of Yellowstone we came across poor road surfaces. That was an exception. Most roads were smooth and well maintained. Heaven help the US visitor who drives in Britain!

Oh, they love him in Wyoming!

Passing through Manchester and London Heathrow Airport the old, battered and dirty nature of the facilities is there for all to see. In any public building here if you visit the toilet/washrooms the quality of the facilities and the cleanliness is superb and puts us to shame.

Sensational street sculptures in Grand Junction, CO

Some of the Americans we met were quick to decry the depth of their history compared to Europe. True, we have castles, monarchy and it’s older but there is lots to see here. Native Americans, the War of Independence, a Civil War, the opening up of the West, Civil Rights, Vietnam and the importance on all our lives of the USA during the 20th Century. That’s before we get to the art culture of Hollywood, Elvis and Tamla Motown. Chill, there’s a lot to see and learn. I am engrossed by it all.

Lastly, as much I admire and feel attached to my Antipodean friends I am not Australian. I can think of three separate occasions, on this and other trips, when an American has ‘guessed’ my nationality and plumped for Crocodile Dundee. Stop it, it’s not funny any more.

My Letters From America – “Oh, about six miles to the gallon”

John and Peggy hailed from North Carolina (NC) and they were sat behind us at the Cody Rodeo in Wyoming. The rodeo was great fun consisting of various competitions including trying to ride young angry bulls for at least 8 seconds. For the record none of the young men who embarked on this potentially bone shattering project succeeded.

Yee-ha!

They were away for 85 days. John, a burly former engineer, at least 75 years old had planned a schedule of stops all the way up north; this wasn’t their first visit to Cody or its rodeo. They had perfected their retirement plans by spending time in their Recreational Vehicle (RV) many weeks of the year. After this jaunt it’d be hauled out again to join the ‘snowbirds’, as the migrating pensioners are called, in Florida. Anna talked to Peggy and I to John. Surprisingly for his age John was adeptly flicking screens on his mobile phone to show me spreadsheets, Google Maps and a selection of photos of his RV and luxurious home back in NC. For his years he was active and organised. I felt that the ‘down time’ in North Carolina was spent poring over maps, checking out camp sites across the country and working out new routes.

I admire the spirit of older Americans who take to the road. It seems that they probably pack their medicine cabinets with their pills, stuff the RV with every convenience to cope with failing joints and then head for the sun or, maybe, somewhere cooler. The only time I had less admiration was in 2014 as I cycled through Colorado and had large RV’s nearly graze my hip as they put these large vehicles onto cruise control at 70mph. Their eyesight or concentration was never good enough to spot a miniature obstacle such as a cyclist grinding along up a slope on the side of the road.

Not John’s but very similar

Whilst who wants to be old it’s pleasing that there are ‘Senior’ discounts at a lot of attractions and even with some parking. Like the military this is a privilege extended to these large groups. We made sure we declared our decrepitude every time money was involved. Sadly no one felt it necessary to check that we were being honest! The American winter is brutal but the summer is long and sublimely warm. I think this liberates older folk to spend more time outdoors and be adventurous.

So who looked after the house in their absence? John said his daughter was in residence with the instruction to keep the grass cut. Anna found Peggy less discrete and in fact the daughter was in residence with their three grand children after a marital separation from the son-in-law. As the daughter was a psychologist you hoped she was coping better than most.

On our 2,500 mile drive (so far) we’ve seen these bus length RV’s on the Interstates. There was little that they lacked as regard home comforts and on the wide fast US roads they were easy to pilot. I think John was financially very well off but these vehicles, second hand, can cost $200,000 depending on the year and mileage. I imagine some campers literally sell up their homes and live in these pantechnicons forever.

They’d never visited Europe and I’d be the first to agree that the USA has much to offer for variety but I worried that you do become tied to these types of holiday. Inevitably Anna had to ask what was the fuel consumption? This was a question we’d asked each other as these things rumbled by. “Oh, about six miles to the gallon”, in fairness that’s a US gallon and if converted to an imperial gallon it climbs to 7.5mpg! Petrol not diesel. And if John chose not to hitch up a small Jeep car to the tow bracket I expect he might even break into double figures.

For all that unforgivable climate damage I’d still love to look around one and maybe even drive it a mile or two. Like all Americans we struck up a conversation with they were endlessly civil, courteous and engaged. I always find the dialogue starts easily if you just wade in.

My Letters From America – “We keep ourselves clean”

Salt Lake City had been a stopover on our drive north. It’s a big diverse city, in complete contrast to the rest of Utah; here we’d stocked up at Walmart, visited Costco and stayed in a central hotel with a gazillion South Korean women (in town for a convention.) We felt we should spend a little time investigating the sights and being located in Downtown we were ideally placed. The city’s history owes everything to the Church of The Latter-day Saints. (I was slightly shocked to come to this important religious centre to find Downtown revealing a sad carpet of homeless drug addicts, many sprawled out under park trees, no doubt sleeping off their latest fix.)

Anna devised a walk and off we went. Eventually you arrive at the Salt Lake Utah Temple. This is a massive skyscraper of a building, which is currently a construction site as it’s being underpinned due to concern that it’ll topple if there’s an earthquake. Next to it is the Assembly Hall, a church, and then another large building called the Tabernacle. This was the Mormon HQ.

We knew of tours and Sister Hague and Sister Thomas appeared and introduced themselves. ‘Sister’ is the name that Mormon female missionaries use. The men are called Elders, these are the resilient but probably downhearted young men who knock on your door in the UK. Our Sisters were respectively from California and Minnesota, early 20’s and primly dressed with no flesh showing in clothes you might called conservative. Sister Thomas seemed detailed to take the lead with the party, which now included two devoted Christians from South America. She was open, friendly and worryingly enthusiastic yet I denoted some steel. After we responded to requests to tell her our names we start our brief walk around the buildings. What did we love? Anna of course got that right by advising family, I got it wrong when I suggested travel and music! All this seemed a strategy, albeit gentle, to open us up. Our relationship with Jesus was asked? I was honest. Whilst not overly convinced about wizards in the sky I did volunteer there’s a lot to be admired about the spirituality and community that those of faith create and foster.

Our young ladies had been educated in mainstream schools and Sister Thomas had been the only Mormon in her high school. They had probably experienced cynicism or negativity about their faith but had come through it. It seemed they believed every word of the Book of Mormon. This is their bible not, say, the King James. They carried the bible with them as if an answer might easily be close to hand should a difficult question arise. They talked of a life of helping, I believed them.

Assembly Hall

All life’s positive moments were down to the ‘miracles of God’. She asked what bad situation had miraculously been answered by a piece of good news? One of the South Americans, a dentist, had found during a routine appointment a growth in a patient’s mouth. This discovery led to prompt treatment and possibly saved their life. Expectant eyes turned to Anna and myself? Nope, we had no stories. Sister Thomas now threw in her miracle. She was recently assembling flat pack furniture and it was an important installation for a Ukrainian Mormon they were housing. She didn’t have the tools for the job. However, miraculously a stranger appeared with a toolbox! It’s easy to see that if you attribute every positive event to the intervention of your god you’re going to be happy. She was.

We were invited to ask questions. I asked what was the biggest misconception? Polygamy came the answer. This arose as a solution when during the faith’s migration from persecution in Missouri in the 19th Century many of the men died necessitating, apparently, this rule change for procreation purposes. This isn’t happening now. The Sisters were adamant that their lives wouldn’t be reduced to being housewives; they could pursue careers or whatever. The only other female Mormon I knew was Marie Osmond who has had a stellar career, eight children and has been married three times, albeit twice to the same man. I chose not to ask if either of them could sing. It’s not mandatory that you have to marry another Mormon, however, I think it probably helps given the strictures of the faith and lifestyle.

Sister Thomas said that she and her other missionaries kept themselves ‘clean’. I had to stop and ask her to explain. “We don’t drink, take drugs or have sex before marriage.” All that’s fine as a set of decisions but calling it ‘clean’?

Their missions last 18 months, two years for the men. There are 17 million members: it’s a large worldwide community. I envy these believers and their faith but in a world where science can explain virtually everything I can’t comprehend how they remain so convinced and committed.

My Letters From America – “I’m Always Within Five Feet Of My Gun”

Toward the top of Interstate 14 in Bighorn National Park at 3,000m the present Mrs Ives declared the need to stop for what our American friends would describe as a ‘bathroom break’. There was nothing around other than a wide open road. In fact we’d only seen mountains, cows and the very occasional car on the long climb up from Greybull. However, sweeping down another long straight The Elk View Inn came into view and amongst some rental log cabins and a lot of small All Terrain Vehicles was a wooden building claiming to be the bar and restaurant. I parked up and Anna dashed in.

We felt obliged to have a drink to repay the bar for use of its facilities and ordered a Coke and a Bud Light. Sadly, as I was driving I was the soft drink consumer. Our barman, Ramón, looked out of place in this isolated location, of Latino complexion and sporting metal rings through his bottom lip and inevitably in his ears he was no cowboy. Our interrogation started with “where are you from?” Ramón was originally from Portland, Oregon but left as he felt the place was ‘moving in the wrong direction’? He’d first ended up in Vegas working on the strip as a barman. The shifts including 8.30am to 3.30am were gruelling but he was earning good money. Covid ended all this and he had to find another job.

He’s in his very early thirties, stylish in his own pierced way, gregarious and articulate. It came as no surprise he’d ended up in management and he ran this bar. However, why Wyoming? In short he was ‘conservative’ and wanted to be in a place with space and no big towns with their own unrepresentative political centres as he described it. Given the recent anarchy in Portland you might easily understand what he was fleeing. I could empathise with this as I’ve found rural America and its people bear little or no resemblance to the ethnic diversity, pace, needs, crime, preoccupations and seemingly perpetual conflicts that swirl around major cities. Of course rural America has its maladies but they seem to me less in number and different.

He mentioned gun legislation in many States was a determinant for his move as he always wanted a firearm to hand. Now Ramón certainly didn’t seem a member of the NRA but he listed the four guns he currently owned! We were astonished. A bit like my selection of bicycles: each gun had a particular task, whether it was personal safety from other humans or shooting animals that threatened his safety on the trail. He turned to show us his girlfriend, a dark slim attractive girl finishing her lunch. She worked at the hotel as the housekeeper. He’d bought her a hand gun and went on to say he was additionally looking at a rifle to stash in his truck. Changing subject (!) I asked if Wyoming had been his first choice? No, Alaska was but he couldn’t fly with his guns there as they passed over Canada.

Frankly the desire to bear arms is vital to millions of Americans. How any politician could meaningfully dismantle the law seems impossible when they truly believe that the ownership is integral to their safety. Gun ownership seemed no solution to me as to personal safety but created a perpetual cycle of fear and an increasing desire for ownership and apparent accumulation.

Anyway we thanked Ramón and paid. I had little change for a tip but found a dollar. I apologised for the size of the gratuity. He noted, genuinely kindly, as we sidled toward that door, that tipping wasn’t a thing they did in England. On that we could agree Ramón.

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022 (Last Blog)

Ulvenhout to Europoort 59 miles & 256 metres climbing

Hull to Acaster Malbis 57 miles & 265 metres climbing

Day 10

It was all about getting to the ferry in good time today and progress was complicated through urban areas.

There were few things of interest along the way but do I find all these references or monuments to WW2 fascinating given the closeness of all the members of the EU to the Germans nowadays. This tank was donated by the Polish.

They had entered Breda first of the Allies to evict the Nazis. I got chatting with another younger guy who was attempting to stop his young boys falling off the tank as they clambered on it and raised this point. He commented that the invasion of the Nazis still ‘runs deep’. The Germans, when their retreat was inevitable, were terrible to the local population.

Wacky baccy’s legal in Holland

Nearer the coast the land becomes flatter and the winds stronger. Here I met a scouser on a bike with a Dutch accent (think Steve McLaren). As I’m peering into my handle bar bag he’d kindly stopped to ask me if I needed help? No, not really I was just finishing off some sausage rolls.

The ramp

It’s an endless search for the non signposted Europoort. Europoort is simply the name for the ferry docks in a large complex of other docks and industrial units. However I get there in good time, check in and then get on board up the steep ramp. The arrangement is that on the car decks you tie your bicycle to the wall with a rope. From there it was find my cabin, have a shower and get out for a Guinness. I’d asked Anna if there were any Duty Frees she wanted but the answer was negative.

Given the recent move by P&O to unload their British workers you might expect some negativity about the operation. As it appears to be mainly Continental Europeans on the ship, who possibly know little of recent events, there is no issue. Back in my cabin I eat the sandwiches I’d bought prior to boarding and I suddenly find myself looking at the inside of my eyelids. Over and out.

Day 11

The day starts with a Full English with the hoards. Off the ship I (foolishly) decide to follow the Trans Pennine Trail 65. It was a nightmare. Hull was difficult to get through in rush hour with cycle paths shut due to construction work. The essence of Sustrans 65 is a detour through the East Yorkshire countryside very close to the Humber. I pass unexpectedly through the premises of a company called Wienerberger where I went, unsuccessfully, for a Sales Director job in 2008. They make clay roof tiles. Meanwhile this bike ride is against a persistent westerly. To add insult to injury the route even deteriorates into a grass path at one stage. Weary I eventually get to Acaster Malbis at past 1pm.

In summary, I love riding in France, it was all I hoped for – countryside, campsites, space, food and vistas. The weather behaved all the way nearly. Cycling up the Meuse is a doddle (and enjoyable.) The last couple of days were a chore and next time, from somewhere in Belgium or Holland, I’ll catch a train from a certain point to the ferry to eliminate those pointless miles. In the past the mileage was less through Belgium. You could choose Zeebrugge over Rotterdam but the former has now closed as a ferry route back to Hull.

If you’ve followed my blog then thank you. I appreciate your time and support.

As a heads up then I think it’s back to Australia next for a bike ride, I have unfinished business.

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022

Day 9

Frankly cycling in Belgium or Holland is not much fun; I view passage through these countries as a way of getting home and not really a holiday. Why? Mainly because it’s ‘cycling friendly’. So to explain. The laws are that you should use cycle paths. The paths are copious but indirect, full of junctions, sometimes brick rather than smooth asphalt and a constant drain of my patience trying to use them. Even the paths beside the Belgian and Dutch canals, as they start to open up and become wider, are dreary with nothing to see.

Shortly after leaving Visé I was back along the river but now in Holland and in Maastricht. (There are no border signs denoting countries.) For a short while I got lost. I have to say my Garmin navigating device has been dreadful to use on this trip and has a software problem not allowing me to search specific addresses. Anyway as I’m trying to fathom out a route I come to a mini roundabout and stray off the designated cycle path onto the road. Immediately a bloke in a small car is on the horn. I explode and go mental, gesticulating. The said motoring hero winds down his window for a probable frank discussion and I shout (!) at him ‘I’m a tourist, I made a mistake!’ In fairness he quickly apologises (twice) and even I chuck in a ‘sorry’.

British bomber crash memorial
Probably little more than kids in age. ‘Lest We Forget’

I rode beside the canals all day. Here there are working barges and industrial units on the banks.

I listen to the radio intermittently, it’s all about the women’s semi final Euro win. It becomes repetitive on every channel and typically the coverage degenerates into exploring the FA’s banning of women back in the day. Not a piece of history to be proud of, obviously, but if an ‘angle’ of blame or misery can be found it’ll be used.

I’ve got all their LP’s

The first campsite I found was large and more like a holiday park. Reception was shut but a kindly passing resident tried to help me by ringing up the management. (Understanding signage is hard as understandably it’s all in Dutch but ironically everyone speaks English.) For no apparent reason, on this massive site, he told her ‘no’. So I rode on to near Breda and in a small town/suburb called Ulvenhout I found a great campsite with a bench, yippee!

The fee to stay was €10 but I needed an extra €0.50 coin to get hot water in the shower. Here I met a French lady, similar vintage to me, who’d started riding from Calais and was planning to get to Prague over three months. She did 50 kilometres a day, heaven knows how she spends her time. To add to the Gallic ambience there was a French couple next to me who had a tent but took it down to sleep in bivouacs, at 9pm, to go to sleep! Crazee!

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022

Day 8

Haynes, France to Visé, Belgium 106 miles & 470 metres climbing

The proximity of my little tent to other campers meant late night chatting delayed my sleep and then some nearby 4am rustling woke me up with a start. However, On waking I had a leisurely start at 9am and fortified by porridge and croissants I continued north along the river. After my decision to return to Yorkshire early I had to switch my ferry sailing date and needed to contact the operator (whilst cycling.) P&O Ferries were perfect, they switched my date with no administration charge. I sorted it all on my mobile in Givet.

Goodbye Haybes
Beautiful vistas

To add to my fortunes I had, at long last, a tailwind and it was mainly overcast to start. This meant going faster without the energy sapping heat. As it was Sunday it seemed that Belgium was out and about dining. For my lunch I came away from the river in Namur and found something to eat before heading north again. It was all about calorie intake and getting it quickly.

I’m sorry, I let standards slip again.

Again there were few other cyclists. As I progressed further north the scenery became more industrial and the river got wider. However there were some sports on the Meuse, namely, water skiing, jet skiing, rowing and fishing.

Only near Huy I saw a working barge, it must have been close to its destination as the river got less navigable, for large crafts, the further south you went.

(You get plenty of time to reflect on things as you pedal for hours and it seemed that only low cost materials were carried on the barges ie. it was too expensive to ship these aggregates, building materials or cheap bulk chemicals by road. In an age rightly concerned about fossil fuels and congestion then water seems a good option.

Around Liege the path stopped and I had a difficult job finding a route and ended up heading north on major roads. Liege was very unlovely and offered no camping option. The time was now past 6pm and I’d clocked a high mileage for the day. So I stopped and conferred with Booking.com to pick a town and hotel I could reach. I randomly chose the town of Visé, still on the Meuse and the only hotel there.

The hotel was clean and smart but the ‘patron’ was a complete ‘buttock’. I asked where I could store the bike and I got a shrug of the shoulders and the nonsense explanation of ‘space restrictions’. (Remember Belgians love bicycles!) Anyway after a short plead she allowed me to bring the bike up to the first floor. Further joy arose at discovering my toilet seat was broken and beside the pan, the air con remote control was missing (I stood on a chair to activate overcoming the cost saving initiative) and the milk was sour at breakfast. My feedback on Booking.com was brutal. On a more positive note England Women won their Euro semi final and were all set for the Germans in the final. It’d been a long day but all cyclists feel that doing a century is a day we’ll spent.

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022

Day 6

The rest day comes with chores as well as, hopefully, lazing about. However, first it was breakfast! It’s was a great spread and I tried to eat as much of it as possible!

Next, I wanted to get to Rotterdam faster than I originally planned and I thought I’d start the following day with a train ride north, to Sedan. When on arrival I’d cycle north along the Meuse River. There may be a way to buy a ticket on online but a visit to la gare seemed a way of ensuring I got the correct ticket. I ambled down and was greeted on arrival by a sign advising they won’t be opening the ticket office until 10am. As a consequence a queue is forming, I join it.

One member of staff appears and mans one window. The first in line comes and goes quickly, the second in line takes 25 minutes! What the hell is taking so long? I imagine he’s set the clerk the challenge of finding out how much it costs for a train through France to Tintagel where he’d like to make a further connection to Fort William over a Bank Holiday weekend in 2027. In true French style two people push in to the front of the line claiming they have extenuating circumstances demanding priority.

The man who took 25 minutes!
My Swatch kept misting up. The sweat from my wrist had got into the watch face as droplets. The solution of taking the back off enabled it to evaporate.
I must remember to pack a belt next time.

Walking back to the centre of town I look at the large war memorial. It covers a number of conflicts including WW2, the Algerian conflict, Afghanistan and Indo China. Movingly they list civilians who died.

All those killed from one family

The next task is laundry and a laundrette is found. All the instructions to get the damn machines to work are in French and I’m struggling. It seems that it all magically happens remote to the machines. A chap tries to help. He speaks no English (yes, I know I said the French all speak English) but eventually by lots of pointing and gesticulating we coax the beasts into life.

Later I have a wonderful Caesar Salad, enjoy a walk in the park and watch some of the Commonwealth Games back in my hotel room. It is a beautiful city and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Day 7

Châlons-en-Champagne to Sedan by train

Sedan to Haybes 59 miles and 223 metres climbing

The booked train is early in the morning and whilst breakfast is available at the hotel I’m surprisingly not very hungry to do justice to the feast! Instead I made some sandwiches for later. At the station there are several platforms and getting to the right one involves using a lift to move my bike. As a consolation to the onerous station logistics I’m impressed that taking my bike costs no premium. All in all it comes to a total of €30. I have to change in Reims and that involved more lifts but the trains are quiet, comfortable and clean. On arrival at Sedan I’m only a stone’s throw from the station to the Meuse cycle path.

An Engine built in Glasgow used in WW1 by the French at Reims

The path is quiet with few other walkers, runners or cyclists for mile after mile. The path is perfect tar macadam. If anyone wants a beginners route for cycling in Europe then this is compelling. I roll along at a good pace on the flat in beautiful weather. The route is windy as it runs beside the river.

Moving pictures! Also proof I do ride the bike
Just epic cycling terrain

There are literally no boats on the water. The river has the role of being an ornament with no purpose other than looking nice. Gone are the climbs and trucks and the only things to pass me are electric bikes where the riders barely touch the pedals but ease past me at speed. At Haybes I find a campsite on the side of the river.

The check in requires me to cycle half a mile to another office to pay my €6.70, get a receipt to confirm payment to the receptionist, and then pitch my tent. The receptionist knows this arrangement is stupid and the words she utters included ‘desole’ and ‘scheizer’. However whilst at the office I got a beer and so that was a consolation. The cycle back was delayed as I watched a cavalcade of cars go past tooting their horns. This is the way the guests to a wedding proceed, very French. I make my dinner, do my washing and phone home. On the next pitch a Dutch woman is reading, in English, aloud to her husband in a voice like the Queen! I tell her this later for her to tell me she got her accent from living in Oxford. The receptionist floats around the campers asking if they want to order bread and croissants for the morning? I certainly do.

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022

Days 4 & 5

Donzy to Eaux-Puiseax – 72 miles & 978 metres climbing

Eaux-Puiseaux to Châlons-en-Champagne – 68 miles & 674 metres climbing

As planned I’m away by 8am. My fellow camper has to visit La Marie with the shower block key, it crosses my mind the staff might not be there until a lot later. Happily I cycle on empty roads. Occasionally a van or tractor rumbles past. I put on my headphones and listen to the news on Radio 4. They’re interviewing people about the train strikes. Frankly, it’s nice to be away from all that unhappiness. It’s coolish but pleasant and perfect for cycle touring. I follow the news with a spot of Steeleye Span on Spotify.

A castle in Druyes-Les-Belles-Fontaines

I stay in touch with all and sundry on WhatsApp and messages ping through during the day normally. This morning good news, the son in law (Matt) has passed his driving test. I stop at the top of a hill to text my congratulations. Eventually I get to Auxerre, it looks beautiful. My only conscious recollection about the town is that for a small place it enjoyed top flight football for many years.

Auxerre

On the route is a Burger King and I capitulate. It’s far superior to McDonalds! Leaving the city I head north into a steady headwind, there’s lots of climbing and my progress is slow. This made me start to think about a rest day. It’s too early in the trip to do that but I start thinking it through. I’d usually stop in a hotel in a town with a laundrette and plenty of things to see and do. In hot weather you can’t possibly spend the day in a small tent on a campsite, you’d fry. Pulling off a major busy road I find a site a little short of Troyes. The site is massive and lovely but maybe a quarter full. It seems that all holiday traffic is down.

Persistent pestilent fluffy fowl

I check in and get a discount card to use on my 12th visit where I could stay for free! I suspect the Dutch and Belgians might like that benefit. I find many migrating Dutch heading south or home. This is a stopover site for them. In line with the bucolic setting I am molested by a large hen that hunts around my possessions and food. It even puts its foot in my dinner as without a bench or table I have to prepare dinner on the grass. The other campers wonder why I’m bellowing at a pestilent fluffy fowl as I urge it to bugger off! A call home finds a snuffling Anna still dealing with covid. I offer the appropriate sympathy and then clamber into my hen free zone for a deflating sleep.

Day 5

I made a good start just after 8am at Eaux-Puiseaux but my Garmin immediately sent me back to the big road and the trucks. France is a big country and big countries spawn big trucks to transport stuff big distances. I’d chosen quite a direct route as I had a limited number of days and this meant travelling broadly in a straight line home. The road is never steep but it remorselessly climbs up and down. A slow climb on a heavy bike for 200m was met with a gentle descent and so it all began again. As a balance then the weather nestles into the mid 20°s and is mainly overcast.

Busy road!
Want one!

It was farming countryside with tractors and busy combines. I plugged in to my usual Radio 4 fix and then Spotify with Angel Olsen and a Manchester band from the 80s called Any Trouble. I look at the map and how far I want to go and confirm a rest day and Châlons-en-Champagne it is. I book my hotel on Booking.com. I’d happily arrive at a hotel and not use the App but I possibly wouldn’t get the best rates. I’m always nervous that they will have a problem with storing my bike and hope that it’ll be no problem when I get there.

The hotel I booked online find in the centre. I trundle in and am met by a sour faced receptionist who claims not to have received the online booking? Something about problems with the internet? Seems bullshit but there’s no negotiating this declaration and I walk a couple of doors down and check into an Ibis for a couple of nights.

Later I walk around the city centre believing it to be good for the legs. I can’t be bothered with a sit down meal and buy a takeaway pizza and take it to my room. The bed doesn’t deflate overnight.

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022

Day 3

Issoudun to Donzy – 72 miles & 762 metres climbing

A cold and (traffic) noisy start but with gas for my stove I could make coffee and have porridge. This was all a morale boost and off I cycled. It was a flat start but on a busy road. I find French traffic is very tidal. It seems in England that it’s virtually busy all the time. Not so in France. They start early and then it all goes very quiet. Not least around lunchtime, which they take very seriously. Bourges came into view in no time. There was an option to stay on a route National dual carriageway but ever the quick learner and worrying I may be on a criminal database now I dropped off onto a windy B road. McDonalds was my reward. How about some beef protein? It was truly awful. I used to love MaccieD’s but it’s getting slowly more and more inedible. Whilst I’m there I speak briefly to Anna who’s very chatty and glad to have contact with the outside world. Eventually I set off for Donzy.

Decisions decisions…
Great building but neglected. So typical of rural France

I pedal past arable fields full of cereals. The soil is very rocky. Harvesting seems complete. Large stones are evident that must play hell with the tractor tyres.

The ‘terroir’

Suddenly I am cycling across a bridge over the very wide Loire river. The river is very low and not navigable. Again a victim of drought. France has had widespread fires and whilst there is plenty of greenery in places it’s suffering. This region produces the delicious white Pouilly Fumé wine and there are fields full of vines and places selling their produce.

On a canal that runs alongside the Loire

Donzy is a small town that Google Maps tells me has a municipal campsite. I could cycle on a bit further but it seemed a nice town so why not call it a day at 4.30pm? I find an empty campsite with the barrier down preventing entry? However, camped there is a small tent with a bicycle near it. As I hover wondering what to do a lad ambles across. He speaks English (obvs.) The site is open but you have to go back into the centre of town to La Marie. In this building you can pay to stay. This I do. Again gratuitous form filling for €8.22 for overnight. I pedal back and pitch my tent. My fellow camper, in this vast empty site, that is pretending to be shut, is on his mobile speaking to lots of people.

I shower and walk into town. I had it in my mind that walking might help clear up the residual cramp, it does. A lot of rural France is abandoned. It seems as if WW2 was a watershed for a slow exodus. Many quite small towns look in disrepair with former beautiful grand buildings neglected. No wonder the British buy them up. I found a restaurant and fancy a pizza. My French speaking host advises pizzas are only on vendredi. Today is mardi. So a steak it is. We needed to agree how well the steak would be cooked. I advised ‘bien cuit’ but in the end what turned up I reckon a good vet could have got it up off the plate and back walking around a field. It was chewy.

I still had one important task before sleep, that is to try and find the hole in my mattress. In the town was a small slow flowing river. It looked clean enough and dunked my inflated air bed into it try and find escaping bubbles, after all I had a puncture repair kit. A passing woman enquired as to what I was doing? Not unreasonable given that weirdly a tourist, at 7pm, is floating a Iilo in a river in the middle of a town. I tried to pacify her with “Je cherche un trou dans le matelas.” She answered back in English… “then are you going to swim there with it?” “Yes”, I replied (not) “all the way back to ‘kin Queensland where I bought it to ask for a refund.” Anyway, I couldn’t find the leak. More midnight inflation beckoned.

Back at the site there were no other campers. The town’s strategy for preventing use was working well.

The shower lock was new, which begs the question of why spend all this money if you’re trying to keep the site a secret? I discover the young lad is 16 years old! He’s German and cycling over a few days from home to a destination further west. Quite an adventure for a young man and he must have very confident parents. I offer him a baguette I’d bought. I was starting to worry that his mother will be fretting about his nutrition but he’s not interested. Anyway I have a night ahead with a soft mattress.

French Cycling Saunter – July 2022

Day 2

La Souterraine to Issoudun – 81 miles & 885m climbing

The next morning I received a text advising Anna has Covid! Given the proximity to the wedding it’s as well I was away avoiding the risk of infection. More pressing was the imperative to start eating and find a gas canister. Until I sorted that out I couldn’t boil water or heat up food on site. That had to wait until I ate something more. A typical French breakfast outside in the sunshine is a delight. When I left the site Reception was still shut and so I couldn’t pay. One way or another a criminal tendency was developing.

How to dismantle a tent

I found this as I pedalled around the attractive La Souterraine.

Perfect

Whilst still lovely weather the heat had miraculously gone and the weather was cooler by 10°. The legs should have had no weariness on the tour yet, but residual cramp persisted, I hadn’t got the lactic acid out of the muscles.

Despite this I was quite chipper. The route was undulating to the next major settlement of Chatereaux but I took the bigger roads with less steep gradients. They were an easier way of progressing. I’d never noticed all the sunflowers before, they are prolific in all the large arable fields, they greet you as you pedal past them.

A lunch of chicken and chips was found and then I detour off the route to visit Decathlon, the sports store, for a gas canister.

Tasted better than it looked!
Interesting name!

The bike’s chain kept slipping on the rear cassette/gears. I reckoned I had a stretched chain that needed replacing. Decathlon did this quickly and cheaply (€30) in 20 minutes. I communicated with the mechanic over these technical matters via the Google Translate App on our mobiles. I know trying to book the bike into a UK bike shop and expecting an immediate repair would be difficult. Vive La France.

However, the French now speak English. Going back a few decades they would not speak English to the point of being awkward with you. Most now admit to knowing quite a lot and will help you out as you start a conversation in butchered French. As always English pop music is in supermarkets and how can any business that buys or sells internationally or use the internet not use English? It’s safe to say we’ve won that war!

Next I found a supermarket for provisions. Usually this involves bread, a tomato, cheese, milk (for my porridge), a large calorific cake as a treat and bananas. Mission accomplished I pressed on for a municipal campsite I’d found on Google Maps in Issoudun. Baby Jesus now rationalising that I’d had too much go my way on the day threw down heavy rain. I got to the site sodden. The lad on Reception was at the time on FaceTime with his girlfriend. As he’s wading through the festival of pointless forms we need to complete for my €8 stay I get in front of the camera on his phone and ask “Parlez-vous anglais?” Cue much squealing and merriment. I’m don’t think she expected an old bloke, generally drenched, donning a cycle helmet asking about her language skills.

Room to spare
Useful for hanging washing off
Always pleased to find a bench

The site was basic but the washrooms were fine. However it was just off a busy roundabout and the late evening and, it transpired, early morning traffic was impossibly noisy. Motorbikes or trucks would work their way through the gears angrily as they pulled away from the junction.

Still attempting to recover from the first day I embarked on lots of eating. A call home discovered a bored Anna. She was confined to barracks and even speaking to me proved a highlight of her day. The rain stopped, laundry was done and hung out to dry and it was time for some kip. In line with my luck ending I discovered a slow puncture in my air bed during the night and nearby campers may have wondered about the heavy breathing in the early hours of the morning. I was re-inflating my air bed!