So the first thing the window check revealed was a grey overcast and windy day. Disappointing. With the high mileage demands of the next couple of days an early start was in order. (The Premier Inn steer you next door to their affiliate restaurant for breakfast and last night’s dinner wasn’t good enough to make us want to return.) So Peter added some water to our porridge ‘cuppas’.
Soon we were sorted; a photo taken of our fine establishment and at 7.25am we were pedalling away.
The first 5 miles were bliss until we hit the 300m vertical ‘lump’ that was the Old Bristol Road. This was a tough start to the day with the legs screaming but by 9am 15 miles had been covered, we had a reward, and it felt like we were making progress. The countryside was rolling and verdant as we headed downhill off the hills north to the coast and Avonmouth.
Bristol seemed cycle friendly with many paths to assist you more directly and safely through the city. One took us through a park.
Other Lejoggers had complained of the awfulness of getting through a busy, traffic choked part of Bristol to get to the Severn Bridge. As regards directions then with Sat Nav there were few missteps. It was tortuous with cycle paths swapping sides of the road and not without risk when on the main roads with fast and heavy trucks. The aspect that got to me was the noise of large trucks speeding closely by. It was a cacophony for an hour or so. But we saw some iconic sights.
Our bridge to cross the Severn was reached and frankly was a little of an anticlimax.
Over the bridge was Wales and after riding for over 5 hours some food was needed. A supermarket had to suffice.
The road was still up and down and the legs were terribly sore. The new lower gear helped and, as always, the hills were conquered. One anticipated yet unknown delight was the Wye Valley. Quite exquisite in its French like tranquility and beauty. The road ran beside it and if it did climb it did so gently.
Monmouth was another lively market down bursting with tourists. It looked inviting with lots of character and is definitely worth another visit sans bicyclette. Tony was kept happy with an ice cream cornet.
However there was still the grim requirement to get into the hills to bridge the gap to Hereford. To distract me from the legs I put on the headphones and listened to some music. Sadly Robert Palmer and Candi Staton didn’t completely obliterate the sound of Peter continuing to complain about cars going too fast, cars going too close, cars being driven badly, cars etc etc. I thought I could go on and on about things, clearly I need to practice.
Most drivers, in fact the majority, are more cautious around cyclists but it’s a fair point to say that if the mammal in their path was a pedestrian, a horse or any member of their family they’d cut their speed and keep a greater distance. When it comes to cyclists there is a disregard if getting to Tesco’s or to pick up the kids is being delayed by 20 seconds. It is what it is and all over the world the behaviour is the same.
Peter was ahead and got to the B&B first. Access to the property and various instructions, such as how to order breakfast, were delivered by text or email. The owners are ultra cautious/unnecessary about Covid and were not to be seen. Seven hours on a bike and all you want is someone, with a smile, to open the door and show you your room not redirect you to codes and key boxes. We even had to text to get a wi-fi code. Being Friday the choice in Hereford was limited!
We dined on a Chinese all you can eat buffet. We conformed to the protocol of revisiting the selection on multiple occasions. Peter even came away with pockets laden with jelly beans (mostly put there to satisfy the under 10’s with their parents.)
We went out in the dry and it then later rained as if Noah was floating the Ark! To say we got soaked was an understatement. We had a pint of cider (that’ll shock the Favourite Youngest Daughter) at the Golden Fleece on the way back to B&B and discovered, from the publican, why some football clubs have triangular flags on their corner posts and others have rectangular.
Tomorrow is the longest ride so far of 90 plus but should be slightly less climbing. Oh please be true.
So the curtain when pulled back and revealed drizzle! (Not a great start but cool enough for the climb out of Moretonhampstead.) Our washing hadn’t dried on the line (obvs) and so the landlady kindly had out put it in the tumble dryer… sorted! Another cooked breakfast consumed: P Lawson – cereal, porridge, yoghurt, summer fruits, full English and toast….
That climb out Moretonhampstead was long but worse was to come:
I’d been planning before leaving York to add another gear to the bottom end but couldn’t get the cassette due shortages. However, I thought I’d try my luck in Exeter. The ride there was still these awful steep leg draining short climbs separated with long steep descents in the rain. However a soggy Exeter was reached and a bike shop identified on Google. Asking for directions one local was quite convinced it had shut and become a bar. He was fortunately wrong.
Fortunately they had the cassette and Andy was available to fit it. Really great service at short notice. The existing groupset isn’t really compatible for an 11-34 but he reckoned he could get it to work.
The curtains opened and revealed another sunny day, in fact the temperature eventually soared to 25°C around the middle of the day. After the climbing of yesterday we knew worse was to come today, in fact, shortly after leaving the B&B (and the garden shed) we found ourselves on a beast of a mountain before we got to Fowey for the first of two ferries of the day.
The landlord revealed that Fowey was pronounced ‘FOY!’ This pronunciation entertained us all day with comic interludes of shouting this randomly. Yes, simple pleasures and juvenile! Less comic was the nonsense of COVID rules on the Fowey ferry. A five minute ride on a ferry, that sailed about 150m, necessitated wearing a mask, even though we were outside! This was selective as a motor scooter rider wasn’t asked to wear one. Peter was about to launch into a full scale dispute before I intervened to ensure we weren’t chucked off the vessel.
After the cold and rain of yesterday the first question after waking was how was the weather? It was brilliant sunshine, a little wind and maybe a tad cool: we’d take it. After a bacon sandwich and some porridge we were away from the YHA. Soon we were cycling past Lands End Airport and shortly afterwards came to a deserted Lands End. A worker there said they expected 1,000 cars during the day, however, at 9am, there was just enough folk to get our photo taken.
The speed of cars and traffic was heavy all day, especially in built up areas. It appears Cornwall is the resting place for ancient Subarus and small white Peugeot vans. In fact there were lots of old cars being badly driven.
So the latest expedition started at 9.33am with the York to London, Kings Cross train. Thanks to Anna who brought me to the station. (“Ah,” you say “a small price for two Tony-free weeks!” No she gets only one week before we meet up in Greater Manchester.)
The first task was to meet Peter at Kings Cross after his own train journey from north of the border. This was after reconciling myself to being dressed as a biohazard for all the day. Bloody masks!
The most iconic long distance bike ride in Great Britain is the saunter from Lands End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in the Scottish Highlands. This can be ridden by various, but similar, routes but usually clocks in at about 1,000 miles. I know a few people who’ve done it and they’ve loved it. I’ve been reluctant due to the option of better places to cycle long distance, the cost of accommodation and the British summer weather. However, given my inability to travel abroad at this point in time I thought this might help me get my fix in June.
The route is taken from a guide (Nick Mitchell’s) but I’ve planned a detour via Manchester to stay overnight at the Favourite Eldest Daughter’s house. This misses out Runcorn and other treasures of the industrial north west: not a loss. Camping in England, Wales and Scotland is not something I covet. There’s maybe plenty of daylight but getting to a campsite and finding that the temperature is so chilly that you need to be in your sleeping back at 8pm to keep warm or dry isn’t of interest. So using a combination of hostels, hotels and BnB’s I’ll take a couple of weeks to get to the top. If that seems fast or slow then the record for running it is 9 days! Yes, I know, why would you…
I’ve got used to travelling solo and making all my own decisions without compromise but this time I shall cycle with Peter who’s responsible for introducing me to cycle touring back in 1994. We last toured together in 2010 in France and Spain. He’ll be great company and no doubt ’the official photographer’.
The highlights include seeing Cornwall at close quarters, the Wye Valley just as you enter Wales via a bridge near Bristol and then Scotland. I’ve been to the Highlands a couple of times and the panoramas are breathtaking but I especially look forward to seeing the Caledonian Canal. A lot about the latter part of the trip is dependent on the weather. Scotland doesn’t respect the calendar and so I’ll be looking at the forecasts to work out what to pack.
Guess what? I’ll be blogging as we move up the island. People make the most interesting blog subjects and so grumpy hoteliers, impatient motorists, passing LEJOG’ers, troublesome sheep and anything else that seems worthy to write about will make an appearance. As always I’d be honoured if you joined me so please sign up on the Home page to enjoy the journey:
Anna booked four nights in North Norfolk at a delightful 17th Century cottage. We’d been to Suffolk and Norfolk in September last year and a return was planned. We loaded up the car with groceries and bicycles and headed south. The location isn’t too far from York (170 miles) but the road network after Newark and the A1 deteriorates into single carriageways and a lot of roundabouts. (Memo to Boris: forget about HS2 and give East Anglia a road network.)
If that’s slowing your progress then when you add all the artic trucks shipping all the veg that’s grown on the wide open and flat fields in the locality it can be even tougher going. The weather was overcast with heavy downpours, our miserable spring and summer was continuing. However Wells-next-the-Sea was reached and in the indifferent weather our legs were stretched and childhoods were relived with ice cream! We had time to kill before being allowed to check in and so we spent some time wandering around.
As a town Wells is some way from the sea but connected by a winding passage through the sandbanks. We strolled up to the beach itself:
Back toward the small fishing port the sights were very twee and attractive. The whole town was served by tidal waters and it was surprising how quickly the tide came in when the turn came.
However, it was time to go and so we drove along single track roads to reach Great Walsingham, about 5 miles south of the coast. The house was a delight:
The countryside is mainly flat although there are lots of little rises and falls. It is an unspoilt part of the country with no industry other than farming. Even the coast doesn’t seem to have anything like a commercial fishing operation. Tourism is the money earner and the relatively unspoilt and undeveloped nature of the area has great appeal. I felt it was the type of place you really could unwind.
On the drive north from York we spoke to a very old friend on the car phone. We said we were going up to Hadrian’s Wall and then onto Scotland. When we threw in that we were both taking bicycles there was a short silence when he contemplated Anna dealing with inclement weather and lots of hills. When we added that we were staying at a Youth Hostel he gasped and we had a longer silence! I wondered whether he thought we were broke or had lost our minds.
We went up to Hadrian’s Wall in January and stayed at a plush B&B. It was part of a trip that saw us on the guest list at The Sage in Gateshead for Brandy Clark, who’s concert I reviewed for Country Music People. However over and above our time in the city we’d enjoyed our walk along the wall and made a decision to return.
Hadrian was the Roman Emperor at the time the wall was built AD 122 to AD 128. This 73 mile construction stretched along the top of England to ostensibly control or keep out the Ancient Britons (Scots to you and me) on the north side of the wall. This 10 foot wide by 15 foot high wall was built of stone apart from the western end which was turf. The Roman soldiers, all 15,000 of them built it. Along its length were stationed garrisons of French, Belgian, Spanish or Dutch ‘Roman’ soldiers. The wall was a partial barrier that controlled immigration, implemented customs and stopped the Picts stealing cattle.
Today the wall is more of an outline. Over the years the stone was taken by farmers, house builders etc and little remains today.
However there is an industry today in restoring the sites and archaeological digs. This has proved vital for understanding British history and for tourism in Northumberland. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site not least because it was the most northerly border in the Roman Empire. In January we walked on the wall but longed for accommodation not so isolated. The Youth Hostel offered a great cafe, a pub next door and modern accommodation.
The hostel had become a victim to Covid-19 and so there was no communal sitting area inside the building, no access to the kitchen and no furniture in the room other than the bed!
Fortunately there were few problems with the pub next door and I made sure Anna ate heartily to build up her energy for tomorrow’s velo expedition to Hexham.
The next day there was a difficult conversation that started with the declaration that she wasn’t going outside to ride her bike because she didn’t have any leggings. With the promise of several mintoes and chocolate limes she was lured out of the room and onto her bicycle. (I did point out later that we never met another cyclist wearing leggings).
The ride to Hexham was lovely: little traffic, splendid vistas of lakes, rivers, forests, gardens and small settlements. Anna was exceptional applying herself to the job in hand and the promise of lunch in the bustling market town of Hexham.
As tour leader I rewarded myself in Hexham with some Sticky Toffee pudding.
By the time we got back to the hostel we’d ridden 32 miles and climbed 704m (2,300 feet), which by any standards is a brilliant effort by Anna. It was a quick turn round at the hostel with a shower and then out to the world class museum a mile away at Vindolanda. This was a fort at the time of the Wall. The settlement was for soldiers but also many Britons who lived outside the fortress walls and provided the many services the soldiers needed. Nowadays it’s a fabulous museum. Much of our ancient history is deduced by studying what archaeologists can excavate. This is mainly items that can survive the centuries under the soil. Written history is very scarce and the earliest writing isn’t a reliable guide to the facts! (Often the early writing are accounts of events commissioned by important people. As they say ‘the victors get to write history’ even though it may not be true).
At Vindolanda there are discoveries of written remnants, not of history but mundane instructions or communications that show how the Romans conducted themselves. The writing is in Latin. These are amongst the first known pieces of writing in the country. (There were discoveries recently in London dated back to AD 43).
Later that evening we drove out to Corbridge for a meal. The next morning we were heading to Kelso in the Scottish borders. As we had time on our hands we visited Kielder Water. This is a man made reservoir opened in 1981. Around the reservoir are some holiday cabins along with some great walks and bike rides. The road to and from the estate seemed empty with the occasional holiday maker.
The roads through the Borders to the settlements was winding and empty. Much to my frustration the most direct route was closed for road works and we detoured westward. These empty roads are attractive to motorbikes and the occasional convoy of fast cars. We eventually arrived at Hawick and found a larger road to Kelso.
Here we met up with Peter and Jude who’d cycled down from Dalkeith to join us for a spot of lunch. They were on a tandem! Peter is an old friend, he introduced me to cycle touring. We did our first trip in 1994 from St Malo to Bordeaux. I forgot to take a photo of them on the bike but I did take the camera into the Gents…
After our lunch and their departure (to find a train station to get back to Edinburgh) we visited Flowers Castle, the home of the Duke of Roxburgh. This is within Kelso.
In Kelso we checked into our B&B. Sadly there were no bunks this time as it would have been Anna’s turn to be close to the ceiling. As the day ended we went for a stroll.
The host at the B&B didn’t look like a David Bowie fan but had several books on the man. A conversation started over breakfast and it turned out that Robin was a fanatic. He had all the biographies and albums. He also had all the boxsets, out takes and knew the minute details on the Thin White Duke’s life. Very impressive. His other “Mastermind’ specialist subjects would have included Cockney Rebel and Mott The Hoople. Needless to say breakfast lasted an hour and half as we also ruminated on the merits of spam, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and his succession of American guests. He was a wonderful mimic to add to his stories. You’re thinking that he’ll be talking about me to other guests, I doubt it. We sat there quietly enjoying the ‘show’.
When we departed he gave me an alternative version to the released ‘Young Americans’ by Bowie on CD. If it’s as good as I hope then it may end up as a ‘Record Of The Week’ elsewhere on the site.
The next day despite some half hearted protests we found our way back to Hawick for a little retail therapy at one of the cashmere mill shops. We spent £194 and I’d like to declare that I got a lambs wool hat for £9.99 to keep me quiet (fat chance of that).
Returning via Melrose we had a splendid lunch of halibut sat on samphire and peas with tortellini filled with crab meat and took some photos of the abbey.
So back in Kelso a man walks into a fishing tackle store to discuss a problem with his jetty and crapping ducks. In fairness the staff were very obliging and didn’t flinch when I asked them for their cheapest fishing line to string along the top of the fence to stop ducks perching. The little blighters are very dirty and the jetty looks appalling unless you can deter them from visiting.
On our last day there were a few more photos of Kelso:
We had wandered around the town trying to find a pub for a drink: it was not easy. The pubs only had space outside for drinkers whilst any available space inside was reserved for diners. You’ll be relieved to know we did find one in the end that was empty; there was good reason for that if you saw the decor but the pint of Belhaven slipped down lovely.
Our drive back to York was via Alnwick. At the old railway station there is a famous second hand book shop called ‘Barter Books’ we popped in to buy some treasure before heading home to York.
Alnwick, back in England was busy with tourists. In contrast our time in Scotland had been one where tourists were a lot thinner on the ground. The Scottish lockdown has been more severe. It has had a profound affect on the local economy. I hope it hasn’t permanently damaged the businesses affected.
If the truth was told I’d had enough of riding my bike. Two weeks without a day off was sufficient. I was going well: no complaints with the butt, back or legs but I was tired. My fitness was impressive and I must say that eating more and more regularly was a big contributor as obvious as it sounds. My Australian warm up in March had provided a base of fitness. I checked out of the Ibis into a deserted Antwerp. I started to think that it must be another day off for the natives in Belgium. This is the second largest city in the country with half a million residents. At around 8am they must have been in bed. The streets and buses were empty. Maybe the Belgians have a leisurely start to the day?
I took a few snaps of the city. Note the crowds.
I was heading north east again to Europoort. This is a conurbation with a number of large chemical plants and warehouse facilities. Hidden somewhere in there are some jetties for ferries; one of them was for Hull. The literature says it’s Rotterdam but that’s like calling Stansted and Gatwick London airports. The route necessitated crossing a number of ‘fingers’ of land by bridges.
The first chore of the day was finding some breakfast. The Ibis hotel was unable to serve anything due to the resurgence of Covid-19 meaning they had to desist. As I trundled through the side streets I eventually spied a bakery and bought some pastries. Much to my surprise about Belgium again, was that they did a passable sausage roll.
Soon I was out of Belgium into Holland. The usual clue in continental Europe that you’ve crossed a border is the change in the preponderance of number plates of a certain nationality into another. This is how I worked out I was in The Netherlands. The other signal is that you often get a sign advising drivers that the speed limits are different.
(I hope they are employing a couple of hundred people in Brussels and Strasbourg, as I write, on an initiative to harmonise car registration plates and speed limits).
The terrain didn’t change between the two countries and the road layouts and cycle paths didn’t change. However I was now moving into the coastal countryside and it became increasingly windy as the sea breezes picked up. The infrastructure still remained immaculate for cyclists who like dedicated facilities. There really wasn’t a lot to see and whilst I was well ahead of any embarkation time I wanted to be there in good time.
Here’s a tell tale signal that it was getting windy: wind turbine farms.
Holland is a busy country and there is never an escape for too long from the traffic and housing but I did pass many fields full of cereals, probably in fields below sea level. For all the bustling settlements I ended up failing to find some lunch. As a consequence I ate all my remaining biscuits (Hobnobs), energy bars, crisps and sweets that I had lurking in my panniers.
Another sign that it was coastal were the working boats.
No I didn’t stop for the fish and chips! I seldom think they’re edible outside of Yorkshire and by this stage I was closing in on Europoort.
The Dutch and Belgians do like a brick. Are they really cost effective solutions for a road?
The final few miles were slightly worrying because the route to Europoort meant crossing stretches of water from peninsula to peninsula. I found the following sign and started to be encouraged that I was going in the right direction.
This may seem that I had the direction sorted, I didn’t. The signs at the bottom of the hill pointed in the wrong direction for the port! I stopped to ask a cycling couple and he was not only uninformed but made me anxious by suggesting I’d need to get a boat to cross banks. He was wrong; such stupid talk can be quite perplexing.
Eventually I found the relevant bridge and closed in on the giant chemistry set of Europoort.
The total mileage from Carcassonne was now just over 1,000 miles. I could see the P&O ferry and even found a sign. However it took a long time with the road system to pull up to the desk at the embarkation point.
With Anna’s forwarded email I was quickly ushered through. The sailing was still about four hours away but I could board immediately. I was so pleased as I was ready for a shower and a sit down with a pint of Guinness.
The ferry was not remotely half full. A chat with a P&O employee suggested that the Zeebrugge ferry won’t run again this year. I’d be surprised if it ran again ever as it was never busy during pre-Coronavirus times. With the ferry so empty you notice the staff more. The Filipinos were like little birds – happy and chatting in Tagalog to each other. However, they weren’t all very attentive and some management or demanding workload might have helped them concentrate on the passengers. There is nothing sadder than an empty ship and staff with little to do standing around.
I did my usual unplanned trick of dining and then going back to the cabin to find it impossible to keep my eyes open past 9pm. I slept 10 hours.
Entry in the UK requires completion of a Declaration about your health and where you’d been. I was queuing at Reception to use their iPad to complete the form. (I’d run out of data on my own mobile). This task made me late to to disembark but eventually I rolled off and made it to Passport Control.
The ride back home was starting with Hull rush hour traffic at 7.30 in the morning; none of this Belgium hanging about. In fact the traffic stayed with me all the way until I got past Market Weighton. One of my usual observations on returning to the UK is that I live on a very busy and populated island.
Before Escrick I met up with Anna who’d cycled out to meet me and we cycled home together. That was the end of the latest adventure and I knew I wouldn’t be sat on a bike for a week at least.
Lastly, thank you for your comments and for simply reading my blog. It is a joy to write this stuff up and think that someone somewhere is checking out my journey.
Today was going to be a day of a big push, as if the other days had been a doddle. Antwerp was in a straight line to Europoort, Rotterdam and I knew that if I reached it I’d have a good chance of reaching the ferry for the Tuesday night sailing.
I was up early and away before 8am, I left the campsite quietly. I like the thought of all the other sleepy campers waking up to peer at my space noting I was long gone. It wasn’t long before I reached the border and said goodbye to France. The plan was to continue along the Meuse river to Namur. From here I’d head in a north easterly direction through Belgium. It was a cool and overcast morning: no complaints as flat and cool is a winning combination for making progress.
The river seemed to be widening and the altitude fell to 80 metres. There were still plenty of weirs and locks for barges to negotiate. I say barges because a few commercial boats were now to be found as we getting into Belgium.
The first large town to come into view was Dinant. It looked a resort kind of place all nicely perched alongside the river. I looked around for a bike shop or even some breakfast but I had come up against the dreaded ‘Monday closing’ situation with Belgium. It wouldn’t be a distortion to suggest that whenever I’ve been in Belgium I cannot remember, apart from Bruges and Brussels, all the shops ever being open. If they’re not shut they all open late at about 9.30am. Hopeless.
A popular Ives household pastime is naming famous Belgians. No, Hercules Poirot is a fictional one, it’s not an easy game although Eddie Merckx quickly comes to mind. I can only think of one popular music artist. However, born in 1814 in Dinant is Adolpho Sax. He invented the saxophone in 1840 and the rest, as they say, is rock n’ roll. Needless to say Adolpho didn’t create this masterpiece on a Monday.
The cycle path had been asphalt all the way from Sedan but now I hit some loose gravel and some ‘pavé’ for sections. The pavé can be translated as cobbles or ‘f@*king cobbles’ as I was heard to opine to another couple of tourers coming toward me on the bone jangling surface. They laughed at my observation. I was also worried that the vibration would make my rear wheel worse.
It was still an attractive ride and flat as a pancake. Because the settlements were closer it was more interesting. Soon I was in Namur and at the end of the path (for me). I found a bike shop that Google suggested was open but it wasn’t and now after a sandwich and a coffee in the centre headed across country to Belgium.
Belgium and Holland have a developed infrastructure for cycling and there are lots of routes. All these routes are denoted by numbers signs. I don’t think I got a lot wrong but having a map of the routes and directions would have helped. Trying to work all this out on a small mobile phone screen is not ideal.
One thing that surprises me is the number of serious lycra clad road cyclists, that is, not kids, commuters or elderly shoppers, who use these paths. The routes are bedvilled with tight corners and junctions. To add to this is the height of the kerbs you regularly have to ride up over. I ride a 28mm wide tyre and it was just enough in most instances to achieve the task, but on a road bike with something thinner it is a crashing affair. It may also explain why 28mm wide tyres are becoming increasing popular on road bikes.
I was using the routes and my Sat Nav programmed with the large towns ahead. When I got within a mile or so I’d re-programme to another town. By doing it at this point I’d not be taken into the centre of the town. As you can see there was bright blue skies by the time of the afternoon and I was going well.
It was still on my mind to get the rear wheel fixed. I’d been lucky so far but for how much longer? About 40 miles from Antwerp I cycled through a small settlement called Bierbeek and found an open bike store. I say ‘store’ because it was a splendid retail outlet with all types of bikes. The owner/mechanic was much in demand as mainly pensioners looked pensively at their steeds and he advised on various solutions. Queuing outside the store was the order of the day and eventually my turn came up. I was now in a Flemish speaking part of Belgium and felt explaining things in English would be better understood. This is because if you don’t speak a language other than Flemish then you’re limited outside of the region.
He tipped the bike with all the luggage attached upside down and took off the wheel to fix it. He was helping me as regards the job of unpacking the bike but in doing so he trapped my phone/camera in my handle bar bag and so no piccies! In the time he took to fix the wheel, sell inner tubes, bike locks and deal with queue hopping pensioners I looked at his selection of bikes for sale. It seems clear that the Belgians will spend proper money on a bike. The electric bikes were expensive but all robustly made and brands I respected. It also brought to mind all the teenagers I saw riding bikes. In the UK it would be on an old mountain bike or a sleek lightweight carbon road bike. Here they rode ‘sit up and begs’ with no loss of credibility. They were forms of regular unsexy transport and had to be fit for purpose, reliable and suitable to cope with the terrain.
It seems the cycle routes liberated teenage girls. They bowled along zooming past me in their glad rags on these classic bikes. Not only was the route traffic free but they obviously felt safe even as the evening wore on.
Anyway I smarted a little at €30 for a new spoke and the wheel being true’d. It must have taken him 10 minutes actual time doing the job. Next door there was a supermarket and I bought some pastries to help me get through to Antwerp. Now I needed to get going.
The route was laid out beside canals or rail tracks as I started to close in on the city. It was getting on. I’d actually ride for over 10 hours today and get to the hotel at some time past 8pm. These routes get more demanding from a navigation point of view and more interesting as you enter residential areas. The outskirts of Antwerp eventually gave way to a busy built up area. The type of cyclists changed, not least the large number of ultra-orthodox jews. These were youngish bearded men in black morning coats and hats who pedalled as fast as the other travellers. A quick bit of research shows this community lives in the centre of the town, which was where I was headed.
Eventually I got to the Ibis Budget and asked for a room (€51). There was a little surprise that I hadn’t booked in advance. However, I felt confident that there would be rooms at the time of the pandemic, I was correct. So a quick shower and then out into the centre for some food. There must have been some further lockdown in Belgium as there was no inside dining as well as the obligatory masks inside premises. It was too cold to sit outside: I bought some fast food and ambled back to the hotel and spoke to Anna. She needed to book a ferry and I had one more very long ride to Europoort.
Encouraged by finding a new way north I left the campsite and went to find the Meuse river. I didn’t find a path until I got to Sedan. Being Sunday I wondered if that would increase or decrease the folk I found using the path: I knew it would make finding food more tricky.
It was nice to stay in the same gear for a period of time and look around as I kept up a decent pace (12.7mph). There was quite a selection of wildlife beside the river (including a Yorkshireman).
The weather was kind and the going easy. I saw a variety of people on bikes: elderly couples, families with trailers pulling their smallest family member, sleek lycra warriors on top of the range road bikes and a lot of electric bikes.
I saw few boats on the water, maybe a few cabin cruisers but like most European waterways they are now given over to tourism with few barges. The sad reality is that the consumption of fossil fuels by barges and the slow speed of transportation has left this solution obsolete as cost effective. I think the only chance it has of being competitive is the movement of aggregates or other exceptionally bulky material.
By the middle of the day I was famished but after drawing a blank in most places I found some sustenance in Bogny-sur-Meuse. It was now very hot and I managed to find a corner of a table out of the sun!
Just along from here I heard another crack. Another spoke broke on the back wheel. From never having had this problem before to now have two in short succession was troubling. Fortunately the wheel didn’t bow as badly this time and would roll. As I’m inspecting my problem a man above me worked out what had befallen me and wanted to help.
He was above me because he was sat in his garden looking out onto the river. He went to fetch some pliers to cut off the flapping broken spoke. After doing the task he was joined by another neighbour who started chatting about whatever. They fell into a conversation and so without any profuse thanks or swapping home addresses I just threw my leg over the top tube and pedalled off. This type of no fuss (or interest) about the French is an admirable quality.
I took out one of the rear brake blocks to aid the rotation. I now just hoped it could see me until the next bike shop. As always there were campsites dotted along the length of the river and I had one in mind near Givet, on the Belgian border. After 80 miles this small site, that appeared to be like someone’s front garden, came into view. It’d do at €7.50 for the night. I cleaned up and then cycled a mile into the centre of Givet for some lamb shoulder and couscous.
The route was windy and despite the 80 miles ridden I hadn’t gone that far north. Despite that situation then if you’re thinking about cycling in Europe for the first time and heading from Belgium or Holland to France this route will take a lot of beating.
It seemed an idyllic day for being lazy in an interesting town but the road beckoned and I turned left out of the campsite and started to climb on the ‘Voie Sacrée’. Verdun, at the other end of this road, is etched into the French psyche as a place where in WW1 the efforts and soul of the nation were poured to fight the Germans as they advanced south west. The price in terms of lives was immense as both armies fought over a small front and in one or another way shelled the terrain to be as desolate and crater like as a lunar landscape. It looks that way even today. The official estimate is that both armies lost 300,000 dead during this two year conflict. This road was the route over which the French despatched resources toward the front. I thought about the young inexperienced soldiers going toward Verdun anxious about the war ahead and the tired, mutilated or dead who were coming back in the same trucks. In reality a desperate ribbon through which to pour life.
In lovely sunshine I got to Verdun for lunch. I have been here before a couple of times before and visited the main battlefields including a superb museum. The Meuse river flows through the centre of this now tourist town. After a bite I continued along the Meuse. The river formed a natural front between the WW1 armies including the Americans who latterly helped the French hold the Germans and their allies.
A day like this can be a little dull. The towns are spread far apart and whilst the open, mainly arable countryside is attractive then it does start to become less engrossing during a seven hour bike ride.
As usual I was listening to music or a podcast. I had made my mind up to get home now. I was strong but tired but feared the ride back through Belgium. One of my later discoveries in life is that the land of Hercules Poirot is not flat: in fact it’s bloody hilly. I was not looking forward to severe climbing again.
My routine was to get a hot lunch and then stop at a boulangerie or supermarket to get a baguette, something to spread on it and a tomato. When I visit these stores I’m still tickled by the fact that the French break up the multipacks.
Monuments continued to be placed along the road.
I started to close in on Douzy, a town close to a larger town called Sedan. It had been a long day and by the end of this day I would have clocked up a total of 736 miles without a day off. There was a campsite that looked very much like a resort park. It was beside a lake and lots of teenagers were leaping into it and having a noisy yet terrific time. I went into Reception and thought I’d be a novelty as a cyclist. Not so. After my usual willing butchery of French the millennial behind the counter said “we can speak English if you like?” It transpired that there was a popular cycling route beside the Meuse and many cycle tourers stayed here overnight. On this route you followed the river where there was a path but otherwise you ambled along on smaller roads near it. I had taken the main road, which was quite reasonable apart from one memorably long steep climb out of Moulins-Saint-Hubert. My route did have the benefit of occasional sights such as this mural in Mouzon.
So I was camping with other cyclists and there were some great facilities including a marquee and benches and a charging point for devices.
I saw some Dutch cyclists and interrupted their dinner! Did they have any suggestions on how to get to Rotterdam with least climbing? A map/book was produced that simply advised following the Meuse river. In our discussion they kept saying it went to Maastricht. Who knew the Maas and the Meuse were the same river? Not me! This did have a profound affect on my progress to the ferry. The river cut straight through the Ardennes, albeit very windy, but flat.
So the campsite was a great experience but as we all settled down after 10pm there continued to be the sound of a diesel engine grumbling along, in the distance, under great strain. Why was it working so late on a Saturday night? My weariness and ear plugs won over. The next morning I noted there was a nearby chipboard plant (Unilin). I calculated that a shovel loader was moving logs into the hogger to make the chips (for the chipboard) in this 24/7 continuously running plant.
It did rain over night and I awoke to find a family of Brits had arrived. They were from Lincoln and were heading south in their camper van without much of a plan. They had come via Calais and had the demanding job of entertaining two small children for the duration.My plan was to continue north. The weather was bleak as I set off but there was no rain as I continued on a major highway.
There’s something dispiriting about camping or riding in the damp. Also I was missing that rest day that enabled some sorting out of kit as well as putting your feet up. Certainly this wasn’t a place to stay.
Eventually the sun started to come out and normal service was resumed weather-wise. This meant a change in tops and splashing on Factor 50. I took the opportunity to drag out a towel and a pair of shorts to hopefully dry them out. Sadly this also applied to the road that still went up and down!
I look at the map to assess the type of road, the distances between towns and to confirm I’m heading in the right direction. I’m never certain how far I’ll get but ordinarily the constraint of where the campsite is determines the destination.
I was following a road to Saint-Dizier but by this time had decided that Bar-le-Duc was my overnight stopping place. I try and eat every hour. Sometimes it can be a treat (see the photo). This is my favourite French confectionary.
I left the main road to run parallel on a B road. Some of the properties are delightful.It’s the coordinated paint scheme that elevates it. Also what French colours.
I had stayed in Bar-le-Duc before and whilst liking the camp site I was kept awake then by a couple of inconsiderate French lads who decided to have a Saturday night all nighter with music (here’s my 2018 blog). I parked my tent on a different part of the site.
This time there were no similar issues. I hadn’t cycled through the town last time and this time I discovered a sunny and busy high street with cafes and bars. A little too far to pop into from the site but worth noting for another visit. This is my plot below. On arrival the Reception was closed. I asked a Dutch couple what the arrangement was? They said the owner was cleaning the shower block. I found her and she said ‘put up your tent’ and see me later when I open up Reception. I did and the €6.20 was reasonable I thought.
However, it’s here that that Leeds United won promotion. Huddersfield Town beat West Bromwich Albion and ensured that we were up! I had a small bottle of wine to go with my baguette and fromage and I sat there texting excitedly and being delighted by the messages I received from old friends who knew my delight. A bit of an anti-climax really and I felt I should have been touring York, in the Morgan trailing my scarf with ‘Marching On Together’ blaring at Volume 11. The video was something I put onto Facebook as the deed was being done by our Yorkshire neighbours.
The original plan pre Coronavirus had been for Anna and myself to spend a week around Carcassonne and then she’d fly home and I’d cycle back. For various reasons Anna decided not to come and so in effect I arrived in Carcassonne and started cycling back. I point this out because a lot of the route, latterly, is known to me and hence the ‘passing through’ commentary. For example I well remember visiting Beaune with my brother in law, Bill, and his (and my pal), Peter. It was a memorable visit to Burgundy in 2006 with two blokes who knew and liked their wine and how to have a jolly time. Likewise Dijon was on my first long solo bike ride in 2011. It was baking and I stayed in a hotel to escape the heat: no such problems this time!
This time as I started the process of packing up my wet tent I fell into a conversation with a cycling Swiss lady who’d camped just along from me. She had a bivouac tent but pulled a small trailer. This trailer solution usually indicated you’re hauling a lot of things. She was, a dog. She also had loads of luggage hung from her bike and the pouch was caged in a box on the trailer. She was a similar age to me – young (cough). She was pedalling from Berne to Normandy to see her mother. However she was using an electric bike, clever girl (oops, sorry Katrina (FED), ‘woman’). It looked a very expensive bike and she had a range of 100 kilometres on one of the batteries.
Despite all this chatting I washed some kit. It would have to be packed wet. I hoped the weather would pick up or I’d find a tumble dryer.
The destination today was Chaumont. The weather was damp and grey. The terrain was slow rolling, that is you’d have a long swoop down 30 metres over a length of several hundred metres before the road rose again. You couldn’t get sufficient speed up to climb the coming hill and ended up twiddling the granny gears to breast the peak before it all started again.
Around lunchtime I pulled into a small town at the bottom of one of these rolling hills and found a ‘plat du jour’.
Inside was Nicholas. He was a Dutch psychologist who, after introductions, started a gentle investigation of the specimen in front of him. His story was more interesting. Thirty five years old and heading south with no plan. He had a business and team back in Utrecht but liked to wander and had some interesting stories about Iran, South America, Europe and, nearer, to home – Cornwall. I urged him to write them up. He had great insights.
In some ways he seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders or maybe he was a serious guy. I doubt I helped. I asked if I may take his picture for my blog and with a grumpy face he accepted. By way of reciprocity he invited me to take another photograph of him but with his 35mm film camera. The camera weighed a lot, a troubling issue for any touring cyclist! He expected me to know how to focus it (as I was older than the camera). I struggled peering through the viewfinder with him remaining out of focus. After a few minutes I worked out the problem: I wasn’t wearing my spectacles and so it wouldn’t be in focus would it! This was hilarious and I caught a photo of him laughing! We said goodbye.
Heading north I found Langres was a walled city and I caught this one image of a bus trying to escape with difficulty.
The road was a major highway and the traffic was fast and regular. There was nothing to slow it down. With towns far apart then drivers always pick up their speed.
Chaumont eventually arrived and I found a laundromat. Another ‘Angel’ came to my help and I was helped on how to programme the tumble dryer. With dry clothes I was happy and my morale was restored.
The centre of Chaumont looked promising with a number of bars and restaurants. I have to say the French have a fatal addiction to pizza. Anywhere and in every size of town it seems they love their cheesy treats. It was no different here. Unfortunately after pitching my tent the bike ride back into town would have necessitated a murderous climb. I could live without a pizza.
The campsite was a municipal one. Basic, cheap and well placed. The woman on Reception managed to wind me up. The site had 60 pitches but with only four occupied. Instead of saying “pitch where you like” she allocated a pitch. I ended up some way from the shower block. When I remonstrated she feigned not to speak English and suggested my favoured pitch was too big for a little tent. True but as no one was there then why worry?
After the football euphoria of Leeds United beating Swansea then tonight was the ‘banana skin’ game, at home, against the bottom of the table team, Barnsley. Anna sent a text informing me that we were leading 1-0. I hadn’t realised they’d kicked off! Tim in York added ‘colour’ to the information I got from Twitter and with a lot of luck we held on. This virtually confirmed our promotion. I had no booze and no one to celebrate this with and it was still drizzling. Time for bed.
A familiar but unwelcome sound greeted me as I came to from my slumbers: rain hitting the window. It stood to reason that I’d hit rain eventually but it was a stark contrast to 44°C only days ago.
So gathering my rain gear I ventured out and went first to Le Clerc the large supermarket. I enquired of one employee “ou sont les cartes?” The young woman adopted the face someone would if you’d asked them to add 16.7431 to 324. 219567. Then all of a sudden the ‘darkness’ lifted, she smiled and she said “carrtzzz”? The mystery word had been deciphered and with this correct pronunciation she covered me in a light film of phlegm. This correction came along with a barrage of instructions that I vaguely interpreted to mean I should cross the road to another shop. Wiping my spectacles of this spittle I ventured across the road for the maps. Said map and new adaptor and cabled were acquired.
Eventually I was on my way and proceeding along a canal path. Funnily enough after not having seen any cycle tourers I quickly saw other burdened cyclists rolling toward me. Maybe this is the way normal people cycle tour?
I must mention that in addition to WW1 monuments to the fallen there are many WW2 monuments to fallen Resistance fighters.
So in overcast and drizzly weather I spent the morning on the canal. I soon saw the other tourers: grizzly bearded old men pulling trailers, energetic younger blokes racing behind each other, couples with the man usually carrying the bulk of their possessions etc. Clearly my use of the road and predilection for mountains was an exception amongst the breed.
I enjoyed the easy ride at pace and soon racked up 30 miles. At Chagny the canals split and I stopped for lunch and decided to leave the waterways behind and head to Beaune by road. Here is more ‘plat du jour’ for your scrutiny.
The drizzle and greyness gave way to torrential rain as I ate. The following picture was taken from under the canopy at the restaurant. I eventually had to venture out and fortunately it soon stopped as I entered the wines of Burgundy.
I passed through the capital of the region, Beaune, and everything seemed classy and manicured.
I’d decided to stay at a campsite in Dijon. Despite the size of the town there was little choice and as I was running late I got my head down. As I’m pedalling through a flat and traffic free area of farm land I heard a crack. I’d broken a spoke.
For the technically minded then… I carry spare spokes but I have never had a broken spoke, on all my trips, before. I was surprised and worried. The rear wheel was now bowed and would only rotate by rubbing the mudguard and frame. I also removed a break block but still it impeded rotation. I was 3 miles from the above famous town and I limped there terribly slowly. I could have been in a much worse location. I neither carried a socket to remove the rear cassette or spanner to get leverage and I didn’t carry a spoke tightener. I’ll have to think through future tools. With difficulty I found a bike shop and for €8 a mechanic replaced the spoke. He ‘trued’ the wheel as best he could but it wasn’t as accurate as I’d have liked.
Along a busy road I found a supermarket for some bits for dinner and then closed in on the campsite in the outskirts of Dijon. At this point the full contents of the Heavens tipped onto me. Oh, I have seldom been wetter. I was also chilled by the deluge.
I got to the campsite and on very wet ground put up the tent. Sadly a number of pieces of clothing in the panniers were sodden: I hadn’t secured the top well enough. I couldn’t dry anything and included were some items I’d wear to keep warm. Anyway I ate my dinner in my tent and checked the weather forecast for the next day before going to sleep.