Bubbling Through Champagne

24/6/18. You have been spared the usual drivel for the last few days because Stephen’s tablet, on which it is mostly written, has not been behaving itself – as in, the screen keeps dying suddenly and won’t come back to life for ages despite all efforts but then, suddenly, it works for no apparent reason. Strange. Still, it is working at the moment so let’s see how long it lasts.

Thankfully the weather has cooled a little since the scorcher on Wednesday and the wind has increased – which has been a blessing most of the time but a pain occasionally.

The route has been a mixture of excellent voies vertes (green ways) alongside first the Littoral Canal du Marne and then the Marne-Rhine Canal and quiet roads which have been centrally flat or flattish as we followed the Marne valley. For a large part of the time we were going past vineyards clinging to the steep hillsides. At one point the chalk escarpment reminded us of the North Downs near Box Hill where there is a large vineyard (Denbies) that produces some fine English sparkling wine which had beaten “proper” champagnes at some tastings.

More recently the countryside has been more given over to cereals, rape, sweetcorn and sunflowers although there are still many signs announcing small producers of the famous tipple.

We have again had mixed success with finding campsites. In Épernay we stayed at the large municipal site which was pretty good although it was quite a long walk out of town – and the town was not particular inspiring unless you are in the market for buying champagne in various sized bottles (in one shop window we saw a 7 litre bottle!)  from many different vineyards.

We found the municipal site in Vitry-le-François but we were told by the tourist information office that it closed two years ago. So we had to resort to a hotel again but we’re pointed in the direction of one that was a very reasonable €51 for the night. Incidentally, the lady in the tourist information asked Stephen which departement he was from (for her statistics) and, when he said he was English, complemented him on his French! He wasn’t convinced she was being entirely truthful but was happy to take the complement for his schoolboy language skills!

By Saturday we had made our way to Bar-le-Duc where the municipal site is simply delightful! It is small (25 spaces), adjacent to the chateau and has great sanitary facilities. The showers are incredibly spacious, free and the pushing the button gives 30 seconds of hot water at a time (much better than the usual 5 or 10). And, wonder of wonders the toilets actually have seats and loo paper!!!!!! This is almost unheard of in French campsites. The only downside is that it is not very busy which makes us fear that it will go the way of the site in Vitry and close which would be a real shame.

We have stayed here for two nights so that Christine can have a “pill day” and go to church (surprisingly lively compared to other French churches she has been to) while Stephen went for his statutory bike ride which followed some of the Voie Sacré (or Sacred Way) which was the road that supplied the French defenders during the horrendous Battle of Verdun in World War 1 which saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands from both sides.

Bubbling Through Champagne

24/6/18. You have been spared the usual drivel for the last few days because Stephen’s tablet, on which it is mostly written, has not been behaving itself – as in, the screen keeps dying suddenly and won’t come back to life for ages despite all efforts but then, suddenly, it works for no apparent reason. Strange. Still, it is working at the moment so let’s see how long it lasts.

Thankfully the weather has cooled a little since the scorcher on Wednesday and the wind has increased – which has been a blessing most of the time but a pain occasionally.

The route has been a mixture of excellent voies vertes (green ways) alongside first the Littoral Canal du Marne and then the Marne-Rhine Canal and quiet roads which have been centrally flat or flattish as we followed the Marne valley. For a large part of the time we were going past vineyards clinging to the steep hillsides. At one point the chalk escarpment reminded us of the North Downs near Box Hill where there is a large vineyard (Denbies) that produces some fine English sparkling wine which had beaten “proper” champagnes at some tastings.

More recently the countryside has been more given over to cereals, rape, sweetcorn and sunflowers although there are still many signs announcing small producers of the famous tipple.

We have again had mixed success with finding campsites. In Épernay we stayed at the large municipal site which was pretty good although it was quite a long walk out of town – and the town was not particular inspiring unless you are in the market for buying champagne in various sized bottles (in one shop window we saw a 7 litre bottle!)  from many different vineyards.

We found the municipal site in Vitry-le-François but we were told by the tourist information office that it closed two years ago. So we had to resort to a hotel again but we’re pointed in the direction of one that was a very reasonable €51 for the night. Incidentally, the lady in the tourist information asked Stephen which departement he was from (for her statistics) and, when he said he was English, complemented him on his French! He wasn’t convinced she was being entirely truthful but was happy to take the complement for his schoolboy language skills!

By Saturday we had made our way to Bar le Duc where the municipal site is simply delightful! It is small (25 spaces), adjacent to the chateau and has great sanitary facilities. The showers are incredibly spacious, free and the pushing the button gives 30 seconds of hot water at a time (much better than the usual 5 or 10). And, wonder of wonders the toilets actually have seats and loo paper!!!!!! This is almost unheard of in French campsites. The only downside is that it is not very busy which makes us fear that it will go the way of the site in Vitry and close which would be a real shame.We have stayed here for two nights so that Christine can have a “pill day” and go to church (surprisingly lively compared to other French churches she has been to) while Stephen went for his statutory bike ride which followed some of the Voie Sacré (or Sacred Way) which was the road that supplied the French defenders during the horrendous Battle of Verdun in World War 1 which saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands from both sides.

Go East Young Man

20/6/18. (Or not so young man and woman!)

Reading a cycling blog, Christine had learned of a canal leaving Paris to the east which was (sort of) the direction we wanted to head and so we made our way there next morning. It was a good choice as it had good segregated bike routes and forms part of the Eurovelo 3 route (which goes from Trondheim in Norway to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Just after we passed close to Charles de Gaulle airport the main cycle route turned north (towards Trondheim presumably). At this point there was also a sign on the towpath indicating that cycling was not allowed. We decided to be well behaved and joined the road for a while which was OK.

At the next village the road came alongside the canal again and there were more “No Cycling” signs. These ones we chose to ignore as the road appeared to veer away from the canal for quite a way and Christine had read in a blog that it was cyclable. Coming the other way we met several other bikers who had obviously read the same blog or, more likely, were locals.

Climbing over a hill on a rough track took us down into the valley of the River Marne and to the town of Meaux. Neither of us had heard of Meaux before despite its beautiful looking cathedral. Unfortunately we did not have time to look around as it was 5.30 and all we really wanted to do was head for the campsite which the tourist information office pointed us towards some 5 km beyond the town.

We passed a sign to another campsite but, as it looked tatty, we thought we would keep going to the recommended site. When we got there we were less than impressed. It was mainly static caravans, many of which looked as though they had been abandoned, and there were several piles of old bikes, furniture and goodness knows what else around.

But we were tired and there was a small reasonable looking area with two other tents so we paid our €15 and settled in for the night. We had to forego showers as the water was unbearable – not cold as you might imagine but scalding hot with no temperature control – just a button that delivered a 5 second blast. We made do with using the basins where we could at least allow the water to cool a little. All in all, it was one of the worst sites we have stayed at in all of our travels (although it does have some way to go before it plumbs the depths reached by the one in East Palatka in Florida!)

The next morning (Wednesday) we were glad to be on our way, although even that was not straightforward as we spent 5 minutes trying to operate the gate! And then we joined a reasonably major road which was a bit of a racetrack with quite narrow stretches. We were very glad to turn off it onto quiet country roads that gently undulated along the valley of the Marne.

It all became very pleasant apart from the weather – someone had taken a leaf out of the campsite shower manual and had turned up the heat while hiding the temperature control! However, we found nice shady spots to have our mid morning snack of some turnovers and lunch of filled baguettes.

As the heat approached its peak we came upon a convenient little bar where we indulged in a couple of rounds of extremely welcome cold beer and Orangina (depending on your taste) while the locals watched the World Cup (Portugal v Morocco in case you’re interested).

We had been making slow progress because of the heat and our intended destination was still quite a distance away. It was time for Plan B! Stephen spotted a small campsite on the map about 5 km further on and,  as we are in no hurry, we decided to spend the night there.

The best laid plans of mice and men……!

The map might say there was a campsite but all we could find was an open field. We trudged back to the road we had been following  and headed on thoroughly dispirited. We could see no more campsites on the map for a long way ahead and so agreed that we would take the first (reasonably priced) hotel we came across.

We had just entered the Champagne region and started passing numerous vineyards and caves offering the local product. We resisted temptation and as we approached the town of Chateau Thierry, an Ibis hove into view.  Sorted!

After lovely, refreshing, cool showers we ventured to the nearby Aldi to buy a picnic tea to have in our room – smoked salmon salad washed down by a very nice sparkling wine from our favorite French area of Alsace (€5 compared to the cheapest champagne at €16 – we may be retired but our accountant instincts are alive and kicking!)

We’ll Always Have Paris

18/6/18. About 10 km from Marie-Claire’s house Stephen’s saddle suddenly went “Twang” and, on inspection, it transpired that a bolt which tensions the bit you sit on had snapped. The saddle was still rideable – just – but the resulting way in the leather made it much more uncomfortable. Stephen, being an absolute trooper(!), carried on riding for the rest of the day but ended up a tad saddle sore.

Since this was a new, relatively expensive and iconic British Brooks saddle we were hopeful that there would be a shop in Paris that could help. The Brooks website listed 8 or 9 dealers in Paris but most seemed to be shut on Mondays. However, there was one, close to the centre, which was willing to sell things on the first working day of the week so we headed for that.

The initial part of the route was very similar to that which had gone before – quiet roads with some undulations – and all very pleasant.  This took us to Cergy which is a large town, perhaps similar to Watford or Croydon. (That may be doing Cergy a disfavour – we didn’t really get a good enough look at the place to form a proper judgement!)

After Cergy, the route wiggled about a lot, as do cycle routes in London, sticking to shared paths and quiet roads including a long stretch through a wood near Maison Lafayette.

As we neared the centre, we lost the signs but could see from the map that the route joined the route path along the Seine – which is nice in theory but, as you may well know, the river meanders about a lot making the trip much further. As time was moving on (riding through urban areas is generally slow – traffic lights, stop signs, traffic, complicated junctions all take time to negotiate – so we decided to take a more direct route.

This worked out ok although it did mean short stretches on some busy roads. At one point we were headed straight for the Eiffel Tower which was an inspiring sight in front of us.

It was mid afternoon by the time we reached the bike shop and the guy took one look at the snapped bolt and shook his head. However, to his credit, he did have a go at mending the saddle and even got some grease on his nicely laundered shirt. When it was clear that he wasn’t going to be successful we decided to buy a new (cheap) saddle which was more comfortable than the saggy damaged one but not a patch on the real McCoy. Stephen is half expecting to develop a bow legged walk over the coming days!

As the time was nearing 4 o’clock it was not a difficult decision to spend the night in Paris rather than trying to find a campsite or a (probably) grotty hotel on the way out of the city. We found a reasonable (for central Paris) hotel and set about enjoying the unexpected stay. As we have been to the city several times we did not feel the need to view any particular sights and simply relished walking around soaking up the atmosphere before finding a nice restaurant.

We are so lucky to be able to do this sort of thing spontaneously!

Bonjour France, encore une fois!

17/6/18. The trip from Surrey to Newhaven seemed to take forever – but a lengthy stop in Epsom to run a number of “errands” plus a quick return trip to Nicky’s to pick up a shirt left behind by one of us (no names, no pack drill) was a large part, as was a wait while some trespassers were cleared from the line near Gatwick.

We camped at the same site in Seaford that we had used three years ago – a reasonably priced, clean little site conveniently positioned 5 km by pleasant off road cycle route from the ferry check in.

A 9 a.m. sailing, combined with Christine’s caution (some might say paranoia) to ensure we were checked in before the deadline, meant that the alarm went off at stupid o’clock followed by a swiftly munched breakfast and rapid striking of camp.

While waiting to board we got chatting with a fellow cyclist, an intrepid chap from Moscow who was going from London to Paris by folding bike. His main observations were the poor route out of London and the high cost of hotels in France.

The ferry crossing was unremarkable (a good thing, in our view) and we again stumbled around in Dieppe and its suburbs trying to find the start of the Avenue Verte to Paris. Once we had located it it was a lovely ride along a tarmacked old railway track although the weather did take a little of the shine off as it was spitting with rain most of the way – that really fine rain that quickly renders Christine’s glasses almost opaque.

Thankfully the rain eased as we approached the campsite at Neufchatel en Bray (another revisit from the years earlier) and we settled back into the old routine of Christine getting the bedding ready while Stephen exercises his culinary skills on pasta, tomato sauce and tinned vegetables (we only have a one ring stove).

The next day (Friday) the route continued along the old railway track for the first 20 km before joining mainly quiet roads which, to Christine’s disappointment, were quite undulating.

A tourist information office had told us about a potential campsite at a place that provided yurts but, as far as we could tell from the address we were given it was up a steep hill on the other side of the valley so we decided to purses on even though it was past 5 o’clock. We continued through Gisors and joined another old railway track to reach a lovely site by a large lake where we were told to pitch the tent on a promontory where we could watch the ducks, swans, geese, and grebes bobbing about on both sides of us.

Because we had gone between 10 and 20 km further than we had expected the previous evening we could have a lie in as our bed for the weekend at the house of some friends was that much closer. Christine was more than ready for this after an 80+km on day with no riding since we returned to the UK last August. Breakfast was croissants and half a baguette bought from the baker’s van which visits the site each morning sounding his klaxon at each of a half dozen places around the place.

Another short stretch on the disused railway was filed followed by more quiet roads through the very pleasant countryside of the Vexin (an area that was the scene of many battles in the medieval period, a lot of which involved perfidious Albion naturally, as it is the gateway to Paris –  as we have discovered from listening to The History of England podcast). These led us to the village of Longuesse, the home of our friends Marie-Claire and Christian. It was with Marie-Claire that Christine discovered her love of cycling when they rode from her home in Dorset to Southampton while they were penniless students nearly 40 years ago.

We had a lovely, relaxing time with them and two of their daughters enjoying a rest and Christian’s excellent cooking as well as long chats updating Marie-Claire about the state of the UK (she is very definitely English despite her name and living in France for the last 30 or so years!).

A Stuttering Start

13/6/18. We eventually got our collective act together sufficiently by Saturday morning to leave Taunton and caught the train to Exeter where we set off heading for Weymouth (the larger of the two gaps in our Round The Coast trip).

It all started very pleasantly following a series of off road routes and minor roads to Exmouth where we stopped to get in training for Germany by indulging in coffee and cakes. While we sat stuffing our faces a young family (baby and toddler with Mum and Dad in tow) pulled into the market place on bikes + trailer so we went over for a chat. They were on their first long outing on bikes as a family and were suitably impressed when they heard we were on our way to Switzerland, although there was great merriment when they heard that we had started in Exeter, like them, which was less than 10 miles away!

The route to Exmouth had been alongside the Exe estuary and had been nice and flat. Once we started following the coast we were back in the Devon hills. It was a gentle introduction, particularly compared to the day from Ilfracombe to Minehead which, despite being where she originates from, Christine considers to be the most horrendous day on a bike ever! It was a series of 20+% hills which totally exhausted us with the downhills being equally traumatic with sharp bends and blind crossroads at the bottom meaning all momentum was lost and the next uphill was taken from a standing start. She has vowed never again to take a bike there!

Passing through the village of Otterton we saw signs to a camp site which, judging by the information from our phones, was the last one before Sidmouth so we headed for it. It was a good choice despite the 14% hill on the way and being a large “ holiday camp” type place. The lady in reception took pity on us when we pulled long faces at the initial price quoted of £24 and said that she could put us on a small site without parking (which we didn’t need of course) for £15. The only downside was the group of 10 twentysomethings on the next site who sat around drinking and talking until gone midnight – not that it affected us very much as we were both back in cycle-camping mode whereby we crash out quickly (just after 8 o’clock in this case) and sleep the sleep of the dead. They were still going when Stephen woke to answer a call of nature (courtesy of a rather nice bottle of Dartmoor ale from the camp supermarket) but he was asleep again as soon as his head hit the pillow.

The next morning we had to go back over the hill to Otterton which was just a loosener for what was to come. Stephen was more than a little nonplussed to find himself pushing up hills that were not as steep as those on that “horrendous” day in North Devon (all bar one of which he cycled up, albeit very slowly). It took some time for us to realise that we were carrying much heavier loads this time – full camping gear v. just enough for a long weekend staying in hotels.

As we made our way out of Sidmouth we followed the signs for National Cycle Route 2 (all along the South Coast) which pointed up a road called Salcombe Hill. We both had bad vibes. These were reinforced by the comment “Good luck with that one” from a couple of lightly laden cyclists tearing past us in the opposite direction.

It was a b*****d!

By the time we got to the top and a 10 minute breather in the National Trust car park, we were horrified to see that we had gone 12 km in just under 2 hours. Weymouth was starting to look an awfully long way away so we started thinking of alternative plans all of which involved trains!

The nearest station was Axminster which had a certain “call” for Stephen as it was here where he and a friend gave up on their attempt to cycle from Southampton to Exeter while at university when the rear wheel of their half renovated pre war tandem almost collapsed 40 years ago!

After a lot more pushing (and a very welcome consolation lunch in Seaton which involved large helpings of chips) we made it to Axminster nervous of our ability to get the bikes on the train (there being a limit of 2 per train on that line and the online reservation system being closed for the weekend). As it transpired, the bike spaces were unoccupied and the guard was unfazed by our lack of tickets or bike reservations.

We had investigated taking the train to Poole to at least complete one of the gaps (that to Southampton) but the combination of the Sunday timetable and the sparse cross country network meant a ridiculously long journey. Therefore we resorted to a successful last minute phone call to Stephen’s sister just outside Southampton “Please  can we come and stay with you?”

We had a very pleasant couple of nights with Jo and Steve before  decamping to Stephen’s other sister, Nicky and her husband Jonathan, near Leatherhead. Here, again, we had a lovely evening catching up before heading to Newhaven to catch the ferry to Dieppe mimicking the start of our retirement adventures 3 years ago as we set off to cycle down the Danube.

Hello Again!

7/6/18. Well, it has been rather a long time hasn’t it?

Looking back at the blog, it seems we left things hanging somewhat last August with us expecting to have to resort to calling in the bailiffs to evict our tenants. In fact we did call them in but, luckily for them, the tenants moved a few days before a team of beefy men turned up on the doorstep and so we were able to get into our own house in the middle of September – almost 5 months after the end of the tenancy.

Thankfully our worst fears of the state of the house were not realised and there was surprisingly little damage, especially considering the obviously low ethical standards of the individuals.

We settled back in to living in one place easily and, as autumn and winter progressed with the typical British weather, even Stephen’s enthusiasm for cycling diminished. (Christine’s had evaporated into the distance at the first sight of the cold and rain!)

In December the arrival of Reuben Miles Smith meant that we became grandparents for the first (and, hopefully, not the last) time. We couldn’t be happier! We have been to visit him (and his parents, of course) in Bahrain twice. Here is just one of the many photos we have.

And here’s another because he’s just soooooo adorable!

While twiddling the pedals over the previous two and a half years on the road, we had been contemplating what to do when we returned and had pretty much decided that the time had has come for a move. With the kids all gone, the house was far too big for the two of us, much though we loved it, and so we put it onto the market in mid November.

But where to move to? Having small but well dispersed families meant that we had a pretty much “blank sheet of paper” – which was exciting but slightly overwhelming as the range of possible locations was wide. Once we received an acceptable offer for the house we embarked on a road trip through the southern Midlands from Cheltenham to Rutland seeing many lovely places in a part of the country that neither of us really know.

In the end we found a house just to the west of Worcester and the purchase is proceeding at the moment. In the meantime we have completed the sale and so are homeless again.

And guess what that means!

Yep. We’re off on our bikes. We have been staying with Christine’s parents in Taunton since the house sale (apart from a quick blast of grandson sitting in Bahrain) but will be heading off in the next day or two (we are still “flexible” in planning our trips!) along the South Coast of England (to fill in two gaps of our Round the British Coast jaunt which has been on hold for a few years) and then heading towards Lake Constance where we have a family holiday planned for early July.  It is the intention to add a few posts while we go, so do check back here (assuming you enjoy reading these ramblings!).

Christine is a ‘Tough Girl’

Tough Girl Podcast! Today it is Christine

!

Download the podcast at your favourite podcast player, such as iTunes at Tough Girl, or use the link below

 

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Rude Words!

23/8/17. And lots of them!

While walking a stretch of the Welsh coast path this morning we received a phone call from our estate agent who spoke with our tenants last night. They informed her that they will NOT be leaving our house on Friday despite the Possession Order from the Court. This means we will have to apply for bailiffs to be appointed to evict them.

What a mess!