I booked the ferries and 2 nights in hotels on the cheap, as my trip would be mid week and be after the high priced school holiday period. My route from West London would be. Tonbridge Kent, Dover, Calais, Boulogne, Etaples, Le Touquet, La Somme Rive, Le Treport, Dieppe, Fecamp, Le Harvre, Honfleur, Deauville, Ouistreham [ Caen], Portsmouth, London.
Ferries out P&O £15, and the night Ferry back Brittany Ferries, £79. Average price of hotels £59.
I packed a small roll bag, and covered it with a hi viz cover. Usually on dingey days I also wear a hi viz cycling jacket over my Barracuta jacket with armour.
I was going to break my journey from London in Tonbridge. My nephew Will and his wife Nina had recently moved there, so by starting with them I could get a long ride and channel hop, in on the first day. I’d also arranged to meet fellow Skok, Bill Dog in Tonbridge at his workplace, Landrover of Tonbridge. Unfortunately I got to his place at the end of the day after being delayed. I went to his reception and asked for Mr Dog. Blank faces. I mimed revving a scooter, and a shaved head plus beard. “Ah! You mean Steve!, He’s gone. “ Don’t worry Bill your Nom de Plume is safe with me.
DAY 1: After having a nice supper I was up with the larks and ready to go at 07.00. The twisty, green pretty route through Kent to the ferry terminal in Dover was most enjoyable, and as I spied the flat calm English Channel, I thought, what could possibly go wrong.
At the first passport check-in !!!?? ** F**CK !?? No passport!!! ....Tickets check, hotel bookings check, insurance check, driving licence check.. I reeled back my brain and remembered the last thing I did was photocopy everything, and the last item, my passport, I’d left on the copier. ...I explained, I grovelled. The Brit passport guy took my papers and tapped into his computer. After 30 seconds he waved me on with a raised eyebrow. The French controller shuffled my papers then waved me on with a Gallic shrug. I zipped up the boarding ramp and smuggled myself on board. 1 1⁄2 hours later, I embarked. Again 2 lots of checking and a bit of computer tapping...but eventually I was let through. Leaving the ferry terminal the first thing you pass is the ‘Jungle’ the refugee camp. I thought they’re all paperless. Maybe I’ll end up there..
I sped off southwards hugging the coast, passing Boulogne. I knew this area well as I’d holidayed here a couple of times when my kids were small. I used to think why slog all the way through France, when all this frenchness was just a spit away. This part of the northern France coastline consists of 100 metre high chalk cliffs, intersected by rivers flowing through pretty wooded valleys. As the rivers reach the coast, sometimes there’s a long harbour. At the seafront either a pebble or wide sandy beach. Buildings here have a lot of half timbering and brick, as well as soft pale yellow coloured colonial buildings.
My first stop was lunch at Etaples's market on an estuary near to Le Touquet's beaches. I tucked into, crevettes, steak frites, rhubarb tart, café and a 1⁄2 carafe of Muscadet. €20. Tres Bon!. I had a mooch about the harbour and the fish market and then headed further south in the warm sunshine. The land farmed here on the plain is big, fertile, agribusiness, and a lot of horse rearing. The roads were smooth and quiet, save for some whopping farm tractors and convoys of silver-haired couples piloting camper vans [ R.V.s] chasing their dreams. Me I was doing the same but on 2 small wheels.
There was something in the air here. It made me wonder if the rural French have as many names for farmyard smells as Eskimos have for snow. There was cow manure, fish manure, horse manure, chemical manure, pig manure and vomit manure. Around here were tall electricity generating windmills. Or perhaps they were here to disperse these nasty niffs.
I skimmed over the flat, drained Somme delta. Interspersed with flooded gravel pits and holiday homes as well as camping areas. Flocks of migrating waterfowl, swooped about and big stocky horses snorted. It was very peaceful and restful, but this place was also littered with the war graves and memorials to the carnage wrecked here in 2 World Wars and more before. How sad.
I pulled into Le Treport about 5 ish. A long port with light industry, fishing, resort accommodation, bars and cafes. It was pleasantly bustly. I was staying at the Hotel Calais, on a raised bit of the town overlooking the harbour, and squeezed up against the chalk cliffs. I took a stroll about and had a few quenching Belgian Leffe beers. In the backstreets I came across another famous Belgian. Johnny Hallyday, the most famous and probably only, French, King of Rock n Roll. Their Elvis. He had 2 café’s paying homage to him.
That night I’d booked a pavement table at a quayside restaurant. The one that looked like it had the least brothel like décor. I ordered a huge platter of Fruits de Mer and a bottle of Chablis and tucked in. Picking over a langoustine I heard the distinctive sounds of a scooter put puttering, and spied a nearby orange 70s Vespa circling, with a khaki parka rider, mod style. It pulled up next to me and I went over and met the lovely Sabine Perego. She was just touring around for a couple of days at the end of visiting a Vespa World rally in Belgium. I showed her my GTS, then I invited her to supper. She ordered Sole Meuniere and together 2 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc. Sabine told me of lots of amusing Vespa adventures and all about the rallies she’d been on and the scooter scene in Germany. We had a great laugh. Eventually she wobbled off as she was staying nearby. She assured me she’d be alright as Germans were expert drivers. I hoped so.
DAY2: Next day began with a clang at 06.30. My hotel was next to a huge church bell tower. I counted 150 dongs and 24 ding dongs. Enough to wake the Hunchback of Notre Dame in Paris. I joined the other guests for an early breakfast in the quaint dining room overlooking the harbour. The breakfast was croissants, brioche, cold cuts and cheeses and plenty of warm cafe au lait to soothe shattered nerves. We watched the fishing fleet push out of the harbour in a purposeful manner. More fish for me I hoped.
I headed south again. Bypassing an interesting looking Dieppe, it was an easy 3 hours ride to Fecamp. Plenty of time to explore the little seaside villages and enjoy the warm sun. I stopped at a pretty hamlet, where the cottages had carved out of the soft sandstone ridge behind them, caves for storage and as dwellings. At the entrance of one front door were 2 concrete bears 5 feet tall, one white, one brown in a primitive Yogi Bear style. Maybe they were a homage to early cave dwellers who used to paint hunting scenes of bison on their cave walls thousands of years ago, or maybe just some eccentric fun. I made it to Fecamp by lunch time. Another long harbour town with a bigger resort
feel. More restaurants, a bigger sea front esplanade overlooking a pebble beach, and even a Casino. I checked into my night stop, the Hotel Vent D’Oest, done out in a New England style around an inner courtyard. I also checked for signs of nearby bell towers, then headed further into the harbour area. There I found a cafe, and had a big pan of Moules with bits of bacon and a large glass of cloudy Cidre. Exploring the side streets I discovered a really impressive building, probably Fecamp’s largest. This was the Benedictine Liquer’s distillery. Built in 1898, a riot of gothic turrets, fancy stonework, and wrought iron. Apparently this herbal tipple was adopted during the First World War, by the Lancashire regiment, who were stationed nearby and back in Blighty, today, Burnley football club serves it on match days. Next to this amazing Palais was displayed a huge copper still. That evening I went looking for supper, and came across an elegant restaurant above the biggest fish monger’s in Fecamp. I was ushered by the polite hosts to a window table overlooking the harbour. But first an aperitif, a special Benedictine cocktail, with champagne and bitters. Faintly pink, crisp and refreshing. I settled for a starter of cured haddock, followed by a hearty bouillabaisse, and a bottle of chilled Gamay. It was splendide! I think the French have got their mojo back and are now serving decent food, not just tourist fodder. I slept well that night.
DAY3: Up early, no bells.. I wound my way southwards popping in to some nice beaches. I was aiming for Honfleur, but first had to cross 2 very high and scary bridges at Le Havre. These crossed the mighty Seine and it’s canal that leads to Paris. Luckily there wasn’t any crosswinds that day. I pulled in mid morning to the inner harbour of Honfleur. It was quite Dutch looking with a jumble of half timbered and brick buildings. This place is a magnet for artists and sketchers with lots antiques and nick knack shops. In one cobbled street I found the house of Erik Satie. A moderne minimalist composer who I rather like.
I pushed on from there to Deauville, the swanky resort, sometimes known as Paris Plage. I was to meet a lawyer girlfriend of mine Annabelle. She works within the luxury goods, fashion and film industries. She’d been to Deauville the week before for the International American film festival. I met her at the central railway station. There were some posters from the French government alerting people to what to do if there was a terrorist attack. They were rendered in an airport info-graphic style. It’s good to know the French are looking after their citizens, but it was also a reminder how 30 years ago we had this kind of publicity up in Britain when the IRA were active.
Annabelle found a chi chi brasserie and ordered a rustic casserole of Tripes in red wine. I settled for crab and cod. Next we went to Deauville’s grand beach. dotted with colourful furled beach umbrellas. Lining the seafront were exhibition pavilions, cinemas and Twenties style cafes. Rows of beach huts were named after big Hollywood stars. Annabelle posed by her all time heart throb Keanu Reeves, me Cate Blanchette. We fooled about on the beach like we were in one of those moody French art films, then went to the hugely splendid Hotel Normandie, to their lobby for a bit of people watching and hot chocolate. Annabelle caught the 19.00 train and I headed off to get to Caen’s ferry port Ouistreham. I needed to get there early enough in case of not being allowed out of France.
Just before Caen there was a large canal and the River Orne. Here was the Pegasus bridge, a crossing made famous by the military action at the end of the second World War. This ‘bascule’ bridge was named Pegasus after the winged horse badge of the Allied Airborne troops who made an audacious surprise raid here by glider and parachute at the beginning of the D-Day landings.
I arrived at the Customs and passport offices with lots of time to spare. The first guy at Brittany ferries was really helpful. He copied my paperwork, computered a bit, then sent me to customs. They were armed and serious looking. They took my papers away, and brought them back 10 minutes later rubbered stamped. These I showed to Brittany Ferries and with a bit more stamping, they handed over a boarding card and a fly- shield identification sticker. I was good to go, then they announced a dock strike which would delay our embarkation. Eventually the Silver Pimpernel was allowed on the ferry and I found the sleeper seat area, where bikers, cyclists and students dismissed the ‘airline style’ seats and curled up on the floor, to be lulled into sleep by a massive marine diesel engine.
DAY4: 06.00 We nudged into Portsmouth. It was grey and rainy. Firing up the GTS I cruised up to Passport and Immigration. They waved me on... They’d been called up earlier and knew I was coming through. Cheered by this, I thanked the E.U. gods for having joined up borders. Out of the harbour, I warmed up with a bacon egg McMuffin and coffee and headed off in the steady rain. I arrived back in West London within 3 hours. As I dried out, and cupped a warming cup of coffee and a snifter of Benedictine, I mused, that all in all it was an enjoyable and memorable journey, but next time, I’ll definitely will, remember my passport. Gass Silver Machine GTS 250
South East England and North East France, Normandy and Pas De Calais
Setting off from Tonbridge early morning
Etaples market lunch. Tres Bon
Somme delta...La Manche over the horizon
Johnny Hallyday cafe. He's so famous in france he has 2 'N's in Johnny
Sabine Perego, German vesparist and top mod
Le Treport, the Hotel Calais is the tall brick building to the right of the bell tower
Breakfasters at the Hotel Calais, soothing their jangled nerves
Back streets of Le Treport. You can catch a furnicular railway to the top of the cliff
Typical beach scene on the Norman coast
Proof the French have a sense of humour as well as a sense of style
Palais de Benedictine distillery. Wow!
Copper still, used to brew the herbal liquor
Cured haddock with pickled beetroot and red cabbage
Honfleur inner harbour
Composer Erik Satie's Honfleur home
Anto terror poster, Deauville railway station
me and Cate Blanchett on Deauville beach
The grand Hotel de Normandie, Deauville
Pegasus bridge near Caen