Travel StoriesFrance, Germany And Belgium 2012 - By Ren Withnell
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - The Chunnel and Wimeraux, France.
I’m up at the crack of dawn. My mind is spinning with concerns about tyres, rain, finding campsites and a myriad of other emotions and worries. My Chunnel train is not until 1650, I don’t need to be there until 1620. That said I do have 90 miles of potentially very busy coast road to cover and my Dad estimates 4 hours to cover the trip is a safe timing. Outside the weather is cloudy but dry and fairly warm so that’s one less thing to worry about. Makes no odds though, if everything was just perfect I’m sure to find something to stress over.
By 1100 I’m itching to go, and there’s little for me to do at my father’s place. I politely suggest to my Dad that I’ll take my time and head off now. It comes as a great relief to be actually on the road, actually on my way. Like many things in life actually doing something is far less stressful than thinking about doing it.
So I’m here…I’m on the road…I’ve got my tent and my gear and my passport and my tickets…and I’m on my way! It feels good for about 5 minutes then I run into the traffic. Thousands of Southern Shandy Drinkers all heading to the coast and to the shops. Queues of them. Goodness me, I’m already getting in a bad mood. I have a quiet word with myself and remind myself I’ve got plenty of time. This settles my mind and I just plough on through the traffic until I hit the Dual Carriageway and freedom. It’s a busy place is Worthing.
The sun pops out from behind the clouds and the day warms nicely. I stop for a pee in a MacDonalds then admire the bike, all covered in luggage and looking very much the part of the adventurous traveller. If only anyone knew how my head was spinning they’d realise I’m just a nervous wimp and not a great adventurer.
It certainly looks the part my fazer. But appearances can be deceptive...
I pass along the Southern coastline, through Hastings and Rye. This is not a long journey but already I’m starting to get stiff and I’m fidgeting on the bike. I wish I was like most others, I wish I could sit here in the saddle and relax in comfort, be at ease both physically and mentally. There is one thing that is changing though. I’m 40 now, and I’m finally starting to accept that I am who I am. I tell myself it’s just who I am. My body does not like to remain in one position for a long time and it’s OK to shuffle around. It’s OK Ren, it’s OK to be Ren.
Long lanes with curves and sharp corners pass through rolling countryside full of crops, especially the yellow rape seed crop with it’s distinctive smell of summer in the modern farmland. I fidget about in the saddle until a sign finally directs me to the motorway and the Chunnel. I follow the signs for what seems like an age till the slip road runs me along to a quiet set of booths that await would be European drivers and riders.
I approach one of the empty booths, curious, and of course worried, about what to expect. A screen directs me to enter my booking number or the card I used to pay for my ticket. Isn’t modern technology great! I insert my credit card as instructed and agree with the display that my bike’s not LPG powered and I’ve no animals or weapons of mass destruction on my person. I am, as is my way, far too early and the screen tells me off for being so. It does however offer 2 earlier trains at no extra cost, I choose the later train as I wish to visit the bathroom and collect my befuddled thoughts. That should give me almost an hour.
A large ticket with the letter “G” pops out of the booth and the barrier opens. I struggle to stow the printout and get my gloves on, of course worried that the barrier will close before I do this. It seems the barrier knows I’m struggling and waits till I pass, thankfully. Endless lanes lead to endless possibilities, I just stop in panic after the barrier closes behind me. It takes my sharp but confused mind a moment to process the myriad of signs and I follow the signs for “France”. That is after all my intended destination.
I know I’m early and I’ve got a short while so when I spot what looks like a shop I park up. I’m surprised by the lack of other people around, there’s 2 other bikes and a handful of cars, that’s all. Having caught the ferry a couple of times I was expecting long lanes of cars, lorries, coaches and sweaty bikers, yet here there’s none of that.
It's a quiet place today at the Channel Tunnel shop.
Inside the shop complex is empty too, save for a cleaner and a bored looking official of some kind, both milling around doing little. There’s a shop that sells drinks and sweets but no staff, just self service checkouts, so I self serve myself a bottle of pop and a visit to the toilet. This is surreal, the shop appears to be built and configured to cope with a hoard of weary travellers yet it is as deserted as b-movie ghost town.
Outside I drink some pop and check the time, endlessly. With half an hour to go I mount up and set off…with no clue as to where. It seems the only signs say “France”, I’m looking for “Trains” or “Tunnel” or even “This Way – Muppet”. It seems “France” is the right direction as I find that queue I’d been expecting. It’s not that big actually, not compared to a ferry’s queue, but at least it’s here and it means other people are travelling too. I join and settle in for the wait.
At last the queue I was expecting. Notice top left the innumerable lanes and signs to bewilder any would be traveller.
With no warning or ceremony at all we’re suddenly off. I’m holding up the traffic as I’ve removed my helmet and got my camera out, now I’ve to get myself all back together, sharp style. The guy in the big 4x4 behind me smiles politely but I just know he’s thinking “plonker” as I throw my gloves on. We cross concrete ramps and follow illuminated signs until I’m looking down a long ramp to a dirty grey train with an endless line of tall fat carriages that stretch into the distance. Wow, it’s impressive, it’d be even more impressive if they’d cleaned it.
I run down the ramp with the other cars and I’m directed into a carriage. I follow the cars for what seems like a mile down a long, low and dimly lit tunnel. I cross a join between carriages and realise I’m travelling down the length of the train. The first vehicles stop at the front then as the cars reach the back of the line they stop, then it’s my turn to stop. A gruff but smiling worker directs me to steer the bike into the small kerb at the left, leave it in gear and put it on the side stand. No straps, no clamps, just park it there. Yikes!
It's just there, on the stand, no straps, nothing. There IS a sign that states "NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY". Apparently it messes with the fire detection equipment. I did not read this sign till after I took this picture...ahem...sorry...
There’s no buffet, there’s no seats and there’s no light entertainment either. The folks in the cars stay in there and I, alone with my bike, can stand, or sit, or pace around nervously in my carriage. I of course choose the latter. A while later, presumably when everyone’s on board, the long tunnel becomes a collection of units when doors and roller shutters hiss and rattle shut, separating each carriage. With a judder that makes my bike wobble precariously, we set off.
I stand next to the bike, ready to catch it. It does move around a little but not quite enough to require holding. If you’re not 100% certain about your sidestand on your bike, best stay next to it. Through the small window the sunshine vanishes and it’s dark, we’re in the Channel Tunnel. Apart from a brief pre-recorded safety announcement on the PA and the hiss of the train, all is quiet.
When I feel sure the bike’s not about to fall over I sit on the small kerb that runs alongside the channel that the cars travel along. There really is nothing to do. I consider how odd it is that I’m on the train, with my bike. Then how odd it is that the train I’m on is under the sea. Then how odd it is that me, the great non-travelling traveller is on a train, with a bike, under the sea, going to France.
France! Well, through the small window the daylight indicates I must be in France. The train slows carefully then judders to a halt, I grip onto the bike quite without cause. I kit up then wait a short while till the line of cars start to move off. I pop out the carriage and onto the platform, following the other cars. Ride on the right…ride on the right…ride on the right…not that right ya bloody muppet!
We climb another big concrete ramp then follow endless lanes until, without so much as a farewell we’re dumped onto the road network. Wobbling nervously almost in the gutter to the right I search desperately for signs. I really do not want to end up on the toll road, I’m looking for the coastal route, By sheer luck I spot a sign for “Sangatte” and follow that around the wrong-way-round (to me) roundabout. I force myself to go slow and think hard, very hard, about keeping to the right and looking everywhere at each junction.
I’m on the coast road, thankfully. I’ve done it twice before but this riding on the wrong side of the road is just…so…alien. I have to admit it’s just a little bit easier this time, I know I’ll be OK as long as I take my time and be extra vigilant at each junction. I crawl carefully into Sangatte and luckily there’s little traffic and no-one behind me. The coast road magically climbs and opens out onto a splendid vista across the sea.
I smile. Oh yes, that feels good, that’s what it’s supposed to be about isn’t it. Me, on a bike, abroad, taking in the views and the sights and the culture and experiencing things, just stuff, just anything that’s new or different. The coast road turns out to be a revelation in itself, there’s corners and bends, plenty of other bikers coming and going and impressive scenery across the sea.
My plan was to pass through Boulogne-Sur-Mer and to find a campsite to the south that I’d found on Google. Yet as I ride towards Boulogne I pass several signs for campsites, I wonder whether to stop here. I press on. I press on right into Boulogner-Sur-Mer and right into a traffic jam. After 20 minutes of sitting in hot traffic I pull off into a car park by the port and take stock of the situation. I drink some pop, have a smoke and take some pictures. I’m still looking at the same cars I saw as I left the queue when I kit up again.
The port at Boulogne-Sur-Mer. It's a busy place is Boulogne, and I'm tired and want to get settled for the night.
I decide to head back north, I’d spotted a sign for the “Camping Municipale” in Wimeraux just a few miles back and this traffic is going nowhere. It’s 1800 French time and I’m tired already. I jump back on the bike and make the short ride back to Wimeraux and easily find the campsite.
It takes a while for the guy in the booth to notice me and open the barrier. I park up and prepare myself to speak French for the first time in about a year. Ahem…here we go. I struggle but it’s not a complex affair to pay the €8 for one night, very cheap if you ask me. The site is basic but perfectly functional and presentable. I’m feeling thankful that I’ve found a place to sleep and not had to ride around for ages looking for somewhere.
Of course my thankfulness is tinged with concerns over the tent and where to eat. My concerns over the tent are confirmed, with the airbed blown up and my gear thrown in there there’s barely enough room. Damn, I really might regret not bringing the bigger tent. Amongst the campervans, caravans and large family tents my tiny little two manner looks…pathetic. I play tetris with the bike gear, helmet and bags until I suss out enough room to actually sleep.
The tent is tiny, it makes my bike look very big. I think the small tent may be a big mistake.
Next it’s time to walk into town and see about eating. I’ve decided that this should not be an expensive holiday and I’m determined to keep prices down, so I’m going to try and buy food and cook what I can with my petrol-powered stove. I’m worried about leaving my stuff in the tent, especially the important items such as my phone, passport, wallet and camera, so I take my jacket with me with these things in the pockets.
Wimeraux is only a small place. There’s a beach and promenade, a street with a handful of mostly closed shops and a few surrounding houses. I wander about, wondering what to do with the evening and what to eat. I find a small mini market and buy an apple and a sandwich, ham and cheese. That will do for the evening and I eat the apple as I walk between the slightly run down houses with their shutters and peeling paint doors. They’re not exactly house proud the French.
The promonade at Wimeraux in the fading light. It's a small place and quiet at the moment.
I spot a tabac. Tabac’s are a particularly French thing, they’re both shop, café and bar. They sell cigarettes and maybe sweets like a newsagents, there's a bar and a handful of chairs and tables where you can drink coffee or alcoholic drinks. I hover around outside, wondering whether to go in or not. I decide not, I’m too chicken to go into a strange place. What a wimp, I curse myself on the short walk back to the site.
I eat my sandwich and at 2130 I decide to settle in for the night. There’s little sign of life on site except for a small group of French folks having a barbecue and a few drinks outside a large camper van. I squeeze into my tent and wriggle into my sleeping bag and try to get to sleep. I feel a little lonely. It’s been an interesting day and I’ve no-one to share this with. I remember reading once that a traveller is a lonely person. I’m here to learn if I can hack it alone. With that thought I drift off.
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Prologue
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - The Chunnel and Wimeraux, France.
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Wimeraux to Epernay, The Long Way
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Epernay to Lebach
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Lebach To Cochem
The scenery is improving as well as the weather. Ren is moving upmarket and into the beautiful town of Cochem.
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Cochem to Bastogne
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Bastogne to Le Nouvion-en-Thiérache
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Le Nouvion-en-Thiérache to Ambleteuse
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - A Day In Ambleteuse
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Going Home Through The Channel Tunnel
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Epilogue and More Pictures
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Even More Pictures
More images or Ren's European trip that will hopefully bring the story to life.
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Even More Pictures Again
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Travel StoriesFrance, Germany And Belgium 2012 - By Ren Withnell