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Nervous in Normandy

By Peter Hawker

2nd edition

These are random notes of  the first trip abroad on my new scooter, a Honda Vision 108cc. I chose the smallest engine I hoped would carry me and my extensive camping load, which was a bit heavier than I take on my bicycle which has been my camping steed for many years. Riding under power is much kinder on my knees, which have told me that they’ve suffered enough pushing and that I should show them more consideration now I’m old enough to know better. I’m 84.

I chose the Newhaven/Dieppe crossing and liked it. Handy for Normandy which isn’t far from home in the event of an emergency. During two weeks I stayed at six campsites and rode 508 miles, about the same as I would’ve covered on my cycle. I used the scooter as a motorised bicycle, preferring the sort of lanes and speed I’m used to. Perhaps a bit faster – I’m still nervous travelling at more than 30mph on two wheels.

I went alone. There can’t be many scooter campers; the two don’t seem to go together. I met a few cycle campers, motorcycle campers and lots of campervan and caravan campers, but no one on a scooter. The first one I meet, if I ever do, will be surprised at the warmth of my greeting.

Before I left I spent a night at a local campsite to ensure that my luggage was secure. I carry the same large and small panniers and camping bags that I load on my cycle and I’ve realised how good a cyclerack is. Just clip on the panniers and the tent bag goes on the rack. To carry the same luggage on the scooter requires some ingenuity. The large pannier rests on the pillion footrest with restraining straps over the saddle, the small pannier handles slip over the pillion handhold and the bags go in a pair of supermarket baskets that were ‘rescued’ from a ditch and fixed where the “topbox” would go.

The gods were kind to an unaccustomed scootercamper. The weather was very good, no rain and a lot of sunshine. That makes all the difference when you’re living in a tent, particularly a small one with just sitting headroom. Getting in and out in the wet without any of it penetrating the inner sleeping compartment is an essential part of the craft. And of the tent design, which is a compromise between weight, comfort and cost.

But whatever your mode of transport or accommodation, the most interesting element of these trips is the people you meet, on campsites and on the road. When you’re alone they approach, talk, offer drinks and on two occasions, meals. A solitary traveller looks vulnerable and attracts sympathy I’ve found. Here are a few of the people I met:

The first was with the riders of a large Harley Davidson, at the head of the two-wheeled queue to board the ferry. The ‘pilot’ was a small well built American woman and her pillion passenger, of whom she was very protective, was an elegant Glaswegian  girl. The relationship was very obvious. The American was a fashion photographer wielding a large Leica and she was busy taking shots of her girlfriend who she posed elegantly on the bike while chatting to me. They’d driven down from Glasgow overnight and were bound for some haute couture shows in Paris. I was subject to a non-stop commentary of their life together and hopes for the future. I was almost sorry when the order came to board – I could’ve listened to her for hours – fascinating.    

The second was on the same day, during a stop on the way to the first campsite with a lone middle aged English chap on a classic ex-RAF motorbike, lovingly restored in the original Airforce Blue. He was at the end of an extended tour of France, staying with friends en-route and had many amusing stories about his encounters. His dress as well as his bike was ‘retro’, as was his luggage. All in true amateur tradition. He gave me some useful advice about places to visit in Normandy – he’d seen them all. A character.
On a campsite my pitch was next to two unusual French chaps in their thirties. They slept together in a small one-man festival tent and spent most of their time sitting on borrowed chairs, drinking vodka, talking to friends on their phones and between times, animatedly to each other. I gathered that they were in the record producing business and this was a weekend off. Each of them would take turns to buy mixers for the numerous bottles of vodka from the camp shop and displayed considerable stamina, seeming not to be effected by their alcohol consumption. I was impressed by their good nature – they frequently invited me to join them, but I regretfully declined. I wasn’t in their class and would’ve fallen off my scooter after a fraction of their intake.

In the same camp were an English backpacking couple, project managers, who invited me to share their barbecue one evening. My campsite ranking looks like this: at the top, backpackers. Then cyclists followed by motorcyclists. Next, car campers then campervans and at the bottom, caravans. This couple were at the top and deserved it. Self-sufficient types who relied on public transport to get about. They were experts at obtaining and interpreting time tables. I admired them. I met one other backpacking couple, French students who’d been on the road for a couple of months and didn’t communicate with the other campers. Except with me, who insists on talking to everybody. They treated me like their grandad, as I could’ve been. Venerable.

Campsites also had varied personalities, each one different. From swish to primitive. The simplest I stayed at was the best – basic loos but a lovely lake. 

Tourist offices in Normandy offer a very good map which shows all of the campsites and their facilities, with clear, good graphics and it’s reliable. We’ve puzzled over much tourist information which is obscure, so it’s a delight to find a publication which is so good. Other Departments please copy.
I had a couple of near accidents. The first was when I approached a large lifting bridge over a basin in Dieppe, to be confronted at close quarters with a descending barrier. My helmet is well fitting and I hadn’t heard the warning bells. In a panic I scooted around the end of the barrier and whizzed over the bridge, seeing that the last car across had reached the other side. I felt a rumble under my wheels and that was the fastest I’ve ever ridden as the bridge prepared to lift. It was the fastest my heart beat during that holiday too. The other incident occurred riding through a village and suddenly noticing a single traffic hump. For a moment I thought I was on my bicycle and performed a smart flicking action around the obstruction, which would’ve been ok on my bike but wasn’t appreciated by the loaded scooter, which weeved all over the road, nearly having me off. Fortunately there was no other traffic about. Another silly mistake, another accelerated pulse.    

But generally the scooter behaved well. That small engine took me and the excessive load up all of the hills without complaining, even against the wind - (what a luxury to be less concerned about wind strength and direction) - it was designed to carry a pillion passenger and how heavy could they be? Very tractable, trickling along in traffic slowly, without having to put my foot down. It’s wide though when loaded, with the panniers adding to an already extensive bustle. Wider than my cycle so I have to be careful estimating clearances. It’s much lighter than a touring motorcycle. If it fell over I could right it, even in my octogenarian condition. I have the advantage of a cyclist’s expectation of distances reasonable to cover, so I’m not frustrated with it’s limited range, which would irk a motorcyclist. I’m satisfied with a less ambitious itinerary.

Some of my cycling colleagues are a bit sniffy about this recent adoption of power assistance. I tell them that at least I’m still on two wheels but I do feel a pang, passing a cyclist up a hill. I miss the suffering and the satisfaction of getting about under my own steam. But I’m still getting about.

I’d like to do another similar tour next year, D.V., when I should be more confident...maybe. Perhaps Portsmouth/St. Malo then Brittany. We shall see.

Technical Appendix.
Tent:  GoLite Eden2. Two person, three poles, two porches One for cooking, one for gear. Six inches of sitting headroom.

Mattress:  Thermarest. It’s my older heavier thicker one, previously superseded by a lighter, thinner one when I was reducing weight. Now I’m assisted I can afford the greater comfort. It also fits into an aluminium tube/nylon fabric frame to make a seat. The back support is very welcome when I’m cooking and writing.

Stove:  Primus with remote flexibly connected gaz bottle. It simmers nicely – essential. Small Primus PowerGas cylinders, propane/isobutane/butane – a very efficient mixture.

Scooter:  Honda Vision, 108cc, 8.3hp, fuel injected, automatic, electric start.  Reliable far.

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Reader's Comments

Ren - The Ed said :-
Peter, you are a true source of pleasure, hope and inspiration for me!

You're living proof of a few things. Firstly you do not need £15,000 to buy a bike and to have an adventure. Anything will do, bicycle, scooter, motorbike, car, train or even on foot. just get out there and have a look.

You don't have to travel to the ends of the earth either. There's much to see anywhere and as you rightly said, it's the people you meet that REALLY make things interesting.

If you're fit enough to move then you're fit enough to get out and about, age doesn't matter to you it seems.

Many thanks Peter, I relish the idea of reading more of your stories.
Sharon said :-
Peter you are amazing!! I have only just passed my CBT and at 43 I did wonder if I had left it all a bit too late. Thank you so much for your story it just goes to show that there is never an age limit for new experiences and fun!!

I agree that some of the best parts of travelling are the people you meet. So if you ever do get the time I would just love to hear your stories about the ladies on the Harley and your other fascinating encounters.
Sharon said :-
This quote just seemed so apt for you Peter and your new Scooter

“Just remember, when you’re over the hill, you begin to pick up speed.”
? Charles M. Schulz
Derek Waters said :-
It is good to see that someone my kind of age and older is still out there. I'd love to get to see some places but my old bones won't allow it. Well done Peter and keep on going!

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