The outside of a motorbike engine seen up close near the exhaust

Home Travel StoriesNormandy, France 2011 - By Ren Withnell

Normandy, France 2011 - Back To The Ferry and England

Back To The Ferry and England

Urgh.  It's time to go home already.  Actually we've got until 1830 to make the ride from Honfleur back to Dieppe to catch the ferry, that's most of the day to make a journey of 80 miles or so.  Our quirky artistic host requires the studio to be cleaned and the keys returned before 1000 so the first order of the day whilst the gf makes breakfast is to get on with packing and cleaning.  Cleaning is no problem, the studio is tiny so a wipe down with a cloth, a swift run-around with the brush and some loo cleaner down the toilet and all is well.  We discover a broken glass at the back of a cupboard.  We consider our options and decide that as we've not used any glasses it must have been broken before, so we put it back where it was and pretend nothing's happened. 

bike luggage and gear ready to be packed at the small studio in honfleur
All this lot needs to be put away then loaded onto the bike. 

Our host comes in and seems very happy with our cleaning.  It's part of the agreement that we leave the place as we found it, otherwise a cleaning charge may be taken out of our deposit.  We knew this when we booked the place so there's no surprises.  Our host is a most unusual character yet she's been perfectly friendly, helpful and knows this area well.  She speaks perfect English and commentated that my French pronunciation was "very good!"   If you are looking for a small comfortable place for two to stay in Honfleur, out of town, basic facilities  and no mod cons, but at a good price compared to the rest of the area, you may do well to visit

We get our deposit returned but time is on our side so we talk for another half hour to our host.  The sun is up, the day is warming so it really is time to go now.  As Is start the bike and the gf climbs aboard between the saddlebags and top box, in my helmet I say "Well that's that then".  There's a part of me that is ready to go home, back to the familiar and understood, but I'm going to miss the novelty of riding on the wrong side and exploring this area.  As I'm thinking this I'm riding, riding without even noticing I'm on the wrong side of the road.  As a car approaches it seems perfectly natural that he should pass on my left.  Oh god, I'm not going to struggle to ride on the left when I get back home am I?

With time on our side I plan to ride back along the A roads, or whatever the French call their main roads.  I have no more of a plan than to head north east using Scat Naff (Compass) for directions.  To head north east means first we need to cross the Siene.  Coming to Honfleur we'd used the impressive Pont-Du-Normandie, this time I'm heading for the Pont-De-Tancarville, further inland and east.  It all seems very logical, following signs for Bolbec should see us right and soon between hills and houses I can see a bridge in the distance.  Then I happen upon a junction that should allow us onto the main road that takes us to the bridge.  It does, but in the wrong direction.  I can see I'm on the correct road but my instinct and Scat Naff tell me I'm heading the wrong way down this dual carriageway.  Judging by the speed and driving of the campervan in front he seems to be heading the wrong way too.  It takes a while for the dual carriageway to end and to find somewhere safe to turn around.  As I pull in to gather my thoughts so does the campervan.  As I turn around and head back in what I believe is the correct direction I look in the mirrors and see the campervan is doing the same.

The Pont-De-Tancarville  is another impressive, stylish and smart bridge.  It's not as big as the Pont-Du-Normandie yet the French have put just as much effort into the aesthetics.  As the countryside rolls by I recall the Millau Bridge featured in a construction program, apparently it's the world's tallest vehicle bridge.  It was very difficult to build yet it is as beautiful as it is functional.  I assume the French must take great pride in their bridges and rightly so.  More space rolls by, more broad fields and woods, more lonesome tractors and the wind seems to have picked up a little.

I expected Bolbec to be a little larger.  It's a town but not a big town and we find the town centre very easily.  In the centre there's a car park surrounded by shops so this seems a good place to stop and grab a drink.  It's not as quaint as Honfleur, not as smart as Pont-L'Eveque  and is a lot busier on this warm Friday lunchtime.  I park the bike next to another Fazer and take relief in getting out of the saddle and stretching my legs.  This place is more real, less touristy and a bit dirtier than the more affluent places we've visited so far.  It's all relative though, it is far from skanky and horrible, just not so upmarket.  We consider going to a café but with all the gear on the bike it makes more sense for me to buy some pop and leave the gf on guard duty.  The nearby supermarket only sells large bottles so I go into a boulangerie.

Shops around a car park in bolbec
Bolbec Town Centre.  Not as upmarket but still a god place to be.

I look into the glass cabinets to see if I can find something sweet for the gf.  Luckily I spot an éclair  with a sticker on it stating "Éclair", that must be French for éclair...genius.  So I summon up my best French language skills and confidently ask "Un eclaire chocolat, et un bouteille du coca, si'l vou plait"
"Une éclair?"
"La coca"
"blah blah blah trois blah blah blah"  I think it's three euros and something or other
"Je suis Englais, er...c'est combien?"
"Trois euro" she says with a broad smile
"Et le centimes?" and the cents...
"Non, trois euro" I think she's letting me off with the small change
"Trois?  Oui?"
I  pay and as I walk out the young assistant and the lady serving both give me a really big smile and say "Au revoir".
"Au revoir, merci!"

Anyone who says the French are not friendly to the English is lying.  You don't need to be fluent, you don't even need to be half good, just try to speak the lingo and they'll do their best to help you out.   Outside we discover the éclair is simply death by chocolate and the coke is nice and cold.  "Punch Twingo", I tap the gf's arm again.  It never ceases to amaze me how much the gf can say with just a look.  That look says "Oh god, not again...will you ever grow up?"

Heading north towards the coast the wind is getting a little stronger.  I follow signs for Fecamp as this is on the coast, if I can reach the coast then all I need to do is keep the sea on my left and we're sure to reach Dieppe.  The French roads pass through endless fields full of very little, space is in abundance here.  It's unusual for a Northern lad like me to see so much land.  I'm a lucky Northerner who lives close to the West Pennine Moors, I can walk into the local hills and see grass, sheep, boggy marshes and moorland.  In places it's possible to get away from roads and houses too yet if I stop and listen I can’t get away from the noise of distant motorways.  The North West of England is a busy and densely populated area. 

The space between places and the light traffic in the countryside of France is a change for the good.  Yet somehow it never feels remote.  There are farmhouses and small villages along the road and signs of human activity everywhere.  In the north of Scotland there are many places where you can feel lonely and distant from your fellow man.  Places where you feel that if you broke down assistance would be a long time coming.  Places where you feel as though you could be lost for a long long time.  Yet here in France as we travel down one main road in the rural landscape we happen upon a large shopping complex.

I  need fuel so the shopping complex comes as relief.  It is so odd to see this modern, clean and new collection of large shops, a cinema and bowling alley in the middle of nowhere.  There doesn't seem to be a town nearby or any reason why this is all here.  I pull in via a new roundabout and ride across fresh tarmac into a shiny petrol station.  After filling  I try to get back to the main road but end up completing a tour of the large car park stuck on a one way system.  This being a Friday early afternoon there's not much going on except a few shoppers pushing trolleys and Twingos driving around.  "Punch Twingo!"...tap.

Back on the road I don't know how I've managed to miss Fecamp, but we're heading east and we're near the cost so at least we're going in the right direction.  We're still very early so I'm not rushing, I'm taking my sweet time and taking in the ride.  Every now and then the road gives is a brief view of the sea from afar and the towns are a little closer together here.  I pull off the main road and try to follow the coastal route which takes us through small hamlets which are still French yet feel a little more English too.  I know the UK is only across a stretch of water so it makes sense I should feel closer to home.  My ass is telling me it's time for another break though.

We roll into the town of Saint-Valery-en-Caux.  It's a picture-postcard town with a marina full of bright turquoise water and a large Hotel-De-Ville.  I park the bike next to a collection of other bikes and as we get off the gf and I concur it's a lovely place.  We take time to take pictures and finish off our Brioche sandwiches.  As I look about I can see behind the Hotel-De-Ville is where the beach and the sea must be.  Every now and then spray comes flying up over the sea defenses which is odd.  Here at the marina there's a breeze, the spray implies the sea must be in turmoil.  That doesn't bode well for our homeward sailing. 

blue turquoise water in the marina at Saint-Valery-en-Caux
The deep turquoise water in the marina.

After our brief rest I decide we should try and find the coast.  I follow a tight one way street through more confusing junctions and dimly lit traffic lights, round the back of an arcade and through a mis-shapen car park and spot what looks like The White Cliffs of Dover.  It can't be the White Cliffs, I'm sure I'm still in France.  I guess it's the opposite half, there'll be a geologist somewhere who can tell me what's gone on but right now I'm focused on the sea.  The tide is in so there's no beach, just large waves rolling in and crashing spectacularly onto the rocks.  Here the wind is blasting and sea spray comes whipping into our eyes.  Urgh, I can see this being a rough vomit inducing crossing.

Following the coast eastbound the wind is much more noticeable.  The loaded bike is being buffeted when the road runs high along the cliffs and it takes a little concentration to keep it on the know what I mean...side of the road.  We pass through more hamlets with thatched roofs and gardens in full bloom, farmland and towns with the cursed 30kph zones and speed bumps.  It's 1500 now and when I spot the sign for Dieppe I think we're about right timewise.  We've filled the day with an easy ride and seen some pleasant places.

Dieppe is completely alien.  There's not a single landmark I recognise from our arrival 5 days ago, although I know why.  When we'd landed I'd followed a road that simply bypassed the town centre and placed us on our route to Honfleur.  This time I'm coming into the town, it's still too early to go to the port.  The outskirts of Dieppe could be any port town.  Industrial units mix with housing estates full of bland characterless properties.  Dual carriageways bypass all the nice places, cranes dot the skyline and wire fencing guards wasteland of no visible value.  Following the vague signs for the port we find ourselves in a bustling town centre.

I'm getting the hang of this French driving.  Just move very slowly in the direction you want to go.  I can see an open area with some kind of performance going on, around the edge of this area rows of motorcycles stand between hoards of shoppers and tourists.  Taking little regard for kerbs, signs, road markings and any rules I slowly, carefully navigate across a road, through a roundabout and over the path to find a space.  No-one bats an eyelid, it all seems perfectly normal this disregard to traffic regulations as long as the maneuver is carried out slowly and carefully.

a row of bikes parked in dieppe
Busy Dieppe where I parked the bike with al the others.

With the bike parked I'm still not settled.  I'm flapping inside, how the hell do I get to the ferry terminal?  Still, we've got ages yet, I'll be sure to leave in time to find it in time.  We walk across the road into a café in search of tea and maybe a snack.  We are greeted by a solidly built man who is seriously overenthusiastic and quite in love with himself and his command of the English language.  Every time I try so speak French he replies in English with exaggerated gestures and ushers us towards a table.  Thankfully he moves onto his next victim and we are left in peace to order from a nice normal French waitress who only speaks English if it's required or helpful. 

After a visit to the loo we drink a welcome cup of tea and I try to calm myself.  Behind us on another table 3 English bikers, more upmarket than myself and slightly older too, order mussels and chips in English from the French waitress.  No attempt at even a "Merci" or "S'il vous plais", no French at all.  I just know they'll go home and tell everyone the French are unfriendly.  Meanwhile the solid English speaking French restaurateur continues to be over friendly to new customers whilst being surly and brusque to the staff.  He's just one of those dynamic go-getting types, frustrated in the service industry.  He thinks he should be a chief executive of a large corporation and driving a Jag to his private jet.

The tea and the rest is nice, but I'm not so keen on this café.  Back outside the weather is doing it's strange thing, it's glorious and warm with a gentle breeze but I just know that the sea, which can't be far away, is choppy and windswept.  It's 1630 and the ferry sails at 1830, the paperwork says the terminal opens 2 hours beforehand and I'm not sure where the terminal is.  I leave the gf watching ants attacking a bee in flowerbeds next to the bike and walk over to a convenient tourist information shop.  Inside using my best and most polite French I learn, with some difficulty, the ferry port is "La Bas"...over there.  The lady understands my confused face if not my poor French and provides a map and a finger to show where the ferry is. 

The gf is still studying the demise of the bee when I return.  Inside that woman is a biologist, philosopher, artist, theologies and countless other things trying to get out.  Me?  I just want to get to that ferry and be sure not to miss it.  Finding the terminal proves to be no more complex than 2 roundabouts and a bridge and it comes as a relief to see the ferry, docked and ready to roll.  What comes as a surprise is the number of people already in the queue.  I provide our passports first to the nice lady in the cubicle and then to the polite but scary Douane officers.  One of them is so massive I wonder why the rest of them need to be there.

In the queue we get off the bike and strip a few layers to cool off.  I thought we'd be one of the first here, I mean the terminal should have opened less than 20 minutes ago.  Out of curiosity I get the paperwork out.  Oh...My...God...the ferry leaves at 1800 not 1830, the terminal's been open for at least 50 minutes.  It's not a problem, I am habitually early but I feel sick inside, if I'd cut things fine I would have been stuck here.  The gf seems unconcerned, she's right, we're here in plenty of time, we're booked in and we're in the queue, there's nothing to worry about.  I can't help but discipline myself in my head though for not checking, rechecking and double checking the times.  Stupid boy...stupid boy...stupid boy...

the queue for the ferry at dieppe
Waiting to board the ferry at Dieppe.  The people hanging around are bikers...scruffy lot.

When the cars start going onto the ferry the gf is frustrated that some cars are going on before us even though they arrived much later.  Logically I know inside the boat they are playing a giant game of tetris with lorries, cars with caravans, cars with bikes on top, small cars, vans, trucks and even cyclists.  It's got nothing to do with when you arrived, it's about where your particular vehicle fits best on the decks.  It's still frustrating though, waiting, knowing that all the best seats are being taken as we sit and wait, wait and sit.  The 6 or 7 bikes in the queue are the last to be loaded, dammit. 

Up on the passenger decks there's no tables left by any of the windows, but we do manage to snaffle a corner of the café to ourselves.  We spread out our gear and settle in.  A strange collection of people of all ages and styles sit behind us.  They're all a little weird, surreal and out of place.  As we leave port they become a little noisy too.  The boat is pitching so the gf feels queasy and she wants to sleep, our quirky neighbours are not helping.  I leave her to it and go for a wander, I'm bored already.

Later as I sit back in the café I start to figure out who the odd group are.  They're actually 2 families, 2 mums, 2 dads and a collection of precocious or spoilt or nerdy children.  One family seems to be particularly "alternative" with odd rules about who can say what to whom and what kind of drinks they can have at this time of day.  Somehow the gf has managed to nod off stretched across 2 chairs and propped against the table.  I envy her as another kids asks daddy to explain the rules of backgammon again, kids that age should be flicking snot off the side of the ship or playing hide and seek in the sweet shop.

Time passes slowly on the boat.  We dine of chips, talk of our trip, whisper rude things about the people behind us and lounge about.  Finally the ferry docks but this time we are not rushing anywhere.  Actually the gf's not rushing, I'm desperately trying not to rush.  I can't help myself though, I watch like a hawk to see if the queue's gone down and when it just starts to show signs of movement I'm hovering about with my jacket and the tank bag.  When we get down to the bike we end up waiting and we're practically the last to get off the ferry and through passport control.

Ah, sweet English roads, riding on the correct side, the left.  Oh there's some roadworks and a traffic light, but there's space to get round it'll be all right..."ARGH!!!"  The light turns to red and I instinctively head RIGHT towards the that's not the road and onto a parking area.  Stop.  Collect thoughts.  Take a deep breath.  Ensure all limbs and organs are still OK.  I turn to the gf and suggest we stop here whilst I get my bearings and try to remember that here in the UK we drive on the left AND we obey the rules of the road.  I am actually struggling to ride on the left, unbelievable.

It's dusk and the road back to my Dad's seems to be flying past but taking an age.  It is a lot easier to settle into riding on the left, 20 minutes and everything's starting to make perfect sense and to feel familiar and comfortable.  When we get back to Dad's house his wife greets us, Dads in the bath.  I know they'll both be pleased we've got back at a reasonable time as they like to get to bed quite early.  I think I'll be glad to get to bed soon myself.  A cup of tea and some toast followed by a few tales from our trip sees us all to bedtime.

Normandy, France 2011 - Prologue
Normandy, France 2011 - The Ride South
Normandy, France 2011 - The Ferry, French Roads and Honfleur
Normandy, France 2011 - A Good Walk Around Honfleur Ren and Sharon spend the day in and around Honfleur. It's a pretty and characterful town. The day has it's downs, and ups.
Normandy, France 2011 - A Bit of D-Day and Normandy Coast The Normandy beaches and the busy roads of France are on the menu today. There's a little time to relax too.
Normandy, France 2011 - Another Good Walk Around Honfleur
Normandy, France 2011 - The Beauty Of Beuvron-En-Auge
Normandy, France 2011 - Back To The Ferry and England
Normandy, France 2011 - The Trip North and More Images

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