Camchain and tensioner seen up close in a cutaway bike engine

Home Travel StoriesFrance, Germany And Belgium 2012 - By Ren Withnell

France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Wimeraux to Epernay, The Long Way

Having gone to bed early I awake early.  I’m up and about at 0530 and I wonder what I’m to do with myself.  By the time I’ve wriggled out of the sleeping bag, crawled out of the tent and got my act together it seems half an hour has gone.  I take myself off for a shower. 

The shower’s not exactly immaculate, but I figure I’m expecting a little too much for a cheap campsite.  What is bloody annoying though is the shower has a movement sensor in the wall to activate the flow, fine, but it only activates for 3 seconds.  You have to move your hand across the sensor relentlessly to get a steady flow, whilst trying to wash.  I curse as I clean and clean as I curse.

a long low building that is the shower block at the campsite in wimeraux, france
The shower and toilet block at Wimeraux Camping Municipale.  It's not posh but it's functional and sufficient.

Outside it’s grey.  It’s warm enough but grey.  I’ve got a tin of tomato soup, brought all the way from home, so I dig out the stove, pump it up, wash the pan and I prepare my breakfast.  I'm surprised to find that by the time I’ve done all this it’s taken another half hour and now people are starting to stir around the site.  By the time I’ve packed up and loaded the bike it’s 0800 which is not a silly time to start the day.

I’d noticed last night that across the other side of the site there is a collection of World War 2 military vehicles.  Before I leave I wander across to take some pictures and as I do a rotund chap with a magnificent long grey beard looks firmly at me.  I approach and open with “Bonjour”.  After a moment’s confusion about languages it transpires he’s Dutch but speaks good English.  I learn they’re touring with a club of historical military vehicle enthusiasts around the World War 1 and 2 sites that France has to offer.  He and many others will be in the UK in July for a meeting of like minded military vehicle owners.  

world war two military trucks with military tents at the campsite in wimeraux
Set up like this you'd think you were entering an American base some 67 years ago...

I’m feeling quite pleased with myself that I’ve managed to approach a perfect stranger and start a conversation.  I wish him and his crew well and get on my with my day.

When I was back home the next sensible destination I could find with a campsite was Epernay, south of Reims, some 200 miles south according to the map.  Rather than taking the toll roads I plan to cut across country and see things other than black-top and slip roads.  I set off to find Desvres on this grey morning.  I’m feeling OK, but not looking forward to a long trip so much.

If find Desvres OK, but after that it all goes completely tits up.  I can work out, for the most part, that I’m heading south.  I’m in and out of small scruffy little villages, down country lanes and long primary routes.  I have to stop and look at the map often and re-plan my route at every turn.  Normally I’d be freaking out right now, but because I have no plan it does not really seem that much of an issue.  The early start also means I have plenty of time.  Still, I’m starting to get a little cross and have to tell myself it’s fine, don’t worry, it does not matter.  We’re here, we’re upright and we’re on the move and that’s what matters.

More by luck that design I pass through Montreuil and finally into Abbeville.  It’s lunchtime already and I’ve been lost for the last 4 hours.  I have seen a lot of this part of France though, I feel I know it well.  It’s a collection of tiny villages and small towns, the rest is farmland.

broad flat farmland with a crossroad and signs in france
A typical view from a typical stop to check my map.  Broad mostly flat farmland that stretches for endless mile after endless mile.

Abbeville is definitely a town though.  Complete with supermarket that offers a welcome return to civilisation and the chance of a bite to eat.  Inside I purchase a salami sandwich to eat now and a tin of Ravioli for later.  As I eat my butty in the car park I think of how long it’s taken me just to cover this short distance, at this rate I’ll barely make it out of France let alone venture into Germany.  As I wrestle with this thought I hear “HISSSSSSSssssssss”

After a moment’s panic I realise it’s not coming from my bike, so I push my heart out of my throat and back into my chest.  I look across and a man is looking shady next to a Renault Megane.  He dips down and “HISSSSSSSssssssss” again.  With that he ducks into another car and drives away.  He’s let both the right side tyres down on the Megane.  I ponder the action and thank the lord it’s not my bike.  Was it a lover’s tiff, road rage or just plain old nastiness?  I’ll never know.  Doesn’t matter, this salami sandwich is rather quite nice, shame I’ve finished it.

2 deflated tyres on a renault megane in a car park in abbeville
Why the shady looking guy did this to this Megane I will never know.  Not nice either way.

I manage to find Amiens OK but out the other side of the town centre I’m back to being lost.  I’m checking the map, rerouting and getting lost.  After another hour I’m tired and I arrive in a sleepy town.  I want to stop for a rest and a drink so I turn off the main road and spot an old Gold Wing parked outside a Tabac.  I figure if they let one biker in there they may let me in too.  I park the bike and try to muster all my confidence and look like I do this all the time.

I walk into the small Tabac complete with small bar, 4 or 5 small tables, a collection of unmatched chairs and 10 or so patrons.  It’s smokey and the patrons are either “alternative” or rough looking labouring types.  There’s 2 middle aged ladies who are relishing the attention of the primarly male audience. The French conversation does not stop like in the movies, but each patron and the barman take it in turns to eye me up and down with a look of curiosity and caution.  I think my long hair and half-hearted beard are enough to see me right for now.  Phew.

In my best French I order “un...une...a...cola...sil-vous-plait” and with that a small bottle of coke is passed to me with no glass, ice or courtesy, but I am relieved of 2 euros for this tiny drink.  It’s not cheap in France.  I place my stuff on a table and remove my jacket and sit on one of the random chairs.  Across from me sits an elderly but strong looking chap, sipping on beer and smoking.  I thought smoking was banned in public places in France, like it is in the UK.

He looks at me and I look at him.  “Bonjour” I postulate.  He replies with a babble of undecipherable French so I explain in my high school French that I’m English.  He relaxes.  We talk, in a mixture of French, English, sign language and charades and I learn it’s OK to smoke in here as it is Sunday “...and all ze gendarmes are in bed wiz zer wives...”.  This cracks me up and I roll a smoke, he seems impressed I roll my own.  It feels so strange to be smoking inside a public place now and I relish the quirky atmosphere.  

a bar or tabac in an unknown town of norther france
It's a strange place this place, but a good experience none-the-less.

The old man knows everyone and they all shake his hand as they come and go.  One or two look quizzically at me and with a babble of French from the old man they shake my hand too.  He helps me with my map and I point to places I intend to go and he struggles to understand me and I struggle to understand him.  After my coke and another smoke he seems to back off, I think my novelty has worn off.  I collect my gear and excuse myself.  As I leave the barman bids me “Au Revoir” and seems pleased I’m leaving.  As I get on the bike I realise that I was making memories, doing new things and learning.  That’s what I’m here for, to learn and to make memories.  Feels good.

I’m a little tired of being lost, and I’m tired of riding now.  I’ve been on the road since 0830 and it's now mid afternoon.  My ass is sore, I’m getting uncomfortable and I’m ready for a rest.  I am however determined to make it to Epernay, otherwise I’ll never make it to Germany.  I wrestle with myself, why am I pushing myself, why not just stop somewhere round here and relax, this is your holiday not anyone else’s.  Correspondingly though I do want to get to Germany and everything requires a little work and it will be worth the effort, I hope.  Whilst thinking all this I’m shuffling in the saddle and the miles are rolling by.  It’s raining from time to time too.  I’m not miserable or down, I’m just thinking that these roads take a long time to travel.

By constantly assessing the map, occasional references to my compass and a concerted effort to read the road signs I pass through Noyon and finally pick up signs for Reims.  I'm confused and befuddled by the road signs and unusual street layouts in Reims but I manage to follow signs for Epernay.  I'm tired now, it's getting late in the afternoon and my positive mental attitude is wearing off quickly.  At least it's stopped raining but the sun is just making me sweat inside my bike gear.  As I pass the sign that signifies I'm in Epernay my patience has gone and I'm cursing everyone and everything.  200 miles is not far, but 250 miles due to being lost is a long way.  250 miles of small towns and faded traffic lights in strange places with everyone still on the wrong side of the road suddenly feels a very long way indeed. 

I spot a Tabac.  I can't spot a campsite.  I've been brave earlier on today and had a positive experience in a Tabac.  I'm tired enough to feel confident enough to go into the Tabac, get a drink and ask for directions.  This Tabac is larger and much smarter than the "alternative" one I visited before.  I ask, in my best rehearsed French, if there is a campsite nearby.  There's a moment of confusion while the lady behind the bar and the three ageing chaps sipping beer finally work out what I've said.

a bar, cafe or tabac in epernay france.
The Cafe or Tabac in Epernay.

I'm grabbed firmly into a handshake by a short, stocky and healthy looking elderly man.  Most French handshakes are gentle, even amongst the men.  The handshake is a friendly greeting in France, not a sign of how tough and dominant you are, unlike some UK handshakes I've felt.  This man is not trying to overpower me though, he just has strong leathery hands that have seen a lot of work.  Between my poor French, lots of sign language and charades and some occasional translation into English by a chap chuckling to himself at the bar I work out, slowly, what is going on.  The idea is that his friend runs the local campsite, and I am to follow him, me on my bike, him in his van.  It actually takes 10 minutes of hilarious farce to work all this out. 

Whilst all this is going on I order a tea.  I get it and when I offer to pay the bar lady she's about to take my money when my firm handed friend signals I am not to pay.  I insist yet he insists with his strong hands and strong arms, I'm not allowed to raise my hand to pay. As I drink my tea I suspect from the "Bang Bang" and shooting actions and "Nazi" that it's the fact I'm British that has gotten me a free brew.  I know I don't deserve it so I quietly thank my forefathers for their hard work and sacrifice.

After my brew I follow my enthusiastic guide's rattly old Citroen van just a half-mile to the campsite.  With the aid of the girl behind the counter at the campsite who speaks good English I learn my guide is 83 years old and is something of a local character from what I can deduce.  I thank him sincerely for guiding me and with another firm handshake and a grab of my arm he finally departs.

the elderly gentleman sat in his white van, waving his goodbye to me
My guide.  For 80 odd he looks well and is a sharp as a button!

The sun is warm as I pitch my small tent.  This site is nothing special yet it is clean and not far from the town centre.  The "Camping Municipale" campsites appear to be plain yet serviceable and close to town.  After I pitch I walk back into town to hunt for food.  This time I acquire a very dry ham and cheese sandwich and another apple.  I don't get a drink as I plan to return to the Tabac, so eating the dry ham butty is almost painful, I give up and throw a portion of it in the bin. 

At the Tabac I'm disappointed my friendly guide is no longer in attendance.  I order another cup of tea and this time I pay.  I wash down my butty and look around.  This time the clientele are middle aged couples with the odd child running around throwing things.  I'm just a part of the furniture so I walk back to the campsite.  Epernay is a small town and on this Sunday evening it's quiet.  Or that's what I think as I walk back to the site. As I get closer I notice there's a local running track, football field and seating array right next to the campsite.  OK, that's fine.  What is not though is the group of youths starting to gather there, and the PA system pumping out dance music with a complex mix of French and English lyrics.

a motorcycle with clothes drying on a bungee stretched from the handlebar to the rack
My bike as a washing line at the campsite at Epernay.  Even the roughest of bikers need to wash from time to time.

It's no worry, it'll soon pass and I've got my earplugs anyhow.  I need earplugs for camping.  Even the most peaceful site has it's midnight toilet visitors, it's snorers, rummaging and fighting wildlife, and the cacophony of the dawn chorus.  After a shower I retire to bed, by which time the party is in full swing with DJ, screaming youths and booming base.  

As I lie in bed listening to the cacophony the wind picks up.  Or does it...?  I hear a rushing noise, like the wind through the tree tops but the tent barely moves.  It sounds like a billion tons of water cascading down a waterfall, and it's getting louder, then louder, then louder still.  I wonder if there's a downpour coming, but no rain arrives.  I freeze in fear.  I lie there with thoughts of floods, of tornados and of armageddon itself, such is the noise.  Still the music carries on...

I plug my ears firmly, I can still hear the thump thump of the base a little.  I'm still a little scared, yet after today's highs...and lows...I sleep like a good 'un.

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-ThiƩrache
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Le Nouvion-en-ThiƩrache 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

Reader's Comments

said :-
Most enjoyable. Reminds me of my first solo camping trip to France,on my bicycle. Since then, many years ago I've done many, alone and with cycling clubs, all over France,others in Italy, Spain, Holland, Cuba and America (Vermont). Nervous starting on every one, but thing are never as bad as the imagination suggests.
France, incidentally, is the best documented country for campsites - the Michelin Guide, altho' there are many small sites not included.
I've now rigged up my scooter to take my cycle panniers, back AND front and have done a couple of nights at local sites to test. I'm now feeling as Ren did, with regard to venturing into France with the outfit. Should be much more convenient finding sites. If one is closed, another can usually be found within a few miles. Which on a bicycle could take ages. Power assisted,albeit only 125cc., much sooner.
But I get pleasure in reading of the exploits of intrepid bikers on their expeditions, getting my kicks vicariously. There are a lot of good paperbacks out there for the browsing.
I'm looking forward to reading more of Ren's trips. I find that travalling alone is a compromise - good by day, allyour own decisions, your own pace, but the evenings can be lonely. However, writing a journal and sending/receiving texts passes the time satisfactorily, with all of the necessary chores of camping.
The greeting of a 'native' cyclist on my last trip comes to mind - "Bon chance le velo!" What's French for motorbike?. "Bon cnace for that, anyway.
01/01/2000 12:00:00 UTC

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