A motorcycle parked in front of a tent on a pleasant green campsite

Home Travel StoriesFrance 2013

The Chunnel

By Ren Withnell

It was a blooming cold night last night! We both shivered and shook through the night and this morning we're discussing whether or not the sleeping bags have started to lose their insulation properties. Contrary to the forecast though the skies are clear and the day starts to warm just a little as the sun climbs high enough to clear the trees. We're not booked onto the Chunnel until 1820 and the earliest we can arrive at the terminal is 1620. Unless there's some kind of disaster it should not take the 8 hours we've got to get there.

So it's a slow decamp. I'm in no rush for once and I just potter around putting things away while the gf has a shower. It's after 1000 before we're packed and the friendly face of the guy who runs the site waves us off with a look of joy and surprise at my overladen machine. There's around 140 miles to cover mostly on motorways, I reckon my biggest concern is being far too early. The booking forms for the Channel Tunnel make it very clear we should not be late, but being more than 2 hours early is very naughty too. I recall from last time that there's nowhere to wait outside. If you're at the terminal the first thing you must do is pass through the barriers, there's no layby or parking.

bike jackets, pants and luggage on the grass at the campsite in cambridge
The joy of packing. At least when the sun is out you can just throw it all on the grass.

I'm cruising. 55 to 60 mph and those miles are still passing by far too swiftly. The land is green yet even this late in the year the trees are not in full leaf. The buds are there and some bushes are bursting into life yet it still looks more like the end of winter rather than the start of summer. I shiver as I recall the long dark days, the cold fingers, the damp and wet of this year and many other years of midwinter drudgery on the road. It's good, almost novel, to be on dry tarmac with just the minimum protective gear to maintain a safe standard.

The Dartford crossing has a toll but my beady little eye spots a motorcycle sign and I follow it to a narrow yet financially unchallenged path. I burst out the other side feeling all clever at not having to pay. Silly car drivers in their tin boxes! A little voice niggles inside though, they'll have the last laugh if it starts to rain. I'm still far too early, it's barely lunchtime and I'm probably 30 or 40 miles from the terminal.

Ashford seems the obvious place to stop, if for no other reason than it's the place signposted from the motorway. We could do with a bite to eat and we can while away the spare time there. I just hope it's a nice place. Ashford serves up a Lidl where we grab some fruit . As we stand outside some tosspot in a big Merc parks in the disabled parking, much to the chagrin of an elderly chap who judging by his walk has every right to park there. The old fella's having none of this and raps on the window. Words are exchanged, the old chap is firm and adamant yet perfectly polite, the Merc driver brushes him off sheepishly then winds his window up when the cause is lost. It's all going on in Ashford.

In town there's a small Tesco where we buy a pasta lunch. We sit on a wall and eat, considering this is a Sunday afternoon it is still busy. I look at the bike, oh dear, that's not right. That's not right at all. On the Fazer inside the "dip" headlight there's a metal deflector, I don't know how it works but it will help form the low wide beam. This deflector, this bit of metal, is hanging down inside the light unit. Damn. Panic. No, shut up Ren, it looks like its been like that for a while, we're not planning to ride at night and I can always claim ignorance. Who's going to notice anyhow? What sort of copper would know how it should be?

the broken metal deflector inside the dip beam, fazer fzs 600
The circled piece of metal should be perpendicular to the lens, not lolling around at the bottom...

I can't let it lie. I have to have a tinker. Behind the rubber around the bulb holder the problem is revealed, it looks like after 39,000 miles the metal has literally worn the plastic light unit away. Damn. Blast. My mind races but there's no solution, not in the accessible parts of my brain. Not now, not a few hours before we Chunnel. It takes a lot of self determination and discipline to force myself to not abandon the whole trip, give up, go home and find a breakers with a new unit. No. No we shall continue and I shall ponder a solution. My mind rattles around, arguing with itself, trying to reassure itself that it's all OK. I cling to my ingenuity in the hope I can get me through.

I can't sit still though. With this in my head I just want to get on, get moving, get back on the road because at least that way I'll feel like I'm doing SOMETHING. It's still too early though so I have to force myself to sit still and talk to the gf. I should be soaking up the sun, I ought to relish in the thoughts of forthcoming travel. I'm trying, I'm trying as hard as I can but it comes as a relief when enough time has passed to make leaving seem appropriate.

As we ride the last few miles of motorway we stop for fuel. On the forecourt are a trio of classic motorcycles complete with camping luggage. I think nothing of it until one chap comes over and in a Dutch accent declares his admiration of my bright yellow bags attached either side of my engine. According to him he's seen 2 other motorcycles carrying luggage this way. Damn, I thought I was so original. He also tells us our country is beautiful, the people are great and the weather is great. Either he's been on drugs or the Netherlands are really very wet and miserable, it's not been good here recently. However it's a refreshing and happy feeling to hear such high praise of my country and I thank him most deeply. I like the Dutch.

We arrive at the terminal 10 minutes before the 2 hours before the departure time we're supposed to arrive. I expect the automated machine at the barrier to tell me I'm too early and to sod off. The only problem is there is nowhere to sod off too, no layby and you can't even get back on the motorway, once at the barriers you have reached the point of no return. I wonder how often people take a wrong turn and end up trapped, no tickets to move into the terminal and no way of getting back onto the motorway. It's the ultimate dead end. Oh lord, please don't let the machine tell me to go away. There are no human being to seek help from just the cold hard computer.

The cold hard computer swallows my card and knows in an instant exactly who I am, when I'm booked and my bike reg. Then much to my delight the joyful screen asks if I'd like to catch the 1820 I'm booked on or the 1720, no charge, no hassle, just a choice. It's barely 1615 by now so I choose the 1720. My card re-appears and the barrier opens. I panic again trying to put everything away and get my gloves on before the computer decides I'm too thick or too slow to go to France and closes the barrier.

At least this time I know what to expect, last year was terrifying. I ride around the lanes into the large yet mostly empty car park and park up. With the angst of the broken headlight and the terror of the computerised barrier I'm just happy to be where I should be, on time, complete and with a booking. I relax as the gf heads off into the terminal in search of a toilet. I calm myself with a drag on my e-cig and look around. A large group of riders on big tourers like BMW's and Gold Wings are kitting up for their train and heading off. A handful of families come and go but otherwise the terminal is quiet. Booking "off peak" ensures the prices are lower and the terminal is quieter.

a line of vehicles waiting at passport control for the chunnel
This is in fact quiet. Passport and customs control at the terminal.

The downside is this is Sunday afternoon and it'll be 1720 when we depart, 1755 when we arrive and with France being an hour forward it'll be 1855 French time. Which means I have to hope to find an open campsite at 1900 -2000 hours on a Sunday evening in France, a country notorious for it's "old fashioned" hours. I can see we'll end up camping on the roadside with no toilets and no water. If you think I worry a lot you'd be right, I can't help it. These thoughts of the blasted headlight aren't helping much either.

I am a little excited about the train. It's an odd thing to do, ride onto a train with a motorcycle, then stand next to it while you travel under ground and under water. We board behind a full-dresser Gold Wing in blue complete with trailer. After parking we remove our helmets and start to talk. With a jolt that would have had my bike on it's side if I'd not been there to catch it we're off. The gf's fascinated by all this, I love it. It's so quick, easy and apart from either end it's smooth. She experiences none of the nausea she'd suffered on the ferry and the time passes well.

channel tunnel trains and platforms
The ramp leads us down to the Chunnel trains. It's not pretty but it is very effective.

It passes because we talk to our travelling companions, the Gold Wing couple. They like us plan to head south then back up through the Alps and Germany, if not farther east. They're camping but with tables, chairs and luxuries in the trailer I'd say it's more like glamping. I am jealous, envy fills me as I see all that storage, all that space, all the things they can take with them and still have room in the top box for helmets and jackets. The Wing is shiny and new, well at least I think it is until the owner tells me it's 12 years old, he's had it from new and it's coming on for 100,000 miles! I honestly did think it was a new bike, it's that clean. They're a delight to talk to, older than us, early retirement types I'd guess, they're away for 6 weeks. Well jell...

Ride on the right...ride on the right...I repeat my mantra to avoid making a stupid mistake. It feels so odd having the kerb to my right. I say kerb, the French don't do kerbs, they do gravel and grit at the roadside and this will come to haunt us later in the week. After 4 trips abroad I am just a tiny bit more "au fait" with riding on the wrong side of the road, I'm no longer terrified just mildly scared now. I want to be heading right and to the coast, I know there's campsites there, I saw them and used them last year.

Nothing seems familiar and I start to worry. I've done a lot of that today haven't I? Just as all hope seems lost I spot a sign to "Wissant" which I know is on the coast. A number of countryside backroads lead us onto the coast and I relax. The sun is shining and although it's a little chilly it's not raining, what do weathermen know anyhow? All I have to prey for now is that there will be a campsite that is open. We pass a couple of signs but I head for the familiarity of a place I stopped in last year, Ambleteuse. Aha! I know this and I know where to turn and where the site is. It's good to travel, but after a day like today it's good to be on familiar ground.

Even better, the reception is open and there is life within. I can feel myself physically sag with relief knowing that we can at least get through tonight. I'm relieved of 17 euros for this privilege and I slump even more as I finally stop the bike on a pitch the gf and I agree on. Oh my, we've not been far but it's been one of them days. I'm here now, it's done, we're on our way, we're fit and well and all I need to do is pitch up.

The gf seems very willing to help. In the past I've always pitched alone, I get frustrated when people mess up my routine and put poles in the wrong place. However she's proved herself recently and I'm of the mind that I'll take any help I can get. We do a great job, I have to advise here and there but she gets it and the tent practically pops up. Airbeds up, sleeping bags out, bags in place and all is done. So, what shall we have for tea my dear?

the tent up and filled at the campsite in ambleteuse france
Pitched and sorted at last. It's dry but the sun is hazy behind the clouds now.

Ambleteuse is shut. It's only a small seaside town so I can't really expect it to be bustling on a Sunday night but this is ridiculous. No shops open, one bar has an open door but no-one inside and most of the shutters are closed on the houses. It feels like a ghost town as we walk around, we agree all that is missing is some tumbleweed. Cars occasionally roll by on the main road and there are parked cars in the side streets but no signs of life. The sun is setting, it's getting cold and those clouds in the horizon don't bode to well at all.

Empty and lifeless street in ambleteuse on a sunday evening
Not exactly a thriving bustling metropolis is Ambleteuse this evening...

I am a worrier I know that. I know it and I don't want to be. I can't simply switch it off, if only it was that easy. What I am getting better at is coping with worry. 10 years ago I'd have lain awake all night with thoughts about headlamp deflectors, lack of euros, bike issues and anything else I've already mentioned. These thoughts do occupy my mind and I can't make them "go away". I can dismiss them to some degree and mostly through fatigue and a little self control I slip into the land of nod without too much trouble.

Forming a Plan The formulation of a cunning a devious plan to take on Europe is formed in the tiny mind of our intrepid explorer...
The GF Question Do I take the gf with me to France? Can she come? Will she like it? These are all very difficult questions...
France...I wanna go but can I...?? Can Sharon make it to Europe? Will the kids survive? Will the bf behave? Is there any space for makeup? All these questions and more...
The Load Getting everything we NEED and a few items we WANT onto a motorcycle can be a problem. Now I have to work out how to get 3 WEEKS worth of gear onto the poor donkey(aka bike)
Camping In Cambridge The start of our Epic Adventure...or bike holiday around France. Cambridge is surprisingly nice really.
France - Day 1 Sharon's first day from her point of view. Cushy Cambridge and dry weather...what more could a girl want?
The Chunnel The Chunnel, I'm excited but also stressing because the bike's already broken before we leave the UK. I worry too much...
France - Day 2 - Bikes, Trains and Tents Sharon leads us through sunshine, hair issues, the Channel Tunnel and into France. But France is eerily quiet...
Here Comes The Rain Bike fixed...bike broken. Rain, endless dull roads, miserable towns and more rain. Oh the joy of travel! At least Epernay welcomed us with a huge smile :-)
France Day 3 - Crying Through The Rain The rain plays tricks with Sharon's spirit but a stiff upper lip and giving herself a good talking to see her through.
Rain Into Dijon Rain, rain and more rain. Just how long can it last? Would we be better off with a Jet Ski? Can we continue to keep our Great British Stiff Upper Lips?
France Day 4 - We Are Mustard We Are Dijon is the destination and we're surviving the rain...that makes us well mustard! We're happy in spite of the rain but how long can we keep smiling?
The Joy Of Being Lost As we head south the rain lightens but will it ever stop? I get lost which is no surprise, but lost turns out to be the best part of travelling. Are things finally taking a turn for the better? I do hope so...
France Day 5 - Biker's Paradise Sharon's day 5 in France starts out rough but improves considerably. What delights can put such a joyous grin on her face?
The Stunning Alps We are both facing a very strange situation...that of sunshine, warmth, beauty and pleasure.
France Day 6 - Magnificent Mountains Sharon shares the delights of the Alps. Sometimes life is good!
Highs And Lows From the stunning Alps to our ultimate destination...MONACO! Is it all I expected? Will it be as I imagined?
France Day 7 - Scooter Mayhem Sharon describes the best and the worst France has to offer. Ride on the back with her from the beauty of the countryside to the mayhem of Monaco
Resting And Deciding Today we stop to take a breather and recuperate. It's also time to make a decision about the rest of our journey. I used to be indecisive, I'm not so sure now.
France Day 8 - Chilling In The Pool A day off from the journey sees Sharon and Ren doing something very silly, breaking things and achieving very little. What a splendid way to spend a day!
Going West Day 9 sees us heading west from the coast. It's finally dry, but it's still windy so not too hot. The gf's not well and Ren is relentlessly lost. Overall not a bad day then!
France Day 9 - Poppies, Vines and a Wet Lettuce Feeling poorly rather spoils Sharon's day today. Still on she must go on and survive what might have otherwise been a good day.
Biggest Bridge In The World In glorious sunshine and fine health we make our way from Nimes to Millau complete with it's Viaduct. Sometimes life is good, occasionally it's great!
France Day 10 - Deflated to Elated Today is a good day for Sharon. Today the sun shines, the scenery is beautiful and the people are pleasant. Join her as France puts a smile on her face.
The Wettest Bridge In The World The Millau Viaduct ought to be impressive. It is, but nowhere near as impressive as the amount of rain falling from the skies.
France Day 11 - Grim Not every day can be filled with sunshine and smiles, even on holiday. This one certainly was not for Sharon!
False Hope Part One Ren would like to invite you to a joyous report about the delightful weather in the South of France! He'd like to. Instead it just rained and rained and rained and rained...
France Day 12 - It's Gloomy Inside And Out Sharon freezes her butt off during the night then is treated to a cold and wet ride. The Ren sure knows how to spoil a girl.
False Hope Part Two Is this the end? Has Armageddon arrived? Is this the Apocalypse? It sure as hell feels like it.
France Day 13 - Quietude For A While Sharon's report on another day of mixed weather. There's peace and beauty then there's mud and cold. Adventure...no-one said it would be easy!
Sunshine After Rain A night of rain soaked delirium. Will the day be any better? Will our travellers ever dry out?
France Day 14 - A Bit of 5 Star Luxury Sharon has a much better day on the road and a luxurious 5 star campsite. It's amazing what difference a little dry weather can make.
Back Into The Flatlands A quiet, simple and easy days ride through France for Ren. Pleasant enough but the flatlands are getting a little boring now.
France Day 15 - A Bit Of 2 Star Delight Sharon has an ordinary day and a frustrating battle with the weather.
Not Far To Chinon It's a short, easy and peaceful ride this day in France. Ren gets all philosophical too.
France Day 16 - A Historical Walk Around Chinon Sharon enjoys a hint of sunshine and the history of Chinon, France.
Shopping To Mamers Ren's airbed's leaking now. No problem, find a shop and buy a new one...easy? I don't think so...
France Day 17 - The Gift Of TIme Even though the weather is cool Sharon's heart is warmed by the people she meets in France today
Don't Go To Ault Ren has a grim, long, dull and uninspiring day in France. The accommodation doesn't help.
France Day 18 - Is This Misery Or Joy? Sharon finds sunshine, ancient caravans and ponders about hapiness.
Looking For Luxury With time on their side Ren looks for the perfect campsite for the next to night. Not finding it makes him a very grumpy boy.
France Day 19 - Campsite Conundrums Although the wind blows the sun is shining while Sharon looks for the perfect pitch.
Resting In Ambleteuse Ren philosophises too much on the final day of his trip around France.
France Day 20 Sharon's in a reflective mood on the last day of our French trip.
Back Into England Ren recalls the final day of the French Adventure. It's all over far too soon.
What Did We Learn? Ren sums up his thoughts about France and the French trip.
France On Reflection Sharon sums up her her experience of the French Trip. Damn those Alps.

Reader's Comments

Keith m said :-
I've done this. I've arrived at the Folkestone Chunnel by accident.
I am I was riding in a trial a few miles up the road and on my way back via all the back roads. trying to get back on to the M20. I had foolishly turned on the sat nav to get me home and ended up on a service road at the back of the Chunnel.I knew the moment I was on the service road it was all wrong and this was confirmed when I rounded to corner to be greeted by a row of barriers. Lots of bad words were said!!. I had no ticket, not enough money to buy one, driving a car with a trailer and a bike covered in mud. I pulled to left and noticed the a police car parked up. I walked over to them and explain ed what I had done and pointed to a button on the barrier to call for an operator. This I did and out of nowhere a man a appeared. He spoke to his control on some coded language no doubt saying another idiot down here and handed me a ticket and saw me through the barrier. Now obviously I didn't want to go to France just back to civilisation. To do this I had to take another service road which was to the right of the barriers. So basically I had to drive across the front of all the barriers and not be hit by an excited holiday maker or a big foreign lorry. When I got out I had never been to happy to see the M20.
01/05/2017 08:36:20 UTC
Ren - The Ed said :-
Hi Keith m. I knew...I just knew that someone if not perhaps many folk would get stuck at the ultimate dead end. I imagine it was a sickening feeling.

I'm glad you've shared your tale. I and perhaps a few folks reading this will now have a method of escape at hand should this terrible thing happen to them too.

It's hard to imagine being thankful for seeing the M20 but in these extreme circumstances the relief is palpable. Cheers.
01/05/2017 20:57:15 UTC

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