By Eddie Smyth
A trip to the battle sites of Northern France is always a good topic of conversation for bikers as they sip ale in the cosy confines of the local pub. It’s not as far away as the Alps and certainly not as risky as a trip across the Andes. Nor is it lacking in prospective places to visit as you tour round. Where do you target first and how will you cross the English Channel? The Normandy Beaches are quite some way from Flanders Fields and that will hardly work for a weekend trip. But the ease of access and choice of crossings, and the endless number of places you could visit will probably have you leaving it once more, on the back burner. The pub debate once more, will take you past last orders and the decision is never reached.
The first part is getting there and the hardest is covering the miles to Folkestone and the shuttle rail service for vehicles, if you happen to live north or west of London that is. The rest is pure biking pleasure.
All packed and primed the night before, my bike stood in the garage like a horse in the stalls at Newmarket, ready for the off at first light the next morning. I stuffed a few last minute provisions into the tank bag for the run down to Folkestone and before the neighbours could complain about the Beowulf pipes rattling their windows and breaking their slumbers I was off and heading for the M40.
3 and a half hours later I rolled into the segregation lanes for the check-in at Le Shuttle in Folkestone. Taking into account the expected rush hour delays around the M25 and the possibility of a downpour that may have disrupted progress I was happy to be a few hours earlier than my allotted time. The rail shuttle is the easy part. The laborious journey along mind numbingly boring motorways is the real drag. The kindly person in the booth booked me for an earlier boarding at no extra cost, which was nice but I still had a couple of hours to wait as a broken down train caused delays and schedule shuffling. Well, the sun was shining and the provisions in my tank bag meant I had no reason to indulge in the service station wares so I learnt against my bike and watched other bikers come and go as the call came on the big screens for them to board.
Waiting to Board
People watching in such places is fun, if a little distressing: There are plenty of ‘lads’ heading across the channel for stag weekends and as they pile out of the transit vans and mini buses, you have to feel sorry for the expectant landlords and hoteliers when the Brits arrive. It’s barely 10:00 and already each ‘lad’ seems three parts drunk as he staggers out into the bright daylight, lager can in hand and adorned in a ridiculously un-imaginative super hero costume. I cringed as one joker in the pack I watched was wearing only an orange woman’s leotard; the type the heroine in Dirty Dancing might have worn during rehearsals. His ‘tank bag’ bulging like two walnuts inside a satsuma.
Nearby, there must have been 30 bikers, Harleys and BMW GS’s seem to be the favourite choice of make lined up waiting for the call to board. There were two distinct biker clubs amongst the throng and I suspected it had something to do with the constabulary as the names on the denim over jackets were either ‘Peelers’ or ‘Blue Knights’.
When I finally got the cue to board I was huddled in a section with half a dozen of the Blue Knights clan. It transpired they are all ex coppers, en-route for an annual bash which this year was to take place in Belgium. As we removed our helmets and jackets one guy mentioned he was thirsty and confessed, he should have packed something to drink. I felt just a little guilty when I unzipped my tank bag and took out a bottle of cool, clear, refreshing spring water.
His mate chuckled and said, that’s forward planning for you. He then mentioned he was quite peckish now too. I tried not to hear him as I unwrapped the cling film from a ciabatta roll with cheese and ham and a mountain of salad.
I shared a few boiled sweets and we chatted away for the short trip under the sea. We asked each other where we were headed and another lad, travelling this far on his own said he was due to meet 2 pals in Calais and they had plans to head off to Germany and Italy for a couple of weeks. Looking down on the surfboard like seat of his Yamaha 600 Fazer, one of the guys mentioned he was a brave soul to attempt that far on just a thinly padded plank. “That’s nothing”. Said the lad “One of the guys I’m riding with is taking a Ducati 848”. “Oooh, he’s going to need surgery”. Came the grimaced response.
Calais to Albert (Somme district of Picardie)
Before I could finish my roll, we were back on dry land and screeching into the terminal at Calais. There were no problems filing off the train and no major delays with paperwork checks or passport control. In fact I need not have kept my riding gloves in my pocket until we were out of the terminal as we merely opened the throttles and remembered to keep on the right hand side of the road. Don’t fret if you arrive in Calais low on fuel, there is a shop and petrol station on the exit road.
My destination for this part of the trip was Albert, in the Somme district of Picardie. It’s about 100 miles by motorway and there are toll charges on some of the roads but I had plotted a route of ‘D’ roads that would not only keep me clear of any major traffic but would provide a few decent landmarks along the way. Of course this route would take longer but I am on my jollies, there’s no need to rush.
My wife and several members of her family were also heading over the channel and into Albert but they were going by car. It was a Welsh family extravaganza with more than a hint of Celtic tourism about it. There are several memorial sites dedicated to Welsh regiments who fought in both world wars and the plan was to visit a few, interspersed with other important and very eye catching cemeteries and memorial sites over the next 3 days. Despite the invitation from the Blue Knights members to join them for their weekend bash in Belgium, I was looking forward to bedding my new tyres right in on my own on these tantalising French backroads.
I wired up the GPS as back-up to the highlighted list of towns and road names displayed on my tank bag and set off to find the first village signs for the D304 and Leulingue. It never happened. A deviation sign, the nemesis for any visitor on French roads blocked the first option I’d taken. I was now heading west towards the main road to Boulogne, not a good start. There were no further indications of how to get round the road block. I did eventually see a sign for Guines, which was next on the list and was soon back on the right road and heading to Licques.
I stopped at a café in Quercamps, about 45 minutes of gentle riding since Calais. The doors were open and not a soul inside. I called a couple of times through the door to the kitchens and eventually a sweet old lady came out and poured me a coffee with a smile.
I sat outside and took in the surroundings. It’s good to be in France again on my bike. I sent a text to announce to my wife that I was on my way safely to the hotel and waved to a few passing bikers on this quiet rode as the coffee refreshed. 15 minutes passed I guess and then it’s off towards Lumbres on the D225.
The roads and scenery are not spectacular or dynamically different to the countryside in Britain, especially compared to say, Spain or Italy but Picardie, like every other region in France I have seen so far, it has personal charm and the lack of traffic gives a far better sense of freedom than anywhere in the UK outside the remote roads of Scotland or Wales. Simple, every day scenes like horses in a field or giant wind mills slowly, silently turning atop hills create a calming, peaceful setting as I wind up and round the gentle hills. The long straights are tempting too; the next village might be prettier than the last.
I stopped and photographed several times all the way to Fauqembergues which is about an hour or so from Calais. I parked up in the deserted town centre and snapped a few more pictures. These places are so picturesque, clean and well kept. The monuments vie for the attention of the camera lens along with the quaint buildings and narrow passageways leading off from the main thoroughfares.
Museum at Agincourt
From here to Fruges it is only 7 miles and another 4 miles brought me to the museum dedicated to the battle of Agincourt. The French spell it Azincourt and it has a major significance in the struggles between the French and English royal courts during the 100 years’ war. In terms of weaponry this war was won by the new-fangled technology of long bows used by English and Welsh archers against superior numbers on the French side. It also gave Willie Shakespeare an idea for another of his legendary plays.
The village is tiny but on the way in and way out the roadside is lined with life sized cut outs of soldiers. Very simple and extremely effective. My very own steed stands proud alongside the mounted soldier of that time.
Heading on to Blagny-sur-Ternoise kept me directly on track for the second half of my journey to Albert. I navigated perfectly through Frevent on the D196 and just before Doullens I was signalled by a motorist that there was a police presence ahead. I slowed down to 19mph as I reached the centre of a small village and spotted half a dozen Gendarme, with guns, randomly stopping traffic. Wobbling along in first gear, or was it second? And passing this line of armed law enforcement officers in very slow motion was very weird. I felt myself looking toward them and it was impossible not to smile and almost impossible not to wave to them as they all moved their heads in sync, like spectators in a slow-mo replay at a tennis match as I passed by. I hope my exhaust was not too loud and contravened some minor byelaw, one of them had what looked like a machine gun. Getting the last few hundred yards out of the 30km speed restriction took a lifetime. I was sweating heavily when I finally changed up a gear and zipped towards my final destination. I am almost there.
But the French road workers have the last say. At the roundabout that directs me to Albert through Bouzincourt I am blocked by another ‘Deviation’. It points me right, towards Amiens. I only had 2 miles to go. Like most diversions you are given a hint at the start but usually that’s all you are given. The rest is pot luck to find the correct turnings to get back on track. This time I had to refer to the GPS as my folded paper map does not show smaller roads too clearly.
Half a mile later, once the Sat nav accepts I am not going to do the ‘U’ turn it recommends I take the next left. I indicate and slow down, ready to take a right into the recommended road: It’s a gravel cum dust track towards a farm house. No way, for lots of reasons other bikers will fully understand.
I carry on for another quarter of a mile and this time the Sat nav offers a left turn down a narrow, concreted road between fields of rape seed and meadows. There are tiny hamlets along this twisty road. At one house two small boys ran out to the front gate to greet me. They both gesticulated for me to rev the engine. I obliged and waved, they jumped up and down and waved back.
Eventually I came to Bouzincourt village, almost right in the centre. However, it is right in the centre that the road is blocked to through traffic. I mumbled curses under my helmet.
I now tacked east, towards Arras on another twisty back road. This time the road took me to a junction of a main road that eventually brought me directly into Albert. It had added 20 minutes to my journey. I arrived at the Best Western (Picardie) hotel and the manager and his lovely Dutch wife welcomed me from the gardens next to the car park. They suggested I could park my bike under cover down the side of the hotel.
The rest of the family had already arrived in the cars but I bet they did not have half the fun or the beautiful views and scenery of the villages I did on the run down. It was time to spread all my gear on the hotel floor and step into the shower. This biking in France lark works up a bit of a sweat when the sun shines.
Once the whole family were together we popped into Albert town itself where there are plenty of good bars and restaurants to choose from. My sister in law and her husband have visited Albert several times before and they recommended we all eat in the Corners Pub, close to the town square. From the outside it looked like a burger and pizza joint, aimed at touring families but inside there is not only plenty of room, the staff are really helpful and the choice from the menu just perfect. In fact we ate in there on both nights of our stay in Albert. It’s not expensive and each meat dish is cooked exactly the way you want it. Bretagne cider accompanied my meal. They know a lot about fermenting apples as well as grapes, do the French.
To be continued…