By Eddy Smyth
Day 1: 172 miles
Hours in the saddle: 5
You’ve heard of the tale of the Owl and the Pussycat. Well, this is a tale of somewhat different creatures but it seems appropriate that since it involves a Bulldog and a Blackbird, certain parallels can be drawn. However, it might be dishonest to omit that these two creatures are the brand names of two motorbikes and therefore, the story will have nothing at all to do with animals of different species talking to each other. In fact, apart from the deep throated, grizzly bear growl of the Yamaha Bulldog as it blazed a trail across England and France and the Lancaster Bomber like drones of the Honda Blackbird, I don’t think either bike said a word all trip.
Starting the journey
This for me was a holiday of a very different kind to my previous excursions. No Joy along with me but her brother Gareth, who has done this sort of thing before. I felt comforted in the knowledge that he has dealt with boarding ferries on the bike and negotiating roundabouts and roads on the right hand side and spluttering requests to bemused shopkeepers in their native tongue. He has enlightened me to the pleasures of Mainland European travel and I was very much looking forward to the better quality roads France is known for, not to mention the fabulous food, hotels, scenery, landmarks and erm weather?
Spring in the UK went AWOL for the second year running so since it was now the middle of May we thought it has got to be better on the other side of the English Channel. The dry, grey morning allowed us to load our bikes with luggage and wave a cheery goodbye to Joy as we set off for Portsmouth and a stopover with friends of the family in Havant before catching the early morning ferry to Caen. In true British style we had only traveled a few hundred yards from the house when the dark clouds split open like ripped sacking and spilled heavy rains upon us all the way to Portsmouth.
We planned to avoid motorways and take a scenic route through the Cotswolds and on to Marlborough and then down to Havant. Despite the rotten conditions I was all fired up for this. Twisting through towards Stow on the Wold and Bourton on the Water was tolerable only for the scenery and by the time we reached Cirencester and a coffee stop we looked like a pair of drowned rats. A young lad on a Chinese 125 was supping a cuppa at the next table. He was off to Weston Super Mare and not relishing the conditions he was expecting. He’d only just bought the bike and it was stuttering and overheating under the incessant downpour. Surely we would be in for some better weather in France.
By the time we reached Marlborough we were ready for some food. A small café beckoned, well the smiling lass peering out of the window beckoned as we pulled up, and promised warmth and sustenance. In exchange for a couple of toasties and tea we left massive puddles under the table for them to mop up. I did apologise and they said they were biker friendly in here which was just as well. We squelched out of there more embarrassed than proud. By the time I saw the sign post for Andover I had had enough of skirting the motorways. I gestured to Gareth and headed for the quickest, yet wettest, route to our destination. More than four hours riding in this downpour and in another we reached our target by blasting along the motorways towards Southampton and then Portsmouth. The spray from other vehicles was making visibility ridiculous but progress was swift.
As we turned the bikes onto the drive of this house in deepest suburban middle England our hosts’ reputation as a fine upstanding example of English refinement was dashed in an instant. Curtains in neighbours’ windows twitched and telephone receivers were lifted to speed-dial the SWAT police until they realised it was not an invasion of an army of mad marauders on motorcycles, only two drowned rats arriving by invitation.
Barbara opened the door and stood there in fits of giggles as both Gareth and I did the biker shuffle as we slowly peeled each layer of sodden clothing from our bodies on her doorstep. It was too risky to go inside as puddles formed instantly at our feet. She was already considering sandbagging the doors and making us sleep in the garage.
We found airing cupboards, coat-hangers and a handy RSJ in the garage to hang our outer wear up to dry overnight. We have got to get out of this country.
Since the following day was my birthday, Barbara had conspired with Joy to bake me a cake and shower me with good wishes and a lovely supper. My 57 years was spelled out in binary which saved a fortune in candles and meant the local fire brigade were not required on standby when she lit them. Adrian came home from work to find we were already ensconced in the chocolate and cherry cake and we completed the evening with a bottle of a very acceptable Rioja and good banter all round. I had forgotten to pack the spare set of bulbs that French authorities demand drivers to carry and John, the son of this delightful family drove me by car to get a replacement.
Day two: 152 miles
Hours in the saddle: 4
By early morning, most of our clothing had dried. We scuttled around in the early hours and put everything back on the bikes and sat ourselves astride them in good time to make the short journey to the ferry port. It took a little over ten minutes. It was dry this morning. The overnight winds had all but blown the surface water away. What a very thoughtful couple Barbara and Adrian are allowing us to stay the night? They do not know what precedent they have created, living so close to the ferry port at Portsmouth. I visualise several visits a year now. I wonder if I can get away with telling them it will be my birthday every time I visit. The chocolate cake was tres bon.
We boarded very quickly onto the ferry. It was sparsely populated as about 20 lorries and around a dozen bikes, many of them AJS’s or Matchless classics joined us: Some of these bikes being the forefathers to our own beasts, depositing the usual pool of leaking oil under the crankcase as they rested. Thank goodness for Japanese engineering in these modern times. I could not bear to have to tinker with tools and oil cans every few hundred miles to keep the engines running. I’m hoping the only technical requirement on my part for the next 1,000 miles will be the occasional addition of fuel.
The ship began the journey a good fifteen minutes earlier than scheduled. The weather was dry almost all the way over but the main part of the channel was quite choppy for a time. We breakfasted in the self-service café and found a couple of window seats on the starboard side (I know my nauticals). In five and a half hours we arrived in Caen to sunshine with just a little cloud. Disembarking was swift and passport control was over and done with without even having to remove my crash helmet. I like this form of customs. Far more civilised than airports and their policy of petty, pathetic practices and pedantic procedures.
From Caen to Dinan
Riding on the right came easily and before long we were heading around the peripheral road of the city of Caen seeking junction 9. I’d printed off a route list and placed it in the Perspex compartment of my tank bag. Junction 6 came and went, 7 too, and then nothing. We were now heading on an ‘A’ road in a north westerly direction and not south west as required. After 15 minutes we stopped to inspect the maps.
Our first complication of the trip; a turning was somehow missed and we were already going somewhere different to our intended destination. It transpires that junction 8 on the periphery road and subsequently junction 9, do not appear in the same way a circular bypass does on other roads. It seems you have to leave the peripheral road at junction 7 and then take another slip road to your right which brings you back onto the peripheral road around the city. By reaming on the motorway style main road you were suddenly riding along the road to Bayeux which of course, is where we were now heading.
How silly of me. I should have realised. Sextants, star gazing and compass reading suggested we should carry on this road for about 15 more kilometers and then take a left and head south to re-join the road heading towards St Malo, Brest and our intended destination of Dinan.
Our first error rectified we headed directly onto the next faux pas. Exiting a roundabout at the first exit we stopped at the entrance to an industrial estate and Gareth, who was now leading, checked his GPS and pointed for us to do a quick U-turn and take the next exit off the roundabout to put us back on the right track. With a shorter turning circle than the Blackbird I turned my bike around at the roadside as Gareth took off into the industrial estate proper. I guessed he would turn at the top of the road and come back to lead me onwards.
I guessed wrong. After five minutes he had still to appear. I turned again and headed up into the industrial estate. There was very little there, particularly no sign of his bike. I headed back down and waited and then guessed he followed the exact directions of his GPS and found a way through the industrial estate and out the other side. Well, that was the case. I caught him up as he waited at the side of a slip road which was now to be a motorway wondering why I did not follow him in the first place. These things iron themselves out on occasions like this.
We had no more mishaps all the way to Dinan. The roads are superb: Minor roads, ‘A’ roads and even motorways. You could iron your best trousers on the smoothest of tarmac I’ve ridden on. Sweeping bends with no scary dog-legs, pot holes or other random obstacles. Rising above forests and glens I could see for miles. The sun shone, the chateaux and other grand buildings were giving me goose bumps and vehicles, when we met any, actually gave us respect as we rode alongside or overtook. Bikers waved with their left hand as we passed in opposite directions and the frontages of restaurants and cafés cried out for our patronage as we flashed past them.
I am going to love every minute of this trip.
Arriving to Dinan
It was around 18:30 by the time we rode into Dinan. At first we could not see a single hotel but as we passed through towards the Port area of the town I spotted a hotel sign down a cobbled side street. We doubled back and found a small underground hotel garage all but empty where we could lock our bikes safely. The pretty and smiling receptionist in the Hotel Du Chateau explained as best she could in English, which was perfect for us, the terms of business for the room and said the hotel had only been re-opened ten days. The room was too small to swing a pussycat but since we didn’t have one anyway it was not a problem. We dumped our things, freshened up and headed out to find the perfect restaurant in which to celebrate my birthday proper. No expense spared please. I want French cuisine at its finest.
We took our time in deciding which restaurant would suffice and it proved the most sensible of all decisions because after exploring the squares, side streets and alleyways of this very lovely place we stumbled upon the perfect restaurant, Chez Mere La Pourcell. It was as Tudor in its design as Henry VIII’s cod piece, as attractive as Ann Boleyn’s cleavage and as authentic as a Shakespearian sonnet. Oak beams kept the ceiling up, a very black and worn staircase curved up to the upper level and a fireplace so big they could have placed a couple more tables in there, set the scene for a brilliant meal. I ordered a bottle of Cabernet Franc, which I was sure Gareth would enjoy too, and settled for calves kidneys (rognons) in a rich sauce while Gareth opted for honeyed pork. Both dishes came served in black, cauldron styled pots from which we served the contents onto the plates ourselves. Mousseux Chocolate for me with raspberry coulis for dessert and crème Brulee for Gareth made for a very agreeable beginning to our culinary adventures. It was not expensive either. A Tudor style restaurant in the UK would fleece us faster than a highwayman with pistols but here, it was all very civil and friendly and affordable. We chatted with an Australian couple who were touring Europe by hired car and they mentioned how entranced they were with Brittany and the food they serve here. If this is what we are to receive each night I may never find the way back to the ferry and home. Joy would have to send out a bounty hunter to take me back.
We strolled lazily and aimlessly back to the hotel after dark. The narrow streets looked even more delightful than they were in daylight. The one thing we did notice however was the place was all but deserted. Not many restaurants or bars were even open. Perhaps Wednesday is half day closing in these parts.
To be continued…