November 13, 2016
There are a few new things for us to get used to on the bikes. For instance, driving on the left side of the road, totally new signage and roundabouts. Yes, the dreaded roundabout has been in our heads since we arrived in the UK. In Canada, especially in the west, the roundabout is a fairly new way of regulating traffic and, since almost no one there has used them, they’re often the scenes of chaos and carnage. You literally can’t go a block in the UK without going through one and the convergence of all of these new things is a bit worrying. At least it’s all still in English!
To counter the first day nerves, we plan for a ridiculously short day; an hour and a half to Chichester. It’s a small place but filled with beautiful buildings, a lovely core area and a truly majestic cathedral. In no time the roads feel like second nature, and even the roundabouts are starting to feel like fun – though we do circle the large roundabout leaving Fareham twice as we look for the exit.
The roads in this part of the UK are busy but very decent for riding – including the “B” roads. Even with the traffic the riding is easier than parts of Canada, mostly because drivers here seem more predictable and are, generally, courteous. They pass when they need to, and we rarely see people darting from lane to lane which seems to plague the roads at home.
Just as it starts to get fun, we arrive at the Premier Inn, our hotel for the night. It’s downright cold in the UK at this moment and this is a cheap and decent place in lieu of camping. After unloading the bikes, we walk through the town past the Cathedral, and grab a bite to eat while we sit people-watching. The idea of a movie has left our thoughts and we turn in for the night feeling quite happy with the day.
The folks at the hotel are very nice – though none as much as our waiter for breakfast. He hovers around the table waiting for any news from us and is eager to talk. He guesses we’re American, and when we let him know we’re Canadian he wonders aloud if his friend in Canada will be affected by Hurricane Sandy. When I ask where in Canada his friend is, “Vermont.” is the answer.
With no carts, sometimes lugging the gear around begins with a strategy for getting everything to our bikes in as few trips as possible. Rather than walking the long way around to the elevator, we opt to take the staircase by our room that exits by our parking spot. Packing the bikes the receptionist comes out to let us know that we’ve set off the fire alarm by using an unmarked door. Nita and I look at each other skeptically. Since we can’t hear any alarms and no fire trucks are rounding the corner, we have to wonder if it isn’t a case of someone being a bit picky about which door we’re supposed to use.
Our next destination, Rye, is a place both Nita and I are excited about. A medieval town in East Sussex, it’s home to wonderful period architecture and fortifications. The marshlands that extend from it’s ancient walls to the ocean were once a thriving bay, but the receding water is increasing the UK’s landmass by about two meters a year. Rye, which was home to smuggling gangs in the 18th and 19th centuries is also home to an inordinate number of pubs – though in the dark they’re harder to find than you’d think.
Our ride to Rye is heaven. We’re quickly off of the motorways and onto some lush, windy roads that seem to produce little towns and villages around almost every turn. The leaves are yellow and the smell of autumn is heavy in the air. The sun is low enough to make my GPS hard to read, but it’s rich golden glow produces a warm aura around everything we see. It’s a heavenly fall day.
The place we’ll be laying our heads for the next two nights is a windmill that’s been converted by Brian and his wife Gill into a bed and breakfast. Located at the edge of Rye, the Rye Windmill is a quick walk into the heart of town and our host has plenty of local information to share. We spend the evening walking the towns narrow cobblestone streets, and checking out the stores – most of which are closed by this time. We take note of a lovely looking bakery and mentally plan the following days walk around it.
As the sun fades and darkness falls, the dimly-lit streets fall quiet and Rye becomes, somehow, magical. We honestly feel like we could run into anything here. Up a steep and sharply-stoned road, left through a graveyard and down a narrow set of stairs by a medieval tower, we arrive at our destination; the Ypres Castle Inn.
We’re welcomed by a kind bartender named Leo and a pup called Spud who’s regally accepting pets on the best bench in the pub. The chill in the air has found it’s way inside, and the fireplace is proving problematic to the pubs owner, but this is perhaps the best pub I’ve ever been too. The pints are kept cellar-cool, and the pours are properly drawn by hand-pump – not compressors and the like. The beers are local and filled with flavor, and there’s a pride and humor in all the staff. We like it here a lot.
At one point the owner, Jon, comes by and chats with us while blocking the fireplace with a newspaper in hopes of getting it going. “It’s a trick my grandmother taught me.” Indeed, while the paper covers the opening, the flames perk up, but it doesn’t seem to last. Still, we get some insight into the town and Jon returns to hand me a glass of grog – a favorite drink of the sailors or so it’s said. I think I’m half expected to hate it, but honestly I quite like it – though it’s mix of rum and beer quickly reminds me that I need to eat.
The food here is hearty and delicious. We leave into the dark and try to retrace our steps back toward the windmill. After getting lost in the maze of dark streets we finally make it back to our room.
The next day we walk the streets of Rye and truly feel like we’ve stepped back in time. From the Tudor houses and shops to the Ypres Tower – it’s just beautiful here. We need to top up cash and quickly figure out which UK banks work with which Canadian ones for accessing funds. Before we left, we set up an HSBC account since they seem to be everywhere after a recommendation from fellow traveller, Carlo whom we met in NYC. While accessing funds from this account is easy since they seem to have branches everywhere, getting money into it is less so. It’s all a work in progress.
After walking a while we “happen” upon Simon the Pieman, the amazing bakery we spotted the day before. We sit down for a tea and I opt for their warm bakewell, which is just about the most delicious thing I’ve eaten. Nita confirms the Bakewells deliciousness by frequently leaving her carrot cake for some shared bites. The bakery is tiny and we’ve managed a coveted spot by the fire and, as the waiting crowd begins to grow, we make our exit feeling quite satisfied with our treat for the day!
We stop at Ypres Tower and talk with the older gentleman who’s manning the doors. He gives us a twenty minute run-down of castles history, and that of the area. He’s a lovely guy with a purple nose and a genuine whimsy in the way he recounts history. If he’d been my history teacher I’d have most certainly excelled. There are stories of smuggling and debauchery, thwarted invasion and, of course, drunken misadventure. It’s quite a tale that he weaves.
It’s our last night in Rye before jumping aboard the Chunnel, ahem “Eurotunnel,” and heading into mainland Europe. We exchange some Pounds for Euros at the post-office, and return to the Ypres Castle Inn for our dinner. This time, on the way home, there’s no getting lost; staying in a place more than one night has some real advantages.
The next morning we’re up relatively early to make our train to France. The ride from Rye to Folkestone is a straight-ahead affair, which starts with some lovely farmland roads before a large roundabout spits us onto the M20 for some high-speed hi-jinx. Still, the light is nice and Nita and I both feel great on the bikes. It’s still amazing to me that the Eurotunnel exists; the French and English have a long history of invading one-another, marrying royalty for peace only to wage war again. And while united during World War II, the politics of the countries remains different enough to make a link by underwater train a remarkable achievement.
The exit to the Eurotunnel is clearly marked and finding our way is easy. A few nights prior I’d booked the tickets for our trip online and received and eight-digit code to enter at a check-in machine on arrival at the terminal. I pull up, type in my number and get in without a hitch. Over the intercom Nita lets me know that she’s pulled up and a ticket just started to print which seems fishy. As we talk, I notice a man in the car behind us having troubles getting in, and as I begin talking to him we realize Nita has his ticket.
The system at the Eurotunnel is very slick. If you buy your ticket online and enter your license plate number, a camera tracks your plate and prints your ticket automatically as you pull up to the terminal! Except it doesn’t work with our Canadian plates, and when the man behind us pulls up closely, his ticket is printed while Nita’s a the machine.
It’s at this moment that a fairly impatient woman emerges from somewhere and starts telling us what we’ve done wrong. It’s fine, I’d be impatient too. Probably. I try to tell her that we just need to get our second ticket but she’s all done with listening. Even the helpful woman on the intercom is trying to tell her the situation – but it’s pointless. We’re just told to go to the terminal and meet with ticketing. I tell Nita what’s going on and, as we’re about to leave, impatient-lady comes over with Nita’s ticket. For the wrong train. Oh well, she’s trying.
Luckily the terminal is quiet and rearranging the train is not an issue. We settle in for a short wait and have a little look around. This place is quite something. Our race in Fareham to acquire spare bulbs, two breathalyzers, an emergency triangle and hi-visibilty vest (everything required by each bike to ride legally in France) was pointless; everything we need is available right here!
Our train is called and we make our way, following the arrows on the pavement marked “France.” We’re getting excited. The road to the actual train twists and turns back over itself and eventually we’re presented with security and customs; both of which we’re waved through without presenting a single document. France is the first country I’ve visited without having to show even a passport.
As we approach the train platform we’re waved to the side by a lovely Italian man, and we sit and watch vehicles disappear onto the two decks of the train. One up, then one down. It’s quite a dance. Eventually we’re waved on and told to stick to the left or right like we’re riding ruts off-road. My panniers squeeze by the bulkheads with about two inches to spare. This day has already been seriously fun!
We ride down train-car after train-car until eventually a friendly face tells us to stop. Nita and I have a car to ourselves for our thirty minute journey to France. As we wait to leave and the health & safety messages play, we’re joined in our car by the Italian boarding man and the French man who parked us. We chat about our trip for ten minutes and, with lovely smiles and wishes of luck, they leave the train-car before we depart.
With a gentle thud and sway we’re moving toward France. It’s strange to think of all the water above us as we move so effortlessly across the Channel. Sure, you miss the sights and sounds of travelling by ferry, but this is something so cool we feel that we need to experience it. In what literally feels like twenty minutes, we see light shining in the tunnel and, suddenly, we’re above ground.
With a clang, the doors between the train-cars begin to open and in minutes we’re on the road. In France. It all feels surreal for a moment; the speed limit is 130 km and we’re driving on the right side of the road again! We zip past Calais and on to our destination for the next couple of days, Maison de Plumes in Heuchin.
For a while now, every time we mention France people have been telling us how amazing the roads are here. They’ve also mention the tolls on the A-roads which can add a considerable cost to overlanding here (for instance, Calais to Nice can add €98 in tolls!). It’s not a huge issue for us since we’re not looking to ride A-roads, but we do get caught-out at one toll station and can’t seem to get it to work. Luckily with nobody behind us we resort to the help button and a woman who speaks perfect english helps us out. It feels like we always have trouble at toll stations! Soon we’re off the toll-road and onto some lovely sweepers that take us through beautiful town after beautiful town. The roads here are amazing, and they’re completely empty which makes it all that much better.
We pull up to Maison de Plumes a little early, so continue on to Fruges for a coffee. We sit and enjoy a moment while we watch a young man geared up in full-leathers sip a brandy. His bike is outside and it’s a rather cool Honda Repsol 125 with Simoncelli and Rossi stickers all over it! As we leave, comes out with the owner, both smoking, and point, smile and nod approvingly at our bikes. It’s a fun moment but I wish I could see this man who’s so hip, bearded and at least 6’3” get on his bike! We smile and nod, then head back to our home for the next two nights.
As we pull into the driveway at Maison de Plumes, we’re met by it’s owner, Richard who has a warm smile waiting for us. “Drop that here and lets get you a drink!” Those are wonderful first words and a promising start to our time in France. Still in gear, we settle into the living room of this wonderful house and share a glass of wine with Richard and Vanessa, two british ex-pats now living and working here. For the past number of years, the couple have been restoring the eighteenth century “Maison de Maitre” to it’s original glory, and it’s simply beautiful here.
After negotiating a tight spiral staircase and dropping the bags in our room, we return to the living room and are introduced to the two other guests that are staying this night. Maggi and Phillipa are best friends visiting from the UK and to say that they’re vivacious and wonderfully colorful characters is a huge understatement. They both fill a room with their personalities, and conversation with them really has no limitations. Religion, love, life, dreams; you name it, they’re willing to go wherever we are! We continue our talk over an amazing dinner that Richard has made for us with courses of paté, chicken cocotte, cheese plates and a lovely creme brullé. We all feel very spoiled, and before it gets too late, we say our good nights.
We resume our conversation over breakfast in the morning, but Eurochannel trains are calling our new friends and we have a lazy day planned. There’s some catching up on the site and writing that needs to be done. The weather is cooperating with our plan to stay inside; it’s cloudy and cool. The day is spent in our room, working on our computers while looking out over the incredible landscapes that unfold from our windows. It’s a beautiful spot for writing and we feel incredibly fortunate to be here.
In the late afternoon, Nita and I head out to find some backroads and we’re not left wanting for choice. Turn after turn reveals another “road” slightly wider than a walking path back home. Mostly we’re alone on these roads, but every once in a while we’re met with a local driver and they motor on these roads! Another frequent companion on these roads are farmers in their huge tractors pulling all manner of cart. We almost always get a wave when we pass them and it reminds me of the ranchers along the Chain Lakes road in Alberta; hardworking and never too busy for a wave.
Soon we pull into La Cour de Remi, a lovely restored “Maison de Maitre” that’s built to a grand scale. Through a side door we enter into a lovely little restaurant where we get to experience our first completely non-English dialogue. It’s a bit messy, and the stew we order turns out to be a steak! Still, it’s delicious and the waitress is very patient with our attempts to communicate. It’s uncomfortable still and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little dread tucked somewhere in my stomach before every interaction, but it’s starting to feel like a little bit of fun. And I suppose that’s the point; enjoy it, and give in to it all.
Back at the Maison, a group of rambunctious Belgians has taken over the main floor, and there’s little English spoken with them. They’re a lovely lot, all in their sixties and having a grand time. Nita and I sneak up to our room and enjoy our last night here quietly.
The next morning, we say our goodbyes to our wonderful hosts, Richard and Vanessa, and hit the road with Le Mans in our sights. I’ve wanted to see the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans since I was young and, secretly hoping we’d get our pack mules onto the course, we plan to spend some time to the north of the city in Saint Pavace. On our travels we stop briefly at Café du Commerce in Blangy sur Bresle, and have another opportunity to talk with dapper man who looks a lot like Stephen Fry just before we leave. His limited English and our limited French makes for a lovely distraction and, as we hop onto our bikes, he rushes out to say goodbye one last time.
Rather than drive straight through to Le Mans, we stop for the night at a hotel in Franqueville-Saint-Pierre, just east of Rouen. At the Hotel Campanile we’re met by our first truly grumpy service person. Annoyed instantly by our arrival she quickly lets us know that our presence in this nicely designed motel is mostly a nuisance. In her mid-twenties, I quietly wonder if it’s not her moustache that’s causing some aggravation (sometimes, when things get uncomfortable, I pick something that tickles my funny bone and, as a wise man once said, “Smile like I have a secret”). Check-in is an awkward affair, and our grumpy friend lets us know that she’s done dealing with us by flicking her hand in the air as if to say “go away.”
Breakfast is a similar story. Our moustached friend is back at the desk and, as we approach a table by the window an angry voice chirps at us from the counter. “NO! THERE OR THERE!” She’s pointing at two tiny tables; one is behind a servers workstation and the other against a dark wall with what looks to be five croissants reduced to crumbs beneath it. It’s too bad since the motel itself is quite well done, but we’ll not be recommending this place for anyone. Still, she’s been the exception so far. Everyone we’ve met in France has been wonderfully friendly and patient.
Back on the bikes, Nita and I have a laugh about our experience at the hotel. The air is cooler and storm clouds in distance offer a promise of rain which it will fulfill before the days over. Passing through Louviers we’re met with our first full-on protest. Blocking the streets, the protesters yell into megaphones angrily while handing out flyers to cars as they pass by. As we approach, we scoot around a car that’s not moved in a while and through a crowd of about fifty people. One protester offers us leaflets then realizes it’s problematic on bikes. Another hidden benefit to riding! Still, the group isn’t unruly and we’re quickly on our way.
About halfway through the day, the weathers promise is fulfilled and the skies open up. At first it’s moderate but it quickly turns into heavy, heavy rain. All of our gear is keeping us dry and warm – until a hard brake at a roundabout fills my waterproof gloves with a stream of water that slowly runs towards my finger tips. There’s nothing worse that wet hands and feet. The same has happened to Nita and our hands begin to chill; it’s all part of it and we know we don’t have too far to go.
The beautiful roads that take us towards St. Pavace weave through the countryside and continue to surprise us with their beauty. Farmers fields are being turned for the winter and our path is mostly met by narrow roadways with little or no traffic. Just before our home for the night, we drop into a beautiful valley and up a steep climb into Ballon, where a medieval dungeon rises ominously from the cliffside. It’s another location that’s added to a long list of things to see during our stay in the region.
Finally we make it to St. Pavace and our outer-shells are completely drenched. As we pull up to Relais des Caillères, we’re met by Pierre, the owner of the B&B. Hardly off the bikes, he begins to tell us about the place, codes to the doors, and where we can put our sopping wet gear. He’s got a light and happy demeanour, and he immediately starts handing us towels. He’s eager to show us around the place which will make a good home for the next five days.
As we quickly unload the bikes, the skies begin to clear and the sun works to return some warmth to the chilled air. Rivers of water run down our arms off of the outside of the gear, but inside our REV’IT! suits we’re toasty. Soon everything is hanging from a radiator or towel rack and we find our room for the night. It’s quiet here, and we’re happy for the silence.