[I’m using the (Un)Inspired Ramblings Facebook page to post some more regular updates and photos in between main blog posts here. You can find it here.]
“Could the Guard contact the Driver please, could the Guard contact the Driver”
At the time I don’t pay much attention to the announcement other that thinking that it was a little unusual. But what could possibly go wrong? I have been early to meet my train, managed a lovely impromptu goodbye at the station, and my train will get me into Portsmouth an hour before the check-in deadline for the ferry. In London I am rarely early for anything, particularly where public transport is involved, and so I am possibly feeling slightly smug. True, I am cheating slightly by taking the train rather than riding to Portsmouth, but with the overnight ferries on Thursday and Friday fully booked for bikes, I have taken the executive decision to get a little ahead of my (already delayed) schedule rather than wait until the overnight ferry on Saturday or have the uncertainty of finding somewhere to camp near enough to Portsmouth to get the early morning ferry, or arriving in Caen after dark if I were to take the afternoon sailing. And in the end, having the day in London was useful – to finish things in the flat that I thought I would not have time for (mainly painting the scuffed walls) and for finally packing the bike. So yes, I am feeling that things are nicely organised and a little bit smug. The uncertainty and adventure can start in France.
I am jolted out of this smugness ten minutes later by a further announcement that, due to an accident further down the line, the train would be diverting to Bognor Regis and that there would be no more trains to Portsmouth that night. As nice as I’m sure Bognor Regis is, I quickly decide to hop off the train at the last stop before the diversion. I have no idea how easy getting from Bognor to Portsmouth with a bike will be – the replacement bus service that the Guard mentions clearly won’t accommodate it – so the safest bet seems to be to stay on the same line and get the first train in the morning. A lady getting off at the same spot tells me there is nowhere to stay in the village and offers me her spare room, but this is another train ride away and seems that it might make the morning complicated. I guess I’m probably also not yet in the frame of mind for throwing myself at other people’s mercy – it feels a distinctly un-English thing to do in a quintessentially English village station.
In a chance conversation with the guy running the station shop, I am told of some woods nearby where I could camp, and be close by to easily be back for the first train in the morning, once the line has been cleared. Stocking up with a cup of hot tea, a bottle of water and a cheese and onion sandwich, I set off to follow the very simple directions he gives. After an hour riding a circuit around the local villages in the ever-increasing darkness without spotting anywhere other than the verge of a stables’ driveway that looks like it might hide me for the night, I am back where I started.
A little more exploration and perhaps I have found the tiny copse of wood that I’d been directed to. I roll out my bivvy bag in a tiny space behind a tree, blow up my mat and slide inside, underneath my down quilt, trying not to make too much noise or show too much light. After a hushed phone call (these woods are very small and right next to a road), I try to snatch some sleep, before my alarm wakes me a few hours later. Things I’m already grateful for: my dynamo lights that I had invested in but feared I might never use, and my new bivvy bag which I debated about bringing, but which is intended for exactly these situations where there is just no room to put up a tent.
And so, despite my organisation, good timing and feeling smugness that things were all looking nice and simple, I guess the adventure has started already.
The ferry crossing is fairly uneventful, despite the loaders not allowing me to ride down the final ramp onto the ferry. ‘It is not safe!’, they say. My protestations that this is a mountain bike with massive tyres on which I’m quite capable of negotiating the tiny bump seems to fall on deaf ears.
Highlights of the crossing are some things I may not have for a while – a full English and a nice shower. I’m strangely unemotional about leaving England. I think the manicness of the past few weeks has just put me on autopilot and I’m just relieved to be on a ferry and feeling that I have some chance of making it to the south of France as planned.
Voluntarily walking my bike over the ‘treacherous’ exit ramp this time, down onto French soil, I realise that it is absolutely pissing it down, and I stop to dig out a change of clothes. I’m fairly sure that this has happened to me once or twice before, and its never the most inspiring start. But the GR trail markings, those red and white horizontal lines painted on signposts, fence posts, walls and stones start right at the port, and I also have the GPS routes on my phone, so passing through Caen is easy and I head south, trying to get some miles in through the afternoon. It’s a familiar feeling, hunting out those little red and white markings; glancing around as I whizz (or crawl, depending on whether I’m heading up or downhill at the time) through junctions to catch a glimpse of the white and red lines showing you the way to go, and the cross showing you the way to avoid.
There are often a plethora of coded markings to follow, depending on what mood you’re in (and where you want to go, I guess).
I’m not sure what this one is for though. Follow this to the rabbit eared donkey?
The route initially seems to be some tarmac bike paths, some backroad, and some farm tracks. Nothing too tricky, apart from the odd obstacle to overcome.
The plan is to try to wild camp as much as possible, to avoid big campsites, make the end point of each day more flexible, and keep costs down, although I know that I’ll yearn for somewhere with some facilities for showers and to wash some clothes every few days. Despite having started this trip with an impromptu wild bivvy, I’m still a little nervous about finding somewhere for the night. Towards the end of the afternoon I end up in the Parc Animalier de la Foret de Grimbosque, and despite signs very clearly saying that there is to be no camping, I eventually come across a shelter by the side of the trail that looks like it might fit the bill. This photo is taken from on the trail. There’s not much chance of me staying hidden from anyone passing by!
I tuck myself away in the corner, worried that the trail will be busy and I’ll be turfed out of the park, but I see no-one until a runner passes in the morning as I’m almost packed up and ready to go. I smile and call ‘Bonjour!’ and he response likewise. Phew.
The following day is a bit of a beast. Following the GR36 route to the letter, I suffer the painful realisation that there are some steep, wet hills in the north of France, that GR36 really is a walkers trail, but that not many walkers seem to use it and some sections are therefore massively overgrown with brambles. By the end of the day I’m exhausted, my arms and legs ripped to shreds by thorns, and I’m desperately wishing the bike was lighter. On a couple of occasions on steep, slippy, rocky paths, my foot slips off the trail and the bike falls towards me, pushing me back down the side of the hill as I have no footing and no grip with which to support its weight. It’s all I can do to hold myself in one position whilst I try to negotiate a way around the bike back onto the path. At other points I am pushing the bike up as steep a hill I can manage, holding the brakes on as I pull myself up from behind the bike, and then pushing it out in front of me again to repeat the process. For the first full day, and having not done much riding in the past few months, this is not fun. It’s also bloody slow and I realise that it will take me months to get to the south of France if most of the GR routes are like this.
Somewhere back there is the trail… I needed a machete to hack the brambles away but unfortunately that was one item that got culled from the equipment list due to weight!
Photos never do justice to the steepness, rockiness and slipperiness or trails… but believe me, it was very steep, rocky and slippery!
There are some positives though. The scenery is lovely, even if the skies are a little grey.
There are many trailside snacks to eat (usually as an excuse to stop and rest part way up a hill). Some natural and free, others less so.
And everyone loves a cat with different coloured eyes, hiding under a car.
I do slowly make some kind of progress south. That night, after sussing out a couple of potential camp spots I hide behind a hedge in a farmers field. Cars occasionally pass by just a metre away on the other side of the fence but I have a quiet night and leave in the morning having not been disturbed.
Over the next couple of days I take a slightly different approach, looking more carefully at the map and making constant decisions about whether to follow GR36 up each pointlessly steep hill / muddy trail, or whether to opt for backroad alternatives. This feels a little like cheating but there are no rules on this trip so therefore I’m not breaking any. Right? If these tracks were the only way of getting where I needed to go then I’d just have to suck it up, but when there are idyllic, virtually traffic free, little backroads just metres away, it seems ridiculous to slog up something unpleasant and painful slow.
And I have an overwhelming urge of the need to make some progress. Whilst my motivation for this open ended ride is still somewhere else, location unknown, I have somehow managed to set myself up with a target to meet the very girl that I struggled to leave in London, in Montpellier in just three weeks time. The date was set weeks ago, a flight and some accommodation booked, and if I’d managed to leave a week or two before I did actually leave, then this would all be fine and dandy. I could pootle my way through France a little more gently, smelling the flowers along the way. But now France is looking like rather a big place to cross, off-road in just three weeks. Somehow, the very thing that, if I’m honest, has led me to slow my departure from London over the past couple of months, is now the very thing I will need to race across France to get to. My original plan of leaving with no deadlines, slowly making my way where my nose led me, and having time to explore, camp, write and photograph, is feeling a little bit distant just now. The ride down to Switzerland and along the Camino both had hard deadlines, and I hated that part of it. Despite that, somehow I have managed to create exactly the same situation. I really must be incapable of action without a looming deadline! However, it is what it is, and it is entirely of my own making, and I just need to get on with it, knuckle down and try to do some more miles each day.
Gradually the landscape starts to flatten out and the trails become a bit more manageable and I make better progress. Some of the trails are tree-enveloped sunken pathways, others single track or forest double track, along with the ubiquitous forestry roads.
I spend half an hour on the third evening trying to find somewhere vaguely flat to sleep in an ancient forest, but give up as the forest floor is lumpy and littered with stumps and branches. A van passes me as I push up further into the forest and then passes me again after I’ve dumped the bike and am wandering around on foot searching for somewhere. The driver stops and I come clean and tell him I’m looking for a little place for my tent. I expect to be told that I can’t camp in the forest but he directs me to a cabin I’ve just passed which, from what I can glean with my limited French, belongs to his friend or neighbour. He makes a phone call and tells me that despite the ‘Defense d’entrer’ signs, I’ll be fine to use the grounds and the little covered work area at the side. What a result! I am finally bikeshacking, a la Kurt, Cass, and Mike in South America! Well, kind of, in my own small way in my own little patch of northern French forest. This place is perfect with a raised area to sleep on, handy drying hooks for wet clothes and tent, and out of view from the forestry road.
I’m using the top portion of my frame bag as a larder, keeping it free of everything else for food purchases every couple of days. Normally there is a pasta and some kind of smoked sausage theme (one of the few meats that keeps well out of the fridge), but tonight I have some anchovies, avocado, pork sausage and a stick of french bread. Aside from the pork sausage, which I won’t be buying again as it tastes just about as similar to dog food as it looks, its all pretty tasty.
The easier trails continue for the next few days and I increase my mileage to 40 and then 50 miles a day, sometimes mostly off road, sometimes a mixture of trails and backroads. Out of the forests the trails are lined by wheat and sunflower fields.
They take their farming seriously around here.
The roads here are empty, with ramshackle buildings and small vegetable plots. Riding through deserted village after deserted village, I wonder where everyone is…?
The trails continue, sometimes along doubletrack out in the open, before then suddenly disappearing into the dark forests.
I eventually pass through a bustling little tourist village and take the opportunity to fill up my so-far empty hip flask in a little bar run by a Scottish family. That night I stay at a municipal campsite in St Paul Le Gaultier and celebrate the first shower and washing of clothes in France with a little drink.
The first few days of this trip have been really quite lonely. I’ve been in touch with people at home, but the trails and towns I’ve passed along and through have been all but empty, with interaction limited to rather basic schoolboy French: “Ou est le cinema?“, “J’ai un Frere“, and “Un pain au chocolate s’il vous plait“. Ok, so I’ve only actually used the last one, but you catch my drift. So, some chat with the Scottish family and some other customers and with a Dutch family camped nearby in the evening is really very welcome. This trip feels incredibly different to the trip along the Camino de Santiago, where every day I would pass or stay in hostels with walkers and riders all heading in the same direction as you, and where even tiny villages actually had inhabitants. To be fair, when I do pass locals in their gardens, many do smile (or grimace – its often a close thing) and offer up a “Bon Courage!“.
The Dutch family have the most outrageously impractical family car… or so it seems until I see the size of the boot. You can practically live in there.
The more pleasant trails continue. I sometimes follow GR36 to the letter and at other times alternate between the trail and backroads, to cut off some of the more circuitous deviations the trail takes. It some cases the trail throws up some unpleasant surprises, but my legs are feeling stronger and the obstacles don’t last too long.
Eventually at the end of the first week, after a day of round 65 miles, I reach Saumur, on the Loire Valley, and my time following GR36 comes to an end.
I take a little rest day here to use the painfully slow wifi in the holiday camp style campsite to download the map data for the trail from here to Clermont-Ferrand. The Viewranger iPhone software that I’m using has been amazing, used in conjunction with French IGN maps. I paid around £20 for access to the whole of France for a year, with the ability to download a huge area for use offline. This gives you access to the whole range of maps right down to the most detailed, which has been invaluable for picking out back roads and trails to head along with confidence. However, the download of the various map levels for use offline is not all that quick on a slow wifi connection… The section from Saumur to Clermont-Ferrand took me a whole ten hours and due to the incredibly frustrating way the campsite wifi system kicks me off every 30 minutes, means I can’t take the opportunity to explore Saumur and instead am sat in the site cafe, next to a power socket, looking like some kind of slightly stressed, phone obsessed wierdo, as I will the connection to let me just download one more map tile…
Looking ahead to the Grand Traversee du Massif Central (GTMC) mountain bike route that starts in Clermont-Ferrand and heads down to Montpellier, the guide book splits the route up into 17 stages. The route is designed as a mountain bike route, so should be more consistently enjoyable on a bike than some of the GR routes appear to be. The trail runs for 446 miles, and the guide recommends that it can be completed in anywhere between 20 days (for unsupported riders carrying their gear and finding accommodation and supplies along the way) and 10 days (for fit and expert mountain bikers, perhaps with a support vehicle). At this point I have 16 days to get to Montpellier from Saumur. Hmmm. To give myself, say, 11 days on the GTMC, I’ll need to get to Clermont-Ferrand in the next four days. Which is quite a bit further away than I’ve just come from Caen in the last 7 days. I think using the GR routes may have to go out of the window here. This next bit could be a little bit painful.