In September my Nan will turn 90. As an advance birthday treat we took her away for a short break to Dorset. A trip in Bertie would have been great but Nan would have had difficulty accessing the over cab bed, so instead we booked a cottage and based ourselves near Wool.
We left Bertie in storage and for transport we hired a car using our Tesco clubcard vouchers. We had a wonderful three days enjoying outings in the area. Here are a few photos of the places we visited.
On our first night back in Taunton we stayed on a local campsite. Tanpit’s Farm is our favourite campsite near Taunton. It’s in a great location on the canal, allowing us to easily get into town and is a great price at £10 without electric. We also like the setting in an orchard between apple trees festooned with mistletoe; rabbits, geese and peacocks all roam around the area. Fresh eggs are on sale and, of course, they sell cider.
A night in the campsite allowed us to sort out Bertie ready for a couple of weeks in storage while we stayed at our official home in Taunton. All available bags were put to use to transfer clothes and others essentials from Bertie, who has been our home for the last year, into the brick-and-mortar house. In a couple of weeks we’ll be doing the same in reverse and hopefully it will still all fit.
Once all had been unloaded we dropped Bertie off and cycled back to the house, wondering how it was going to feel to have so much space to knock about in. It didn’t take us long to adapt, but we’re very sure now that we won’t need a big house when we get back from our travels.
We spent our first few days catching up with the family that live in Taunton, doing lots of washing and complaining about how hot it was. We came back to the UK in summer because we expected it to be cooler than the continent. But we seem to have arrived in the middle of a heatwave!
Our drive from Dover to Somerset was not a particularly long one, but by the time we got to Reading we were already shattered, mostly because of the large amount of traffic on the roads and also due to the concentration required to ensure we drove on the right (that’s left) side of the road.
While we stopped for fuel and food in Slough (it having the nearest supermarket fuel station) I had a little scout around on Searchforsites for a parking spot that wasn’t too far away. We haven’t used Searchforsites much in France or Italy, but because it’s a British website it tends to be the best for British parking spots.
I decided that we should head to a parking spot on the Ridgeway – a long distance path over the North Wessex Downs that is badged as ‘Britain’s oldest road’. The parking spot on Hackpen Hill was not very big, but after a couple of cars had left we managed to squeeze ourselves (as much as a seven meter motorhome can be squeezed) into the corner so that we didn’t feel too selfish. We also had a bit of a tidy up, something we have started to do wherever we are. We like to leave a parking spot clean because all too often motorhomes and campervans will be blamed for any rubbish that has been left behind. And of course it’s also a good thing to do.
As we wandered around the area we noticed that there were quite a lot of campervans driving around looking for parking. Paul muttered something about hippies and then we both looked at each other. Of course! It was the summer solstice and we were only a stone’s throw from Avebury.
Only a couple of vans chose to park near us, that stone’s throw was just a bit too far from the main gathering. As we settled down for the night an older man with long grey hair knocked on our window, trying to find his way back to the gathering. As I gave him directions I looked at the unlit narrow roads and asked whether he had a torch. His laid back attitude was that he didn’t need one, but I wasn’t quite so relaxed. While I went back inside and rummaged for a spare torch (I knew we had one knocking about somewhere) he absconded. I just hope he found his way back ok.
Shortly before sunrise – an event neither of us had a particular interest in being awake for – several cars pulled up into the parking area. I listened in to the conversation as the occupants gathered. They were off for a solstice run down the ridgeway to Avebury. Very nice for them, but that meant they would probably be back in an hour or so and we’d have the sound of car doors slamming again. Such are the risks of sleeping in a parking spot, so I cant complain. I wondered if I should pull on my running shoes and join them, but it was just one of those idle thoughts and I drifted back off to sleep as the sound of their footsteps pattered away.
When we finally got out of bed we decided that we would cycle down the ridgeway to Silbury Hill and then across to Avebury, then we could make it a circular ride back to our parking spot. Along the ridgeway we cycled, through dry deep ruts that didn’t ever seem quite wide enough for our pedals. The ridgeway leads directly to The Sanctuary, an ancient wood and stone circle complex that was destroyed by farmers in the 18th century and now has the site of the sarsens and posts marked out by concrete blocks. Down at this end of the ridgeway were many campers in tents, vans, motorhomes and one horse drawn caravan. They had all obviously had a good night celebrating the solstice; some probably very serious about the rituals associated with dawning of the longest day, others more interested in the party that accompanies it.
We took in The Sanctuary, West Kennet Longbarrow, Silbury Hill and Avebury circle and avenues. There were still some robed figures conducting rituals around the stones and a few people just chilling out in the sunshine, but the area is large and despite the date it didn’t seem at all crowded. It is an amazing and thought provoking area of ancient monuments that feels quite rural and wild despite it’s location just off the M4. There was a police presence, and private security at each of the sites, but by now this seemed to be more directed at ensuring the traffic was flowing smoothly than anything else.
That afternoon we made our way to Taunton. We were going home.
We stayed in the motorhome aire at Bergues the night before our Ferry. The aire here has no facilities but is large and popular. It sits just outside the city walls next to a sports complex and amongst allotments where crops and cut flowers are carefully tended. Once we had determined that we could ignore the 3.5tonne limit on the approach road, which applied to the road into the town rather than the road to the aire, it was easy to find.
Bergues was an attractive Flemish town which had been significantly but sympathetically rebuilt after WWII, we had a short wander around but know that we didn’t see many of the sights. I’m sure we’ll find our way back when we are channel hopping at some point.
We booked our return ferry with P&O because it was the cheapest we could find. At £60 for a single crossing it was half the price of the tunnel. A few scare stories had led us to anticipate a disorganised mess of a crossing, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. Of course we have the luxury of being able to book a mid day crossing, as we aren’t trying to make as much precious time as possible for a short holiday. So after a leisurely start and a quick final supermarket stop we drove to the ferry terminal where we were swiftly ushered into the right queue for our crossing. We had time for a cuppa and a bit of van watching before we needed to board. One of the best bits of being on a campsite or in a queue of motorhomes is seeing what other people have got. We were very impressed with the pristine state of the van next to us which was a good 10 years older than Bertie. It spurred us to talking about washing Bertie, but sadly no further action has taken place on that front.
The ferry was not very busy, probably another reason for the crossing being so easy. Before we knew it we were back in the UK; having to convert back to Miles per Hour, driving on the right and limited motorhome facilities outside campsites. And Traffic! Never have we seen so many vehicles in such a small space.
Nevertheless we are happy to be back in the UK and cant wait to see everyone.
We rumbled along the smaller N and D roads of France towards the coast, passing by many signposts pointing to First and Second World War memorials. It is incredible to think of the events of the two wars that impacted this area of France over such a short period, the devastating history contrasts sharply with the bucolic landscape of the present day.
My knowledge of French Geography was growing daily, here I found out we were travelling through French Flanders on our way to Dunkirk (Dunkerque). Flanders was a medieval state covering this part of modern day France as well as parts of Belgium and the Netherlands. Today there are cultural, linguistic and architectural similarities across the area and many of the buildings in the countryside had a look I would have described as Dutch, but is probably Flemish.
We parked up north of Dunkirk in Bray-Dunes at a Motorhome parking spot behind the tourist information office. It was a popular spot for motorhomes, but very few other people were around and the grey weather and closed up tourist apartments made it look more like October than June. We wanted to go for a walk to find the shipwrecks left behind during the evacuation of Dunkirk. A quick check of the tide tables revealed we would need to wait until the evening, so we did a bit of housework and had an early tea before setting off to explore the dunes and the beach. The long wide sandy beach was almost empty, only a couple of kite surfers in the distance and one lonely walker striding along the edge of the sea. Although the tide was low, we could only just see the wrecks of the paddle steamers used in the WWII evacuation breaking the water. The most visible wreck was a schooner that had run aground in the 1920’s, although it had nothing to do with WWII it made an evocative sight against the silver sea and setting sun.
The following morning we drove into Dunkirk itself and parked opposite the 1940 museum. This museum focussed on Operation Dynamo – the evacuation of British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk – and was worth spending a couple of hours exploring. It’s small but has plenty of exhibits; a short film, photographs and artifacts, some of which were found buried by the sand at Bray-Dunes where much of the British equipment had to be abandoned in favour of saving human lives. It includes exhibits about the ‘Little Ships’; the fishing boats, barges and pleasure steamers who volunteered to support the evacuation of over 300,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers. It’s one of those gutsy war time stories of triumph over adversity that gave rise to the phrase ‘Dunkirk Spirit’. While we were wandering round I couldn’t help thinking of all those soldiers, plucked from the jaws of the German advance, given a heroes welcome and then having to return to fight again, any respite only fleeting.
After our edifying visit to the museum we wandered around Dunkirk, following the harbour through modern apartments and houses with odd shapes vaguely reminiscent of upturned boats. In the harbour were many interesting ships, part of the Port Museum, including the restored paddle steamer Princess Elizabeth (now a café), the Duchesse Anne – a three-masted ship that was part of Germany’s reparations to the French after the war – and the Sandettie. I was very excited to find that the Sandettie was indeed the Light Vessel Automatic of shipping forecast fame. Little things!
Although Dunkirk suffered badly in WWII, there were a number of older buildings amongst the more modern architecture and some interesting display boards with pictures of the town before war broke out. Dunkirk is much more than just a ferry terminal and is a key part of the WWII story.
I’ve mentioned before that my French geography is not great, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I realised that we were on the edge of the Champagne area. After the initial surprise was a short flurry of excitement. I do like a bit of bubbly, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, but I would feel guilty drinking anything else while here.
We did still have to move on though, and although Troyes was a tempting destination it didn’t move us far enough. Instead we targeted Reims, a town that has a famous cathedral as well as being one of the main towns of the Champagne district.
We arrived at the municipal campsite of Val-de-Vesle on the Saturday evening. It is about 20km from Reims along a canal with a well defined cycle path. The campsite was pleasant and was good value at just over €16 although it did have one of those complex pricing structures where you pay a small amount for each component of the stay. The toilet block was spotless, even after I had dyed my hair, and trees provided dappled shade. For the first time in ages we bumped into another English couple, exchanging stories of narrow escapes from even narrower roads (most in the UK). With the campsite came an opportunity to barbeque and sit in our chairs in the sunshine, we decided to stay two nights instead of one to enjoy the opportunity.
I had a quick peek on the internet to find out what was possible on Sunday and we decided to cycle into Reims, do a champagne house tour, see the sights and have some lunch. Possibly not in that order.
Reims on a Sunday was a hushed and peaceful town, families were walking or cycling along the canal, but the town itself seemed solely the preserve of tourists. All shops were shut, so only the tourist attractions and the supporting infrastructure were open. We could easily have driven Bertie in and parked up, but it was good to get some exercise. The route went past the town of Sillery where we paused to gaze at the French cemetery and remind ourselves of the depredations of the First World War.
Reims cathedral was our first port of call; the ‘royal cathedral’ has been the place of coronation for all but seven of France’s monarchs. Ok, the first few monarchs, starting with Henry I in 1027, were crowned in an earlier cathedral which was destroyed by fire. But work soon started on the current gothic cathedral and since then it has remained standing, despite the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution and the First World War. Of course it has been updated over time; the First World War significantly damaged the building and there are beautiful modern stained glass windows which were installed in the 20th century to replace the windows blown out by German bombardment. Apart from the stained glass the cathedral has many statues and carvings on the tall, narrow facades and arguably the outside is more attractive than the fairly stark interior. Look out for the statues of Joan of Arc, one inside and one outside, who liberated the city and cathedral from the English.
After the cathedral we took a wander round the city centre, following a walking map provided by the tourist information centre. We visited the Saint Remi Basilica, a Gothic style building of more pleasing dimensions than the cathedral which we found exaggeratedly tall and narrow. In the city the first world war devastation provided opportunity for redevelopment and the city has quite a number of art deco buildings, including the market and the Carnegie Library. We found our attention was not captured for long though because most places were shut and the atmosphere was almost too quiet. This was a bit of a shock for two people who don’t really like busy cities, we now know that we don’t like empty cities either!
We stopped for lunch before moving onto the Taittinger champagne house for a tour. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between the champagne house tours, so we picked Taittinger because it was open on a Sunday and had a very clear online booking system. The tour was quite interesting, a short film about the history of Taittinger, followed by a tour of the cellars. The building you can see above ground is quite modern and uninspiring, but underground in the cellars you are in a network that was started in Roman times as chalk quarries. The upside down funnels of the chalk excavations were then extended by Benedictine monks who were digging the crypts and cellars for their abbey. The wine and champagne houses appropriated the caves and extended them to house thousands upon thousands of bottles of champagne, all stacked neatly and nursed to maturity by patient and knowledgeable staff. The soft chalk provided many opportunities for people to leave their mark through the years and faces and names have been etched into the rock, including marks left by locals who sheltered down here in the Second World War.
After the tour of the cellars it was back up to the bar to sample some champagne, being a cheapskate I had booked the lowest cost tour with one glass of champagne each. As Paul doesn’t like champagne I was looking forward to drinking two glasses, but in no time Paul had finished his glass, only to tell me that he still didn’t like it. What a waste!
We moved onwards through France with a long drive north, including a diversion around Bourg-en-Bresse that left us doing some old fashioned paper map reading as the sat nav tried to push us back onto the closed road.
As we continued our steady pace through France I wondered again why we don’t spend more time in France. By avoiding toll roads we were seeing some of what France has to offer, but it felt very superficial as we were only passing through. I snapped a few pictures from Bertie as we went to remind us of the types of places we were seeing.
When we were tired of driving we picked a nearby free aire from one of our apps. Today’s aire was in Pierre-de-Bresse; a mixed car park with motorhome services and electricity. A little manoeuvring got us close enough to plug into the electricity, but it wasn’t man enough for our kettle and we didn’t have any other reason to be on hook-up so we unplugged and moved away to leave the space free for someone who needed it.
The following morning we set off early to the Foret d’Orient through increasingly rural villages. We found a free parking spot on Park4Night that had a position on the shores of Lake Temple with some views. Despite there being one other van in the car park it felt nice and peaceful, insects abounded in the humid atmosphere and we chased a few lazy fat flies out of the van before making sure that all of the fly screens were in place.
We took our bikes out along the shores of these vast reservoirs. A cycle trail runs along the northern edge of the lakes, mostly on dedicated pathways right alongside the lake shore. The views of the lakes were beautiful, the water as flat as a mirror, and as soon as we started to find the lakeside views a bit tedious we entered the forest between the lakes and completely different surroundings. School children were out in droves on their bikes, each group topped and tailed by a teacher and wearing brightly coloured vests. When I got a puncture we had a rapt audience as we changed the inner tube. We stopped at one of the beaches on the Lac d’Orient for our lunch, sitting at picnic benches and watching the few other people who were using the facilities.
After Lake Annecy, this area felt a little lacking in dramatic scenery, but was far more tranquil, we had a quiet nights sleep and were pleased to wake up the next morning without any insect bites.