Forest Row Bike Club
Excursion to France: September 2007
Hills, invasions, and a courtesy
The beginning and the end were easy as all we had to do was follow the red line. It took us from the ticket office at Dover port to the special check-in for cyclists. We remained well away from cars, lorries, and such like, save for the stretch from the check-in – the special one, remember – to the head of the embarkation lane. We were just as special on the way from the boat. Once again, we followed the red line. At one point, we pressed a bell and a gate opened. We cycled from the port, alone and safe. And we continued along a cycle-path from the port itself for much of the way to the railway station.
The cycling on the other side was harder. We took our time in Calais, confident of a cycle-path to Boulogne. We learned in Sangatte that there was no such path. ‘Walkers only.’ So, pannier-laden, bearing the squalls as they passed, we tackled the first of the hills. Slow going. At the crest, about 150 metres, we had our first sight of the White Cliffs, just over the water. And then from the crest we sped down the curving road to the village at the bottom. We became familiar with the ups and the downs of the coast road.
White Cliffs, the indestructible remains of big-gun batteries, and a tall column surmounted by a statue of Napoleon – they’re all connected. It was on the plains above Boulogne, where the statue was erected, that the Napoleonic Grand Army was assembled preparatory to the invasion of England. Those white cliffs must have seemed to close. If only the French fleet could secure command of the waters between the two shores, then the thousands of barges could carry that grand army of over 100,000 men to the South Coast. Imagine, by the way, the impact on the people on that coast and inland in England of the news that so great an army was growing and training just over the water.
Just over 130 years later, it was an invasion from England that the big (Naval calibre) guns, along with all the other guns and impedimenta of the Atlantic Wall, were intended to repel. One of those big-gun bunkers is now a museum. There were four bunkers, or casemates, in the Batterie Todt, which was one of the biggest of the German constructions on the French coast. The complex was captured by Canadian soldiers at the end of September 1940.
And there was a courtesy to note. Two motor-cycle gendarmes, noticing perhaps the passing of the pannier-laden pair, were ready to escort the rear member along what they described as ‘a dangerous piece of road’. Having delivered the rear member to the waiting lead member, the two courteous gendarmes turned their motor-cycles and accelerated away.
On the way back to Calais, the climb up the curving hill was the hardest of all. Helmets off to the rear member for a committed, slow, and successful climb to the top.
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