Forest Row Bike Club
2007 Tour Report
North-Eastern France: 7-14 June 2007
Beginning – to Calais
An early-morning ride to Edenbridge railway station, where three of us have time to notice the shortness of the skirts of the young women who, evidently, along with others, are on their way to school and who wear those skirts with an unconscious grace. At Tonbridge, we become four. There is time, on the journey to Dover, for the late arrival to undertake some repairs. Hurry to the terminal, there to wait. (It was long, long ago that I first heard the injunction ‘Hurry up and wait’.) On board, to Calais.
In the market place, we become the full touring-party. Eight riders; one driver of the accompanying car. There’s time to be reminded, by the words on the memorial, of the reach of colonial France: Algeria, Tonkin, Madagascar, Senegal, Mauritania. And <Paris 1870> also appeared on the memorial. A memorial to those Frenchmen from Calais who had been killed in the defence of Paris against the Prussians. No mention of 1871.
A ride from Calais by the canal, a familiar ride for some of us, an easy ride for all. The canal, scarcely used as we cycled by, itself a memorial to an industrial past. St Omer. The first hotel. The first meal. The end of the first day. The Forest Row Bike Tour is on tour.
St Omer to Arras
However else the day can be remembered, it can be remembered as the day of the three punctures. Three of them, all incurred by the same person. Indeed, the unlucky member probably holds the club record for the shortest distance between two punctures, about 50 metres.
Still, those episodes were ahead of us as we cycled from the town, along the canal. We stopped to look at the barge which had been left behind. There is was, ready, so it seemed, to be moved slowly down from the upper canal to the wide, lower one. A canal hoist: as one barge moved slowly down so a second was lifted, just as slowly, from the wide canal to the upper one. What caught the eye as the evident strength of the metal girders which constituted the frame for these slow movements. What evident strength. Undecorated, the girders proclaimed, to one observer, the strength, the power of the industrial revolution. At the time the frame was constructed, the 1880s, the canal would have been busy as the barges served the north-eastern coalfields and elsewhere. And yet there was decoration. What could have been the control tower was sheathed in a mock-medieval, brick cladding. Once a demonstration of industrial power, the whole construction now looked uncared for, unregarded.
We had to move from one level to another as our computer-led route led us to a bank at the bottom of which lay the path, alongside a canal. Down we slithered. Water, water, everywhere. Flatlands, and the canals had been the busy routes. Now they were scarcely used. Rather they had become water-features in the landscape, whilst the paths which ran alongside were for cyclists rather than for horses.
In a similar transformation what had once been slag-heaps, in the old coalfield, were now manicured hills. Value was being added, the contributions to GDP were being made, elsewhere. Times past.
As we approached Arras, the tower of Notre Dame de Lorette was also a reminder of those times. The tower was erected as a memorial to the battle of Arras, and at night its light, like the light of a lighthouse, sweeps across the battlefield. We were too early for the light, but it was easy to imagine its effect. Shivery.
The hotel: madame who met us and our needs; a companionable meal; and, in one bedroom, a mirrored ceiling. A rare opportunity to look up to oneself.
And to recognise, not oneself, but the benefits of a back-up vehicle. At the third puncture, it was time to call for help from our driver. Off they went in search of a bike shop. Off we went, past what had once been a railway station, to a café, opposite which, of course, was a bike shop. Back-up vehicles and their drivers are to be celebrated.
Arras to Le Cateau
In the nearby market-place, an attempt was being made on a world record. In the midst of the busy market, the piles of fruit salad were growing: it was an attempt on the world record for fruit salad. Did they make it? We never did find out. For after an amiable hour in the market we were on our way.
Along we cycled through the villages, somewhere in France. From time to time, we came to rest in a village. In one inscribed on the memorial were the words ‘Les vandals Germains’. Unambiguous. In the village where we took out lunch the memorial carried the words ‘a liberation des camps’ a phrase which was echoed, in a way, by a recent plaque outside the church, over the road, ‘Travail et Paix’. Echoes of forced labour, perhaps, within the memories of old people in the villages.
And the back-up vehicle gave further service when one of our number fell heavily as we cycled along a rutted track across a field. Instant first-aid was followed by the injunction ‘For you the ride is over’ (at least for the day). For the rest of the ride, bicycle and rider were carried along, to be at Le Cateau long before the rest.
After the welcome, the drink, the companionable dinner, there was time for a walk down the hill, with a developing sense that the best days of Le Cateau had been, for a coffee on the pavement. Just the position, it transpired, from which to watch the car as, zig-zagging across the main road, it crashed into a bollard, beyond which was the café in which the wedding revels were being held. Commotion. No serious injuries, but a car that will be written-off. Fifteen minutes or more after the crash, the revels were continuing, and the emergency services had not yet appeared.
Another statue which was in need of a lick of restoration. A statue of Marshal Mortier, a native of the town. He had joined the army as a second-lieutenant in 1791, and by 1799 he was a general. Five years on, he was among the first of the marshals whom Napoleon created. He commanded the Young Guard during the invasion of Russia, was administrator of Moscow, and gave distinguished service until the war ceased in 1814. He supported Napoleon’s return, but he was ill at the time of Waterloo. He came into favour with the new governments. In 1830-31 he was the French ambassador in Russia, just 15 years after his previous visit. In 1835 he was killed, along with others, by a bomb which was intended for the king. A local boy who made good, and who probably deserves a clean statue.
Le Cateau to Laon
Yesterday morning, piles of fruit salad; this morning, an artist’s life and work on display. The Henri Matisse museum in the town. After breakfast, ahead of the ride, an opportunity to spend quiet time in a gallery. An unexpected pleasure before we returned to the care of the bikes, to the group photo-graph, one which included the proprietor. Friendly and accommodating, he had the individual lunch-time baguettes ready when we returned.
In familiar fashion, the bike club rode smoothly (no cobbles) out of the town going south to Laon, 50 miles away. Wide horizons to the right and the left, no hedgerows, undulating roads. Large-scale farming. Crops to the edge of the roads. Open France.
Open cycling. From the back the others could be seen stretched out in front. A bright red cycling jacket, yellow ones, a blue one, each easily discernible. As the roads dipped and rose and turned so the line would be swooping down, climbing, turning. Warm, but no bright sunlight. A day on a bike between the wide boundaries of the land.
A fortuitous puncture, one which brought up to a half at exactly the half-way point. A fortuitous unfarmed bank by the side of the road. Lunch – baguettes, and all else from the panniers and bags. Occasional cars. At ease, at peace, somewhere in France.
Laon, the city on a hill, became discernible as misty outlines. As we approached, the outlines became more clear, and so did the steepness of the climb to the top. We switched from back roads to a smooth, straight, car-friendly road to the city. In single file, we cycled. Our speed rose. We entered the city. The speed fell as we reached the roads to the top; some dropped their gears and their heads and, at the end of the day’s ride, cycled slowly; for others the better option was to walk and push.
Later, we dined together in the cathedral square. A good day’s ride.
A rest day. No packing today. Mid-morning coffee in the square. Then, for one, the opportunity to cycle south to Le Chemin des Dames, site of a memorable battle in April 1917 between French and the German armies. The Nivelle offensive, widely known and declared by the commanding general to be the offensive which would lead to eventual victory, foundered. The extensive mutinies in the French armies followed shortly.
Coffee and conversation concluded, the swooping ride down the steep slope. At the bottom, there were no signs to the battlefield. And the names which were shown were not helpful. Ah. No hurry: ride to the next roundabout. Ride back to the next roundabout the other way. Ask. Follow the directions. Reach the railway station, which is on the north side of the town whilst the site is to the south. Cycle back. Ah, recognise the mistake. Cycle confidently. A roundabout. Ah. Ask. New directions. The right road from the city to the site emerges. Of course, it was the road at the bottom of the swooping hill.
An easy ride to the bottom of the slope which led to the plateau at the top. An oratory, and French and German military cemeteries at the top. A French president and a German chancellor met here, part of the process of rapprochement between the two countries.
On the way back, the small villages were tucked away. How to provide common services to such villages and settlements: medical, educational, recreational. A familiar problem.
Laon to Beauvoir (Taking the train)
Goodbye to the friendly proprietor, a young man who intends to transform a dingy interior, where we kept our bikes, into a bright café. Will we take our coffee there sometime? Probably not: that’s the way of things. A promise, as yet unfulfilled, to let him know that we had returned home safely. Assembly, smiles for the camera, and the tourers swept down the hill, safely through the bends, and away from Laon.
We were to sleep at Beauvoir, a hamlet about 40k south of Amiens. A long ride, too long for touring cyclists. So we were to let the train take the strain for a stretch. An easy ride to Tergnier, where we were to catch the train. On the way in we passed a museum dedicated to the Resistance and to the Deportations (of French men to work in Germany during the Occupation) Alas, no time, if we were to take our coffee in the café near the station and to buy our lunch in the supermarket over the road.
There was time though to notice the large memorial at the station which recorded the arrival at the station of the German plenipotentiaries in November 1918 from Compeigne, where they had signed the Armistice. And to notice the old, decorated station building, still standing, next to the new one.
A train ride. A comfortable train. Space to park our bikes, and to set out, to spread out, our food. A recollection of the extensive, evidently-unused, sidings, the remains of what had been a considerable activity. A companionable ride to Villiers-Brettoneux, just east of Amiens. On arrival, first job: take the bikes over the footbridge to the other side; second job: mend a puncture. A station staffed by one man, a station too big for present purposes; a platform too wide, a platform with grass poking through.
Ride on, to Beauvoir. Through the village, (no café), to the hotel which lay beyond. Expected comforts. A meal, time to stand outside, by the side of a main road, before bed.
Beauvoir to Neuchatel-en-Bray
Breakfast, assembly, time for a photograph. Back through the village (no people) on our way to Neuchatel-sur-Bray. A routine: breakfast, (still no scrambled egg, no bacon, no tea), complete packing, panniers on the bikes, photographs, and then, refreshed, the day's ride begins.
And so we began, through the village (no people), and on through the lanes. As always, the freshness of the morning ride: the day stretches ahead, the legs are fresh, there's no wind, no rain; what else should a creature be doing other than cycling through the countryside.
In a village, somewhere else in France, we meet one of our members who, with his wife, has bought a house and garden not far from Neuchatel, our destination. He leads, we follow. He continues to lead, we continue to follow. A village, not the one but close to the one, followed by the village and the house and garden.
Pleasantries in the garden. Talk of those others, French, who are also part-time members of the village. Talk of elections, of gardens, of life. Of the ride to Neuchatel. A descent, to be followed by a hill. Yes, the hill is steep, a head-down, never-mind-the-others-just-keep-pedalling hill. There's a reward: a long, long, swooping descent into - wait for it, and we have waited 60 miles for it - Neuchatel.
A welcoming hotel. A in the warm evening air. The last of our dinners with each other and with our local member and his wife. A chap could get used to this life.
And so to Dieppe
Breakfast, load the bikes, photographs, goodbyes, and we ride to the nearby station, no longer the railway one but the beginning of the cycleway to Dieppe. One of us remembers travelling by train on this very route. Long ago. Now it's easy cycling. Some onetime railway buildings remain. One, with what was once a platform, could so easily be a cafe, but it isn't. At last, there is a sign to a cafe, in the nearby village. A welcome there and hot coffee. A visitor thinks 'Could do with a lick of paint, some tablecloths, a spruce up'. The habitué sees what is familiar, what is customary. Along the road now to Dieppe. The sea is the influence here, either as a source of livelihood or of recreation. Re-encounters with the memorials to the notable day in August 1942. To the ferry, waiting, checking-in, boarding, leaving the bikes. The four-hour sail to Newhaven. Scattering, goodbyes. A train-ride. A concluding ride home.
A week in the saddle. Five or six hours cycling for seven or eight days. In a bubble, as it were, through some accommodating part of France. Well supported. In company. Things to look at, to think about, as we cycled along. A rather pleasant way of spending a week.
Click here to go back to News