This is a ride that gets organised quite often. We utilise the offers in the papers for £1 foot passenger return ferry crossings from Dover to Calais, but take our bikes so we can have a decent ride in France. We usually then share cars to get to Dover to further reduce the cost to each individual.
It nearly didn’t happen
This planned trip was wholly dependant on the ferries taking us. They have had berthing problems in Calais and so wouldn’t take foot passengers or day trippers. Our original date was cancelled, postponed for a week until today.
I got the call confirming the trip was on, but at the same time confirming that the van driver wasn’t going, so I’d have to transport the tandem myself. This gave me 19 hours to arrange tandem transport. The only answer was a roof-rack, which I had to go out and buy. Then I had to get a tandem carrier. I couldn’t. Eventually the shops shut and I was still carrierless so I phoned my sister who I knew had one, an hour and a half’s return drive away. She didn’t answer either of her mobiles or her home phone.
In desperation I phoned my parents who I knew had wooden racks I might be able to lie the tandem on. I also phoned John to see if he knew of anybody who might have a tandem carrier. He was out. The situation was getting desperate. Would we have to call off at the last minute?
John phoned back as my parents arrived, and gave me 6 names of tandem owners. The first person was out, his daughter was in and knew nothing. The second person I got an answer-phone, as I did on the third. I gave up then and was about to bodge a wooden rack when the third person phoned back! (They couldn’t find their cordless phone when I called.) “yes” they had a rack, and “yes I could borrow it”.
I rushed round immediately with my nice shiny new roof-rack. Their carrier didn’t fit. “That doesn’t matter” says Brian, “We’ll just pop some new bolt holes through it” An hour later and I’m not only home, I have a roof carrier and am strapping the tandem onto it!
Huge thanks to Mary and Brian for sorting me out at such short notice!
Having not gone to bed until well past midnight, I didn’t appreciate the alarm going off at 5am. Fortunately we arrived at the ferry at exactly 7am as John had asked, unloaded the bike and parked the car. We cycled round to the ferry queue and were soon heading on board.
Now, here’s a tip for you. Go by bike when you get a ferry. You are loaded first, so can grab the front row at the breakfast queue, and then the best table in the restaurant! We all consumed a hearty big breakfast (even Stefan, renowned for not stopping eating).
After a short delay for a berth we were getting off the ferry (front of the queue again) and heading into Calais. John set us on our course, straight into the headwind and heading for Gravelines.
Decision for Lunch
Once we had been on the road for a while (we’d stopped for a short break in Gravelines, as well as another couple of stops so riders could add or remove clothing) we came to a junction and it was major decision time. Were we going to ride 6 miles to a known feeding hole in Audruicq or were we going to ride 8 miles to a potentially closed grub stop in Watten. The 6 miles was just a reversal of the last ride, but John told us that if Watten had no food we’d have to ride back to this junction (8 miles back and then 6 miles). This wasn’t the case, there were other routes as we found later.
It was also here that Brian and myself had a conversation where we had said that there was no point in worrying about getting a beer with lunch as “The French can’t do beer, no point in ordering, they just do a small glass of fizzy stuff.” Peggy quite rightly told us off, saying that we shouldn’t be expecting English style pints of good ale whilst abroad. I would like to apologise to the French, it isn’t a case of they can’t do ale, it is a case that I’d never found it in the past; read on.
We got to Watten and grabbed a table at a very delightful pub. After much confusion and phrase books, and with lots of help from Gemma, we worked out what was on the menu. I was by then a little worried about the service, since it had taken the proprietor nearly half an hour to lay our table. Finally the drinks menu arrived and we tried to work out what to go for.
Despite my earlier comments with Brian, I decided a beer would be nice. After looking at the table next to us Stefan and I decided to share a 75cl bottle of Goudale. This was absolutely gorgeous and I just wish I could have bought several bottles to bring home. Brian went for a different beer, and like me was hoping to hunt out a supply to bring home. Had I realised we were going to be in the bar for so long eating I would have ordered another bottle. I didn’t because it was 7.2% in strength and I didn’t think it responsible to cycle after 3 pints of that.
This pub is one I will want to go back to. The atmosphere was great, and the food was outstanding. We spent 2 hours in there in the end, having a great break from the cycling. Even better, and more importantly from my point of view, the bill was correct and accurate! As had been every food order.
On the road again.
From Watten we headed for Audruicq. Stopping on the way to look at a Chinese cemetery from the first world war.
The sun was breaking through, the company and conversation was great, the scenery was pleasant. It was just a great day to be out cycling. Even that headwind had turned into a tailwind. It felt hardly a second since we set out that John was turning off into the coffee shop we’d eaten at last time.
When in France avoid the frogs
From Audruicq we headed for Ardres which was gridlocked and had a fete on. Then we rode on through the lakes heading for the canals to follow them to Calais.
As we were trundling along on one of those quiet roads, Stefan spotted a pair of frogs crossing the road and stopped sharply to protect them from being run over. Unfortunately no warning was given and Peter had to swerve sharply to avoid Stefan. Peter headed for the bank and like a frog went hoppity hop down off the road. In his best Lance Armstrong impression he took his road bike across rough ground. Then remembered he isn’t Lance and a ditch is approaching. With great gymnastical ability he rolled off the bike and sat in the field unharmed. But muddy. We award you 9.5’s across the board Peter, splendid effort.
A final meander along the canals brings us back to Calais. Stefan photographs the riders against the sunset whilst we ride. The trip through Calais is interesting, but I think we found the best way, despite the cycle paths delaying the riders who chose to use them rather than stay in the road on the better surface.
Then the ferry and cheap alcohol. Disappointment all round that nowhere have we found lunchtime’s beers for sale off premises. Brian buys his traditional Toblerone and offers it around. As he says, “you always need a Toblerone moment on the way home”. Peter heads off looking for ice-cream (in March Peter?) but returns cross and empty stomached.
There was small amusement at me bungeeing my crate of 24 pints of “Old Speckled Hen” onto the rack of the tandem, under the rack bag we’ve carried all day. The handling was fine though. The interesting ride back to the terminal was more a fault of the road layout than the load.
We followed the cycle route, but nobody opened the remote controlled gate for some time, giving us delays. And then we came to a cycle crossing that was out of use. Had we been “traffic” we would have been safe and ok. Instead we were a hazard trying to cross the traffic flow at 90 degrees.
We loaded our bikes on the cars and took a slow steady trundle home up the motorway. Stefan ended up following me in a small two car convoy the whole way back, until we waved farewell at the final turning.
A great day out. A great way of enjoying France without being cooped up in a car. A trip that will be repeated again and again.