Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Trip hop north across the dull plains of France

We've been back home for just over a week. To begin with it was sunny, I managed to turn the meadow at the back of the house back into a lawn; Matthew, our eldest came up from London to visit for a couple days and we took ourselves off to Liverpool for the day. He claims he has never visited the city before, which is factually incorrect as the then newly refurbished Albert Dock was the place, three decades ago, two very nervous rookie parents took their first born,at a month old for his first trip out. So I suppose his amnesia about Liverpool is just about forgivable. For Matthew's overdue return day trip Liverpool managed to put on the glad rags. It was a bright sparkly day. We took lots of photos.

Lunch - scouse of course.

The modern park which links the Albert Dock to the city centre is pleasant enough - the bland shopping mall beyond - dismal.Liverpool has changed a lot since we knew it in the 1970s, but it seems no less characterful. Sunday afternoon remains a time where scousers young and old shake-off the previous night's drinking spree by heading out for a further pint or two. The sun was shining, the pubs were heaving and I was glad to see the place was high-spirited as ever despite some seriously uninspired attempts to redevelop the city centre area between Albert Dock and the older shopping area around Church Street.

Three Liverpool institutions, within spitting distance of each other -

'The Phil'

'The Everyman'

The RC cathedral - whereas Coventry's is mysterious and spiritual - Liverpool's seems communal and joyous...
Despite the best efforts of the city planners the backstreets remain at times refreshingly grungy and, like Dublin, drinking remains at the heart of the city's culture.

Having a bevvy is a serious business hereabouts.

The small clubs on the backstreets look suitably grungy

Whereas the view from Albert Dock towards the Liver Building is somewhat ruined by the interpolation of modern blocks, oddly enough, the same buildings viewed from the opposite direction, near the waterfront are quite pleasing. I had forgotten how magnificent the Cunard Building and the Port Authority Building are from the Mersey ferry terminal. The ensemble looks transatlantic, reminiscent of Boston, which given Liverpool's history is hardly surprising.

The Port Authotity and Liver buildings

'All you need is love'

A 'thirties' classic - The Cunard building.

Viewed from the waterfront, the more modern buildings work well with the earlier ones.

Since the weekend it has rained and blown a gale. Occasionally the outside thermometer struggled into double figures. I do wonder if we had ended up living in a sunnier part of England, rather than 1000 feet up a Pennine, whether we would have developed such an appetite for travel. So now, after only a few days back I am dreaming of sunny France. In my head it looks like this:

Actually, dashing slowly northwards with a ferry booked for a few days hence, France does not look like that at all. Mainly it looks like this:

With a cruising speed of about 55mph, Maisy gives us plenty time to fully appreciate the more tawdry and tedious aspects of France - the sprawl of Centre Commercials, the bland uniformity of France's many Macdonalds, all 1419 of them in total, la Gloire's god-forsaken villages enlivened by local mairies' endearing taste for rond-points decorated with dreadful contemporary sculpture, or street lighting reminiscent of Next Interiors more bizarre attempts to reinvent the lamp standard along Dali-esque lines..We love it all.

Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne to Salbris, 207  miles - Saturday 27th May

In truth, the countryside between Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne and Brive La Galliard is not tawdry at all. The pale cream stone of Dordogneshire is replaced by a land of red rocks and viridian forest amongst which nestle small settlements of rust coloured houses often overlooked by a ruined castle on nearby rocky outcrop. The only place on the tourist trail is Collonge-la-Rouge, otherwise we had the roads to ourselves. All this changed once we reached the A20 at Brive-la-Galliard. The countryside changed gradually from utterly lovely to merely pleasant, then settled into an entire afternoon of mind-numbing monotony. Muriel, our trusty Sat-nav acknowledged this state of affairs by not saying a word, simply displaying the message, 'left turn in 271km' which notched downwards inexorably as we trundled northwards towards our destination in the Loire valley, a few kilometres north of Vierzon.
l'autoroutes - efficient, but tedious - we like the A20 - it's toll free.
Eventually boredom prompted me to scrabble around in the front for a CD. We don't usually play music as we drive. The Ford Transit cab and chassis reflects the the vehicles primary purpose - to be a reliable workhorse for jobbing builders or scaffolders; it is functional but lacks finesse - sound insulation is minimal, on anything but smooth, newly laid tarmac Maisy squeaks and grunts and the merest touch on the accelerator promps a throaty growl from the willing, but somewhat underpowered engine. Music simply adds to the cacophony. Finally I found a  scratched compilation CD of Triphop that I had put together to accompany family trips south in our whisper quiet Galaxy more than a decade ago. So we squeaked and bumped our way northwards to a soundtrack of Portishead, Moloko and Transit Chassis.

Sometime in the late afternoon we reached Camping Sologne at Salbris. Neither the town nor the site were much to speak of, but more than adaquate for an overnight stop. The campsite looked like a former municipal, situated next to the town's sports facilities and a fishing pond - nice view, mosquito heaven. Though nowhere in particular, the place was crowded due to being the weekend after the Ascension holiday. It was filled with families from the static caravans parked at the site for the season. On the face of it, it seems strange to park your caravan permanently somewhere so mundane. However, I suppose, given the numbers of French  people living in apartment block without a garden, then having a space 'plein air' at a nearby site where you can relax at the weekend is an attractive option. I quick glance at car number plates revealed this to be the case, most were from local Departments in the Pays-de-Loire, escapees from the banlieus of Orleans, Vierzon and Tours I supposed. We needed milk and a few groceries. The local SuperU was a five minute walk across the footbridge over the river, we noticed the diesel was cheap and made a note to fill-up the next morning before heading to Normandy .

OK for an overnight stop

Pitch with a view - noisy geese and maurauding mossies.
Salbris to Neufchatel-en-Bray, 200 miles - Sunday 28th May

Today was tight spot Sunday. As planned we headed straight for the SuperU petrol station.. Like in the UK, independent rural petrol stations are an endangered species in France. Mostly you are forced to fill-up at autoroute service areas which are expensive or use supermarket stations which are cheap. This looks at first sight an obvious choice, but for the fact that some supermarket stations seem designed around the needs of Renault Twingo owners, not 7m motorhomes, Forecourts specialise in e tight exits beyond the pumps or worryingly low canopies which rarelyhave a notice displaying the height clearance. The worst offender is Intermarche but this particular SuperU proved tricky too.

The space between the pumps was narrow forcing us to fold-in the driver-side wing mirror so the man with the Citroen Cactus next to us had enough room to fill-up. This meant we were very close to our pump and had to employ contortionist skills to squeeze open the passenger side door to gain access to our filler point. The true extent or our predicament only became apparent as we prepared to leave. The 'caisse' (closed on Sundays!) had been so positioned as to make it necessary to wriggle through a bit of a chicane as you exited. This proved very tight. To manoeuvre the cab into a position to squeeze past the 'caisse' risked wacking the petrol pump with the rear overhang. I jumped out the cab to survey the rear; Gill positioned herself at the front to keep an eye on the how close the over- cab bed bulge was to the protruding roof of the caisse. The weekly fill-up appears to be as much a part of French Sunday morning social rituals as pedalling furiously around the countryside in spray-on lycra or buying a zillion calories of creamy concoctions at the local patisserie. Consequently the petrol station was packed. I hopped back into the cab, glanced in the passenger wing mirror carefully noting the gap between our rear corner and the shiny pump. Beyond, I also noticed a small gaggle of fellow customers had gathered, hoping I guess, for a minor accident to brighten-up an otherwise tedious Sunday morning (oh no, not gateaux again). They were destined to be further disappointed, With Gill waving furiously at the front and me edging slowly forwards, somehow we managed to miss the caisse roof by an inch or two and Maisy's rear cleared the pump by a smidgeon. As Gill hopped-in I remarked, "That was trickier than it should have been."

A fatuous observation maybe, but it turned out to be the theme for the day. The N roads between Chartres and Rouen are a kind of dead zone for motorhome friendly stop-offs. This is a bit awkward because either going north or heading south we always seem to end up here around lunchtime. At Nonancourt we ground to a halt. The traffic jam here is so persistent that despite in theory being a temporary phenomenon, it has assumed pretensions towards the mythic and everlasting, like the Gulf Stream, Jupiter's great red spot or Bruce Forsyth. We joined the queue at 12:30pm. a little peckish, emerging somewhat later ravenous and 'much in want' of a layby. There were none, nor were there any handy empty Supermarket car parks off the Dreux rocade. Half way to Evereux we spotted a likely looking small industrial estate - somewhat unprepossessing, but somewhere to pull over to have lunch. Sadly its barriers were down so we trundled onwards. The road beyond the factories turned into a narrow track and we soon became entangled in a maze of minor roads that crisscrossed the vast, prairie-like wheatfields. None of them were marked on our road atlas.

We seemed to spend a very long time driving about on tracks like these - thank you Google maps for the reminder.
We arrived at a village called Le Plessis-Grohan, a parking place was signed off the road. Blame it on the pangs of hunger or pure frustration, but I broke one of my hard and fast rules, which is never drive into somewhere where you cant't see the exit. The tiny car park was full, and contained a nasty surprise; the way out involve a sharp 90 degree turn down a narrow alley blocked on the right by by a car half parked on the pavement and an overhanging bay window to the left. Was there room to just squeeze through? Stalwart as ever, Gill jumped out and directed me as I edged forward. Miraculously we escaped unscathed. Eventually sometime in mid-afternoon the sat-nav navigated us to a two way road somewhere to the west of Evereux. Even better, a scrap of waste land with an overflowing skip! Room enough to stop and have a very late lunch. If elevenses is now called brunch, then what is the name for a threeish lunch? Teaunch?

After moaning about the mundane yesterday, I was pleased that the rest of the day proved utterly uneventful. We stopped at Neufchatel-en-Bray. It was late evening by the time we sorted ourselves out. Some bits of France are dull others delightful - and the aire at Neufchatel has many small delights. We took a twilight stroll up the nearby via verde. It was empty. We shared twilight with a herd of cows, the odd flitting swift and occasional owl hoot. A tranquil end to a fraught day.

Why am I holding my head as if lying down while standing up?
Beauty is a very random, arbitiary thing, why did I find the fading teilight anf telegraph wire's hauntingly lovely?


  1. Hi Gill & Pete. I'm beginning to think Summer has already given up in Northern Scotland this year. It's been cold, wet & windy for weeks now and I'm spending to much time looking enviously at all the FB posts from France & Spain on Motorhome Adventures. On the positive side our old Laika MH just passed it's MOT, so the escape plan for next year continues to gain momentum. Keep up the great posts, they are keeping going whilst "Chained to the Desk". Roll on Easter 18, although I shouldn't wish my life away.

  2. Thanks Steve - it weil happen - you will become a producer rather than a concumer of 'Motorhome Adventures'! We returned from a 12 day journey around the south of England yesterday. I will post the notes I made - one problem with using Caravan and Motorhome certified sites is few have wifi - and many have dodgy mobile signals too. However, they are cheap.