Archive for August, 2008

2007 Stages one and two of our pilgrimage to Santiago, starting from home.

August 7, 2008

First leg.  Home to Harwich,

Saturday 07.07.07

We departed from home at 9.30am. Kate recorded the moment for posterity!

Off we go!

Off we go!

Via Fordham, Exning, Newmarket to Dullingham (mid-morning snack on the green).

Brinkley, Carlton, West Wickham, Horseheath (baguettes in a pub).

Cardinal’s Green, Shudy Camps, Castle Camps, Helions Bumpstead, Finchingfield (tea at a café on the green, among the bikers. We watched a wedding party descending the hill from the church, gathering for photos on the green. Then smelled the lilies when we looked in the church on our way out of the village.)

Then via Wethersfield and Sible Hedingham to Castle Hedingham Youth Hostel – arrived at 4.45.

Castle Hedingham Youth Hostel

Castle Hedingham Youth Hostel

Miles for day:  45, cycling time 4hours 45mins.

NB. First day without rain for three weeks.

Ate a filling meal of hostel spaghetti bolognese followed by crumble and custard – delicious!


Sunday 08.07.07

After a good breakfast depart Castle Hedingham 9.25.

Signs of St James in Castle Hedingham

Signs of St James in Castle Hedingham

Break in Pebmarsh (village closed for go-cart racing) mid-morning.

church porch, where we ate bananas

Church porch, where we ate bananas

Bures, Nayland (bought bread, brie, beetroot and coleslaw here) – ate lunch in Boxted churchyard, where we located a gravestone decorated with a fearsome skull.

Langham, Dedham Heath, Lawford, Mistley, Bradfield, Wrabnes, Ramsey, Dovercourt and Harwich.

41 miles in 4 hr40 mins cycling time.

Found the North Sea cycle route here, but didn’t have time to follow it back to the port, which we went through on the way back on the train.

Home by 2 trains and 1 substitute bus, then cycling from Ely – home just after 8pm.

Second leg.  Harwich to Reims.

Friday 7 September 2007

Our friend Delia, bless her, drove us and the bikes to Harwich and dropped us off about 9pm near a big sign pointing the way for cars, vans, motorcycles and cycles to the ferry. We cycled to the queue and eventually gathered with the other bicycles and motorbikes, eyeing up each others’ loads. We were directed on to the ferry at about 9.45  – cycling up and round a winding ramp and on to the car deck – then shown into a stair well and provided with straps to tie the bikes up. We found our cabin – bunks, own shower and loo. Did a brief explore of the ship, read for a while. Peter got our Pilgrim passports stamped with ‘Stenaline’ at the desk. Asleep about 12.

Saturday 8 September 2007

Hook van Holland – Ouddorp

Woken at 5.30 (6.30 Dutch time). We went to find a cup of tea and discovered that breakfast was included – unfortunately we both felt too tired to make best use of this!

The ship docked in Hook of Holland and we struggled to get down to the car deck. After going up and down in a lift several times with several bikers we were quite late to collect our bikes and had to cycle round the car deck to get out and on to Dutch soil (tarmac). A cheerful young passport official welcomed us nicely and we were away by 8.30.

Peter on Dutch soil

Peter on Dutch soil

Easily found signs for cycle path and we cycled beside the Neuwe Waterweg to Maassluis.

View from ferry!

View from ferry!

Crossed on a ferry to Rozenburg where we picked up the Lf1a Nordzeeroute. Out of town we watched an enormous orange ship come through a narrow channel while we and a large group of Dutch cyclists waited by a raised bridge.

Brielle was a pretty town with interesting shops to wander past but we couldn’t locate a supermarket until we asked at the Tourist Office. Then we bought the wherewithal for three picnics (as it was the weekend).

We ate our lunch on a grassy bank by a little canal through the town – beside a mini-caravelle type boat!

The church carillon played tunes on the hour and half-hour. After a good rest on through farmland to a long dam where the cycle path was under repair – so the road lost a carriageway to the cyclists!!!

This took us on to the Goeree peninsula – a snack stop by a boat yard watching jet ski-ers.

On to the village of Goedenede – where riders on heavy horses were competing to put a lance through a tiny ring suspended from a rope.

It was a special ‘open monument day’ and lots of people were out and about.

Then on to Ouddorp – noting large numbers of older couples out for weekend cycle rides – mostly looking very glum.

We had to ask the way to Pension Ouddorp (where we had booked a room) at the VVV (tourist information office) but then found it very easily.

33 miles in 4hrs 30 mins cycling time.

Very much a family hotel – the more so because Mrs Host was celebrating her 40th birthday. Crowds of children rode their bikes round the drive and car park and kicked footballs. We’d been warned about their party that evening, but after eating our second picnic on our bed we struggled to stay awake to 9pm, and slept soundly until 7am.

Sunday 9 September 2007

Ouddorp – Domburg

We ate a good breakfast with boiled eggs, cheese and ham and a variety of breads. Left at about 9.40. Took some time finding our way out of Ouddorp but that meant we passed a hole in the wall for money.

Pleasant morning ride on traffic free paths and quiet roads to Brouwersdam, a great dam 3 ½ miles long separating the North Sea from De Grevelingammeer. Then the Lf1a took a different route from the one marked in our borrowed 1999 guide (in Dutch) and took us through the holiday town of Renesse and Burgh-Haamsteed to Westerschouwen – a country park type area at the end of the peninsula. We sat and ate our picnic lunch (tinned sardines, rolls, nuts and apples) and the sun came out and shone on us as we leant against a grassy mound. After lunch we followed the Lf1a signs along a bendy and hilly (!) concrete paved route through the country park (which we suspect we need not have followed) until it came out eventually at the coast and the start of the next long dam – 10 miles in all along the massive sea defences.

We watched two yachts going through a sea lock and went past lots of sandy beaches – people were kite surfing in one place. As the afternoon wore on the weekend cyclists – families and more of the older couples again- increased. It was difficult to raise a smile or a ‘dag!’ from anyone.

We left the Lf1a at Breezand following signs to Oostkapelle and Domburg. Rather uncertain where our booked Stayokay hostel would be exactly but we made several lucky guesses and soon came upon it – easy to spot because it’s in a castle with turrets and everything!!

Is it a castle? Is it a hostel? Is it a good night's rest?

Is it a castle? Is it a hostel? Is it a good night?

37 ½ miles in 4hrs 20mins. Wrote up day’s journey in the garden while waiting for the evening meal – should have booked it before 4 but 4.30 was OK, thank goodness. After supper we read books on a sofa in the hall and drank tea, until we couldn’t stay awake any longer.


Monday 10 September

Domburg – Middleburg – Vlissingen – Breskens – Sluis – Brugge

40 miles in 4 ¾ hours

It was an ‘interesting’ night- we’d been put in a mixed sex 6-bedded room. When she realised Peter was making up his bed in the room an anxious looking young French woman in a voluminous black anorak looked very worried. We heard her trying to change rooms at the desk, but obviously she could not. We spent the evening reading downstairs so as not to upset her, and when we went up at nineish she looked to be asleep. Two middle-aged Dutch ladies were reading in bed quite unconcerned, and Peter undressed in the loo, got into bed quickly and lay with his face to the wall. Downstairs a large Dutch choir group was singing,drinking and talking loudly late into the night. It took a while to drop off. Then…

Three times in the night our French room-mate got up very noisily, put on the voluminous jacket, stamped across the room and slammed the door as she went off somewhere – perhaps to the downstairs loo? We’d all then wait with bated breath until she returned and climbed back into her top bunk. Several other times during the night Bridget was woken by Peter flapping his towel at her from above – apparently trying to stop her making that embarrassing heavy breathing (not quite snoring) sound which might have disturbed everyone else in the room.

In the morning we watched our odd companion make countless forays to the breakfast buffet, making sandwich after sandwich to pack away somewhere about her person – much more than could possibly be accounted for by a desire for a free lunch – perhaps she had companions outside in the woods to feed?

We cycled to Middleburg where we stocked up on fruit – three different varieties of plum!- then down a broad canal to Vlissingen (Flushing).

This was a bigger town and we drifted around a bit to find St. Jakobskirke with its tall tower. It began to rain, and when we did find it the church was locked.

We bought only slightly interesting but warm sausage rolls and set off in the drizzle following signs for the ferry to Breskens. This crosses the 6 km Shelde estuary, goes every 20 minutes for foot passengers and cycles only (there is a new tunnel for motor traffic further east) and cost 6.70 euros for the two of us and the bikes.

We arrived at the other side about 1pm and set off along the Lf1a again, heading west right into the wind along sandy coastal paths mostly on top of the sea defences, past multitudinous empty campsites. If it hadn’t been for the very strong wind blowing the sand into our eyes it would have been a lovely ride! Eventually we turned inland across farmland through Cadzand and stopped to buy fuel in the form of syrup waffles and non-diet coke at a village shop in Retranchement. We managed a conversation in gestures and single words with the shopkeeper about the wind and our lack of energy, then revitalised set off towards Sluis and the Belgium border. Somewhere round here we encountered a strange net suspended from a post at the side of the road, signed Blikwenger, but couldn’t work out what on earth this was. One or two had a bit of rubbish in the bottom, but most were empty. Later investigation with the dictionary and enquiries of our landlady in Gent revealed that Blikwenger means eyecatcher, and these are a bright idea to encourage cyclists to discard their energy drink containers somewhere other than in the hedges and ditches.

The Lf1a took us firmly around Sluis (it might have been nice to see the town but we did see a bird which might have been a stork), and we sheltered under a road bridge with an old man on a mobility scooter during a brief rainstorm, just on the border between Holland and Belgium. Then down a canal all the rest of the way to Brugge; past Damme and crossing two huge east – west canals – the Schipdonk and Leopold – at a place called de Siphon. Groups of cyclists passed us – on organised trips from Brugge I think, but we made good time. We negotiated the Brugge ring road and located our hostel easily. This was a backpackers’ hostel, and we had a double room, stuffy and shabby but clean enough.

After showers we wandered around the city for a couple of hours St. James spotting-

That's James on the door

That's James on the door

. . . and with shells

. . . and with shells

before eating in the hostel restaurant (interesting mock-gothic décor – black candles that drip red wax, and gloomy lighting) and then to bed.

Tuesday 11 September

BrugesGent

33 miles in 4 hours

We packed after breakfast in the same sub-Goth decorated restaurant, looking a lot less atmospheric in daylight, then communicated with the children via the internet. Next B shopped for lunch and supper while P loaded the bikes, so we didn’t set off until about 11. We found the right canal to follow all the way to Gent quite easily .

We were using instructions from the ‘Cycling Belgium’s Waterways’ website, but found the LF5a signs adequate – except where they took us through a gravel works and we had to back track and make some guesses to return to the canalside. We went through (or near) Steenbrugge, Moerbrugge, Beernem, St. Joris, Aalter, Bellem and Durmen and crossed the Schipdonk canal, again.

We ate lunch under bushes during a brief shower – there were one or two others but very brief, thankfully. We passed one particular huge barge several times – it had a very recognisable chugging engine and it always seemed to get ahead of us during our brief diversions from the canal path.

We reached the outskirts of Gent about 3.30, and followed our canal in until it seemed we needed to strike off into the town centre. A man directed us over a bridge but we got lost in the streets and kept coming back to the canal! Eventually another man pulled up beside us at traffic lights on his bike. Noticing our panniers he told us he’d been to Santiago earlier this year and seeing us ‘pulled on his heart’! He gave us excellent directions to the tourist office – hooray!

In the Tourist Office (in an old church in the central square full of old churches) we were helped to find a lovely B and B at the top of a tall city terrace (called Het Rommelwatter). We cycled there getting more and more confident about relying on the apparent willingness of Belgian motorists to give priority to cyclists!

The room is lovely and we have a fridge and microwave – ideal as we have decided to stay two nights to explore the delights of Gent (like these lovely spiky dancing figures on the top of a Guildhall type  building)

and have a rest from long-distance cycling.

Wednesday 12 September

Day in Gent

Breakfast was left outside our room at 8.00 – rolls, croissants, coffee, cartons of orange juice, pots of yoghurt and in the fridge a litre of milk and a plate of cheese and ham! What a feast! We couldn’t eat it all so we made a couple of ham and cheese rolls for lunch. Peter then washed some clothes and rinsed them while he had a shower and Bridget started to darn a tear in Peter’s trousers. All very domestic! When the clothes had been wrung out in towels and hung about the radiators we collected our bikes from the end of the hall downstairs and headed into town. Having the bicycles meant that we could get about quickly and see things which might have been too far apart if we were on foot. Our first stop was at St.Baff’s Cathedral in the town centre where we wandered around (separately) looking at things that caught our eyes.

Then on to the Design Museum where we spent a long time – there was a display of household electrical appliances – irons, toasters, vacuum cleaners, etc. There was also a Bakelite collection, which was fascinating. Upstairs were art deco and art nouveau decorative items including an exhibit of Henry ?? – seemed to be the Belgian Rennie Mackintosh. After this, rather museumed out for the moment, we cycled off some way to locate a Beguinage marked on the map – it turned out just to be a locality with nothing to actually visit, but a grassy churchyard made a good and quiet spot for our lunch.

After that we cycled back towards the city centre and stopped at the Museum Van Alijne – a Folk Musuem in an old hospice building. We didn’t expect much of this but it turned out to be intriguing – household bits and bobs, hobby equipment (birds and bicycles), funeral items and baby clothes, and fascinating old film of Flemish festivals – kermisses (?).

Bridget took some photos from where we had padlocked our bikes to the railings – lovely reflections of Flemish buildings in the canal.

As the day was not quite over we popped into St Nicholas’ Church in the central square – not too much to see as most of it was under wraps undergoing major restoration. Back to the Tourist Information Office to use the loos and get our Pilgrim Passports stamped.

We stopped at a supermarket to buy something to microwave for supper – a decent ready cooked Belgian speciality (waterzoie) with chicken and potatoes. Then back to our chambre d’hote confidently cycling straight out at the roundabouts in front of all the cars like the Belgians (well, if we paused it just confused the car drivers and risked causing chaos).

While supper was heating up Bridget checked the emails – Daisy having trouble with a mouse, something about fence panels being delivered and bringing mannequins home from work to grow roses up. She then tried to book a room at the youth hostel in Tournai to tomorrow. After supper Peter went out to find a hole in the wall so we could pay in the morning, and Bridget went on darning. Then Peter went to bed and to sleep while Bridget worked on the crossword in Saturday’s Guardian which we’d bought in Brielle.


Thursday 13 September

Gent – Tournai

45 miles in 4 hours and 40 minutes

After another leisurely breakfast, finishing the darn, checking emails again, packing, paying and saying ‘goodbye’ to our host it was 10 past 10 before we left. We had a street map and knew where we were going to find our riverside route, but it was still a good half hour before we were bowling along beside the Schelde. Our print-off from ‘Cycling the Waterways of Belgium’ suggested it would be 27 km from the Ottergembrug (where we left Gent) to Oudenaarde and then 40 ish to Tournai so we knew it was going to be a long day. But the tow path was so level and the day so perfect (sun, some breeze but not too much) we had no problems!

Lunch was on a bench outside a church in Oudenaarde, sitting next to a lady from Antwerp visiting for the day, and where we crossed from the west to the east bank. Shortly after Oudenaarde we heard out first ‘Bonjour!’ although the signs didn’t change consistently from Flemish to French until the actual border between Flanders and Wallonia near Bossuit.

A good game on this journey was waving at the barge drivers (helmspeople?) and getting them to wave back. The barges are absolutely HUGE so if you wave when you are in front and probably in the eye line of the driver in the wheelhouse at the back you can’t see if the little person there is waving or not, but if you wait until you’re nearly level they may not see you! Eventually I perfected the technique and they were generally a cheery lot and waved back. At locks (and there were quite a few) it was easier and we could nose in at the windows of their living quarters. Many of them have one or even two cars parked on the cabin roof – some only bicycles, with child seats.

Again, as the day wore on the numbers of cyclists increased – men in brightly coloured Lycra but also the older couples. Many more greetings today and friendly smiles. We passed canals joining from east and west, went through a couple of gravel/sand works and past a power station. Lots of cows, sheep, horses even donkeys and a little herd of ?fallow? deer in a paddock. Eventually we came to Tournai, about 4.30. The path became cobbles. We had located the Tourist Office on our map, and found it without too much bother, close to the cathedral. The lady there rang the Youth Hostel to check if there was room, and directed us – it was easily although steeply just up the road.


Outside the hostel - note cathedral towers!

Peter outside the hostel - note cathedral in the distance

So we were outside when it opened at 5, and were given a 6-bedded room to ourselves, with shower and loo en suite.

Friday 14 September

Tournai – Mons,

35 miles in 4 hours

It was a quiet breakfast in the dining room – just four of us and no communication.

On our way out of the town we diverted to find the Eglise St Jacques, and were delighted to find a bronze cockleshell on the pavement outside, and the door unlocked.

Yes, we ARE on the Way to Santiago

Yes! We ARE on the Way to Santiago

Inside it was beautiful, spacious and sparse and very, very quiet.

There were proper statues of St James with a pilgrim staff, gourd and hat.

The big painted crucifix was down and laid out in a side chapel, perhaps for repair

– it was rather moving to see the chipped plaster feet nailed to the cross.

There was a notice at the back telling peregrins to call at a nearby house to have their credentials stamped – we went of course, excited at this first sign that we were following in the footsteps of other pilgrims. The charming lady in the house stamped our Pilgrim Passports with their first proper stamps, and said we were the first English pilgrims she had met!

By now Bridget urgently needed a loo.  No sign of one anywhere but the Tourist Office sent us off to the Clothiers’ Hall in the central square. She bravely ventured in, where people were laying tables for some civic reception, feeling awkward, but there were toilets, fortunately. Peter decided to hang on, though.

Finally we got back to the river (now called the Escault) and on our way again. At the Petit Large where we left the river for a canal, we watched a group of school children practising their cycling on the road with a police escort front and back, and three teachers beside them (helmet-less). We chose the older canal to the right – it was narrower and more overgrown, and eventually far below us in a deep cutting in thick woods. We ate our lunch here – very still and quietly mysterious until a train whizzed by on the track we hadn’t realised was behind us.

The two canals joined up again, and we whizzed along ourselves except where we lost the route a bit where they were building a second road bridge and the cycle path had been dug up. We left the canal for Mons at Le Grande Large (a ‘large’ seems to be a widening of the canal, like a basin), although getting into the town itself was a bit complicated due to a major road project.

Eventually we found the Grand Place and the Office de Tourisme. Madame assured us there was no Youth Hostel nor any Chambres d’Hote in Mons, and quickly fixed for us to go to the Hotel Ibis near the station. We hoped this was cheap but were too tired to assert ourselves over much. We made our way past the preparations for a weekend extravaganza and down the cobbled streets (Peter’s bottom suffers more than Bridget’s because she had got suspension on her bike and he hasn’t) and found the hotel. More chain-y and commercial than we really like but …. We had deep hot baths and caught up with news in English on BBC World News.

Revived we went out for something to eat. After what seemed like a long way through streets of closed shops (we were looking for non-central eating places) we got back to the Grand Place where we did a tour of all the restaurants trying to decide where to eat. At last we plumped for one and sat down at a table looking out over the square. We were brought menus – oh no! another choice! – the waitress came back twice before Peter plumped for the steak and Bridget the pork, both with frites (this was Belgium after all).

Part of the problem was that we were distracted by tomorrow’s main attraction – acrobats – testing a long zip wire from the very top of the bell tower on the cathedral some way behind the central square over roofs ending at their semi-spherical frame set up close by us. Our food was very good, and we sat for a while enjoying the people strolling by. A group of tourists led by people in costume playing medieval type music on reedy sounding instruments came by a couple of times. After eating we hung around the square for a while waiting to see if there was going to be a show, but when it was clear nothing was going to happen we went back to bed.

Saturday 15 September

Mons – Pont-a-Celles

33 miles in 4 1/4 hours

We slept well although Peter was disturbed by noisy neighbours somewhere. Although there was lots of breakfast the cost of room and breakfast was a lot more than we were used to or expected. And then we had to pay to use the internet in the lobby to check our emails!

We packed up and set off to find the canal. Easier than coming into the town the night before because we were on the right side of town and understood the road works and where we were going!

The canal was very peaceful and quiet – with lots of fishermen lined up having fishing competitions. We’d forgotten to buy anything for lunch on the way out of town, but found a baker’s shop which made sandwiches to order right beside the canal. We came to a junction between new and old canals – the old one is famous for its four old hydraulic lifts in place of locks, and the new one funded by the same millennium project that paid for the Falkirk Wheel (I think) is famous for its one incredibly ginormous lift which lifts the barge plus 10,000 tonnes (or maybe 100,000) 74 metres in one go. We decided to follow the old canal, even though two men tried to persuade us that the new canal was a shorter route and we had to explain we were interested in the historical lifts.

We sat on the bank at the point where the two canals joined up again to eat our  sandwiches, watching a woman having her first water-skiing lessons in the broad waterway – well, mostly watching her friends or teachers turning the boat round and coming back to get her up again – for a few seconds! We clapped when she got the hang of it at last!

The next stretch was really quiet, both on the water and alongside, on the rather rough chemin de halage (towpath), and we hardly passed anyone. We were headed for Charleroi, which we’d been given to understand is an industrial city and unlikely to have much tourist accommodation. So we decided to start looking for somewhere to stay in Pont-a-celles, a small town which our RAVeL guide told us had a Tourist Office. However, at 3.30 on a Saturday afternoon it was closed, although the town was alive with a Fire Brigade activity afternoon and the Brownies on the loose with leafy boughs for some reason. We cycled around and followed a sign to a Gite a la Ferme for a couple of kms, but there seemed to be someone already staying there and the barking dogs were quite scary, so we returned to the village centre where Bridget plucked up the courage to approach a woman sitting outside a café bar in ungrammatical but (by this stage of the journey) reasonably confident French to ask for help. She asked her friend, and she asked the café owner and after a general discussion they pointed us up the road beside the bar. We set off all hopeful, but our spirits dropped when we seemed to be getting back to the ferme with the chiens. So we stopped and asked a man who was washing his car. He too suggested the gite a la ferme, and when we said we thought there were already people staying there he said they had more than one gite, and fetched his mobile and the telephone directory to ring them. He got no answer but urged us to go there, so with trepidation we made our way back.

cour

The farm turned out to be very old – with 11th century buildings, and situated on the old roman road across the country called ‘Geminiacum’. And yes, there were more than one gite, and we were offered the extremely well designed flat over the architect son-in-law’s office. It had two bedrooms, a living area with a kitchen, a lovely view and solid wood furniture, and a bathroom with a super powered shower. The farm owners were away, but daughter and son-in-law agreed a charge of 50 euros for the night, as we had our own sleeping bags (although they delivered pillow cases), before they set off down to the town to collect their young cubs and brownies.

We unloaded our bags into the flat, then cycled back into the town to buy some food in the small supermarket. We soon realised, because they were switching the lights off, that they were closing so we hurried up collecting food for supper and breakfast. Then back up to our luxury flat, ate at the table, sat on the sofa, showered (and got the floor very wet – architectural desire for glamour won over practicality, methinks) and slept very well.

Sunday 16 September

Pont a Celles – Namur

39 miles in 4 ½ hours

We slept very comfortably and well – woke just before 8 and made cups of tea and ate breakfast watching BBC Breakfast News! We felt we had to tidy up the pristine gite very well, and write a nice note in the guest book.

We left just after 10, taking country roads marked on our RAVeL route maps, to the next village, thus missing one bend of the canal. After about half an hour we came to the outskirts of Charleroi and followed the RAVeL 1 route up to the disused railway path – the ‘119′. The steep hill at first was a shock. Then we missed our way but an elderly gentleman explained helpfully in clear French and we found our way back to it. The rest of the way was adequately marked and after about 14 km we were out of Charleroi and back beside water – this time the river Sambre. The chemin de halage took us past big industrial works and quiet countryside for the rest of the day.

We ate lunch in a place beside an enormous war memorial statue in a little town called Timines, then continued on, both suffering a little – Bridget’s knees and Peter’s bum, but progressing quickly. It was overcast but dry and sometimes the sun broke through. There were few lycra veloists today but more couples and families out for a Sunday afternoon spin. We watched a little pleasure cruiser go upstream through a lock; all the barges were tied up today.

By 4 we were in Namur.

Is it a boat? is it a car?...

Is it a boat? is it a car?...

On the river beside us an amphibious pale green Hillman Imp was being driven along – it had a registration plate HOT 007 and drew a lot of interest – we took photos like everyone else. We intended to go straight to the hostel, but were distracted by exciting events like people zip-wiring down from the citadel across the river to be caught and set down on a quay where a band was playing, and then by the interesting sound of a group of drummers in the busy town square. However it was really too crowded for us to push the bikes, and we were too tired, so we continued on to the Youth Hostel, arriving about 5.

Our room was on the second floor, up a lot of steep and narrow stairs, and as I mentioned before, we were tired. So it was disappointing to find when we got up there that we had been given the wrong key. Peter went down again to exchange it for the right one. Once in the room there was no mattress on the top bunk. This time Bridget trailed all the way down, and was told to take one from another room. Once settled and changed we went downstairs to find the members’ kitchen and make ourselves a cup of tea or three and a biscuit (and cheese rolls!).

Then we went back to reception to check our email using their free internet, and to plan where to stay tomorrow. Our plan had been to take every fourth day as a rest day, but there were no vacancies in the hostel for a second night, so instead Bridget rang L’Abbaye de Leffe in Dinant, a monastery which provided accommodation for pilgrims, according to our French footpath (randomee) Guide to the Voie De St Jacques from Belgium to Vezelay.  It took a couple of phone calls and each time Pere Dominic who was in charge of guests was not available, but we were told to come anyway.

We were too tired still to contemplate finding a meal in Namur, so we’d ordered a meal in the hostel. These seemed to be home cooked earlier in the day, and warmed up – very generous and filling. We also got left in charge of reception when Madame was called for by her friends and went off for a drink. When another friend came looking for her we gathered that if was not unusual and her ten minutes might be a bit longer! It was.

Still there was a good shelf of books to explore, and the Thompson’s train directory meant that we could begin to work out our train journey home from Reims to Calais.

Monday 17 September

Namur to Dinant

19 miles

After breakfast we left our panniers in reception, and cycled back into Namur to find l’eglise St. Jacques and maps for our French stage. We discovered that it was just as well that we’d been too tired to go back into the town last night – there was a strong smell of the previous night’s drinking activities and people were scrubbing down the pavements outside their shops with disinfectant. The autumn drinking festival was continuing with one small square lined with tables laden with samples and several people already tottering around at 10 in the morning.  We struggled to find the church we were looking for, although on our circumnavigations of Namur we found the one where the university beginning of the year service was being held, so we could direct the freshers who stopped and asked us – did we look like locals with our bikes, panniers and helmets??!

Another locked eglise St. Jacques

Another locked eglise St. Jacques

Once found (by following the scallop shells on the pavement backwards) l’eglise St Jacques was locked, anyway. Next job was to find maps. Asking in bookshops eventually led us to an RAC shop where Bridget’s French (improving all the time) achieved IGN maps to cover our route to Reims – as it was apparent that the randomee never took a straight line along a river bank when a route with three loops and over two steep escarpments was available. A quick stop at a hole in the wall, and back to the hostel to load up the bikes

Cycling south beside the Meuse

Cycling south beside the Meuse

and set off down the river (the Meuse now) towards Dinant and, ultimately, France. It was a pretty route through a valley, but too many cobbled bits for Peter’s bottom.

Just a few miles from Dinant Bridget did a bungled gear change while climbing up to a bridge on cobbles, and crunch! Her gears jammed. Not just jammed, but wrapped the chain around the rear gear changing mechanism, bent it and broke a bit off.  Peter cleverly managed to reconstruct the mechanism so that it was fixed in one gear, which got us to Dinant, where we found a bicycle repair shop. The proprietor looked like a Belgium cycling version of a Newmarket jockey, and probably being asked to repair Bridget’s high street bike was like asking the jockey to ride a donkey on Blackpool beach, but he conveyed in a few words and without expression that he would have it ready by ten tomorrow morning.

Who's this?

Who's this?

By  now it was raining, and we loaded Bridget’s panniers over Peter’s saddle, and set off up Dinant main street, past shops, streets, squares, hotels named after Adolph Sax, and even a statue of the man himself, sitting on a bench in the street, his musical invention by his side.

After a wet couple of miles, we arrived at the Abbey. We eventually found the correct front door, and pressed the doorbell. We heard it ring, but no one came to answer the first time we rang, nor the second, nor … After about 20 minutes a man came with a trailer full of plastic bottles, and filled them up at the spring outside the door. He ignored us until I explained that we were getting no reply. He thought the brothers might be praying, but we were not ringing during the times indicated for offices, so that couldn’t be it. After another 20 minutes, standing in the drizzle and still ringing intermittently, we were getting desperate and thinking we’d have to go and find a hotel when a girl come out of the door. She used her mobile to ring Father Dominic inside, and he came to show us in. No explanation was given of why the door was not answered, but after bringing our bikes in to the large entrance hall (where four others were already parked) we were shown up to a lovely comfortable room. Father D had to go to vespers and said he would fetch us for supper after the service. We would have gone too, but couldn’t work out where to go.

We were shown into the guest dining room where the four other cyclists turned out to be four men from Antwerp. It was a very pleasant meal, of bread, cheese and ham, yoghurt and stewed apple, and conversation about cycling, and the lack of a Belgian government. Father D brought in bottles of Leffe beer – no longer actually made by the monks, I think. Bridget declined the beer and a pot of tea was produced. From 8 silence was kept, so we were asked to clear our dirty dishes into the kitchen where we would wash them up tomorrow after breakfast. We said our goodnights to our fellow pilgrims and retired to our room, for quiet reading and writing, and an early night.

Tuesday 18 September

Leffe (Dinant) – Revin    34 ½ miles

A really cosy and peaseful night here!

A really cosy and peaceful night here!

A comfy and warm night in our graciously appointed bedroom – heavy wooden furniture, red carpet and curtains, double bed with wooden head and foot and bolsters at each end. We woke at 25 to 8, 8 being breakfast time, and we packed up quickly so that we could get away in good time, as we’d have to walk back the 2 miles or so to the other end of Dinant to collect the bike.

All six of us pilgrims gathered in the same dining room for breakfast of yoghurt, bread, jam and butter etc. Feeling more confident now Bridget went to the kitchen to fill the electric kettle to make tea – although copious coffee was provided.

Then Pere Dominic appeared, in white habit this morning, having been in civvies the evening before. He fetched the Abbey’s stamp and printed it on our credentials with a great flourish. It’s an impressive one – big and in Latin. Our British pilgrim passport with its laminated yellow cover was also much admired. We all wrote in the guest book and admired the entry from a famous Belgian cyclist, even though two of us had never heard of him!

It was raining hard

and the Belgian veloistes were putting on all their wet weather gear to tackle at least 100 kms in the general direction of the south west. Their plan was to do the Via Tourensis route (Paris and Chartres and south) reaching Santiago in three weeks!!

We bought bread on the way through the town, and found the bike all ready for us at 9.30 – a complete new gear mechanism for 30 euros.

The rain was lessening as we set off still on a RAVeL route by the river Meuse as far as the French border, past some very smart riverside houses, and other bits quite rundown. We crossed into France just before Givet. We had to take the main road out of Givet, but managed to turn off into Aubrives where we ate our lunch on a grassy step by an old quay on the river.

Lunch time view

Just after lunch the rain returned at full power. As we were back on the main road we pushed on regardless, up and down hills into Vireux-Milhain.  The rain stopped and we followed a very little road on the map along the east side of the Meuse.  At one point it was marked “No entry” – “chemin tres dangereux” but we pressed on regardless – it got a bit pot-holey and gravelly in places but we went slow and kept away from the unfenced river’s edge, and it took us nicely into Herbes, and thence into Fumoy.  There the rain came down again and we sheltered under a café’s canvas shelter to eat some chocolate and refold the map.  When the rain lessened we set off again along the main road (to Charleville Meziers) as far as Revin.  There were road works and a massive long wait – we then set off abreast so as not to be pushed off the road by the cars as we traversed the rough surface of the road being resurfaced.

Arrived in Revin about 4.15 – eventually located the Office de Tourism in an old Spanish home – we were advised about the local hotels and took a room in the Hotel Le Francois just along the quai – room with a view over the river (still the Meuse), en suite, supper and breakfast for just under 70 euros. Chilled out on the bed with books before showers and supper at 8.  Excellent Plat du Jour, and back to bed by 9.15!

Wednesday 19 September

Revin to Signey-L’Abbaye

24 miles in 3½ hours.

We woke to beautiful early morning views from our bedroom window over the River Meuse in Revin.

We climbed out of Revin, after stocking up on food and money, up a long steep hill to nearly 400m from about 100m in Revin.  Lots of stopping, walking, and a bit of cycling.  Then a long fast cold descent touching 20mph to Renwez.

The village 'place' at Renwez

The village square at Renwez

Fancy brickwork at Renwez

Fancy brickwork at Renwez

where we bought ‘spikey bread’ just before the shop closed, and had lunch on the way out.  Continued to Lonny as the clouds were breaking, and there seemed the chance of some sun, but it was still cold.  At Lonny we left the main roads and followed a country road along a valley.  Much more rolling hills like Devon – very pleasant, and the sun DID break through the clouds.  Got to Signy-Labbaye about 3-30 and made for the Office de Tourisme – but it appeared to be very shut, so we resorted to plan B, which is to go to each place of accommodation and ask for a room.  The first place we tried was full (or just didn’t like the look of us), but the only other – Bar-Restaurant Le Gibergeon – had a room.

La Gibergeon (The Boar Hunter - I think!)

La Gibergeon (The Boar Hunter - I think!)

This had a bed, a new-looking loo and shower, and food – so it was fine.  Had proper tea in a teapot on the terrace in the sun, until we got cold and had to come in.  Out the back we could watch the neighbour with his tame raven (? A black bird, anyway).Very nice, simple supper (entrée quiche, followed by boudin blanc, then delicious baked apples sitting on a crispy buttery appley piece of bread), being harassed by the owner’s dog. Bridget and Madame managed a conversation about baked apples – Peter said he knew Bridget would want to discuss that buttery foundation!  It having been a tiring day we retired to bed and listened to the TV and read.

Thursday 20 September

Signy L’Abbaye to Reims.

44 miles in 5 hours 31 minutes.

After a comfy night we ate breakfast in the restaurant watching the children go to school, and the old chaps fetching bread.  Packed and paid, bought bread and lunch provisions, and set off through Lalobbe, Wasigny, Sery, Chateau-Porcien.

Hills now more rolling and therefore more manageable – although we’re not ashamed to walk some – it changes the muscles that are getting used.  Sky blue, wind cold at first but warmed up as the day went on – in our faces unfortunately.  On quiet roads through farmland and woods.  Villages typified by timber framed buildings filled in with cob – many barns in an advanced state of decay, some houses well kept up and the cob protected, covered with tiles or corrugated aluminium.  The sky stayed blue, the temperature rose.

Lunch by the Canal de Ardennes at Chateau-Porcien, then an abortive attempt to follow a little road by the canal that petered out in a field of maize, so back to our picnic tables and down the other side of the canal to Asfeld.

This has a renowned Baroque church (1683)

based on the shape of a bass viol, apparently, with no straight lines.  We went inside and admired it – it has little passages round the curly bits which would be a gift for any small child during a long service.  Although the walls and statues are whitewashed little patches have been removed to show the original highly colourful decoration – it would be amazing to be able to see it all now.  The church looked in need of restoration.

The time was 3.30.  The day was fine.  We had a choice: either stay down the road here in a chamber d’hote, or press on for Reims, our final goal!  Fortified by a couple of biscuits and a swig of water we went for the latter – 26 km to do in 2 hours to have a chance of finding the Office de Tourisme open and locating the Youth Hostel or whatever.  So we surged forward, spurred on by the need to get to Reims by 5.30.  There were long uphills and long down hills, always against a strong headwind.  No longer did we have time to stop and admire the countryside, we just had to put our heads down and peddle for all we were worth!  (Actually we did notice that the fields were becoming more rolling and gentle, and the hills flatter and easier – we likened it to cycling to Cambridge). The roads were lined with widely spaced trees – good for counting to distract oneself up the hills, but also, we realised at a wee-stop, good for walnuts – Bridget was down there squatting to do what it looked like, but also searching for nuts among the long grass!

At last, at the brow of the last hill we espied a vast metropolis, which we decided MUST be Reims, especially since we could make out a building that looked suspiciously like the cathedral – but it was still a long way away!  Slowly we got nearer, and still it got closer to 5.30.  We wended (went? want? wunt?) our way through the outskirts with no idea of where we should head, but reckoning our direction by glimpses of the cathedral.  Then, by the Hotel de Ville, we found a street map and worked out the way to the office de Tourisme.  We made it by 5.55, only to find that it wouldn’t close till 7.00 pm.

Asked the way to the Youth Hostel and were shown it on a map.  Followed the road towards the river, and then suddenly were confronted with what seemed to be a maze of raised roads and flyovers – which was not what the map indicated.  Fearing that we might get caught up in the traffic and whisked along a motorway we looked for another way.  We found a cycle path route on to the bridge over the river and followed that, which fortunately took us right past the Youth Hostel.  When we found the way in, and checked in, we found our room to be quite adequate, but looking out over the (probably new) flyover system.  We changed, showered and went down to find the supper that we had booked.  We appeared to be the only people eating supper, but there was no-one to serve it to us!  Then we settled down to read in bed and get to sleep.

Friday 21 September.

Reims.

After breakfast we walked to the station and got train tickets for the journey on Saturday to Calais via Paris and a few changes in between. This was a long process which took all of the ticket man’s concentration and reasonable command of English, and all of Bridget’s concentration and weak grasp of French, but was eventually successful – the need to find trains with bike spaces still not booked was the problem, and that dictated the choice of route. We seemed to be doing better, though, than the two (coincidentally) also English speaking cyclists at the counter either side of us. Then we went in to the centre of Reims to look at the cathedral

(lots of modern glass, including some lovely Chagall, the old stuff having been shattered by the years of heavy shelling from the First World War).

We took the obligatory picture of the angel who laughs on the West front.

Ate some lunch.  Bought some souvenirs, and some books.

Found the church of St Jacques de ND, which had even better and more moving modern glass (but it doesn’t photo well) and got our final stamp for this part of our journey.

The last picture - until next year!

The last picture - until next year!

Finally, after passing through a little green shady city park on the way, we visited the basilica of St Remy (which we had been told was better than the cathedral),

Bought supper at a supermarket on the way back to the hostel.  Ate supper in the room, Peter was very tired and kept falling asleep. He says this was the first time he had felt ME fatigue, rather than ordinary physical tiredness on the whole trip. Bridget read a paperback picked up in the hostel, right through to the end, then went to bed.

Saturday 22 September.

Reims – Calais

The journey home begins.

Peter woke up recovered, thank goodness, as we needed to catch the train at 10-04. We allow plenty of time to pack and have breakfast.  Cycle away just after 9.00.

Fortunately the train leaves from platform 1, which means no crossing platforms, but the trains are higher off the platform so it takes a lot of effort to get the bikes, heavy with our panniers into the train – but people helped.  First change is at Eperney, but because of a delay we had next to no time to get the bikes off the train, down some steps, under the line and up again – a mad scramble.  The guard doesn’t seem to mind where we put the bikes, as long as we get on – other passengers don’t seem bothered either.

Get in to Paris Gare d’Est and go and find Paris Gare du Nord, which is helpfully about 5 minutes walk away.  We’re too far out for it to be worth finding a secure home for the bikes and panniers and setting off for any sight seeing in the few hours wait, so we settle ourselves on a bench, eat some lunch, and read a Daily Telegraph that B found in one of the shops. (She searched high and low for a Guardian, even approaching a man reading one at a café table to ask where he found it – but his reply was ‘in London’. Eventually one newsagent informed her that no Guardians had arrived that Saturday.)

At last the platform is announced for our train and we race to get on.  We have seats and bicycle space booked, but it is at the front of the train, about ½ mile away.  The bikes have to be hung up on hooks, so we have to take the panniers off again. We find our seats, and the TGV whisked us off (albeit somewhat rattley) to Haznebrouck, our last change.

This is a double deck commuter train, and we just stand with the bikes in the entrance bit and everyone just works round us.  Final stop at Calais where we bundle the bikes out, strap on the panniers and head off to find the Office de Tourisme, hoping yet again that it is still open.  Yes! It is.  We explain for one more time, and ask if they can find us a room.  On the third or fourth try she finds a room in a hotel which at 47 euros we accept – it is also just along the road.  Very basic, and in the middle of renovation, but the room is comfortable with a loo and shower.

Get settled and set off to find a meal. B needs to see the beach, which we find but do not venture on the sand, but pause and look out to sea at England.  Find a Moroccan restaurant where we were given more than we could eat – couscous, mixed tagine of lamb, chicken and sausage. Made our way back to the hotel, and sleep.

Sunday 23 September.

Calais – Soham.

The longest journey.

We had not booked a return ferry, so we set off after a final buffet breakfast to the ferry port to buy a ticket, stopping at a final supermarket to stock up on a few last goodies only available at a sensible price in France – a big tub of Raz el Hanout spice, a tin of Castelnaudry cassoulet, smelly cheese, that sort of thing.

Not knowing the way in to the ferry port, we followed a pedestrian footpath over a bridge and found ourselves in a ticket hall.  Compared P&O to Sea France and chose Sea France on price – with a ferry leaving in about 30 minutes.  We paid with the rest of our French cash (including one euro in coppers) and card. There was a ferry shortly due to depart, so they hurried us through – although it wasn’t easy to hurry because we had to pass all bags and panniers through the X-ray machine, then through passport control, and then cycle to where the cars were waiting to be loaded. So no need to rush, then.

Cycled on to ferry and strapped our bikes to some rings.  Went up to deck to watch departure then sat in the lounge with a cup of tea.  Got talking to another cycling couple about journeys and pilgrimages.   Cycled off the ferry into England.

Followed the cycle route, marked with a red line, out of the port into Dover to find the train station.  Long discussions with the ticket man about how to get home, but because of track work the closest we could get was Royston and possibly ( or not) by coach to Ely.

First leg is Dover to London.  Again haul bikes in to train, and just prop them up where we can.  Arrive at Victoria station and have to get to Finsbury Park for the train to Royston.  No idea how to get to Finsbury Park, so B set off to find a map.  Eventually got given a  London Transport cycle map of London which did not go as far as Finsbury Park.  Off we set in the general direction with B reading the map on her basket. We got mixed up in a ‘Reclaim the streets for the bicycle’ demonstration in Westminster and up towards Trafalgar Square, and almost had to come to blows with the stewards to be allowed out of the fenced-off route – ‘but please sir we’ve come from France and we want to go HOME!’ didn’t help, so we just pushed our way out.

When we reached the edge of the map we just stopped people and asked for directions. The most helpful were a north African (?) family. The parents who knew where it was spoke no English. Their 12 ish daughter was too embarrassed to speak to us, but the 5 year-old passed the information on adequately. It seemed almost as far again as we had already come, but we eventually got there.

Yet more steps up, and no indicator board to say which platform.  Chose the one that said ‘To Ely’, up more steps, to find that we had about 30 minutes to wait, along with more people with bikes that had been taking part in the rally we had come across in Central London.  Would we all be allowed to get on?  Once again we just got on with the bikes and leant them where we were.  We had been in touch with Delia who had VERY kindly agreed to come and get us at Royston.  Met up with Delia, and got home at about 6.30.