Friday 19th October
The wind was still blowing, but as we had stored the awning canopy the previous day, we didn’t have a night of tapping and banging. The site was in darkness as I crept outside to start disconnecting things. Sue was tidying away all the loose items inside and I started at the back of the van….. the Thetford Cassette was first. Thankfully I didn’t have to empty it by torchlight as Phillip had installed lights over the Elsan point and Grey water point. Next came the wastehog followed by the aquaroll and finally the EHU lead. By the time Sue had finished we were ready to wind the steadies up. I had intended to use the manual handle, but unfortunately I’d parked too close to the rear wall so I had to use the Makita which seemed to sound like a road drill in the darkness. Apologies to anyone if it woke them.
We turned the caravan at an angle by hand, so that it was a quick reverse straight on to the hitch and I didn’t have to have the engine running too long. We coupled up, connected the break-away cable and the 13 pin plug, released the van’s hand brake and jumped in the Freelander. I started the engine and allowed the outfit to roll gently down the slight hill in first gear without any throttle. We crept past Chris and Fran’s van before turning on to the small lane and climbing up the incline to the cross roads. It was 7:18 as we pulled away. Sue had a couple of small bags of rubbish and a bag of empty bottles and a bag of paper for the recycling bin. Rather than stop and use the ones just outside the camping area, we followed the road out and at the next cross roads there were more bins so we stopped and, while Sue tried to silently drop glass bottles into a glass recycling bin, I programmed up the Sat-Nav…. “Camping Risle Seine”….”fastest route”…. “accept toll roads”…….. “planning route – 716 Km to go”.
We followed the narrow road towards the D704. In places the wind had brought down a lot of small branches from the surrounding trees, but nothing that couldn’t be avoided by driving around. Within a few minutes we were on the D704 heading past Montignac and on towards the D6089 and Terrasson. The wind was quite light and I didn’t really notice it towing the van. Once on the A89 there were a couple of the warning signs telling us of strong winds, but I didn’t think that they were excessive and they didn’t seem to be pulling me about even when we crossed some of the viaducts. Once on the A20 the signs weren’t warning us about the wind any more and I allowed the Freelander to accelerate back up to 55 MPH.
It was approaching 9:55AM as we pulled into one of the Aires, the ESSO station at Bois Mande. I brimmed the tank again and it took 37.16 litres. We had covered 257 miles since the last fill up so averaged 31.4 MPG. This was a quick fuel stop and by 10:05 we were pulling back on to the A20. The rattle was back a little. I did notice that on some of the long inclines I was having to change down a gear which normally the Freelander will hold 55 MPH towing even if it won’t accelerate. We settled in for the long haul.
We had left the Autoroute and were on the N10 heading for the A13 on the outskirts of Versailles and the traffic was starting to build up. I didn’t really want to tangle with traffic but there you go, we had had it good up to now. As we were on a duel carriage way not quite on the Autoroute all three lanes were at a crawl and we weren’t sure why. Then we heard it… the familiar sound from dozens of films, including the Inspector Clouseau Pink Panther films… that slightly asthmatic out of tune two note siren that I cannot take seriously. I could still hear it as it was getting louder and louder… I checked in the mirrors … nope nothing. Opening the window a bit more to establish some sense of direction did not help…. it was still getting louder. Then I saw it, well actually I saw several cars in my left hand mirror parting slowly, creating a gap, then closing in back round it. I still couldn’t see anything except this gap moving closer. There it was, a tiny dark coloured Renault with one blue light in the windscreen and a screeching siren. I have a brighter torch than that tiny pathetic blue light. He pushed down the side of the caravan with his door mirror less than half an inch from leaving a big scar down the side. A second siren sounded….. this time I was prepared and I moved over to the right as another car squeezed past, its out of tune siren clearing the way and a tiny blue light in the front windscreen. Seriously guys…. GET SOME MAHOOSIVE STROBE LIGHTS FOR THE ROOF! traffic will clear much faster for you.
As I’d moved over, I’d committed the cardinal sin of driving on French roads, I’d let the gap in front increase to about 6 feet. Well that was it. A woman with a 500 Euro hair doo in a massive shiny black Mercedes 4×4 who was on the phone, while programming a sat-nav with what seemed like a 40 inch hi-def screen, and simultaneously handing out snacks to two children on the back seat pulled in and stopped dead in front of me. She was obviously a veteran of the “Arc de Triumph” roundabout. After another 10 minutes it became obvious what the hold up was. As the road narrowed down to two lanes on the opposite carriageway there was a small car on the hard shoulder that was well alight…. parked immediately behind it was a fire engine with a fireman stood in front with a small hose that seemed to be watering it rather than trying to put the inferno out. Amazingly, cars were still passing in lanes one and two. OK, so they did slow down a bit… but that was while they warmed their croissants as they passed. The whole holdup only took 20 minutes from joining the back of the queue to Sue warming the croissants.
If that was on the UK motorway the Highways Agency would have closed all three lanes on one side and probably the opposite carriageway too while several fire engines and half a dozen police cars would have cordoned off the danger zone, and five miles back in the queue of traffic the tarmac lads would be waiting to re-tarmac the area, and the motorway would open six hours later.
It was approaching my bladder capacity limit (how Sue can hang on for longer I’ll never know!) and at 15:10 we pulled into the BP Aire at Louviers. As we pulled in the Freelander was feeling down on power again. I’d not noticed it much apart from in the long climbs but it was hard to judge really. I filled up to the brim again, this time with a treat…. BP Ultimate Diesel. 48.58 litres and we’d done 260 miles since the last stop, so an average of 24.3 MPG this time. We were back on the road by 15:15…. I’d managed in my best French to actually tell the girl which pump I was on and pay for the fuel. I also asked where I could get some cigars and even managed to ask for the right ones in the kiosk without once having to revert to English and gesticulations. I just wish Sue was in the service station with me instead of being sat in the car… she would have been so proud that all the correcting me each time was paying off. I felt really chuffed.
We eventually arrived back at Camping Risle Seine at 16:25 after a drive of 440 miles (708 Km), and a total trip time of 9 hours and 7 minutes. I was so glad we didn’t have any driving to do tomorrow. We had to wait until the office opened and just hoped that as we were a day early, they could fit us in…. which didn’t seem like a problem as most of the pitches were empty. There was another English couple with a twin axle van waiting when we arrived. They had already had a wander round and said they thought the pitches were too waterlogged and would probably drive further north for an hour or so. I did not want to drive further north, and as Pitch 1 was vacant I knew that the ground was firm as we had been on it a few days earlier. Ten minutes later we were settled on pitch 1, hooked up and power on.
We took a trip into Pont Audemer to visit the Intermarche. We stocked up on bottled water to put in the car and bought some rather nice fresh smoked salmon. Later “One Hairy Caravanner” donned his apron and cooked a spicy risotto with smoked salmon.
Saturday 20th October
It was a lazy start to the day. The rain had returned overnight, but it wasn’t torrential so we decided that wandering into Pont Audemer and maybe finding somewhere to have a coffee and croissant while doing a spot of people watching was just the thing for a Saturday morning.
Top Tip: don’t head for one of the car parks…. there are plenty of free parking spaces on the quay side… “Quai Felix Faure” on the map and walk down Rue Notre-Dame du Pre and cut across to the town centre.
Pont Audemer is actually a little gem of a town. It has a history going back to the 12th century and some fantastic architecture. In the 18th century, the English settled there and introduced tanning and paper making and it became the centre for
Saturday was obviously a get out there, buy the longest French loaf you can, then wander round with it and greet anyone else who carries a similar loaf like a long-lost friend type of day. We sat and watched as people wandered past, loaves in hand. In fact it was hard to spot someone without a loaf… even the children seemed to have smaller loaves of their own. We felt we needed a loaf… we must have a loaf. Were people looking at us because we didn’t have a loaf… were they shouting “Regardez, le n’ai pas de pain“…. we set off to buy a loaf…. and a newspaper for Sue, who was getting quite irritated that she’d not been able to read a paper for three days. “Oh non, c’était l’heure du déjeuner, tout était fermé” It was lunchtime and everywhere was closing. We called off the search for ‘pain’ and instead turned our attention on where to go for lunch.
We wandered down Rue de la Republique and into Place Victor Hugo, where they have a fantastic water feature. At each cafe we inspected the menu… the translation was becoming somewhat easier and even I found I was reading in French knowing what it was and not doing the mental translation flip in my head. That was of course until I came across an item on the menu I didn’t know and it fell apart. Sue seemed to be faring better. We finally ended up across from where we had started back on Rue de la Republique almost opposite the cafe we had sat at. Out of all the different cafe’s offering a wide variety of food, we chose one that did fresh hand-made stone baked pizzas. We ordered a couple of pizzas, a salad for Sue and a bottle of local house wine. You know, I could get used to this life!
That evening I managed a minor miracle…. I managed to get my Vodaphone dongle to connect and we had internet! We needed somewhere to stay when we got off the ferry in Dover. I looked at the map and Warwick was on our route and about half way home. The Caravan Club have a site at Warwick Racecourse, so five minutes later we were all booked in and I received a confirmation email… on my laptop not my iPhone, which thanks to Everything Everywhere (now renamed Nothing Nowhere) all my iPhone could do was display “No Service”.
Next time….. We revisit one of Bonnie Tyler’s greatest hits, we do a Blues Brothers impression and we thank the UK Border Agency.