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Sometime back in January or February I’d posted something on Caravan Talk about arranging an off-road weekend for anyone that towed with a 4×4. It was really for anyone that had never actually experienced taking their 4×4 off-road before and if they would be interested in a camping weekend at one of the many off-road centers. I’d been in contact with a couple of the well-known establishments offering courses and they seemed to like the idea and could arrange for caravans to either stay local or in one case actually on their own land.

The response was a bit pathetic and no one seemed to show any real interest which was disappointing. However, as a result of that thread one of the other members said there were lots of good trails around his site – La Tournerie Ferme,  near Montignac and why not come down to give that a try. The trails were fairly easy, offered various types of surface and would not be the full on “winch it out at every obstacle” tracks…. it would be more ‘soft road’ than ‘off road’ but would be good fun and an easy introduction to off-roading. It would also be a fantastic opportunity for anyone that had never ventured further than a pitch with wet grass in their 4×4 to see exactly what their tow vehicle could do. So the “Soft Roading Adventure” idea was born and Phillip posted info about it on the various caravan forums. Within a couple of weeks there were enough people interested that Phillip arranged a date at the end of the season in early October.

Thursday 11th October

We left home about 8:00 to go and pick the caravan up from storage. The previous day we had been over to the caravan and loaded almost everything except the stacking boxes that travel in the back of the Freelander with us. These boxes from The Really Useful Box Company contain the cooking ingredients and essentials and another box that had fresh orange juice and small bottles of water. I’d also checked the nose weight with the calibrated Milenco do-hicky while we were there and we were 10Kg over our ideal weight of 95Kg. Relocating the Cadac from the front locker to the Freelander put us spot on 95 Kg’s.

We rolled out of the storage place dead on 8:40 AM and threaded or way through the morning peak in the rush hour traffic on the M60. We passed Manchester Airport and settled in the inside lane that took us to the junction with the A556 and then to eventually pickup the M6 heading south. The traffic on the M6 was not too bad and we made good time eventually pulling in to Norton Caines services on the M6 toll road around 10:20 for a quick leg stretch and loo break. The rest of the M6 and all the way down the M1 was also fairly easy-going traffic wise.

Last time we headed down the M1 with a caravan in tow was before we bought this van and we had hired a Crystal Morea for a week to give caravanning a try. Then we hit the M25 at peak Friday rush hour traffic en route to Kelveden Hatch in Essex.  This time we fared better and cruised round the M25 and over the Queen Elizabeth bridge without any delays, arriving at Canterbury at 14:30 after traveling 276 miles.

We were shown to our pitch and set up fairly quickly.  We needed to be away first thing so it was not a major unpack of everything, just the essentials. I’d been busy the couple of days before with Anthony sorting out the first engine start of the new plane he’s built – I designed and constructed the electrical system so had to be there really. The other thing was sorting out Santa’s float for my old Rotary club. I’d designed a replacement for the previous one that had seen over 40 years of service, but old age  had taken its toll and the club had decided a replacement was required. The float bit went OK and I collected it from the steel fabricators to take to my good friend Harry who was going to secure it to the new trailer and build sleigh runners. However the first engine start did not go as well and after just over two minutes of running resulted in a totally seized brand new engine. Ouch.

The result of all this was that I had been a bit pre-occupied and so I hadn’t organised any Euros…. with the exception of an old 5 Euro note I had found mixed in with a load of US dollar notes from past trips. It meant a visit to the local Post Office in Canterbury to exchange sterling for Euro’s…. and if we had time a trip to the old sweet shop we had discovered last time. The ‘Locally’ app on my iPhone soon found the nearest Post Office and we set off in the rain that had started just as we were un-hitching the caravan. We parked up and walked to the Post Office. With 300 Euro’s safely tucked in my wallet, we set off into the centre of Canterbury for a quick bit of window shopping to get the last couple of bits and hopefully to find the sweet shop we had found last time. We ended up dodging from shop canopy to shop canopy as the rain turned from that light drizzle to “its set for the day” grey solid rain.

Address and phone number for "Mr Simms"

Address and phone number for “Mr Simms Sweet Shop”

Sue spotted it first as she peered out from under a shop canopy – “Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe“. A stock of the required Coltsfoot Rock, Cough Candy and Sue’s soft Wine Gums was purchased and we headed back out into the wet greyness.

We walked back to the Freelander and programmed the GPS for the nearest filling station which just happened to be Morrison’s. We set off to fill up ready for the following day. It took 45.05 Litres to fill to the brim, at a reading of 294 miles. 276 was towing so we averaged 28.4 MPG on the way down towing, plus 18 miles running around without the van on the back.

Friday 12th October

Parked up waiting for the ferry at Dover

Up early and everything stowed away by 7:55 am we were hitched up and pulling out of Canterbury C & CC site. It’s quite an easy and short trip – about 19 miles from the site to the Ferry terminal at Dover and by 8:45 we were parked up waiting for the ferry.

I took the chance to stick on the ‘beam benders’ to the headlights and check over everything – break-away cable, hitch, tyres, everything checked out OK and the beam benders seemed to be sticking like thingy to a blanket. I’d read that a couple of people had experienced them dropping off.

We were one of the first to board… I guess they wanted the trucks in a particular position and so we found ourselves behind an estate car that was pulling a twin axle trailer that deciphering stickers on the trailer looked as though it was destined for Poland. Following the wild gesticulations of the chap in front of the Freelander I pulled up as close as the man in the orange jacket further down the deck wanted and waited till he’d walked behind us gesticulating wildly to the next vehicle to close up to the rear of our caravan. I double checked the vehicle hand brake was on and we locked the car and headed off upstairs. My stomach was letting me know it was time for breakfast…. or ‘petit déjeuner’

Err….. that’ll be France then under that cloud….

As we were one of the first to board, we were also one of the first into the restaurant which meant we could get a table with a view. Mind you, even after we had left port the ferry was that quiet there were plenty of tables with a view.

The crossing between Dover and Dunkirk takes a little under 2 hours… so we had a little under two hours to watch the clouds build over France into a dark line marking the coast. Looking back towards Dover… the white cliffs looked resplendent in the  sunshine we were leaving. Flying was so much easier…. at least you knew that ten minutes after take off you would be putting your sunglasses on no matter what the weather was ‘downstairs’.

My GPS….. ‘Go that way Pointing’ by Sue

We pulled off the ferry at exactly 13:15 local. We had around a three-hour drive to our first campsite, Risle-Seine just outside Pont-Audemer, west of Rouen.

The GPS Sat-Nav was programmed with the camp site, we chose ‘fastest route’ and we accepted the toll road option. However, the sat-nav seemed to have come over all French and decided the fastest route was through the centre of Paris. Hmm, I wonder if the GPS companies in revenge for having to remove all the French speed cameras decided to route everyone via Paris. We soon sorted it and were off on our merry way and within thirty minutes, the skies were getting brighter, the cloud was thinning and blue was starting to appear.

Driving on French roads… well Autoroutes only so far, was easy. The traffic was lighter and the roads were smooth lacking the lorry ruts that stretch up and down the first two lanes of most of the motorways in the UK. Towing at 60 MPH was more stable than 50 MPH on some UK motorways and I was happy towing at 60. There are a number of long climbs and descents on the E402 (A16 – A28) but with care these are not a problem and we found that with a bit of planning we were not holding anyone up. Around an hour into our drive south, the clouds had returned and the cloud base was now so low, the white marker lights on the tops of the wind turbines were lighting up the inside of the clouds and below each glowing cloud hung a ghostly white pedestal that touched the ground. It was now pissing down. No other way to describe it, it was a torrential downpour and the wind was increasing. We are from Manchester, so are almost ‘Rain Miester’s’ and we know ‘pissing down’ when we see it, but this was rain of biblical proportions.

The road had disappeared and was just a ribbon of water, with a barrier at one side and a ditch at the other, which was rapidly filling up. I looked in the towing mirrors, the caravan was hiding behind a plume of water being pumped there by the back tyres. It was a good job that the Michelin tyres we had fitted a few months earlier had an “outstanding” rain rating. Despite the conditions it seemed that nothing would slow down the lorries. They would sneak up in your blind spot… right behind the caravan… then suddenly pull out and whizz past, then pull back in almost as abruptly. Now I know why so many continental’s have rear view cameras fitted!

Around 50Km from Rouen, still in the rain, the GPS showed we were to follow the A29. We had expected to continue on the A28 into Rouen and round the town on the outer road and continue west on the A13… to Pont Audemer and Camping Risle Seine was just on the western edge of the town. That’s what I’d expected when planning the route on Google Earth. I’d looked at the roads in street view and hadn’t thought it would be a problem. Maybe the GPS knew something about Rouen and Pont Audemer we didn’t.

The blue route was what we expected…. the red route across the toll bridge is what we got…. and the green route was how we should have departed

We followed its directions, and eventually ended up on the wrong side of the Seine with the directions to cross a mahoosive but impressive toll bridge on the D6178/A131 and once over follow the D6178. It took another 35 minutes to eventually arrive at the campsite after I’d started to ignore the directions of the sat-nav and use instinct and the snippet of knowledge I’d gained looking at Google Maps and the satellite view of the area. I’ll tell you, this navigating on the ground is far more difficult than navigating in the air. There we just have airways and join the dots…. N23 to BREVN then N64 to the airport…. whizz down the ILS and pull off a greaser and taxi to the terminal, fill in the paperwork, stow the Ray Bans in the top pocket and check the time on the big clock hanging off the wrist before heading off to the nearest bar. Sue can get me on to an ILS from 10,000 feet at 500 miles out….. now at zero feet we were doing our best Bonnie Tyler impression, “Lost in France……..”

We eventually arrived at the site at 17:30 around 4 hours 15 minutes after setting off so the “diversion” and the rain had added 1 hour 15 minutes to the trip. The chap in the office was very helpful and offered us any pitch…. we chose pitch 1 as it was an easy reverse on and as we were only stopping one night we would not disturb anyone leaving the following morning.

We pitched in the rain again. No surprises there then.

End of Part 1

Next time….. Camping in a car park, more French coffee and will it stop raining?

S

Click here for:-

The French Connection Pt 2

The French Connection Pt 3

The French Connection Pt 4

The French Connection Pt 5

The French Connection – Finale