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Sunday 21st October

It was another early start. We were up at 6:00AM as we needed to be pulling out of the site at 07:00 in order to stand any chance of making the 110 mile drive to Dunkerque for the ferry which sailed at 12:00. We were supposed to book in at least one hour before, so we really needed to be there for around 11:00. As had become the norm, it had started raining during the night and now it was torrential. Sue did all the inside stuff while I got soaked outside. It was that wet and soggy on the pitch I wondered if we had made an error… was I going to be able to pull the caravan off the pitch?. In order to speed things up, I’d actually lined up the Freelander so the tow ball was directly below the hitch the previous night, and I’d also heeded what the English couple had said when we arrived that they thought it was too wet for their twin axle. When I’d reversed the caravan on to the pitch, I had made sure the front wheels of the Freelander were still right on the edge of the solid road. I hoped this was going to be the ace up my sleeve.

I worked from back to front again… Thetford cassette, wastehog, aquarol and finally EHU lead. Everything was stored in the appropriate locker and I wound up the steadies. Sue remained inside the caravan until I was hitched up and I pulled 50 metres off the pitch onto the road, thankfully without any tearing up of the pitch which by now was a big puddle. At this point Sue dashed out of the van into the car and I went the other way. I was soaked so needed to dry off and get changed in the van.

Sue got the maps out and fired up the Sat-nav…. it came on but the screen was frozen.   She tried the “off and on again” trick… nope it was not having it. I’d got back in the car at this point and I tried a reset… it froze on the “do you accept the….” screen. It had turned French. I’d had my suspicions that it was changing nationality when it started to remind me to drive on the right each time I turned it on, now it had gone all the way and gone on immediate strike. I expect this was it’s way of blockading the ports.

“Right, you’ll have to map read, we need to get moving” I said turning on the Freelanders map reading light and handing Sue a torch. She was not a happy camper. Trying to map read with a map not designed for navigation, in the dark, with it pissing down and some iffy road signs was not going to be a pleasurable experience….. for either of us…. and lack of caffeine was not going to help the situation.

I lit a cigar, clamped it between my teeth and with the window half open and rain streaming through the gap we pulled out of the site at 7:05 puffing like a steam train and looking like something out of an American road trip movie. I headed in to Pont Audemer to pick up the signs for the A13 and eventually A28 north. Now this is where it went a bit wrong. At one sign it said left for A13 & Le Havre – the direction we didn’t want to go and right for the A13, which I assumed would take us to Rouen and then I could follow signs for the A28. We turned right. We followed the road which was a bit of a nightmare as it climbed and turned sharply, not ideal in a Freelander that was now having power issues, ,m and torrential rain in the dark. The signs for the A13 stopped and the road we were on Sue could not find on the map. After about 20 minutes we arrived at a roundabout, Ah Ha! A131 to Le Harvre…. we needed to go the other way. 30 minutes later we were doing our Bonnie Tyler impression again…. We ended up descending a steep hill into a small town in the bottom of a valley… and the signs stopped again. I managed to find a place to pull in. “I don’t think we will make the ferry” I said as it was now just gone eight thirty and we did not know how far we were off route.

Resigned to the fact we were not going to make the ferry, I took a pointy thing and prodded the reset button of the sat-nav. It rebooted and got to the “do you accept the….” screen. I prodded the “OK” button on the screen and it carried on booting up. The instant strike was over and the ports un-blockaded.  Bugger, why didn’t it do this the half dozen times I’d tried before. I punched in “Dunkerque” and “Fastest Route”…. it told me to take the next right, which was a bit tight and at the end the next right again…. which after about 100 metres went even tighter. I turned round, thankfully there was a service yard for a company I could reverse into and pull straight out again in the other direction. I retraced our steps to the road we had parked on a few minutes earlier. This time it rerouted us back the way we had come, back up the steep hill to one of the round-abouts we had been on earlier and told us to take the road we had discounted, the “A131 Le Havre” road. We followed the directions and found ourselves back on the big toll bridge crossing the river Seine that we had crossed a few days earlier. Well at least we were now on the right side of the Seine! About 4 Km further on the road came to a roundabout… A131 Le Havre in one direction and the D something or other to  the A28 in the other direction. Woo Hoo.

“It’s dark, we have 3/4 of a tank of gas and are not wearing sunglasses…. hit it”

That was it, the Freelander was not feeling well and we needed to get a wiggle on. It was something past nine and according to the sat-nav we had 96 miles to go. I have to say, it was now touch and go if we even made it to the port as I was having to come down into third gear for some of the inclines. “Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration don’t fail me now“! We kept pressing on, the fuel gauge was going down, it was raining, the traffic was getting heavier the further north we got. The miles (or Kilometres) seemed to click down slowly. Eventually we passed signs for the ferry terminal at Calais… only a few more miles to go and it was 11:05…. the ferry sailed at 12:00. The first sign for the ferry terminal at Dunkerque…. 11:15. We took the exit and followed the road to the first roundabout….”clear” Sue shouted…. It sounded like she was going to administer a shock from a cardiac defibrillator. I flew across the roundabout…… 11:20…. on to the next one……. “second exit – clear” Sue shouted….. 11:25 “second exit – clear”. How many bloody roundabouts did they need ?. Finally the last one and we entered the ferry terminal and joined a queue of three or four vehicles.

The check in time….. 11:36:59…. Woo Hoo!

It was exactly 11:36 when I pulled up at the window. Sue handed our passports over and a minute later we were handed our dangly thing and told to follow the other few cars round to the UK Border Agency checkpoint….. where in good old British tradition there was a big queue. They inspected our passports and allowed us to pass…. What amazed me was the fact the dangly thing that we had been issed with to hang on the mirror showed us with 4 passengers and no one asked us where the other two were. We followed the concrete barriers round to the next checkpoint.

We stopped while another UK Border Agency chap checked our passports again and looked in the Freelander. Still no question about the two “missing” passengers. He asked to see in the caravan. It was now 11:54. I jumped out of the car and ran round to unlock the caravan door. I had expected him just to look in… Oh no, he wanted to check in the bathroom…..and lift the bed….. and check in the wardrobe….. and check under each front seat. Satisfied he thanked me and jumped down from the van. I locked the door, ran round to the Freelander and jumped in. 11:57.

We followed the road round and I was expecting now to get waived into a lane to wait for the next ferry along with the cars behind me. All that effort to miss the ferry by 3 minutes. I could see the crew stood by the winches for the shore lines……. As we approached the point where we needed to turn for lane ‘L’ one of the shore crew waived his arms wildly and pointed to the ramp. Despite being poorly, the Freelander seemed to know she was going home and shot up the ramp rattling away.

11:59 I turned the engine off and put the handbrake on. The only thing now was did we have enough fuel to actually get off the ferry and out of the port in Dover. That worry was two hours away. By the time we were entering the restaurant the ship was already moving slowly away from the quay side. There was hardly anyone in the restaurant so we grabbed two trays and shuffled over to the hot food counter. By the time we had got our food and drinks we were already making the turn to head out of the inner waterway. I put my card in the machine by the till…. it said wrong pin number… I tried again… wrong pin number and asked me for my pin again, warning me it was my last chance before my card was blocked. Bugger. I paid the bill with some of the Euros I had, at a really rip off exchange rate. We settled down by one of the big round windows at the side of the ferry just as we cleared the harbour into open sea. We couldn’t see much as it was piddling down again.

We stood with the other passengers infront of the big window watching as some unseen person performed the most delicate of ballets and pirouetted the ship round in the confines of Dover harbour and gently reversed thousands of tonnes back into a berth without any hesitation. I understand the physics of it, but the application was a skill few could emulate.

We were back in the Freelander waiting for the ferry doors to open. We drove down the ramp from the ferry and headed towards the exit ramp that climbs up to the upper exit road of the port. I really hoped we would not have to stop on that ramp as the Freelander was rattling away and I seemed to have only just enough power to pull away on the level, let alone do a hill start. We also didn’t have much fuel, the needle was on red, but the light hadn’t come on yet. Thankfully we exited the port without any issues. Now for fuel. All the way out of Dover there are filling stations on the opposite carriageway coming in, but nothing on the way out. We were almost on the M20 which I didn’t want to go on until we had fuel. We pulled off the last exit before you get onto the motorway and asked the now perfectly behaved sat-nav to take us to the nearest filling station, which just happened to be on Tram Road in Folkestone, which was down hill all the way.

It took 61.14 litres to brim the tank again and since we had filled up last time we had covered 297 miles and averaged 22.0 MPG. We pulled out of the service station down to the bottom of the hill to the traffic lights. Sue had set the sat-nav to take us to J15 on the M40 where we could follow the directions given in the Caravan Club handbook for the Warwick Racecourse site. As the lights changed I shot forward rather unexpectedly.  I had been used to lack of power pulling away and the Freelander shot away from the lights like a 17 year old in his modded blacked out windows with a drainpipe for a exhaust Citroen. We pulled up at the next set of lights…. it was strangely quiet. The engine was ticking over with hardly any noise. I pulled away normally without any problems. We joined the M20 heading for the M25 and eventually the M40. I put my foot down to accelerate to merge with the other traffic and found I was going slightly faster than I should have been, I eased off and we settled in to the cruse at 2200 RPM… or 55 MPH.

On one section of the M25 near Ewell, the motorway has a steep climb on it, the signs say 10%. I pulled out of lane one to overtake some lorries that had slowed to 45 MPH and put my foot down. I didn’t change down from 5th, just squeezed a bit on the loud pedal. I was quite surprised to find I whizzed past them going uphill at 70 MPH and had to back off quickly and pull in again. That was it. I was convinced it was the fuel in France that had been the problem. We turned the radio on for the first time since leaving England and listened to the traffic reports on Radio Two tell us about a huge holdup on the M40 between J14 and J15 due to an accident. All three lanes were closed.

Thankfully it had all cleared by the time we were approaching junction 15 and we left the motorway to follow the directions given in the Caravan Club handbook. Now lets just say these instructions are a little lacking in detail and accuracy. We missed the turning for Shakespeare Ave… mainly because the distance from the last instruction is out a little and I did not expect to be turning into a suburban housing estate… we also went up the main high street which it advises against, but it wasn’t that bad. At the end of the main street we did a left and a left which just happened to take us past the Racecourse… so we followed the road a little, past a car park that had massive gates, the word ‘entrance’ next to it, but was full of Hymer’s, Tabbart’s and some really really mahoosive 5th wheel travel trailers, which all belonged to the fairground people. We continued on… Ah Ha, Shakespeare Avenue was on our left, so we needed to turn round. By now I was a dab hand at turning in tight places and at least this time it wasn’t piddling down. We passed Shakespeare Avenue on our right and the instructions said “at the end of Shakespeare Ave turn right onto A4189. Site on left in 1/2 mile across racetrack” Right… half mile…. entrance….carpark full of fairground caravans. I turned in expecting to see a Caravan Club sign and an arrow. Nope, bugger all. We had only gone fifty feet and I said to Sue “this is not right, jump out and watch me back into that gap, I’ll turn round”. As I said that a young lady jumped out of a shiney white Range Rover and said “I think you may be in the wrong place”. I appologised and she said there had been quite a few make the same mistake the last couple of days. I executed a quick reverse and turn… which must have impressed the fairground folk as they had gathered into a small crowd to watch us. I waived and shouted thanks to the lady that had intercepted us on the way in. She just smiled as she jumped back in her Range Rover.

We turned left out of the fairground campsite and followed the A4189 a little further to the racecourse offices and stands…. I turned in as there was a sign for a car park. As I parked up Sue read the instructions out again ” ……Site on left in 1/2 mile across racetrack”. Right, you should be able to see a caravan site of 55 pitches, its not that easy to hide them. The only vans we could see were way across the racetrack and belonged to the fairground people. Sue spotted someone to ask…. she came running back, “drive back down to the stands and follow the track round and cross the racecourse at the gap in the barrier“. Right ho….. I did another 180 degree reversing turn. We eventually pulled onto our pitch at 17:40.

(c) Caravan Club

If anyone from the Caravan Club reads this…. Please edit your directions, put some detail in there to make it a bit more clear and spend a few bob and put some feckin signs up! According to the wardens, we are not the first to have problems with the directions and there have already been a few complaints…. and move the ‘site’ flag on the map from the outside of the racecourse to the inside of it!

Sunday night was taken up with catching up with the news on the BBC news channel and for me relaxing… only a few more miles to drive and we didn’t have to be up early. Also it wasn’t raining.

We left Warwick Racecourse site at 10:30 for the 120 mile drive home. The Freelander was in fine fettle and we got our discount on the M6 toll using our Caravan Club membership cards. We pulled into our storage site at 12:55. When we got home I filled up the tank to the brim again, 57.91 litres and 357 miles… it worked out to exactly 28.0 MPG, the same as we had got on the fuel leaving the UK.

The Epilogue….

Total miles driven: 2071
Total miles towed: 1886
Total fuel: 423.91 Litres
Average MPG: 25.4

Would we do it again? – Yes, but covering that distance in that period of time was not for us, it was just too rushed. It is a minimum of two or three nights stop anywhere as we seemed to just miss the really good bits of France and pass by things we wanted to see.

Would we do it that time of year?No, the weather was an issue, probably  early September would be the latest.

Would we use Dunkerque as a crossing point?If we were going to Belgium, Holland or further north, yes. But doing the maths it would actually break even or even be marginally cheaper getting the ferry to Le Havre and travelling south from there.

What about the ‘soft road’ stuff?Excellent! If you havent taken your 4×4 off tarmac except for the occasional grass pitch, give it a go. There are 1000’s of kilometres of these single track trails criss crossing France. There are also lots of trails for experienced ‘green laners’ too. I’m sure Phillip would love to hear from you.

Any other tips?Yep, Chris & Fran told us about an electronic tag for the toll system in France. We wish we’d had one. Some of the toll booth lanes only have machines at the height for lorries. nothing warns you of this. The lanes are also extremely tight towing a caravan, opt for the most right hand toll lane you can, they are usually a lot wider for lorries. Check out the Sanef UK Liber-t website.

Anything else?Yes, driving in France, as people will tell you, is really easy going. That said, don’t think because the traffic is lighter and the driving easier that you will cover distances quicker.  Driving 200 miles is still 200 miles no matter what country you are in. In fact, if you are towing, it might take you slightly longer as there are some long climbs. They have a lot of “M6 Shap” type climbs. Oh…. and if you are towing avoid Paris, that’s what we were told.

Would you do anything different next time?Yes, we wouldn’t use the Freelander. When we bought the caravan we had an engine remap done. It was specific to the Freelander and increased the low down torque for towing, and it has been fantastic. However, it did reduce the ability for the engine to cope with low grade fuel. Land Rover set their engine systems to cope with a wide standard of fuel. Unfortunately I’d never considered that fuel in Europe would differ much from country to country. As part of the remap I had the ability for it to cope with lower grade fuel removed. So we are now looking for a Land Rover Discovery just as a tow vehicle, which means our little Brabus Roadster has to go.  

And Finally…..

At the end of this trip I made a discovery. Somewhere at our last stop at Camping Risle Seine or on the trip back to the UK and home I lost my wedding ring. It’s been on my finger for the best part of 29 years and it’s a devastating loss. To Sue: I am so sorry.

If anyone visits Camping Risle Seine – Pitch 1, or Warwick Racecourse Site and finds a rather thin, battered, and misshapen wedding ring, please get in touch, it might be mine.

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed finding out about our “French Connection” adventure.

Till next time…. which will be the Christmas Market in Lincoln, unless we can get away before than.

S

Click here for:-

The French Connection Pt 1

The French Connection Pt 2

The French Connection Pt 3

The French Connection Pt 4

The French Connection Pt 5