22 Aug 3: Departing Dieppe (France)
Tuesday, 30th July, 2015
Miles: 41 (target: 45)
I awake and fling open my curtains to discover a small, round man smoking a cigarette, staring directly at me. I close the curtains again, then open them an inch. He’s still there, scratching his nose, his face an intriguing shade of taupe. He reminds me of one of those boiled potatoes you get in school canteens. Was this the ‘dazzling view’ the hotel advertised on TripAdvisor?
I assume the place’s finer features have been reserved for its more distinguished guests, who are freer with their euros and better behaved. I rocked up at midnight after a delayed ferry arrival, crashing through the door with my dirty great velo and waking the owner. She emerged in her nightgown, hissed at me to taisez-vous! and disappeared again with a violent swipe of her hand in the direction of my bedroom. So French, I’d thought delightedly.
So here I am, in an overpriced Dieppe B&B, gearing up to embark on my first proper day’s bummel. First things first, I think: load it up. I’ve repacked my bags with very little in the front two panniers and all the heavy items at the back. But physically getting them onto the bike proves a challenge. First I rest it against a sturdy-looking tree in a plant pot, which promptly collapses. Then I try the hedge. But hedges are prickly, hateful things, and not to be trusted. This one gives a veneer of helpfulness, before rearing up on its bushy haunches and swallowing my bike whole.
I curse and dig it out dejectedly. My legs already look as if I’ve recently escaped from a local correction facility, mottled and tender to the touch. It’s fortunate I turned the hotel management against me so swiftly and unequivocally or I’m quite sure I’d still be there now, eating croissants and flashing smokers in the car park.
By noon, just four hours later than planned, I’m finally off. Hot, bothered and depressed, I veer violently across the road, up onto the curb and onto someone’s front lawn. I look around quickly; thank god nobody seems to be watching, except for a herd of enormous cows. They stare at me disdainfully. I try again, and stagger with inevitable futility into the path of an oncoming car. Ah yes, I remind myself – people drive on the right in France.
I stop for a well-earned rest and take stock. It’s exhausting. It’s like trying to tame a wild stallion. I’ve made progress, at least; about ten metres, to be precise. I do some calculations. At this rate it will take me the best part of 500,000 hours, or 57 years, to complete the full 10,000km of my trip. By the time I finish it, I’ll be a mad, wizened 90 year old, comprising just hair, thighs and a colostomy bag, wheeled out at parties to recount traveller’s tales from life in the saddle. It doesn’t sound too bad, actually.
Finally – many failed, and frankly rather embarrassing, attempts later – I finally get moving. Unsteadily and slowly, but at least in a semi-straight direction. This is it, I think! I’m officially bummelling!
Then the noise starts: a loud, guttural yet piercing scraping that cannot be ignored, much as I’d like to. My heart sinks. Can I really have destroyed this beautiful machine so soon? I stop, get off and stare at various parts of it, occasionally prodding them tentatively. This doesn’t seem to help, and I think ambitiously about getting out one of my tools. But which one?
Fortunately a male cyclist appears at this moment, looking helpful. I show him what’s wrong and he nods sagely and starts prodding too. That’s the wonderful thing about the current halfway house era of equality and sexism, I reflect; women can do exciting, independent things like cycle around the world, while still relying on men in times of distress. God help us when it gets to the stage when we’re actually expected to carry out menial mechanical tasks ourselves.
This particular chivalric knight seems very determined to fix my mudguard, and happily does so not once but three times. It’s clearly not the source of the problem, but I feel bad interrupting his work after he stopped so kindly. He finally cycles off, rather pleased with himself, and I recommence my prodding. It’s not the brakes, I conclude after a little experiment. It’s not the panniers. It’s not the chain. It seems related to the left gear, and as I trace the gear cable back I see the end has come loose and is trailing against the tyre. I slip it back into place and gently start pedalling. Nothing. Quiet. Problem solved!
Problem two arises swiftly. My front pannier is swinging and shaking as I ride, meaning every slight left or right turn is exaggerated. It’s a little like driving a Land Rover, I imagine – my only experience of that being a friend who used to joy-ride them around her estate in Scotland and who never got in one again after careering off a bridge in a car filled with six of her best friends.
It’s a useful cautionary tale, so to avoid a similar fate I lash a bungee cord around the rack, fixing it more securely. It works well, and instead of slaloming into oncoming traffic, I am now just drifting and nudging the curb like a harmless wino.
And like most winos, I have absolutely no idea where I’m going. For some reason, after an excellent start leading me through the nooks and crannies of South London suburbia, my Garmin Edge 1,000 satnav* failed to load up today. Digging out my compass triumphantly, (a £1.40 bargain on eBay) I feel that now, finally, is the time to redeem myself for being thrown out of Brownies as a ‘disruptive’ nine year old. Maybe I could even find some tree lichen to tell the time while I’m en route, I think exuberantly.
Ten minutes and much back-pedalling later, I realise with great relief that Google maps still works on my iPhone and chuck the compass into a hedge. For £1.40 I’m not quite sure what I expected it to be able to do, but I have the feeling it may have taken offence at being procured for such a paltry sum. Certainly, pinpointing my direction with any degree of conviction did not seem a key part of its skill set.
Phone in hand, I attempt to wheedle my way through a clumped tangle of back roads in the vague direction of Paris. Meanwhile, clustering in my sight-lines looms the most terrifying obstacle of all: a succession of hills. For many miles I attempt to avoid them by taking whatever alternative path presents itself, but it soon becomes clear that this doesn’t tally well with actually leaving Dieppe – so, finally, I succumb.
Hills are in many ways like hedges. At first glance they seem friendly: soft and green and matronly. But as you get closer their demeanour changes. Their brows furrow, and that expression you took for kindliness morphs into a kind of smug, sadistic smirk. I’ve got you now, the hill says gleefully. And you’re not leaving until I’ve made you curse the day you were born.
All hills have elements of psychosis about them. But they’re not all the same. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent that there are specifically five different types – which are:
The bun-burner: the most common type of hill; a long, hot slog that sears the arse like a fire-brand.
The false friend: a hill that doesn’t seem like a hill, until you realise you can’t feel your legs and are weeping silently.
The masochist: a hill that gradually, imperceptibly gets steeper, like the anecdote of the frog in boiling water, until all you want is to crawl into the foetal position crying for your mother.
The redeemer: a hill I can actually climb without too much trouble; more like a ripple in the road.
The fuck you: basically a vertical wall with the words ‘fuck you’ scrawled on it.
By mid-afternoon, just as I am ready to jack everything in and return to London, I finally hit the fast road I’ve been searching for: the magical D915. I make up some time on its loping, graceful undulations, hitting a PB top speed of 37mph down one particular stretch. It feels good, and I pull into Forges-les-Eaux around 6pm, looking forward to catching up on emails over a large bowl of escargot and pint of Pinot Gris.
Forges-les-Eaux is a small, semi-charming, cobble-heavy town focused around a broad, open square and bordered by a rather pretty river (this actually describes about 90 per cent of all French towns, but I don’t realise this yet). It seems to be known best for its history of mining, thermal waters and seigneurs killed in battle by the British, though none of that is evident at first glance. Instead there are the usual boulangeries, bougeries and patisseries, plus a couple of nondescript cafes and bar-tabacs. Several restaurants are closed, and nowhere has wifi except the tourist office, which is also closed.
I retire to a bench with a loaf of bread and Camembert, disappointed. As dusk approaches, surrounded by crumbs and a faint whiff of something indescribable but not entirely unpleasant, I realise I need to find somewhere to sleep. So off I swoop, back down to the outskirts of the town where the countryside begins. Here I follow a small country lane into a series of fields, and find what appears to be the perfect spot: a large, open patch of grass bathed in sunshine, hidden from the road and accessible only via a rather rather gnarly, overgrown path.
I feel very pleased with myself and dig out my camp stool to enjoy a celebratory sit-down. It’s beautifully peaceful, and I listen contentedly to the buzz of crickets and chirrup of unseen critters. Then a thought hits me: what if this is like that part of Life of Pi, where the boy finds what he believes to be his perfect island, only to discover it turns carnivorous during the night and starts devouring itself and everything on it? It seems unlikely, but I find it hard to shake the thought from my mind.
I distract myself by putting up my tent: a two-man Lightwave G15 Raid*. I can’t find the instructions so it takes a while to work it out, despite it being a brilliantly simple design created for idiots. Then, as I sit back on my stool to reflect on the universe and state of my thighs, I realise with no small amount of distress that I haven’t brought anything to toast my first night in the wilderness. With my Bolney support team nowhere in sight, I am all alone, parched, tired and inescapably sober, and there is nothing to be done about it.
After going a little overboard with bike security – a D-lock, padlock and two bungee cords – to avoid the humiliation of getting robbed on my first night in the wild, I hunker down for the night. For two or three hours I lie there, every noise and shadow outside a potential axe-man or carnivorous plant to be rebuffed. Suddenly, strangely, it is freezing cold and I put on nearly all of my clothes, before drifting into a fitful sleep, dreaming of Wolf Creek, psychopathic Australians and deranged, spindly OAPs on bicycles. I’m utterly exhausted, and the bummel has only just begun.
To be continued…
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