Towpath Tales [part 3]

We were down to our last two days of cycling before we’d need to trek back up to Caen for the ferry.

There was a convenient parking spot at Pont d’Oust, where a bend in the canal is host to a few houseboats, a picnic place and a mooring for leisure boats or smaller craft.

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We lunched, squeezed into paddy-pants [essential cycling gear], applied sun block, applied insect repellent and set off towards Redon. It was a busier day on the cycle path, being a Sunday, especially in an area where the canal and river merge and there is a gorge with steep cliffs, popular with climbers, leisure boats, picnickers and the rest.

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On our arrival to Redon we were treated to the surreal sight of a parade of amphibious vehicles around the town, followed by their launch [as we set off back] into the canal. We’ve seen collections of Citroen 2CVs and various other vehicles in France before but never a sight such as this.

The municipal site at Saint Martin d’Oust is immaculate, with sparkling new showers and a quiet, canal-side location. Better still, a busy, picturesque bar-restaurant by the flower adorned bridge serves delicious Breton cider. As often the case, reception was closed when we arrived but we followed the instructions to choose a pitch and pay later. We parked, made a meal and went for pre-dinner drinks.

Next morning, having visited the boulangerie, we left the site and breakfasted at the canal-side.

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Then it was off back to Le Roc St Andre for our very last cycle of the trip, short, breezy and not too difficult.

We’d come to the end of our trip. When I reflected on it I realised that one of the aspects I’d enjoyed was seeing the numbers of entire families out on their bikes, carrying or pulling all their camping gear and cycling together; trailers with small children or a dog, paniers loaded, heaped up cycle carriers. Sometimes there were young children riding bikes piled high with sleeping bags and mats. They would arrive at a site, the parents unloading and putting up dinky tents and their children still with energy to burn, cartwheeling over the grass, racing to the play park or cycling round and round as if they’d only just risen from bed. The parents made meals using rudimentary cooking equipment, sitting at a site picnic table or setting up lightweight, fold-up chairs-or simply sitting on a blanket.

I was in awe of these parents, who were confident and competent to undertake travel this way with their kids.Those children made no complaints. They played, ate and slept. Next morning they were up, packing, ready for the new day. When they return to school they will have towpath tales of their own to tell-and memories to last them into adulthood.

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Tales from the Towpath [part 1]

From Cherbourg, the French ferry port, it is a moderately easy drive to our first camp site on the Nantes-Brest Canal, at Grouerac.

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The site is sandwiched between the canal and the river and consists of 3 flat fields dotted with pyramid tents, tiny caravans and shepherds’ huts for hire. It is beautiful and has nearly everything; fully equipped kitchens, a large gazebo with picnic tables for diners to use, a bar, a small nook with armchairs and well-stocked bookshelves as well as the usual showers and so on. What it does lack is internet, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

After starting dinner off I wander across the field to stand by the river bank and am startled to see a kingfisher on an overhanging branch, near enough for me to reach out and touch. It is a bright, iridescent turquoise, like a bejewelled toy bird. It spots me and plops down into the water and I wait in vain for it to reappear.

Next morning we set off on our first cycle up the canal almost to Glomel. The canal is astonishingly gorgeous, a riot of green reflections, herons, water fowl, butterflies and wild flowers. The towpath ride is not entirely flat as locks and bridges must be ridden over, but is not too arduous.

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The following day’s section takes us away from the towpath and up an old railway track that rises-and rises as it goes towards Mur de Bretagne, a much harder ride. When at last we arrive to the town, which is itself situated on a steep hill, very little appears to be open except for one hotel bar, for which we are thankful.

Then we move on to Rohan, an unpretentious but pleasant enough town and the municipal camp site is again right by the towpath. We are invited for ‘aperitifs’ outside Reception and drink a convivial glass of cider with the other campers. There are two fairly straightforward, though long stretches to cycle over the next two days. The first day we cycle over 114 locks and cover 31 miles.

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The next stop is to be a rest day, at Josselin, a small medieval city with a fairy-tale chateau on the canal-side. We stay in the aire, at the top of town, with all services provided and saunter down to lunch in the centre before returning for a snooze in the van and to prepare for dinner-also in the centre of town [and if this seems self-indulgent the day is my birthday]. Tourists jostle in Josselin, a poster-town for the region.

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By the time we’ve enjoyed a delicious meal, slept soundly and risen next day the weather has begun to heat up, so that when we get to Le Roc St Andre ready for our next cycle it is clear that some effort will be involved and clearer still that waiting until late afternoon will be a sensible option. When we set off, to ride back to Josselin at 5.00pm the temperature is still fierce.

Along the way we come across a bridge with a fairly steep ascent, which Husband decides to ride up. I, however have spotted a tiny cycle short-cut underneath the bridge, which, being up for the easier option, I take. When I emerge on the other side I expect to see Husband pulling away in the distance but he is nowhere to be seen. I wait. Perhaps he is still on the other side? I return to the top. He isn’t there. I wait, have a drink of water.

A couple come past. I ask if they’ve seen Husband. They have not. I deliberate then decide to plough on to Josselin and perhaps he will be waiting further along the path…

The Beauty of the Bike.

Thank heavens for cycling.

Since most foot-dependent activities are currently out of the question, cycling is the option that remains. [Regular readers will know of my aversion to water submersion-hence swimming is off the menu].

So cycling is becoming vital to maintaining an amoebic level of physical activity and to this end Husband has been rising to the challenge of hauling me around various routes and tracks in pursuit of improving my corporeal condition.

Of course the bikes are always on board when we are out and about in the van and were transported all around Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica despite being rarely employed. This was mostly due to the terrifying nature of the Italian roads, although in Sardinia there was a modicum of driverly care un-encountered anywhere else in Italy.

On the subsequent [most recent] trip to Brittany there was more cycling. Travelling by ‘velo’ in France is a whole different experience surpassed only by bicycle use in The Netherlands or Belgium. So we undertook some pedal routes-quiet lanes and tarmac tracks, not all of which were totally flat. As I’m aware that Husband is not over-fond of complaints during cycle rides I took pains not to comment that my knees were creaking, my wrists numb and I was becoming generally knackered.

Such are the nuances of marriage however that once returned he announced that I’d been ‘complaining silently’.

On another afternoon I opted to stay behind, not so much as to spare him my silent complaints as to get down to revising poor, neglected Novel Two. Thus I was heavily engaged in the task and oblivious to anything else when Husband reappeared after what seemed an unusually brief spell. ‘I came off’ he said.

He’d come off in spectacular style, judging by the holes in his elbow and his knee. In the customary manner of husbands he was eager to minimise the event, the effects of which were not a pretty sight. Novel Two went back on the back burner while I delved into the eclectic mix of items I call the First Aid Box.

Back home now, I’ve managed to cycle without complaint, silent or otherwise, ascended some hills without dismounting to push and achieved staying within sight of Husband’s bike most of the time.

I’ve also come to realise that the bike has other uses besides the exercise factor. If I need to nip up the road for a loaf of bread I can do so without needing to suffer the excruciating attentions of Neighbour, a man who speaks to me as if I am a miniature toy poodle and who I tend to avoid at all cost.

So bike is the way except for when it’s raining-which it is-a lot-at the moment…

 

Oil or Nothing

On the face of it to us proles, it seems like a wonderful, unexpected gift that oil prices have fallen to such an extent. We take our vehicles to the pumps and Whoopee! The price of filling up to the brim has dropped like a brick in a mine shaft.

It doesn’t stop there. Prices of things, dependent on transport costs are also down. Hoorah! Rejoice! This leaves more cash in the pocket. We can travel further, travel more often, buy more stuff, throw old stuff away, make journeys we don’t need to, buy new, bigger vehicles and use more fuel. This is all marvellous…isn’t it?

Actually, while I am as pleased as anyone else at how cheap it has become to fuel the car, I have to confess to feeling uneasy about the falling petrol prices. Yes, we are all enjoying the benefits, but when the price of petrol and oil was prohibitive who didn’t rein in accordingly? There can be few ordinary people who didn’t count the cost of superfluous journeys or make other, thriftier arrangements for regular travel. During a particularly expensive period of fuel prices and shortages when I was still travelling for work I car-shared. Since then I’ve made every attempt to get to places by bike or on foot.

During the recession people bought less ‘stuff’. They made do. They decided they didn’t need the gargantuan flat-screen TV, the new Land Rover or the bespoke kitchen. They could fling a colourful throw over the tired sofa, buy a cheerful rug to cover the worn carpet and make the ten-year-old hatchback do the school run a bit longer. It was bad news for the retailers of course, but if it had continued, wouldn’t new, re-conditioning industries have sprung up? Years ago appliances could be repaired. Now there is no one who will mend a washing machine or a vacuum cleaner.

I’m not saying I want to go back fifty years in time. Heaven forbid! But isn’t it time we progressed past the ‘petrol-head’ stage? The car manufacturers ran out of inspiration for their ads years ago. It is time to make green, clean and mean on fuel sexy, not fast, enormous and petrol-glugging.

I know I’ve banged on about the odious ‘Top Gear’ and its moronic presenters before, but it is dispiriting that it should be one of the best-selling TV shows around the world. If the BBC can’t ditch it because of the revenue, surely it could be given a more eco-friendly slant? But now that oil is cheap this is even less likely to happen.

It has been proposed that the view that our house faces, the English Channel, should house an extensive wind farm. The forest of turbines would be visible like a distant swarm of insects from our decked balcony. It is a scenario that many cannot contemplate but myself, I would welcome the construction of the plant. We are all accustomed to electricity pylons-why not wind turbines? And after all, what alternatives are there?

Smaller is more beautiful…

                In a somewhat treacherous and hypocritical move, we have executed a kind of ‘upgrade’ of our travel vehicle and are now using a slightly larger camper van. I say this because I’m aware that I posted on the pecking order and the relative sizes of travel vehicles at around this time last year. We were always the smallest unit in the village, the runt of the litter, dwarfed by the gargantuan motor-homes that surrounded us. The ironic outcome of this change is that we are still the smallest camper van wherever we go, owing I presume to the fact that everyone else has acquired a larger one also.

                Husband mourns the tiny van and was reluctant to exchange it for the current home-on-wheels. I accept it is trickier to manoeuvre and cannot be used as an extra car at home, but the advantages are undeniable. It has a large, comfortable bed constructed from the two plush sofas lining the walls, a walk-in shower and toilet cubicle, a cooker complete with oven, swish windows complete with blinds and pull up insect screens, skylights and a wondrous amount of storage. All this luxury is quite enough two people. It makes me a little curious to know why other couples would need such enormous wheeled dwellings. And how much must it cost in fuel? And where on Earth do they keep it, assuming they have a bricks-and-mortar house elsewhere?

                How bizarre it is that in the present day, when technological advances seem concentrated on producing ever smaller devices- tiny ‘watch’ style internet consoles, Google’s strange glasses with internet screen [won’t everyone be bumping into each other?] etc, other items become larger and larger. TV screens, lattes, beds, cruise ships, aeroplanes, McDonalds’ meals and people are growing bigger by the day.

                Wouldn’t make more sense for the collected, obvious genius behind such marvellous and desirable, tiny objects such as slimmer tablets and phones to direct their talents into technology that reduces our need for so much power to use them?

                The French have constructed a cunning new law for owners of motor-homes so massive that little cars needed to be towed behind them. A HGV licence is necessary for the additional vehicle to be hauled along behind the mother ship. The lack of these small cars rolling along behind is starkly noticeable, although how the inmates are coping with their daily needs is not altogether clear. For us, little in this respect has changed. We shop in between one destination and another, we park up, we free our bikes from the back and use them to collect what we need. We also get to cycle around the lanes in the Provencal sunshine looking at the rural landscape and stopping at an occasional hostelry for a glass of vin [me] or a beer or two [Husband].

                We have learned not to dash around ticking off sights in an ‘if it’s Wednesday it must be Rome’ way, getting to know a small area; the beautiful, medieval villages, the vineyards and the orchards-currently clouded with pink blossom. Small [even if a modicum bigger] really is better.