Bolstered by our recent East Anglia tour, with the sun shining and running out of time before the hoards hit the roads for school holidays, I needed my annual French cycling fix: good roads and road users, beautiful scenery, good weather and good food, all served with panache. Just a ferry trip away, France is really just on our doorstep here in East Surrey but, much as I love the region south of Dieppe, it was time to venture further afield. With a direct train journey of less than 90 minutes to Portsmouth from Redhill and various ferry possibilities to France and even Spain, there’s plenty to choose from.
In order to cycle a loop and return to Portsmouth from another French port we chose a route from St Malo to Ouistreham, thus covering a little of Brittany as well as Lower Normandy, furthermore including Mont Saint-Michel and Bayeux, which used some voises vertes along the way too. Though I did not know beforehand, it turns out that much of this route has been incorporated into a new, long-distance, cross-Channel cycle route called the Tour de Manche; I believe the route was dreamt up by the respective councils and cycling groups in England and France and basically goes from Plymouth – Portsmouth – Cherbourg – St Malo – Roscoff – Plymouth. From what we saw it already looks quite popular, as we met a number of other European cyclists undertaking the full route, though I have to question if it is any more than just a branding exercise, as we saw few (if any) special cycling facilities or related directions along the way. Still good luck to them and it was still a very nice ride.
I chose to ride counter-clockwise i.e. St Malo to Ouistreham for two reasons. First and foremost, the time of the returning Ouistreham to Portsmouth ferry would enable us to get back to Redhill by train on the same day, whereas the St Malo or Cherbourg ferries get in too late and would probably require staying overnight in Portsmouth. I’m not sure that the Tour de Manche planners had given any consideration to where cyclists arriving late in the evening by ferry would camp in Portsmouth (there isn’t anywhere), as I said it’s really a branding exercise! Secondly, the pre-dominant wind in this part of the world is from the west / southwest and as a cyclist it is, of course, always best to cycle with rather than against the wind.
Starting in St Malo the route consisted of four distinctive sections: (i) a flat maritime area across the southern coastal part of the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel, (ii) two regional voises vertes that follow old disused railway lines which pass over some quite high land and often wooded countryside, (iii) rolling topography of the southern Calvados known as Swiss Normandy leading to eventually to Bayeux, and (iv) the coastal area which includes the Normandy D-Day beaches. As a result the ride was interesting, varied in nature, with the scenery, topography and food changing as we cycled through this enjoyable and attractive region.
This time we took the overnight ferry to St Malo and first headed east via Mont Saint-Michel, onto a (relatively) new voie vert from Ceux to Mortain, where it branched north to Vire. We joined the road again at this point and rode north-east to stay at Aunay-sur-Odon and then up to Bayeaux for a two night stopover, having missed this out from my previous D-Day ride + Mrs G wanted to see the tapestry. Finally, we headed down to the coast from just east of Arromanche and thence to Ouistreham and the ferry back to Portsmouth.
It was a good trip, good riding (we did a bit over 200 miles), good weather and, as usual in France, great grub.
Some of the highlights were:
- Mont Saint-Michel’s Bay was lovely riding, especially the area called The Polders, adjacent to the Mont and the section from Courtils to Ceaux;
- The voises vertes were typically enjoyable cycling. Their surface of fine grit was excellent most of the time and, though an old railway track and well graded, climbed significantly in places accompanied by wonderful views, especially the Vallee de Seé just south of Sourdeval on the voie vert du Bocage Virois.
- I don’t know why but I was surprised by Bayeaux, which is a very beautiful town and not too big or busy to comfortably cycle about; of course we saw the Tapestry and I visited the Brits WWII cemetery. Much of the D-Day region was still ‘celebrating’ the 70th anniversary and by coincidence there was a remembrance concert at Bayeaux Cathedral on Saturday night for a performance of Europe’s anthem, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (the Coral) with a +120 persons choir – a real treat in the cathedral setting and a highlight of the week.
- Finally, it was good to be back on the D-Day beaches. Being a little later in the year than before a lot of cyclists were now touring the route, including a young woman we met all the way from Rioja in Spain!
Day-1 Redhill to Portsmouth: 10 miles
The direct train from Redhill to Porstmouth takes just 88 minutes and as we needed to travel in the afternoon to avoid the London rush hour exit, we arrived quite early in Portsmouth. I studied in Portsmouth for three years as did Mrs G, who was also born there, so with time on our hands we decided to take a spin around some old familiar places, mainly in and around Southsea and Old Portsmouth, before catching the overnight ferry.
Incredibly this was the first time I had ever cycled around Portsmouth, a city made for bikes as it is an island and totally flat. Today the university students were all using bikes, which made complete sense, but 40 years ago it wasn’t cool so we walked everywhere – stupid really! With wonderful views over the Solent to the Isle of Wight, Southsea front is a wonderful location, made even better on a bike – although being exposed makes it uncomfortably windy. Further on Old Portsmouth has remained little changed for centuries and, furthermore, provides a spectacular view from the harbour entrance out to sea and into the historic docks. In contrast, just round the corner previous Navy land at Gunwharf Quay has recently been developed into a major centre of shops, restaurants and upmarket flats, as well as the magnificent Spinnaker Tower – providing a timely place to stop for something to eat and drink before heading for the ferry terminal located north of the city.
The route from there to the ferry terminal is a little tricky on a bike but being familiar with the Portsmouth it was not a problem. Notwithstanding, the so-called cycle marked route is a disgrace, particularly on returning. Considering the massive investment and ongoing business provided by the terminal you would think a decent route could be clearly marked out but then again we are only cyclists! This is not dissimilar to my experience of Dover Docks and is a shameful introduction to cycling in the UK for foreign visitors, for the British we are just used to it but that doesn’t make it right.
As this was still technically out-of-season, we decided to just find a couchette on the boat and doze overnight. In order not to arrive too early in St Malo the overnight ferry slows down, taking about 10-hours compared to 7-hours in the day. I can’t say I got a lot of rest but it was OK and, being cooked by French chefs, the café meal was good too.
Day-2 St Malo to La Poultiere: 36 miles
After returning to the on-board café for breakfast and feeling not exactly refreshed but just about all right, we headed first into old St Malo after disembarking the ferry, a striking medieval walled town strategically overlooking the harbour entrance and the mouth of the River Rance. Though we really should have spent more time there, we just had a quick spin around and headed out on the D201 road east to Pointe de Grouin. I had looked at this location during planning on Google Earth and the reality was as good as expected, with the headland jutting out into the sea and a thin, sharp island just offshore creating a narrow channel of fast moving water. We stopped and had an early morning coffee which was awful – the hotel relying on its location rather than quality – but the view was nonetheless fabulous, accompanied by a tantalising glimpse of Mont Saint Michel in the far distance.
We then turned south stopping first at Cancale for some food before continuing cycling during the next few hours along the southern coastal area of the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel. Apart from its obvious beauty, the bay is also known for its oysters, of which there was row after row being farmed offshore and tractors everywhere harvesting and then bringing them onshore.
Such is the attraction of Mont Saint-Michel that those campsites that do exist nearby tend to be very commercial and tacky but I had previously located a small, private but pleasant site about six miles west of Mont Saint-Michel near the village of La Poultiere. Furthermore, Les Couesons campsite operated a basic but very nice restaurant, so that was dinner sorted as well – which of course had to include oysters, lovely!
Day-3 La Poultiere to Mortain: 44 miles
The short ride from Les Couesons to Mont Saint-Michel in the morning was exquisite. Called The Polders, like the Dutch name suggests the area is reclaimed from the sea and is characterized by a patchwork of flat fertile fields that are used for horticulture, criss-crossed by drainage ditches and a network of small, straight very quiet roads that eventually lead to a large canal running straight to Mont Saint-Michel.
We arrived at Mont Saint-Michel quite early but already the crowds were thronging and would clearly grow throughout the day and the season – I would not want to be there in high season and despite the Mont’s obvious beauty, it has to be said that the area has become something of a theme park. However, we cycled slowly along the causeway, which was under substantial reconstruction, to obtain the obligatory pictures and then moved off as the crowds were starting to swell significantly. For my money I much prefer the Mont’s close Cornish relative of St Michael’s Mount near Penzance, which though also popular is far less developed and commercialized.
The Polders continued for a short way east of the Mont and the route was quite convoluted until we eventually encountered the start of the voie vert at Ceux, on which we would cycle for the next two days. For some hours we rode along the track which soon started to climb, winding its way round the hills that were by now more typical Normandy agriculture – dairy farming. Considering this was originally a railway track the climb was noticeable and, as is often the case with the voises vertes, it was necessary to leave the track from time-to-time and ride into the nearest village to find food and drink.
Finally we reached the junction with the next voie vert and turned northwards, before shortly afterwards joining the road to find the municipal campsite at Mortain. The road into town was very, very steep and we both struggled but almost immediately into town came across the campsite, a patch of open grass next to the municipal offices with a facilities block. We were the only campers there and were somewhat disconcerted by the site’s setting opening directly onto the streets. However, not long thereafter two caravans and a large group of Dutch cyclists arrived to keep us company – they were on their way round the Tour de Manche ride and were very interested to know all about UK cycling and in particular camping in Portsmouth, which was a pity!
Mortain is a small typical Normandy town with some obvious history, situated on the edge of a deep gorge, which is what we had cycled down and then up and now overlooked from the campsite. Dinner in the evening was very difficult to find but the one place that was open, a Pizzeria, was full of cyclists from the campsite – maybe the other venues should take note, though being France I doubt it.
Day-4 Mortain to Aunay-sur-Odon: 46 miles
In the morning we left Mortain on the main road north in order to re-join the voie vert and avoid cycling across the gorge again. The road soon crossed above the track which was in a cutting below but it took some time to actually find the access point, which was very poorly indicated – so much for the Tour de Manche.
We would be cycling into the region known as Swiss Normandy that consists of Lower Normandy and the Orne departments which, though not exactly Alpine, is quite hilly and cut through by gorges in places to produce some very striking scenery. In order to maintain a suitable gradient for the trains the track swung back and forth over the first few miles providing some wonderful views in places, most notable of which was the magnificent Vallee de la Seé, formed from erosion by the River Seé with the assistance of glacial waters during the Ice Age. The track eventually stopped outside Vire, where we re-joined the road into town before heading for Aunay-sur-Odon on the D55 thereafter.
Having gained some height over the past two days, the D55 road finally dropped rapidly into the broad river valley in which Aunay-sur-Odon is situated. La Closserie municipal campsite was located on the other, eastern side of town but was very well kept and in itself quiet but unfortunately a commercial building site across the road was very noisy until early evening with lorries coming and going – still the sun was shining, in fact it was quite hot. The town was very pleasant, with plenty of Normandy architecture and we had a good dinner outside at the main hotel, except for the lady patron who was old school French – very bossy to her staff and rude to customers, especially if they were English – a bit like a French female Basil Fawlty and therefore quite funny. Fortunately I find this to be a quite unusual occurrence nowadays in France.
Day-5 Aunay-sur-Odon to Bayeux: 24 miles
The brief early morning ride from the campsite through Longvillers to Villers Bocage was very attractive but thereafter quite ordinary until we finally saw the spire of Bayeux Cathedral on the horizon. Having been in the sticks since leaving St Malo it was a shock to the system being back in a large town but the roads and drivers were both good.
Being a major tourist centre the municipal campsite was very big and quite full, especially with campervans and large trailers. Notwithstanding, the facilities were fine, the centre of town was close and there were good food shops just up the road – only on the second night were we to experience a problem. In order to see the Bayeaux Tapestry and some of the other sights we spent two nights at the campsite – sometimes it is also good to just stop for 24-hours, rest a bit and get cleaned up too.
Day-6 Bayeux: 4 miles
Starting early to beat the crowds we were first in line to see the Tapestry in the morning. A fascinating artefact which, depending on what you read, was probably made in England, well there’s a surprise – maybe we should ask for it back? Afterwards we had a look at the Cathedral and inevitably I then went off to the Bayeux Commonwealth War Cemetery before returning to the campsite for some R&R.
Whilst at the Cathedral we noticed that that very night there was a special performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings. It seemed unlikely that we would get tickets being so late but we did and the performance in the Cathedral setting, which included a +120 person choir, was outstanding.
Afterwards we watched the Son et Lumier outside the Cathedral before returning to the campsite and bed. An hour or so later we were woken-up by the sound of what we thought was gunfire somewhere on the site! We stayed still and did not use our lights until after about 20 minutes and, when the noise had stopped, I gingerly got out the tent and cautiously walked around but found nothing. Shortly after returning to the tent the firing briefly started again and then finally ceased. In today’s world you just don’t know what’s going on but with the benefit of hindsight we’re sure it was probably firecrackers, not unknown at night in Europe. In some way I felt a fool but on the other hand caution was certainly the best course of action – you just never know.
Day-7 Bayeux to Ouistreham: 26 miles
Having toured the Normandy D-Day beaches in 2010 I was looking forwards to returning there again and introducing Mrs G to some of my discoveries; unfortunately as she has no interest in events there in 1944 it was not appreciated. The D205 road from Bayeaux intersects the D154 coastal road just east of Arromanche at St Côme-de-Fresne, where we turned right and kept going until Ouistreham.
The weather had started a bit grey and by the time we got to Courseulles-sur-Mer the heavens opened and we, like much of the town, took refuge in the local fire station, where the firemen were about to start an indoor barbeque! As we continued afterwards the sun slowly re-emerged and we diverted onto the beach road nearer to Ouistreham and stopped to look at a bric-a-brac market, when as we were wheeling the bikes I heard a sound like a gun shot and immediately my rear wheel started to foul the brakes, a spoke had broken.
This was a new experience and as I had specially fitted a 34-spoke, hand-built wheel to improve the bike’s load capacity when touring I was surprised but then again maybe it was an accident waiting to happen? Unfortunately I don’t possess wheel straightening skills (yet), so had to release the rear brake, to the point of it not working anymore, and gingerly wobbled my way on to the campsite which was thankfully not far away. It was a nuisance but nonetheless fortunate occurring at the end of the trip and didn’t cause any major problems getting home either.
Once pitched we cycled along the Caen Canal to Pegasus Bridge, site of the famous glider landings on the morning of 4th June 1944 and had a beer at the equally famous Gondree café that had overlooked the action in 1944. Again Mrs G was not too impressed but I think enjoyed our final meal on French soil later that evening in Ouistreham, which this time had to be mussels and chips.
Day-8 Ouistreham to Redhill: 6 wobbly miles
The morning ferry to Portsmouth leaves quite early from Ouistreham but, as a result, we were home by 4.00 p.m. that afternoon, which is very impressive and goes to prove my initial point that we really are on the doorstep of France and, as a result, would be back here again later in the Autumn for another tour, Well why not?
STATS – MAPS – STUFF
Tour: 14th to 21st July 2014, 8 days
Total Mileage: 209 miles
Maps: IGN 1:100,000 numbers 116 & 106 (+115) & Michelin 1:150,000 numbers 303 & 309
|1||Redhill to Portsmouth14th July 2014||TRAIN TO: Portsmouth c£16.00 pp return||10.00|
|Portsmouth to St Malo||FERRY: Brittany Ferries c £90pp return inc seats|
|2||St Malo to near Mont Saint Michel||Via Cancale D201 D155 and D797||36.00|
|3||MSM to Mortain||Via Ceaux and onto vois verte via Ducey, Isigny le Buat & St Hilaire||44.00|
|4||Mortain to Aunay sur Odon||Vois vertes du Bocage Virois to Sourdeval & Vire. Then D55 & D26.||46.00|
|5||Aunay sur Odon to Bayeaux||D8, D216, D214, D71 to Villers-Bocage. Then D33& D 67 to Bayeaux||24.00|
|7||Bayeaux to Ouistreham||D12, D205 to coast the east on D514||26.00|
|8||Ouistreham to Home||Ferry to Portsmouth, train to Redhill||6.00|
|Day-2: Camp @ Les Couesons near La Poultiere c €20.00?|
|Day-3: Municipal Camp at Mortain c €6.00|
|Day-4 La Closserie municipal campsite @ Aunay-sur-Odon €2.20 + 2x€2.20 = €6.60|
|Days-5 &65 Bayeux municipal campsite €4.96 + 2x€9.14 etc = €29.60|
|Day-7 Les Pommiers municipla campsite @ Ouistreham €4.62 + 2x €4.52 etc = €14.76|