Categories
Everything and Anything

Oktoberfests

2013, where it all began.

Cold, wet, windy, miserable. Since time immemorial it has been tradition to go to Shell Island in the Autumn.

Since it is September, I thought it best to bring up a timely tradition; that of the annual Shell Island Oktoberfest. Unlike actual Oktoberfest it usually takes part in October, not September, and apart from one I missed due to being in India, I have attended them all. TO be clear, this isn’t about the real Oktoberfests in Bavaria.

We’d been to Shell Island for the closing ceremony in 2012. But for the 2013 season there would be an actual Oktoberfest happening.

Nearly every Oktoberfest has been… eventful. There have been times where:

The exact place the “fooling around” took place, immediately after the incident.
  • Due to some roughhousing Ash suffered some sort of internal arm injury that meant we had to take him to Porthmadog minor injuries unit who seriously recommended he go to a proper hospital. He didn’t. It went down on the medical report as “fooling around with a friend when he fell”.
  • Sean wore full Lederhosen. Despite this, or maybe even because of this, an old man fondled him by groping his arse.
  • We all bought cheap glass steins from Porthmadog Lidl, then whilst dancing on the table one of us proceeded to drop theirs, and for good measure fall off the table onto the shards. With blood flowing from their leg they did go to a proper hospital. This got dancing on tables banned for like, one whole night.
  • Kari got on stage in the opening night festivities and drank an entire glass Wellington boot of beer in the shortest amount of time.
  • I got so inebriated I thought it was a good idea to dance on some tables for hours on end and then collapse face down in a swamp. This video was… *ahem*… popular… when first posted.
  • We paid for a photo in a frame and it actually came out looking like a nostalgic faded photo of better times in the 80s.
Do all Polaroids look like this or is it just me?
  • Sean decided to try inviting a strange couple of guys into the tent who just turned up with alcohol and asked to come inside, in a “totally not gonna murder you” sort of way. Basically if you need anything from Sean just ply him with free booze.
    • This had the side effect of setting Ash into “patrol mode” because he grabbed a torch and spent the next 30 mins patrolling in case crime awas afoot.
  • Becky blue the fuse on a not really real Motorhome by trying to use a Microwave, leading to a great chase in which we tried to find a fuse. The fuse not being an auto fuse but a large glass style usually used in aftermarket sound mods, not one garage had it. Not even the marine garages, we checked those too. This hunt took a whole day.
  • Most recently was so hungover I missed the second night.
  • The one I missed; a real Motorhome was rented and Sean nearly drove it off a cliff overtaking a tractor. A tent was also pitched in what was only described as a swamp (but not mah swamp).
  • Back at the tent, Ad wrestled Sean into a gas powered heater.
  • In nearby Barmouth, we went on the Dodgems. ALL CARS MUST GO CLOCKWISE the signs said. COUNTERCLOCKWISE IT IS Kari said. Head on collisions and whiplash ensue.
    • There was also a motorcross day on the beach because Wales.
  • I tried making a timelapse.
Oktoberfest 2014
A German beer festival calls
for actual German Beer.

In case you noticed the last post promise of future posts “soon”, the plan to write up some bigly post about all happenins since 2015 sort of fizzled out. In fact I totally forgot about this blog until last week when a friend read it and reminded me it existed. So I thought I’d go and tidy it up, found it was running an ancient version of php, and that Installatron had detected two (yes two! wild) installations of WordPress, the software that runs this blog. So, I thought I’d delete the one marked backup since it was unmodified from 2016. Bad idea – it was also linked to the current database, it was only a file backup, so Installatron wiped the database. Dread crossed my mind as I realised nearly 20 years of important historical documents had been lost. How will future civilisations build a utopia based on my life if the blog is gone? Luckily the webhost, Owen was able to restore the missing database. Now that order is restored, I’ll be adding some posts here in categories of things that happened since 2015 rather than Jumbo posts. Easier to write.

In short, more, shorter blog posts going forward. In the mean time, enjoy this fancy new collage of Oktoberfest photos from 2014.

Categories
Everything and Anything

Business Trips

It’s been a while, so I’m going to write down some things that happened since 2015 in a series of blog posts. I’d give them a catchy name series but I lack that sort of imagination, so just imagine that part for yourselves.

Some of the Wipro team and I!

It’s August 2017, and I’m asked to go to Bangalore, train up some people in our outsourcing partner of the time. Big deal – In 2011 I was on a shortlist to go to Shanghai but there were three of us and they could only send two. As the least experienced trainer I missed out, and had to stay in Wrexham and train new people alone. So this offer was a big deal!

Of course, in preparation I needed a business visa. This meant going to London. This meant getting up at 5am, getting on two trains, rushing through the underground and then submitting the papers, then waiting six hours, then getting one of the last trains home in another rush. This was great enough already, however it was made worse by the fact I had filled in the wrong form, and although I was able to complete the right one in the visa office, the website to do so crashed. I had to go home, head hung in shame and return the week after to do it all again. I now know there exist (and have used) e-visas instead but I was not aware of this at the time.

Business class seating on an Emirates A380

Once I had the visa in my passport, I could then get the travel sorted. Our organisation was very self-help, so flight booking was arranged through our online tool. As it’s a long flight, I qualified for Business Travel too! The Hotel however was organised by our contractors, as they had special rates. I was not involved.

So, I found myself on my very first business trip. By myself. To India. For two weeks. Part of me was bricking it, the rest immeasurably excited. The trip was easy enough – as a business passenger all I had to do was get picked up by Emirates, taken to Manchester, waltz through fast track security and had Emirates premium lounge access.

The flight itself was an amazing experience. Free WiFi, lie flat seats, a large screen and perhaps most importantly, a much more private area to yourself than some other airlines. The A380 itself also included a bar on the upper deck and showers for First Class, but I was already overwhelmed enough by the experience to require them. The B777 between Dubai and Bangalore was a bit less private, sitting in rows rather than the staggered booths shown to the left.

India from the Air

Once in Bangalore I had an okay time – work was really great; the training went well, the people in the office were really nice, but it was a 11-7 shift, with an hour of travel thrown in, so I was getting back to the hotel around 8pm. The hotel itself was nice, a Doubletree by Hilton, but it was on the outer ring road, so no going into the city for food. I had dinner in the hotel itself. After two weeks of highly pragmatic working, I flew back assuming I would never return.

Anyway, the months go by, and our contract expires. We do have, however an actual operations office in Bangalore, so why not move the extra work there? Fair enough, I do it via Cisco WebEx, so entirely remote. Of course, doing a full course of technical training over WebEx is terrible without interactivity tools, and we didn’t have em. It was a nightmare for them, us and everyone else involved.

Fast forward a few months to July, and we wanted more in Bangalore. This time, though, using the feedback from the earlier training, we justified going back in person.

The then TR team in Bangalore with us three (centre)

This time I went with two others, so after a few weeks of taking them through the flight bookings and visa stuff, we flew out there. Learning from my first trip, we also insisted on sticking to a daytime shift – 10-6. This meant we actually had our evenings to ourselves. Our hotel this time was the Sterlings Mac, much closer to the city centre and near main commercial areas with restaurants.

All this made the second trip immeasurably better. Going out all the time, we rode in Tuk-Tuks ( autorickshaws), visited a neighboring city by train to see a colonial-era palace and a hydroelectric dam, and even ate out most evenings! As I had flown once before and may never return, I used my points to upgrade my return flight to return. This would be great, however after staying for three weeks, we were asked to stay an additional two. Unfortunately I could not do this online due to my upgrade, so after waiting some time to talk to an agent, I had to phone anyway, then wait even longer.

Traditional Southern Indian food. Eaten with your hands… from a banana leaf.

The food was amazing. We were eating out twice a day – once during our lunch and once for dinner. We were using expenses for most of this and depsite pigging out were still way beneath the guidelines, food was that cheap. Not only did we try traditional Southern Indian food, but also we were able to try Northern food and Arabic food; since everything has an Indian twist, it’s different from the sort of Arabic food you’d eat in the UK. Regrettably this did sometimes result in… issues… for the three of us, but I mostly sorted this out by only experimenting during the day and alternating to western food in the hotel.

First class seating on an Emirates B777

First was even better, even if it did feel a bit wasted on me! Essentially you had an even bigger reclining chair, screen and some more free things, including much more expensive champagne.

I travelled to India four more times; October, December, January and February. Each time with a new group of people, although due to different booking times I sometimes travelled alone. Of course, during October it was announced that our office in Wrexham would close. Which I guess is something that has put me in the pensieve sort of mood to write about these things.

If you’d like to see more photos from these trips, please have a look at my Flickr album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisowenjones/albums/72157709038089816

That’s it for this one. More soon.

Categories
Everything and Anything

Coast 2 Coast – C2C – Supporting a Crew

All images below are hyperlinks to the full res versions.

Preparation

So, last weekend I assisted five fine friends finish a fantastic foray through the northern Lake District and Pennines from the harbour at Whitehaven to the breakwater at Tynemouth.

Coast 2 Coast 2015You can see the whole route they cycled here. Just look at the height profile in the top left. Once you let that 1998ft height wash over you, head here and drop some dosh. It’s all for charity of course.

Our job was simple; we’d meet the cycling team at pre-arranged points, or as near as we could get. If anybody was injured, supply first aid, or if more serious, take them on board and less dramatic, carry the water and other supplies to refuelt the cyclists with! We would also try and drive the road routes ahead of the crew, and phone them to let them know if our plans changed or where to meet us if a specific place was not decided upon.

Coast 2 Coast 2015In all there were nine of us. Five cyclists, four support, and just under 140 miles. We needed space for seven cycles – each cyclist had their own carbon fibre framed bike, there was one serious spare, a steel one provided by Rob, and the dreaded easy rider, a forfeit bike that, due to a total lack of brakes, having more rust than paint, and having handlebars that freely span around, was more a deathtrap than bike, as demonstrated to the right by myself.

All this mean the necessity of a van. Fortunately, Adam Cherrett, one of the cyclists owned a Ford Transit, which I commandeered for the weekend. Unfortunately a transit only has three seats. Six more to go more than could reasonably and legally fit in any one of the alternative vehicles, so we brought both; a Renault hatchback and a Land Rover Discovery. Luckily there were three drivers willing to take the vehicles from West to East, negating the need for the cyclists to have to cycle back, or worse – take a train. This was also fortunate, as Sarah, one of the cyclists, was unable to commit to leaving on the Wednesday evening, and instead needed to come up on the Thursday morning.

As we’d be leaving on Wednesday, we sought permission to leave work earlier, which was granted. There would be two vehicles heading up on the Wednesday – Kari and her hatchback took Mark and Ash at around 3pm. As for myself, I would drive the transit up with it’s owner and Sean, another of the cycling team. When we would leave depended on when everyone’s work was squared away, and this came to be possible around 3:45. So we headed around back and loaded up. I hopped into the driver seat – having only ever driven vans around my estate when we needed to move one my brother had brought home, this was going to be a new experience. The only real pain is the traffic on the A483 and M6 on the way up – since the pedals are different from a car, it really starts to make your ankle ache trying to hold the bite on the clutch all the time! I had a fear I’d fall off and zoom off into the car in front…

ACoast 2 Coast 2015fter a four and a half hour hour journey, we came into the Northern Lake District, and the sight of all the hills was unnerving to Sean, who admitted didn’t train on too many hills. Cherrett was spot on though by pointing out you typically wouldn’t have roads high over the mountains. That might have been true for the lake district, but the North Pennines… We were about 45-60 minutes behind Mark, Ash and Kari, and we recieved some updates on the way up. Mark was fuming about the state of affairs regarding the sleeping area, and so was Ash. Kari wasn’t impressed either. Not only about the state of the accomodation, but also because of the rudeness of the woman who greeted them. This was not a good sign for us, and we later turned up in the village of Sandwith, with Kari Mark and Ash having gone to the shops. After a lovely jaunt in a transit down lanes far too narrow, we waited for them to turn up and then checked out the room.

Oh my lord.

When I had heard it was a “camping barn”, I envisaged a barn with a load of bunkbeds in it. Now, a week before, Kari had looked into the places and said we needed to bring our own bedding. Fair enough, take the bunkbeds out of the equation, I still imagined something like a small parish hall or sports hall – a sealed building with lighting, electricity, heating and a bathroom, right?

Nope.

Instead, we had a small rectangular room, not much bigger than 15ft along the longer edge. Along the “back” was a weird trough made out of terracotta half pipes, filled with foam mats. Most of the room was taken up by a raised concrete slab, topped with a bit of wood. That was it. Now, there were six of us, and unless we planned on anything intimate, you would not get more than five on that slab. There were other rooms, sure – but most of them were the same. Worse was that in the other room there was somebody’s stuff. “Some guy who went rock climbing”. I never saw him but Kari, Mark and Ash said he had been sleeping there earlier.  The door to our little room was barely a door – it must have been a fine oak stable door back in the day but it had rotted away around the corners and then been painted. This left huge gaps between the inside and the outside – breezy. Worse still was that every nook and cranny was covered in Spider webs. The room was an outside barn, and it was full of spiders. Very very large spiders. Oh dear. Mark swore that Adam Edwards, a cyclist who had booked all the accomodation, would not live to see the Coast 2 Coast. Especially since he wasn’t turning up until the next morning. Thanks Ad.god damn spiders

We unpacked our bedding and it was decided I’d sleep on the floor area at the end of the raised area. By the window. WHERE THE SPIDERS COME IN okay enough of that. I didn’t mind. I brought a folding camping bed meaning I was about at the same level as the sleeping area anyway. Mark, Ash and Kari however were running into difficulty. They had brought old school inflatable air beds. Which wouldn’t inflate – because the air pump had split. It took a while but it did inflate. The air pump was left on the raised area, next to where my head would be. Keep that in mind.

Sean and Cherrett were good – Sean had brought two camping beds, not folding, so some assembly was required. Sean was able to get his completed with help from Ash rather quickly, snapping the dozen or so pieces together, but poor Cherrett had to use the foam mats provided/left behind by former murder victims guests, because when he emptied the bag with Sean’s other bed in, only three pieces of metal fell out. Whoops.

After dealing with that, we decided to go get some food. Mark has a Wetherspoons app on his phone, so we knew there was one in Whitehaven, The Bransty Arch, and we wanted to use it! It was rather empty, and we got a table that fit all six of us. It was a lovely meal, and a nice pint went down nicely. Until the woman who served us asked us where we were staying. We said a camping barn. She said “oh Tarn Flatt hall?”. We affirmed. She said she went there with her school. She said it was haunted.

what.

This lead to multiple ghost related discussion and jokes, some of which made some of the part uncomfortable. One of the things Ash kept saying was “wouldn’t it be scary if you opened your eyes and there was a face right there?”.

We headed back. It was around 11pm, and the rules, as explained by numerous SHOUTY SIGNS and the rude woman, stated that any noise after 11pm would get you kicked out. So we tip toed. We whispered. But then hilariously, Mark and Ash realised their beds had deflated somewhat, so they had to bust out the air pump again, but pump it as quietly as possible. This resulted in the most hilarious “silence” in which the night air was permeated by the sound of what I could only describe as somebody doing CPR on an asthmatic badger.

Anyway, we all hopped into bed and put in our ear plugs, but not before looking at the ceiling. The spiders had come out. The big boys too. Not fun. We just cocooned ourselves in the sleeping bags and tried to get off. After around 15-20 minutes or so, I heard one of the air beds making creaking noises, as if somebody was trying to wrestle it to death. I opened my eyes to see Ash hovering over Kari, trying to re-enact his joke from the pub. I closed my eyes and went back off to trying to sleep, but I kept seeing light through my eyelids, and eventually took out my ear plugs. Kari and Mark had just finished saying something. I noticed the air pump was right next to my head still, and decided to gently push it down. C-R-R-R-R-R-R-E-A-K. It made the most terrifying noise. Gently releasing it made the same noise. “What was that?” said one voice. “It’s coming from the wall” said another. I did it again. C-R-R-R-R-R-R-E-A-K. Mark was now trying to wake Ash up. Ash was just like “go back to sleep”. I did it a few more times, whereby Mark gets more and more agitated, until on one go I get busted when Kari turns on her phone light as I’m doing it. I just look and say “hello there!”.

Unfortunately I had to escort her across the farmyard to the toilet in the dead of night as pennance. We then went to sleep.

Day 1

 

Coast 2 Coast 2015The next morning, it was back to Wetherspoons. Now, Whitehaven is a faded mining town that has the claim to fame of being attacked during the American War of Independence – by some definitions the last “invasion” of England. After a breakfast, we headed over the road to Tesco to buy some stuff for the day. This is when the Land Rover carrying Sarah, Adam E and Rob turns up. We meet in the car park, and then drive over to the harbour where everyone gears up. At this point, Ad E attached a speaker to the wing mirror, and wired it up to a DB radio in the van. Awesome, now I could issue demands if I got close enough!

We walked to the starting point, where a few photos were taken and last minute prep done. We turned on our Walkie Talkies – 2 way radios are not covered by mobile phone legislation so can be used legally whilst driving.

At around 11am, the five cyclists set off. We had Adam Cherrett, Adam Edwards, Ashley Powell, Sarah Staples and Sean Taylor as the five intrepid souls, and myself, Kari Cartledge and Robert Jones as the drivers. Kari was also host to Mark Roberts. Since the first part of the journey took place on mostly old railway trackbeds, and railways aren’t notorious for their steepness, we decided to meet them at the village of Rowrah, roughly 9 miles in, and near the end of the railway stint, just before the first road sections. Being the North of England – Rowrah is an ex mining village. It did not take long to reach here – only 20-25 minutes, and whilst we spent 10 minutes trying to park under a railway bridge, no sooner than we had parked and walked to where the cycle path intersected a lane, they arrived. Having not dealt with much in the way of climbing, they were in high spirits – no refills needed. Unfortunately by this point there had been two falls, and Ash had injured his leg on his bike, and it had bled quite bit, looking quite nasty. It had stopped for now though, and it was decided no first aid was needed.

Coast 2 Coast 2015We agreed to meet them in yet another 10 miles, and began our drive. After stopping at a few village greens so I could double check the map (I don’t use a sat nav), we reached the tiny hamlet of Thackthwaite – a place so small I can’t even rip a fact from the net – roughly 30 minutes later by car, and began our wait. This time though, it took a little longer – about another 40 minutes or so, which we spent mostly waiting around near the cars, and eating my store bought Tesco sandwich.

This time, they did refill on essentials – there had been some ascents and the on-road section was a bit tougher than a gently sloping railway alignment! We set off again, following the guys for a short time. This is where the DB radio with the speaker came in handy, as I could issue such helpful commands as “go faster” and “get off the road”. Eventually they came to a junction and two of them started heading right. One of the others called them back though as if we were going left. So we drove left, and as I passed I shouted “you’re going the wrong way” over the speaker. After a short while, nothing was making any sense from what I’d seen on the map – we should be heading down through a mountain pass, not passing through rolling hills and verdant meadows. Eventually we came to the local major road, the A66, and there was a small layby we pulled over in. I looked and the map and realised we had gone the wrong way, not them. Fearing that they might have followed us, and not wanting them to end up on the major road (which becomes a fast, 70mph dual carriageway further on), we phoned them and let them know, to which they said they turned around shortly after we drove off. Phew!

After this point, we drove on down the A66 to Keswick, 10 miles away by bike from the last point – finding a pub in the Pheasant Inn and enjoying a fine pint whilst waiting for the others to catch up. What we had not done however, is agree on a meeting point in Keswick with the team. So we had to again interrupt the cyclists and we phoned Sarah to let them know where we were and how to get there, not helped by me giving them directions to “Cockthwaite lane” instead of “Crossthwaite Road”. whoops.
Coast 2 Coast 2015Rather than depend on mining, Keswick was a market town and still retains a vibrant shopping street to this day. The cyclists had to descend into the town of Keswick through the Whinlatter Pass – a steeply sided valley with scree slopes – where the road travels along the bottom shared with a forest of conifer trees.

The route from Keswick to the day one finishing line – Greystoke – was mostly off-road ex-railway trackbed again, so instead of driving ahead right away, we decided to check in to our accommodation for the evening, which was in Denton House, Keswick. It’s an independent Hostel, not run by the YHA, and it was nicely kept and had some very comfortable beds! As such, it was a world apart from the previous night’s stay… One of the staff waited for us and gave us a guided tour, which was friendly and very useful!

Coast 2 Coast 2015Once we’d checked in we decided to have a cuppa and then we drove on to Greystoke, near Penrith – another 13 miles away from Keswick. Greystoke is a small village centered around a very well kept village green. There is also Greystoke castle – not a traditional castle but a posh house that looks sorta like one built in the 16th century. We waited here for around 20 minutes before the cyclists arrived, and they were glad to have finally done so, having cycled a nearly 40 miles in a day, mostly uphill! The highest point on this first day was around 950ft, and since they set off from Sea level, it’s quite some work!

We loaded everyone up and drove everyone back to Keswick, where everyone enjoyed a well deserved shower and got changed, before heading to the pub, the Twa Dogs Inn, just down the road! The cyclists had a well deserved pint and a meal, before having a few more and heading back. But the support team… well, we stayed a bit longer – late enough the bar staff started to turn off the lights! I was also beaten 2-0 in pool, which was renamed because of how completely inept we both were. After that, we stumbled back to find everyone was fast asleep but also that the room was absolutely boiling hot, so trying not to disturb anyone, we opened a window and clambered into our bunks.

 Day 2

The next morning we again found a Wetherspoons, The Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, an old Courthouse this time. We again had a breakfast, and then we drove the cyclists back to Greystoke, where they set off toward a village called Langwathby, 12 miles away.  Since Langwathby is at the bottom of the valley, this would take them from around 700ft at Greystoke to around 300ft. They would also pass through the large – and busy town of Penrith. After crossing the “temporary” Langwathby truss bridge (installed in 1968 to replace the flood damaged sandstone original), we arrived in another “garden” village much like Greystoke, only busier. After a short wait, whilst we were grabbing an ice cream from the local shop, the cyclists turned up – they refilled and prepared themselves – the next meeting point was at Hartside Summit – 1903ft from Sea level, and it was 11.5 miles of up. There were some serious ascents ahead, and we drove along the route to preview them and arrived at the top.

Coast 2 Coast 2015We decided to get some food at the cafe here whilst waiting, and it was filled with bikers – not like something out of Sons of Anarchy, but bikers who just ride for fun. Now, when getting out of the car, the weather is the first thing that hits you, literally. At Langwathby, the wind had not been an issue – in fact the air was a bit stifling – but at Hartside Summit, the wind was strong, and consistently so; no gusts, just a constant flow of high wind. It made you cold, and you constantly had to fight it to keep balance even when standing. It also probably explained the lack of trees up there.

This wasn’t good news for the cyclists either, but slowly and surely they appeared through the zoom lens of my camera, rounding the curves on the approach to the summit. Coast 2 Coast 2015Eventually they made it to the top, feeling victorious at “getting to the top” and everybody took a few minutes to refill, recoup, have a photo with the summit sign, and also get out of the wind. Unbenknown to them, it was not the highest point on the C2C, and was in fact, the first ascent of many more that day. We had a plan I wasn’t aware of for these several hills, and that was to keep telling them the next one was the last one. But I didn’t know of this plan. So kept ruining it. Inadvertantly.

After a short while, they set off again, on a long downhill stretch that was very fast. We overtook them and headed for the next meetup, which was the village of Nenthead – another ten miles away. This would first take them back down to nearly 1000ft, at the hamlet of Leadgate. However, shortly after passing through the small village of Garrigill where the River Tyne is first crossed, we came across a massive hill – very steep. It was in fact a struggle to get the transit up it, and we knew that the cyclists would find it difficult also. After ascending it, the route seemed to flatten out but in fact it continued upward again for quite a while, to another summit which was higher than the first – almost 1970ft. Coast 2 Coast 2015 Instead of going on to Nenthead, we decided to wait here at the summit, because they would no doubt take some time to get up this hill. Despite us only being a nine miles from the previous meeting point, we waited about an hour here for them to arrive, by far the longest wait over the entire weekend. The wind was again strong here and it made waiting outside extremely cold so I layered up. At the top here, there was some cycling related graffiti and a long list of initials. Unfortunately it seems the original artist wasn’t a great speller!

Whilst waiting here, we met three guys who were cycling in the other direction, but taking as many off road routes as possible, as evidenced by one of their bikes having huge tyres! They stated that there were a few more ascents to be made in the other direction, and that “just after Stanhope it’s all downhill” A short while later, we could see brightly coloured specks appear far down the hill – they were nearly at the top! Coast 2 Coast 2015

As they all made it to the top, we had one further fall from Adam Cherrett, as his chain came off, he lost all momentum and fell over before he could disengage his cleats, suffering a small gash to the knee. We warned them of the descent ahead, which was amply signposted as 20% gradient with several sharp bends, and then due to the next hill being having an even higher summit (although less of a climb), we decided to more closer shadow the cyclists with myself in the Van at the top, Kari in the Renault half way, and Rob in the land rover at the bottom, who would wait then follow.

Although no assistance was needed, this allowed us to keep a closer eye on proceedings just in case – there was patchy or no signal for phones, and the walkies we had only had a max of 10km range. The next hill was the summit of the C2C at 1988ft, between Nenthead and Allenheads. We set ourselves out, and it did not take them long at all to climb this hill. Nevertheless, at the summit they decided to have a stop and refilled their various flasks. The wind was still strong on the tops of the hills, so shortly afterward they continued. We agreed to maintain our system as it was working well so far; whilst this was “the highest point”, there were still hills on the way down to Tynemouth – including a small one before Allenheads.

Coast 2 Coast 2015It was at this point we agreed to end it in Allenheads and drive on to Rookhope. As it turns out, cycling to Rookhope would have been 10 miles extra than planned for day two. This was agreed upon, and so we continued. First of all there was a small dip of around 300ft, followed by a 200ft climb. I drove on to that next summit, and waited, whilst Mark and Kari went half way, and Rob followed the cyclists.

From that point it was all downhill to Allenheads. There were some high speeds and lots and lots of roadkill for some reason. Eventually I got to the bridge just before Allenheads and waited here for the rest. Kari was some way behind, as apparently they’d stopped by a cattle grid to warn the cyclists. Ash was first to me at the bridge, falling off as he stopped. Coast 2 Coast 2015 It was decided I carry on into the centre of Allenheads, as apparently they might try pushing through to Rookhope today after all, which would need one more big ass hill to climb.

I pulled over in a really posh gravel drive and asked for confirmation of this over the walkie after which it was decided I should head to the top of the hill and report back on it. I went to move off and as I did, accidently performed a bit of a wheelspin, sending gravel everywhere and earning me a confused look from a girl walking a dog.

Coast 2 Coast 2015This “last hill” looked a doozy – it was an S bend for starters, with one of the bends being pretty much a hairpin. Even though an S bend should reduce the gradient it was still pretty gnarly. It would also mean a climb of 420ish ft from Allenheads to the top. I reported this back over the walkie and it was confirmed they’d like a crack at it anyway. So it happened – the last hill was climbed, but probably the slowest!

From here it was all downhill to Rookhope – 5 miles from the top to the bottom, and a drop of 650ft. Rookhope meant a pint. Rookhope meant food. Rookhope meant sleep.

Although I was meant to take the lead in the van, it was here that I decided to wait and take photos of all the riders as they reached the top of this last hill of day two. Sure, it wasn’t the highest hill, but it was the most dramatic! First was Sarah, then Ash. Then came Mr Cherrett, and finally Ad and Sean.

Coast 2 Coast 2015As soon as these two passed, I hopped in the van and took after them. At the summit was a weird cairn and the sign welcoming us to County Durham – three counties in one day, since they started in Cumbria! Due to the fact this section was all downhill, it took nearly the entirety of the 5 miles before I overtook Ash and Sarah again – they’d reached some very high speeds, possibly upward of 45mph. We then arrived in Rookhope. On the way down, we passed some old stone arches, and some mining ruins. Apparently Rookhope used to be a big lead mining town, but it was too poisonous to smelt (they literally had “horizontal chimneys” up the mountainside to carry away the gases) so the mines switched to fluorite mining.

Once everyone was available, Kari went to find the lady who runs the place we would be staying. Val, as was her name, promptly came out to say hello in person. She also helped us park the vehicles in the very narrow lane behind the pub – and let me tell you this – it was difficult trying to reverse the van down there, nearly hitting a few propane cylinders!

Coast 2 Coast 2015Once parked, we were able to take everything inside, and we were absolutely stunned. Not stunned in the way you are when you see a camping barn for the first time, but a good stunned. As I walked in behind everyone else I heard Val saying “some people call this a camping barn”. I looked around. On no planet in any universe in any dimension was this a camping barn. It was warm, comfortable and furnished to the brim with all sorts of lovely furniture. It was like something out of a novel.

Everyone was in high spirits. Day 2 was always said to be the most difficult for them, and it had definitely thrown a lot at them – four big climbs. We all knew there was one more in the morning “just after Stanhope”, but how bad could it be for them?

Val gave us the rules. Firstly, we had an extended talk on the toilets – specifically a macerator, which is a like a blender in the drains so you can easily pump waste to a sewer should it be uphill. Apparently some earlier people had put more than waste and paper in the loo and this caused the macerator to break – which also stops use of the sinks, showers etc. Not cool.

Coast 2 Coast 2015Secondly, we were invited to the pub – there was to be a quiz night and bingo and we could stay for both. Val said she didn’t mind us being “hardcore” and getting in at 2am. The quiz and bingo were cool, but mostly we needed food and drink. Even for a driver, The Wetherspoons in Keswick and the chips at Hartside felt like days ago. So we ate and we ate well. We then headed up to the former pool room (as the table had literally been taken away earlier in the day) where we made camp. The rest of the pub’s lounge area were filled with people and although it would be hard to hear the quiz questions and we seemed isolated, there was simply not room elsewhere.

Coast 2 Coast 2015The first thing to be done was moving the furniture into one area for us to all sit, but this triggered an intense philosophical debate about whether it’s okay to move furniture without permission. We obtained permission anyway and made a nest in the corner by the jukebox. The jukebox which kept belting out hits. Even when the quiz was on. We couldn’t even turn it off, the bar man just had to turn down the speakers.

By this point, news of the Coast 2 Coast trip had spread, and the quiz announcer even mentioned it too. Before we knew it, a collection went around all the locals. We were told by Val that the pub had shut down in 2013 and only opened again in Aug 2014 with new managers, and this was the first time they’d done anything like this before. We were humbled, and public speaker no 1, Adam E, made a beautiful speech thanking them all for their generosity. The landlord put some in as well, and in all they put in quite a bit!

Coast 2 Coast 2015At some point, Ash decided it would be a good idea to play darts. Sarah decided to play with him despite not having done so before. She beat him anyway. Apparently this is a thing that happens – if you challenge her to a game of anything she will kick yo ass using amazing powers of sportsmanship.

During the quiz, Val came in and inadvertantly tricked us into changing our answer for this picture from Ross Noble to Eric Idle. Lost us a valuable point there, Val.

Anyway, after way way too many beers for the second night in a row, we all headed back to bed. Before we jumped in, Val dropped by again to set the fire, and also told us her history and the history of the bunkhouse we were staying in, and even the history of some of the furniture. It was interesting to hear about these things and when Val was explaining something we all just shut up and listened. Except Ash, but I think Rob was able to shush him in time (literally with a patronising hand on the shoulder and “shush”). She even explained that the Bunkhouse was formerly a Village Hall, but before that it was an ecclesiastical school built by the bishop of Durham, a “Shute Barrington” – hence the name, Barrington Bunkhouse.

At some point Kari had an impromptu tour of Val’s house and Mark ran off. It was apparently quite awkward. Eventually we all jumped into bed and the majority went right off. There was a lot of laughter though, I can’t remember the specifics but I’m sure one reason was that Ash lost his ear plug and he really needs them.

 Day 3

Coast 2 Coast 2015The next morning, we didn’t really eat that much. Some people prepared some light snacks but I just had some nice bread that Val brought in. We packed our things, and drove out the vehicles and unloaded them. We also stopped to let Val take the group photo that adorns this post. Mark’s in the car so he isn’t in it though. At this point, three cyclists fly by – two all in black, and one in a hi vis. All three had saddle bags full of stuff – they were without a support team.

Just as the photo was done I turned around to see a bus in the road. Waiting. The driver gestures to me. I look at the bus, then at the van, then at the bus, then at the fact the van is parked in the bus’s truning area. Whoops. I quickly say “we’ve got to go!”, and then everybody started rushing around to their vehicles, like I’d just scrambled a squadron of fighter pilots in Ww2. I jump in the van and am about to move off before I realise the back door was still open, so I go and shut it, then pull out onto the road. After waiting a short while, we had the all clear to go.Coast 2 Coast 2015

We had decided to meet the cyclists at the top of the hill outside Stanhope, the small town nearby. This was a distance of 8 miles from Rookhope Inn, but this was the last hill entirely, and from that point on it would be all downhill, it would even be the last time they really cycled on any country roads too – as the last part is all cycle paths on railway lines again.

After driving into Stanhope, I missed the turn, and we had to turn around and come back to find it. What we did find was perhaps the most horrible hill of them all – a very steep initial section, followed by a long ascent. This would take them from 670ft in Stanhope to 1512ft at the top. Yikes. We set up again so Rob was at the bottom, Kari in the middle, and myself at the top. I turned around to face down the hill. Coast 2 Coast 2015From here I could see the top of the steep section where there was a cattle grid, as well as Kari’s car. After a short while, those three cyclists with the saddle bags came past – they were doing okay but hi-vis looked like he was going to die.

After a while longer Rob chimed in on the walkie – he said Adam C and Sean had lost momentum so were pushing up the steep bit, and that the others looked a bit peaked! Mark could roger this back but it seemed my 5km range walkie couldn’t get through to Rob. Eventually they did show up over the brow of the hill and they stopped by Kari’s car before heading on up to where I was. Another cyclist in a red waterproof zoomed by.Coast 2 Coast 2015 At this point I also started to get surrounded with sheep. The traffic didn’t seem to bother them and neither did me waving my arms from inside the vans. I don’t mind sheep, but there were two lambs pissing around and no doubt they’d end up under the wheels of the fast moving traffic when it did come by!

Eventually they came past – no stopping at the van, as they needed to keep up momentum. Kari and Mark had asked for me to go ahead but I said I wanted photos, so they went ahead “to the top”. Fair enough, I was pretty sure that’s where the right turn was that the cyclists should have taken. Once all five go past, I head up to the top myself, and we wait for them to catch up. Ash was first, and he was totally tuckered. He disengaged his cleats and jumped on the ground for a rest, where he had some impromptu physio from Kari.Coast 2 Coast 2015

One by one the others joined, and also were absolutely knackered. It was at this point I had a horrific realisation – they’d missed the turning. I decided to present the news with “I have good news and bad news. The good news is you’re at the top. The bad news is that the last bit.. you didn’t need to do”. Ash thought I was joking and just told me to “f*** off”! But upon further explanation to Ad, the railway line forked off where I parked the van at the top before! Luckily there was a small road just at the bottom of the last hill which would take them to the path. They turned around and joined the line there, at a little C2C stop called “Parkhead Station” – which was a cafe. We decided to break here for a cuppa, and spent ten minutes doing so.

Coast 2 Coast 2015That was it for us – our “intensive support” was over, as we wouldn’t see them for another 16 miles – the longest distance yet, but also all downhill. The meeting point was where the old line crossed the road at a place named “Hamsterley Mill”. They’d also go through the town of Consett – which we would avoid on the ring road. Bad move.

We headed straight for Hamsterley Mill and waited in the little hiking car park provided. But just as we did, we had a phone call from Ad E. Immediately thinking something has gone wrong, it just turns out they want to meet us in Consett, because they’d found a KFC and McDonalds and were going to eat, given they were all starving due to the light breakfast. Coast 2 Coast 2015 We were all hungry, Mark mostly so. We waited the 20 minutes for them to show at Hamsterley Mill, and whilst doing so the three saddlebag cyclists came by rather quickly, we also saw a guy dressed in traditional German costume with a German car plate on it, and a load of horses. They then arrived, and we quickly allowed them to refill, before deciding to look for a McDonalds along the way to Tynemouth, the end. It was 22 miles away for the cyclists, but again was mostly flat. I drove along the route as closely as I could, following the main road into Newcastle upon Tyne and then following the roads closest to the river. By rights, we should have seen a drive through, but there was none. We even passed through Byker, where Byker Grove was set. As we proceeded there were still no McDonald’s so Mark talked on the Walkie about looking on his phone. At this point, Rob’s walkie died and he had no further comms.

Coast 2 Coast 2015Eventually we got to Tynemouth high street in front of the Castle, which was the end of the route. At this point we still hadn’t seen any fast food joints, so I got on the Walkie and asked “what now?”. My only reply was from Mark “turn left here thrusty!”. Presuming these were directions to McDonalds, I did as was requested and headed left onto the front. After a load more directions I was told I was missing the turnings, but the only turnings I was missing were small side streets filled with houses. It was at this point I was told we were actually looking for the hotel for that night. Whoops! We then proceeded to go in circles for ten minutes, whilst myself, Mark and Kari argued over over the walkie. It was trying to take us down a tiny single line service road with a dead end – I would not have been able to turn the transit around down there and refused to go. Coast 2 Coast 2015 At this point we decided to head back to the finishing point, but not without managing to round in circles twice more.

This must have been really confusing to Rob, who was just following us with no reason why.

Eventually we got back to the end – Mark and Kari went McDonald’s hunting at this point, but with the cycle route being mostly flat, and us having wasted 30 minutes on a wild goose chase, I was worried we might miss the victorious end, so me and Rob remained. The wind was present here, and the tide was going out. Myself and Rob watched a fishing trawler return battling the immense current. After around 10 minutes we saw three cyclists meander down the riverside path. It was the three guys from this morning with the saddlebags. Coast 2 Coast 2015That must mean the others are only 30 mins or so out! Mark and Kari returned and let us eat a couple of fries!

Sure enough, after many more false cyclists, we counted five heading down the river. So we called Mark and Kari and together, the support team were able welcome them to Tynemouth!

Everyone was elated but the job was not done yet – traditionally the front wheel needs to be in the sea where you finish, just as the rear wheel needs to be in the sea where you start. Me and Rob had found a small beach right next to the “finish”, and we directed them down to it. Strangely, three guys were uncomfortably close to the van and land rover, and Mark and Kari agreed to stay and keep an eye out. Unfortunately they went past the entrance, and then passed it again! Eventually we used the alternative steps onto the beach.Coast 2 Coast 2015

At this point we had our final casualty. Ad E decided to head back around to cycle onto the beach and into the water in style. But this stalwart, who hadn’t fallen off even once, forgot he was on a road bike with ultra thin tyres, and he sank into the sand, falling straight over, yards from the North Sea.

We laughed it off and everybody was then able to dip their wheel in the sea. Everyone was over the moon, as it had all come to this moment. The journey was over.

Coast 2 Coast 2015But I won’t end this here. Let’s have… an EPILOGUE.

Epilogue

Everybody carried their stuff up to the van, and we loaded everything up, under the watchful eye of the three suspicious guys. Of course, with bikes being worth a lot, bike thieves are a thing and can be very crafty; so everyone was understandably nervous. One of them was even having a full on lean on Ad’s Land Rover. It wasn’t behaviour that was normal! Kari sneaked a picture of Sarah that had them and their rental van in the background, and then we set off to find the hotel. We were convinced that they weren’t following, so headed right there, to Whitley bay. This time we had better luck and found it right away, with spaces to spare out front.

We checked in, people had a shower and got changed, and we went to find food. We found a Tiger Bills on Whitley Bay high street, and so ate there. We ate and drank quite a bit, including cocktails in jugs!

After that we headed to a bar, which when we passed it earlier in the day was described as “grebby”. That was an understatement – it was the sort of place where drinks have to be served in plastic cups and we saw some couple going at it in the front window. We returned after, again, too many drinks and jumped into bed.

The next day, we found another Wetherspoons, this time The Fire Station in Whitley Bay. After another breakfast, we divided luggage and cycles into the right vehicles in the right order for unloading, and said our goodbyes.

It was a great weekend.

Categories
Everything and Anything

2013 – France

France '13

3rd May

In May, we went to France. This was to be one of our camping trips, only in another country. As the only driver amongst us it would also be my first time driving on the Right side of the road and also my longest drive ever, a daunting prospect. On May 3rd we were to head to Portsmouth, take a ferry across during the night to St Malo, and then drive half the length of France to Les Sables d’Olonne. I’ll leave this google maps widget thing here so you can see the journey:


View Larger Map

As can be seen, it was quite the journey!

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Mark and Ash pose in front of HMS Victory. Ash looks away as if to try and look cool and in awe.

Anyway, even though as a night ferry, we would be leaving the UK about 9pm, we left very early, wanting to leave plenty of time for us to get to Portsmouth. Even though I blundered at Birmingham and drove down the M5 instead of the M6 > M40 (which took us toward Swindon, then down the M4 to meet the A34 btw, if you know what that means (you won’t).

Despite this, after quite some journeying and a couple of rest breaks so Ash can smoke and we can eat, we arrive still quite early in the day. Now, I’d been to France before many times as a kid, but hadn’t been on one in coherent memory, so was not quite sure what to do. I knew we needed to drive into the waiting area and check in, but couldn’t remember boarding procedures or anything like that for the life of me, since it was always Deggsy who dealt with that.

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The Navy keeps a lot of its firepower at Portsmouth. This one was having some work done though.

But given the amount of time we had, we parked in a pay and display and decided to walk around the front for a bit. Now, Portsmouth, if you don’t know, is home to the headquarters of the Royal Navy, and also houses the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, where many older ships and exhibits are kept. Unfortunately, going on board any of them is an expensive thing to do, so we couldn’t do that. We could, however, have a nose around the public areas, and pose for images! So we got in front of HMS Victory, Nelson’s ship – and took some photos.

As we walked back we saw a line of black cars with some VIPs in. Mark swore he recognised one of them, but wasn’t sure who. Given that the Navy is pretty big, it could really be anyone, but perhaps it was someone he’d seen on the news.

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Our ferry, the MV Bretagne.

After looking around the gift shop, which even sold wood from Victory from before it was replaced, we went back to the car, and drove down to the front (the docks being in an estuary). As soon as we parked up, we could see our ferry heading toward us.

I’d been on this specific ferry before as a child. The cabin we had then was an awful thing, in the middle of the ship, and square shaped. Worse was that there was some sort of structural support or pipe in the midle of the small room , and there was no en suite. There was also a strong stench of engine oil or some sort of fuel, and we were pretty far down in the ship. The ship itself was launched in 1989, so was almost as old as I was.

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One of the Isle of Wight hovercraft ferries

We watched it pass by, then decided we needed to eat. Even though it would be imminently docking, there was still a few hours before we needed to board – they needed to get everyone off and turn it around, and it’s much smaller than a plane!

Lucikly for us, there was a nearby pizza place on the front, Mozarella Joes. We ordered a Pizza and it was made pretty quickly. We were outside, but it is hand made and baked in an oven right inside, not just heated up! We were able to watch the local ships come by, including the hovercraft service to the Isle of Wight right from our table. Pretty nice!

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Whilst waiting to board, another Ferry docks. The MV Mont St Michel.

After our Pizza, we headed back to the car, and then moved on to the port itself. When we got there, we were asked for our materials. Unfortunately, we hadn’t recieved them, due to a computer problem at Keycamp. Luckily customer service forwarded us printable versions; so we provided the agent with them, and we were allowed through. There was a small queue of cars, so myself and Ash immediately went to the nearby toilet block. After finishing our business though and coming back out, the queue was starting to move! A quick dash back to the car and moving off didn’t cause too much of an issue!

Unfortunately we were marshalled right into another queue. This one we were in for 40ish minutes. The ferry was in front of us now, with the various boarding ramps attached. Whilst waiting, another came, and vehicles began to pour off. It gave us something to watch, I suppose!

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Mark and Ash in front of the Bretagne’s colossal chimney

After a while, the queues began to move, one at a time. Filling a ferry is a complex procedure, with heavy lorries and taller vehicles in the bottom, and cars in the upper garage decks. This way nobody scrapes a roof! We entered the ferry as if being eaten by some sort of gigantic beast, but were then marshalled up a ramp and into precise position by many of the crew. An attended then provided us with materials to find the precise stairwell closest to us. Very good customer service from Brittany Ferries.

After turning off the engine, and trying to ensure the alarm is off (I think clicking lock doors once on the fob instead of twice keeps it off, at least), we went to find our cabin. The agent at the initial booth gave us printed materials for the rooms, so no more waiting at reception on the ferry as we did when kids. We went straight to it; it was a standard affair. En suite bathroom and shower, four bunks. We threw our luggage on one, then went up on deck to check out the view. Whilst there, they continued loading. Now,  for some reason, I love being on the deck of a ship. I can stay up there for hours, looking at the sea, whilst it’s in motion. This I did, whilst Ash and Mark went back in after some photos in front of the chimney.

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Just before they took down the flag.

I took the time to take some photos of the Navy ships at the docks. We cast off just as some sort of ceremony took place on them all, whereby one man on each ship took down the flag whilst two others looked on. There were plenty of ships in port, including alot of the Navy’s new high tech destroyers, and a visiting ship with Arabic writing on it, as well as HMS Warrior, one of the first iron ships from 1860. After we passed the Navy dockyard, we passed Portsmouth itself. Here, the Spinnaker tower looks over the entrance to the docks and the estuary itself. It is a landmark for the city and is viewable for far out to sea.

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Goodbye Britain!

As the night closed in, I took a few shots and then went back indoors. I found Ash and Mark in the lounge with a pint each. They’d been here since they left me. Mark regaled me of Ash’s first encounter with a moving ship, as when the engines fired up to reverse us out, everything had shaken, and he had displayed such a look of panic it was apparently hilarious! I was sad to have missed it. We watchd a magic show put on by a pair of women from Portsmouth, and then went to get some food from the restaurant. They had a very nice steak on offer, so we all went for steak and chips, but as usual Ash wasn’t impressed with anybody else’s attempt at cooking.

At this point I was worried about getting GB sticker for the car. In the EU, you need to display which country you’re from on the number plate on your car. Most countries are fine, and have mandated mandatory blue bars on the plate with the country code on. But not Britain, oh no; here it’s optional, and my car didn’t have one. After looking in the ships main duty free shop, I couldn’t find one either, so now was worried about flouting the law in France and getting arrested. Fortunately, there was a separate Travel shop on board which sold them. I bought two, since they were magnetic, and one was a spare.

We retired to the cabin, and after assigning bunks, went to sleep.

4th May

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Land ho!

Luckily they won’t let you sleep in on Brittany Ferries, as an alarm goes off 60 minutes before arrival. This gives you plenty of time to get on deck and get some approach photos. Sure enough when getting out on deck, we could see France approach. It wasn’t that far away either; and the weather seemed okay, even though there were now plenty of clouds around. During the night, we’d headed West, then around the Cotentin peninsula, and down between the two channel islands, Jersey and Guernsey. It was still quite early, around 6:45am; the ferry could make a much faster crossing, but they slow it down as to let everyone sleep.

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Around the breakwater into the port of St Malo

As we headed into the Port, we stayed on deck and watched the ship dock. They call people to the garage depending on where you are, so we knew when to leave. Foot passengers leave separately. After watching us dock and the men far below tie the lines to the quayside, the tannoy announced our section should report to our vehicles. We were able to do so without any issues; however we were on the upper garage deck, and the lower decks had to go first, before we could be lowered. By this point I was pretty nervous about driving on the right side of the road; I’d never done it before, and so understandably was a little anxious.

Anyway, the ramp went down and off the ferry we drove. Exiting the port was fine, despite the French soldiers (border police?) with machine guns around the security booths.

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Docking in St Malo

After leaving the port though, that was problematic. I’d turned roaming off on my phine to not get charged ridiculous costs, and the iPhone using just GPS couldn’t get a signal for the TomTom app. So we were officially lost. Now I’m panicking and Mark’s trying to get directions. I keep driving down the road since it seems like it led out of town, but then Ash sees a McDonalds and starts wittering on about McDonalds for some reason. Not what the situation needed; I shout at the guy to shut it just as we get to our first roundabout –  I get beeped at since I looked the wrong way. Ash then says I shouldn’t speak to him like that but by now I’d seen red and just told him to shut it again.  Then we were able to pull over in a layby to get the TomTom working.

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The Caravan Chalet

After this brief spat, the TomTom got us on our way. We were already heading the right way apparently, and so got onto the AutoRoute (French Motorway) and headed South East to Rennes. From there it was a straight drive to Nantes, and then to Les Sables D’Olonne. Just before Rennes, Ash and me made up with a handshake; and we pulled into a McDonalds. The place was empty, and it would be our first attempt speaking in French. Mark went first, ordering in French, but the guy responded in English anyway! Myself and Ash ordered in English.

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A fridge full of beer and a head full of stupid.

After many more hours, we arrived at Les Sables D’Olonne. We drove down the front and then to the site itself. We were taken to our caravan (which Mark insists on calling a Chalet, despite it being a mobile home and not having any Chalet characteristics, though apparently it’s what Butlins accomodation was called in the 60’s so perhaps thats where it comes from?). The site itself is quite nice. I had been to it three times as a child, once in a canvas Cabanon tent and the other times in caravans, so I sort of remembered the area.

Once settled, our first business was to get some sort of food. Not to mention, Ash had not smoked since the previous night’s Ferry journey – he was out of cigarettes and needed his fix!

So we ventured to the nearby supermarkets. We first arrived at Super U in the nearby Talmont-Saint-Hilaire. Here, we found foods were different – quite different in fact. Bacon was different, bread was different, and so were many other things.

Luckily we still completed a shop, and most importantly got ourselves lots of beers. Mark had also brought his own cider, so wouldn’t be put out by the lack of choice, if any. What did cause a concern is that there was no cigarettes. Nowhere. We tried some other shops, but found nothing. Ash was really anxious by now. After returning and unloading the food, we found that in France, only licensed Tobacconists can sell cigarettes, and supermarkets cannot be licensed. So we had to find a tobacconist (Tabac). Luckly, Talmont-Saint-Hilaire provided one, and Ash was able to get some by ordering “the blue one”. Or as he reportedly said, “BLEURGH”.

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The rocky foreshore

Once Ash was drugged up with his tabac, we returned to the site. After a short while, we decided to walk down to the sea; I remembered it was a rocky place, not stony, but rock formations, the beach being long eroded away by the relentless Atlantic ocean. Once there, I went out to the largest rock and climbed up on it. I remembered climbing it as a child; something me and my brother had Christened “Crab Heaven”, because of the sheer number of crabs hiding in the cracks there.

After this, we returned to the site again, just a short walk up the hill. We got changed and went to the bar, but did not stay for long; it had been, after all, a really long day.

5th May

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The tourists are here…

The next morning, our plan was to head into Les Sables d’Olonne, and visit the beach. So off we went. The town itself is only a ten minute drive from the site, so we headed down the road and entered the place. Unfortunately a rather weird one way system is in place, and we ended up looking for a car park for ages. Eventually we found one run by Vinci, and I was able to buy a ticket on the debit card.

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The marina… and grain silo.

Our main issue though, was that we had dressed like tourists. I mean shorts, flip flops and brightly coloured clothes. However; everyone else was in a normal shirt and jeans with shoes. So we stuck out like sore thumbs. I myself have never really been a “beach” person; I find them boring and full of sand. The swimming’s fun but you can do that in a swimming pool.

We found ourselves quite a distance from the front, so had a bit of a walk ahead of us to even get to the beach. Eventually, we did though, and I thought to myself “this won’t be so bad, I’ll lie down, get a tan and a bit of relaxation, maybe even catch up on some sleep”. Wrong. After just two minutes – thats 120 seconds, Ash and Mark decide food is on the agenda instead. So the beach was over already. We climbed the stairs, crossed the road and started looking for restaurants.

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The Les Sables d’Olonne sea front.

However, having no French skills, they don’t know any of the French menus. I know some of it from when I was a kid; moules = mussels, avec = and, frites = chips. Everyone was nonplussed by the mussels suggestion, not that I would try them myself. Steak haché = beef steak? We were up for this, so we entered a restaurant and ordered up.

Ash was still up for trying to order in French, but the waitress clearly wasn’t impressed and used to English tourists so took an order for three steak and chips instead.

After eating, we decided to go back to the caravan, so we did. On the way back though we found a shortcut, so didn’t even need to walk so far in the first place, and we’d been carrying towels around like a bunch of muppets the whole time. Oh my lord.

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Dangerous Despers

After that, we headed back to the site. We spent the next few days lazing around, travelling to the supermarket, having coastal walks, eating barbeques, and then in the evenings retiring to the pub. The bars in france are dangerous – there were no pints, just 33CL glasses. On the other hand, Desperados was on draught. On the other other hand, 33CL of draught Despers cost more than a pint would in the UK. It wasn’t cheap at all!

On one of the later days, we were anxious to hear if the local club, Wrexham FC, would make it back into the league, with their playoff at Wembley. I had planned to go to Wembley earlier in the year, but intense snowfall stopped that plan.

On another day, the other two decided it would be a good idea to go to the pool. However, the manager strictly enforced the “no-bermudas” rule, meaning it was Speedos or nothing. So off they went to the shop to get some. Ash, thinking that the tight material would be “too small” went for a larger size. This was an awful mistake as he realised later, when the too large by far swimsuit tried to leave him naked in the pool surrounded by children. That would have been an interesting trip to bail him out at the local police station! Luckily he realised and they both returned within an hour. It definitely seems that both beaches and swimming pools just don’t work!

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General Secretary of Pool to the UN, Ashley Powell.

One night at the pub, Ash brokered international relations with France by having a game against a French tourist. He won two, and “let” the Frenchman win one as well.

On the last full day, we went for a stroll down the coast and found a cave, which Ash promptly decided to explore. However, after a short foray inside, he found it full of spiders; absolutely loads of them. “Oh no!”, we cried to him, “the French biting spider!”. At this, Ash egressed from the cave as fast as humanly possible. I’ve never seen somebody move backwards and hunched so fast.

The next day, we left early. We drove northward, this time avoiding the toll system. We got to Caen about an hour before the ferry was due. The port for Caen was miles away from the city itself, and actually in a place called Ouistreham. The ferry arrived on time and we were able to board. Ash decided to tease Mark, saying it “looked rough”. When the deckhand put chocks under the wheels of the car after we loaded, he said “oh it must be rough, they’ve put the chocks down!”. However, upon boarding, things seemed fine. We set off, and despite a strong gust, we went on deck to get some photos of France leaving us behind.

After we went inside, things did get rough. But myself and Mark did not care. It was Ash who was suffering. He went pale, felt totally ill. He nearly collapsed twice. Upon going to reception, they had to get the ships doctor involved, and he prescribed some anti sea-sickness drugs! Then he purchased a cabin (so much cheaper in day trips) and went for a lie down.

France '13
Dark, windy and cold.

Five hours later, we arrived in a dark and gloomy Portsmouth. I spent most of the time on the deck: I just like observing the sea. I was freezing as a result though.

After getting through customs (and the agent said I had a baby face, gee thanks), the drive back was surprisingly short. Maybe it was because we were driving back.

I dropped the guys off, and another holiday had come to an end.