Weeks 1 & 2: Dunsfold to Angers, via the Normandy beaches
After a Jane St Aubyn all you can eat brunch, Milla and I said our goodbyes and finally set off to Portsmouth. Milla’s cousin Richard accompanied us as far as Petersfield on his fancy road bike which he boasted he could lift with just his little finger. We ended up camping in a den made out of branches in Queen Elizabeth Country Park – QECP to you mountain bikers out there – before continuing on our merry way the following day through suburbia and into Portsmouth harbour.
We disembarked the ferry in Ouistreham and immediately joined a cycle route heading west along the Normandy coast.
It was on these expansive beaches (codenamed Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha & Utah) where the Allied forces landed in great numbers on 6th June 1944. This year marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day and it was difficult to visualize what horrors must have happened along these now peaceful stretches of sand. The scene was oh so very French: games of boules; people walking home with a couple of baguettes under their arm; brightly painted wooden shutters; signposts to the nearest boulangerie (very important!) or coiffure (not so important).
The area is a living memorial to the events of 1944/45 and with each new town there is a memorial telling a different story such as this one in Colleville-Montgomery (Sword beach) of piper William ‘Bill’ Millin.
We eventually reached Arromanches-les-Bains and stayed in a delightful campsite perched on a hill overlooking the town and the haunting remains of the Mulbery Harbour. When planning Operation Overlord, the Allies knew that the big ports on the Normandy & Brittany coast would be extremely well defended so they decided to build their own harbour in the UK and tow it across the English Channel to Arromanches-les-Bains.
We then headed inland towards Bayeux along quiet country lanes where not only the Allies would have followed after landing, but almost 900 years before William the Conquerer was in hiding when his position as Duke of Normandy was under threat. We visited the Bayeux Tapestry as well as the beautifully maintained and peaceful Bayeux War Cemetery. Next door there is also a memorial dedicated to journalists who have lost their lives during conflict.
Sightseeing completed, we continued inland up and down some surprisingly steep hills which were made even harder in the Easter weekend heatwave. Our luck changed, however, just outside the town of La Graverie when we joined a ‘voie verte’, essentially a former train line which has been converted into a cycle route. Flat as a pancake and with a gentle tail wind we reached Sourdeval and spent a free night in the Camping Municipal (nobody ever came to collect our money) before continuing a short distance the following day to Mortain for a rest day.
The voies vertes are brilliant – traffic free cycle ways where you can cover substantial distance quickly. They’re so straight though that mirages of steep hills appear in the distance and you keep thinking ‘surely not?’ and then breath a sigh of relief as you approach what is actually a gentle incline.
By Domfront (don’t pronounce the ’T’ according to Milla) we had joined the Vélo Francette, a fantastic 600 km cycle way from Ouistreham to La Rochelle although we wouldn’t follow it all the way to the Atlantic coast. Following the meandering River Mayenne we eventually reached Angers, a lovely surprise, and a city we both agreed that we probably would never have visited had it not been for this trip.
We stayed with Paul and his two flat mates, Simon and Georges, courtesy of a website called Warmshowers which aims to put cycle tourers in touch with other cycle tourers who can offer them a place to stay. Paul was planning a cycle trip of his own with his girlfriend, so was hosting cyclists to learn more about cycle touring and offer up his own home before being welcomed into others. We were blown away by their hospitality, especially after a morale destroying wild camp the night before, and enjoyed going out with them and celebrating Georges’ 30th birthday.