Sunday 13th September
We were now on the home strait – in just a few day’s time we would be reaching Eric’s parent’s house, where there was blissful promise of real beds and home cooking. We just had to cross the Pays des Calais, which according to Eric was ‘basically flat’.
By mid-morning we passed from Belgium to France. I was being a bit too complacent about my back-of-the-bike photography skills and almost missed the sign, but here it is.
The campsite we had picked out for the day was just 5 miles on in Beruges. We cycled on through the rain, thinking: maybe we’ll see a hotel? Or if not, maybe we can hire out a caravan in the campsite? Or maybe they have an awning we can sit under? Or a hand-dryer in the toilets? JUST LET ME BE DRY.
We reached Beruges feeling quite thoroughly soaked. Beruges is a pretty town, set within a starfort. I was feeling too wet to take any photographs, but did get the camera out when some geese tried to block our path.
So, the campsite. It was 15 euros and turned out to be very basic. There was not even the hand-dryer I had been hoping for. But there was a large, clean, empty unisex shower room. We lugged our panniers in there to dry. We shared some leftover chocolate to warm ourselves up. We hung up clothes and towels, had our showers, charged our devices and spent a couple of hours in there keeping warm and drying off.
The rain had almost stopped by this point, so dinner could be cooked as normal, and we were fairly dry by the time we were in bed, which after the hours of rain felt like some kind of miracle.
We were thinking about taking the train if the weather continued to be so bad, but as we had just over 100 miles to go to reach a grand total of 5000 miles, we were keen to at least carry on until this point (I was keen, Eric said ‘Mmm’).
Monday 14th September
I awoke blissfully warm, and spent a few happy minutes appreciating how dry my socks were.
An hour later we were putting on our wet shoes and setting off. Amazingly, the skies were clear. We spent most of the morning cycling uphill to St Omer, looking out over misty, sun-shot rolling French farmland. It was pretty, but no camera, dammit!
St Omer is a pleasant looking town with a canal running through it. It also has a Decathlon. We stopped there briefly to buy some camping gas at around 11.
As we cycled out of St Omer the clouds began amassing, and by midday we could see that it was raining to the left of us, the right of us and straight ahead of us. Oh dear, we thought. It wasn’t too long until the rain hit us. Hard. In the face. In our shoes. Everywhere. Coupled with a cold headwind, it was the kind of conditions that made us shout ‘BLOODY HELL’ to each other several times.
After one solitary boom of thunder (‘BLOODY HELL’) the rain abated, and it was time to eat. I vetoed the wet patch of gravel by the side of the N road that Eric suggested, and instead instigated a detour to a church, which can always be relied upon to have a bench or two outside. We spread a couple of our favourite plastic bags over a bench to keep ourselves dry. Plastic bags are great.
After lunch we faced a few more showers, but as the afternoon went on the sky gradually cleared. A strong headwind continued to build, and I spent a lot of time watching big, fluffy cumulus clouds sailing across the sky (I also did some pedalling). It was beautiful, but the wind combined with the hills made this 62 mile day feel a lot longer. The north of France isn’t as flat as we had thought.
Feeling shattered, we arrived at our campsite by 5. It was very basic, but at just 10 euros it was one of the cheapest yet. Wind and sunshine in the evening gave us the perfect opportunity to put up a washing line and dry all of our wet things.
Eric called his parents in the evening to let them know how we were getting on. They told us that we would have good weather tomorrow, but that the day after we would be facing the tail end of Hurricane Henry. Ominous news.
Tuesday 15th September
Like yesterday, today was a case of headwind and hills, though this time with some very welcome sunshine. We passed over the Somme in the morning, and sat on the bottom step of a small war memorial to have lunch. It’s strange to think that such an innocuous looking region has such a terrible and tragic recent history.
We reached a nice campsite in Neufchâtel-en-Bray (I took four sweets from the complimentary basket at the reception while the man was busy with another customer). We had a look at the weather forecast to see if Hurricane Henry was still on track, and were not presented with a very positive outlook.
Our options were:
- A) Cycle anyway – get very wet. Urgh.
- B) Spend a day in the tent while Hurricane Henry passed over us – not very appealing, and seemed a bit pointless. Plus the next few days were rainy too.
- C) Get the nearest train to Eric’s parent’s house.
We had both wanted to cycle the whole way back, but cycling in this much rain seemed like pointless misery. After some phone calls and some helpful research from Eric’s dad, we learned that the nearest train was in Dieppe. This was the place we had started cycling from in France, so we would still be able to declare that we had “come full circle”. Excellent. That’ll do.
Once this decision had been made I realised that I had already cooked our last dinner on our camping stove, and we were about to spend our last night in our trusty tent!
Wednesday 16th September
It was the last day of our cycle tour around Europe, and I was feeling both excited and heavy-hearted.
The morning was overcast but dry, and we counted ourselves lucky and got going as quickly as we could. There was a good cycle path all the way from our campsite to Dieppe, which was a brilliant place for our final day of cycling.
About 15 miles in we finally reached our 5000 mile total. Like most milestones, the achievement felt ungraspable: it’s a big distance, and yet, it’s broken down into so many days and memories that it’s impossible to add it up into one big number in your head. We both feel proud to have cycled across countries, but when I look at a map, it’s hard to link that with our experiences. It feels a bit unreal.
We reached Dieppe by 10.20, which was actually extremely annoying, as there had been a train at 10AM, but we thought that we would have to leave really early to make this, and neither of us could be bothered to set an alarm for 6. However, having left at about 8.45, we realised that if we had just gotten up 30 minutes earlier, we could have saved ourselves a 6 hour wait at the train station. Doh! Eric blamed me. I may have had a little lie in.
We had made it to the train station before Hurricane Henry however, so we were pleased about that.
In the next 6 hours Hurricane Henry failed to materialise. It turned out that this prediction was a typical error from the notoriously inaccurate French weather forecast. Yesterday I would have been gutted to know that we had been denied our last 100 or so miles of cycling. Today I was just looking forward to seeing family.
The train arrived at 4, and took us all the way to Caen. We disembarked at 6.30 and cycled the final 10 miles along a canal cycle path to Ouistreham. It was the first road we had taken after leaving Eric’s parent’s house in April, and it felt bittersweet to be there again. It was a calm evening and the water looked beautifully smooth. We had fun rabbit-spotting as the sun began to set.
Then we were cycling over Pegasus Bridge, into Ouistreham, past the lighthouse, past the Carrefour and the traffic lights and the library, along the road… along and along and along, and then there it was: Eric’s parent’s house. Eric’s mum and dad were waiting there (with a large glass of orange juice all ready for us!). We turned in past the gate and into the garage, we got off our bikes, and our cycle tour around Europe was over. We had done it and we were back home.
As this is a blog about cycle touring I won’t spend too much time going into how good the food tasted that evening (it was amazing) how comfortable a real mattress felt (it was amazing) or how great it was to see some familiar faces again (… you can guess). But in short, it was good to be back.
Our plan is to spend a month and a half resting, visiting friends and family, and preparing for stage two of our trip: a cycle tour in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Departure date is the 12th November. Until then I plan to live the gap year that I secretly wanted but could not possibly pursue, summed up in the following sentence: “It’s midday, and I’m still in my dressing-gown.”