Women’s Voices Anthology Launch

Next weekend, women writers from the south west of France will be meeting to celebrate the launch of our new collection of poetry and short stories.

Written on the theme of ‘Transitions’, the collection is entitled ‘I’ve got something more to say’. This is the second edition of the collection (the first, last year, was called ‘I’ve got something to say’).

I’m looking forward to seeing new and familiar faces. I’m not looking forward so much to reading out ‘Sketches’, my contribution to the anthology.

If you’re in the area on Sunday 26 June, come and meet us. There will be books for sale.

After the event, the collection will be available to buy from Amazon.

Flow Vélo 6: Close to Catastrophe

La Flow Vélo from Chez Maillet (near Pranzac) to Nontron :

At Pentecost – the Platinum Jubilee weekend – we decided to take our chances with the stormy weather and give our bikes a night away from home. As this meant 2 days of cycling instead of one, we opted to explore east of Angoulême, where the Flow Vélo cycle route deserts the River Charente and heads into the Dordogne along the minor River Bandiat.

I haven’t been itinerant cycling for years (my husband has never done it), so I spent a while making lists and digging out the equipment we’d need.

It was important for us to be comfortable at night. In past itinerant cycling trips I used a light camping mat. This time, we took our ultimate comfort self-inflating mats, which are as cushy as our bed at home. Honestly! The disadvantage is their bulkiness. Nevertheless, my husband wasn’t deterred by the huge roll on the back of his bike.

Other than the mattresses, our equipment was pretty much minimal. One of our best buys were waterproof canoe bags. Not only do they protect our sleeping bags, mattresses and tent from rain (sleet, snow, hailstones…), they also safeguard them from trailing brambles.

Before leaving, we loaded our bikes and then, for fun, weighed them. The result was a shock: me & my bike came in at 94kg while my husband and his bike weighed 100kg. Worried that they’d be too heavy to move, we took them for a spin around our home. I was relieved to find that I could still pedal up a hill. In fact, I hardly noticed the extra weight. Not during the 2km test ride.

In a past cycling trip we had pedalled as far as Touvre, so on Sunday morning we started a few kilometres east of Touvre, where the Flow Vélo crosses the D699 at Chez Maillet. There is a small car park here, hidden behind the houses in Rue des Coquelicots. A couple of other cars with bike carriers were already parked there. It seemed an ideal place for our car to spend the night.

Off we set, along a flat, tarmac section of the Flow Vélo known as the Coulée d’Oc. This is a former railway line and runs south-east along the River Bandiat valley.

The Coulée d’Oc made for pleasant cycling through a holloway. The countryside is wilder here than along the sections further downstream of the Flow Vélo. At the numerous level crossings, the hedges open to give views of green forests and golden cornfields, maize and sunflower plantations. We were also treated to the sweet (?) aroma of cattle.

After about 8km, we arrived at La Gare (the station), close to the village of Chazelles.

Here, we stopped to examine this wooden gantry. Installed in 1896, it was used until 1960 to transport stone. Opposite the gantry is the Association G’Art building: a B&B, social café and water point. There’s also a car park so it’s a good starting point for a bike ride.

The Flow Vélo continued but we left it at the level crossing to visit the village of Chazelles, less than a kilometre away. It’s a pity that we cycle on Sundays and bank holidays, because there are several interesting places to see here.

Firstly, we discovered a craft brewery called La Rainette, housed in a mill. It opens at weekends and boasts a cute bar beside the river.

We were really disappointed that we couldn’t taste their beer. But it did give us an idea for a future cycling trip… Think Cognac (Jack Beer), Foussignac (La Goule), Angoulême (La Débauche), Chazelles (La Rainette), Nontron (La Paluche). Oh, what a coincidence: those places all lie along the Flow Vélo!

Chazelles also has a craft soap-maker and a wooden toy maker, as well as a few shops and some toilets beside the Mediathèque in the main square. Camping is possible a kilometre further along the Flow Vélo at Le Buron (06 78 25 84 39).

And look! The river was in flower. It’s a shame the sun wasn’t out to make this a better photo.

Back on the Flow Vélo, we noticed signs to the Grottes du Quéroy, a series of caves that lie about 4km off the Flow Vélo. With a 1.2km circuit through 30 chambers, they make for an interesting visit, especially if the weather is hot or there’s a storm.

After Chazelles, we crossed the Demarcation Line from the Second World War, passing from the occupied to the free zone. How did we know? Because of an information panel beside the cycle path. One of the things I loved about the Coulée d’Oc – apart from the many picnic tables – are the information panels placed at regular intervals. Every panel is a good excuse for a break to add to our knowledge.

We stopped for lunch at one of the tables, at which point I realised we were under an acacia tree on one side and a hawthorn on the other. I quickly checked my tyres for punctures. We were lucky. This time.

Soon after passing the Pont Sec at St.Germain-de-Montbron, we arrived at Marthon station with its toilets and water point. Our curiosity was drawn to a big building with bicycles hung all around it. Do you know what it is? If so, please let me know. The second photo is the former train station.

Again, we left the Flow Vélo to visit the village: if we’d turned left instead of right, we could have continued along the Scandibérique cycleway, which runs from Spain to Norway. But that was slightly beyond our weekend ambitions.

Marthon has a café (closed today, unfortunately) and also some castle ruins. For the first time of the day, I used my muscles to cycle up the steep hill to visit the tower. It’s worth crossing the pretty village to see the views (my photos don’t do them justice).

After Marthon, the cycleway – older and bumpier – was less enclosed and soon touched on the village of Feuillade, which we didn’t visit, partly because we weren’t paying enough attention to the signposts and got a little lost. A couple of kilometres later, the gentle railway came to a halt and the Flow Vélo continued on small roads. The real work was about to begin. We were nearing the Dordogne, reputed for its hills and valleys.

The lane through Les Grandes Rivières hamlet was blocked to traffic by two boulders but bicycles could pass. We crossed the pretty River Bandiat – in flower again – and then, as I’d suspected, the lane started to climb.

It amused me to see we were heading for a village called Souffrignac, so-named no doubt because you suffer in attempting to reach its heady heights (to suffer is ‘souffrir’ in French).

As it was Sunday, we weren’t able to enjoy the syrups and jams from the organic shop Les Jardins du Bandiat in Souffrignac. Instead, we continued up the hill, enjoying the birdsong and quiet roads. Our stop in the village of La Chapelle-Saint-Robert, on the plateau, was welcome, not just for the toilets opposite the church. This is an isolated, ‘olde worlde’ village, with many tumbledown houses. There were even an ancient water pump and petrol distributor.

We were on top of the world, here, surrounded by hay rolls. Freshly cut grass scented the air as we freewheeled down to Javerlhac, gathering energy for the climb up the hill to St-Martin-Le-Pin.

However, just outside Javerlhac, we ran into a cycling race. Literally. The road to St.Martin-Le-Pin was closed so we couldn’t cycle along the Flow Vélo route up the long, steep hill to the village. What a shame.

Instead, the race marshals let us take the flat main road along the valley alongside the racing cyclists. We went much faster, though some of the cyclists overtook us. OK, all of the cyclists overtook us. But we did get a cheer or two from onlooking bystanders.

By now, I was starting to feel a little saddlesore and our passage through this village seemed very apt.

Luckily, a few kilometres later we arrived at our destination – the small town of Nontron. Or, rather, the village of St.Martial-de-Valette, on the outskirts of Nontron, which was marked on our Flow Vélo guide by a tent logo. My odometer read 45km: not bad for our first trip with loaded bikes.

The campsite L’Agrion Bleu was calm, spacious and filled with beautiful, mature trees. Although the environment around the site was industrial, including a sewage system not far away, the campsite itself was perfect, boasting copious hot water, a washing machine & tumble dryer and a fridge as well as petanque, a playground and pool, table football and a flipper in the bar. The town swimming pool and sports ground is right next door. It would make a good base for a holiday and is open all year round.

We set up camp beside the River Bandiat and booked our meal at the snack bar, where the owner promised us our favourite local beer: La Paluche, made by Les Deux Ours brewery, which we’d discovered on a previous trip to the Dordogne. Then we cycled our light-as-air bikes up the hill to discover Nontron, which spreads over two steep-sided hills: hence the need for viaducts.

Being a Sunday evening, pretty much everything was closed, though we did find an open bar where we drank our well deserved aperitifs. Back at the campsite we felt blessed to have found a snack bar and a friendly owner. The sun even came out while we ate our Perigourdine salad and drank our Paluche beer, making a fitting end to our Sunday.

Little did we know what the next day had in store for us.

Monday morning dawned cloudy and cool again, a pleasing 20°C. My husband had heard the sound of the sewage pump in the night, but all I’d noticed were owls and the babbling water in the river. We were refreshed and ready to pedal again.

Although we were to make the return journey along the same route, there would be new things to discover, starting with the hilly road through the village of St.Martin-de-Pin.

To reach St.Martin we had to cycle through Nontron. This gave great views and allowed us to buy lunch, but it also meant that we began the day warming up our stiff muscles (though not as stiff as I’d feared) pedalling uphill for about 10km. Or so it seemed. In fact it was probably only about 4km. The countryside, however, with its hayfields and forests, made the effort worthwhile. I was glad we hadn’t attempted this route the previous day – though we’d experienced worse (better?) in La Creuse.

St.Martin-le-Pin was a tiny village of red tiled roofs with a pretty church, though no shops. Although we were on the D94 road, there was little traffic and it was good to be in the hills after yesterday’s valley ride. All too soon we were back at Javerlhac, the point where we picked up the route we’d taken yesterday.

Given that we’d only torn ourselves away from our comfortable mattresses on the campsite at 11am, we decided to stop for lunch at Javerlhac. Something we have learned over the past weeks is that it’s important to eat a snack and have a rest before you actually feel tired. Today’s lunch stop was one of the best, beside the Bandiat river in Javerlhac. I loved the architecture in this village.

It was after lunch that our idyllic journey took a turn for the worse.

They say problems arrive in threes, so I guess the first ‘problem’ was when it started to rain. Actually, the shower was refreshing. The earthy smell of petrichor and the flowering ground ivy along the verges kept my spirits uplifted. At first. After a while I started to feel a little chilly. Working on the principle that putting on a raincoat would stop the rain, I was relieved when the shower passed. At least it allowed us to test our waterproof bags.

Arriving in Feuillade, I called for a stop. I wanted to leave the Flow Vélo and visit the village, just in case a café was open for a warming cup of coffee. As we turned our bikes, I saw that my husband’s back tyre looked flat. Yes, it was punctured. The back wheel is always more difficult because you have to faff around with the chain and gears. Especially in the rain. I was glad I wasn’t alone.

Being too lazy to unload the bags, I struggled to hold up the bike while my husband disentangled the wheel – cutting his hand in the process – and found the thorn in the tyre. We’d only got one spare inner tube and I held my breath as he unrolled it: we’d bought it years ago and the rubber seemed decidedly perished. I hadn’t checked it before we left.

Luckily, it seemed to hold the air. And luckily, my bike’s tyres looked fine. We didn’t even resort to swearing.

All seemed well and we raced (well, cycled without stopping very often) back along the Coulée d’Oc to Chez Maillet, where we found our car sitting happily where we’d left it. Thanks to my ingenious husband, who had found a way of attaching both bikes to our carrier (remember the problem last time?), we were able to load the bikes onto the car. We began the drive home, satisfied with the performance of our leg muscles, with our puncture-repairing skills and our time spent in the Dordogne. I was already looking forward to our next Flow Vélo itinerant trip.

As we whizzed along the dual carriageway, the car gave a sudden jerk. I glanced over my shoulder. The car behind was flashing its headlights. My husband swore. He put on the warning lights. We pulled over. I jumped out (forgetting my yellow vest). That’s when I saw my bike hanging off the carrier, looking a little embarrassed. It had tried to escape. Had it thought it could take flight? Or had it argued with my husband’s bike?

I’ll never know. But I do know that I was relieved we’d managed to catch it before any damage was done. Otherwise, my cycling adventures would have stopped here.

Flow Vélo 5: A Rant and a Ride

La Flow Vélo from Port-d’Envaux to Geay:

Remember I told you about that trekking tent we bought; the one that represents an itinerant cycling holiday? Well, a couple of weeks ago, with a trial weekend of cycling and camping in mind, we opened the package to check we were able to pitch the new tent.

To our frustration, we discovered that the shop had sold us a used tent, covered in grass and mud, with missing pegs and a ripped zip. Our camping weekend plans had to change at the last minute. We weren’t impressed. Next time we’ll pitch our tent in the shop before we leave.

OK, rant over. Back to today’s cycle ride.

A trip to Saintes train station on Ascension Thursday was the opportunity to return our tent to the shop and also to continue our exploration of the Flow Vélo cycleway. We loaded our bikes onto the car: actually, my bike had to go into the car because the carrier will only hold one bike now. Why? Because my husband has become so keen on the idea of itinerant cycling that he’s fitted pannier frames all over his bike.

In fact, he even bought himself a new bike (though not from the same shop as the tent) to replace the 25-year-old one he was using. He tells me it’s because the mechanic couldn’t mend the pedal crankset. However, the day he brought home the new bike, I noticed that the old one had a flat tyre. Coincidence? Faint-heartedness on his part? Or a sulking bike, upset at being replaced by a new one?

Whatever. The point is that instead of studying the ladybird larvae activity in our wilderness, he has been wielding spanners and Allen keys, pannier frames and bags of all shapes and sizes. Our recent outings have won him over to the joys of cycling! We may not have a tent yet, but my idea of an itinerant cycling holiday is certainly taking shape.

The bank holiday dawned cool, cloudy and dry; ideal cycling weather for fair-skinned riders like us, though not so good for photos.

We drove to our last stopping point downstream of Cognac – the charming village of Port d’Envaux – and unloaded our bikes. How I love this little village, as I mentioned in my blog post a few weeks ago.

I checked that Le Canotiers food and drink stand was open for post-cycling nourishment (it was) and we cycled through the village, downstream towards Crazannes.

We took a short detour to check out Panloy castle at the far end of Port d’Envaux. The exterior was disappointing because all we could see were the outbuildings behind the château, though it looks fantastic on their website. Luckily, after a few kilometres along a shady, narrow track, we arrived at Crazannes castle. This 14th century château is nick-named ‘Puss-in-Boots’ castle, as Charles Perrault was inspired to create the Marquis of Carabas (Puss-in-Boots’ master) after its owner.

Our bike ride could have ended here, with my climb up the boundary wall to get a photo of the castle facade. The challenge would have been easy in my climbing boots, but my ex-jogging trainers, which are now my cycling trainers, weren’t as practical for climbing. Still, I managed to get up, take a photo and then scramble down without breaking an ankle or spraining a knee. I don’t think my husband noticed my antics, because he’d cycled on ahead as soon as I announced my intention. He must have seen something interesting in the hedge.

Crazannes is another quintessential village of winding streets and stone houses. It has a picnic area beside the lavoir and, at the far end of the village, in the hamlet called Prévallon, lies the Camping du Petit Bonheur with its 33 pitches and a snack bar. Cycle 200 metres further and you’ll arrive at a riverside area called the Port de la Touche, which seems to be popular with fishermen.

With dog roses flowering in the hedges and wafts of wild honeysuckle filling our nostrils, it didn’t matter that the sun was too shy to make an appearance. What did make an appearance was a coypu, one of the animals that’s classed as a pest along the River Charente. It waddled out of a hedge and crossed the road at a lazy trot, like an over-fed cat. I haven’t been so close to one before. It reminded me of the beavers I saw in Chile, 30 years ago.

The tracks along the stretch of the Flow Vélo between Crazannes and St.Savinien are pleasant but the surfaces aren’t great. There is also little contact with the river. I must admit we deviated a little from the marked route in order to follow the lane along the river.

We did see some interesting features, however. They included this four à chaux (lime kiln) near Le Mung. These kilns, operational until 1945, were packed with stone from the quarries in Crazannes and St.Savinien. The stones were baked for 36 hours until they crumbled into lime dust. This lime was then used by people from the coast and the marshes to coat the outsides of their buildings.

The Flow Vélo follows the GR360 footpath from Le Boutet to St.Savinien. I visited St.Savinien a few years ago to see a fellow author, Alison Woodhouse, whose excellent Novella-In-Flash – The House on The Corner – can be bought from Ad Hoc Fiction. Unfortunately, she has moved, so we couldn’t pop in.

St.Savinien is a delightful little town, which would have looked even more idyllic in the sun. What do you think?

Nestled in a crook of the River Charente, St.Savinien has all amenities and would make an excellent base for a holiday. I like the way the island, Ile de la Grenouillette, with its outdoor leisure centre, miniature port and campsite, is separated from the historic town centre.

Following the Flow Vélo towards Geay, we discovered a canal called Le Moussard and cycled along its banks for a few kilometres. Built in 1962, it carries fresh water from the dam at St.Savinien to the marshland around Rochefort.

Our appointment at Saintes train station meant that we could go no further than the sleepy village of Geay, about 8 kilometres downstream of St.Savinien.

We ate an apple at the 12th century Saint-Vivien Church, which struck us as huge for such a small village. Then it was time to turn around and head back towards Port-d’Envaux.

Today’s fields were filled with hairy crops and huddles of cattle as opposed to the vineyards we crossed further upstream.

Perhaps the livestock explained the clouds of gnats that were determined to hitch a ride on my fluorescent jacket. It actually looked much more stylish with black dots all over it.

Our return journey was far quicker, given that we cut out the St.Savinien bend of the River Charente and headed straight back to Crazannes and then Port-d’Envaux. There was a reason for this.

By reducing our trip to just 39 km, we had time to stop for a reward at our favourite countryside port. As the French say: ‘Après l’effort, le réconfort’ (After the effort, the comfort).

This glass of rosé and a bowl of peanuts from Les Canotiers were my comfort after a grey but enjoyable day.

Creative Writing Workshop

I’m delighted to tell you that I’m leading a workshop at Le Texte Libre bookshop in Cognac on Wednesday 8 June from 4 to 6pm. It’s a Creative Writing Workshop in English, designed for French people aged 16+ and will be followed by a Q&A session in English from 6:15 to 7pm.

If you’re interested, or know someone who may be interested in attending, here are the posters with all the details. You’ll need to scroll down to see the whole poster.

Flow Vélo 4: Swimming Snakes and Castles

La Flow Vélo from Cognac to Bassac:

Tax returns? Done. Coughs, colds and flu? Done. Weather check? Sunny. Flow Vélo cycleway: here we come.

Given that we were both recovering from minor ailments, my husband suggested a gentle bike ride today. Actually, I think he wanted his lazy Sunday lie-in, because our bike rides are always gentle. So while he lazed until eleven o’clock, I pedalled to the new village bakery for fresh baguettes and prepared the picnic, sun tan lotion and hammocks. Oh, and the bikes.

A couple of weeks ago, a Flow Vélo cyclist told us that the towpath along the river Charente upstream of Cognac had been resurfaced over winter. We wanted to see the improvements for ourselves.

The Flow Vélo guide books send you along roads for the section from St Brice to Jarnac, rather than along the pretty towpath.

This is a pity but hardly surprising: we knew from our cycling trip three years ago that the rutted, pot-holed, narrow track upstream from the Gademoulin lock made for uncomfortable riding.

Crossing my fingers that my bottom wouldn’t regret our choice of route, we decided to test the towpath. A quick calculation showed that we had four sets of friends along the alternative road route. If we stopped to see them on the way, there would be little chance of us cycling any further so we agreed to do the road route on the return journey.

We joined the Flow Vélo at Châtenay bridge. On the far side of the bridge, beside the River Charente, lies Cognac’s campsite. On the Cognac side lies what was to be the first castle of the day: the Château de Châtenay.

If you’re coming by car, there’s a small car park beside the castle. Alternatively, you can park a kilometre away at the Base Plein Air, which has the advantage of toilets and a snack bar.

We were on home territory today but this didn’t stop us discovering some new spots and revisiting some much-loved, familiar places.

This, I’m sure, is why it took us an hour to cycle the first 6 km.

First up was Les Jardins Respectueux (the Respectful Gardens) at La Trache, near the St Brice bridge. It’s a beautiful hillside woodland and flood plain run by an ecological association and is open to the public (with composting toilets). Free, shady, educational and fascinating, it also holds regular events. Don’t miss it!

We parked our bikes and strolled around, admiring the exuberant spring growth. We talked to the chickens, promised ourselves to come here for the next event and examined with interest (and, I suspect, with intent on my husband’s part) the hop plants. Yes, hops, as in beer. I think my husband came away with some new ideas for our own garden.

At the St Brice bridge, which has a car park, picnic tables and water point, we ignored our Flow Vélo guide book and followed the towpath. From the path you get a great view of St Brice’s 14th-century chateau; the second of the day. The third chateau, in Gothic Revival style this time, came a few kilometres later at Gademoulin.

I was pleased to see that a new barrier at the Gademoulin lock barred entry to cars along the towpath. And even more pleased when I realised that the days of dodging brambles and nettles, of skidding in mud pools and bumping across car-tyre ruts were over. The towpath had indeed been resurfaced. What a pleasure it was to whizz along the shady riverbank, side by side, past woodland and vineyards until we reached Bourg Charente.

Bourg Charente is an idyllic village where you’ll find the Michelin-starred La Ribaudière restaurant. It’s out of my league but I did have a fleeting wish for a glass of rosé when I saw the customers enjoying the sun and river views from the patio. One day, when I’m a rich&respected author…

This isn’t a castle. It’s the Romanesque church in Bourg Charente.

Bourg Charente is also where you cross a bridge and continue along the towpath to Jarnac. Again, a new surface has replaced the former potholes, though cars can also access this part. There are three or four picnic areas, accessible for those who fancy a meal beside the water but whose bicycles are out of order.

We stopped at a log bench beside the river for lunch. It proved to be a good spot, since we were treated to the flash of a kingfisher’s bright blue wings over the water.

This was followed shortly after by the appearance of a viper. It slithered into the river from the bank under our feet and braved the current to swim in squiggly ripples to the far side. I must remember the shape it makes in the water when we take out our canoe in a few weeks’ time.

The entry to the little town of Jarnac is one of my favourite moments along the towpath. Today didn’t disappoint. Oh look, another chateau – or at least a grand house!

There were further temptations at the main square in Jarnac, beside the Courvoisier chateau – and I don’t mean the display of polished, antique cars that were parked there. More people were drinking rosé on café terraces.

We slurped a mouthful of plasticky water from our bottles and cycled valiantly on, out of the town along rue des Chabannes.

If you’re looking for chateaux, this is the road to take. I saw at least three of them, including this one – Château St Martial – and the Château les Chabannes, a little further along, which offers bed-and-breakfast.

I wonder what the Fête des Voisins (national neighbour party day) is like in this street?

We were soon back beside the river, which is much more our scene than castley get-togethers. What joy to smell elderflower from the proliferation of flowering bushes and to see yellow irises beside the water.

When we reached the Vinade bridge near the village of Bassac, we decided it was a good point to turn west and see if our friends were in check out the Flow Vélo road route.

Our friends in Gondeville weren’t in.

Our friends in Jarnac weren’t in.

Luckily, the fruit and vegetable outlet in Jarnac – La Charentaise – was open, as it is every day. We were able to console ourselves by buying some locally grown Gariguette strawberries. We would share with our friends in La Maurie. If they were at home.

No day of cycling is complete without an ice-cream. As we pedalled back to Bourg Charente, I remembered passing the village campsite on the way. We’d approved of the public air pump provided for cyclists in the car park beside it. I’d noticed a new snack bar there. And tables on a grassy terrace. And a board advertising ice-creams.

We leant our bikes against the cognac barrels and went to choose our refreshments. It’s worth noting the existence of this simple campsite with its convivial ambiance, as it’s not yet listed in the Flow Vélo guides.

With nearly 40km on the clock, we made a brief stop in La Maurie to see if our third and fourth sets of friends were at home. To our surprise, they were. Both sets. Perhaps this explains why the last 6km of the day took us four hours to complete. Such are the (very pleasant) dangers of Doorstep Cycling.

Flow Vélo 3: Easter Ices

La Flow Vélo from Rouffiac to Saintes:

Easter Sunday found us alone at home with no eggs to hunt nor lamb to roast. On the positive side, what possible reason could there be for my husband to refuse a little exercise along the banks of the River Charente?

He mumbled something about watching insects in the garden / planting tomatoes / counting the apricots that had survived the recent frosts. I replied something about starting on the tax returns.

Within seconds, he agreed that our priority was to complete the missing part of our Flow Vélo journey between Cognac and Port-d’Envaux: the section from Rouffiac to Saintes. It was only a short ride of 20km. We could do the other stuff afterwards.

I knew it was going to be a good day when a deer strolled across the road in front of us. We parked beside the river near Rouffiac, at the site of Les Clapotis guinguette.

Here, a chain-ferry carries cars/bikes/people from the Rouffiac side to Dompierre-sur-Charente. Sometimes. There was still no sign of it today.

If you read my blog post ‘First Spring Ride’, you’ll know that this is where our journey stopped a couple of weeks ago.

Off we set, along winding lanes and shady tracks, through woodland filled with birdsong, beside the railway and then along the river. At one point we met some cyclists who had stopped to ask advice from a couple of cyclists coming the other way so, naturally, we joined them. I love the way people along the Flow Vélo are happy to share like this.

There were more people along the river bank. They were mostly fishermen with tents, tables, chairs and even beds. I realised that ‘going fishing’ is actually a euphemism for ‘lazing beside the river’. However, I did meet a young artist, who’d spent an hour and a half creating this land art while she waited for her fish to bite. There’s nothing lazy about that!

We were careful when we stopped and left our bikes to relieve ourselves: the last cyclist seemed never to have returned to his/her bike.

Having been disappointed by the lack of ferry at Rouffiac, we were delighted to find another chain-ferry crossing – in service. We wheeled our bikes on board and chugged across from the Concoury side to discover the village of Chaniers.

I only knew the main road that runs through Chaniers, so it was interesting to discover the Romanesque church, narrow streets and stone houses in Chaniers. There was also an intriguing tree-house on the campsite, which I wanted to visit, and I was tempted to stop at a bar terrace for a glass of rosé. However, the ferryman’s lunch break was due and we needed to return to the far side of the river. This meant we didn’t have time to discover the Moulin de la Baine.

Back on the Flow Vélo track, we arrived in Concoury. Some friends have recently moved here and it seemed an ideal opportunity to catch up with them.

Unfortunately, there was no reply when we called, so we continued cycling through the village, past the pretty church and the L’Amaryllis restaurant.

There would be no restaurant roast lamb for us. Instead, we ate our picnic in front of the Charente Maritime branch of the Office Français de la Biodiversité (French Office for Biodiversity).

The office was closed but I could see exhibition panels through the glass doors. One of the advantages of Doorstep Cycling is that you can easily return to places that catch your eye.

After lunch we were accompanied by the hum of planes towing gliders to dizzy heights. We saw at least eight of them as we crossed woodland and meadows of buttercups dotted with little lakes, nests of baby storks and narrow bridges.

The Concoury area is also animal country and we saw fields of gambolling lambs and suckling calves, though there were no Easter bunnies. Just before Les Gonds, we discovered another riverside quay ideal for picnicking and lazing beside the river. I think it was the Prairie du Bourg. And in Les Gonds, my trusty steed found the tail that it had been missing all these years. How proud it looked when I fixed it into place.

At last, we left the countryside behind us and cycled up the sole hill of the ride, which took is into Saintes and gave us a magnificent view over the flood plains.

I know how to deal with hills these days. When I first started cycling, I hated them. Now, I put my bike into first gear and think about something completely different as I pedal. Can you guess what motivated me up this hill into Saintes?

We cycled along a little street past the St.Sorlin and Palue prairies, which form a long, grassy island between the two branches of the River Charente.

I’d never entered Saintes from this direction and it was surprising to see familiar landmarks from a different perspective. This is the true pleasure of Doorstep Cycling.

Strangely – nothing to do with my careful planning, of course – our arrival in Saintes corresponded with teatime. This meant I could legitimately eat the ice-cream that had grown bigger and bigger in my mind as I pedalled up the hill into Saintes.

No ice-cream tastes good unless it’s eaten in front of a pleasing view. Here are some we enjoyed in Saintes.

Fed and watered, we made our way back towards Rouffiac. You see different sights when you ride back along the same route, which means it’s never boring.

By now, we were quite tired, so imagine our joy when our friends in Concoury called and said they were at home and expected us for an aperitif.

What better way to finish a day than with a cool beer and a chat with friends? (Any excuse to avoid facing those tax returns).

Flow Vélo 2: Sunny Sunday Cycling

La Flow Vélo from Saintes to Port-d’Envaux:

My elder daughter came home from university for the weekend and asked us to pick her up at Saintes.

Obviously, we couldn’t bring her home on our bikes, so we decided to make the most of our car trip to the historic Roman town.

Did we visit the gallo-roman amphitheatre? The Germanicus Arch? The 11th century Abbaye-aux-Dames?

No, we stopped at Décathlon. It’s my favourite shop (along with the bookshop Le Texte Libre) because it sells potential.

When you buy a trekking tent, you’re actually buying an itinerant cycle touring holiday. So we did. More about that later this summer, if we manage to pitch the tent and survive the holiday.

Anyway, I was happy that my daughter booked her return ticket for the 11:27 train on Sunday morning because it meant we could stuff our bikes into the car, along with our daughter, and spend the day cycling another section of La Flow Vélo. (Please note how well we have adapted to being abandoned by our children, thanks to our Abandoned Parent Training in 2020).

In contrast to our last Flow Vélo trip, I’d invested in a guide book so we could see exactly where to go. More importantly, it meant I recognised the guide in the hands of the cyclists we met along the way, so I was able to stop (any excuse) and chat with them about their experiences of the cycleway. We learnt that the part from Bourg Charente to Jarnac has recently been renovated, so we’ll definitely return there and assess it for ourselves.

Parking in the train station’s free car park was a great idea. To find the Flow Vélo, which runs along the left bank of the river. you just follow signs to centre ville and turn right straight after crossing the bridge.

I’d never been to this part of Saintes and was pleasantly surprised to discover that once we passed the riverside campsite, the route took us along a quiet, shady lane.

This soon became a track and we had regular glimpses of the river.

The Flow Vélo from Cognac to Rouffiac was pleasant, but today’s section easily surpassed it in terms of the variety of tracks and the number of interesting features. I’d recommend this day trip – a total of 45km for the return ride – to everyone. And not only because we found ice-creams along the way.

Having cycled close to the river for about 5km, the route headed inland a little. The lanes took us up and down small hills and through the hamlets of Narcejac, La Pommeraie and Port à Clou. There was so much to see. From the sighting of a stork on the ground – it was almost as big as my bike – to the beautiful stone architecture, something constantly caught our attention.

We were welcomed at la Basse Pommeraie by this sign, which directed cyclists to ‘Number 15’. When I stopped to have a closer look, I saw a notice in the window offering water, a pump and a smile.

Unfortunately no one was at home, otherwise I could have wangled a longer stop there.

As the Flow Vélo remains fairly close to the river, we often passed wetlands. Just before Port à Clou, we were treated to a boardwalk to cross the protected marshes. Some surprises awaited us there, including these fellows. There were a few more to meet too, but I’ll let you discover them on your own.

We left the Flow Vélo when we spotted the river at Port à Clou and ate our picnic beside the water. Had it been a little later in the year, we would have swum, since access to the water is easy in this spot.

Here are a few pictures of the landscapes we crossed after lunch.

The square bridge allowed the cycleway to pass under a viaduct, which we presumed was a railway. When we discovered it was tarmacked, we decided to follow it – hence the photo of my husband pushing his bike up onto it. Don’t worry, this isn’t a compulsory part of the route.

When I stopped at the end of the viaduct to read the inscription on the stone, a dog-walker informed us that the viaduct was actually an old Roman road. It’s used by the locals when the normal road floods. But as it’s only wide enough for one car – and there’s a drop on each side – this must lead to conflictual situations and lots of reversing.

The viaduct led towards the charming village of Taillebourg, on the far bank of the River Charente. The Flow Vélo doesn’t pass through it, but we wanted to visit and it was only one kilometre off our route.

What a good idea that was! I loved the little village, with its stone quay and the castle parkland overlooking the countryside. I recommend you stop there and discover it yourself. Here’s a slideshow of a few pictures to give you an idea of the treat you’re in for.

It was getting late by now, and with over 20km on the clock we decided we’d cycle as far as Port-d’Envaux before returning to Saintes. The cycleway took us along a couple of rather long, straight, flat tracks. A few kilometres later, we arrived in the village.

In fact, we arrived directly at a tranquil, riverside meadow which is actually the port. Although it’s a small village today, Port-d’Envaux used to be an important stop for the boats carrying stone from the nearby Crazannes quarry as well as pottery from La Chapelle des Pots.

And guess what? I finally got to eat my ice-cream.

Port-d’Envaux must be a lovely place to laze in the summer. You can hire boats from Les Canotiers, admire the stone sculptures, eat at Le Gabarier restaurant and visit Panloy castle.

I’ll definitely have to return. In fact, we might even camp for a night at Crazannes, which is 4km away, for our next stage of the Flow Vélo, from Port-d’Envaux downstream to St.Savinien-sur-Charente – and, who knows, maybe a little further.

Flow Vélo 1: First Spring Ride

La Flow Vélo from Cognac to Dompierre-sur-Charente (nearly) and back:

The sun cast its springtime rays into the garage and woke my sleeping bike from its winter hibernation. To be honest, it wasn’t a true hibernation because I’ve been taking it out almost daily since January, feeding it a few kilometres at a time so that it doesn’t forget how to work.

But cycling 8km a day as a form of transport hardly counts as a proper outing to my ambitious steed. Spring beckoned and, before I knew it, my bike was pawing the ground, eager to make the most of the splendid weather. How could I refuse?

So off we set, my long-suffering husband and I, with a picnic, our hammocks and my 52-blade Swiss Army Knife: you never know what might happen when you venture into the wilds of the Charente. I wasn’t particularly worried, though, because my husband remembered to take his compass. It has saved us from many a dark ending in the past.

The objective of the day was not to set an objective. This seemed perfectly reasonable, given our experience of being ourselves on our bikes (as described in my cycling series Doorstep Cycling and Abandoned Parent Training). As long as we could stop every time we saw something interesting, and that I could fit an ice-cream break into the journey, it would be pleasant.

Our chosen route was the cycleway known as the ‘Flow Vélo‘, which follows the course of the River Charente downstream to the sea. I packed my bikini, of course: the sea is a mere 108 km from home. Ice-cream sellers proliferate there.

The 290km Flow Vélo cycleway joins Nontron in the Dordogne to Fouras and Aix island at the mouth of the River Charente. We actually discovered the Dordogne part of the Flow Vélo in 2020 when we cycled from St.Pardoux-la-Rivière to St.Jean-de-Côle and Thiviers, as I mentioned in my blog post Teas and Trees.

But enough of all this waffling and on with the action. After a hasty pumping up of tyres, we cycled through Cognac, admiring the magnolia and cherry blossom and the trees coming into leaf. The first challenge was to discern which side of the river we were supposed to cycle along. We couldn’t find any Flow Vélo signs and the route details on the website page had faded from my memory. So we trusted our instincts and cycled downstream along the Hennessy dock, past Cognac’s port and towards the village of Merpins.

The pretty, shaded path ran directly beside the river and then turned inland to join a grit track. This continued for several kilometres parallel to the Cognac-Merpins road, which was hidden behind a promontory of back gardens. On the right lay the fields and woods of the flood plain, with, unfortunately, no view of the river.

Ideal for runners, dog walkers and cyclists, the track had plenty of shade, with the added bonus of birdsong – and frog-song when we passed a pond. We even saw a man dragging a canoe-on-wheels, though the track was a couple of hundred metres from the river. I hope he hadn’t stolen it from one of those fascinating back gardens.

The track ended at the old centre of Merpins, where we discovered the cobbled Cocuron hump-backed bridge, built in 1777. The stones that sit inside the parapets were put there to prevent carriage wheels from rubbing against the parapets and damaging them. I love the way grass has grown between the cobbles.

After the bridge, we crossed the River Né and brushed the outskirts of Salignac-sur-Charente. There were more Flow Vélo signs now and it was easy to follow the route along winding tracks running through fields lined with ditches full of irises. At one point we saw a stork’s nest with a baby stork inside and spotted one parent soaring through the skies in search of food.

The river, however, eluded us until we arrived at the Port du Lys, which is about 9km from Cognac. This is a beautiful spot beside the river, with picnic tables and a barbecue. In the summer, a riverside guinguette sets up here and we love to lie in a hammock or sit beside the water and enjoy a beer and a meal. It’s run by the association Utopy – a ‘university of laziness’, to quote its website.

The track after the Port du Lys led across ‘La Grande Prairie’, an area we didn’t enjoy as much. It was a flat, open, flood plain of agricultural monoculture: sunflowers, by the look of the dried husks littering the verges. It was windy here, and in the summer there would be no shade.

After the Grande Prairie we were back on lanes and more interesting tracks, some of which ran alongside the river. The Charente had only a few trees on its banks here, which took away much of the charm that seduced us during our cycling trip upstream of Cognac in 2019.

Things improved at La Fosse – perhaps because we remembered that a friend lived there, so we stopped for a drink and a chat. Dropping in on friends is just one of the many advantages of doorstep cycling.

From La Fosse, a little track took us along the railway line and close to the village of Rouffiac. By now, we were flagging a little. We promised ourselves an ice cream at the village of Dompierre-sur-Charente, which was on the far bank and could no doubt be reached via a bridge. Meanwhile, we ate our picnic, supplemented by chocolate éclairs from the best patissier in Cognac (in my opinion).

After a siesta in our hammocks, we set off again, happy to find ourselves on a smooth tarmac lane, ideal for rollerblading. This road took us to Les Clapotis, another guinguette, which looked rather different in the winter without the marquees and bar. Luckily, there were more trees here, making it an enchanting place for a rest.

The Flow Vélo signs pointed us inland again, away from the river. But we were curious to see where the lane beyond Les Clapotis went, especially as it ran along the river and we planned to return with our rollerblades. Might it be a short cut to an ice-cream?

A few hundred metres later, the road led into the river. Yes, into the river! On the opposite bank we could see the village of Dompierre-sur-Charente. It looked like a pretty place to explore, and I was sure there would be at least one ice-cream seller there. But there was no bridge and no sign of the ‘bac à chaîne’ (chain-operated ferry boat) to carry us across. There wasn’t even a chain.

It was lucky I hadn’t set my heart on the objective of reaching Dompierre (or on enjoying an ice cream); otherwise I’d have been disappointed by the lack of boat. I later learnt that the ferry only operates from 15 June to 15 September, 10am-1pm and 2-7pm. It’s free and you can learn all about its history (in French) here.

We were now 25km from home. Although I felt motivated to carry on along the Flow Vélo – with a short detour to Dompierre as soon as we found a bridge – my husband reminded me that we had to cycle all the way back.

Promising ourselves that we’d return soon for an ice-cream the next section of the Flow Vélo, we turned around.

We lost ourselves once or twice but didn’t have to resort to either the compass or my Swiss Army Knife. Eventually, we arrived home saddlesore but happy with our five-hour excursion.

Tree Sacrifice on Tour

If you hang out on social media platforms, you may know that my publisher, Impress Books, sent my third book – Tree Sacrifice – on tour to book reviewers in January.

Tree Sacrifice is the third and final instalment of the Tree Magic trilogy (or tree-logy, if you like puns).

After much nail-biting, I was relieved to see that the majority of reviewers liked the story. Many of them hadn’t read Tree Magic (book 1) or Tree Slayer (book 2). This made the storyline difficult for them to follow, since the trilogy must be read in order for it to make sense.

However, the reviewers were very complimentary about my writing, which made me feel all warm and mushy. My favourite reviews were those where the readers felt differently about trees and nature after reading the trilogy. Several said they wanted to go out and hug a tree, others liked the way the story inspired them to get out and do something to protect nature. And one reader has started drawing trees.

For me, the Tree Magic trilogy was about more than writing a story. It was about making people think about trees, about getting them to imagine what trees could be saying to each other, about inspiring them to want to defend nature. So I’m proud to think that the stories have had this effect on some people, at least.

Here are a few quotes from the reviews, plus the links to read the full reviews and see some of the amazing bookstagrams the reviewers created. Many thanks to Impress Books and LoveBooksTours, who organised it.

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“I could really picture Harriet’s writing and her descriptions, which makes these books a perfect escape from realty. Her writing is also very thought provoking at times and does have you questioning life. It also certainly makes me proud to be a tree hugger because this book is simply magical and beautiful, which I’m sure I’ve said many times now!” @hannahmaybookreviews

“This might not be a book written for adults, but there was plenty to keep my interest and keep me guessing as to how it would end. It deals well with complex adolescence emotions and relationships, as well as decision making and responsibility, along with an engaging storyline that touched my tree soul.” French Village Diaries

“This is a beautiful book, great plot, well written and I really enjoyed it. I also loved the underlying idea of this – save and respect the trees. Do all we can to protect the earth and nature. A great topic for the world we live in today.” @book_a_holic_17

“Every page of this book was full of such vivid descriptions and rich imagery that I truly felt I was surrounded by nature. This book is so important for so many reasons, it allows young adults to really stretch their imagination but it also depicts the importance of nature and more specifically trees with both humans and the ecological community.’ @fiction_vixen18

“I loved the idea behind this book, gaining peace and knowledge from the world around us and protecting it as much as we can.” @tryingtomaketimetoread

“I love the idea of trees communicating, being all powerful advisers, it’s such a gorgeous story! I think it may have turned me into a tree hugger!” @thebookishhermit

 “A thrilling end to a unique and beautifully envisaged trilogy.” @Livinginmyownprivatelibrary

“Harriet writes with such beauty that the imagery created is breathtaking. It’s easy to envision what the characters are experiencing. In future I want to read the first two before rereading this book in the hopes I will understand it as it is meant to be understood!” @face_down_books_up 

“I adored the environmental themes, which were sophisticatedly weaved throughout the magical plot whilst also giving a realistic nod to the way humans often fail to respect nature 🌳 It definitely got me thinking about the little changes I can make to help to protect our world.” @the_beautyofreading

“This was a fascinating read that really stretches your imagination… A fascinating YA Fantasy that brings nature to life with the turn of each page.” @bookshortie

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Sorry if this post sounds a bit boasty. I just wanted to share the goodwill that the Tree Magic trilogy has inspired. Oh, and encourage you to read the trilogy too!

If you’d like to purchase the books, they’re all available in both ebook and paperback format from your favourite online or local bookseller. Alternatively, you can click on the cover photos in the sidebar to order them in the UK.

Tree Magic : paperback ISBN: 978-1911293637, e-book ISBN: 978-1911293644
Tree Slayer : paperback ISBN: 978-1911293392, e-book ISBN: 978-1911293408
Tree Sacrifice : paperback ISBN: 978-1911293705, e-book ISBN: 978-1911293699

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I’ll be back this spring with a series of posts on a completely different subject. Meanwhile, happy reading.

Welcome to Tree Sacrifice

I’m excited to announce that the third book in the Tree Magic series will be published by Impress Books on 7th September 2021 in both e-book and paperback formats.

Please give a warm welcome to Tree Sacrifice.

This is the final book in the trilogy, which begins with Tree Magic and is followed by Tree Slayer. I had such fun finishing Rainbow’s story. I hope you enjoy reading it.

The story is set in France and the UK – and also in a parallel world where trees and people live in harmony. That’s all I’ll say for now, but you’ll find a full blurb at the bottom of the page. If you haven’t read Tree Slayer yet, I suggest you skip the blurb (and that you read Tree Slayer before 7th September!). Some reviewers have said Tree Sacrifice is the best book yet in the series.

The cover was designed by Molly Phipps, who has done an excellent job, once again – many thanks for the colour suggestions from my readers, which I passed on to my publisher.

You can already pre-order the book from your favourite bookseller, and even from your less favourite bookseller if you don’t have an alternative. The ISBN numbers are:

– Tree Sacrifice paperback: 978-1911293705

– Tree Sacrifice e-book: 9781911293699

(The ASIN code for the kindle version of the e-book on Amazon is B08X4Y1YKK )

Pre-orders are really important to authors because the publisher’s marketing budget is often allocated according to the number – lots of pre-orders means that the book will have a bigger budget and reach more people.

Here are some direct links to take you to the three-book series on Amazon: Amazon UK, Amazon France, Amazon USA

Finally, I’d like to thank you for supporting me. To show your appreciation for the years of work involved in each book, it would be great if you could leave comments on Amazon or Goodreads, share posts about the books on social media, talk about them to friends and ask your local library to order copies.

Here’s the blurb:

Tree Sacrifice

A suicide pact. A new responsibility. A desperate bid for harmony.

As Rainbow leaves Brocéliande forest after the events of Tree Slayer, she learns that a much greater challenge faces her. Exasperated by mankind’s disrespect for trees, the One Tree has set a terrible event into motion. Rainbow is strictly forbidden from intervening, but thousands of trees across France could die unless she does so.

Her search for guidance will take her to England, where a startling discovery makes sense of her gift and opens new perspectives. She must take the hardest decision of her life. But will her and Eole’s sacrifices be enough to save the French forests?

Unknown to Rainbow, help is close by. But it lies in a different world, a parallel world where mankind lives in unity with trees. There, Druana must decide whether she’s prepared to risk everything to rebalance her world.

Will Druana and Rainbow ever meet? What would be the cost? For everything gained, something must be lost.

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