Towards the Source

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 2 of 7)

Strangely, neither of our children expresses any desire to accompany us on our exciting trip to discover the source of the River Charente. On the contrary, they encourage us to take a romantic break together. Their enthusiasm is accompanied by urgent tapping on their mobile phones.

We spend all morning packing. How come it takes so much longer to pack minimal kit than to pack for a normal, car-based camping holiday?

Unfortunately, my partner’s beloved tipi doesn’t fit in the trailer. We compromise with a Decathlon Quechua tent – one of those magical throw-in-the-air tents that are impossible to fold back into their bags.

“There’s plenty of room now,” says my partner, adding a couple of beer cans to the trailer. “You can take more stuff if you like.”

I’m tempted by his suggestions for extra comfort. After all, we’re following a river, which means the path will be flat. But we haven’t done any training and, given that he insists on taking the trailer, I resist the urge to take the kitchen sink.

He hasn’t got padded cycling shorts, so I give him my gel saddle-cover. I don’t remember having a sore bum when I crossed France. I’ll be fine. He, on the other hand, believes he’ll be comfortable in his normal underpants and shorts.

After lunch, we’re ready to go (I think). Our daughters are 19 and 16, and although we’ve never left them at home alone before, there are no tears at our departure: only furtive glances at phones. The elder one has even picked up the broom, so they obviously want to surprise us with a clean, tidy house on our return. It’s great to have responsible daughters.

At last, we set off from the house. It’s a cool 23°C afternoon and the late August weather forecast is perfect: it’s cloudy, but it won’t rain.

We cycle for a whole 100 metres before we have to stop because my partner’s saddle has slipped. It’s a minor hitch. I break into song and we whizz down the hill to the river (where we stop again for his saddle).

I love the dank, earthy smell of the lazy River Charente. I love its woody banks, its water lilies and dragonflies, its swans and meanders. And I love the idea of taking a holiday in the local vicinity, discovering roads and villages that aren’t part of our daily life. It feels as if we’re hundreds of miles away. Who needs a car to go on holiday? Perhaps we can launch the concept of ‘doorstep holidays’, a philosophy that’s respectful of the environment.

We bump along the towpath, heading towards Angoulême, and stop for water at the Bourg-Charente campsite. I’m amazed at how well our cute trailer copes with the bumps and occasionally erratic steering, though I’m glad we didn’t have it when our kids were young. I’d have suffered minor heart attacks, watching from behind. The kids would have loved being tossed from side to side.

At the Bourg-Charente lock, I stop and watch the cane roof of a strange, makeshift boat rise into sight. Its fishing net is full of squashed plastic bottles. The riverside is the friendliest place, where everyone says hello as they pass, and stop for a chat – so it seems natural for me to ask the couple working the sluice gates about their boat.

Karine and Tony are collecting rubbish. Over the span of a 5-day holiday, they’re travelling downstream from Angoulême to Saint-Savinien and picking up litter as they go.

What inspired them? “We like our beaches and river to be clean,” they say. Their approach is attractive in its simplicity, and I resolve to pick up any litter I see. After all, there’s plenty of room on our darling bike trailer.

The grassy approach to Jarnac is a welcome change from the stony towpath, which stops temporarily here, in the town of Mitterand’s resting place (there’s even a museum about him). Jarnac is where you can hire a boat for a cruise along the navigable part of the river, up to Angoulême.

We continue out of Jarnac along a quiet road, admiring chateaux as we glide along tarmac – what a smart invention tarmac is: I bet a cyclist was responsible for it.

We cycle through Bassac, with its 11thcentury abbey, and then Saint-Simon, which has a museum dedicated to the traditional Charente gabarre boat. I fancy stopping to look at everything, but our little trailer is ambitious. It wants to keep going, and makes stopping and starting hard work. My partner plods steadily on.

 

Despite the smooth tarmac our backsides are starting to ache – and because we I keep stopping to admire the river, take photos and chat to people, it’s getting late. At Vibrac, we hesitate. We could take a short cut, slicing Chateauneuf-sur-Charente from our itinerary. This means climbing a hill that – if my map-reading is correct – should take us to Saint-Simeux.

Either we suffer for longer on the flat path, or we take the hill and suffer harder but for a shorter time.

The trailer is attached to the back wheel of my partner’s bike, and has a spring to smooth the bumps. The problem is that when he pushes down hard on the pedals – as he’ll have to do if we take the hill – the spring stretches and contracts. This makes an uncomfortable, jerky movement. By now, he has decided that if we buy a trailer, it’ll be one that attaches to the axle and not via a spring to the back wheel. 

Ever courageous, my partner opts for the hill. As we snail up it, he stops talking about trailers altogether.

The climb is hard going, but we’re motivated. We’re motivated because Saint-Simeux means one thing to us: a glass (or two) of cool beer.

Les Gabariers is a true English pub. It sits on the riverbank, has a pontoon to swim from, a pétanque court (OK, that’s not very English), hosts live music and serves food – and it also sells craft beers as well as Guinness. We could call it Heaven.

 

We freewheel down through Saint-Simeux towards the river. The pub isn’t easy to find, but eventually we pull up in front of the terrace. Although the owners no longer take campers, the pub is perfect for a break.

We sink into a soft, thick cushion and enjoy a hard-earned beer.

We’ve travelled all of 25km. Never mind the bemused expressions of onlookers when they see our strangely loaded trailer: we qualify as true cyclo-tourists.

All we have to do now is find a campsite for the night.

 

(Do you know the River Charente? Have you got a favourite spot there? If so, leave a comment and tell me about it)

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