Category Archives: Life in France

Infidelity

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 7 of 7)

King François 1st said that the River Charente was the ‘plus belle rivière du royaume’ (the most beautiful river in the kingdom). Even before spending five days following it and exploring its banks, I agreed with him.

I see our river every day, in its good and bad moods. I swim in its deep waters and watch it change over the seasons. Its reflections and gentle meanders mean ‘home’ to me. I love the River Charente.

But the moment I see the source of the River Touvre, a flash of intense delight overwhelms me. This river has hardly left the earth, yet its colours, the limpidity of the water and its wide expanse seduce the viewer and invite wonder. I desire nothing more than to explore its intimate depths.

To do that, I’d need diving equipment, because the Touvre is actually the second biggest source (resurgence) in France. The water flooding out of the deep holes – which are popular with professional divers – fills the wide valley with pools of intense blue.

 

Refreshed by the sparkling water, we cycle back along the Touvre to Angoulême, taking our time to turn down side streets and enjoy the sensual pleasures of this wide, shallow river.

 

We arrive at Montignac campsite at 7:30pm, having completed 63km and completely forgotten about the campsite aperitif. At least, I forgot. Now I think of it, my partner did launch into some desperate pedalling over the last few kilometres.

The party is in full swing. We join the group of 15 people, including the village mayor, and collapse into the comfort of plastic chairs. A Mojito and a Ricard are placed in our hands, and our fellow campers’ discussions gradually revive us.

One man is walking from Norway to southern Spain, pulling an adapted sack barrow; another has come from Normandy. They ask about our origins – no doubt thinking we’ve cycled from England, given my accent – and are amused to think we‘ve come on holiday to a village that’s only a 40-minute drive from home.

Many of the campers return to Montignac every year, and I’m not surprised.

 

Montignac has stolen my heart (and that of our bike trailer, I’d say). Not only is the campsite peaceful, the village has all you need for a countryside holiday – including a restaurant.

If we want to be ready for tomorrow’s 85km journey home, we must eat properly.

We excuse ourselves from the party and, after a shower, head to Le Taillefer. Imagine our pleasure as, for 14€50, we’re served a freshly cooked, delicious 4-course meal. We chat to the owners and take a card: we’ll be coming back.

When we return to the campsite after a night walk around the village, the aperitif gathering has become a digestif party. We’re invited for a glass or two of gnôle (also spelt gnole, gniole or gnaule, and meaning ‘hooch’).

But we’re exhausted – and experienced, where gnôle is concerned. We know it won’t help us cycle 85km tomorrow. We decline and say goodnight.

The next morning is our final one. It’s Day 5 and we once again plan to leave early. In reality, we only finish tending our sores, packing, saying goodbye and hitching up the trailer at eleven o’clock. It doesn’t matter: we have bike lights. We can cycle the last part in the dark.

We take the same route back, adding a couple of kilometres to see Balzac chateau. We also include a detour to discover the village of Marsac, which is worth the extra time it takes.

 

Have you ever noticed how things look different when you see them on a return journey? Here are some of the sights I missed on the way to Montignac.

It’s really hot today. We pause regularly for refreshments and to rest our backsides. At Thouérat lock, we stop for an ice-cream and test the inflatable chairs, wishing that bike saddles were as comfortable.

At Fleurac lock, where we buy a coffee, I’m chuffed because I finally meet Belle. The roaming goat comes to greet us and takes an interest in our trailer.

Could we hitch her to it? She could be part of our quest to see whether the source of the River Charente is comparable to that of the Touvre.

My partner doesn’t comment on my idea. I’m not sure he’ll be up for another cycling tour, unless he invents a bike with inflatable-cushion seats.

We’re still a fair way from Saint-Simeux, but the pub Gabariers seems to call us from afar.

Our daughters would surely love the pub as much as we do. We should thank them for looking after the house while we’ve been away. Why don’t we invite them to meet us there for a drink and a meal? It could be fun.

Fun? It’s a brainwave.

What’s more, when we arrive at Les Gabariers, we learn there’s going to be live music tonight.

We phone our daughters, and suggest they might like to bring the big car. Oh, and the bike carrier. It would silly not to benefit from the main advantage of doorstep holidays.

They seem delighted, which makes sense: they’ve been diligently house-sitting for five days. They need a break too.

All that remains is to take a dip and wash away the day’s sweat and dust. The pontoon is right on the river, so in we jump. The cool water is a balm and, as ever, I remind myself how lucky I am to be able to swim in my local river.

Getting out is another matter. Have you ever tried to climb onto a pontoon with no steps? Luckily, my partner is here to haul me out. Luckily, my partner is here to order the beers, book a table for dinner and sit with me on the luxuriously deep cushions.

And, luckily, my children are here to pick us up and take us home – which amuses me, considering the number of times we’ve picked them up.

They look tired, as if they’ve hardly slept. Was it the worry about being responsible for the house?

But they also look happy. Already, they’re urging us to do the same thing next year – though preferably with a bit more notice, please.

I can’t think why. I look at my partner to see his reaction.

To my surprise, he’s bubbling with ideas for next time. His favourite is a Craft Beer tour, which he thinks would be even more inspiring that following a river. Of course, we’d need a trailer to carry the beer. And wouldn’t it be good if we could persuade a beer-loving, cycling friend to accompany us: one who’s training for an Iron Man and could tow a trailer full of bottles?

At home, there’s a mountain of washing, including a pile of bed laundry. Although everything is tidy, the furniture isn’t in exactly the same place. It’s no doubt a sign of thorough cleaning.

It’s also the proof we can leave the kids in charge next year. Next year, we’ll definitely train beforehand. We’ll both wear cycling shorts and invest in new gel seat covers, which we’ll keep exclusively for Day 4. If we win the lottery, we may even invest in an electric bike. Or two.

It doesn’t matter that we didn’t achieve our objective. I’ve learnt that it’s fun to let yourself get sidetracked. An objective should only ever serve to get you started.

Having said that, combining the continued exploration of the River Charente with discovering craft beer may take some organisation.

I’d better start planning right now. Once I’ve finished my celebration beer.

Cheers!

***

Congratulations if you’ve read all 7 posts of my summer blog sprint. You’re probably as exhausted as me!

The Hard Truth

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 6 of 7)

We like rest days – by which I mean our trailer rests, not us. I think it has put down roots, actually, so it might prove difficult to move. And today is our last day of discovery. It’ll be easier to find the source of the River Charente if we don’t have to drag a reluctant trailer behind us. It’s bad enough with reluctant kids – though our kids are perfect, of course. I don’t know many children who’d turn down an exciting holiday and offer to house-sit instead.

We must be home by tomorrow evening. But I’m sure we can do the return journey of 85km in one day: because today, Day 4, our saddlesores will have disappeared, and by tomorrow we’ll be super-fit. On our first day we did 30km, the second day 55 and the third day 60. If we get up early, 85km is perfectly reasonable. We’re only slow because we keep stopping to check the map. This won’t be necessary on our return journey.

Breakfast time is map-consultation moment, so we eat strawberries and pastries while we unfold it.

The source of the River Charente is east of Montignac. I trace the distance and, because I’m wiser now about my capacity to ride long distances, I realise we’ll never make it to the source in Chéronnac.

We’re not going to discover the birthplace of our river. We won’t see the newly born water surge out of the ground in virgin purity, ready for its journey along the Charente riverbed to the Atlantic Ocean.

In any case, the source is probably just a hole with water dribbling out. River sources are never as exciting as they sound. And finding the source was just an idea, not a ‘do or die’ objective.

We decide to head eastwards anyway, because my partner says East Charente is beautiful, and he wants to see the Braconne forest. I agree. It’s going to be 34°C today, so a forest sounds cool and peaceful.

On the map, Braconne forest has ‘FIRING RANGE’ marked in red across it. But it’s August. The French are all on holiday. We won’t get shot or anything dramatic like that.

“Don’t be late for the campsite aperitif tonight,” says the jolly camper as we mount our bikes.

My partner replies with a joke about the extra incentive to get back early. At least, I think he’s joking. I hope cycling isn’t turning him into an alcoholic. I’d rather he was a bee-o-holic than a beeroholic.

As soon as my bum touches my saddle, I realise the ‘Day 3 is the worst’ business is complete rubbish. I’m still saddlesore. My partner is also standing on his pedals as we cross the campsite. Unfortunately he loses his balance and sprawls onto the gritty entrance. He picks himself up and we adjust the panniers so they don’t get caught in his wheel spokes again. I think I can hear the trailer tittering in its corner.

We suspect that it’s my en-route map reading that slows us down: so today is going to be an experiment in following the sun. With no particular objective – other than the Braconne forest and a village called Mornac, which my partner says is pretty – it doesn’t matter where we go.

He’s no longer talking about electric bikes, though he has taken an interest in proper cycling shorts. We discuss these and, obviously, we’re soon lost.

“It doesn’t matter. Just head east,” he says, checking the sun. “we can’t miss Braconne forest.”

Nitrat, Anais, La Motte …  We see start to see signs to Grande Fosse (Big Hole) and wonder what it could mean. A particularly nasty track terminates on a lane called ‘Rue de la Grande Fosse’, and our excitement mounts as we enter Braconne forest.

Whatever this hole is, it’s important enough to have a road named after it. I settle for a hole made by a bomb, since it’s near a firing range. My partner mutters “‘Padirac” and “gouffre” (abyss), and I worry that he’s got sunstroke.

The track through the forest, with its gentle ups and downs, is straight. I’m not nearly as charmed as with Boixe forest. We stop for lunch and a hammock-siesta, and then spot a clearing ahead.

We go to investigate and find a well-trodden path. At the end is a wooden fence, and beyond it, a hole. A big hole. Opposite us, about 200 metres across the hole, is a cliff face. This is the Grande Fosse: an abyss of 55 metres deep and 800 metres in circumference.

A notice board tells us the story of how the local villagers were sick of their animals falling into the abyss, and signed a contract with the devil to fill it with stones overnight in exchange for their souls.

Luckily, the abyss was too deep (or the devil too slow or stupid?) and he only had the time to leave one rock there before the cock crowed, “Morning, mate!” and the devil lost his deal.

While I delight in this folk tale, my partner reads all about geology, underwater rivers and the earth caving in. Apparently, there are two more gouffres in the vicinity. We cycle on, planning to return on a day trip (in the car) and walk around them all.

A little further on, we see notices warning us we’re inside the firing range. And it’s active during the week. Which means today. Now.

My partner points out that the track barriers were open and that we can’t hear shots. Even so, I speed up: maybe they’re at lunch, or are about to launch an offensive.

We arrive at a junction of roads and tracks, and see a sign to a monument for the French Resistance members shot here during WWII. I remember the research I did for my short story ‘Ami Entends-tu’, and we take a detour towards the memorial. The firing range warning signs come thick and fast, but my fear of being shot seems ridiculous now.

In the clearing, I learn the names of the partisans who lost their lives. Hairs rise all over my body at one spot, and I send silent thanks to the courageous fighters for their sacrifices.

 

We continue southwards. After the abyss and the ghostly war memorial, it’s hardly a surprise when we discover that the sun has led us into what seems to be a French version of Area 51. It’s a huge, deserted industrial estate in the middle of the wood, ideal for hiding aliens away from the public’s eye. We cycle up and down roads, searching for an exit, before escaping through a security gate. Obviously I don’t take any photos. I don’t think we saw any aliens either, though perhaps the Men In Black zapped our memories away.

At Mornac, which is also a disappointment after the picturesque villages of stony ruins further north, it feels like time to follow the sun westwards, back to the aperitif the campsite. But my partner has a surprise for me.

“We’re near the source of the River Touvre. Let’s have a look,” he says.

The Touvre flows into the Charente. We may not have achieved what we set out to see during our bike trip, but a visit to this source could be a good replacement.

I look more closely at the map. The source is more-or-less on the way back to Montignac.

“OK,” I say. After all, one dribbling source is much like another. I can take a photo and no one will ever know it was the Touvre and not the Charente.

We get back on our bikes for the final sightseeing part of our trip.

***

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

Followed by Signs

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 5 of 7)

Over breakfast this morning, I look at the map. I look at the distance we’ve covered (85km) and the distance left along the 381km river to its source in Chéronnac.

By Mbursar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39123234

The advantage of being an itinerant cyclist is that you can stop before you reach your day’s objective, camp, and then carry on the next day.

The disadvantage is that every kilometre is hard work. You may choose not to explore something that catches your attention because it’s up a hill.

If we’re ever going to get to the source of our river, we need to move faster.

Today is our third day and, as we know from our hiking holidays in the Pyrenees mountains, the third day is the worst. After today, we’ll be less saddlesore. Meanwhile, we must survive the day’s cycling. We stretch our stiff muscles and look at the bike trailer sitting snug under its tree.

It would be cruel to move it too soon.

We decide to have a rest day: to leave everything at the campsite and explore further upstream on cargo-free bikes. Without the weight of the trailer, we’ll easily cover 100km. Or perhaps 80.

I’d like to visit Verteuil-sur-Charente, which is south of Ruffec and supposedly beautiful. My partner is happy to cycle anywhere, as long as it’s without the trailer. On the campsite are a couple of campers with an electric bike and trailer. He dawdles past them, and I think I know what’s going through his head.

Verteuil doesn’t look far on our 1:150 000-scale map. We lower ourselves painfully onto our saddles and cycle to Saint-Amant-de-Boixe.

The huge abbey here is totally out of proportion with the small village, thus hinting at an important past. We leave the D15 and take the nice little white roads on our map. We’ll catch up with the River Charente further north.

We soon discover that the little white roads aren’t quite as nice as they look. Unlike the flat tracks beside the river, they take us up the steep hills onto the Charente heights. On the positivee side, it’s exhilarating to see broad horizons after river valleys.

My partner wants to take a random track that seems to head the right way and perhaps cuts off a corner. It’s not on the map.

“Don’t worry. We just need to look at the sun and cycle northwards,” he says.

While he considers the position of the sun, I check my compass and then follow him onto the stony track.

He’s spritely without the trailer. How come he’s fitter than me, despite him only doing a single, weekly basketball training compared to my four or five sports slots a week?

We’re not sure exactly where we are, but we keep seeing the same green cyclist signs as yesterday. At last, I see a place name on one of them: Ruffec.

Ruffec is north of us, so if we follow the signs, we’ll be going more or less the right way. In any case, ever since Balzac, yesterday, it seems that the signs are following us.

Another regular sign is the one in this photo: it means ‘Let’s share the road’. My partner and I have a long discussion about it.

Do you notice anything? Go on, have a good look.

Yes, it’s a sign aimed at motorists, encouraging them to give cyclists more space on the road. But look! It’s the cyclist that’s leaning over and making room for the car. And there’s not much space between them. All it would take is a little wobble, and the sign would look very different.

(You notice this kind of thing when you’re in the saddle: or, rather, doing anything to avoid putting your sore backside on the saddle).

As usual, the car is king of civilization, and everything else has to fit around it. We decide to launch a politico-environmental movement to reduce the car to last place, behind bicycles, pedestrians, roller-bladers, scooter-riders and dogs. (You make lots of decisions like this when you’re on a bike all day).

The morning whizzes past in a collection of sights, sounds, smells and experiences: from the wash-house in La Fichère to the dolmen and tumulus in the beautiful Boixe forest.

I’m amazed to read on an information sign that Boixe is part of a forest that used to cover 200km, from La Rochelle to the Périgord.of

This ancient forest (la Sylve d’Argenson) included those of Chizé, Aulnay, Boixe, Braconne, Horte and La Rochebeaucourt in a continuous stretch.

In 1974 the local villages and forestry organisiations teamed up to save this 130-hectare part of the forest from being bought by farmers and converted into more agricultural land. Thank goodness for team efforts to save woodland.

At Saint-Groux we read riverside signs and discover how one 12-km-long branch of the River Charente (called l’Etouyer) was used to irrigate the riverside pastures. Information signs are a great diversion from setting bum to saddle – and now we’ve stopped, we decide to picnic here.

Our shady picnic spot is ideal for hammocks, so we siesta beside the water and wave at the occasional canoe that passes by.

It’s more difficult to get going in the afternoon. The temperature has risen to above 30°C, and the headwind is strong on the open plains of sad sunflowers and shorn cornfields.

After an excellent coffee at Le Penalty bar in Mansle (which serves fish & chips on Friday evenings), we return to the riverside, following a track (and the sun) that appears to follow the water.

Unfortunately, the track ends at a tributary river. Dare we ford it on our bikes? Look, it’s quite wide, and despite throwing a few stones, we don’t know how deep it is. We hesitate. Last time I forded a river on a bike, I fell in (remember, Rity?).

We backtrack and skirt the river on the safety of a road. After all, there might be a field of angry bulls on the other side (my argument), or we might damage the bike wheels on the stones (his argument).

By the time we arrive at Saint-Denis, it’s already late. With all our meandering and our stops to read signs (and our siesta) we’re still miles from Verteuil. If we’d come with our trailer, we could have camped and continued. But our trailer is resting under its oak tree, probably drinking aperitifs with the campers.

Aperitifs?

We decide to head back southwards on the left bank of the river, through Mouton (meaning Sheep), which is a lovely name for a village. Then we cut through Puyceliers and Puyréaux and enter the shade of Boixe forest. Between Maine-de-Boixe and Vervant, a deer ambles across the road in front of us – we haven’t seen much wildlife so far.

We stop and buy a couple of cool beers (and dinner) in the Saint-Amant-de-Boixe mini-supermarket – it’s beer that counts, this week, not bees – and eventually return to Montignac.

We have added 60km to our trip counter, but we’re not much closer to the source. Is it time for a re-think?

***

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

Is that a Space Rocket?

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 4 of 7)

I’m so pleased with my idea of following the River Charente to its source. Upstream of Angoulême, the river turns northwards and meanders through tiny villages of tumbledown stone cottages.

Quiet, discreet and as calm as ever, our river no longer has a towpath. Instead, it plays hide-and-seek, appearing in the centre of villages, where it’s tended by the inhabitants, and then winding away into pastures or woodland.

Refreshed by our ice-creams at Saint-Yrieix lake, we pedal towards Montignac-Charente, quickly escaping the busy D737, which is as noisy as the aeroplane that shares the same number.

This is equine territory, and we pass stables and fly-maddened horses as we follow lanes across gentle hills and valleys.

At Balzac, we see the sign to a castle, but our legs are too tired to follow my desire to explore its literary heritage. (And I’m too tired to take photos).

We stop for a rest in Vindelle, where there’s a supervised bathing spot, canoe hire and a pétanque court. We regret not bringing our boules.

Actually, that’s a lie: they’re far too heavy to carry in the trailer. If we invested in an electric bike and trailer, however, we’d be able to bring them. Easily. Without any effort at all.

 

At Guissalle, the River Charente becomes even more mysterious, splitting into branches and delighting us with four hump-backed bridges.

Well, delighting me: my partner has a grim expression on his face as he accelerates before each hump, launching the trailer into jerky rebellion.

 

He cheers up when we arrive in Pétouret and see the silo that a genius has converted into a space rocket. At least, that’s what it looks like to our tired eyes.

I want to knock on the door and meet the person who had this idea. But it’s late, and the campsite is still a dozen kilometres away. The advantage of taking your holiday in your own region is that you can easily return.

“Do you think we should phone the campsite?” asks my partner, “and check they’re open?”

Of course they’re open: it’s August.

I stop and make a call anyway, only to hear a recorded message saying they’re closed.

I’m not going back to Karaoke-land*. We’ll carry on and camp wild if we have to. I have no idea where the next site is, and my secretary isn’t answering the phone. She and her sister are probably watering the garden or putting out the dustbins.

We start to notice green signs for cyclists. Each one is on a pretty stretch of road, and we suspect they follow a scenic route, though we’ve no idea of the destination. All we want, by now, is to arrive at Montignac.

We stop for provisions in Vars, where the baker tells me she’s sold all her bread, and that there are no shops in Montignac. However, she tells us, there’s a small supermarket outside Vars, so we’d better stock up there.

We cycle an extra few kilometres and buy practically the whole supermarket for dinner. It’s lucky there’s room in the trailer, though most of the provisions, including the heavy Charentais melon, end up on my bike carrier. I don’t want to tire out our trailer.

At last, with my counter reading 55km for the day, we arrive in the little market village of Montignac.

There’s a bakery, butcher, newsagent, bank, bar and restaurant here, all grouped around a marketplace square (or rather a triangle) and an 11th century castle. There are also lots of signs. (This, in itself, is a sign, as you’ll see in tomorrow’s blog post).

Either the Vars baker mistook my accent and thought I meant a different village, or we’ve fallen foul of inter-village rivalries.

I remember, now, that I’ve always been attracted to Montignac. I drive through it a couple of times a year on my way to reiki shares or writing meetings, but I’ve never stopped here. All I’ve ever noticed is its grand avenue of plane trees, whose majestic trunks I always admire.

Today, the plane trees lead directly to the municipal campsite.

Which is open.

It’s a flat, green field studded with mature oak trees. Sitting between two legs of the River Charente, it backs onto a field of maize. There’s no snack bar. No pool. Not much of anything other than tents and caravans. It looks ideal.

“We’re only open in the morning and evening,” explains the receptionist as we check in for one night – and I realise that the phone message referred to the office, not the whole campsite.

It’s small, friendly and quiet. We park the trailer under an old oak tree, where it looks happy. In fact, it looks as if it would like to stay there for more than one night.

Given the way my partner collapses onto the grass, I think he’d like the trailer to stay there forever.

We set up camp for the night and open the two cans of beer that our trailer has been nursing since our departure from Cognac. Despite my partner’s efforts to cool it in cold water, It’s warm (but I’m English, so that’s acceptable). We cook a huge meal of spaghetti bolognaise on the old Trangia from my Dartmoor Ten-Tors days and relax for the evening.

We’re in the far corner of the field. I can smell the freshness of the river, the showers are hot, and everyone says hello as we pass their tents. One camper invites us for a campsite aperitif he’s having in a couple of days’ time.

I think we may stay here awhile.

***

* I have no idea whether the campsite in Saint-Yrieix is how I imagine it to be. Maybe we missed out on a natural wonder. Maybe I’d better go back and check.

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

Camping Calamities

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 3 of 7)

We planned to leave home on our cycling trip in the early hours of this morning and reach a campsite near Angoulême by the evening. But we left late, and our resolve to cycle far into the night has dissolved in our glasses of beer.

We can’t camp at the Gabariers pub, but we remember there used to be a campsite in Sireuil, which is 5km away.

When my youngest daughter was a baby, we drove there and camped for a day. It was the kids’ first camping trip. During the night, our baby developed cystitis, which meant that every half hour we had to unzip the tent and take her to the toilet. Meanwhile, a huge storm raged around us. In the morning, we found several trees skewered across neighbouring pitches. We didn’t go camping again for several years.

We push aside our dark memories, opt for the road rather than the riverside track, and veer unsteadily into the gateway of the Nizour campsite.

Luckily, it’s still open. There are plenty of trees left, which means it’s shady. The ambiance is friendly and, since we completely forgot to buy food for dinner, we’re pleased to see we can eat a snack in the bar. The only downside is the discovery that the water in the showers is lukewarm.

It’s chilly beside the river – but we’re hardy cyclo-tourists now, and the cold won’t put us off. We pump up our mattresses, roll out our sleeping bags, say goodnight to our trailer – at least do: my partner seems a little less keen on it than he was this morning – and fall asleep.

Thanks to the trailer, we’re sleeping in comfortable camping equipment. But is it too comfortable? This morning we’re snug inside the darkness of our Fresh & Black tent, and it’s fun to discuss the day ahead.

Today will be true adventure, since we don’t know the river beyond Sireuil. We have all day to cycle, so we can cover at least a hundred kilometres.

We get up stiffly into the clear light of day and face reality: it’s eleven o’clock and we have nothing to eat except emergency rations of one dried sausage. Had we opted for my tiny tent and skinny mattresses, we’d have been up since dawn.

We cycle back to the bakery in Sireuil and buy crusty bread, chocolatines and pains aux raisins. With all this sport, there’s no need to watch the calories, is there? I add a warm croissant to my order.

The mini-supermarket is closed, but we’re sure we’ll find another before lunchtime. We continue on our way, talking about the merits of single-wheel trailers compared to double wheels.

To our surprise, we pass an electric bicycle company in the village. Our trailer discussion leaps into the realms of electric trailers, big enough to carry cushions for our saddles without causing the muscular aches we’re suffering from this morning. I don’t remember being saddlesore when I was 20. Maybe I should eat a few more croissants for extra cushioning.

Upstream of Jarnac, the towpath comes and goes, making the river harder to follow. While we study the map, a friendly fisherman stops to help. He directs us along the path between Sireuil and the Meure bridge, and tells us about the 88cm pike he caught here. Fishing is popular on the river, and we pass many clearings on its woody banks, ideal for sitting with a fishing rod and contemplating the water. Or, in our case, just contemplating the water.

We leave the Sireuil tanneries behind us, and head towards Angoulême on the wild right bank of the River Charente. The countryside has changed.

I’m starting to appreciate the value of change: wide tracks are easy to follow, but become monotonous and can be stony. Grassy tracks, though bumpy, are pretty. Roads make conversation between us more difficult, but they’re so much more comfortable on the body. By which I mean on my backside.

We’re making good headway until the riverside track stops and we take the lane to the village of Trois-Palis. I stop to admire the Romanesque church – but my partner has found something of more interest. I join him and we both enter the door to chocolate paradise. Chocolate is cultural too, right?

I knew that Chocolaterie Letuffe was near Angoulême, but I imagined a factory on an industrial estate, not this little stone building in a hamlet.

We dream and drool, and decide we need a sachet of chocolates. And to keep it cool we need a frozen-solid tub of chocolate ice-cream. We’re tempted to do a chocolate-making workshop, but it requires 6 people. We can’t avoid our bikes any longer. We cycle on a few kilometres to Fleurac, where we discover the ice-cream is soft enough to eat.

There’s a snack bar at the Fleurac lock, and I’m intrigued by a sign asking visitors keep their dogs on leads so as not to upset a goat called Belle, who grazes freely in the area. I search, but am disappointed not to find her. I also search for somewhere to buy food for a picnic, with the same result.

Fleurac is the starting point of ‘La Coulée Verte’, a cycle route that takes you through the outskirts of Angoulême.

We discover this familiar town from a different viewpoint, and are charmed.

But there are more people around, and the noisy roads make our journey less peaceful. We eat our emergency sausage with a squashed baguette, and then continue onwards.

 

At the end of ‘La Coulée Verte’ is the huge Saint-Yrieix lake, which is also a nautical base and tourist attraction. There’s a campsite here, but there are also crowds of holidaymakers. We want somewhere quiet, somewhere more authentic, somewhere without evening entertainment. But we don’t know of any other campsites. The situation requires an information search.

I phone my secretary.

“It’s lucky you called,” says my younger daughter, “because there’s a problem here. The water in the toilet won’t stop running.”

This only happens when we’ve got a houseful, which isn’t the case because my daughters are alone at home.

My partner takes the telephone and talks about taps and joints with my daughter. Then we get her to connect to the internet (we don’t have smartphones) and look for campsites near Saint-Yrieix.

There’s nothing until the village of Montignac-Charente, which is way upstream – at least 12km if we cycle in a direct line on a busy road (which will be hellish with a trailer). We’ve already done the same distance as yesterday – 30km – and are tired. Our fatigue must be due to sleeping too late this morning, because 100km should be well within our reach. Or perhaps we should have had a siesta in the hammocks we brought.

There’s no cycle path beyond the lake. Should we find a place to camp in the wild (which is illegal in France, though tolerated in national parks)? Or push on? Or stay here and risk being subjected to camping karaoke until the early hours?

I say goodbye to my daughter, who seems eager to return to cleaning the house. In the background I can hear someone playing the piano. My elder daughter must be learning a new piece, because I don’t recognise the tune.

We stop and eat an ice-cream while we discuss our options and watch people enjoying water sports on the lake.

There’s nothing like an ice-cream to help you make a decision.

***

 

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

 

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)

Bees or Bikes?

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 1 of 7)

It’s a calm, sunny afternoon in the Charente and I’m sick of sitting in front of a screen.

“Shall we go for a bike ride?” I ask my partner. A few years ago, I’d have targeted my kids with the suggestion, but these days they’re too busy. One’s rocking on her guitar / groove box and the other is sleeping after a nuit blanche (night without sleep) of partying.

My partner is busy watching wild bees in the garden, which is a fascinating hobby he has recently developed. He can’t see the point in cycling: he’s a former basketball player, and sport is about strategy and teamwork, not about ambling around country lanes. He declines, as usual.

It doesn’t matter. I straddle my bike and I’m off, unsure of where I’m going but ready to take any lane or track that looks inviting. Cycling is my favourite sport, and I can’t help singing when I’m in the saddle. You can see so much more when you cycle than when you walk, and the Charente lanes and tracks are ideal for my style of cycling.

As I cycle, I think about my summer holiday idea. I’ve been toying with it since the moment the kids became responsible teenagers – meaning they can work the washing machine, cook and drive. But the kids aren’t the problem. To bring my idea to fruition, I’ve got to make cycling seem as fascinating as bee-watching.

I pedal, plot and plan.

A few years ago Many years ago, when I was in my early 20s, I cycled across France. My friend Will and I started from my home in Dorset, we ‘cycled’ all the way across The Channel on a ferry to Cherbourg, and then pedalled down to Béziers for a grape harvest.

It was the best of holidays: not because it was exotic, but because we were free.

Will and I had just come back from Chile, where we’d taken part in a Raleigh expedition and then hitch-hiked 5000km from the glaciers in the south of the country to the Atacama desert in the north. Hitching was fun, but sometimes we’d have to wait hours (five hours was the record) for a car or lorry to pass. We were dependent on other people.

Travelling on a bike, with minimal gear, was much more liberating. We could go where we wanted and explore whatever took our fancy. Many things did take our fancy – but that’s another story.

Ever since that trip, I’ve hankered after an itinerant cycling holiday.

When our kids were 5 and 8 years old, I managed to inspire them with a camping expedition along the River Charente. Later, when the younger one was old enough to ride a normal-sized bike, we went on a similar trip: from Cognac to the Guinness-serving Les Gabariers pub in Saint-Simeux. The best part of that ride was the Guinness being able to stop every ten kilometres to jump off trees into the river (my daughter) and bathe in its cooling waters (me).

I think about all this as I cycle around my favourite 20km circuit. I wonder how to persuade my partner that this summer is the perfect time to leave the bees to their business and cycle into the sunset together.

And that’s when I see the couple with their bike trailer.

One of the reasons my partner isn’t interested in a cycle trip is that, when camping, he likes the comfort of his inflatable mattress. He’s in love with his canvas tipi tent, and (with reason, I suppose) can’t understand my adoration for my tiny tent and skinny mats; I’m not sure he realises the potential freedom they represent.

If we bought / borrowed / stole a trailer, we could take his tipi. I eye the trailer as it passes, and consider following to see how it copes with the bumps and hills. I’d probably be taken for a stalker. I watch the couple cycle into the sunset and then I pedal home and tell my partner my idea.

He kisses his bees goodnight.

He comes indoors and surfs on the internet. Within hours, he’s a theoretical expert on bike trailers.

I rave about cycling in Iceland, Africa, New Zealand. Is he listening?

A few weeks later, on a sunny afternoon when I’m sick of staring at my screen, he agrees to come on a short bike ride with me. The kids have been using his bike for years, and it takes an hour to mend a wheel, fix the saddle, pump up the tyres and oil the chain.

I modify my favourite route to take in a short stop at a friend’s house: our friend invites us in for a beer, and then, a little further on, we stop at another friend’s house, who also invites us in for a beer. I think my partner is enjoying this cycling lark. And, as it happens, one friend has an old child-trailer he can give us.

That evening, we realise we have a five-day window during our holidays. There’s no time for planning or training, but it doesn’t matter because we’re not going far.

Before attacking Iceland, Africa & New Zealand, we decide to explore locally. We’re going to discover the birthplace of our very own River Charente, the river that flows through our village. Our aim is to see newly born water surge out of the ground in virgin purity, ready for its journey along the Charente riverbed to the Atlantic Ocean.

Isn’t that a great objective for a cycling trip?

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