(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.
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.
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.
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.
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)