(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.
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)