Iím lucky enough to have some friends resident down on the South Coast of Spain. Whilst the usual mode of travel these days is to fly there, for quite a while I had an ambition to take the overland option, preferably by motorbike.
Eventually I decided it was time to make it happen, so dates were set and arrangements made. My brother very kindly lent me his BMW R80ST, a faithful and most reliable bike that has previously got me down to the South of France and back without complaint.
Anyone who has done one of these trips will know the mixed feelings of excitement, anticipation and trepidation that precede the leaving day. I always try to channel this nervous energy into sound preparations, and so a flurry of planning and list making was followed by trips to WH Smiths for maps and guides and the friendly local outdoors shop White and Bishop for camping gear, stove and mess tins. Another excursion was to the local Hein Gericke dealer for a nice new one-piece rain suit and a thermal base layer garment.
Come the day I fetched up at my brothers place with rather too much to do, - oils needed changing in the engine, rear bevel drive and shaft drive assemblies. Fun was had with a stripped filler bolt on the shaft drive and it was noticed that the gearbox drain plug was only finger tight, - a close shave that one!
After covering all the bike related points we could imagine there followed the first fit up of luggage. In addition to tank bag and standard BMW hard panniers we strapped a rucksack carrying most of the camping gear onto the pillion seat and covered that with a waterproof cover. In the end it all worked out neat and secure, but it was a real struggle to actually mount the bike. Once seated it was a snug fit for me between tank bag in front and rucksack behind, - although it did make a comfy sort of backrest.
Far too late I get underway for the Channel Tunnel. Iím rather a fan of the Chunnel though, - reason number one is the ability to turn up later or earlier than planned and the automatic system usually just puts you on the next available train. Number two is the lack of paperwork Ė just put your credit card in the machine, it prints a ticket, you take it and off you go. Number three is bikers are usually put together on the train. So it is today Ė my four fellow bikers are from Belgium and have been on an expedition to the New Forest. They have been lucky Ė the weather held Ė and have thoroughly enjoyed themselves. My old Beemer looks shabby next to itís neighbour Ė a Transalp, and I can hardly bear to look at the spanking new R1200GS next door.
Getting in a bit of French practice with the lads, the time flies and we are soon about to disembark, only now do I notice the train is practically empty, us and maybe ten cars, thatís all.
Checking that all is zipped up I head off out the train and wave the boys goodbye, heading off in the direction of the grand A26 motorway, arterial mainline to Arras, St Quentin, Reims and more.
Itís always nice to get on French roads. Itís not just a holiday kind of feeling, although that plays a part, itís also the relative lack of traffic and the usually superb road surfaces. So it proves this evening and so I start to chew up the miles to my evening destination Ė a small B and B somewhere between Amiens and Bapaume.
A quick word now about Michelin maps. I had an old one that seemed to cover most of France. Imagine my joy when on the shelves at Smiths I see it split into two maps Ė one of the North of France and one of the South. ĎExtra detail!í I think to myself and buy with glee. Later on at home I find they are the same scale but only single side prints. What a con. I did pack my ten year old ring bound large scale Michelin and this proves to be a life saver. Without it I would have struggled to find any of the accommodation I use over the next three nights in France.
I guess some would say GPS is the way to go, but I guess Iím just a luddite. Maybe I would use it in a large desert or serious offroad situation, in such a scenario it might prove a lifesaver, but in France? Give over.
Anyway a fuel stop is in order. All simple enough but I struggle to get my leg over, so to speak and nearly drop the bike. This is going to take some getting used to.
As is so often the case, by the time Iím near to my destination for the night the light is beginning to fade and Iím reacquainting myself with the reality of navigating by too large a scale map. I end up getting out the ring bound Michelin and naughtily I sandwich it between body and tank bag, its pages flapping in the wind, and occasionally sneak rather long peeks at it as I trundle the lanes amongst this rather bleak, featureless and somewhat misty landscape.
Eventually I arrive at a rather rustic clap boarded wooden framed building and park up the bike. Iíve got the right place allright, but too late for dinner. There is a large open barn where Iím welcome to park the bike, as rain is expected. Good Ė minimal unpacking of the bike!
Itís a weird scene indoors. The landlady Avril and her two guests Dave and John are at the dinner table discussing in excruciating detail the relative merits of the British, French and German hand grenade. You see Iíve literally stumbled into the trenches. The property stand on the actual location of the British frontline during the battle of the Somme. Behind is the British stronghold of Achonvillers and in front the German fortifications that centred on Beaumont Hamel.
Two hours later Iím an expert in WWI hostilities too. Or so it feels. Whilst Avril has supplied me with beans on toast, wine, cheese and crackers the talk has been of little else and itís all pretty enthralling and at times depressing and moving too.
To give just one example the details and extent of underground, mine warfare is all completely new to me;
During the conversation Dave says to me, ďOf course you know about Hawthorn Ridge donít you?Ē. Iím told of the ridge just opposite where the germans were dug in. At the start of the Somme hostilities British miners tunnelled for more than 200 metres, placed 20 tons of Ammonal (similar to TNT) under their enemies and blew them sky high. Not all of them though, - the Brits then rushed forward to attack, only to be decimated by withering fire from two perfectly operational machine gun positions.
The utter inhumanity and utter futility of it all becomes all too apparent after a while. We agree that mankind should really learn some lessons from this. What are the chances though?
Another thought is personal. I sit here getting on famously with three people Iíve never met, Iíve learnt a whole load of stuff that I would never have otherwise paid any attention to. This is just another great aspect of going out to meet the world and the best way of learning I can think of Ė just get out there and see whatís about Ė and maybe history will be brought alive in front of your eyes.
Another thought was more personal still. My maternal grandfather nearly lost his life on the Somme, he laid on the battlefield for three days close to death with shrapnel embedded in his skull. Had he not been rescued by the Red Cross I would not be here today. 93 years ago he could have been lying out there in what is now the farmyard.
Anyway itís time for bed. Iím told not to worry about the ghosts of the twelve british gunners as they usually only appear to women, not men. No problem, after a long day Iím out like a light.
Posted by Rob Hodder at April 18, 2009 11:35 PM GMT
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