A Tiny Tour: From Crewe to France and Belgium, Day One
Outward Journey Tickets
Back in June this year, Mrs. Monkey had an idea. She thought that, as her Mum was willing to look after the monklets for a week or so, we could do a little holiday on our own. Knowing my enthusiasm for cycling, and having started to ride a bit herself, her suggestion was a small tour of France, or Belgium. Ferry tickets for us plus the bikes were cheap, and the train to Dover and our accomodation/meals would probably be the greatest outlay.
It cemented the idea I'd had for building a slightly more versatile bike than my (wonderful, but racy) Giant SCR2.0, and led to my building up a tourer/commuter on a Surly Long Haul Trucker frame.
"The Sarge" Sans Luggage and Bottle Cages/Pump
I also began to ask around on Cycle-Chat for ideas for a short (5 days, 30-40 miles per day) tour in northern France or Belgium. Eventually, we settled on an itinerary of;
Day One: Crewe - Veurne Day Two: Veurne - Brugge Day Three: Brugge - Ieper Day Four: Ieper - Hondschoote Day Five: Hondschoote - Crewe
Day One Expanding on the potted version above, this day consisted of a ride from home to Crewe Station (about 2 miles), a train journey to London Euston, a bike journey across London to Victoria station (you can't take bikes on that part of the tube), a train from Victoria to Dover Priory, and then another short bike ride to Dover Ferry port. From there, we'd travel to Dunkirk by ferry, and then by bike to Veurne.
The journey to Crewe isn't so different to the one I do every day (as I catch the train part way to work from the station anyway). We'd readied everything the night before, and so at 6am we set off for Crewe. We arrived in plenty of time to fix the cycle reservation tickets to the bikes, and ask the platform staff where they needed us to be when the train came in (the Pendolinos are L O N G trains, and the bike bit is always at the end you aren't, it seems, if you don't ask).
Once the train came in, the platform staff unlocked the door to the compartment for the bikes, and we stowed them away, securing them with the seatbelt type straps provided. The bike storage area is also used by the train's cleaning crew, although with this being one of the early trains, it wasn't too cluttered on our journey. The journey to London Euston was pleasant and uneventful - we let the train manager know that we had bikes aboard (so she could arrange for the storage compartment to be unlocked at Euston) and enjoyed a few STRONG coffees.
We'd printed a route from Transport for London's journey planner for the ride to Victoria, although coming out of the station on to Euston road was pretty disorientating, and we lost our bearings and a fair bit of time trying to figure out where we were in relation to the route again. Shouted requests for directions, and some quick riding got us to Victoria with 5 minutes to spare before the Dover train left - fumbling for the tickets at the ticket barrier before we got onto the platform (I made sure to keep them in the front pocket of my handlebar bag for the journey back). Although it was all a bit frantic, cycling through London was a great experience - loads of other bikes around, and drivers for the most part aware of them and considerate (on this journey at least - I'll mention a bit more regarding cabbies in Day 5's write up).
We stowed the bikes as best we could on the Dover train - these trains are a slightly odd design, with room to stow one bike straight along one side, and one or two diagonally across one side of the carriage without blocking the aisle. The Northern Rail coaches I use day to day seem to me a better design, but in common with most of Northern Rail's staff, the staff on the Dover train were friendly and helpful. We'd not been on the train long when we discovered, from an announcement over the train's PA that the carriages would split at Faversham - unfortunately for us, we had ended up in the part heading for Ramsgate, not Dover. The conductor on the train told us not to worry, and simply to change carriages at Faversham (he had to himself, as he was staffing the Dover journey too).
Once at Dover, we cycled the short distance to the port and checked in. On the ferry, we stowed the bikes on two of about five "Sheffield" type stands towards the end of the boat's lorry deck. One of the crew helped us secure them with ropes on the stands. With hindsight, I wished we'd locked the bikes too, as I spent most of the journey to Dunkirk worrying about them being stuck in a van and spirited off (Mrs. Monkey is a trusting soul, and thought I was just being silly).
On docking at Dunkirk (and finding the bikes still where we'd left them) we had the unpleasant surprise of finding that our map didn't include the ferry port, starting at Saint Pol Sur Mer, rather than Loon Plage and the car ferry. We'd not realised this, as the map did have a harbour on it, just not the harbour we'd arrived at! After a quick discussion, we decided to go left at the roundabout at the end of the ferry port's exit road, and strike out straight on until we could pick up the map again. This stretch of road is probably the worst part of the whole of the tour on the French side of the channel. The drivers are far more considerate than we found them to be in Dover, and much less impatient, but there's little escaping the fact that you're effectively riding on a fast dual carriageway with little more than industrial units and scrubland around you.
We were able to get directions in Grande Synthe, from a very nice lady who came over to help when she saw us poring over our map. At this point, we weren't too far from the start of the map so picked up a route once more heading for the town of Dunkirk, going via Petite Synthe.
I have to admit to not knowing quite how far we followed the N1 for - Mrs Monkey spotted a sign for Veurne, and took the turning, not realising that it was a sign for Veurne via the autoroute, which, obviously, we could not follow by bike. (Looking at the map, I think it was either the "Route Du Pont", or the D302(?) heading towards Melhoeck and Ghyvelde).
Mrs. Monkey Strikes out for Melhoeck's Centre Ville
We picked up the Rue De La Frontierre, and decided on a more direct route through Cabour than following Mearestraat. This followed a road called "Cabourweg", which, unfortunately, turned out to be covered in a fine, silt like sand. Riding through this tended to either have the wheels of the bike slip alarmingly, or bog down as they sank spoke deep into the soft surface - we walked the bikes much of the way until we could rejoin a paved road. After our turn off the N1, however, we'd begun to see more of what we'd come on this tour for - woods and countryside, and small, picturesque towns.
Me at the outskirts of Veurne
After around three hours of riding, we reached our destination, the town of Veurne. The town has a circular road running around it enclosing the centre and the Grote Markt. Riding in on this, we stopped to look at the town map placed on one side of the road in order to find our way to the B&B we were due to stay in. Having done that, and looked up from the town plan, I saw the sign for the hotel (Chez Gaston) just 50 metres or so ahead of us, a welcome sight indeed after our long journey!
Chez Gaston is, I would say, well situated - I like places that are easy to find after a day that started at 6am! Joking apart, it's close to the Grote Markt, and the beginning of the Veurne - Brugge canal, which is a great way to cycle to Brugge. Bike storage is outside, in the owner's locked and enclosed garden. The room we had was large, with a shared bathroom (although no one was staying in the other room sharing it when we were there) and we found the owner friendly and helpful without being imposing. That night we ate a hearty meal at the Taverne Flandria (pasta all round) on the Grote Markt, and looked forward to the following day's trip to Brugge.