I can see the sea from the front door so heading south on the bike is not possible. I can choose any combination of east, west, north, but nothing to the south, that way is very wet and out of bounds. Or that would be the case if there wasn’t a ferry port a little way along the coast. A few times a year I go and ride in the south. The north of France.
Dieppe has been the starting point for long rides to elsewhere, a handful have been two or three day loops, but mostly it’s been daytripping. The timings of the ferries mean I can get an overnight ferry to Dieppe in Normandy and return to Newhaven the following evening. Even with the ride to and from home it means being away for just 24 hours. In that time you can go for a long ride (or a shorter ride with a lot of cafe stops) and still fit in a late lunch of three courses and half a bottle of wine in Dieppe before trundling back onto the ferry for a long snooze home. I’ve even managed to easily squeeze in a long ride, a swim, lunch, and a sleep on the beach before catching the ferry. However there was one time when it was quite headwindy and there was barely time to grab some bread and cheese before sprinting to the dock.
I sometimes drag friends with me but mostly I’ve slunk off on my own as it’s a last minute decision to go. Usually you can book a crossing with a bike fairly late so you can monitor the weather forecast up until a day or two before heading across the channel. If I’m feeling extravagant I’ll book a cabin but most times I’ve slept in a not-quite-comfortable-enough chair or on the floor. It’s not fully overnight as the crossing is relatively short and you get kicked off the boat in the early, early hours of morning. At least the first couple of hours are ridden in dark silence and a good chunk of kilometres can be knocked off before coffee or breakfast can be found. That is unless you brave the vending machine coffee in the small port building after passport control. I recommend waiting until a cafe can be found open. One of the great things about France is that a lot of villages and almost every town will have a bakery and a cafe bar that will be open from 6.30 or 7am, even on Sundays. Don’t hold me to that but I’ve always managed to find an often spectacularly good patisserie and a bar open that early.
Before riding in Normandy and Picardie I’d only ever passed through northern France on motorways and assumed it was flat and just a bit dull, all the good stuff started about half way down the country when the big hills and mountains started to rise up. Now I’ve realised that I was completely wrong. Away from the autoroutes, on the small roads and narrow lanes the subtle beauty of the north of France becomes apparent. A description I once found online was that upper Normandy was a “vast area of quiet landscape and dimly undulating plateaus”. That’s pretty much spot on.
The land feels the same but subtly different to home. Tall chalk cliffs rise from the sea, a mirror image of the white cliffs where the South Downs meet the sea. The names of the ferries that back and forth are named after these coastlines, Côte d’Albâtre and The Seven Sisters. These cliffs are the edge of a large chalk plateau that extends far inland. Unlike Sussex where you climb the Downs and drop back down the other side in Normandy once you climb up onto the plateau you stay up on it. There are many shallow river valleys cutting through the plateau adding to the gentle undulation. However you can find plenty of short sharp climbs if you stick to the coast, the roads over the cliffs dip in and out of many fishing villages and small harbours where those rivers meet the sea. The chalk is from the Upper Cretaceous period, the same stuff that forms the English South and North Downs. Being across the sea it would be nice to think it was part of the same lump of rock but the south east English Downs are part of the Weald-Artois Anticline which runs under the French landscape further up the coast in Picardie and Artois. The name here is Pays de Caux which on first hearing I thought meant Land of Chalk. The word Caux is similar to an old Norman word for chalk, chaux (which in some English-French dictionaries translates to lime, linking back to limestone, or chalk). However this train of thought is all two plus two equals five. Caux is derived from an old Gaulish word for the Celtic or Belgic tribe, the Caletes, that lived in this part of France in the iron age. There is also a small area called Pays de Bray within the Pays de Caux, the Bray part coming from Gaulish for mud. It’s the same stuff as the Weald in Sussex. In my head Normandy is the “lands of chalk and mud”, an extension of the land I ride through in Sussex. It may not be entirely etymologically or geologically correct but it has more poetry.
There’s a feeling of space, emptiness almost. Keep away from the few main roads and narrow lanes crisscross large fields and small forests. The horizons are wide and the sky large here. There are few hedgerows so if there’s a wind there’s nowhere to hide. Wind turbines are scattered widely across the landscape, a constant reminder that at some point in the ride there’s a chance of getting battered by a headwind. The silence and emptiness also reminds that this place has a sombre recent history. Every village seems to have a prominent war memorial. If you stop to read the names you realise the loss of life in this area was high in both world wars, the Western Front not far to the east and the landing beaches along the coast. The first day long ride I did here was based on the route of the Tour des Trois Vallees, an annual event that has been running for over 40 years to commemorate the Dieppe Raid in 1942. This connects back to home with preparation for the raid having taken place in Hidden Valley.
There are the green and yellow fields of wheat and rape recognisable from home but also potatoes and sugar beet. In autumn you often see piles of root vegetables by the side of the road on the edges of muddy fields. The smell of earth is strong. Flax, destined to become linen, was something new to me. I once got so mesmerised by the translucent green shimmer of a huge field of the stuff, that I stopped just to watch. As my eyes adjusted to the scene I became aware of hundreds of white butterflies skipping about the breeze above the crop. That reminds me there’s so little light pollution here on clear mornings thousands of stars fill the darkness above. I’ve seen hares and owls early in the mornings just before sunrise. Voles and mice have scurried along the verge next to me, deer have watched me from fields. The sound of larks in the sky above me transport me back to the Sussex downs. There are no sheep though, it’s cows and dairy farming here.
It’s a fantastic place to ride, quiet roads, beautiful landscape, great food, good coffee. Compared to the south east of England it is so very relaxing, traffic is nothing like as busy as England, in fact you can go hours without seeing a car, and drivers treat cyclists with respect. I’ve never had a close pass or someone pull out on me or try to run me off the road in France. I’ve not ridden there enough yet to be able to ride without a map but it’s getting close. There’s no scale map with full legend in my head but there are constellations of towns and villages that I can find my way between, a sketch of a map with bars and bakeries marked on it. I’m learning which towns have a market on a Sunday. I always carry a musette for cheese. There are favourite roads; the D100, the D149 between Fresnoy-Folny and the Foret d’Eu, that bit of the D211 through the avenue of trees, and all those lanes that softly squiggle up the sides of the valleys, and regular bars, the one in Londinieres springs to mind immediately.
…thinking about it I probably could manage without a map.