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Dans la Forêt

A usual road from the port following the Arques valley to the first town inland where we turn over a small stone bridge and start up a narrow lane towards the forest. A pink hue floods the sky as the sun breaches the horizon hidden beyond the hill we’re climbing. A hare jumps from the verge, races away along the road and disappears into the fields opposite from where it appeared. At the hairpin we leave the road and pass by small red and white bars painted on a tree trunk indicating the trail is part of a long distance Grande Randonnée route. Bumping over roots, tyres scrabble for grip on the damp single track, steep little ramps around tree trucks. Suspended in the air the smell of wild garlic but we can’t see any. Joining a gravel fire road we zip along a straight line between trees before a sharp switchbacked doubletrack descent spits us out onto a road, straight over and loop back up around the other side, back across the same road and zigzag along more fire roads. Two deer bounce across the track ahead of us.

A fast double track descent from the forest suddenly funnels into a tunnel of trees. Duck under a branch, dab the brakes. A lake flickering between the trees out of the corner of my eye. The trees thin and I realise it’s a silver white field, dry chalky earth speckled with flint glowing in the early light. Drop down a bank onto a farm track and transported to Tuscany for a moment: White gravel road, row of cyprus trees, farmhouse in the foreground, low hills behind. Across a railway bridge to a steep grassy holloway, tyres slipping on wet grass and rutted chalk. Through a wheat field and turn right by the cows. Another holloway, this time downwards and leaf strewn. A bit of confusion and turning back and forth trying to match the paths or rather the lack of a path with the map. Shoulder the bikes up a high steep bank and find what we’re looking for. The narrow track snakes through woodland, pine needles litter the ground.

An isolated house stands sentry beside a disused railway line, across the tracks the tarmac disintegrates into gravel and in turn to mud. Rain has started to fall and despite knowing we’re ultimately heading to where we can see blue sky our convoluted squiggle of a route keeps turning back into the rain and the wind. Turn right at a junction rather than straight across, we’ll do this side of a square rather than the other three just to end up at the same place. Hopefully a bit less time spent under damp clouds. Rumble over tractor tyre tracks in the mud between fields. Wet brakes squeal on a swooping tarmac descent to Sept-Meules, a placename I’ve seen on signposts for ten years but never actually been through. A not so inbetween place between the inbetween places I tend to ride. Nice looking church. Rolling along the road we exit from under the rain and fork onto a grass track beside a field of barley and poppies that slowly rises and morphs into a rooty flinty climb between brambles. A couple of field edges lead us towards a church spire and an open patisserie.

A rut hidden under an overgrown grasstrack to road into another forest. Struggle to find the path in the woodland, obscured by vibrant verdant undergrowth. Swim through pools of light between trees. Slip slide through boggy ground and sludge in and out of stagnant puddles on a straight line carved through the middle of the forest. Must remember this section can be dropped from any future routes. More tyre tracks in the moist earth, a sign that others ride here but we still haven’t seen anyone in five hours. A family of wild boar trot across our path.

Eat tartiflette from a market stall sitting on the steps on the square in front of l’Eglise Notre-Dame de la Délivrance I can hear a brass band around the corner and hymns coming from the church, like having radios tuned to different stations in two different rooms. On our way to Amiens one Armastice Day morning a few years ago we stopped in Blangy-sur-Bresle before sunrise for a coffee whilst a market was being set up. The warming hunger inducing smell of cassoulet hit us as we left the cafe. Looking around the corner I spied a huge vat of stew being cooked up ready for market. That morning I swore I would one day arrange a day trip where we’d hit here at lunchtime. Today, finally, I made good on that promise. The options are tartiflette, paella, cassoulet, or lamb stew with cous cous. In all honesty it is a bit of a disappointment as it is no longer warm, it’s made to be taken home to heat up, not eat out of a plastic take-away tub with a spork there and then. Next time I’ll buy a small baguette from the bakery across the square and join the long queue at the rotisserie van. Or aim for ten in the morning and have still warm tartiflette for brunch.

Returning to the forest we climb steadily through birdsong and dappled sunlight. A section of a favourite road over the top of the ridge but rather than the usual snaking descent that brings a smile to the face swerve left into a narrow gap between the trees. The GR plummets down the side of the hill, we slalom lumps of flint and chunks of fallen branches. A view of the wide valley opens ahead as the path widens into a chalky double track. Sharp right turn at the farm and along the valley floor. Waist high grass and wheat whips shins.

I’ve never seen the bar open in Grandcourt in ten years! I add it to the mental map for future rides. A different way out of the village for a change simply to find the other end of a farm track I’ve passed up at Fresnoy-Folney many times. Wind turbines stand beacon like up on the plateau, their rotors spinning quickly – we form a two man echelon on the roads back towards Dieppe. The longest stretch of tarmac all day, through places familiar enough for autopilot switch to flicked to ‘On’. Across the big road and in my head tick off the cliff top villages and last few kilometres.

One last bit of edgelands… dart behind the back garden gates for a gravel track between the houses and cliff edge. In a dip in the land our ferry home appears cruising into port. The path narrows to what might be a footpath but a walker we pass doesn’t grumble. Steps and a barrier, yep this is probably a footpath. The ferry within the harbour walls directly ahead. A Canadian war memorial, one of many along this stretch of coast, in the narrow gap between the cliffs. One final climb of the day to get us over the cliffs into Dieppe.

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