Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

The plan for the weekend was to attend the interesting sounding GeoNord 2016 – Retour aux Sources mega event in Valenciennes. Why ? Because it was there, and because I owed Izzy a trip after taking Ami to the Project MUNICH2014 – Mia san Giga! event in 2014 (see Munich 2014). And in honour of the Beds, Bucks & Herts Borders events, Alibags made me do it.

The trip began on Friday afternoon for me when I had to go up to Central Milton Keynes to finish off a long course of dentistry. Not studying dentistry, just visiting. In this case the nice lady dentist needed to grind off a few rough edges and bits of sticky bond stuff after she’d stuck a crown onto one of my back teeth two weeks earlier. Anyway, I digress.

After the dentist I decided to go and get the car spruced up for the weekend too. I couldn’t possibly drive halfway across Europe with a car full of muck that stuck to it in the Lake District. So I visited my favourite car washing location, and at 1pm on a Friday afternoon it was very quiet.

Back home to finish off packing bags and then away to Stantonbury to fetch Carolynn. Oh yes, did I mention Carolynn and Alibags were coming too ? And then it was time to get Izzy from school and get her home to get changed quickly.

QE2_Bridge.jpgBy the time we were ready to rock, Kas said that if we could wait another five minutes then she and Ami would be ready and could they cadge a lift down the station please for their weekend away down that there London. Oh go on then. MK Station was as fun packed as it ever is, but we managed to get out and off down the M1 by about 4:15 and made surprisingly good progress down to Hemel Hempstead, where we were stopping to pick up Alibags. She was there, which was a good. She might have been somewhere else.

Having got the car up to its full headcount for the weekend it was time to brave the Friday night festivities on the M25. The M25 is always a joy to drive on. It’s very safe, normally, due to the total absence of speed while driving on it. I’d left what I thought would be a sensible amount of time between collecting Alibags and needing to be at the Channel Tunnel – 4 hours or so. It sounds a lot, but trust me, I’ve had Friday nights round there where 4 hours is a bit tight for getting from Hemel Hempstead to Folkestone.

Bizarrely though, it didn’t take 4 hours. It barely took 2. We’d planned to have tea at Maidstone Services if time allowed, but we got around the M25, over the bridge and down the M20 before you could say “Gordon Bennett”, and as we were cruising down the M20 we had a brief discussion about changing our plans. We plumped for having a go at trying to get an earlier train. We were so far ahead of time it seemed wasteful not to try, especially given that our planned transit was going to mean it would be 1am in Valenciennes by the time we got there. Earlier would be better. So we pootled down to the tunnel terminal and were greeted once again by a total absence of traffic. We were on site about 2 hours before our scheduled train, and we were offered trains pretty much every 20 minutes between then and now. We plumped for the 8:30 ish, which was an hour ahead of plan, and left us an hour to grab tea at the terminal. Izzy fancied Burger King. I was happy with that, especially now they do milkshakes. You used to have to go to McDonald’s to get milkshakes. And the chips are far superior to McDonald’s fries.

By the time we’d done it was time to turn our bikes around, as it were, and then get into the car to head for our train. That proved to be a painful bit. It took ages to get through the car park as a result of someone deciding to do passport checks. They didn’t bother last time I was there, I’m sure. We would have missed our train, except that once you’re through the passport control they can’t exactly deny you a crossing.

Valenciennes_01.jpgSo we trundled onto a train somewhat later than posted and picked our way up onto the top deck, where we parked up behind Les Rozzers Fran├žais. Schtum, schtum! One presumes they had been over in Blighty for the day sitting in a little hut gawping at people’s badly taken passport photos. During the crossing Alibags kept us entertained a bit with a few tunes on the ukelele

Once we made it over into France we found a series of very empty autoroutes to take us down to Valenciennes, specifically the A16, A25 and A23, and we seemed to scoot around Lille and down to our destination in less than 2 hours, including the unscheduled trip towards Paris down the A2, which involved pulling into the Aire de la Sentinelle service station to figure out where we were. Getting out of there was delayed by the strange sight of a lorry reversing into a parking space and being directled by a rather portly middle aged gentleman dressed in nothing more than clogs and budgie smugglers.

Evidently we’re not in Kansas any more.

We got to the hotel (the Ibis Valenciennes)just before midnight and as promised, the reception was both open and manned. The man in question checked us in and then kindly grabbed Izzy a cup of cold apple juice, seeing as we’d arrived without any drinks. The bedrooms were tidy and spacious (well, our was. I don’t know about the one Alibags and Carolynn had), and Izzy and me were doing our best impression of logs a few minutes after getting into the room. We need some zzzzzzzz’s, because Saturday was going to be busy with a capital “bus”.

The Geonord “Retour aux Sources” Event

On Saturday morning we’d arranged to meet the ladies in the breakfast room at 9am, but me and Izzy were both wide awake at 8, so we got dressed and headed downstairs to get started on the goodies. We hadn’t pre-booked breakfast, so I payed at the desk on the way in, but I got the impression we could easily have got away without paying, as no one was checking, especially not when it was so busy. It was heaving. I made Izzy go and occupy a table as soon as I saw one, while I went for drinks. Luckily, while I was farting about with the coffee machine a four berth table came free in a prime spot, and I got Izzy to dash over and baggsie it. Sorted. Breakfast was a fairly decent affair, with lots of different types of bread, fruit, cereals, meat, cheeses, and a rather natty egg boiler. It took me two attempts to cook one properly, but it had to be tried. It took me a while to figure out what to do with the coffee machine too, and my first one came out so strong you could have stood the spoon up in it. Ahhhh !

The geocaching event site was about 20 minutes away on the other side of the town, so we had a leisurely drive up there and got on site for about 10:30. We were directed into the car park by a very nice chap, which was just as well, because it involved a tight piece of cornering between two lines of massive boulders with red-and-white stripey posts between them.

16-07-16 Valenciennes.PNGThe event site was busy, so we mooched about for a while until we got our bearings. We signed the log, which was a wooden board shaped (and painted) like a tree, and also signed a couple of wooden discs that were for dropping into a contraption rather like a big Connect Four board. We found the check-in desk and picked up our geocoins and our entry packs. The pack included a lanyard with a big letter on it. There was a game whereby you had to find enough people with different letters to spell out the word “Geonord”, but this proved tricky because no one seemed to have a “G”. We also went up to the “techie tent” and got them to download a GPX file of all the event caches onto mine and Alibags’ GPSes. And we retired for a drink, because it was quite warm.

After this we decided we need a bit of a walk and a few caches. We started with the traditional Mega Event game of doing lab caches. At this event they were actually rather good – a series of little field puzzles on a watery theme, which had to be completed to get hold of the keywords needed for logging. They were spread around the event site and the nearby lake. Excellent. There was the “dangly boats” one, the “squirty water pistols” one, the “complex pipework” one, and seven others. Shame you can’t give favourite points to them.

While we were walking around we found out that they’d also put two traditional caches out in the lake and had given them a terrain 5 rating, because of the need to boat (or wade) to get them. Cool. So when we got to the relevant bit we decided we’d grab a pedalo and go fetch them. What we’d overlooked was that we couldn’t hire a pedalo that day, because we needed to have bought the “upgrade” 8 Euro supporters pack, which came with tickets for the pedalos. D’oh ! So we walked around back to the event site and bought a couple of upgrade packs and went back. The pedalo action was a bit of a laugh, especially trying to figure our how to move the seats, and how to make it go when Alibags and me were both sitting in the back (it wouldn’t). It kept us occupied for a while and Alibags cunning steered us underneath the squirty fountain on the way home, thereby helping to cool us down a bit. Did I mention it was hot ?

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Meanwhile, back at the plot, we sat down for a bit of lunch (and more drinks) and Alibags entertained us for a while with some ukelele action while we decided what to do. I’m not sure there was much deciding involved. We were obviously going to go and do the series of caches placed to the east of the event site. Being British, and superstitious, we walked around them in a clockwise direction, which was going the opposite direction to everyone else. I suppose that meant we didn’t get caught in a mass hike, and a lot of the time we were actually finding the caches on our own. Rare for a mega event day. All were easy to find, but all were field puzzles, and I think I gave a favourite point to every one. They were excellent.

Whilst on the walk we did an Earthcache up the top of a slag heap. It doesn’t sound that impressive, but the view at the top was good. Anyway, the trip here means I can tick another off the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, because the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin is one.

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Slightly further round from the Earthcache there was another terrain 5 cache. In this case, it involved climbing up an old headframe with some ropes. Now, climbing up ropes is something I’d always meant to try but never quite got around to. But it was on the walk, and we were there, and some blokes had got all the equipment set up so you could try it out, so I couldn’t really say no. Izzy had a little pop at it first but couldn’t get her head around how to lift the hand grip upwards. She gave up after about 4 attempts. Ho hum ! It wasn’t easy to figure out. It took me several attempts too, but I did get there eventually, and then I proceeded to get myself absolutely knackered trying to scale all of 5 metres or so off the floor. Blimey, it’s tiring. I got there though, and somehow I managed to grab and sign a logbook while I was up there, without once swearing or dropping my pen.

Three terrain 5’s in one day. Excellent.

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Also somewhere on this walk (near the end) there was a rather dubious series of events where we couldn’t figure out a puzzle, so we sneakily unscrewed the hinge instead of opening the lock, much to the dismay of a Dutch chap we met there. But as we say in England, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The whole thing reassembled just fine, so no damage was done, and it’s the first time I’ve actually used the little multi-tool I got myself last year. I knew it would be useful at some point.

Whilst on that walk, we’d also been exposed to a particularly nasty species of French mosquito, and all of us except for Izzy had got bitten pretty badly. Ouchy, and itchy !

By the time we got back to the event site it was getting quite late and we were very thirsty. The walk of 18 caches had taken over 3 hours to complete and we hadn’t taken drinks other than a half-empty bottle of water Izzy had grabbed earlier in the day. There was a bar that looked like they could use a bit more trade. Two problems resolved in one action. Ice creams, drinks, and solving the sudoku puzzle needed to find the bonus from that walk.

After drinking we ran up to the event site and just caught the end of the final geo-stuff stall before they packed up. Izzy bought a lizard cache. I bought some coins. Both of us are magpies really.The coins are cute though.

Valenciennes_03.jpgThere were two more caches nearby on the event site, so Carolynn and me scooted off to grab them while Alibags and Izzy sat in the shade under a tree and had a rest. One was in the hands of another cacher when we arrived. The other was a monstrously huge ammo can. When we got back to the event site we made one final dash into the woods to grab the bonus for the walking series. This was possibly the best of the bunch. You had to place pins onto a pin board in the layout of one of the pictures on the sudoku puzzle, and when you did, and then closed the doors, it made a draw drop out containing the logbook. Someone spent ages figuring out and making these field puzzles.

Restauration

By now though it was getting on towards 8pm and we needed food (and I needed beer). So we drove back into Valenciennes, and while I was farting about trying to figure out where the hotel car park was, and doing a dodgy u-turn in the street that nearly created a job opportunity with a motorcycle pizza delivery company, we spotted a little restaurant on the corner just up from our hotel. We parked up, had a quick wash, Izzy put on a dress, because she does stuff like that, and we practically ran up the road. It looked a bit expensive, but I wasn’t too bothered, because I was only paying for two, not the usual four. The food was fantastic. They did a 31 Euro 3 course menu, which all of us had apart from Izzy. We all had different (fish based) starters, then steaks and then pudding. I had quite a few glasses of Leffe. Izzy ate most of a big steak and then went into the kitchen with the staff to do a pudding-based impression of build-a-bear workshop. After a good ten minutes she came out carrying a big glass bowl filled with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and squirty cream. She was also smiling quite a lot. I think she’d tried several options before making her decision. Hmmm !

Valenciennes_04.jpgAnyway, once we’d all finished eating pudding too, we were chatting with the proprietor and getting him very confused by telling him that whilst Izzy is my daughter, neither Alibags nor Carolynn is either my wife or my mother. I’m not sure what he thought was going on, but he wasn’t particularly bothered. Anyway, he was trying to get us drunk, I think, because he then whipped out a bottle of Calvados with a whole apple imprisoned inside. Apparently once the apple tree is in flower they fasten a bottle to the branch and a whole apply grows inside the bottle. Cunning, these French blokes. It was rather nice in my opinion, but not in Carolynn’s, so I had hers too. Mmmm! I was expecting to suffer some financial shock when I got the bill, but it seemed the proprietor liked us so much he didn’t bother charging us for the Calvados.

And then we walked (or staggered, in my case) back to the hotel, and Izzy was asleep before I’d finished sending text messages and entering my lab caches codes. I think I broke her.

I couldn’t sleep much, so I sat out of bed for an hour at 3am and typed up Izzy’s lab caches too.

Saint-Amend-les-Eaux

Sunday began in a similar way to Saturday. A busy hotel breakfast involving the usual continental breakfast fare, lots of juice and coffee, and some half-cocked planning.

The Geonord event crew had organised a “goodbye event” in the little town of Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, just up the road from Valenciennes. It was one where we had to pre-book tickets, as they’d placed a headcount limit on the event. Free, but had to be pre-booked. It was a lovely little town and had a collection of Earthcaches in and around its old abbey, partly due to the interesting rocks used in construction of the abbey and the surrounding plazas. Four variations on the theme of spotting fossils and xenoliths.

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16-07-17 Couderkerke.PNGAfter the event we were in need of a drink, so we grabbed a table outside the nearest looking decent cafe and engaged in some refreshment. There was also a brief discussion with a couple of French blokes about our the UK’s recent decision to leave the European Union, but that went unresolved as I think the majority of us didn’t understand either why we voted that way or what was likely to happen as a result of it. Funny that ! We seem to have voted to jump into totally unknown territory in the hope that it might be better than what we can already see. Time will tell, I guess.

Coudekerque

But enough of the politics. We’d got more caching to do. The series in question was most of the way back to Calais, near the little village of Coudekerque just outside Dunkirk. The caching series was a relatively densely packed affair around paved routes in a park containing a load of old fortifications and surrounding a golf course. We found around 25 caches round there in what proved to be our last caching burst of the trip. It was warm, a bit sweaty, and a bit insect-ridden. The caches were pretty much all through woodland, and the local inhabitants were making us very aware of the fact that they didn’t like being disturbed. In fact, this was a bit of a theme for the weekend. Some of us were more tasty to the insects than others.

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Back Home, Albeit Slowly

By the time we were finished it was after 5pm and we had a train to catch at 7:30, so we decided to head for the tunnel terminal and see if we could get an early train again. We couldn’t. As we checked in we were given the option only of getting onto the train I’d booked, and when I accepted this, I was promptly presented with a boarding card for a later train. I guess it’s busy then.

Valenciennes_Carolynn48.jpgWe retired to the terminal building where we queued far too long for another Burger King, which turned out to be of dubious quality, and then Izzy and me ran around the shop looking for a little souvenir for Izzy. In the absence of anything especially nice she decided on a cuddly toy rather than on keeping her money for another day.

We queued somewhat less to get up to the holding pens here than we had done on Friday night (partly because on the French side the terminal is already past the passport control, whereas on the English side it isn’t), but then the fun began. We sat in a queue and watched the projected time for our train get later and later. And later. And then a bit later. So eventually, after arriving at the terminal over 2 hours before our scheduled train, we got onto a train that left about an hour after our scheduled time. The train did what trains do, and we arrived safe and sound in England ready for a high speed trip back home through hopefully light traffic. Until we got stuck near Maidstone. I phoned Kas to say hello and let her know where we were, and she proceeded to read to us the horror story on the Highways Agency site about the state of the M20 and how we might well still be there at Christmas. Oh, great ! Just what I need. At least we could keep ourselves entertained with Alibags’ excellent suggestion that we let my iPod play through all the songs in alphabetical order and see what came up. We got stuck somewhere around the word “Absolutely” – I seem to have loads of tracks beginning with “Absolute” and “Absolutely”. Whilst queuing we started considering contingency options, but to be honest there weren’t really any as a result of the fact that we’d already passed the last exit before the problem, so we basically had to sit it out. Much to my surprise though, as we approached junction 8 and the Maidstone Services the traffic all started speeding up again. We decided to take a punt and just go for it, which proved to be a good idea because we didn’t see any more queues at all.

Hemel Hempstead was more or less where we’d left it, so we were able to drop off Alibags more or less where we’d found her, and then pootled up to Milton Keynes to drop off Carolynn and go home. It was about 11pm when we got home, so maybe an hour after I’d thought we would. Izzy had school the following morning, but she only had two days during the week, being the end of term, and they never do much of any use in the last couple of days anyway.

So my summary of the weekend:

  • Valenciennes looked like a typical northern French town, not that we saw much of it. I would like to go back again, if only to go to the restaurant and introduce the owner to my wife and other daughter.
  • The hotel was about what I expected. Clean, fairly spacious, quiet and generally unspectacular, in a good way.
  • The mega event was very well organised and the series of field puzzle caches they’d put out were very well done despite getting bitten to hell and back by the mozzies. I gave every one of them a favourite point.
  • The Sunday morning event was also good because of the location. We didn’t do a lot of eventing there.
  • The walk around the woods with the forts was the kind of caching series that I do a lot of at home. OK, but not spectacular, and suffered a little bit from variable coordinates. It was a pleasant and untaxing walk though, and it filled the afternoon with useful caching rather than coming straight home.
  • I kind of enjoyed it.
  • Izzy now wants to buy a ukelele.

Caches found over the weekend were :

There were also 10 lab caches at the Mega Event, but for reasons known only to Groundspeak these don’t have proper cache pages so I can’t list them here.


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