One thing you should always bear in mind is that you should never put off until tomorrow something that you could do today. Or in our case, don’t go out for dinner yesterday and then sit up drinking a few beers with the neighbours instead of packing your stuff in the car. Why not ? Well, Friday night was warm and dry. Fit for sitting outside while eating dinner and drinking beer with the neighbours, in fact. Saturday morning was heaving it down. Not just drizzle or rain, but full-on heaving it down. Coming down like stair rods, as they say. “Il pleut des chats et des chiens” as they say in France. Which meant, of course, that the materials sufficient to provision Napoleon’s invasion of Russia had to be loaded into the back of the trusty 807 in the pouring rain. It’s not too much of a problem while you’re standing underneath the boot lid, but it is a problem when you’ve got about 15 trips of 50 yards each way to get there.
Kev got a bit soaked, and all those suitcases with wheels had to be carried to avoid dragging them through either soaking long grass or muddy French-style buff gravel/stones soaked with a couple of hours downpour. And of course, the buggy had to come out of the car and sit in said gooey gravel/dust while the rest of it got loaded up. One good thing though, somehow the decision to not dismount the back row seat from the rails and to shove a suitcase behind it meant that everything fitted in much better than on the way down. Either that, or we’re taking home less than we took down. To the best of my knowledge, the only things not going back with us are a box of Bran Flakes, a pack of nappies and box of non-bio washing tablets. That’s not enough to make the difference between seeing out of the back window and not seeing out of it.
The kids were woken relatively easily after last night’s excesses and we shot off around 8:30 am with an apparently generous 10 hours and 20 minutes to cover the 480 miles to Calais. No problem, we thought. The only possible source of disaster was that we were unable to find the car power cable for the portable DVD, thereby raising the possibility of a whole day of driving with the adult passenger having to navigate (Felicity the sat-nav is a bit suspect) and entertain the little ‘uns at the same time. How do you plan a journey like that then? Simple really. You resolve that you’ll make the kids tired by keeping them up most of the night before, and then whenever they get a bit stroppy you’ll pull into the next services for half an hour of kicking seven shades out of the walls until they calm down. Cunning plan brilliantly executed, don’t you think?
We went off-road through Longèves to get to the dodgy N137 up through Marans and then didn’t really find any traffic all the way up apart from at the toll stations. No problem, easy to get to Calais in this amount of time, surely. In fact, lets start planning what we’re going to do with all that spare time at the tunnel while we’re waiting for our train.
The rain stopped about 10 seconds after we got in the car, by the way.
We hadn’t had breakfast so our first stop was about 90 minutes in at the Les Herbiers station on the road from La Roche sur Yon to Angers. And here starts the running theme for the day. We stopped here on the way home three years previously. Kev remembered the yellow fuel pumps. Anyway, we topped up the diesel and as luck would have it, we didn’t try to pay with a Romanian Truckers Union discount fuel card. If we had done, they wouldn’t have accepted it (there was a temporary problem, apparently. Sufficiently temporary that there was a permanent looking sticker on each pump advising of the problem). What the hell gets transported by road from Romania to western France anyway ?
We had a relatively cheap breakfast of pastries, coffee and juice. Izzy discovered a liking for sweetened yoghurt, cherry flavour. And Kev checked the DVD player and bought a car charger. It didn’t fit. We toyed with the idea of the “laptop” model, but this was €22, so thought this was too much to pay just to keep the kids quiet.
And so to the toilets. Being a motorway service station on a Saturday it was a bit busy. It got very busy by the time we finished breakfast, and the queue for the ladies was out of the door and halfway round the car park. It was so busy that the cubicles in the gents had a healthy queue of women queuing, actually in the gents room, with apparently no sense of guilt or embarrassment. I guess needs must. So when it was time to take Ami, we ditched the holiday’s protocol of assuming 5 is the age at which she should only go in the ladies. No way we’re waiting that long thank you. So Ami and Kev were all done while Kas stood in the queue with Izzy, and then Izzy came into the gents, so Kas got some peace.
Back on the road with Kev driving again for another tranche of autoroute boredom. This time we passed Angers, Le Mans and halfway up the A28 to the Haras service station. We tried to stop at the previous one, Dentelle d’Alencon, and had a quick déjà vu moment. We definitely pulled off at this one last time as well. However, unlike last time, Dentelle d’Alencon was heaving. It’s one of those where both directions of motorway traffic cross to the same station. And this was around 1pm on a Saturday in August. “A bit busy” would be an understatement. We cruised into the car park wondering why there were people parked on the grass by the exit. We queued to get around the outside of the scrum for the fuel pumps, round the back, and then decided not to stay. So we looped right round the back and saw the guy directing people into the overflow carpark, aka the field, and then back out onto the motorway.
Haras was busy as well, and we still had to queue to get around the scrum for the fuel pumps, but at least there were a few parking spaces round the back. We joined a substantial number of British cars obviously doing the same as us. Large fries, charcuterie and custard tarte, I think. And Kev found out the French for fork by asking for a knife (in French) and then saying to the lady “No, not that, the one on the left. What’s that called in French ?” A forchette, apparently. Obvious, really.
Kas picked up the driving for the next stint and got us all the way through Rouen and up to the Aire de Baie de Somme between Le Touquet and Boulogne. Last time we came home we missed a crucial turn south of Rouen and ended up going through the middle of town. Rouen is the one flaw in the French autoroute network in that there is no route skirting around the city. There’s a few going straight into the centre, but not all the way through. So if you go to Rouen, you go through Rouen. Felicity did a fine job, though she was being closely watched throughout. Her only slip up was failing to notify us of a couple of underpasses, which meant we queued for a couple of roundabouts that weren’t strictly necessary. However, she had us on the right road all the time and we got straight through to the A28 on the other side with no grief whatsoever. That’s a first for us in Rouen.
Beyond Rouen Ami and Kev played a few rounds of I-spy, with the interesting variation of using phonetic sounds and sometimes doing words “ending in” instead of “beginning with”. Five year olds are great.
Aire de Baie de Somme seems to be simultaneously on top of a hill and in the middle of a seaside marsh. Maybe it was built with loads of water and marsh grasses to produce an effect. It’s quite an effective effect, whatever it is. There’s a little observation tower we didn’t have time to climb. We didn’t have time to climb it because we had only two hours for this stop and then a further 80 km of driving before last check-in time. Stops typically take minimum of 45 minutes for us, and so did this one. The girls had been in the car for two hours again and we wanted a stop before heading for the tunnel so that we didn’t need to stop at the tunnel. Ami immediately spotted the mini playground and so the rest of the stop was focussed around trying to get the girls away from here to do the things we needed to do, like wee and buy drinks. I guess playing was something they needed to do as well, to be fair.
Kev wanted to drive the tunnel, so we swapped drivers again. There was a near disaster shortly after when we arrived right up the tail of a little queue caused by a man in a yellow jacket clearing somebody else’s luggage off the carriageway. Don’t know where it came from. It was definitely clothing articles and what looked like bits of broken car, but no sign of the broken car or the bag from which the clothes escaped. Weird ! But not for long.
We arrived at the tunnel itself a mere 20 minutes before our train closed, 18:30. We were impressed by the number plate recognition device again and then onto a nice British passport guy that Izzy thought looked like Grandad. She had a point, although he actually looked more like Grandad’s brother Bill. He commented on the very low odds of having two kids three years apart with the same birthday. Yeah, we know.
There was a bit of a delay getting on the train (or so it seemed to us), but we did get away on time. We got the rear carriage downstairs again. On the French side, the 1.85m height checkers look lower than on the English, but the bus squeezed under again. By this stage the girls were getting a bit edgy, so we were glad to get parked up and let them have a wander around for a bit. The car in front had another man who looked like Grandad (or actually like Bill, again). The guard on the train was quite friendly towards the girls. He lent Izzy his radio, which she promptly dropped on the floor. He politely declined a chocolate finger, thereby leaving another for Ami. Kev spent most of the train journey washing muck off Izzy. First it was chocolate, second it was grime out of the air vents.
And then we were back in Blighty. Time for a bit of a stop to allow the girls a final run around. And to be doubly annoying, just as we were packing Felicity back into the bag we dug to the bottom and pulled out the power cable for the DVD. Oh well, at least we can have DVDs for the final bit through England.
We trolled up to the Maidstone Services for more toilet and food breaks. Kev and Kas couldn’t resist the pull of a curry. Two weeks without a curry is far too long for anyone to survive. Things were getting desperate. Even a motorway Chicken Tikka Masala would suffice at this point. The girls had fish fingers and chips.
Kas drove the final leg with the gentle sound of the Fimbles keeping the kids happy. It was uneventful except that getting across the Thames was slow again. This time around one of the two tunnels at Dartford was shut, so everyone had to filter into two lanes. It happened to be the two lanes on the opposite side from the “exact change” toll booth Kas had taken us through. So on the other side of the gate, we had to do the proverbial soft-shoe shuffle to get across about 10 lines of traffic into the two lanes actually going through the tunnel.
The M25 and M1 were both busy compared to the French motorways. Not slow, but given that there are 3-4 lines of traffic and it was after 9 pm on a Saturday, there’s a lot of cars going around London compared to the number in rural France.
And so to home. It was still there. Jools had been round and shifted the piles of mail into the kitchen. There was some two-week old fruit in the fridge which moved unaided to the bin as soon as the door was opened. Ami’s sunflowers were out, and we have strawberries on the little plant we potted up about 6 weeks ago. We unpacked the valuable bags and children and left most of the rest of it for Sunday morning, after all, it was after 10 pm and we’ve been up for 15 hours and travelling for nearly 14. Don’t want to have to unload all of the stuff too. You know how it goes – once the hall is full of bags you feel duty-bound to unpack a few of them, and before you know it you’ve spent two hours unpacking.
The girls were a dream all the way back. Neither slept much, just about an hour each, but neither got stroppy really and both quietened down whenever asked. The lack of DVD player through France didn’t seem to hurt much.