French Forays

On the ferry I met Matthias. (mid-twenties, long hair, German, vegan, guiarist, fan of heavy metal, quiet, something of a woodsman/survivalist. Noticing that he had a handlebar bag I asked him if he was cycle touring. It happened that he was returning to Germany (near Karlsruhe) having cycled around Scotland. We soon agreed to cycle out of Calais after he decided my route looked good.

Following the canal du Calaise south-east we left behind Calais industrial frontage and entered the French countryside. The canalside track wasn't always in good condition but we soldiered on occassionally chatting about our respective families.

More than once Matthias had to remind me to be on the right hand side of the road.

Mattias posing by my bike in front of a French farm

After stopping to pick up some nice French bread and try out the remnants of my GCSE French we left the canal and rolled south into St Omer in the early afternoon sunshine following a very relaxing days cycling. Here we met Pascal our host for the evening who had kindly agreed to extend his invitation to Matthias.

St Omer is a wonderful, quentessentially French town and Fracois was kind enough to give us a tour.

St Omer's Cathedral Organ

Before taking us for a couple of well deserved beers in the central plaza. It was then back to his apartment where he proceeded to cook us dinner.

Followed by all the crepes we could eat; just the ticket for two hungry cyclists. Again I was impressed by the hospitality shown especially by someone who in just two days time was setting off on his own tour - back the way I had come and then north to Edinburgh.

Still conscious of not wanting to damage my knee I had planned an equally stress free second day in France again travelling just 30 miles. Matthias seemed happy enough to go at my pace both because he had also experienced some knee pain and because I was navigating.

In order to ensure we didnt arrive at our next destination, Armentierres, too early we took Francois advice and set off to climb two steep hills in order to enjoy the views; First Cassel where we stopped for a picnic lunch of bread and cheese before striking out for Mons du Cats where an old friary commanded pleasant views and which according to the friendly Abbott made the best cheese and beer in France. Who was I to disagree when they were both free?

The view wasn't bad either

Despite our excursions and leisurly pace we arrived in Armentierres early and consoled ourselves with a few drinks in the it the centre and I took the oppertunity to give my bike some cleaning and general TLC.

It was worth the wait as our hosts Florence and Jeff couldn't have been more obliging and, having recently returned from their own global cycling adventures, new exactly what we needed: Food, drink, internet and clean clothes.
Sitting down for Tex-Mex with the Jolibois's

The next morning Jeff, a history teacher, cycled with us into Lille and gave us a wonderful guided tour of the city. I was very impressed by the Citadel, designed by a guy called Vaudan in the 1660's, in the shape of a pentagon. For some reason I didn't take a picture.

Leaving Lille and Jeff behind we rushed East towards Belgium, entering at Tournai.

Tourai Cathedral which was closed when we arrived on a Monday lunchtime.

From Tournai we joined the Escouat canal travelling towards Mons.

Despite following the canal I managed to go the wrong way but the detour was blessedly short and took us through the gentle countryside of Belgium where smallholdings of twenty or so cows and a scatterring of chickens proliferate.

Mons ended up being a little too far as I began to tire on the slightly tedious canalside route. As we looked for a place to wild camp the first tiny signs of tensions showed between me and Matthias. It all resolved itself very quickly as having stopped to get water from this cemetary I asked a local if there was somewhere we could pitch out tent and he suggested the cemetary itself.

Fortunatley he didn't mean in a grave but rather an unused back lot.

After some cous-cous with chorizo and courgettes, a cup of tea and a fag; the world seemed grand again.

Our next day also started with cemetary, this time just outside Mons for the casualties of the WW1 western front. Mostly British but a suprising number of Russian graves too.

It wasn't the first such cemetery I'd visited but nonetheless it was suprisingly emotional. Not wanting to intrude too long we set off again and began to find our stride. An excelent cycle south was only slightly compliqted by a 3k stretch of cobbled road


By 16:00, after climbing steadily, we had made it to Beamont and a well deserved beer.


After an hour or so we headed off threading our way south-east into the Petit Ardennes through lush countryside before, with light showers sweeping in, finding a perfect spot to camp for the night just outside Froidchappelle.

Matthias and I have rather diffeent approaches to cycle touring. I thought my one man tent was lightweight but he just used a tarpauline threaded over his bike as a make shift shelter. He didn't even carry a sleeping matt! (bear in mind he'd been touring Scotland.) It was enough to make me feel ever so slightly guilty about my inflatable thermarest. On the other hand he was carrying three different methods of sharpening his knife; different priorities I guess.

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