French Roadtrip: Days 4 and 5 – The Long Drive Home

It is a long drive from Brittany to Coventry, but at least we were on our own schedule for this part of the trip, so decided to split it over two days, with an extended stop on the first day. I had planned to stop in Honfleur, a lovely little fishing port, but realised that it wouldn’t be suitable for Owen, so decided to stop a few miles away in Deauville, so that Owen could run around on the beach and dig some holes!

After another great breakfast, we said our goodbyes to Michel and Collette, my Mum’s cousins who had been hosting us in St Brieuc, and my parents, who were extending their trip with a few days in the Massif Central. We made plans to meet Simon and Sophie in Deauville, then set off, initially retracing our route from day 2. It took around three hours to get to Deauville. Owen only slept for the last hour, despite still seeming tired from his late night previously. There were a few traffic snarl ups around the Caen ring road, but we made good time and even managed to find a parking space right next to the beach. Ideal when you have a grumpy toddler who just wants to dig holes in the sand!

Whilst Owen was building, then immediately destroying sandcastles, I went to find some ham and cheese baguettes for lunch. Deauville beach is really well set up, with a boardwalk, little cabins (named after Hollywood stars, who may or may not have visited Deauville) then little kiosks selling beach essentials – including lunch! After eating our baguettes we walked along the beach road, checking out the impressive old buildings. The Normandy Hotel, where my Mum used to work, was the highlight, with its half timbered exterior. We then walked back along the boardwalk, stopping for ice cream. I found my new favourite ice cream flavour – chestnut. I’m not sure where else I will be able to get it from again. Although I do know some chestnut farmers, so have got them on the case! Whilst we were eating our ice creams, Simon and Sophie turned up, so we spent some time with them whilst Owen played in the sand some more. When it was time to leave, he ran all the way down the boardwalk to the car – quite a long way for someone with such little legs! It was a good job he was tiring himself out, as we had almost another three hours of driving ahead of us.

Our overnight stop was in Le Touquet, and we spent most of the drive looking out for tractors with Owen – he seemed way more impressed with them than the huge bridges we went over. As we were getting closer to Calais we noticed that most of the cars on the road were British registered, which I thought was funny. Not having been to Le Touquet before I wasn’t expecting to drive through pine forests on the edge of town and was pleasantly surprised to see that everything was really well set up for cycling. We were less impressed with our hotel, which felt really tired and due to a strange layout we were in the 153rd of 156 rooms down a really long corridor. At least the location was good – right on the beach! The town itself seemed nice though! We walked along the beach, past the wake boarding pool, the beach bars, kids clubs and volleyball courts to the town centre. I wasn’t prepared for just how busy the town centre would be – there were people everywhere, shopping, drinking and generally having a good time. As we were all pretty hungry, we went to the first place we found, a little pizza restaurant just off the main street. The pizza was amazing! I love that in France you can get pizzas with an egg on – quite a rarity in the UK. Owen was a bit of a monkey during dinner, I guess he had loads of pent up energy, after being cooped up in the car most of the day. So while Jen did some last minute shopping in town, I took Owen down to the beach for more digging! This is the photo at the top of the post. Once again, Owen enjoyed himself on the beach, hopefully two beaches in one day made up for all the time stuck in the car!

The tractor and combine harvester conversations we had been having with Owen in the car must have been playing on his mind, as he work up at 5:45 asking about combine harvesters! We let him get into bed with us, forgetting that toddlers seem to have an inbuilt need to sleep perpendicular to anyone else in the bed. With only a tiny slither of bed to balance on, I didn’t manage to get back to sleep. At least this meant we were ready to leave early for the relatively short drive up to the Chunnel. When we got there we were given the opportunity to take an earlier train – result! Jen had never used the Le Shuttle, and was wowed by how seamless it all was. We were pretty much straight off the motorway and onto the train! Before long we were speeding along under the English Channel. Whilst I was stretching my legs Owen took the opportunity to commandeer the drivers seat, thinking he’d get to drive the next leg of the journey. He was so upset when I put him back in his car seat.

We’d worked out that it would only be a twenty minute detour to visit Jen’s sister, Heather, in Hackney. So as it was her birthday it would have been rude not to call in! I love the drive into east London, with the Canary Wharf skyline, Olympic Park and the O2, then through the 120 year old Blackwall Tunnel. At this time on a Sunday morning it was a pretty easy drive too. Owen was very excited to see Heather, especially as this was the first time he had been to her flat. We had brunch at the cafe around the corner from Heather’s flat. As I was in East London I felt that it would be rude not to have smashed avocado on toast (and of course post it to my Instagram story).

I was surprised at how easy it was to get from Heather’s flat to the M11 for the start of the final leg of our journey – two hours back to Coventry. I was back on familiar roads, and driving on the left, so it was the easiest drive of the trip. We were home by 14:00, exactly five days since leaving, having covered just over 1,000 miles!

French Roadtrip: Days 2 and 3 – Brittany

We woke up to rain, not ideal on holiday. After a good breakfast at the hotel in Coutances, we loaded up the car for the drive to Brittany. It was still raining. At least it was a good opportunity to test the new wipers and RainX on the windscreen of the BMW. My main niggle with the car since getting it, is that there is no intermittent setting on the wipers, only an “intelligent auto” setting. Which isn’t that intelligent. Even on the most sensitive setting it waits until you can’t see anything ahead, then wipes the screen. I found an old bottle of RainX in the garage and thought it would be worth a try. I wish I’d thought of that a few years ago, as it worked a treat! Even in the heaviest rain I could leave the wipers set to auto and I could see the road ahead clearly!

Just because I could see where I was going didn’t mean that the journey went smoothly. Our first stop was in St Malo, and we had been sent directions to the car park we were meeting everyone at. However the directions opened in Google Maps, and we find that whilst the directions are usually spot on, they aren’t communicated well. It seems to be a lottery if it tells you the road name/number to turn on to and doesn’t show the number of the exit from roundabouts. To be fair we also didn’t have the audio mix tuned, so I could barely hear the turn by turn instructions, so we took a few wrong turns. I think I’ll stick to using Apple Maps.

When we arrived in St Malo the car park that we were looking for was full, so ended up parking somewhere else anyway. It was still raining. The plan had been to have a walk around the old town, but no-one really felt like it, so we followed my Dad straight to his favourite ice cream shop – Sanchez. He seems to have a favourite ice cream shop in every town we visit! 11:00 isn’t really ideal ice cream time, but it was somewhere we could sit in the dry, and I’d heard Dad saying how good this place was for a few years,. So we had to try it out. I had a giant sundae, with coconut, white chocolate and banana ice creams. It was good, but even I struggled to eat it! The plan had been to get “galette saussice”, for lunch, but I was so full of ice cream I couldn’t face one, so shared with Owen. For those that don’t know, a “galette saucisse” is a buckwheat pancake wrapped around a sausage. It is a typical Breton street food and one of my favourite lunches in France.

From St Malo we drove an hour along the coast to St Brieuc, where fortunately the weather was better. We were staying with my Mum’s cousin Michel and his wife Collette. We saw them in the UK last year, but it is probably 25 years since I last visited them. I didn’t really remember their house, but it is lovely, with the living areas (and a massive garage, with workshop) downstairs, then the guest bedrooms upstairs. The downstairs is very modern, with each of the guest bedrooms decorated with a different theme. Jen, Owen and I were in the historically themed room, with a Louis XIV wardrobe that Michel restored in his workshop. The wardrobe was an ideal place to hide all of the breakable ornaments from Owen – as it is very much the sort of house that a two year old could cause trouble in! Michel is also a petrolhead and has a lovely classic Simca 1000, that was manufactured in the year he was born, so we did some tyre kicking. Owen liked the “old car” too.

We drove into the centre of St Brieuc for a walk around, then down to the harbour, where the Rosengart car factory used to be. We had a little walk around, looking at the boats and one of the cars made in the factory. On the way back, we stopped at the supermarket to pick up some essentials: milk for Owen, chestnut puree for me and wine for Jen! Owen was disappointed that this supermarket didn’t have a tank of live crabs/lobsters, unlike most other French supermarkets. Michel did a BBQ in the evening – french sausages and merguez (a spicy north African sausage), which was one of the foods we particularly wanted to eat on our trip – result! Michel and Collette are great hosts (they used to run bars), and we had a lovely three course meal, with the sausages/merguez as main course. Owen loved watching the sausages being cooked on the open fire, and wolfed his sausage down. Then stole some of my Mum’s merguez too! We had to break our “no iPad after dinner” rule, as toddlers and extended French meals are not an ideal combination – something I remembered from when I was a little boy. He sat happily on my Mum’s knee playing tractor/digger games whilst the grown ups chatted, mostly in French.

After his late night Owen had a short lie in, and when we got downstairs Michel had just arrived with croissants for breakfast from the local bakery – they were still warm! They were the best croissants I have ever eaten, they were so light. Nothing like the croissants you get in the UK. The bread was amazing too, and this is just from their local neighbourhood bakery. After breakfast we went to the beach at Les Rosaires, as we hadn’t really done anything aimed at Owen and digging holes at the beach is his favourite thing to do. We were there about an hour, Owen made sandcastles, paddled in the sea, explored rock pools and generally had the time of his life! However, we had to leave, as we had to fit in a three course lunch before our afternoon excursion!

Collette made us an amazing lunch – cockles, pot roast pork and raspberry panna cotta – I think they also grew/caught everything in the dinner apart from the pork and the milk! As is the way with French meals, it took a wee while, so we were late leaving for the pink granite cliffs at Ploumanach. The drive took just over an hour and Owen slept for most of it. When he woke up we were in a little seaside town that reminded Jen of Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and me of 17 Mile Drive in California. We had to carry him past the ice cream shop and the beach (“sandpit” in Owen’s words), then up the hill to the pink granite outcrops. He absolutely loved it there! Climbing on the rocks and posing for photos. I also like to think he was taking in the amazing views and wondering what geological and ocean forces were at play to form these amazing rock shapes. As the grown ups were taking their time walking back, I sat Owen on my shoulders and carried him to the beach, to do more digging in the sand. I’m not sure where he learned to do it, but he has taken to using my head like a steering wheel if I’m not walking the way he wants to go. Then if I mention it, he tries to steer me off the path or into something. He is such a cheeky little monkey!

Michel led us back the scenic route to St Brieuc, so it was already past Owen’s bed time when we got back. Collette made him egg and toast for dinner – his favourite. He had also asked for baked beans, not understanding that you don’t really get them in France. As we’d had a large lunch I was expecting a light dinner, but it was a 6 course job, including the aperitif and cheese! Aperitif (nibbles), mackerel pate, mussels, cod in white sauce, cheese and fruit salad! We were all stuffed after that. After his dinner, Owen had perked up a bit and didn’t want to go to bed, he sat quietly on his iPad, until the fruit salad came out. He took a liking to the homegrown blackcurrants, stealing them from my Mum’s bowl, then requesting more from the serving bowl! He actually stayed up later than his grandpa!

French Roadtrip: Day 1 – Normandy

We are in France for a few days visiting my Mum’s family. As we are visiting a few different places we are roadtripping in my BMW – our first proper road trip as a family of three! Our ferry left Portsmouth at 9:00 this morning, so we travelled down to the south coast yesterday.

As I was loading the car Owen asked to sit in the drivers seat, it is one of the few places where he can sit still for ages, so I took advantage. The only problem was that he thought he was going to be driving us down the motorway. He was absolutely gutted when eventually removed him and strapped him into his car seat. He had a proper tired two year old tantrum. Luckily within a few minutes of setting off we saw a tractor, which cheered him up. Then before we even got to the city centre he was asleep!

The journey south was uneventful, we called in at Itchen Valley Country Park in Eastleigh, to let Owen have a run around and stretch his legs. The drive took us two hours and Owen woke up just as we pulled into the park. Owen enjoyed both the playground and the play trail, which had animal themed play equipment dotted around in the woods. It also looked like there was a decent, albeit flat, bike trail, but there wasn’t room for my bike on this trip. Only a few minutes off the motorway it makes a much better stopping point than a service station!

All the fresh air made us hungry, so we tackled the rush hour traffic and drove to Whiteley for dinner. It is a nice little out of town shopping/leisure area, which seemed to cater well for kids with animatronic dinosaurs and sand pits to play in. We ate at Bar + Block, a steakhouse which I think may be coming to Coventry soon. Jen and I enjoyed our steaks, but I’m not sure Owen was too fussed about his – he still has a lot to learn!

In the morning we woke up early and called into McDonalds for breakfast on the way to catch the ferry, on the basis it would be cheaper and probably better than what was on offer on the ferry – we were right! Despite the early start, we only just got to the port in time. It has been well over ten years since I last caught a ferry from Portsmouth (I think it was 2005, when I first had my mk1 MX-5!), but it seemed strangely familiar. Owen was very excited to get on the ferry, looking out of the window at all of the activity on the Solent and waving at the boats.

The crossing wasn’t great, Jen and I don’t really have sea legs – I suppose that is because we live about as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK! Owen didn’t seem too bothered though, wanting to explore the ferry. It was funny watching him wobbling around as the boat pitched and rolled. We were definitely glad to dock at Cherbourg and that we will be coming home on the Chunnel!

The first stop of our trip was a very small village called Gonfreville, where my Mum grew up, to visit her friend Christiane. Gonfreville is about an hour south of Cherbourg, slightly longer with a boulangerie stop for lunch. The French really know how do make a perfect ham and cheese baguette. Jen’s theory is that it is down to the butter, and Normandy butter is supposedly the best in the world. Owen slept the whole way, only waking up when he heard my Mum’s voice, as they had arrived at Christiane’s a few ays before us. The excitement of being on a farm, with rabbits and an excitable dog meant that Owen woke up quickly and was soon practicing his French, by saying “bonjour” to everything!

We worked out it must have been seventeen or eighteen years since I was there, as I remembered Christiane’s granddaughter being about Owen’s age – she’s twenty now! My brother Simon and his wife Sophie also joined us, which made both Owen and Lola, the dog, even more excited. We had a drink, ate some cake and looked at old photos, including one of me as a baby. Owen and Jen thought that was funny. I’ve seen photos of me at around nine months old and I looked exactly like Owen did at that age, but at a few months old we looked nothing alike.

Leaving Christiane’s we had a tour of Gonfreville, my Mum showing us the houses she’d lived in and her old primary school. We drove in convoy to Coutances, which was our overnight stop. Our hotel was on the edge of town, so we dropped our bags and walked into town, down a steep hill and then up the other side. It was hard work in the sun, especially pushing Owen’s pushchair, so our first priority in town was to get an ice cream! Suitably cooled down we had a wonder around town, Owen particularly liked the public gardens, with ponds, a playground and a maze. We also went to see my Mum’s secondary school before walking back down, then up the hill to the hotel. I haven’t been to Coutances for over twenty years, some bits of it seemed familiar, but I’m glad my Mum knew where we were going.

We had a bit of downtime before all meeting for dinner. As is the French way, dinner seemed to last hours, so whilst Owen was well behaved to start with, he was getting grumpier and grumpier as the meal went on. Jen and I both had melon and parma ham to start, chicken tagine for main and apple tart for dessert. All the food was really good, Owen seemed to enjoy his too and seemed keener to try new things than he was in San Sebastian a few months ago.

I didn’t manage to take any photos in Normandy, so the one at the top of the post is of Owen, whilst I was loading the car back in Coventry.

Let’s Ride Coventry

Today was the annual British Cycling Let’s Ride event in Coventry, and it couldn’t have been any more different to my ride with the Orange Riders last week! It is a family ride around the Coventry ring road, which a festival atmosphere in the city centre. Most importantly, it wasn’t raining! It was a warm sunny day, I was dripping with sweat after returning from a short warm up ride, on my Orange Four, to clear my head after a stag do the previous evening.

Both Jen and Owen joined me for the Let’s Ride event, although Owen was on the back of my bike, rather than on his Strider. We rode to town via the woods on Hearsall Common, Owen was disappointed not to see any dogs, after seeing loads up there a few days ago. We joined the event outside the Transport Museum, where they had a fun looking track for kids to ride round and a more technical track for a mountain bike trials demonstration. We watched the trials riders for a bit, they were impressive and made me want to work on my basic bike handling skills. They were balancing their bike stationary on a thin rail, I can’t even stop at the traffic lights without having to put my foot down!

We set off round the event route on the ring road, and it was good being able to see all the places we usually whizz past in the car. Owen was particularly excited to see all the construction equipment on the building sites. After half a lap of the ring road, the route took us back into the city centre, to the festival zone on Broadgate. We picked up our event vests, but didn’t hang around as it was pretty busy and we were getting hungry! In a change to the route from last year, we actually rode through the ruins of the old cathedral, before dropping on to University Square, which was the street food area.

I was initially disappointed to only see three vendors, until I noticed that one of them was The Flying Cows. These guys make the best burgers I’ve ever tasted, and I have tasted a lot of burgers! Their “Flyer” burger has also been crowned best street food burger in the UK. Jen and I both had burgers, which were utter perfection. Owen even had a few bites, and he’s never shown interest in burgers before. He also had a massive hotdog from the stand next door, and did really well eating it. I had a bite or two and it had a strong smoky taste, almost like a peated whisky, I was surprised that Owen ate it, as he can sometimes be fussy. There was also a churros stand, so we had to share a bag of those too, even if it wasn’t really churros weather. We’d found a shaded spot to sit to eat our lunch, and it was good to just hang out watching everyone riding past. Owen enjoyed climbing the steps and watching the skateboarders too.

With full bellies, we got back on the bikes and rode through the university and back onto the ring road. Owen and I took part in the “Sir Chris Hoy Speed Challenge”, we must have gone pretty fast, as Jen didn’t see us and we had a long wait for her to catch up. Our speed was 19mph, which I was pleased with, bearing in mind it was on the flat, from a standing start with Owen on the back of my bike. Before returning home, we did another half lap of the ring road, back to Broadgate. Riding round I was impressed at how many people were out enjoying bikes, but especially some of the kids who were probably only a year or so older than Owen and riding really well. Hopefully Owen will be up to riding it himself if they have one next year!