May 4th 2008 was the day that I first ventured onto foreign shores in my own vehicle. As usual, gyroplanes were the cause of all the trouble! Three times previously I had visited the annual gyro meet at Bois de la Pierre, near Toulouse in the south of France, and was seriously inspired to make the trip with my own gyroplane one day. It’s heck of a long way down by road and never having driven abroad in a language I can barely speak, I thought it best to see if I was actually capable before exposing my precious flying machine to continental traffic. It went something like this…
After leaving Portsmouth at 23.00 for an exceptionally smooth Channel crossing, the Norman Spirit arrived bang on time in a sunny Le Havre, at 8am on Sunday. I was an excited bundle of nerves as I watched the ship manoeuvring herself into the dock. The nagging thought occurred as I took in my first view of a deserted France, that here I was, alone on a huge continent hundreds of miles from home, and still many hundreds more from the few people I knew in-country, none of whom spoke English! Matters were not improved when reunited with my little van down in bowels of the ship, I tried to get a fix on the satnav to help us find our way back in twelve days time. Not surprisingly, shielded as we were by several tons of metal, not one satellite made itself known before we were unceremoniously swept into France on a tide of disembarking vehicles. It was all I could do to concentrate on staying to the right side of the road and avoid any turnings that would potentially lead to motorways. I had no idea which way to go – my carefully prepared route out of the city bore no relation to anything I could see. Momentum and fear alone took us through empty streets, until by chance I spotted a nearby park and headed towards it with the desperation of a drowning man to a straw. We’d only been driving for a matter of minutes, but already I felt completely wrung out and seriously doubting my ability to make this trip.
A few people were starting to appear on the streets and dog walkers strolled through the park in the early sunlight. No one paid us any attention but strangely I felt very conspicuous sat there, obviously a foreigner with our UK plates and right hand drive. I ate a few biscuits for breakfast and tried to calm down, mentally taking myself by the scruff of the neck to either sort it out, or spend two weeks in Le Havre and miss the highlight of the year. Well – when I put it like that! We were close to a main trunk road and I could see a big sign, from which I deduced that we were in a suburb called Harfleur. The satnav tried again to find some satellites to talk to and after a worryingly blank few minutes, finally locked on to some healthy signals. I gathered what remained of my shattered wits and began to pick out a route on the map. Given the mind-bogglingly massive size of France, along with its metric measurements, I had no clear idea of timescale other than to arrive at Bois de la Pierre on Thursday evening, preferably via Millau to see the new bridge if I could find it. It looked heck of a long metric way away.
Somewhat calmer now that we had satellite assistance, I took inspiration from a certain book and decided to take it stage by stage (or rather page by page) and tackle the journey in short hops, giving wide berth to any area that looked large, urban and complicated. Three years earlier as a passenger along with my companions, we’d followed a mainly motorway almost due south route which I still basically remembered. Now I was pilot in command, I wanted to stick to smaller quiet roads and take a more easterly track than before – but we had to start somewhere. I programmed the satnav for a Rouen direction avoiding motorways like the plague (the actual option available was somewhat less explicit, unfortunately), took a deep breath and gingerly pointed the van back towards civilisation.
I’ve never used a satnav before, but then I’d never driven outside of the UK before and had been really worried about forgetting to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, especially at roundabouts and junctions. After the initial terror of disembarking, however, I settled relatively quickly into the new regime and tucked the offside wheels into the right hand kerb with determined intimacy – I wasn’t going to overtake for anything! There were plenty of other hazards to worry about. The satnav was purely an audio aid, as being fully occupied with trying to remember speed limits in kilometres and concentrate on the inner dial of the speedo so as not to lapse into mph, I didn’t dare risk the distraction of trying to follow the display. Overhead traffic lights were a new and startling concept, never expecting to see them up there – and frequently didn’t! It was a good thing that the roads were still quiet as I began to learn about continental driving the hard way.
We wound our way through a housing estate, bouncing over speed ramps and gradually emerged into open country. A huge modern concrete bridge towered above us carrying the motorway towards Paris. I began to feel a bit better as we left the ‘burbs behind, taking it steady, totally dependent on the satnav to guide us. So it was, about an hour later that we found ourselves directed into a small and lifeless industrial estate and ordered to ‘Take the ferry’ to which the immediate response was what ferry??? I drove round the block in all possible directions, but there was a definite lack of water and no signs to indicate anything remotely nautical, so I parked on some waste ground next to a cluster of recycling bins to have words with my navigator. Further requests for a Rouen type course were met with repeated instructions to ‘Take the ferry,’ but the onscreen directions didn’t seem to know where this mythical vessel was either. Faced with implacable computer logic, I studied the map once more, chose a different aiming point in the same direction as Rouen and what d’you know, the obsession with imaginary ferries vanished.
It was not yet mid morning but the heat was relentless. Making our way into a deserted narrow town, I stopped at a T-junction where the main traffic lights had been replaced by a temporary set. A red light was showing and suddenly a flashing amber lit up beneath it. There was no green light. I remembered that flashing amber meant proceed with caution, but red for stop and flashing amber at the same time could seriously confuse a stupid person! Fortunately the only other car on the road appeared behind us and its impatient beep was encouragement enough to proceed.
A love/hate relationship began to develop with the satnav after being directed the wrong way up several one way streets, or catapulted onto a peage when I’d programmed to avoid motorways: my stress levels rocketed as we were funnelled into a row of automated barriers from which there was no escape, and all naturally arranged for the convenience of left-hand drive vehicles. I grabbed the keys and ran round to the machine on the passenger side, which spat out a ticket and immediately raised the barrier as I scuttled back to start the van, expecting a karate chop to the roof in punishment for my tardiness as we squeaked through. Then I had to do it all again to get off at the next exit! Imagine that with the gyro on the back as well.
Street markets (of which there are many in France) and diversions completely flummoxed the satnav, eliciting repeated demands of Turn around when possible in a tone that seemed to get more and more irate. The stubborn device was determined to herd us back to the barricaded road, until I learned to head off in the nearest available direction until the querulous voice finally fell silent after several miles and grudgingly worked out a new route. No doubt the total mileage was substantially increased by frequent unplanned excursions into the wilds, trusting to the whims of my electronic companion – I had no idea where we were most of the time – but I would never have made it by map reading alone. My little van has been in places it was never meant to go!
I copy the following from notes written on my very first evening alone in France, under my own steam…
After the fear and stress of today, my first solo journey in foreign lands, a simple lay-by provides a tranquil oasis and I feel completely at ease now. Clear bird song echoes all around and only the occasional grumble of passing traffic disturbs the scene. The sun’s rays are gentle now after the searing heat of the day and I’m sitting at a concrete picnic bench bathing in its warm glow, watching the birds busy feasting on the insects that swarm all around. Beautiful trees shade my little van; not tall but bushy with small, dark crimson leaves shaped like the Canadian Maple. To my left, a thick green wood runs down the valley. The river Cher maybe ¾ mile away, like a swathe of the palest blue silk winding its way through the fields. Pastel shaded meadows are lined with verdant woods of rich deep greens. A town on the opposite bank provides the only eyesore of industrial units. A wonderful old manor house nestles at the foot of the hill below me, almost Cotswold stone in colour, but classic French style. A row of arched Gothic windows and one large round one like a Tudor rose makes me wonder if it’s a priory of some sort (driving on next morning, I find a nearby signpost – it is indeed, an abbey). A grand avenue of sturdy trees line the drive, their foliage and lower branches all neatly levelled bringing to mind a row of fair weather cumulus. Heavy white cattle graze the meadows, and bright yellow patches of hemp in the distance recall the day’s drive down through northern France, and the huge open fields of startling yellows and greens. Are those trees Copper Beeches, I wonder. Mum would’ve known – and how she would’ve loved this adventure! A terrible waste to have all this beauty to myself and no one to share it with. The grass is thick with buttercups and daisies, and just a touch of warm breeze brings a scent of pollen to the nostrils as it ruffles their delicate coloured heads. The sun is slowly working its way around to the west, but any fiery display will be hidden behind the hill down which we came to rest. Very tired now, a stressful day but here we are 300 miles on fuelled by fear and momentum alone, yet no major carnage so far. At least I have some idea of what to expect now – unlike this morning! I almost chickened out in that park, I was so scared.
I well remember how terrified I was that first day abroad all alone, and the huge sense of achievement on arriving in Millau the following day, seeing the delicate web of the viaduc spanning the gorge above the town. After a few days of exploring, we finally made it to Bois de la Pierre – my little van, the satnav and me – and the next year we did it all again with my gyroplane hitched on behind. I was so chuffed with myself!
We’re going again next week. My little van, the satnav and me…