This book records the impressions and experiences of a first trip abroad. It was written to remind the author of a most exciting adventure, which was at the same time a very enjoyable holiday. Hence there are included many trivial references, such as details of food, which may convey nothing to the other readers.
No pretence is made to good literary style. The text is really little more than elaborated diary notes. Please do the photographs justice by looking at them in a good light.
by Roy Jenkin, age 21, graduate at University College, Exeter, and Gordon Newbery, age 20, undergraduate at St. Peter's Hall, Oxford. Both educated at Exeter School.
The story really began in January 1953, when I suggested to Gordon that we might go on a cycling holiday together. At that time, I was thinking of a tour of the coast of Britain, but Gordon wanted to go abroad, and I caught his enthusiasm. During the Easter vacation, we considered routes and plans, and in fact the route we finally took was planned almost exactly with only a map in a school atlas.
In June, after my Final examinations, I cycled to Oxford one weekend to see Gordon, and we then returned together to Exeter. We bought two maps, covering North and South France, with a scale of 16 miles to one inch. Later we bought a small one when we went off the edge of the main map. Using these, we had no difficulty with our navigation.
Our luggage, consisting of sleeping bags, washing and shaving kits, spare clothes, stove, fuel, and cooking utensils, food and drink, spare bike parts, plats, mugs, and cutlery, first aid kit, maps, compass, cameras, films, and raincapes.... (Going up! Second floor, carpets, upholstery, furnishings ...) Over 350 items in all, was carried in handlebar and saddle bags, and rear panniers.
Monday, July 6th
On Monday, July 6th., 1953, we got up at 3.30 a.m. after only 2 3/4 hours sleep. Gordon had been staying at my house in South Avenue, Exeter. My sister Doreen woke us and prepared breakfast. SHE had decided (!) that we had to start at 5 a.m., but actually we left precisely at 6.0. We had 58 miles to go to catch the 1p.m boat from Weymouth. The weather was dull. Our route was through Honiton, Axminster, Charmouth, and Bridport. Drizzly rain set in at Honiton, and visibility was poor. It was windy, too, and that made the going hard. The Dorset hills were very trying, walk up one side, ride down the other, walk up, ride down, walk up,.... and so on all the way. We reached Weymouth Quay at 12.30 and bought our tickets. We could not get our bikes taken on board, and if we had not protested, at 1.01 p.m., the boat would have sailed without them. The "St Patrick" was crowded and uncomfortable. There were insufficient seats, the snack bar was sold out and closed very early on. The sea was choppy, and the wind cold. As it was very misty, there was nothing to be seen, so the 7 3/4 hour journey was very boring. The boat called at St. Peter Port, Guernsey, at 5.45 p.m., and then continued to Jersey, arriving at St Helier at 8.45, an hour late.
We enquired about the boat to St Malo, and confirmed that it left at 7.30 a.m. the next day. We then had egg and chips in a cafe, and walked around St Helier. We could not cycle as we had no bicycle licences. We asked a taxi driver if he knew a good place to sleep out, and he suggested Mount Bingham on the east side of the harbour. We thanked him and followed his directions.
We found a place to sleep where the grass was long and we were sheltered from the wind, although this had eased, and the air was warm. We took no tent on this holiday, only sleeping bags consisting of a sheet, a light blanket, and waterproof layers top and bottom. We slept well, and were gently roused at 4a.m by light rain. We covered our heads and slept until 5, then got up and spent an hour looking for water to make tea, but were unsuccessful. After a breakfast of cake, we caught the 7.30 a.m boat to St Malo, the "Brittany", owned by British Railways. The passengers included many day trippers and one cow.
The journey again seemed rather long, but the weather brightened near the coast of France, and we docked at St Malo at 10.45 in bright sunshine. There was a long queue for passport stamping, and after a short delay at the Customs, we set foot in France. Remembering (usually) to keep to the right- hand side of the road, we made our way to the town centre. There we bought bread and some oranges, and ate bread and cheese sitting on the sea-wall watching France go by. (and don't those French drivers go!)
Photo 11. St. Malo, from the inner basin. Rebuilding is now in full swing, since 75% of the town was damaged during the war by bombing, shelling, and German fire- raising. The old city walls, seen on the left, have been rebuilt.
In a cafe in St Malo we had our first iced citronade, a very cooling lemon-flavoured cordial. We went bathing, and spread out our sleeping bags to dry. It became dull, but there was a warm wind. We left St Malo at 4p.m and proceeded southwards on the N137 road. The roads are very good in most parts of France, except for stone "pave" in the towns and villages. There were many "mobilettes" (motorised bicycles) about, as they do not need licences in France. We noticed the great loads French people carry on their bicycles. We saw a woman with a box like a tea-chest on her carrier, and a man with a chest of drawers!
After tea we wanted to buy some potatoes, but could not see them in any shop. Hence the question we shall always remember, "ou pouvon-nous acheter des pommes de terre?" We succeeded in buying some, and then stopped beside a canal near the village of St Domineuc. We fried our supper, laid out our sleeping bags, and night fell. We heard the frogs croaking, and saw glow-worms. Then rain began to fall. As it fell faster, we decided that we had to find some cover for the night. The only place we could think of was the church porch. Wearing our capes we trudged towards the road. However, we came across a wooden hut on the canal bank. It was open on the canal side, but had an overhanging roof. The floor was a wooden platform built out over the canal, about 3 feet wide and 2 inches above water level. The hut was,
in fact, the village wash- house, when the women do their laundry. Hence, on our first night in France, we slept 2" above water and only a foot from the edge. The boards were hard, but at least we kept dry. On the 8th July (Gordon's birthday) we woke at 5 a.m., dressed, fried bacon and bread, and boiled potatoes. We washed and shaved in the canal, the water was very warm, We started off at 9 a.m., and reached Rennes at 11.40. There we bought dun-cream, food, and the "Continental Daily Mail". We had lunch in the square, and finished with a glass of "vin rouge" in a cafe (4d). We bought some cheese, and the shop- owner asked us about living condition, especially food, in England. We sampled our first "patisserie" (fancy cake). Very nice, but expensive. We posted cards home. French postal rates are high: Foreign letters 8d, Foreign postcards 5d, Inland letters 4d.
Picture postcards are sold at 4d or 6d each, and our joint bill for cards and postage during the holiday amounted to nearly £2.
In the small town of Bain-de-Bretagne we met a young Frenchman who spoke good English. He invited us to cider in a cafe and we had quite an interesting discussion. This Frenchman explained that his job was to "cushion the people". He calls on housewives and questions them about aprons and many other goods. The answers are required by the clothing manufacturers. A litre (quart) of cider was consumed, costing just 5d. Occasionally during the day we would stop for refreshment and sample the Breton cider. This cost 5 francs (1 1/4d) la boulee (a large china cup). In one cafe they had a neat little brass pump on the wall which delivered the sweet cider at the turn of the handle. Gordon wanted to take one home! That night we camped in a wood by the riverside. The next day we woke at 5.30, but as usual, preparations for departure delayed us until nearly 10a.m. The sun was shining, and our arms were sore with sunburn. In Nozay, at midday, we each bought a "petit pain", a little bread roll. We reached Nantes at 3p.m., after a half-hour wait whilst Gordon went back to retrieve his jack-knife. We had late lunch in a cafe. Many cafes have notices "You may bring your own food", and we dined on a whole loaf, cheese and a quart of cider.
Cycle racing is very popular sport in France, and the most important event of the year is the "Tour de France". This is a 25 day marathon over 2800 miles of French main roads, and about 150 competitors take part. As many as 220 miles may be covered in one day, although in the mountains 120 is more usual. To us, however, the most interesting part was the half-hour procession of advertisement vehicles, mostly with musical horns, which careered through the streets ahead of the cyclists.
These vehicles advertised everything from Waterman's Ink to Dubonnet (DUBO...DUBON... DUBONNET, L'aperitif). The crowds were very well behaved, but the traffic jam afterwards was chaotic. We shall never forget the hooting, tram bells, and police whistles. We wandered around the town, amongst the crowds, watched an advertising display for the new lipstick "Stop" (sung to the tune of "Sugar Bush"), saw the cathedral, and then left.
In the suburbs we stopped to write our postcards, and a youth began talking to us. He asked for our autographs, and I am afraid we became suspicious, so we mis-spelt our names as a precaution. However, we heard no more of it. We visited a large church in the village of Aigrefeuille, and then camped in the corner of a field. We boiled eggs and potatoes, and made tea. As usual, we went to sleep at dusk.
We woke early. I went into the village to look for water, but there was none available, so we had to miss our morning cup of tea! We fried eggs and potatoes, and ate them with bread. A herd of cows had meanwhile been let into the field.
During the morning we stopped for cafe au lait at a quaint village cafe. It was specially made for us, and was served in tall glasses.
In the village of Belleville-sur-Vie, Vendee we met a French peasant, who commented on the blazing sun. (Which proves that it is not only the English who discuss the weather). He asked us into his house for a drink. The living-room was bare, with a large open hearth, but alongside was the very latest in electric cookers. All the houses, or those on the main road at any rate, have electricity, but often no drainage or water. The rest of the furniture comprised a small table, two chairs, and a smart cabinet model fold-down electric sewing machine! On the mantlepiece was a clock of the nursery type with a picture dial and a rocking figure. The exterior of the house, and its occupants, can be see in the photo. They gave us vin rouge, the best I have ever tasted, and insisted on refilling our glasses twice. I am sure that it was only by luck (or habit) that I held the camera straight to take the photo. We thanked them, promised to send a print, and continued to the other side of the village (without falling off or riding into each other!). It was midday, and we decided to spread out our sleeping bags to dry on the conveniently wide grass verge. We fell asleep whilst doing it, and did not wake for two hours, in spite of the brilliant sunshine! We then did some mending, and continued to La Roche-sur-Yon. This is a town of broad streets with a very Southern appearance. We went to a bank, as our cash was getting low, but it was closed. We decided to try in another town.
Continuing southwards, we bought a cucumber in the flourishing small town of Mareuil. My pannier carrier gave trouble here, when a lug broke off my forks. We saw oxen drawing carts, and working in the fields. We also noticed quite a number of clogs being worn.
We continued to Lucon, where we parked our bikes to have a look at the cathedral. On returning, we found that our cucumber was missing but fortunately nothing else. We slept in a field outside the town, after tomato soup for supper. We slept until 6.30am, then proceeded to La Rochelle against a very strong head-wind. We saw our first French traffic-lights, similar to the English ones, except that there is no red with amber phase, the sequence is green, amber, red, green. I bought a film there, and was surprised to find that it was 25% more expensive than at home, in spite of our purchase tax. There is an American naval base at La Rochelle, and the arcaded streets are full of American troops off-duty,
Guarding the entrance to the harbour of La Rochelle are two towers, one of which is shown in the photo. This also shows an unusual method of fishing. The net hangs from a wire passing over a pulley at the end of the long arm, and it is wound up by turning a handle in the boat.
Not far from La Rochelle we visited the fashionable seaside resort of Chatelaillon and ate lunch- a loaf of bread with cheese and tomatoes- sitting on a seat in front of a high-class hotel! We enquired at the Information Bureau (Syndicate d'Initiative) but they could not help us cash Travellers' Cheques. The man there spoke broken English, which saved us having to use our broken French! We were getting short of cash now, with 11/6 between us to last three days! The banks were closed owing to Bastille Day, July 14th. Twice today we met a young cyclist who was on a 600 mile pilgrimage to Lourdes in the Pyrenees.
At Rochefort, we had to cross the R. Charente on a transporter bridge. This is a steel gantry, some 150 ft high, spanning the river. The bridge, on which the vehicles and passengers ride, is a platform hanging by wires from a trolley which runs along the top of the gantry.
In the late afternoon, we came across a butcher calling on the country cottages in his ancient motor-van. We tried to buy some meat from him. We asked for 200 grammes, and the old chap agreed. He then cut a piece of 500 grammes and tried to charge us for it. However, we were not going to fall for that trick, so we said "200 grammes or nothing". Whereupon he grabbed me by the shoulder and started talking at high speed, ending with "... tu compris". (do you understand?) My immediate reply of "Non" merely caused him to start another long sermon, which he continued at the top of his voice as he drove off down the road! A lady from the cottage, who heard what happened, said he was a little "off his rocker", and offered to sell us some eggs. We were glad to accept.
That night we found very comfortable beds, in a grassy hollow by the roadside, with a clear little brook nearby. Sunday, 12 July: We got up at 6.30 a.m. For breakfast, fried eggs and vermicelli (like macaroni but thinner) were quite a change. It now began to drizzle, but we set out. We saw "rain shadows" of trees on the road. In Le Gua, we passed the old butcher's van. We completed nine miles, and then heavy rain set in. We sheltered against a wall. The Atlantic wind and Biscay weather kept up their force for the rest of the day, so we found a cart loaded with hay in a barn and got permission to use it. We slept al of the afternoon, and walked into the village of Saujon in the evening to buy things, including more petrol for our ever-thirsty but hard-working little pressure stove. The people of the farm were very friendly, they came over to chat to us, and let us use a derelict car to shield our cooker from the wind. We had potatoes creamed with cheese, and tea. Unfortunately our bread was inedible through exposure to rain and air. We had a wonderful nights sleep, warm and comfortable, on the fresh hay.
We woke at 6.35a.m and fried egg and chips in the old car. While cycling, a big-brown insect flew into Gordon's shirt and stung him on the chest, but fortunately there were no after-effects.
In Mirambeau, the lady in the baker's shop was very interested in England. She wanted to look at English coins, and said that the Coronation film was coming there the next week. She told Gordon he spoke very good French. We now dashed to Bordeaux via Blaye, doing 85 miles altogether this day, including 30 miles in 2 hours. We bought two loaves and some potatoes just outside Bordeaux, and then reached the post office at 6.45 p.m.
In the Place Gambetta we sat down to rest our legs. Soon an old lady came up, collecting money for the use of the chairs. When she learnt that we were English, and seeing that all the free seats were full, she let us stay without paying.
The French have a habit of re-naming streets after famous men, the most popular being undoubtedly Gambetta, with Jean Jaures a close second. Bordeaux seemed to me very similar to London, as I stood on a bridge like Waterloo Bridge, beside a road like the Embankment, looking across the river at the warehouses opposite, away from the river, the banks, large offices, occasional "Leicester Squares", and the dense traffic increased the resemblance, although the streets are wider and the buildings cleaner. We slept on hay in the barn shown opposite; the farmer was most helpful.