Saturday 19 October 2013

A Trip to France

When building the Zero, one of the things on my list of things to do was to take the car to France.  I love the country and the roads are great for open top motoring.  The chance came my way when a post appeared on the Robin Hood Owners forum, RHOCaR, for a 1 week trip to Normandy.  I checked my diary and the dates were clear, so I booked the time off work and put my name down.  This was originally in January 2013, so waiting until September was going to take some doing.  I paid my deposit, booked my ferry ticket and set about waiting.

Friday 20th September

8 months of waiting and the day finally dawned to head off for France. The car had been serviced and prepped.  Insurance was sorted as was European breakdown cover, just in case, although I thought I was going to need the AA before I even got on the boat!!  I had left home mid afternoon to head for Portsmouth and had been having a very good run until I ended up on the A34.  There was a 3 to 4 mile tailback from the M3 junction and it was stop start for what seemed like hours. As I got close to the M3, that battery warning light came on and the alternator didn't look like it was charging properly, sitting at 12 volts instead of around 14 volts.  I decided that I didn't want to risk stopping and, with only 25 miles to Portsmouth, I carried on.  I got there without any issues and once I was parked up I had a look under the bonnet, but there was nothing obvious.  No missing belts or loose wires so I tried re-starting the car and it was fine.  The battery light went off and the volts went up to 14 as normal.  Following some discussions later, we think it may have been caused by the fan being constantly on with the engine just ticking over, but that is just a theory.  It never happened again for the rest of the trip.

A couple of hours later I met up with some more of the party and we finally boarded the boat.  1 Zero, 2 Robin Hood 2Bs and a big E class Mercedes support vehicle.  The driver, Kevin, would have been in his Robin Hood but a replacement hip op 6 weeks earlier put pay to that.  The crossing left England at 22.00.  After a quick drink in the bar and a round of proper introductions, I settled down in my cabin for the night.

Saturday 21st September

6.15am French time (so 5.15am UK time!!) and I am woken by the Brittany Ferries announcement that we are near to the port and need to be out of the cabin.  We docked in the port at 06.45 but it took until around 07.30 before we were off the boat and through customs and heading south to our gite.  First problem was getting the 4 cars together as we had gone through the customs checks at different gates and different speeds.  I was not to worry as we soon all found each other and we set off.  The roads were pretty empty and I settled in very quickly to driving on the right!

It was a very straight forward run and we arrived at the gite at around 8.30 am.  We were welcomed by the owners, Andrew and Janette, who made us feel very welcome.  They had even set a log fire going as it was a cool morning.  After a tour of the facilities we set about allocating rooms.  All were couples except me and I ended up in the children's room on my own.  It had 3 single beds to choose from and was more than adequate for the stay.  After a refresh and a brew, we set off to find the nearest town to find a supermarket to stock up on essentials such as food, wine and beer.

Once we had returned we had some lunch and sat and waited for the rest of the people to arrive.  Another 2B, a home built based on a 2B and another tin top all turned up and we all settled down for a night of food, wine and talking.  After the early starts, there were a few people early to bed, yours truly being one of them.

This is the Zero in front of the gite.

Sunday 22nd September

Today was the first touring and sight seeing day and we all left the gite in convoy behind our esteemed leader. It was overcast but dry.  As it was Sunday, we had been warned by the gite owners that the local police would be out in force looking to trap unsuspecting speeding motorists to help top up their pension funds.  The only Gendarme we saw was in a van going in the opposite direction and he was too busy waving and giving a thumbs up to be checking our speed!

As we progressed through the country side we came across a line of Porsches, all 924s or 944s going in the opposite direction.  They all flashed their lights and waved and, naturally, we did the same in return.  There must have been 20+ of them.  This was my first real experience if the attention these types of cars get in France.  It is very hard to build a kit car in France so our cars are quite rare.  There may be a lot of them during the weeks either side of the Le Mans 24 hour race but other than that, not many at all.

First stop of the day was Pegasus Bridge at Ranville.   This was the site of the first landings by gliders by the 6th Airborne Division.  The stories told were quite amazing and it is well worth a visit.

This is the original bridge which has now been replaced by a replica.

This is a replica of one of the Horsa gliders used in the raid.

After the museum we had lunch and had the usual photos taken of the cars, then set off for our next stop.  This was Site Hillman at Colleville-Montgomery which was a German command post and there was not a lot to see here.  From here we headed to the German radar station at Douvres-la-Delivrande only to find it had closed for the season.  We were a couple of weeks late!!

The final stop of the day was meant to be the Mussee du Mur de l'Atlantique, also known as the Grand Bunker, at Ouistreham.  Unfortunately we had picked one of the busiest day of the year as there was some sort of festival going on, so parking was a complete nightmare.  We drove round for a while but decided that we were better off heading home.  The return journey started OK until our leader had trouble with his sat nav and we ended up going round several roundabouts and getting lost.  I had always thought that we should stick in a group but my sat nav was telling me to head off in a different direction, so I decided to peal off and head for home.

Monday 23rd September

Today we headed towards the American sector.  The first stop was Sainte-Mere-Eglise and the Musee Airborne.  The church here is famous as it is where one paratrooper got caught on the tower, which is replicated to this day.  He actually did get down and survived the war.  There are some wonderful stained glass windows inside the church that feature paratroopers all over them.

Then there was a look around the airborne museum.  There wasn't a huge amount to see in there other than a C47.

From there we headed to the Batterie D'Azeville.  This was a fascinating place.

We needed a group of 20 to get the discounted rate to get in and there were 13 of us.  One of our group had noticed a group of bikers who were also doing a tour of the sites so she went off and enlisted the 8 of them to make up our group.  We were given audio guides to talk us round the site and the story was truly fascinating and possibly one of the best tours of the week.

This is one of the buildings on the site that were painted so that from the air, in reconnaissance photos, they would just look like ruins and be ignored.

Here are the cars lined up in the car park as Azeville.

We then hit the coast road and made our way to Omaha beach for a quick stop before heading back towards home.  We stopped at a large supermarket to stock up on provisions and then fuelled up ready for the journey back.  We all decided to make our own way and not worry about being in a convoy and it ended up being one of the best runs of the week so far.  Good, clear open roads with little traffic.

Tuesday 24th September

Today we visited the Musse de la Batterie de Merville (Merville Battery).  This had a fully restored Dakota C47 (military version of the DC3).

We were also able to go in to a bunker and, through a sound and light show, re-live what it may have been like during the battles.

From here we went to the Musee du DeBarquement at Arromanches.  The cars caused quite a stir in the car park, with tourist getting off coaches to go to the museum but making a b-line for our cars first instead.  We stopped and had ice-cream on the sea front before heading home.

This is where I had my only real issue of the trip.  The car park was a pay car park and I had got my ticket by one of the other members passing it to me.  Going out was harder as I was on my own now.  I was able to pay but couldn't put the ticket in the machine at the gate to raise the barrier was on the left and I was strapped in to my car on the right.  I had to practice my best schoolboy french and was able to describe my problem to one of the staff there who, rather begrudgingly, stood by the gate and put my ticket through for me.

Wednesday 25th September

This was a day off and a day for everyone to do their own thing.  I chose to drive south in to the Foret Auvray area as all our trips so far had been north of the gite.  I found some nice open roads for a drive and then a Le Clerc in a town to get some lunch.  I decided to drive back out of the the town to find somewhere to park up to eat.  Out in the forest I found a suitable parking area.

However, I was not alone.  At first I thought it was just a delivery driver, white van man, stopping for lunch, except it was white van lady.  A man approached the van from the forest and tapped on the window and the delivery driver got up from the front seat, went to the back, opened the side door and let the man in.  It was only then I remembered my ex sister-in-law (who lived in the south of France) telling what these white vans were.  They are mobile brothels and the man was a customer!

I took my leave to let them get on with whatever it was he was selecting from the menu!!

I drove back a different route and found a wonderful lake which was really nice to stop at and just look out over.

Thursday 26th September

First stop of the day was the Batterie de Longes-sur-Mer.  Here we were able to see some of the actual guns still in place.

This is the group of us by one of the guns.

From here we went on to the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.  This is an amazing place.  It is immaculately kept, everything is spotlessly clean, all the grass is cut, the borders are weeded, it was amazing.  The visitor centre was just the same.

This exhibit, for me, really struck home.

But it is the grave stones that really make a statement.  They are all perfectly aligned and really are something to see.

Friday 27th September

This was our last day of visits.  First stop was the village of Chambois for coffee.  I am not sure the little village cafe had had 9 people descend on them in one go for coffee and 'le patron' ran for cover to get his wife to sort us all out.  I think we doubled his trade for the day in one go!!  We just happened to park up by this castle.  I can't remember much about it but it was relevant in some way.

Next stop was the Memorial de Montormel.  This is the site that was held by Polish and Canadian troops and was probably the best museum we visited.  First off we were shown an interactive map that re-lived the events of the time and then we were able to go and look out over the battlefield.  A guide then talked us through the events.  I won't go in to the stories but suffice to say it is well worth a visit.

These are the cars looking down from one of the memorials on the 'corridor of death', as it is known.

After all the history, it was time for something a little different, so we made our way to the village of Camembert, where the cheese comes from.  We parked up under some shade and had lunch.

This is in front of the town hall in Camembert.

Next stop of the day was to see the tiger tank at Vimoutiers.  This is only 1 of 2 in France and only 1 of  9 left in existence.

Finally we went to the Musee Memorial D'Omaha Beach.  We decided not to go in as by this point we were all museumed out!!  We all made our own way back to the gite to prepare ourselves for departure the next day. The gite had to be tidied up and packing had to be done.

Saturday 28th September

Some of the group were up and away early to catch the early ferry, leaving the rest of us to leave around 10am.  My ferry wasn't until 4.30pm so I had plenty of time to just meander through the country side and then end up at Caen Ouistreham.  I had lunch, during which I was sheltered from one of only 3 lots of rain we had all week.  The other 2 had been at night, so we had done pretty well.

Finally I boarded the boat and headed back to Portsmouth.  Upon entering the port this is the sight you see.

A 2 hour blast back to Gloucester in the drizzle with half hood on, and I was home.  I didn't clock the actual mileage but I think it was around 1000 miles.

It had been a wonderful week and this is really what I built this car to do.  Others build them for track days, I built mine for touring.  The attention it got in France was amazing and I can't wait to do it all over again, hopefully next year.