April 30, 2009

FOOD FOR THOUGHT



2006 was a great year for holidays and we managed to go to France 4 times. At Easter we went to La Rochelle for a spot of indulgence and sunshine. It's that sort of place. Very touristy but nice. Lots of shops, cafes, restaurants, boats, the harbour, a good aquarium, a fishing museum and a craft market on Easter Sunday. With all of that and reliable sunshine, what's not to love? And not far away is the Isle de Re and the lovely little town of St Martin, with more shops, restaurants..........
However, a few glances in estate agents windows confirmed that property was probably too expensive for us in that area.




Nick showing how cool you can look standing next to a wastebin in St Martin harbour


After Easter I bumped into my friend Bev who had bought a house in the Auvergne several years ago. I had seen photos and it was barely habitable when she and her partner, John, got it and they were slowly doing it up. I asked her if they had finished it yet.


Food for thought no.1: "Good grief no - if we do that people will want to visit us or stay in it."


The conversation continued and she dropped in this:


Food for thought no.2: "All my work colleagues are busy worrying about what they're doing for their holidays and we just know where we're going. Why would we want to go anywhere else?"


A bit later she said;


Food for thought no.3: "Of course, we're not tied to the place, we do sometimes do something else for a change."


That evening, I recounted our meeting to Nick and thought I heard a little penny drop somewhere.


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The next trip in June started with the War Graves visit. On our way to Pete & Cyn's we stayed at Millau so we could take a look at this.




Millau is a lovely old town and we used the same hotel as on our previous visit about 10 years before. The bridge wasn't there then but the hotel still had the same woolly wallpaper -just a few more layers of cobwebs. The motorcycle parking was especially scary too. A ludicrously steep ramp and a tight turn into a very cramped and crowded sou-sol.
All of our trips to France seem to involve staying in hotels with woolly wallpaper, scary plumbing and dodgy electrics, not to mention the interesting parking arrangements for motorcycles. Adds to the ambience, I suppose.


From Millau we went to Carcassone and spent two nights there. This was the view from our hotel room:




We enjoyed Carcassonne very much. Some of the newer bit seemed a bit down-at-heel but the old town was charming. Important, though to get there before 11.00 am. That's when the coachloads of tourists arrive and swamp the place.








Not many tourists here yet.









Not many here, either.

More food for thought to follow....

April 28, 2009

A NICE SUNDAY

More "other stuff"



On Sunday I went to the bead fair at Newark. Jewellery making is my current favourite hobby and seeking out nice beads is a joy. I splashed out on lots of yummy beads to satisfy my cravings and keep me busy for quite a while.

Some shell, coral, turquoise and dyed jade beads


Fossil beads, rose quartz, lemonstone, agate and more shell beads.


Hemetite, lapis lazuli, cherry quartz, more shell and some lovely Swarovski crystals.

When I got back, I made quiche for dinner. There's something satisfying about making quiche. No two are ever the same. This one had some reblochon cheese on top. Scrummy.



One of many ways to use Reblochon cheese

Nick had a nice day too. He went fishing and apparently caught two trout. We don't, however, have any evidence of that !

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM


One day early in 2006, I called on my father to find that he had, unbeknown to me, been writing his memoirs. It was fascinating stuff. The story of a child born into a very poor and ordinary family, one of eight children, living in a two-up, two-down cottage in a small Derbyshire village. He had also started to do a bit of family tree research and his youngest brother had given him an old biscuit tin full of ancient family documents, birth and marriage certificates, etc.

In the tin was a tatty brown envelope which said on it "letters concerning first husband's death". Intrigued, I looked at the contents and found this:
"Dear Mrs Briddon, I regret to say your husband, Pte J Briddon has been seriously wounded. He is in the above hospital............."

And then this:

"Dear Mrs Briddon, I regret to say your husband died yesterday
and was buried in a cemetery nearby."

Emma Briddon, my grandmother, had been 24 and already had 3 young children when her husband John was killed in the First World War. Imagine how she must have felt when she got these letters, dated only two days apart. He had probably already died by the time the first letter arrived. There was little financial help for widows in those days. She received a small amount from the army and some money from charity and tried to make ends meet by such things as taking in washing. I can hardly imagine how difficult it must have been having to do washing for richer folk when the house had no heating or running water, just a coal fire and an outside tap.


Emma remarried and had 5 more children, one of whom was my father. Her second husband, George Marsden, had run away from home at fourteen and lied about his age to get into the Navy to escape his own father, a wicked man who ill-treated his wife and children. Two of his brothers, Sam and Enoch, also ran away, to the army. Both died in the Great War.

I felt inexplicably compelled to visit their graves in France. We were going to visit Pete & Cyn in their house near Perpignan in June so we decided to make our way via the war graves. We found all the information we needed very quickly on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.
Our first stop was a little hotel in the town of Albert. It turns out that both Sam Marsden, my great uncle, and John Briddon, my grandmother's first husband, died in the battle for Albert. They were buried at La Neuville cemetery, near Corbie, a very short distance from the River Somme. John died aged 24 on the 6th July 1916 and Sam aged 36 on the 14th August.

A cemetery for French soldiers that we came across.

The cemetery was easy enough to find but not easy to get to. The road deteriorated and became a farm track and we had to abandon the bikes and make the rest of our way on foot. We had stopped at a florist in town and bought roses to plant on the graves.

I was pleased to find that it was a small and completely deserted cemetery. It was beautifully kept, with only 800 or so graves, well away from any roads and surrounded by fields. We found John and Sam's graves very easily, planted the roses, left a comment in the visitors book and said farewell. The whole experience was incredibly moving. I was glad they weren't in one of the enormous cemeteries with coachloads of visitors.

That afternoon, we found Enoch Marsden's entry on the memorial at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre. Enoch had been in the doomed expeditionary force and died on 20th September 1914. The memorial has thousand of names of soldiers without graves. It was huge and I wondered how on earth we would find him but as I looked up I found I was standing right underneath his name. The visitors book had been removed to the Mairie which was closed for the Bank Holiday. I would like to go back one day to sign it and maybe leave him some flowers.


We spent the night at Nevers and whilst we were waiting for our dinner I sent my father a text to say we had found all the graves and asked him how old Enoch was when he died. The reply came back - "he was seventeen". At that point it all became too much for me and in the middle of the restaurant I burst into tears.

Imagine this: You are a seventeen year old boy and live in a small village in Derbyshire. You have never been further than Derby in your life. You have a wicked father who drinks and treats you and your mother very harshly. Your brothers have run away, one to the army and one to the navy. It is 1914 and young men are being recruited for the greatest adventure in their lives. This is your chance to escape and do something worthwhile for your country. You proudly wear your new uniform, parade through town to brass bands and cheering well-wishers. You get put on a train to the coast, then on a boat to France and two weeks later you are a dead soldier with no known grave.

In the course of my daily work I often have to deal with boys of a similar age, all mobile phones, bad attitude and bad manners. I sometimes think of Enoch and wonder what his world was like. I also wonder if today's seventeen year olds have any idea at all how lucky they are.

TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK


After the disastrous trip to Portugal for the HOG European Rally in 2004, we decided we would have another try - in 2005 the Rally was in St Tropez - or Port Grimaud to be more accurate. Nick was over the moon when Grin was declared fit to travel by our friend Kev from Le Rock Motorcycles. Grin had spent most of the last year in his workshop having various problems fixed and now Nick could fulfill his dream of once more taking the bike to France. Not only that, Grin would be able to sit proudly alongside the hundreds of other fabulous bikes that were going to be there.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. We set off early evening to catch the 11.00pm train. About 50 miles down the M1, Grin ground to a halt. Frantically trying to work out what the problem was, Nick had the carburettor in bits at the side of the motorway by the time Kev turned up with his van. Kev had also brought along Nick's Harley so we switched the luggage from Grin to the Harley and off we set again. Grin disappeared back to the workshop and Nick never really rode it again after that.

We missed the train of course. We also arrived just after the 1.00 am train had left and the next one was in 2 hours' time. We finally arrived at our hotel in Calais at 5.00 am. The young man at the desk informed us that the room was ours until midday and he would ensure we were not disturbed.








Some things French hotels do so well - fountains and staircases.









We had another great trip through France, visiting some of our favourite places. The rally site was actually a large caravan site, completely taken over by HOG. Our accommodation was "4 berth" but it was tiny. It was barely big enough for the two of us with all our stuff and we chuckled as we watched other people actually try to squeeze 4 people into theirs.

Port Grimaud was a pretty place, in a wealthy touristy sort of way. We took the boat over to St Tropez one day, just to say we'd been and seen how the other half live. Nick was in heaven - surrounded by boats and Harleys (not to mention bikinis!).


The pretty harbour at Port Grimaud
A St Tropez street
St Tropez harbour
Bikes and boats - and fancy dress
Then we had a great trip back through France, arriving at Forcalquier in a tremendous thunderstorm to find all the electricity off. The only place in town we could get a meal was, you guessed it, a Chinese restaurant.



Another thing the French do so well - outside wiring in Forcalquier.

April 27, 2009

DECISION TIME


I collected my replacement Harley in July 2004. The year up to that point had been such a roller-coaster ride that we decided we needed a proper holiday - a normal holiday. So in September we set off on the bikes for France and stayed in a great little gite at Avoine, just north of Chinon.

Once there we put the chairs out in the sunshine and thought yes, this is it, this is where we feel at home.

One of the obstacles to buying a holiday home -"maison secondaire" or "maison de campagne" in France had been deciding where. Nick loves the sea so we considered the Brittany coast. Property is much more expensive there so finding somewhere we could afford would be difficult.


He also loves the mountains and big open spaces so we pressed our noses against estate agents windows in the Drome. That's a beautiful area and Die is twinned with Wirksworth in Derbyshire. But we decided the journey by road would take up too much of our holiday each time and we didn't expect to go by air very often.

Pete & Cyn had bought a place up in the hills near Perpignan but that was a very long drive from the ferry ports. Some ex-friends (people I had lost touch with) had a place in Vraison la Romaine. This is another lovely part of France with good wine, but they were teachers so got 13 weeks away from work each year - very different from our 30 days. If it took them 2 or 3 days to get there, no problem.


So we considered all the benefits of the Loire region:

1. Good weather a lot of the time and usually much better than at home.


2. Great food and wine.


3. Lovely roads for motorcycling - not too busy and hardly any hairpin bends!



4. Lots to do. Chateaux, winetasting, markets, fishing, loads of small village events.


5. A manageable travelling distance from home by road with several ferry routes to choose from. 2 very useful airports, Poitiers and Tours, with Limoges a third option only about another hour's drive away.


6. There still seemed to be ample affordable property, although prices were steadily creeping up. I was beginning to think that if we didn't do it soon, we would have missed the chance.



If we needed any more convincing, a glance through our photo album would do it.

The chateau at Chinon

The town Langeais seen from the Chateau there

Azay le Rideau



A shop in Chinon





In the tool museum at Chinon. (I could show you the mushroom museum, too,

but maybe that's just a liitle too sad!)

Montresor

April 23, 2009

TALES OF MONTE GORDO

THE STORY SO FAR....

The Loire river at Chinon

Nick and Jean have been together for 10 years and have travelled thousands of miles by motorcycle all over France. Their favourite area is the Loire Valley.



Chateau Azay le Rideau


They have graduated to Harley Davidson ownership and joined Sherwood Chapter HOG. They are about to go on the holiday of a lifetime to the European HOG Rally in Portugal in 7 weeks' time - but one of them has no bike.
------------------------------------

With only a few weeks to get something sorted in the way of a bike, the insurance assessor did not turn up for a whole week. I was horrified when he announced that my Harley was to be repaired and not written off. I had just paid a small fortune for a brand new bike and it would appear that I was to end up with a repaired crashed bike. I was not very happy but I just so desperately wanted my bike back - or any bike for that matter.

There followed a very fraught time over the next 6 weeks but with only 2 days to spare, I collected the bike and off we set for Portugal.
Waiting to board the ferry with over a hundred Harleys

The journey to Plymouth was wet but otherwise uneventful. We docked at Santander late in the afternoon and had 2 overnight stops planned before we got to Portugal. This involved a journey more or less due south to the coast and then just over the border into Portugal and to Monte Gordo.

On the second day in Spain we stopped for lunch at a motorway services and I noticed some oil leaking from the engine. That evening we were booked into the Parador at Zaffra. What a fabulous hotel. Some friends had recommended that we use the Paradors and we were not disappointed. However, with oil now leaking steadily from the cylinder head, we had the young man behind the desk very puzzled as I walked round the outside of all the beautiful carpets in the hotel reception - I had one very oily right boot and didn't want to ruin them.
Dining in style at the Parador in Zaffra

The next day, with about 100 miles to go, we stopped for lunch somewhere in the Andalucian hills and when I returned to the bike oil was positively pumping out. We set off and within moments I lost the back brakes and all the electrics. That meant one highly illegal bike - no indicators, speedometer, brake lights, lights and so on. Our options were limited but we decided that as the front brake still worked and whilst the engine was still running, we might as well press on and get as far as we could. With Nick riding close behind me for protection and me taking it steady but having no idea what speed I was doing, we struggled down to the coast.


We had been warned to expect police at the border due to some threats of anti-American activity arising from feelings about the Iraq situation. The last thing I needed was some nosey policeman inspecting my bike. We hung around and slid in amongst a group of about 20 Harleys from some other European chapter, in the hope that by mid-afternoon the border police would have seen so many hundreds of Harleys passing through they wouldn't be bothered to look too closely. It worked - the line of bikes slowed and passed through in single file and I heaved a sigh of relief as we made it into Portugal.

On arriving at the Rally site our priority was to find the "Technical Tent". This was a huge marquee, fully equipped as a motorcycle workshop. One of the technicians looked at my bike and agreed to fix it under warranty. It was off the road for the whole of the event and I was disappointed not to be able to take part in any of the riding activities and especially the ride out on the last day. However, I was not going to let that spoil my fun. We were in great company with our friends from Sherwood Chapter and had a wonderful time - more in a future blog, perhaps.
Party night in Monte Gordo, Robin Hood style !

My bike was given a clean bill of health on the last day of the rally - everyone was packing up and heading for home. We decided it would be a good idea to have a run out into the hills just to make sure it was okay before our long ride home. Within minutes I noticed the tell-tale trace of oil from the cylinder head and sure enough, opening the throttle caused oil to pump out. I was absolutely heartbroken. What now ? We went straight back to the technical tent to find it almost dismantled and everyone leaving. Senior tecnician, Ed, a Dutchman, told me there was no way my bike would get me home and he made a phone call. Minutes later a knight in shining armour came to my rescue - Paul Barker,the UK customer relations officer from H-D head office in Oxford turned up on one of the little mopeds the staff had been using to run around the rally site. He offered to take my bike back home to Oxford in his lorry and lend me one of their demo bikes to complete my holiday on. I was so relieved. I chose a 1200 sportster very similar to my previous bike and away we went..

Me and Ed - and my "new" sportster


The only problem was - it was a very basic bike with no rack or anything you could possibly attach any luggage to. As I said before, we no longer travelled light and poor Nick had to somehow get all the bags bungied onto his bike. We looked very comical as a pair, my bike all bare and basic and his piled high with bags. His championship bungieing skills paid off!


I ended up keeping the loan bike for 3 months. My beautiful sportster eventually arrived at Robin Hood and after several attempts to fix the leak and umpteen sets of gaskets, Harley Davidson finally gave up and exchanged it for another brand new and identical bike. Not only that, they also gave me a huge box of goodies including a fabulous leather jacket to compensate me for my trouble. They were wonderful and although I will never know whether the leak was the result of a faulty bike or damage due to the crash, they treated me superbly all the way through. I can't praise them highly enough.

April 20, 2009

SHERWOOD - THE NEXT CHAPTER


One of our many visits to Chinon "a moto"

We have been members of 3 motorcycle clubs. When I met Nick he was a member of "Howling Wolf MCC", a small local club with 20 or so members. They were a rum lot on the whole but we made a few good friends and had a lot of fun with them.

When I got my lovely turquoise Harley it came with a free year's HOG membership and an opportunity to join the local chapter. HOG = Harley Owners Group, the largest motorcycle club in the world with chapters in virtually every country and origins in the USA. I didn't feel quite ready for that yet, partly as Nick didn't have a Harley himself.

A friend suggested we join the HRCGB = Harley Riders Club of Great Britain instead. I was able to join but Nick had to be an associate member, as Grin was technically not a Harley but a custom bike. We were members for 2 years and the highlight was the UK rally at Shipley in Yorkshire. The ride out on the Sunday was amazing, with nearly 500 bikes in the line. There were spectators along most of the route, cheering and waving. I suppose that it's not every day of the year that the man in the street gets to see 500 beautiful, shiny, noisy American motorcycles go past his house. When we arrived at Harewood House people were ten deep around the arena, waiting for us to arrive and line up in what was a truly magnificent display.

Having got the taste for belonging to a club with a large membership and lots always going on, once Nick had his Dyna we decided to go the whole hog (forgive the pun) and join the Nottingham club, Sherwood Chapter HOG. This is one of the best things we have ever done in our lives. The club has 200 or so members at any time and there are a huge number of local, national and european activities going on every year. We were immediately welcomed and have been members since 2003. Each autumn, once the club's annual rally is over, talk always turns to next year's European rally and we decided to push the boat out, break with our usual holiday format and go with the club to Portugal in 2004. This was going to be the holiday of a lifetime, very expensive for us compared with our usual trips and we were very excited about it.

One of the many Sherwood events


2004 turned out to be a year of incredible highs and also terrible lows. The Portugal trip was at the end of May and Nick was disappointed that it was looking unlikely that Grin would be up to the trip. He had spent a fortune on ongoing repairs and modifications but each time he solved one problem another reared its ugly head. In February the headstock was broken and needed lots of work plus some repairs to the paint job - and the painter had gone to ground for months, it seemed. He also had concerns about his Dyna so we decided to do what we probably should have done years before, which is simply to walk into Robin Hood Harley Davidson and just buy a Harley "off the shelf". This we did on 14th February and whilst Nick was spending forever choosing bits and pieces for his new Harley, I wandered over to the new Custom Sportser that was on display and said to the salesman "what are these new ones like, then?" The deal was struck and on that day we ordered 2 Harleys, different models but both in red. We were so excited - a trip to Portugal on brand new bikes - a Valentine's Day to remember and an unbelievable high point.

My new 1200 custom sportster

Many people believe motorcycling is inherantly dangerous but I have always thought that there are things you can do to make sure you stay safe. Not loading the odds against yourself by riding like an idiot for starters. However, I always felt that somewhere out there, for each one of us, there is a guided missile with our name on it, in the form of some dozy car driver.


On 04.04.04 we met.


We were out on our brand new Harleys, running them in carefully. Mine had 120 miles on the clock. As we passed a t-junction, Nick in front, a scumbag in an old Rover saw him go by and then pulled out. I had enough time to think "this is going to hurt" but no time at all to get out of his way. The car hit the front wheel and the bike went down with me underneath it. The car driver tried to drive away but his path was blocked by Nick's bike. He was then reluctant to get out of his car, which is just as well, for as soon as I was back on my feet, I just wanted to kill him. I reached in and grabbed his car keys and handed them to the very large passing motorist who had stopped to help Nick get the bike off me. This man had LOVE tattooed on one hand and HATE on the other and had seen the crash. He was exactly the sort of person you need in a crisis and said "don't worry love, if he tries to run off I'll deck him for you". Scumbag had no tax, insurance or MOT, was of no fixed abode and was driving whilst disqualified. As far as I was concerned he didn't deserve to breathe the same air as me. The police carted him off and I was left with some horrible bumps and bruises, a completely destroyed bike and nothing to ride on our holiday of a lifetime in only 7 weeks' time.

That was a really low point in the year.

April 16, 2009

STORMY DAYS

Checking the luggage before boarding the ferry at Portsmouth


In June 2003 we drifted down to the Auvergne and camped at a small village called Bagnols, near Bort les Orgues. Nick had by then given up trying to keep Grin on the road and had bought a black Dyna Glide. We had also long since given up travelling light and each holiday carried an enormous amount of luggage bungied onto the seats, racks, anything. This added to our comfort in camping but made breaking camp a lengthy and complicated process. Everything had to be lashed down and stowed in exactly the right way to balance the bikes for the journey.




Nick and his lovely black Dyna


Our stay at Bagnols was memorable for two things:

1. The menu at the only hotel / restaurant in town. It had been translated into English for the convenience of visitors and it was hysterically funny. We sat outside with a beer whilst waiting for our food and laughed out loud at such dishes as "young cow's laughter in his grandmother's blue" - the translation for veal in a blue cheese sauce.


2. The amazing thunderstorm on the second night. We were quite high up and the thunder was like drums beating and bouncing around us between the hills. We hardly slept a wink. It was incredibly noisy, quite terrifying, and went on for hours.


After a couple of nights we moved on and south, heading for the Dordogne. The heat gradually increased as we came out of the hills and travelled south. By the time we arrived at Aurillac, it was extremely hot and humid. We set up camp in a shady spot. When we went for a shower, we were already hot and bothered again by the time we got back to the tent. The next afternoon we went for a walk along the river bank and it started to cloud over and cool down a bit. Thank goodness, we thought. By the time we reached the village it had started to look very grey and a lot like rain. We just made it to the canopies outside a restaurant when the heavens opened. It rained big style. Along with other tourists we decided we were stuck there for a while so we thought we may as well have a meal.


A nice shady spot for our tent

We had one of the best meals we have ever had in France, under a canopy, in the pouring rain, dressed in our scruffiest clothes and we were probably a bit whiffy too. The waiters had to keep prodding the canopy to get the rain to pour off onto the terrace instead of breaking through onto the diners.

Suddenly, as we paid the bill, the rain stopped and the sky cleared. We set off back along a steaming footpath and arrived at the campsite to find - DISASTER.


We had washing on the line that was sodden but so was the tent. A corner of the tent had come adrift and it was flapping about and had let water in. We were able to scramble together a reasonably dry bed for the night but the rest was in an awful mess.


The next morning it was 10 degrees cooler than the day before but we decided we had had enough of thunderstorms, heat, sleepless nights and the hard work that camping can sometimes be. This was supposed to be a holiday, after all. We packed up all our soggy washing, sodden tent and luggage, bungied it back on to the bikes and somewhat dejectedly, headed north. I was all for giving up and going home but Nick had other ideas.


Later that day, we were standing in the tourist office in Chinon enquiring about a gite. At that time our French was not too good but we got the gist of the conversation between the lady behind the desk and the hopeful gite owner. She said we were on "a moto" and therefore, no, we would not have too much luggage. She had obviously no imagination when it came to how much stuff you could actually get onto two bikes. Needless to say, the gite was very small. Actually it was just one room, with bed, table, "coin cuisine" and assorted furniture all crammed in. There was a small shower room with washing machine partitioned off in a corner. Neat but pretty cramped. Also slightly damp, as it was built into the rock in the hillside at the back.



We just had the ground floor of this little house - upstairs was another, more luxurious gite !

But we stayed for almost a week and were able to get everything washed, dried and sorted out. We also were able to meet up with our friends, Pete & Cyn, who were on their way south in their motorhome. They were looking for a property to buy.


Party-time, with the hopeful house-hunters.