Clarion on (and off) the Avenue Verte: 31 August to 8 September – Brexit-Breaking Bravado from Brighton to Bray

On 31st August, Brighton & Hove Clarion returned to Dieppe. Though individual members have cycled from Dieppe more recently in events organised by others, this was the first such visit organised by our section since 23-25 April 2010, when no fewer than 14 members participated in a long weekend ride (for report click here and scroll down). This time, sadly, we could not muster such numbers, possibly because this was a more ambitious ride covering much more ground and hence taking longer – six days, to be precise (nine for Ivor).

Original scan

Angela writes: We set off as four – myself (Angela D), Wendy Scott, Ivor Fried and Jim Grozier. We lost Wendy on the second day and Ivor two days later. Clarion members can be a little careless it seems. The day we arrived we tripped off to the Nordic baths – a 50 metre heated outdoor swimming pool where we splashed around happily until our return to the Egg hotel and dinner at le New Haven (sic).

Jim writes: We made good progress along the route of the old railway line; since our last visit, when the rails still ran alongside the path in some places, most of them have been completely removed, but occasionally one comes across one of the short lengths of track left as museum pieces to record the previous life of the route, along with a few old signals and the many charming little crossing-keepers’ houses, some derelict but some surviving as private houses. Angela assessed each one we came to as a possible future residence for when Brexit takes hold.

A railway relic on the Avenue Verte

As the only member of the 2010 party to be participating this time around, I tried to remember how far we’d got last time, but it all looked very similar, and there were no convenient landmarks after the café at the start, where, as I recalled when reading the 2010 report, Angela C and I had actually sat out most of the previous ride. From that report, it seems the furthest anyone got was somewhere near Freulleville, with a round total (Dieppe-Dieppe) of 31 miles.

Angela: There are some ghostly railway stations en route – such as St Vaast d’Equiqueville – and on our return, I did wonder if our missing companions were to be found in the waiting room, patiently hanging on for their return train to Dieppe. The second night we stayed in a chambre d’hôte near Bures-en-Bray where we were met by a less than enchanted couple who told us dourly we weren’t supposed to arrive until five. So we set off on our travels again to Mesnières-en-Bray where, this being half past three or so, it was impossible to get lunch at the épicerie/restaurant, but we were provided with sandwiches and coffee.

2017-09-01 Avenue Verte train station

Jim: The following day we stopped at the only eatery actually on the route – the old station at Neufchatel, now a lovely crêperie – for lunch. We also admired the old signal levers (or at least, I did). The off-road railway path ends at Forges-les-Eaux, our second overnight stop.

Angela: Forges-les-Eaux was a party town in its youth but now seems a little threadbare and bisected by an unpleasant car-filled high street. The hotel Continental where we stayed heavily promoted a nearby casino where apparently it was impossible to lose any money but there seemed few takers. A couple of doors down we found a nice little restaurant (la Source) with good French food. The two vegetarians were flexible with fish and omelettes.

The next day we left the trusted level going of the avenue verte and three of us set off towards the hills, but in separate directions – Ivor to somewhere he could camp and follow the call of the wild, and myself and Jim to do a circular around Forges-les-Eaux, to try out the more up and down bits and return to our rather anonymous chain hotel in the evening. We missed Ivor, and so did my bicycle as it was not used to having sweet little nothings directed at it, congratulating its sprockets or exclaiming over aluminium tubing, not issues that ever concerned its rider.

So we set off to the outer reaches of the map, IGN carte de randoneé 2110. Unfortunately this particular map caused me great existential anguish because the map area itself is very small and it has large white borders lacking in any information. I berated the map makers tirelessly for their insistence on trying to make a poor cyclist tip over into a white void. Great was my relief the next day when we passed over to IGN 2008 Forêt d’Eawy where the map extended right to the very edge.

On our circular trip we went south via la Ferté St Samson, which had a high defensive mound with a church and then an orientation table – a semi-circular guide, set into stone, of the surrounding countryside. There was also a very old half-timbered house in the village – ‘the house of Henri IV’ – but little else. Norman villages do not have shops or cafés or any provision for eating and drinking. Fortunately we had brought our own – a necessity at all times, we discovered, in Normandy.

Jim: We proceeded northwards on a series of tiny roads which eventually fizzled out into a farm track, before delivering us into a sort of living museum based around a collection of farm buildings constructed in the local style, which features timbered walls in geometrical patterns. This place was confusingly known as Bray (just about everything around there ends in Bray!) To add to the surreal atmosphere there was also a large fishing competition going on, but the cafe was – of course – fermé. We ended the day’s ride with a repetition of the final stretch of Avenue Verte at Serqueux, where the route crosses a still-operational railway line.

The chicken house at Bray

                                  The chicken house at Bray

Angela: This initial ride gave us confidence to continue on the return by a route that ignored the avenue verte and went by little roads. Jim was game for my enterprising use of these little white lanes; even to the point where we ended up in a swamp at St Aubin-le-Cauf – flat to be sure, but with water lapping at our ankles. I directed us onto a very pretty ancient stone bridge, too narrow to wheel the bikes across and with a very full river underneath where even my recklessness was deterred – very fortunately as it was entirely the wrong direction. Jim stoically navigated us out of the watery morass.

Jim: The previous day we had chosen a route which took us to the west of the Avenue, through the Bois de l’Epinay and then a third and final pass through Serqueux, savouring our last chance for a roadside coffee at a very characterful small French bar full of locals drinking goodness knows what. Then more quiet lanes, hedged with the local crop – corn – which looked ripe and tempting, but we refrained, as we were not sure if it was animal feed, or whether our bags might be searched at Dieppe (they weren’t – the whole sea crossing business remains remarkably civilised, with only a passport check, no X-ray machines or body searches). At Neuville-Ferrières we briefly rejoined the Avenue Verte to Neufchatel, only to find that even the wonderful crêperie (“open all year” according to the guide book) was nevertheless closed on Mondays.

Angela: Even here, in a small town of 8,436 people (thanks Wikipedia) there appeared to be only one bar open, with a lugubrious middle-aged male proprietor and an even older and sadder single customer sitting at the bar. Our last night was spent back in le Bas Bray, the same chambre d’hôte as we’d stayed at previously, but with an even less congenial welcome. The owners seemed inclined to view guests as something of a nuisance but unfortunately necessary as income generators to keep up their grand farm.

Our route was north west, traversing the river valleys. Most of the trip went well; no mention of the four letter “h” word even though Jim did enquire rather plaintively, when I suggested a possible route, that the brown lines did look rather close together? I replied that I thought he had his long distance glasses on, not his reading ones. He agreed it all looked rather blurry and kindly refrained from saying anything when a few hours later I caught up with him on the summit, where he was patiently studying the river below and I was heaving and puffing in a manner similar to Hannibal’s elephants crossing the alps, but with considerably less visual appeal.

A typical Normandy landscape

Jim: The pass took us up the west side of the Béthune valley and crossed over into the neighbouring valley. This valley eventually joins the Varenne valley at St Germain d’Étables, where the river broadens into a network of lakes. Finally to St Aubin-le-Cauf and the aforementioned swamp, and back onto the Avenue Verte for the ride back to Dieppe.

Angela: This being about four o’clock, all the restaurants in Dieppe had stopped serving lunch, but we persevered and eventually found somewhere we could collapse into until it was time for the boat to leave at six. On the quayside, fortunately not raining, and contrary to the normal custom, we were left stranded with our bikes, while motorbikes, lorries, motorhomes and cars rumbled past belting out lots of toxic pollution. No matter; we caught the 21.35 that was running late at Newhaven and congratulated ourselves on an excellent trip.

Total mileage for Angela and Jim: 114 in 5 days (Dieppe to Forges and back)

Ivor writes: I initially headed down to Gournay en Bray and then went slightly wrong at St Germer de Fly, where I ended up doing a few kilometres towards Beauvais.  This is the beginning of the alternative Avenue Verte route to Paris, as can be seen in the Sustrans route guide. Having realised my mistake, I navigated to the nearest campsite: Camping Belle Etoile at Le Coudray Saint Gemer (quite a long steep climb).

The next day I navigated to Amécourt, where I rejoined the route but ended up going a few k along it in the wrong direction (!) – After turning around, I retraced my route and headed to Gisors.  I then went about 6k further along the route to reach the campsite at Dangu. The section of the route after Gisors is old railway track.  I continued down this greenway to Bray-et-Lû.  This is the point where the Avenue Verte leaves the greenway, but I stayed on it and headed through Gasny and Giverny ending up in Vernon, where I spent the night.

The next section goes from there to Le Petit Andely and I spent the night a short distance further on at Le Val Saint Martin. The route climbs steeply from there to Le Thuit and then descends to run parallel to the Seine.   I crossed the Seine at the locks at Amfreville and headed to Pont de L’Arche.  Rather than stop there, I headed on to Rouen (the weather forecast for the next day was not good and I wanted to get to Rouen ASAP).  The route runs through suburban streets, some more major roads and forestry roads (no motor vehicles).  The initial forest section is a steep climb!   The route emerges from the last forest section in a suburb of Rouen.  A local advised me not to hang around in the forest area after dark (I got there at around dusk).

The forest route emerges in Rouen directly by a cluster of hotels: Campanile, Ibis and Novotel (a rather more upmarket one).  Anyone doing this route should consider booking one of these in advance.

Ivor’s total mileage: 243 in 9 days (including riding from Brighton to Newhaven and back!)

It would be nice if we could do another Avenue Verte ride some time, possibly varying the format to attract more people. For instance, it would be possible to do a series of one day rides based around Neufchatel, or travel to Serqueux by boat and train, so that the total duration could be flexible, to cater for participants’ prior commitments. As Ivor points out, “Vernon is only a short train ride from Rouen and Dieppe.  The trains carry bikes: very similar set-up to Southern: special section with space for two bikes stacked against each other. Vernon could be a good end point for anyone wanting to shorten the route.” He adds: “If you want to follow the Avenue Verte into Paris, you can take the train from Paris to Vernon and rejoin the route there, or simply take to train back up to Rouen and Dieppe.  There didn’t seem to be any issue with bikes on the Vernon to Rouen / Dieppe stretches, but it’d probably be a good idea to check which services from St. Lazare carry bikes.” Gournay and Gisors also have rail links to Rouen.

Angela trying to work out the difference between Ricarville du Val and Val de Ricarville

French signposts can be a little confusing …

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