A few weeks before we set off, the car had been giving me error messages that the diesel particulate filter (DPF)was filling up, culminating in putting the engine management light on and refusing to rev more than tickover. Unwilling to chance Darlington afternoon rush-hour traffic and a trip down the A1 back home, I elected to be recovered to a Peugeot specialist in Darlington where the car was given a '2-pack DPF clean and forced re-gen'. After I had fettled the front brakes for the MoT and changed the engine oil (recommended after a forced re-gen), I thought the car was in good shape for a French tour.
The holiday, part 1
We started off by cruising down to Kent to stay at a familiar site at Womenswold before getting the ferry the following day and setting off for Mrs H's family's houses near Chaource, Aube. The outfit felt good and we arrived in the evening, pitched up in what used to be a large farmyard at s-i-l's house. We were able to connect up to mains water and drain grey water under the caravan; very civilised. During these get-togethers, the other s-i-l and b-i-l join up with the group either by them walking down the hill, or us cycling up the hill to where the rest of them are to have a joint meal and catch-up.
This year, our hosts were due to start a contract in the far east so we feasted, drank their health several times and said goodbye to them as they set off for their home in England and thence to Shanghai for 2 years.
Soon after it was time for b-i-l, a non-driver, to return from Paris and so we travelled to Troyes to collect him from the train station and return him to his house. Mrs H and I like Troyes; the buildings are of a similar age to York, it's largely flat and water runs through the town. Troyes is a lot more spacious and open than York and there are arty displays of sculpture or pictures arranged above the canal; this year it was photos of historic Tour de France events. We enjoyed a peaceful lunch in one of the many restaurants in the town centre.
With the gap in my holiday budget caused by the DPF incident still painfully fresh, I was more than irritated to see the car again reminding me that the DPF was filling up. I searched for an phone-based app that would talk to the DPF and came across FAP lite which works for Citroen and Peugeot cars. It talked to the car's on-board diagnostic port via an ELM 327 reader that I had. The app showed the DPF as nearly blocked, or 'overloaded' as the app put it. At 105k miles, it was possible that the DPF was scrap, so what harm, I reasoned, would come from taking the filter off and washing it? Having done it before, it wasn't a difficult job to remove the filter and run some water through it. Pale pink fluid like rose wine trickled out the other end. Surely the water should run more freely than that? While I was pondering the failings of my car and its DPF system in particular, my b-i-l's neighbour came round to say hello. After some small talk I asked to borrow the pressure washer that I had heard being used the day before. There was a choice of 2 so I borrowed a mighty Karcher device. The stuff that came out of the filter this time looked for all the world like tomato soup. A couple of hours squirting first one end of the filter, then the other and I seemed to have much better flow of water. Maybe I'd managed to delay the purchase of a new DPF after all.
The holiday, part 2
We had agreed to transport b-i-l to near Cazaubon in the foothills of the Pyrenees in 10 days or so; he was to sing opera in a nearby small town for the owner of one of the Armagnac vineyards. The interval before this trip was ours to do with as we pleased so we set off south with the intention of visiting Dijon and the surrounding area. The car with its cleaned DPF performed well although the app showed the DFP as full and needing attention. There was more performance than I'd had for years. We like to camp near canals or rivers as they usually offer flattish cycling and pleasant scenery, so we chose a campsite 'Les Herlequins' at St-Jean-de-Losne which is at the junction of the River Saone and the Canal de Bourgogne. Les Herlequins was fronted by a busy bar and restaurant that clearly served campers and locals but the site was peaceful enough. Madame paid us the compliment of allowing us to practice our French on her while we registered, although I heard her later chatting to other Brits in English. We rolled out the Fiamma awning, put sides on it and settled in. We liked the site so much that we decided to stay in the same place rather than move around. Our arrival was hampered slightly by me not bothering to look at the approach on Google maps and trusting the satnav (and not for the last time either). It turned out the road along the riverbank to the campsite was not mapped by my Garmin. Knowing the coordinates of the site, the satnav sent us as close as possible to the campsite coordinates on a road that was mapped, but on the wrong side of the river. We were left looking at the campsite 100 metres away with only a short stretch of river in the way. After some amusement, Mrs H and I started looking for the more trustworthy 'camping' signs in the town. That evening the app showed the DPF as fully serviceable; now it could get some flow through it, I speculated it had performed a re-gen on its own on the Autoroute. I was happy.
The Canal de Bourgogne runs arrow-straight from Dijon to the River Saone near the camp site and ends in a lock and a sizeable boatyard where there was plenty of boatbuilding and repairing going on. We looked around the boatyard, listened to the crackle of some welding and someone beating something with a large hammer, and saw a plume of smoke from a diesel engine at full throttle. We cycled up the canal for several kilometres, declined to lunch at an expensive restaurant at Aiserey and we returned to base. During our stay we visited Dijon twice, and Beaune and Dole once each. Parking in Dijon was expensive, so we moved towards the outskirts for the second half of our day in the town. On our way back we tried some restaurants, but we had missed the noon – 2pm lunch window. It was purely by chance we came upon an all-day restaurant in a big square where we had a good value omelette and a beer. We admired the architecture in all 3 towns but Dole seemed to be our favourite. I was amazed by the organ in the church which filled the end wall with its intricate carvings and drapes that hadn't been touched for years. One of our highlights in Beaune was a tour of the Hotel de Dieu which catered charitably for the sick of years ago. Mrs H thought the arrangement of hospital beds in a line was much more sensible than modern, head-to-the-wall layout.
Mrs H declared that we could not admit the we had visited Dijon unless we returned bearing gifts of Dijon mustard, so, a bit more canny about parking, we went back. We found some gardens and a bus stop with my name on which honoured the departement's Chief Engineer who had sorted out the town's water supply and developed a law governing water flow in porous media. Laden with mustards, we returned to Les Herlequins and thence to the Chaource area to pick up b-i-l for . ..
The holiday, part 3
With no sign of the annoying messages from the car telling me the DPF was full, and the outfit seemingly able to travel for dozens of Autoroute kilometres in 6th gear at 100kph, needing no more than a squeeze on the throttle to get up hills, it was with some enthusiasm that I looked forward to the next 800km leg. Cazaubon is off the D933 halfway between Mont-de-Marsan and Condom. As I am the only driver, we elected to stop at Châtellerault, the half-way point. B-i-l, being a thoroughly decent sort, offered to stand us a meal near his hotel. We checked in at the Camping Municipal, did a quick set-up and found b-i-l his hotel in the centre of town. Our caravan is nominally a 4-berth but 2 of the berths are children's size, and b-i-l likes his comforts, so staying with us in the van wasn't on the agenda.
We returned to the caravan for a chill and got the bikes out ready to set off for the town centre and some food. Chatellerault had a lovely welcoming feel to it that evening. We had an excellent meal and found our way back to the caravan. The only thing to disturb us was the occasional rattle of a train swishing past at the edge of the campsite.
The following day we launched ourselves at the A10 again, this time in windy conditions. We were crossing the R. Dordogne on a long, exposed bridge just outside Bordeaux and I was passing an artic trailer with a bulldozer on it. Unusually, the towing mirrors started shaking badly in the slipstream. Then some 'dirty' air swiped the caravan. The driver of the truck I'd just passed got a fright and so did I. I thought we might have had to stop and discuss the loss of one of the truck's mirrors. Lesson learned and I slowed right down.
Several kilometres down the D932 brought us close to our destination. Rolling along a narrow French road, the satnav (and Mrs H) suggested a right turn. I took the turn onto a single track road and then stopped at the entirely unnecessary cul-de-sac sign where the track disappeared into the undergrowth. Checking the satnav showed two right turns but they were close enough to appear as one unless zoomed in more than normal. That's my excuse anyway. For the record, the map showed one right turn. Flanked by two deep ditches there wasn't space enough to unhitch and turn the caravan round; even if we could spin the van, I couldn't have got the car past to hitch up again. I would just have to reverse out into the 'main' road. My 2 passengers were stationed as lookouts and I backed out.
We dropped b-i-l off at a huge house that he referred to as 'the château'. It was big and old certainly, but it didn't have the grandeur of the Loire châteaux that we had seen before. There were no carvings, no evidence of white limestone and no steep slate roofs. We headed for a little campsite said to be attached to a farm. When we got there, it was a basically a cart track on a picturesque wooded hillside with a green pond in the middle. The stillness under the trees and the stagnant pond just said “mosquito!” to us, so we left in the direction of Camping Lac de L'Uby. This was a large open site on the shore of a lake catering for watersports. Facilities were excellent and clean, and access to our pitch really easy. The receptionist asked us whether she should do the booking in procedure in French or English; nice touch I thought. I noticed as I unhitched that the blade stabiliser wasn't engaged. Odd; it's part of my checklist before moving off. That might have something to do with the wind incident crossing the Dordogne. Anyway, the man-made lake included a track all around so cycling was simple; Mrs H was happy and therefore so was I. The surroundings were beautiful and exploring was a pleasure.
The evening of our arrival we were invited to dinner at the château with b-i-l, his pianist and madame, who was the owner of the Armagnac business. It was a simple and delicious meal which ended with a sweet that seemed like 50% cake, 25% cream and 25% liqueur. Mrs H drove back to the lake while the musicians stayed at the château.
Inevitably, the day of the performance drew near. Music generally and opera in particular do not feature on my list of preferred ways of spending an evening, but I married into a musical family so I had to grin and bear it. There was a 2 hour interval between delivering the performers to the venue and the start of the event which we decided to fill with some cycle exploring. We were a long way from our lakeside in a village called Mauleon d'Armagnac and in the foothills of the Pyrenees, so a hill was to be expected. Half way up I decided to walk it and got off the bike. Mrs H didn't so much get off as fell off her bike, into a ditch. She had also chosen to fall upside down into a patch of the greenest, fiercest-looking nettles for miles. She was upside down, legs in the air, not wanting to move in case she got stung again. If it wasn't for the nettles, it would have been pure slapstick. We had an anti-histamine roll-on so I emptied that onto the hundreds of stings; we cancelled our bike ride and repaired to the ancient cobbled village square for a beer. I was concerned that Mrs H had more than her fair share of nettle venom on board but she shrugged and asked for another glass of rose. B-i-l performed well to a packed venue; we declined the post-performance party at the château.
The morning of our departure from the area was the first day of the French national holiday, an event which didn't register 'til later that day. We hitched up, left our lakeside pitch and went to say goodbye to the contingent at the château. Before we set off we were invited to have a guided trip round the vineyard, brewery and still to see how the Armagnac is made. A whole year of tending vines ends in two18-hour days as the vines are gathered, pressed and lobbed into a series of vats each as big as a small house with gas burners beneath. No wine is sold as a result of this process, the liquor goes straight to the stills and thence to oak barrels for ageing. The aroma of the Armagnac in storage was divine. By way of a return match, madame politely asked for a look around the caravan. Once she had satisfied herself that there was somewhere to cook, to wash and to sleep, she seemed satisfied, a process that took less than 3 minutes. No opportunity to discuss the relative merits of 13-pin and 2 x 7-pin electrical systems then.
The holiday, part 4
Heading back north, destination La Rochelle, we noticed the A10 was really busy in a totally un-French M25 sort of way. Eventually we were down to stop/start traffic so we elected to take an early lunch at an aire. We changed our plans pretty quickly when we came upon the queue for the aire on the hard shoulder about 2 kilometres before. We went on to the next aire which was virtually solid. Caravan spaces? Not a chance. Cars were everywhere, on the grass, on the footpaths, in the service entrances. The queues to the toilets stretched across the aire. We circulated a couple of times before I spotted a length of grass just big enough to get the outfit off the tarmac without being in the way. It seemed very French to stop in an undesignated area. Lunch and a snooze later and our only choice was to back out into the aire traffic which seemed only slightly lighter than when we arrived. Mrs H did some arm-waving and smiling to stop the cars and we were on our way again.
Then began a chapter of errors and stress that took some hours to resolve. My first error was to fail to book anywhere to stop on this important and busy French holiday. Using Archies as a guide, we headed for a campsite near La Rochelle harbour. It turned out to be for motorhomes only, and was full. So we chose another campsite across the other side of La Rochelle and I stupidly let the satnav launch us into the middle of some really really tiny streets in the town centre. As we were stopped at a pedestrian crossing one chap mimed “your outfit is way too big for this area” and shook his hand as though his fingers were on fire. I shouted my thanks to him and shrugged; it was too late, I'd committed us. There wasn't enough pavement space for the pedestrians; they were spilling out into the road, tourists' shoulders rubbing the travel grime off the van windows, shopping bags sliding along the car sides, and rucksacks clonking the mirrors. Then I saw a bus up ahead. Things were looking up; if I can't fit my caravan where a bus can go, it's time to sell up and hotel it in future. We followed the bus until it took a right fork and a massive stainless steel bollard rose out of the road in front of me. Oh dear! I didn't actually say 'Oh dear' by the way. There was a road to the left but I'd gone too far into the junction and would have to back up to make the turn. I had a queue of cars behind me so I asked Mrs H to bail out and get the drivers to back up. I was just breathing a little of the stress away through my open window and watching Mrs H in the mirror when I was approached by a gentleman holidaymaker;
Could I speak French?
What can I do to help?
Please ask the drivers of the cars behind to back up. I can't move the caravan until they move.
As I was backing up, guided by Mrs H, the driver of the car immediately behind misunderstood the level of trust between Mrs H and me and leaned on her horn when I was about 2 metres away from her car. Eventually we were away, after thanking our helper profusely, to find campsite number 2. It was full. And so it was for two more campsites near Ayrtre. The last two we were 'accompanied ' by a French caravan being towed by a sweet-sounding American V8-powered van.
At 7:30pm we seemed to be running out of options. I had had enough, and so had Mrs H. We decided to turn inland towards Salles-sur-Mer. Mrs H was following progress on a map to try and pre-empt any foolish satnavvery. In Salles-sur-Mer we thought we were on our way to the camp site Le Moulin when we were confronted by a set of brand new 'No Entry' signs. We backed into the car park of some flats to turn round when a lady appeared, and in French that was a model of clarity, and speaking slowly, she explained exactly where the campsite was and where we should look out to avoid missing it. More thanks to this kind lady and we drove down towards the campsite entrance only to see the 'camp site full' sign and to meet Monsieur walking up the hill on his way home. Without hesitation, he invited us to walk round the site with him to see if there might be space for us. Despite the 'complet' sign, there was, and with huge relief, we said goodbye to Monsieur, our 3rd angel of the day, and we pitched up. Registration and payment could wait until the day after. I then distinguished myself by addressing a nearby family in French while I was filling the water containers. They were slightly bemused; they were from Cornwall. We liked Le Moulin so much that we stayed on for a few days.
Phew! I'll book next time there's a French holiday. Incidentally, our plan B was to fill up the containers with water at the campsite taps and 'wild' camp in the motorhome park at the entrance to the camp site as Mrs H and I were both running on empty by then.
We explored nearby Chatelaillon-Plage, found a busy food market and walked barefoot on the beach, something we haven't done for years
A cycle visit to La Rochelle followed. We walked the streets and looked at the bollard that had stopped us in our tracks. We found the harbour and the vieux port where I saw more boats with masts than I had ever seen before in one place. We watched the tourist boats manoeuvring skilfully around one another, we found a market and we watched some street performers dancing energetically in the relentless heat.
Mrs H said that she wanted to cycle to the end of the Ile de Re so we motored across the peage bridge and parked up at the first town we came to, Rivedoux-Plage. What we should have done is park before the bridge and cycle across. More of that later. We lunched halfway across the island, then fate lobbed us a custard pie. I went too fast onto a change of road surface near Ars-en-Re which sliced open my bicycle rear tyre and inner tube. We stopped at a cycle shop to blow the tyre back up with their air line, but it only lasted a couple of kilometres or so. My bike has hub gears meaning that it takes a while and some tools and expertise to get the back wheel off and on again, so we returned to the bike shop, where they replaced the tube and put it all back together for €20 while we had an ice cream. If that sounds a lot, I've done the job before, and €20 is cheap, so thank you Cycland.
We cycled back to the car after some discussion as to where exactly we had left it, and then sat in a queue for an hour waiting to get back to La Rochelle. As I said, we did the trip the wrong way round, we should have left the car on the mainland.
Then it was time to head north up the N10 to Chartres. We checked in to Camping Bords de l'Eure where we were greeted by Monsieur who fancied himself as a bit of a comedian. The site was large with fine facilities except the tap next to our pitch which wasn't working, and we pitched up near the entrance. The first night some teens disturbed me at 2am screeching and running noisily around the site but it was an isolated incident. A short cycle ride took us into the centre of Chartres with its beautiful cathedral which was illuminated by a son-et lumiere event (in English). The following night we took the little train (a disguised tractor and 3 road-going trailers) around the town and listened to the French commentary, some of which we understood. Chartres seemed to have tried really hard for tourists, much of the city was lit for the benefit of pedestrians and riders on the little train. With the experience of La Rochelle fresh in my mind, I was intrigued at the way the train negotiated the right-angle turns in the narrow streets without running over anyone's toes. From Chartres, we headed back to Calais for an evening ferry. The boat was an hour late and then there was a problem letting us off at Dover. We sat for ages on the car deck among everyone else's engine fumes. A distant siren could be heard, and flashing lights. Eventually a chap in hi-viz clutching a toolbox ran past us. No explanation, nothing on Twitter. Any tannoy announcement would have been drowned in engine noise. Black mark P&O. And so, in darkness, back to Womenswold which signalled the end of the holiday. On our way back up to Yorkshire, it was the A14 that stalled us. Time for a stop and fuel at Cambridge services. The caravan parking area was full of non-caravan vehicles so I parked across the back of them, blocking them in, including an AA recovery truck. Sorry, but it had to be done. As it happened, no-one was inconvenienced and I claimed a slot vacated by 2 cars.
Latterly the stabiliser was unlatching itself every journey so needs some attention. I need to talk to the garage man about his DPF cleaning procedure, its cost and effectiveness, and we need to get back on holiday as soon as possible.
Sorry, no pictures. I've never really made the transition from film to digital. I reflect that my film picture-taking was much more to do with enjoying working a precision machine than showing any talent in photography. Mrs H takes pictures of the family; not really relevant to this public blog.