Return to Normandy

16th-18th October 2009

The last long trip of the year?

And what a year it’s been! Despite the ‘credit crunch’ and Sterling’s death-dive against the Euro, this trip was still over-subscribed. Being led in person by John Warr, Chapter Director, with Colin Houliston, Assistant Chapter Director scouting out front gave it an added cachet. Road Captain’s Paul Wiggins & Richard Beake were roving marshalls and last man duties throughout were performed admirably by Andrew Papas.

Sherman Tank

The previous Chapter trip to Normandy was in 2003, when everything was much lower key and more sparsely attended. On that occasion nine of us took the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, so we spent less time driving to Normandy and more time driving around it. However developing technologies including Sat-Nav make the longer trips much easier to plan, and current practice is to use the Eurotunnel wherever possible, as it is so quick and convenient and not subject to the weather (or mal de mer).

The final tally was 26 people on 23 motorcycles, with Harley’s full range represented from a nearly new and nicely customised 883R to John’s 2010 FLHX. The presence of the Sportster meant that 100 mile petrol stops were de rigeur, giving everyone a chance to stretch legs and (where required) blow smoke about.

Normandy is the Kent of France. The region is home to apple orchards, livestock farms and cheese makers; many of its comestibles are world famous - Calvados, Moules, Brie, Camembert, Cidre Bouché. Away from the coast is the Suisse Normande, a region of rolling limestone hills cut by precipitous wooded river valleys, criss-crossed with superb biking roads. The coastal strip itself has the D-Day beaches, museums and monuments, as well as trés chic seaside towns and villages. Deauville and Trouville compete with Honfleur to offer the tourist quality and variety.

We travelled out on Friday, meeting at the tunnel at 8.20am. Due to the distance between Calais and Caen being about 300km, we had to use the motorways to keep to schedule. The weather was also against us with a cold but dry start soon changing to cold and wet, and then to colder and wetter. The rain driving in off the Channel reduced visibility and grip and lowered the speed limit to 70mph. So close to Calais it is a rich and foolhardy rider who risks coming to the attention of the Gendarmerie through excess speed, but with the Chapter proceeding with due care and attention, the only Gendarmes we saw seemed happy to smile and wave. After a brief lunch stop and a timely reminder from JW about French motorway lane discipline we made good time south.

Pierre Huet Calvados distillery in Cambremer

Navigating down witnessed a single error, which sent us 10 miles the wrong way along the A29 so that we could queue up to pay a 60 cents toll. We then had to queue up to pay another 60 cents toll so we could drive another 10 miles to get back to where we were half an hour before. How we laughed!

Weather and navigation notwithstanding, we arrived on time at 5pm at the Pierre Huet Calvados distillery in Cambremer, for a pre-booked guided tour. 500 annual tons of apples (30 varieties!) are transformed by a mixture of science and alchemy into one of Nature’s liquid golds. The informative tour was followed by abstemious tasting and gratuitous purchasing, before we remounted one last time for the final leg into Caen. Unfortunately the rush-hour traffic was both dense and bad-tempered, and thoughts increasingly turned to the first beer.

The Mercure hotel is centrally situated in Caen’s Port de Plaisance, and an easy walk to the bars, restaurants and the Old Town. As a rendezvous point we used the Le Grillon, a bar next door. At €5 for a large beer, the prices were normal for France. It’s not their issue that what cost the equivalent of 3.50 two years ago is now the best part of a fiver. From there we decanted to a local restaurant for an excellent ‘set meal’ arranged by Paul Wiggins. A reasonably early night followed, after a night-cap or two in a bar in the Old Town.

Merville Battery

Saturday was the day of the main tour. After a prompt breakfast everyone was ready to roll at 10am; a roundabout route via Pegasus Bridge took us to the inland battery at Merville. This battery overlooked the allied invasion area at Sword Beach and was believed to contain modern 150mm guns. Assaulted by 9th Para around midnight on 5th/6th June 1944 it was one of the most brutal of the D-Day battles. Ironically it was found that the supposed large calibre guns were obsolete 100mm relics from the First World War. From there we made our way along the picturesque coast road to Courseulles sur Mer for lunch, where a small local restaurant made light of the influx and served hungry bikers a reasonable lunch in rapid time. Courseulles itself was at the centre of Juno Beach where the Canadians came ashore, commemorated by the preserved Duplex Drive Sherman proudly displaying the regimental badges of the attacking troops, who in the initial assault suffered 50% casualties from well dug-in and determined German defenders.

View over Arromanches

After lunch we went further along the coast to Arromanches where the remains of a Mulberry harbour still lie on the foreshore. A visit to another museum was then followed by the best riding of the weekend, as we took a circular route south and the long way back to the hotel, passing through Bayeux en route in order to refuel one more time. The weather remained dry all day which was a pleasant change from Friday, but warm it was not.

Saturday’s evening meal was another pre-booked set arrangement, and none the worse for that. The particular restaurant chosen was redolent with memory for me, as the scene of the famous Nick Page (General Patton) cigar event, but the current non-smoking regulations exorcised that ghost. The food was fine but the service slow, so it meant that we didn’t get out before midnight. After our by-now customary Old Town night-caps, and a few more beers in Le Grillon it was suddenly 4am and bed became of pressing importance. I’m sure that we had put some part of the world to rights but a passing carrion crow had emptied my wallet and excreted on my tongue. Fortunately (?) my wife phoned me at 8am on Sunday morning ‘to check that I was OK’ so I made breakfast and left on time.

Sunday’s ride back was divided into two parts; before and after we got lost! It was OK as far as a turn off the A29 motorway near Fécamp, but Howard’s péage ticket didn’t work and we got separated from the main group. They went off for lunch in Treport but we didn’t... so rather than trying to search Northern France for a group of Harleys, Howard and Margie and I skedaddled off to Calais and caught a nice early train home. I sent JW a placatory text message so he didn’t worry.

The trip was about 700 miles overall, so by no means the longest of the year. However I enjoyed it as least as much as the others, the company was great, the bike worked well and all my kit functioned properly; nothing leaked, fell off or otherwise embarrassed itself.

Big thank to John, Colin, Andrew and Paul for setting up an excellent weekend. Apologies to all for occasional didactic manifestations. Normandy remains one of my favourite touring locations, and this trip enhanced its charms.

Michael Howers - C&F Road Captain