A 3 week cycling trip around France and two pen sketches

Pen drawing of a ferry boat
A pen sketch of a ferry done during a trip from Southampton to Cherbourg and around 1995.

Perhaps it was around 1995, I was studying Architecture at Nottingham university and it was not going well.

It had started with A’s and then my grades had just gone down. I ended the year with an e or lower. I was basically not clever enough for the course but too proud to admit it.

Over the summer I rented an apartment and I worked at a quiche factory. Well, they made quiches and other things which I can’t remember. I don’t know how I got that job but it was quite an experience.

And I must admit it was nice to be making money and fairly decent money by my standards. Making money wasn’t my normal experience when I was young. Most of my early days were spent in a state of borderline poverty.

But it was a hellish job or at least the smell was. When you entered the factory floor the smell or rather deep stench assaulted your nostrils. It’s always been a reminder to me to never eat processed food.

And my job was taking quiches from a conveyor belt and putting them into boxes or something like that. Cogwork basically. And I was working during the night shift.

But it wasn’t without any learning. For instance, I learnt how the luxury quiches and the normal ones moved along the same conveyor belt and looked pretty much the same except for the boxes. It’s amazing how the simple addition of an adjective, such as luxurious, can increase the price of something. That’s why names don’t always mean anything. You have to work it out for yourself by looking at the actual thing.

I worked next to an overweight white woman who was a very nice person. And a slender, black woman from Jamaica who was beautiful. She looked like she could have been a sprinter.

I’m kind of dumb so although I knew there was something strange about her face I couldn’t work out what. I probably didn’t look too carefully as it might appear rude. And for some reason she talked to me a lot but not in a chatting me up way. She was possibly just making sport of me. But it was a mundane job and I was a new person, so I was a novelty for her and also she probably liked to chat in order to pass the time.

And she certainly wasn’t impressed by me. She told me, for instance, that I had a child’s hands. Well, I must admit I do have rather small hands and quite stubby fingers. I wish though that people wouldn’t point out so much that I’m less than perfect.

This is one of quite a few derogatory comments I have received from women about my physical appearance and which I didn’t ask for but they felt for some reason compelled to give. 

Anyway, she also told me about her family. And then she told me a nightmare story about how one day she had been cooking at home and had suddenly passed out and how her head had fallen on the cooker. She woke up but was in a state of shock and didn’t realize she had burnt half her face. It was only when she walked outside that a neighbour upon seeing her went and called the ambulance.

That’s when I looked more carefully at her face. I could see something but I still thought she looked beautiful.

Anyway, the people at this factory were nice. The hours, though, were terrible. I went to bed when everybody was waking up.

And there were thin curtains in my room that I was renting that let in nearly all of the bright sunlight. It was a kind of torture as it felt like somebody was shining a light in my eyes while I tried to sleep. And, as far as I can remember, every day seemed to be sunny during that summer. And it was hot.

I’d wake up at 3 in the afternoon to go for a swim and I felt like the living dead. It felt as though my blood had dried up in my veins.

I did this night-shift for a few weeks and then collected my salary. And then I bought a touring bicycle and went cycling around France for 3 weeks.

It took a lot of preparation but it was also exciting. Finding the right bike; getting panniers, getting maps and checking where I would go. I needed more than one map. Then I had to get a tent and a sleeping bag.

And then I had to book the ferry from Southampton to Cherbourg. I took the train down to Southampton with my bike which was a bit of a hassle because you have to put it in a special compartment.

And then I think I spent the whole night awake in Southampton. I vaguely remember going past a pub and an old man coming up to me. He had a friendly face but it seemed too friendly. And some younger man came out and told him to leave me alone. I don’t know what the older man was up to but I’m always glad for that younger man doing that.

And then it was morning and I got on the ferry. I remember cycling up the ramp to board the ferry along with cars, caravans, trucks and so on. It was quite an experience. I felt so small next to all these vehicles, like a midge, and probably just as annoying.

I can’t remember much of the trip over the channel and yet I did do a drawing of the ferry itself. I was probably on the deck of the ferry most of the time enjoying the view of the sea and being excited about seeing the coastline of France.

And I remember getting off the ferry and seeing a young, crisply dressed, super upright black soldier with a submachine gun in front of him. It was such a powerful image that it was like seeing an iconic image.

And then I was cycling out of Cherbourg, which was an ugly city, and into the countryside. This was the beginning of my 3 week adventure and I felt thrilled. I think I cycled a long way that day because of my enthusiasm.

And I think it was that day or possibly the next, I can’t be sure as too much time has passed, that I saw a beautiful sight that I will always remember.

It was around evening time, I was cycling along the coastal road and next to me, stretching far out to the sea, were beautiful sandbanks. And beyond them, in the distance I saw the small but distinctive shape of St Michel. It was so beautiful. And as I cycled along I watched the sun go down on that beautiful little island and I saw the stars slowly come out above it. It was magical.

I went past some people at a small car park who were enjoying the sight of this famous island. And I should have stopped cycling and enjoyed the view with them but I just kept on pedaling. I was a fool.

I can’t remember where I slept that night. 

The next day I think I passed through St Malo which is a beautiful old French town full of lovely yellow stone buildings.

And then perhaps the next day I arrived in Rennes and saw the cathedral Saint-Pierre de Rennes. It was a tour de force of a building. It seemed to shoot up so straight and uncompromisingly and to an intimidating height. I could feel something when I looked at that building, something abrupt, strong, powerful, something to be impressed by and I was. But I’m not sure if I liked it.

So I cycled through the French countryside and it was so much more beautiful than England. Modernism has not uglified this country as much as it has in England and destroyed any sense of an older place that had a bit more interest in beauty and decoration. The villages are quiet affairs, sometimes really quiet, but picturesque. And I would always stop at the one bakery, or rather patisserie, that every village had. 

The bakeries are special in France and the bread is so delicious. It was a little expensive but it was the highlight of my day.

I had various adventures on the road.

Train crossing mishap

One time I came down a hill very fast.

And at the bottom of the hill, to my surprise, was a train line crossing. 

Although I put on the brakes I couldn’t slow down completely and so went over the tracks at speed. 

As I went over the crossing I felt and heard two hard thuds. 

When I managed to stop and could check my bicycle, I found that one side of the rack on the back of my bicycle, from which my panniers hung, had broken where it attached itself to the axle of the rear wheel. 

At first, I was in a bit of a panic. 

But the rack, although a little wobbly, was still functioning and holding my panniers.

So I could still cycle which was a relief. 

And so I started to cycle around that place, which was a village, looking for a local garage mechanic.

Luckily, I soon found one. 

He was a taciturn but honest man who soon fixed my bicycle and charged me very little.

Another time, when I was very much into my journey, and was travelling in what must have been a national park because it was so natural and beautiful, I remember cycling up a road at a slight incline without any paths and it was quite sandy and rocky by the side of the road and then suddenly a huge 18 wheeler truck roared past me. As it roared past me it went right off the road onto the sandy edge by the side of the road and then slowly returned back to the road. It was a bit of a shock but what can you do? I’m glad that I hadn’t been 25 meters ahead or I would have been a goner. I did wonder though what had caused the truck to swerve off the road. Had the driver been distracted by me, had he fallen asleep, was he swerving around me or had he even been playing with me?

Another time I decided to go on the motorway as it was a much more direct route than the normal roads and it was taking me a long time to get south and I wanted to get as far south as I could. I was a bit nuts. Anyway, on the motorway I got beeped quite a few times by cars whipping past me at really high speeds. And so reluctantly I came off when I had the chance.

And I should talk about campsites. 

Although I think of myself as rather a good person, there are times when I’m not. For I did a rather bad thing of entering campsites late at night when there was nobody to pay and leaving very early in the morning before anyone arrived to collect money. Well, I didn’t have a lot of money and had to be as frugal as possible – well, except for my one indulgence: a French pastry.

And sometimes I would pay or at least try to. I remember one time I came to a very spic and span looking campsite. And I went to the campsite office to find out about the cost of staying one night. And this is where I met the owner, or I presume the owner of the place. He was a very tall French man who sat me down in his office and told me his prices. 

This was all to be expected and I was not flustered. But then he wanted my passport as a kind of insurance. I refused to give it to him and he exploded in anger. He unceremoniously gesticulated me out of his office shouting at me the whole time. Some young lads in the rec room next to the office watched with astonished faces. I didn’t argue with the man. He looked like he could have been in special forces. Anyway, I was soon on my bicycle and shrugged the whole event off like water on a duck’s back but it was pretty intense at the time. All that said, I’m glad I didn’t give him my passport.

And at one of the first campsites I came to, when I was still early on in my journey, I met a Dutchman who was very friendly. He told me that he used to be an engineer on the TGV train line but was now retired and into fishing. Well, obsessed with fishing might be more accurate. Mostly all I remember now is his enthusiasm for fishing and the huge amount of fish he had frozen in his freezer and also the beautiful emerald green color of the sea around Normandy which I think he talked about and which made me look at the sea and notice just how beautiful it looked.

And another time I came to a campsite at night time that was completely empty apart from one caravan with a light on. It was in a large field of tall grass and next to a rather dark and forbidding-looking wood. I can’t believe I stopped in that field, put my tent up and slept there that night. It was quite a dramatic, windy night too. The thought did occur to me that I might at some point in the night get chopped up by a psychopath who might be in that caravan – but I dismissed the thought. And that is just as well because nothing happened. The next day I was back on my bicycle and I never even met the person in the caravan.

At another campsite I remember the shower and the urinal being a single unit. You had the urinal beneath you, just like a Japanese toilet and there was a shower above you. I found the whole design disgusting. Just being honest. I similarly find having the toilets and the showers in the same room disgusting too. I’m a bit overly sensitive about such things but there you go. In Japan they have them separate. I think it’s much more pleasant.

France of course is famous for its culinary delights.

And I knew that Brittany was famous for its crepes. I didn’t have much money but I felt that at least one time I should try one because I was here. So I went to a very nice looking French restaurant and ordered a crepe with vegetables and tomatoes. I paid quite a lot of money, for me, but hey this was French cuisine, something special, and so I was willing to splash out at least one time. 

But I was very disappointed when they brought me what looked like a very flat pancake, you could almost call it a wafer. I wondered where the vegetables and tomatoes were. I thought they might still be coming and this was a starter or a side dish. 

However, after waiting a while and finding out that nothing else was coming I decided to take a bite out of that wafer and that’s when I discovered the vegetables and tomatoes. Well, it was more a smear of vegetables and tomatoes. Despite being a very disappointing experience at the same time I was impressed by the ability to get vegetables and tomatoes into such a minute space – it almost defied geometry.

And actually it was not my first time that I’d been disappointed by France. I had gone to Calais on a school trip and I remember buying a framed picture of Calais for my family. And I’ll never forget their laughter when I gave it to them and they turned it over and it said “Made in England” on the back. And then the highlight of the trip was the fish and chips or rather fish and french fries because after all this was France. Sadly they didn’t tell me the whole thing was covered in a cheese sauce. I hate cheese. I think I managed to scavenge a few of the french fries that had escaped the cheese sauce.

Anyway, getting back to this story. I later learnt that crepe actually used to be the food of the poor people and then I understood why the filling was only a smear. It must have been hard in France in the past.

However, I did have two good culinary experiences during my trip. One of those times was when I had spaghetti bolognese which you will read about later. The other time was when I went to a rather ordinary looking cafe. There was an old man at the cafe and a beautiful young girl who was probably his grand-daughter. The old man cooked an egg for me and put it on toast. Yes, I know there is nothing simpler to eat but it tasted so good. He could really cook and it was pretty cheap. You just have to know the right places but I guess that’s always the case and the problem for tourists.

I think most of the rest of the time I was living off chocolate bars and croissants. I can’t remember very well what I actually ate. I remember stopping at patisseries every day for a pastry and also often going to the big supermarket near the motorways where you could get delicious and fairly cheap food.

And I did have one rather strange experience.

It happened in a city called Redon. It was a big and rather ugly city. I was cycling along and noticed that I was being followed. And no, not by some French girl, but by a French guy. He was following me in his car. I guess it should have been a little unnerving.

Anyway, I stopped and the French man got out of his car and approached me. He was very friendly. He asked if I was English. I said yes. And I asked how he knew. And he said, because I have a Raleigh bicycle – which was the name of an English bicycle maker. I have no idea why but the man was very interested in me.

Well, after the pleasantries, he invited me to his house. And it all seemed decent enough so I agreed. Although I did have a few worries and maybe I was dumb to agree. And I think my worries increased when I followed his car to his house which was in a small, quiet neighborhood next to a river. I did think: is this the place where I disappear.

It was a beautiful house, though, and everything was decorated in the style of the 20s. I learnt that he had a forest and made his living from selling lumber. It was obvious that he made a good living. He was so friendly towards me and he even said that he would take me out to a restaurant. This was all very much out of the ordinary for me.

But I felt some relief when he introduced me to his American wife. I knew then that everything was straight and no funny business or any rather frightening thing such as being murdered was going to happen. However, this relief was short-lived. Because for some reason, I don’t think I made a good impression upon her or it could have just been her nature but the upshot of it all was that the restaurant got cancelled. 

Instead we had spaghetti bolognese with meat sauce. But that said, it must have been the best meal I ate in France. The sauce was made from tomatoes out of their own garden. Some people live such wonderful lives. They told me about their trips to England and various other things. I told them very little about myself I think which was fine because there was very little to tell – at least anything that was impressive or note-worthy. 

Anyway, I had the feeling the man had wanted me to stay for a while. But later after the meal he told me I must be on my way the next day. And I had a feeling about who wanted me on my way. I tried to enjoy my night’s sleep at that house but I felt like a trespassing vagabond who was soiling the clean bed sheets.

Well early the next morning I was off again. I have no idea why but I’m sure that American woman didn’t like me but then again perhaps she was a bit of a snob and sadly I don’t think I make a good impression on snobbish women – in fact, I think I repulse them. But that might not be such a bad thing. 

Sometimes you can sense a person’s insides, you just get a feeling, the French man was a thoroughly nice person, of this I am sure, probably too nice; but his wife, she was different, there was something cold about her and hard, discriminating. But then being as I was the object of that discrimantion I might be somewhat biased. 

I managed to get a little further south and I really loved the feeling of the south of France. It was actually somewhere below Normandy and so probably not really that far south, but I started to see palm trees and I could tell that golden beaches were not far away. And as I started to experience this somewhat southern part of France, I started to wish that I had not lingered so much in Normandy because I had to start thinking about my journey back. For I had to be back at the ferry by a certain date and if I didn’t turn around soon I wouldn’t have enough time for getting back.

The return journey was not so fun. I was no longer exploring but making a quick dash back to Cherbourg and I had a lot of strenuous exercise to do. Traveling is never fun when you are just thinking about getting from A to B. Essentially, the holiday was over. And as I returned to Cherbourg the weather, which had been pleasant nearly the whole trip, as far as I can remember, took a turn for the worse and it began to rain. And the next day it rained. And the day after.

Putting up my tent and taking it down in the rain eventually led to water getting in my tent and basically all my stuff becoming wet or somewhat moist. I remember well on my last night in France I was in a tent that was all wet inside even up the sides and my sleeping bag was next to a puddle of water. Even my sleeping bag was damp on the inside on the final night. When I woke up I was glad that I didn’t have to sleep in that tent one more night. It would have been unbearable. You’ll notice in the second sketch that at the top of the paper the pen line is slightly blurred, I think that even my sketchbook got wet. 

I remember nothing after that final night except perhaps for arriving in Cherbourg.

After that trip I never went on such an adventurous cycling trip again. 

The sketches, tent, sleeping bag, panniers and maps were left in my mum’s house where eventually after 10 or so years they all got thrown away except for the 2 sketches here. And the bicycle ended up in my Aunties garage, completely neglected. It might still even be there because she keeps stuff. I probably should have left all my stuff at her house as it would have been better off there than in a museum.

I wish that from a younger age I’d been more adventurous and done more adventures such as my 3 week bicycle trip in France. At least coming to Japan has given me the chance to have many more adventures. Although these adventures in Japan are nothing quite as daring as what I did in France. But something is better than nothing. I’ll take what I can get – and be grateful. It’s probably the best way to be.

Pen drawing of an old building in St Malo
A pen sketch of an old yellow stone building in St. Malo during a 3 week cycling trip in France around 1995.

And my final adieu is this sketch. It appears that I only have two remaining sketches from my trip to France but I’m sure that I did more.

And, before you say it, I know that I should have done a drawing of St Michel but I didn’t. Well it was a very tiny looking island from the coast and I’m not sure if I could have made a good drawing from that. 

And even I can’t believe that I went to France for 3 weeks and the best drawing I did was of the ferry – well, that’s what I think.

I am so glad to have this second sketch, even though I don’t think it is so great, because at least it’s a picture of something French and beautiful. I think this was a nice yellow stone building that I saw in St. Malo.

Who knows, maybe one day I’ll go back to France. Of course, it will never be the same. But if I do then hopefully I’ll return with more than two measly pen sketches.

So, with the hope of some kind of return to France, I will say “au revoir” rather than goodbye,

That’s all,