Merlins in France – 2006

Friday 26th May

Linda and I set out at 5:00 pm to out rendezvous with two more Merlins at Chieveley Service stations near Newbury. We arrived with 25 minutes to spare but  immediately thought that we were actually the last there when we spotted two roadsters in the car park – but they were Morgans, so we tootled round the car park looking for a parking slot only to find David and Sue just getting out of their car. We parked alongside and all went in for coffee. Then Clive and Margaret arrived while we were still in the queue, so we had spare time together to welcome everybody and catch up on recent events over a hot coffee. Come 8:00 our official meet up time we were ready to leave and make for Portsmouth. But David had asked that if we were early then perhaps we had time to find a chippy and get some supper before going to the ferry docks. There ensued a trip around the streets of Pompy looking for said chippy with suitable parking space – we found one in the end, enjoyed super and went on to the docks.
Linda and I were first through the check in point and went on through to the rows where you park and wait to be called onboard. But to our concern, the security gates were closed up behind us and no more vehicles were allowed through. What was happen to our convoy of three! Asking a passin gguard he told us that they shut the incoming gates while the arriving ferry disembark – so we waited it out and stayed in our row while all the other cars went aboard. Eventually the embarkation gates were opened again and after many motorbikes Clive and David were soon on our tail and the Portsmouth to LeHavre group all went on board together.
Meanwhile, in another part of the country the other group was meeting up at Dover ready to enjoy a night's accommodation in France.
Our crossing was fairly uneventful – calm as a millpond and a ship full of dozing passengers passing the night away. The other group unfortunately had crossed the channel a while earlier and experience some quite unsettling seas.

Saturday 27th May

6:30 am and we arrived safely at Le Havre, stayed in a tight group and headed off to Brittany. First laugh came 150 miles later when we stopped at a service station for fuel and I missed the petrol station entrance – I then had to reverse 200 yds against a one-way system to return to the pumps – fortunately the traffic was very quiet early in the morning, so no problems. That was until we got to the pumps. We tried every bank card in our wallet and, of course, the dispenser accepted no foreign cards. Luckily this was a manned site so we could fill up and pay inside – but this non-acceptance was a bound to cause problems later (and it did).

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By twelve o'clock we reached the gite and met the new owners (This was to be their first season and we were their first guests). We had the grand tour and selected our bedrooms before getting down to the usual business of re-arranging the gite furniture to suit thirteen people – it had been set up as two self contained apartments with a combination of dining and lounge facilities in each half. For larger parties the owners simply unlocked a connecting door. But of course, the Merlin club knew better, so we started a furniture rearrangement moving all the dining furniture into one room and all the lounge furniture back to the other – sorted. Then we went shopping.
We found one of the local supermarkets and sourced everything on Helen's suggested shopping list except chicken – who'd have thought that meat would be so difficult to find in a supermarket? Still there was enough of everything else so we paid the bill, loaded three cars till the suspension dropped and returned just in time to meet the rest of the party arriving.
The day eased off into a settling routine – plenty of chat, plenty of wine and plenty of food – and time to muse about the rest of the week.

Sunday 28th May

After the hectic hustle and hours of travel – Saturday was designated as “rest and recuperation” (although more of the party suspected that the real reason was just to sit in and watch the Monaco Grand Prix).
We had breakfast and lunch at a leisurely pace and discovered that despite three Merlins struggling to carry the shopping home there were still more supplies required (including chicken or similar barby supply). Some volunteers set out to discover the “other” supermarket – it seems that we were sitting about equidistant 'tween two main supermarkets (and the second was better!).

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There was a general inspection of the gite grounds and it was obvious that we were the first arrivals of a new season and that they hadn't really got it all quite ready. The lawns had not yet received their first cut so the grass was almost 2ft high, and the promised pool turned out to be a beautiful shade of deep yucky green hiding who knows what in its murky depths.
One or two ventured to the local village and at least identified the nearest Patisserie and some possible entertainment (a miniature Golf course)
By the afternoon, supplies were well stocked, the Grand Prix had finished and so we took off for a short mooch to the north coast. Our main target was Cancale where the locals enjoyed our Merlin convoy and where we could muse around the town and stop off for liquid refreshment.
All in all, Sunday was low key – not too eventful – not too many miles – but we liked it that way – time to prepare for day 3.

Monday 29th May

This was going to be a lo-o-ong run and we knew it. However, everybody wanted to go visit the D-Day beaches in Normandy so we tanked up and headed out. It would be nice to say that the trip there was un-eventful and it might have been except that half the party got lost somewhere near Bayeux.
As  happens occasionally we were split up by traffic lights. Linda and David were at left at the lights with Clive and Margaret – we soon moved off but, shortly after, Clive pulled over and flashed his lights – we though that he had broken down. But we couldn't stop where we were, so carried on for a while looking for the rest of the party to tell them that Clive had stopped a while back with car trouble. BUT we couldn't find the rest of the party. After 4-5 miles we turned back on the same road towards Clive – but could find him either!
Eventually we got a phone call from one of the leaders and it turns out that soon after we were split at the first traffic-light they had taken a right turn and stopped. We didn't see them down the side road but Clive did - so stopped and flashed his headlights (which made us think that he was in trouble) Still that's half the fun of group running when no-one, except the leader, knows exactly where the cars are going.
50 minutes later we pulled into Arramanches, where the main British D-Day landing happened, and parked up to explore.
First priority – food! - It had been a long trip to Arramanches and it was lunchtime so we inspected the various cafés, bars and bistros to find one with a secluded rear garden which was a natural sun trap. After this we had time to go our own way and explore – a few took the stroll up the hill to look out over the harbour where the few old Mulberry breakers could still be seen in an arc around the bay -  a vivid memorial to the event. There were more tributes to the gallant armies atop the hill with banners, memorial and even an old Sherman tank, but it was the D-Day museum were we learned more of the full story and the engineering and planning feat that brought the gargantuan effort together – if you ever get a chance you should visit this site.

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A while later we set off to see more, but we were too late to take in the Canadian Cemetery. Our last stop was at Omaha beach where the Americans landed and where their Mulberry harbour had been beaten by the storms.
By now it was time to head home and the hour was getting late, there was some indecision about whether to push on all the way or stop for dinner. Eventually we turned into the pretty town of Avranches for our evening meal. It was Monday night, many of the restaurants were quiet or closed, but Helen found one that looked inviting (and whose owners rubbed his hands at the thought of so many customers) It was good value with an inviting set menu and we enjoyed our tucker.

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We'd have settled for a happy ending to a happy day, but Clive did have a worsening problem. The vibration and noise from his front end was getting worse. He stopped more than once to inspect the car but couldn't see anything obvious. So we lowered the speed and drove back carefully but together.

Tuesday 30th May

Clive stripped and inspected the suspect wheel only to discover that a front wheel bearing had collapsed and was irreparably shattered. Fortunately Clive carries quite a selection of spares - apart from the alternator which he lent to Barry earlier in the week – he  also had a complete front hub. Once he'd managed to dismantle the existing mechanics and smoothed the stub axle sufficiently to allow re-assembly, it was a then OK to bolt it all back together and his Merlin was fit for service.
The moral of this is that the number one item to take on holiday to cover you for breakdowns has got to be a Clive.
To balance yesterday's long haul we decided to visit somewhere more local – one idea was to try out the local miniature golf course. So Barry went of to investigate only to find that it hadn't opened yet for this year’s season. So we took the Merlin convoy to Chambourg - a small town with a big gateau – sorry Château.
Having reached the town and parked up the party split to take in the sites at their own pace – but we did all meet up some 45 minutes later at the Château. Linda and David had already looked around the gardens but now the whole group paid about 5 euros a head for a full guided tour of the house – only to find that the guide was given in French only and that we had to try and keep up by studying the English written handout – well at least the guide knew where to go – and we did manage to keep up. I felt that the château itself was a little disappointing – but we enjoyed the banter and when we'd finished they said we could bring the cars up in to the grounds for some nice piccies in front of the château. Never ones to pass up a good photo opportunity the men were sent back to get the cars while the ladies had a few minutes R&R.

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Photos done it was then a short trip back to the gite for another superb barbecue and an evening of good wine and general banter – Vive  la Bonhomie!

Wednesday 31st May

On Tuesday evening while discussing the days ahead, half the party wanted to see Mont St Michel (for the first time) while the other half were saying “On no – no there again (3 previous visits)”. As a result, to maintain a friendly balance Tuesday was declared a “do it yerself” day.
Group A, comprising Helen and Andy, Barry and Nite and Peter, went of to a local town and zoo. Group B, comprising John and Margaret, Dai and Sue, Clive and Margaret and David and Linda, headed out for Mont St Michel.

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Despite forebodings of seeing Mont St Michel crowded out with school trips and day trippers we were pleasantly surprised to find that there was room to breath inside the grounds – busy, yes, but not impossibly so. Once inside, the group fragmented somewhat while we individually explored the shops, sites and alleyways, but we regrouped later to have lunch together before tackling the dizzy ascent up to the main abbey and church. We paid for tickets with guide and felt relaxed at the guide who spoke in English with only a slight French accent – she brought an extra understanding to the visit so we could enjoy it that bit more. And by the time we came back down to the cars we agreed that it had been a really good excursion.

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The trip back was fairly uneventful apart from the occasional horn from admiring passers-by. That was until we reached one town (can't remember which) where one particular police officer decided to make a routine check – so he stopped the last car which just happened to be David and Linda and indicated that we should pull over. The others carried on for a while, temporarily unaware that they had lost one member of the group. They pulled over quarter of a mile further on and, after waiting a while for us decided to send Dai back to look for us. He spotted us by the officer and returned quickly to the others while doing his best to avoid the officer's attention!
Meanwhile, we were doing our best to communicate with the nice French man who spoke little English and us with even less French. “Your papers” he asked for two or three times. “No, I don't carry them, sorry,  my insurance document is at the gite – shall I fetch it – here is my driving licence”. Eventually he was satisfied but we were not prepared for the next one “'Ave you been drinking?”. “No, nothing” I replied. “Please blow into zis” he asked fetching out a small balloon and donning a pair of latex gloves. “Ooh-er” I thought “What are they for? - Inspection?
I turned out that their breath-alyzer worked by inflating a balloon with a one-way valve which he then attaches to a measuring machine to analyse the balloon contents. I presume that the latex gloves were just to avoid his contamination. Unlike some others at Mont St Michel- we had only drunk Coke with our lunch so the test was completely negative – and we were free to go – phew!
Forty minutes later we were back at camp comparing notes for the day – needless to say – our police pullover got the most debate – and I think that there was noticeably less lunch-time drinking thereafter for the rest of the holiday.
On arrival back at the gite it seemed that the local ground maintenance crew were starting their work. Lawns were cut. Flower-beds tended – but we were still awaiting use of the pool.
The evening progressed at a satisfactory rate with food, banter, alcohol, bit more alcohol, some fun with a Chinese raffle and another drink before bedtime.

Thursday 1st June

Today we visited the local area. We started of by exploring Dinan the local market town. This was an opportunity to split up, as in previous locations, and do a bit of personal shopping, market browsing (it was a huge market) or general sight-seeing. The group met up an hour later and had a slow drink in a quiet back street café (mostly coffee for the drivers after yesterday's experience).
Then it was time to visit the seaside. The convoy took off once more and headed to Dinard, the first attempt at parking was invalidated by finding a market place that was out of bounds, but 100yards away was a nice big public car park – nice was defined as “free”.
First priority in Dinard was to find somewhere for lunch and a fine al-fresco café was soon located. The cars were going to be parked long enough for small quantities of alcohol to be fully absorbed so we enjoyed both solid and liquid refreshment.

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“To The Beach” someone cried at which we headed of uphill. “Funny – I thought the beach would be downhill” I mentioned. But it was a round-the-block trip to get to the front where upon a beautiful expanse of clean sand was a real welcome sight. The beach has  a very low gradient at Dinard and with the tide out it was almost half a mile to reach the sea, but it didn't deter a few die-hards who removed their footware, exposed a shapely ankle, and cooled their soles. Linda found a discarded child's spade so decided to build a small sandcastle, and, since there were no others in the offing, she was declared to be the best sand-castle builder in the Merlin team  - hurrah.

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All in all, we had enjoyed a fairly easy day, entertained a few more French motorists who enjoyed the convoy, and sampled a little more French hospitality.
We enjoyed a leisurely cruise through the country lanes until Barry had some engine problems so he told us to park up by the estuary at Rance while he opened the bonnet to effect a cure. The front at Rance was almost like the seaside and we enjoyed the view and entertained the locals who came over to talk about the Merlins (fortunately their English was much better than our French.)

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And fortunately it didn't take Barry long to find and cure his fault (dirt in the jets I think) – so we all jumped back in the cars and carried on back home. We arrived back to our gite with plenty of time to drink, banter and barbecue. (but found that the pool still hadn't been cleaned.)

Friday 2nd June

This last day was set aside to explore the old walled town of Fougere but started in immediate disarray when a car in the middle of the convoy slipped behind while coming out from the gite and then proceeded to turn left instead of right onto the main road. Two miles on it was obvious we were separated so it took a quick phone call to the leader to arrange a regrouping at the local town of Chambourg. It took longer than expected for the leaders to arrive, whereupon we discovered that Andy had suffered a major problem which was almost certainly down to wiring. He knew he could return a few miles back to the gite so elected to drop out of the party and go home to effect repairs
The rest of us set off then in search of an intermediate picnic site to enjoy the deluxe picnic that the girls had prepared. We found a signed site in a lay-by, nice large tables with plenty of room to spread out the food – but it wasn't that far back off the main carriageway so we did have to endure some traffic noise while we relaxed.
Fully satiated we remounted the cars and set off to find a garage and Fougeres – we found the later. Fougeres has a medieval walled fortress that makes very interesting exploration. It was a completely self-contained village with rooms, halls, fortified towers, a church, some gardens and probably occupying some five to six acres at a guess. The walk there had been a fair way down hill so some of the party decided to recuperate in the nearby café while the intrepid few explored the site. I think both parties enjoyed their view of the site.

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The way back to the cars, however, was more onerous than expected and a couple of the party found it rather hard going. First we wended our way down through the old village that nestled below the fortifications – this took us past old cottages and shops and through pretty narrow lanes. Eventually we arrived at the new gardens which presented a walk that started at the bottom stream and which worked it way painfully back up to the new town – we didn't quite realise how far down we had come; so it was an equally long way back up – with a few recuperating stops along the way.

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The views offered along the way partly recompensed for the effort but it was some relief when we got back to the cars for an easy trip home.
Well it would have been an easy trip if we had easily found a garage that served petrol and that was manned – a couple were open, but unless you had a genuine French bank card you were scuppered. We were almost at the point of desperation when a turn into a small village found an open village garage. Expensive fuel (euros per litre) but at least it allowed a couple of us to get their cars back home.
The evening was spent it the inevitable Merlin 3-Bs way -  banter, booze and barby. We took in the quiz questions that had been circulated at the start of the week and, after many queries, eventually announced that Barry and Nite had obtained the highest score and voted this holiday's egg-heads – hurrah!

Saturday 3rd June.

As always holidays have to come to an end – and so, but seems, this one came too quickly. We’d all had a good time and enjoyed the French countryside and the Merlin three B’s – but Saturday meant clean, tidy, split the remaining food and drink and return the furniture from whence it all came.
With most of this work done the Portsmouth-Le Havre group left first as they had an earlier ferry.
It was an easy trip back which necessitated a stop for petrol and coffee. We found a suitable motorway service area and had almost finished our snacks when the second group turned up at the same stop. So it was a quick “Hello” and “Goodbye” like ships passing in the night and our first group pushed on to Le Havre.
We had mentioned stopping at a supermarket or similar for some stock for the home drink cabinet, but unfortunately none were seen so we took our place in the ferry queue and searched for some shade – it was a scorcher that afternoon. The lady at the check in was uncertain of our ground clearance so put us on a lower deck with a straight approach rather than a sharp ramp. Even the guys on eth deck squatted down to check our clearance as they guided us carefully onto the ferry – what service. But we were split up on that lower deck and found ourselves dwarfed by the huge lorries. It’s a long crossing back with little to keep you amused but the company was good and the sea was calm (again).  Sure enough, on disembarking we were separated but we carried on as planned to Chievely service station. There we all met up again and had a last cup of coffee before it was time to depart in our own directions and say goodbye to each other and to another happy Merlin Holiday.
Thanks Helen and Andy and Barry and Nite for your effort in setting up another good break and we look forward to seeing everyone again – maybe next year.

David and Linda

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