Dieppe to Rouen
Another dark, bleary eyed beginning as we head South in an anarchic style peloton, soon to be strung out into smaller groups along the D3 which gently follows the winding and picturesque Scie valley upstream.
In a school of dolphins, I’m undulating through the autumnal mist of rural Normandy; a land of timber framed houses, smoking chimneys, solemn donkeys and goats philosophically chewing the cud. This is an old patchwork landscape of ancient woodlands, apple orchards and wheat stubble, little changed by modern agricultural techniques, though few of the 43 watermills that this river used to power are still in existence.
Inspired by the landscape, I plough on, but we’ve lost our front and rear runners, Leo and Helen, in yet another deflationary moment. Pausing briefly to regroup in the farming town of Auffay, we decide to break the back of this journey and continue on to Cleres, a further 12kms up the road.
It’s a tough and gruelling slog. We leave the Scie near its source and head uphill into a harsh, exposed, open monoculture. There are no trees and the wind and rain begin to hammer into our faces.
After what seems like an eternity, we reach the sanctuary of Cleres’ 18th Century covered market place, Les Halles. And soon we’re joined by several other groups of soggy cyclists most of whom are still in surprisingly good spirits. The village mayor walks by and wants to know who we are. She would have organised a welcoming event if she’d have known!
One of the groups ends up having a 3 course meal here. But many of the young cyclists have chosen to be vegan to lower their own personal carbon footprint, and their eating options are severely limited in small town rural Normandy. I’m soaked to the skin and my hands and feet are numb, so I opt for frantically wolfing down my own body weight in pastries from the local boulangerie and hitting the road, carbo loaded, asap.
I hitch onto another group (the Dolphins are safely ensconced in the local creperie), but there’s soon another puncture and a broken axle. So, 5 of the coldest and most desperate folk peel off into the beautifully hilly ancient woodland of Northern Rouen.
The rain eases but there are still hills to climb. French Canadian, Michel, is an inspirational blur on the horizon. We plough steadily up the winding and silent forest road as the drenched beech leaves glisten in the mist, and then recklessly rocket down the wet winding slopes. Martha is recently recovered from a life threatening cycling accident, though you wouldn’t know it by the pace she sets down these treacherous roads.
We meet a major intersection on the outskirts of Rouen and we’re reduced to 3 cold wet women, Martha, Alice and me, a bit lost and searching for an elusive roundabout that will lead us to the Auberge de Jeunesse. I’m a bit useless in what follows but finally we reach “that fucking roundabout” and we’re there.
In a quiet nook of the hostel I meet James, who, in September 2014, was one of 50 Greenpeace activists who, using a polar bear model, defiantly halted and then occupied a coal freight train in North Notts during the one day climate summit in New York. This protest urging the Summit to end the age of coal is one of several peaceful direct actions that has inspired me to be here today, cycling to COP21.
And then I’m night strolling with Chas and Sayid through the heart of an ancient city of towering spires and gingerbread houses where a 19 year old girl was burned at the stake for cross dressing. And I’m reminded of a French journalist’s comment – “If Beryl Burton had been French, Joan of Arc would have to take second place”.
“Would you like to play a board game?” It’s not really a question. We’ve chanced upon Le QC des Avenjoueurs, a bar run by a young man with a passion for board games and cycling (https://www.facebook.com/leQJdesavenjoueurs/) . And soon we’re drinking beer brewed by mad monks, engrossed in Tsuro (a game representing the classic quest for enlightenment), and being regaled with tales of the patron’s own cycling pilgrimage from Rouen to Stonehenge.
I dream the van and cyclists have left without me, and spend much of the night cycling up steep hills weighted down with all my gear in a never ending attempt to catch up.
Rouen to Freneuse
As the Bike Train gathers for our dawn mass exodus, I’m alarmed to discover a mashed up front derailer, wrenched apart by the hills of Northern Rouen. Infected by the buoyant camaradic spirits of my fellow cyclists, I fix the chain on the middle cog and hope for flat ground. It’s a belief not grounded in reality, but a certain amount of expletives manage to get me up them slopes. Plus “the sun is shining, the weather is sweet, makes me want to move these dancing feet”.
We stop at the roundabout near Fleury sur Andelle (hosting a gigantic Tour de France bike) for a photo shoot with our banner “Pedal Power not Dirty Power”.
Shortly after this, we hear the first reports of police surveillance. Excitement and apprehension are rapidly mounting in equal measures the nearer we get to Paris.
We stop for an alfresco snack in the cobbled market place of Les Andelys with its magnificent Our Lady’s Church. Other groups have found their own nearby picnic havens.
On a slight one-way detour, we discover the delights of the half timbered houses of le Petit Andely as we rejoin the Low Seine, and leave town with the Chateau Gaillard perched strategically high above us, overlooking the valley.
We’re a school of dolphins meandering leisurely upstream in the bright afternoon sunshine, pausing at the Chateau des Tourelles on the river bank in Vernon to forage sweet chestnuts and admire Le Vieux Moulin, tottering on the remaining upright structures of the old bridge. This half timbered medieval mill looks familiar, and so it should. It’s the inspiration for Monet’s Houses on the Old Bridge at Vernon, and Theodore Earl Butler’s The Red Bridge in Vernon.
But the sun is lowering her wintry head, and, in a bid to grasp the remaining daylight, we power past Monet’s garden at Giverny. We’re nearly there, but at the bridge over the Seine at Bennecourt, we realise we’ve lost a cyclist. In the encroaching darkness, the lion like Leo heads back. Without our navigational chief, we tag along with a large group of cyclists and arrive en masse at the community centre at Freneuse, an island like settlement nestled into a deep meander of the River Seine. It’s a tumultuous reception with 20 school children and their parents banging on desks and cheering our arrival. Hot tea, cake and smiles abound. They’ve made a banner for us to take to Paris depicting two possible futures with the clarity that only children have. It’s a future earth of clean air, blue seas, green continents and life versus a future earth of pollution, grey oceans, deforestation and death. The laughter of these children is a beautiful but bittersweet reminder of how much I’m missing my own rays of sunlight, Jack and Theo, right now.
I’m hungry, and emotionally and physically depleted, and in not much shape to participate in the ensuing consensus debate about what happens the next day on our arrival into Paris. We are entering into uncertain territory. Do we skulk into Paris in dribs and drabs, or do we defiantly storm the Champs Elysees in a peaceful bike train with music blaring, flags flying, whistles tooting and chants resounding?
There are French legalities concerning groups of over 50 cyclists. Under the current state of emergency, more than 2 people together sharing a political message is legally defined as a demonstration (guess we’ve already flaunted these 2!). Despite the cries of repression by the global movement’s academic leaders such as Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy, 24 climate activists have been put under house arrest by French police and tear gas has already been deployed on demonstrators in Paris.
In a hall full of hope and fear and hungry bellies, I calm myself with the mechanical practicalities and complexities of fitting a new front derailer as I watch the heroic Sayid fix my bike, the first of several that evening. All I know is that 125 people trying to arrive at a consensus decision scares the shit out of me especially when I have no clear ideas of what direction my own individuality will take me in. I want to get into Paris… I want to protest… but I’m really afraid of being tear gassed and arrested, and my emotional need to get home to my kids is greater than my desire to be a Joan of Arc for this movement.
What’s happening in this room is possibly a great example of grass roots democracy in action, but, before I can coherently participate in this debate, I’m seeking solitude and sleep and curling up in a corner under a table. And tonight my thoughts and possibly my dreams are haunted with the lonely wandering multitudes of humanity seeking sanctuary, displaced by war and the greed for natural resources.