Tomorrow is a sort of red-letter day for me, for rather obscure reasons. It is the twelfth stage of this year’s Tour de France, beginning in Toulouse, and ending 209.5 kilometres later at a small town in the Pyrenees called Bagnéres-de-Bagorre, a name that is indelibly engraven in my memory. I can tell you why that is, in case anyone is interested.
It happened in 1952, when I was 24, and my wife Shirley and I, having left New Zealand two years before with the obligatory need to “have a look at the world out there”, were about midway through, and had managed to save enough – we hoped --- to give us a month in France, on our first visit to the continent of Europe.
It all had to be done in the cheapest way possible. We bought the smallest possible tent, and a tiny methylated spirits stove, bought a pre-war tandem bicycle that just barely worked, and had an immense pannier bag stitched up to carry most of our stuff, including the bible-thick book locating the tens of thousands of camping places maintained at the time by every tiny village and municipality in France, as well as some books for reading, which included, I remember, an immensely amusing book of ancient memoirs by William Collett. And so we set off on the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry to undertake a ceremonial visit to France dressed in our formal wear of tee-shirts and scruffy shorts.
I wrote 16 years ago about this trip to France, in a small book that not too many people have read, and I can hardly do better than to reprint what I wrote then about some of our experiences as we made our own Tour de France, beginning early each morning by packing the tent, then cycling to the nearest village where we were lured to the nearest bakery by the delicious smell of newly baked bread, then back into the countryside where we would sit by the road to eat our wonderful breakfast of bread and cheese. At the height of our adventures along the way were such as the passing through huge fields of clover on both sides of the road, a countryside transformed by incredibly fragrant scent, such as I had never imagined in my previously limited experience of countryside, and have never seen equalled since.
And so on further to some other town or village, to pitch our tent again around one o’clock, giving us the afternoon both to rest from our exertions and to explore the streets and shops of the town. Those shops! Bulging with glorious-looking, and superb-tasting patisseries and charcuteries, struck us, direct as we were from still-rationed England, and before that from utilitarian New Zealand and poverty-enmeshed India, with complete amazement.
Here I can pick up the narrative:
“As we got off the ferry in Dieppe, we had no idea where we were going, except south. We had no conception of how far we could cycle in our month before having to turn back. We wanted to see the Pyrenees, but didn’t dare think we would be able to get so far, and, of course, Paris --- an imprecise plan rather typical of our course through life. We headed south across the gently rolling hills of Normandy, came to a signpost to Bacqueville, which was marked on our map, and by five in the afternoon of a glorious day found ourselves riding between plain, brown fields where men were working at the harvest. Stooks of hay lay scattered comfortably across the fields, and exquisite country scents drifted up to us.”
This landscape was lovely; then, suddenly, disaster. The pride of our equipment, our gleaming, expensive pannier bags ripped across the top and tumbled to the ground, giving way in a fashion that made us wonder how, with workmanship like that, the English ever managed to win the war.
“Cursing English workmanship, I redistributed our luggage by tying it along the length of the tandem. In the gathering dusk we approached a peasant house surrounded by pigs and sheep, hens and chickens, running free. On our inquiry, the woman, small and lean, but with bright eyes, turned to her husband who was sitting at the kitchen table. “Oui”, he said, giving his consent for us to pitch our tent among his animals. We bought eggs and milk, and they gave us water from their well. When our tent was up, under an apple tree, Madame came with a huge bottle of cider, for which she refused to take money. We cooked our first meal on our tiny stove, and when we passed the house on our way to take an evening walk, they beckoned us in for coffee. Their three little girls tried out their English on us, and we our schoolboy French on them. The farmer took out a bottle of wine, and over it we managed to talk together. He had been a chauffeur in Dieppe until four years before, but he preferred the life in the country. In the morning, as Shirley tried to mend the split panniers, Madame emerged, unasked, with needle and thread, to save our lives with the most graceful and generous gesture we could imagine, allowing us to set on southwards, and ensuring that for ever after we had a place in our hearts for the French people.
“This warm experience was typical of our month in France. Friendly peasant farmers welcomed us to camp in their fields, took the time to talk to us (which required patience, with our French!), and usually offered us something to eat or drink in addition to the staples we bought from them. At first the cycling was tough, with as much walking uphill as speeding down, and always against the wind. But eventually one early evening as we sailed south with the wind behind us, between the small towns of Bellac and Cofolens, on Route Nationale 151, at last we felt we had wings. Everything, the pedalling, the pushing, the scooting down hill and straining up, it all clicked, it suddenly seemed easier and we felt we were sailing.
“We wore only shorts and shirts, and quickly became brown, ragged and healthy in the blazing sun…. After fifty or sixty miles, we would turn into a new camp ground. Every village kept at least a field for camping, for which they often charged nothing. We took to wandering around the small towns in the afternoons, sampling the superb produce of the region….. For a few pennies a day we bought brown country mushrooms and other vegetables and fruit. In many areas we could stop and pick blackcurrents and berries that grew alongside the roads, and we ate them with cream at night. From Bordeaux we headed south through a lonely forest, where we read in a local paper that the Drummonds, an English family on holiday, had been murdered not far away. (For several years, this became the best-known murder case in France.)
We arrived in Mont de Marsan, a picturesque small town at the confluence of three rivers, lying astride routes to Biarritz and the Pyrenees, too late in the evening to buy food to prepare, so we decided to splurge by having our first meal in a French restaurant. We spent a good deal of time looking around the town for the best place --- something that became a regular procedure when finally we reached Paris with its thousands of restaurants to match every pocket and palette --- and finally we chose the Hotel Richelieu, a posh-looking place to be certain, where we could by no means be sure that two ruffians in tee-shirts and shorts would be welcomed as diners. Maybe it was the presence of Shirley, a handsome girl in her simple finery and looking so damned healthy under her tan, that did it, or maybe it was just French culture on show: whatever the reason, the maitre d’ and then the waiters greeted us as if we were royalty, showed us to our table with authentic gallic gestures of welcome, and opened up their menu which, although I have forgotten the exact dishes we chose, I have never forgotten the splendor for us of this beautiful occasion. We seem to have chosen well: I notice on the Internet that Hotel Richelieu is still there 67 years later, offering a menu described as ‘Assiette Michelin, rated for its quality cuisine, yours to discover the best produce of sea and country from South-West France.’ A menu that, just to read it, makes one’s mouth water in anticipation.
“We made it to the Pyrenees, where at a little town called Bagnéres-de-Bigorre, our mended pannier bags gave up the ghost and we bought some spanking new French ones, a thousand per cent better than the English. Those pannier bags were genuine works of craftsmanship, beautiful to look at, and ideally designed to do the job they were meant for. And, like all works of good craftsmanship, they lasted us for as long as we needed them, which turned out to be for several years, until we exchanged our tandem for a Lambretta scooter.
“From Bagnéres, we turned around, heading back for Dieppe, but by way of the Mediterranean coast and the Rhone valley. On the way a few days later, after passing through the walled town of Carcassone, while waiting for a puncture to be fixed, we entered a small café in Beziers at 3.30 in the afternoon, a time when, in any place we’d ever lived, one would be turned away contemptuously from any restaurant. But here Monsieur et Madame, eating their own lunch in the back, sprang to their feet. Of course, they could find something, she said, and soon emerged with a huge plateen of soup, whole wheat bread floating in it, a feature that would have delighted my father, who was big on such homely touches. I think it was probably at this moment that we became not just francophiles, but helpless, adoring francophiles, which I have been ever since.
“Sleeping on a cliff above the Mediterranean, we camped one night in a gale on the Cap d’Agde, and next day watched the fishermen of Sete repairing their nets. We made it across to Avignon and the Rhone valley, north to Montelimar, the self-appointed world capital of nougat, and as far north as Chalon-sur-Soane, without having to that point experienced even one day of rain, from the day we disembarked in Dieppe.”
That happy circumstance, a sunny, hot and intensely beautiful August, fixed almost permanently in my mind the misleading fact that one could always depend on France in August for clear weather --- something that caught up with me in1963, when we took our family of small boys on holiday in August and were subject to torrential rain almost every day of the month.
When it did rain in Chalon we decided to take the train to Paris, giving ourselves a four days to enjoy the capital of world culture, as I naively thought of it. In those days we were able to camp right in the middle of the city in the Bois de Boulogne, at the usual nominal rate for camping in France --- one shilling a night was the charge --- and that gave us some financial elbow-room with which to take in some shows and eat in a couple of outstandingly good, moderately-priced restaurants. By this time we had covered 1,300 miles on our tandem, and didn’t think twice about rounding with insouciant aplomb the Place de la Concorde, already overcrowded with undisciplined French traffic.
“We were shockingly fit, and convinced that France was the loveliest country on earth, Paris the greatest city, the French the most civilized people. It’s a conviction that’s never left me to this day.”
And wouldn’t you know: that was the best holiday I ever spent in my life.