Cycling in the footsteps of giants
Our D-Day Memorial Tour
Our objective for this tour was to take in some of the more significant parts of Normandy and Brittany during D-Day memorial week. Our journey started once again from Portsmouth but this time on the fast ferry which only took three and half hours in all and took off at the relatively gentle time of 9.00 am. Provided that the Channel is flat the crossing is pretty comfortable and the ferry is undeserving of the nickname “the vomit- comet”. My only gripe is that Brittany ferries are not at all bike friendly and our finely engineered carbon and titanium works of art were stored unceremoniously toward the stern of the boat - not even secured by as much as a piece of hairy twine. However, once the riders had stopped imagining the possibility of any rogue lorry drivers making off with their loved ones we settled down to a very rapid crossing.
Once on the other side we disembarked with relative ease and made it through customs and onto the open road in about ten minutes flat. For those of the party cycling in France for the first time their initial surprise was the relative lack of traffic, the smoothness of the roads and the general lack of potholes. We blew away the cobwebs with a decent effort to reach Barfleur in an hour or so up on the tip of the Normandy peninsula and then turning south before we got wet.
The beauty of the wildlife park (or to give it its full name Parc Naturel des Marais du Contentin) is quite breath taking but with no pot-holes to worry about we were able to inhale its intoxicating wilderness to full effect. Our destination was Grandcamp-Maissey via Carentan but here’s the thing: many decent ‘A’ roads have been completely replaced by motorways where those on bicycles are not welcome. It is therefore essential that you have a good guide to help you thread your way through the criss-cross patchwork of B roads without getting lost.
So without getting too tangential I would like to mention one of our waypoints – Sainte-Mere Eglise. The town's main claim to fame is that it played a significant part in the World War II Normandy landings because this village stood right in the middle of route N13, a likely point of counterattack that might have adversely affected the troops landing on Utah and Omaha Beaches. In the early morning of 6 June 1944 mixed units of the U.S. 82nd Airborne and U.S. 101st Airborne Divisions descended from the skies, giving it the claim to be one of the first towns liberated in the invasion.
This was not before an allied parachutist, John Steele, managed to get himself caught on the roof of the local church. The town was (today) bedecked in all sorts of memorial bunting and it was gratifying to see the sacrifices of a previous destination being recognised by a host of international visitors.
We cycled on and through the town of Carentan studiously avoiding the N13 motor way and reached our bunks for the night – the beautifully restored ML1387 - HMS Medusa. This vessel is a Harbour Defence Motor Launch built in Poole in 1943 and one of 480 vessels which had a vital role to play on D Day: ensuring that the invasion fleet stayed clear of the minefields. We were lucky enough to stay aboard this lovingly restored wooden and copper launch where we duly raised our glasses to give thanks to the selflessness of its original crew.
The next day we bade fond farewell to this remarkable vessel and its crew of volunteers and headed inland toward Dangy via the City of Ruins - St. Lo. It is a very peaceful route across country: up and down the rolling rurality of La Manche and alongside the slow moving Vire River. Our digs for the evening were in rural Dangy where we were royally entertained with curry and calvados at the hands of WeLoveNormandy.com. Dangy was right in harm’s way during the occupation and the village hall still has a picture of General Douglas MacArthur and (then) war correspondent Ernest Hemmingway walking through the village.
The group saddled up early the next morning and we made our way toward Brittany and the Ancient City of St.Malo taking in the coastal route - once we had passed by the hill top town of Avranches (to be avoided if riders don’t want an extra climb). The road allowed us to capture the distant elegance of Mont St Michel whilst the coast road swept us into Brittany taking us through the briny presence of multiple oyster farms ‘en route’. About two hours past Le Mont we came upon the magnificent city walls of St. Malo where we were welcomed by the very cycle friendly hotel L’Universe in the main square. The town, once the haunt of many centuries of sea pirates played a generous host on our last evening on French soil. In the morning we made our a five minute ride to the ferry where we rested weary legs for the day on the sun deck-basking in the sun and salt sea spray.
All in all we took in over 200 miles of mostly empty, forgiving roads in early summer sun shine and travelled some exquisite routes – at a languid 15 mph pace where once a relieving army had made there their presence many felt years before. Without their sacrifice - who can say where we would be today?