Early on the morning of Monday 7th April, just a few hours after our annual DofE training camp was wrapped up the evening before, eleven bleary-eyed Explorers, Networkers and Leaders set off from Scout Park to cycle to Paris.
The expedition was planned to take 5 ½ days, with a further 2 days in Paris to unwind. In preparation for the trip the Unit cycled to Brighton back in October, taking two days to do it, and camping in a relative’s garden in Horley overnight. We also had some regular day or half-day cycles and finally, two weeks before the trip, we cycled from Scout Park to Maidenhead, a total of 120km that day, with fully loaded bikes – a huge achievement for the Explorers.
The first day on the trip started well. We got through London slowly but steadily, stopping only once in South London to pick up some new parts for Omar after his tyre wore out. As the day went on the drizzle started, eventually turning into rain, and soaking us through. We arrived at the campsite under cover of darkness and quickly cooked dinner and went to bed.
The next day dawned bright and sunny and we cycled the 55km to Telscombe Youth Hostel in the South Downs quickly, arriving in the late afternoon. We had dinner, did some laundry, re-packed our kit, serviced our bikes and turned in.
Day three was the earliest start of them all: 5am! We had to get down to the ferry in Newhaven, an hour’s cycle from the hostel, and we were scared we could be delayed by punctures. We arrived in plenty of time however, and cycled straight into the empty hold of the ferry, a surreal experience. The crossing took just over four hours and it took ages to get out of the ferry. We eventually disembarked at 3pm and joined the queue of cars to get through passport control. We had 35km of cycling to do to get to our campsite and we were convinced we would be arriving in the dark, again.
However once in France we joined the ‘Avenue Verte’, literally a ‘green way’. The Avenue Verte is a wide traffic-free tarmac path following the line of the old Paris-Dieppe railway. We shot along on the good surface, stopping only once at a beautiful countryside boulangerie (bakery) for some hot brioche and flan.
The next three days continued in much the same fashion – cycling from one roadside bakery to another, camping each night in quiet campsites well off the beaten track. The last night of the trip was spent camping in the grounds of a Scout owned chateau in Jambville, the national Scout Centre for one of the two French Scout Associations. It meant we could have a fire – it wouldn’t be a Scout trip otherwise!
We arrived on the outskirts of Paris the following afternoon and had difficulty sticking to the poorly marked cycle paths. Parisian traffic was also a shock to the system after the deserted paths and lanes of rural France and it took a frustrating amount of time to reach Notre Dame. We eventually arrived at 7pm, having cycled a total 413km from Scout Park.
When we eventually got to the hostel that evening we were delighted to find it clean, spacious and full of English speakers! They even let us carry our bikes up the stairs so we could lock them together on the roof and we immediately headed out for a fast-food dinner.
The next two days in Paris were taken at a leisurely pace walking round the Louvre, Sacre-Coeur, the Pompidou Centre, climbing the Eiffle tower and taking a cruise down the Seine. Before the Eurostar home we ate out and feasted on snails and horse steak. Well, we couldn’t go to France and not, could we?
Cycling from one capital city to another while carrying your life with you was a fantastic experience for all of us, and by the time we had reached Paris we all felt that we could have carried on cycling forever. Everyone worked well to overcome all of the challenges we had, major mechanical failures and getting lost among them, and rather than causing friction or resentment between teammates all of the mini-disasters actually pulled us closer together and made us realize how much we were relying on each other. We found everyone on our way to be extremely hospitable, one gentleman even invited us in to his front room to try his homemade honey, and we’ll definitely be repeating the trip again soon.