I remember the morning very well. The previous night my Dad had passed away and I had woken up to a different world and, quite frankly, I didn’t know where to begin. His death had come out of nowhere and so there was no getting ready for it and I still couldn’t take it all in.
I sat at the bottom of the stairs in shock and looked up to see my running shoes, that I had bought a few weeks before, and thought to myself, ‘why not do a Forrest Gump and go for a run?’ I had maybe been for two or three runs previously and had never managed to get more than a kilometre.
I ran from my home towards St Mary’s lighthouse in Whitley bay. It was maybe 2km away, a little further if the tide was out enabling you to run across the causeway and get across to the lighthouse base.
I ran without thinking, and forgot that I was tired and that my lungs hurt, and ran further than I had ever run in one go. I couldn’t tell if my eyes were running due to the wind that was blowing sand into my face or tears, it didn’t matter.
I got across the causeway and found a place to sit. It perched on a rock and just caught my breath and watched the waves for a while. I will remember what happened next for the rest of my days. An elderly lady, easily in her eighties, was walking her little dog along and stopped right next to me. She put her little frail hand on my head and looked down at me and just said, ‘It’s ok son, everything will be ok’. I guess I was crying.
She smiled at me, walked off, and has probably never thought of that moment again. I have. Kindness, caring for others and taking a moment to make other peoples lives a little easier for no self reward. It meant everything to me.
Why am I sharing this with you today?
Today would have been my fathers birthday and today was the first day in around two months that I have been able to run without pain in my foot. I ran to the lighthouse and although the tide was in and I couldn’t get to the same spot, just for a second I looked over and saw the stone that I had sat on and I thought about that moment and all the way back home I thought about my Dad.
Life does go on, but it will always be a little different, a little harder with a little piece of me missing. I miss you Dad, thank you for being such a huge part in the person that I am today.
First of all, many thanks to those people who have been kind enough to get in touch and thank me for posting on this blog, it really has been quite an eye-opener that anyone is actually reading this, never mind thinking that it is any good!
I started writing this blog mainly for myself, so that I could look back in years to come and remember how I felt at the time about the trips that I take. I just wish that I had started it years ago as I have only very distant memories of a lot of my holidays and feel like I missed huge opportunities to capture my time in Shanghai, Sydney and New York, as well as countless other less exotic trips.
I was asked by one person what camera I used to take the pictures on the blog. The honest answer is that I can’t always remember! I use both an SLR camera and an iPhone 6 and the mobile phone camera is so good it is often very hard to recall which I captured a particular image on.
I think that the speed at which you can whip out your phone and get a picture makes it so much more convenient and the new features such as slow motion, time lapse and Pano mean that a lot of the features that used to be SLR unique are now tucked in your pocket.
Having said that, if you have the time to set up the SLR on a tripod and spend some time getting the settings right and taking time to frame a show, then the results can be stunning. Let me be clear here, results that others get can be stunning, my pictures very rarely get anywhere close to being stunning and I am happy with amateur or average!
I have added two pictures, one from each source, and wonder if you can tell the difference?
The camera that I use is a Canon EOS 500D which is the entry level camera or at least it was when I bought it probably ten years ago or more and, I am pretty sure, it cost me around £500. I have quickly checked the interweb and it looks as if the prices have dropped a fair bit. You can pick up the newer, fancier and more compact version for only £299 now.
When you compare that to about a grand for the new iPhone handset, then it doesn’t feel quite to expensive to buy an SLR.
One of the other questions that I was asked about the European road trip that I recently completed was “What would you do differently?” If you recall, one of the main reasons that I went on the trip was to drive over mountain passes and take in the stunning views while zigzagging up a mountain road.
I just wish that I had some decent footage of that as recording it on my phone while it was clipped to a phone holder on the windscreen gave some pretty poor pictures! I hadn’t realised how cheap it was to get your hands on these fancy dash cams. For £35.99 I would have snapped your hand off for this before I left!
Now that the nights are dark and cold and temperatures have dropped to the point where hats and scarves are required, the mind starts to wander towards holidays and getting away.
I have to admit, seeing Christmas decorations and TV adverts in mid November is also adding to my desire to get away too!
I have a number of trips planned:
A trip to Preston coming up to see Jon Richardson, that should be fun.
A trip to York to catch up with Titchy Feet’s family from Australia. That will get me thinking about warmer climes too!
I have committed to running a half marathon in Las Vegas next November, a place I have never been to and somewhere that I never really had any desire to go to but, now that I am pencilled in, I am quite looking forward to the idea.
For the family holiday next year my thoughts are jumping between:
I promised Titchy Feet that I would take her to New York one day. The pressure is on on this one as my daughter’s friend was taken to New York by her family and absolutely loved it. She bumped into the filming for one or my daughters favourite TV shows, Impractical Jokers, and so the pressure really is on to beat that!
I have always fancied going to Italy for a holiday. I know that I didn’t really enjoy my time there when I did my grand tour, but I think I just picked the wrong ,industrial areas to drive through.
As I work with a lot of people from Costa Rica, I have a load of options to stay there and the diving would be great for my daughter who recently passed her PADI tests.
A Greek island trip as it may be great value and it I bloody love gyros.
Up with the larks I was at the ferry terminal before most of the employees of DFDS and so I was first in the queue to get boarded. I picked a seat right in the nose of the ferry and watched like a dog waiting at the front window of its house awaiting its owner to return, except I was desperate to see the famous white cliffs again.
I won’t bore you with my drive home, I have probably bored you enough already. But let me summarise the trip the best I can.
– I loved the freedom of going where I wanted, when I wanted.
– I loved visiting history spots and feeling like I was surrounded by the echos of the past; Mierlo, Bastogne, Normandy.
– The drive from Italy back into France was amazing.
– I met some really nice people and saw some amazing characters.
– I did too much driving and not enough viewing. I should have stopped at villages and wandered around rather than seeing places at 30 mph in my car.
– I wish I had spent more money on toll roads and given myself more time to get out into wherever I landed each night and bought meals. I like food, but ended up eating tins of meat from the UK or supermarket cheese and bread. I only had two bought meals in restaurants.
– I wish I had planned more and worked out what I wanted to see and the route ahead of the trip so I could spend more time taking in the sights and people around me and less time looking at maps and Googling routes!
I packed up the tent and said my au revoirs to my little French friend in the campsite reception. I am not 100% sure that he understood a single word I said, but I was happy that I had tried my best.
I was heading home the next day and so needed to be near Dunkirk for an early ferry. I hate being under pressure for time so for once I knew where I had to be that night in order to be able to sleep comfortably.
I had plenty of time and so decided to swing by the famous Pegasus Bridge in Ranville. It is the on the easternmost section of the D-Day invasion area on the River Orne. Three gliders landed 100 meters away from the bridge and captured it intact; taking the German garrison totally by surprise. By capturing and holding the bridge, it prevented the German forces from reinforcing the landing areas with armour during and after the invasion.
The landing of the gliders so close to the bridge, giving the vital element of surprise, was described as the greatest flying achievement of the Second World War. Just next to the bridge was a small café that was, and still is, owned by the Gondree family. It was said to be the first building liberated on D-Day.
Arlette Gondree (the daughter of the owner on D-Day and who was there as a child herself on D-Day) owns the café today and her daughters run the show. It is a hot bed of memorabilia and a meeting place for veterans. I had to visit this place and take a look but was cautious as the reviews on TripAdvisor were not the best. Apparently the owners were sick of people taking photographs of the family and the memorabilia and were not scared to remind you of the photography ban they have put in place. It’s their café; they can do that if they like, no problem.
I went in with my camera respectfully packed away and my phone in my pocket and politely smiled when I got to the front of the queue ready to place my order. “NO PHOTOS” was barked at me by the most charming lady behind the counter, ‘Urm, yes, I wasn’t going to take any photos, sorry’. Being English, I felt like I had to apologise for doing nothing wrong.
I asked for a coffee and a croissant and was told that it was 3 Euro 75. I handed over a five Euro note as I had left my change in the car and was barked at ‘Do you not have anything smaller?’ Once again, I apologised for turning up in a café having not revised the price list before hand and turning up with the correct change. What was I thinking? She just shrugged her shoulders and began to serve the next person. It turned out that they don’t give change.
I laughed and drank my piss poor coffee and several day old pastry with a smile on my face. I was feeling sniffly and miserable after my run in the rain followed by a day in the rain. I had had enough of France and enough of the War memorabilia. I had been to the museum at the end of the bridge on a previous visit, so I had no interest in going again. As I stood up to leave I left my tray and empty cups on the table and, somehow a spoon from my coffee must have fallen into my bag. In my mind there was no way I was going to leave a €1.25 tip but I was happy to buy a €1.25 commemorative spoon!
I walked back across the bridge and stood at the markers on the grass next to the bridge that were placed where the gliders came to rest. The feeling of being surrounded by history was still there, and I took a while to take it all in before heading back to the car to get away from Normandy. Next to the bridge a mic and PA system had been set up and an event was clearly just about to begin. As I crossed the road I could see that a marching military band was heading over the bridge. I had seen enough. I didn’t hang around and headed home.
Nothing much happened on the rest of the drive. I probably spent around £30 extra on fuel while trying to avoid toll roads that probably would have cost £10. I followed the coast along and drove through some lovely villages but, I must say, I was sick of driving and missing home. Titchy Feet had recommended Honfleurs where she had visited as a child and said it was very pretty. I drove through and it was indeed a lovely looking town. I couldn’t find a parking space near to the shops and so I drove on after three laps of the town’s one way system. I wanted her to be there with me. I was missing her and my kids a lot.
I paid off half the French national debt to get over the Normandy Bridge, which connects Honfleurs to Le Havre. It was 2,143 metres long and felt like it was based on one of my Scalextric tracks in my front room when I used to try and make jumps by putting cassette tapes under the track to cause a lump. As you entered the bridge you couldn’t see the other side, just the peak half way across. It had the feel of a roller coaster where you spend a long while getting to peak but without the thrill of the free wheeling drop at the other side.
I actually made it back up to Dunkirk by early evening and chanced my arm at the ferry terminal. I asked if I could bring my ferry time forward so that I could get to England that night and head home through the night. I was turned away, which was probably best as I was in no mood for driving an all nighter. I found a pitch at a place called Cappelle-Brouck which was about 15 minutes away from the ferry terminal.
I got my tent up and had a wander along the canal with my camera before having a couple of medicinal beers in the campsite bar. The manager of the site was a traveller and a very intelligent and interesting guy. He suggested that I should come back with my family and stay in the site owners’ house that slept 10 people. It sounded amazing and it is in the notebook for future adventures!
Yet again, with no food on offer in the bar, I had to rely on a tin of chicken curry to get me through the night. It was time for bed.
On June 6th 2017 I woke up, on the anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, about 100 meters away from the sea at Lion Sur Mer. I would quite like that to be on my gravestone if possible, that’s how excited I was about this coming day ahead. I had slept with my window open so that I could see the grey English Channel as soon as I woke up and try to image what it would have felt like, as a French Citizen living in that time, to see the huge armada closing down to provide deliverance.
Showered and ready for the big day ahead, in the most overly complex and useless shower I had ever seen, I packed up and checked out of my room. I was just about to set off when the hotel owner, who must have anticipated how useless I was, had been into my room to make sure I had left nothing behind, bellowed at me out of the window and threw my blue tooth speaker down to me below. Suitably embarrassed, I headed for Arromanches as the hotel receptionist had told me that was the centre for events that day.
As I made my way along the coastline, my excitement really built up. Pretty much every village had a green that had been turned into a makeshift campsite that was filled with period military vehicles such as jeeps and trucks, each one surrounded by enthusiasts dressed up in military regalia. There were English, French, Germans and Americans and there were soldiers, paratroopers and nurses. It all felt like I was in the middle of the preparation for D-Day on the other side of the water.
I followed the sea road west until the road turned sharply to the left and there was a car park on the bend full of trip buses and hundreds of cars. I didn’t stop but slowed enough to see what all the fuss was about. Opening out below was the town of Arromanches and there, quite clearly visible still in a broken semi-circle out to sea, were the remnants of the Mulberry Harbour.
This was a giant floating harbour that was built in the United Kingdom and dragged over to France just after the D-Day landings. Without a port or a harbour being liberated, there had to be somewhere to land supplies to keep the advance powered. It would take a long time to liberate these strongholds and so we decided to bring our own with us in the meantime. Here, 70 odd years later, I would say that 15% of it still stands. Yet again, I felt like I was slap bang in the middle of history.
I followed the road down into the town and quickly found a overfull car park full of motorhomes and men with interesting beards and even more interesting sock and sandal combinations. I got lucky and managed to pull straight into a space as someone was leaving, I didn’t see one other person in the next 20 minutes get parked in there.
I was as close to the centre of town as I could have been as the centre had been cordoned off to make it a pedestrianised zone. There were security guards rummaging through bags, no doubt with the recent attacks in London and Paris still in people’s minds. The centre was alive with people and I stopped and got a croissant and a coffee and spent 20 minutes people watching.
The high street was full of two things, cafes or gift shops; the only thing breaking them up were the two museums. In terms of people, there appeared to be five groups:
‘Allied’ tourists, like me, there to pay their respects and feel part of history.
‘Axis’ tourists that, in my mind at least, seemed to be tip toing around and not being too German in case it upset anyone.
Veterans that were being dropped off on coaches and delivered by London black cabs. They wore blazers, caps and their medals with huge pride and, the majority of them at least, seemed to wear dubious stains on their trousers.
The military fancy dress enthusiast. I would class these as military re-enactment types that take things seriously making sure that look as authentic as possible. Not to be confused with;
Fancy dress types that buy a camouflage jacket from a gift shops and walk around as if they are in the army for a day.
It was group 5 that annoyed me the most. If I had been one of the veterans, there to remember my lost comrades and show my respects, I am not sure I would have been too happy to see people trying to get in on the act by wearing a polyester cap and desert fatigues. Anyway, who was I to judge?
My coffee finished, I watched the Dutch military marching band come down the main street and form up in the town square. Shortly afterwards about 20 jeeps turned up with reenactors waving at the crowds. There was then a short ceremony and speeches in the town square and a moment’s silence and reflection.
I wandered around the shops and picked up a few gifts and, no, I didn’t wear anything remotely military all day. Outside of the museum there seemed to be a crowd gathering and so I wandered over to see what was going on. There was a veteran sitting on a bench with his hands over the head of his walking stick looking like a sorcerer staring into his crystal ball. He was just telling his D-Day story and had a crowd of maybe 50 people around him in raptures. I say ‘just’ but it was totally remarkable hearing a first-hand account of the day.
He was laughing and joking and making it sound like a lads’ day out by saying things like ‘We got a hell of shock when the bastards started to fire back at us, we didn’t think that was fair’. But you could see an underlying pain in his eyes that were, I’m sure, slightly filling up. God only knows what sort of horrors he saw and how many friends he lost on that day and the months that followed. I felt uneasy, like I was intruding on his grief, and so walked down to the sea front and walked on the sands for a while and just took in the emotion of the day.
I didn’t want to be stuck for accommodation again that night and there was a break in the proceedings so I walked back to the car and headed back along the coast to the east. I had passed a campsite on the way into town and thought it looked ok so there, on the main road at Asnelles, I headed into Camping Quintefeuille.
The guy behind the counter did not speak a word of English and so I tried my very best to speak to him in French. It didn’t make the transaction any quicker, but it was a good test and I seemed to make myself understood.
I got my tent put up and headed back down into Arromanches. My prime parking space gone, I parked on a farmer’s field just outside of town and wandered back down into town. I took the longer route to walk along the sea front and watched the dozens of jeeps and various other vehicles form up on the beach for a parade. Pretty much the second the last vehicle formed up, it began to lash down from the heavens to such a degree that you could see rivers of rainwater forming on the sand.
I stood huddled into the sea wall until the downpour passed and then made my way for another coffee in town. Heading back to the town square, I passed another crowd which had formed around a veteran. I missed his story, he was just finishing when I arrived, but realised that he had a Geordie accent. I waited until the crowd had gone and introduced myself as a fellow Geordie and shook his hand and thanked him for his service. It turned out that he worked in the civil service and had taken a few trips to a stately home very close to my house and, although he didn’t live in the North East any more, seemed touched that I had taken the time to chat. Maybe it’s true what they say, a true hero has no idea that they are a hero.
Making my way around the sea front, there was a guy dressed in full on English country gent fancy dress: yellow pants, tweed jacket, checked shirt that only farmers wear and yellow brogues. My first thought was ‘bloody hell, a French Nigel Farage’. It wasn’t until the news crew following him came around the corner that I realised that it was him!
I followed him back down onto the beach as there was clearly something going to happen. I got chatting to a veteran as we walked across the sand to the piece of the Mulberry Harbour that had been detached and washed up on the beach. Right next to this, around nine or ten veterans had gathered with a lady dressed in black. It turned out that her father had been coming to these celebrations for years but this was the first one that he had missed as he had passed away. Words were spoken by his daughter, salutes were made by the veterans and a minute’s silence was held as his ashes were spread on the golden sand. With white topped waves crashing in the background and the wind whipping up the beach, one chap just said, ‘Lie in peace, back with your mates’.
It was one of the most emotional things I had ever witnessed.
As I walked back up the beach I chatted to one of the veterans and said that I thought there would be more things happening in and around the town, that it was supposed to be the centre for activities but there was very little organised. He explained that the organisers didn’t have enough money for anything else as they were saving up for the 75th Anniversary in 2019. As each passing year goes by, the numbers of veterans that are alive and fit enough to make the trip dwindles. It was a privilege to be there and see them.
He also told me that the vast majority of the veterans in town that day were ferried there by London taxi drivers as part of an annual charity event. They drive in convey from the UK and are looked after by the drivers.
With no further activities organised for the day, I made my way back up the hill to my car and headed back to the campsite. There was to be a firework display at midnight and it should have been visible from the sea front just down from my campsite.
Heading back east along towards the campsite, I spotted an older guy hitchhiking and I couldn’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t stop. He jumped in and I drove him along to his hotel as he had been separated from his sons. It turns out that he was a taxi driver living in Portsmouth but was born and raised in Sunderland, it really is a small world.
Back in my tent, I relaxed with my book and a brew and sampled some fine dining (bread, butter and a tin of beans) and relaxed until it was time for the fireworks. I walked down to the sea front and was surprised to find myself alone down there and, in typical French fashion, to see all the houses down there in pitch darkness and looking as if they had just evacuated in anticipation of a super storm hitting the beaches that night.
I walked about a mile up the beach, it must have been 12.15 by the time I gave up and got back to my tent. Just as I was undressed and tucked into my sleeping bag, the fireworks started. I leapt into my walking boots and pulled my shorts on and ran down to the sea front just to catch the last few whizzes and bangs. Shivering and with tears in my eyes, caused by sand being whipped up from the beach rather than emotion, I walked up to the tent and had the best night’s sleep of the trip so far.
I set off nice and early, convinced that if I got myself on the road, I wouldn’t spend all day in the car and would be able to walk the Normandy beaches that evening and enjoy a nice meal for a change.
Just out of the hotel car park, I had to stop pretty much immediately to take a photo of the beautiful church that I had missed in the dark the previous evening; then I was off! I tried to avoid the motorways. If I told you that it was see the beautiful villages and see French life you wouldn’t believe me, so I’ll be honest and admit that I just wanted to avoid paying for the roads.
I quickly worked out that the French road system is brilliant if you want to head north/south or east/west but if you are driving diagonally across the country then you are in a pickle. One village blended into another as I drove and drove and drove. I was a spectator to French village life, which seemed to involve cycling to the bread shop for a baton and then heading home to close your shutters and sit in the house all day. There seemed to be very little social activity and the streets always seemed to be empty.
With so much time on my hands my mind began to wander and I got a little philosophical. My journey had become like the journey through life. At each junction, I could turn any direction that I wanted and I would never know what I had missed out on around the next corner by plotting the route that I had. I couldn’t go back, time didn’t permit, so I had to make sure that I picked the best route I could to make it as enjoyable as possible and not look back and worry about what I had missed. Just think about what was to come.
After that, for me, deep thought I was happy to come crashing back down to earth as I passed a sign for Camping Du Coq at a place called Au Bourg. Then I passed a huge silver Coq statue and had to stop to take photographs and laugh at my own coq jokes. Normal service was resumed.
I passed through the lovely town of Autun, cutting over west to east towards the equally lovely Bourges before heading north towards the Normandy coast. As time ticked on and I became sick of driving the day continued to blur at the edges with so much driving. I was beginning to regret not paying the tolls and no doubt would have arrived by now, as night began to fall.
Heading towards Caen, inland but on the eastern end of the D-Day beaches (so the area where the English forces were more prevalent), I started to recognise some of the place names on the sign posts and my excitement levels started to pick up again. I arrived at the beaches at Luc-Sur-Mer, convinced that I would be able to find a campsite but aware that they may be busy. It must have been around 7pm by the time I arrived in Caen and I spent maybe an hour driving up and down the coast following signs to campsites that all seemed to be closed for the evening. I would guess that I followed signs to 5 different sites and I didn’t speak to a soul at any of them.
Disappointed, I began to look for hotels as it had just started to drizzle and my mood was sour. Eventually I ended up at Lion Sur Mer, after driving through many little seaside places that looked to have been abandoned, and asked a hotel if they had any vacancies. I was so relieved when the chap said that they did and handed me the key to my room. I took up my bags and opened the window and realised that my room looked out over around 100 meters of footpath and then the English Channel. I would be waking up on the anniversary of D-Day and the first thing that I would see when I woke up would be the very water on which the boats would have been on so many years ago. All of a sudden, the long drive and fuss to find a bed for the night didn’t seem to matter.
The fact that my room looked like it hadn’t been painted or redecorated since 1944 didn’t matter to me. I was buzzing and decided that at half eight at night I had done maybe 2,000 steps and that wasn’t good enough. I jumped into my running gear and decided to go for a run along the D-Day beaches. I must have got about 20 yards from the hotel when the gentle drizzle that had been hanging in the air progressed into a full on blizzard. I ran just short of 5km wearing a waterproof jacket and by the time I got back in the room there wasn’t a single centimetre of my clothing that wasn’t wringing wet.
Showered and dried, I wandered down into reception to see if I could get some food. It was about half nine and I was told that there was no food being served and that the bar was shut. I assumed that I wasn’t the only one that was in the area to commemorate D-Day and I was stunned at the lack of foresight. When I asked why the bar wasn’t open they said that they had been very busy serving evening meals and were too tired to stay open. My mind blown, I went out on the hunt for food.
I knew from the hotel/campsite search in the surrounding villages and town that there were no shops or takeaways open so I knew I had a task on my hands. I did pass one kebab shop that looked open but by the time I had parked and walked back down the road the lights were off and my opportunity was missed. I ended up in Ouistreham and picked up a McDonalds but, as it was closing I had to take it away. It was black dark and still lashing down so I headed back to my hotel to eat in my bed.
By the time I got back my chips were freezing, the burger was like a leather belt and the coke in my ice had melted so I ended up with watered down Coke Zero. I watched the end of the only English language TV that I could find, the wartime classic ‘A Bridge Too Far’, and drifted off to sleep listening to the sea lap up against the shore. This was so far from being perfect, yet perfect, all at the same time