Artois 2016

28th-30th May 2016

I was a later addition to the Artois tour this year, my own fault of course as it’s best to get your name down promptly for these tours. I got a call from Nick Deal informing me there was space available - happy days! I’ve ridden Harleys for a number of years, but only last year joined Chelsea and Fulham after taking delivery of a new HD. I was keen, having already joined in on some domestic rides to take part in a European adventure and the Artois tour fitted the bill ideally. We weren’t going to be riding thousands of miles, so it would be a gentle introduction to the world of touring.

Nick sent the details and as things had been booked for a while I would have to see if I could book the relevant Le Shuttle crossings and various hotels required. That proved to be more straightforward than I thought. The Royal Picardie Hotel in Albert had one room left... booked. Le Shuttle crossing at the same time as the other members of the party...booked. Nick thought it would be a good idea on the Friday before we travelled to meet at the Holiday Inn Folkestone. This would give the people in the group a chance to get to know each other for those that had not met before. Good idea, so Holiday Inn Folkestone - booked!

I thought I’d be organised so arranged all the relevant paperwork; booking references for hotels, Le Shuttle crossing, passport and V5 into a waterproof transparent zip-lock bag. I had also printed off the instructions that Nick had given me on how to get to The Holiday Inn Folkestone however, as I was hurtling down the M20 on Friday evening after a long day, I vaguely remembered something about junction 11A. I saw this junction approaching and thought, right 11A that’s the one I want... ooops! First mistake of the Artois tour and I haven’t even met up with the group yet! I am, as many of you will probably now realise, approaching the check-in for Le Shuttle but some 12 hours before schedule! Please, never repeat this error especially on a bank holiday weekend. I was now in a long queue of traffic checking in for their crossings. There is no way out of this position until you reach the man in the booth, who obviously thinks you are a complete imbecile, but he very kindly printed me off a hanger marked in big letters EXIT and pointed me in the direction of the escape route. He also gave me directions to the Holiday Inn, which was only 10 minutes away. So had it not been for this cock-up, I could have been relaxing with a cold beer in hand about a half hour ago.

Relief, there it is; the Holiday Inn Cheriton and I never thought I’d be this pleased to see a budget hotel! I check in and find Nick, Les Channing, Graham Willard and his wife Caron sitting in the bar. They looked at me and gave a casual glance at their watches as if to say “what time do you call this”. I had to confess the whole sorry episode that had just taken place. The newbie had arrived and they all chuckled at my tale.

More bad news as it was explained that the kitchen was closed and let’s just say I like to eat regularly. The hotel had a great policy of allowing the local takeaways to deliver food to residents. So a Chinese was, in very short time being delivered to the table. I did ask if anybody else was hungry, a resounding “no” was the reply. That didn’t stop Nick making short work of my chicken satay!

Now to digress slightly, Nicks’ idea of meeting on the Friday was so the group of 12 could meet one another, but here we are only 6. During the previous week and the week leading up to the trip, news of industrial disputes in France were all over the news - that’s right strikes (so unlike the French!). Amongst other action, they had barricaded refineries and this had led to petrol shortages, and as the British media reported, petrol stations closed with no petrol at all, there were cars stranded by the roadside and basically Armageddon was upon us. This had led to a number of C&F riders pulling out of the trip for fear of being stranded in France, an eventuality that I myself could have done without. We all had our concerns, to the point where Jane Deal left her bike at home and brought the car instead (she had also just got over pneumonia) with a jerry can as reserves.

Now, no disrespect intended to the riders that decided not to make this trip but it actually had the affect of bringing the smaller group together. We were a ‘Band of Brothers’ journeying into the unknown, not knowing if we would make it back to Blighty. It was us against the whole of the militant French unions. Who would live, who would die, who would be able to get back to The Rose by Thursday.

Sorry where was I (editor, crikey he can yap)? Oh yes, in the Holiday Inn Folkestone.

So, with Nick clearing up the left overs of the Chinese and the rest of us draining our glasses, (the bar was now closed) it was time for bed.

To be honest I didn’t sleep that well. I felt like you do as a child on Christmas Eve, wondering what Santa might bring, full of excitement about what was to come. I was so glad to hear my alarm as I was lying, waiting for it to go off so I could get on with the day.

After the usual ablutions (that’s shave and shower before you ask) it was down to breakfast. Not a grand affair at the Holiday Inn Express I grant you but scratch around and you can come up some sort of breakfast. I thought I’d plumb for coffee and croissant, I mean we are nearly in France aren’t we? Slowly but surely, we were joined by members of the group. Dickie Biddle rocked up at around 06.30 on his RK, and joined us at breakfast. He had decided to leave his place in North West of London I believe, at around 04.30 (I bet his neighbours love him) to meet the rest of us at the hotel.

Now, sometime during this breakfast period with the group checking out Caron realised she had left her passport at home (suddenly, going off at junction11A the night before didn’t seem so bad). She was in disbelief that she could have done this and resigned to the fact that they would have to abort the tour. Everybody, in the space of five minutes tried to come up with an idea to get around the problem, with a sympathetic tone. Then, I am guessing that Nick, after consulting with Jane suggested that Jane (in the car) could give Caron a lift back to Cambridge - yes you heard right - Cambridge to collect her passport and catch a later train. Jane was happy to do this, so off they went. It would be much later that day that we would see them again.

Bikes loaded with luggage everybody mopping the raindrops from their bikes except me, “Nick can I borrow your micro fibre cloth please” (another thing you should pack)? Engines started, we formed in line, Les making sure no man was left behind. We made the very short journey to the Le Shuttle check in area. I of course was already familiar with this, as it was only twelve hours before... Having queued up, been issued with our hangers it was off to the waiting area. It was there I met the final member of the tour, Pete Harvey. I thought to myself, that’s strange he doesn’t appear to have any luggage on his SG. It later was explained, that Peter likes to travel light. The extraordinary thing was, he seemed to have more outfits than the rest of us put together. I believe his panniers are like the Tardis in Doctor Who, you open the lid and there is vast space inside.

To the train, boarded and ushered into position, “first gear please, engine off”. We were on our way and morning prayers were taken by Nick on the train along with the usual disclaimers “If any man knows just cause” and all that stuff.

Nick had decided to go to plan B as far as the routing was concerned. We didn’t know at this time the true situation as far as fuel was concerned. We would stick to the autoroutes and assess the issue as we passed fuel stations along the way. We headed to Albert via a town called Bapaume passing at least five service stations on the way. There seemed to be no problem at all, no queues, no stranded vehicles. We stopped twice on the way down. The first time everybody had a coffee, I thought, I should have a baguette as I hadn’t eaten for at least 3-4 hours and was getting peckish. The rest of the group thought this highly amusing and for the rest of the weekend, every time we stopped the question was asked “are you eating Mark?” On the second stop we topped up our tanks, there was still a concern that when we arrived in Albert there would be no fuel available. Another coffee but this time I decided not to eat as I would save myself for lunch.

Nicks timing could not have been better and we arrived in Albert at lunchtime with the sun shining. Dickie Biddle pointed out the town temperature gauge was reading 26 degrees! Summer had arrived at last and once parked we sat down outside a typical French Brasserie in the town square call the Hygge Café’. It was lovely, to sit outside (the first time I had eaten outside this year) in the sun, eating a very good lunch of snails & steak frites. As we sat there the weather slowly changed and became a little overcast and thundery. Dickie had his weather app and predicted that a storm was on its way. This had been confirmed earlier by another weather forecast. The decision was made to go to our hotel, the Royal Picardie and check in then take another look at the weather situation, we would then decide if would ride out in the afternoon.

Checked in and unpacked (this obviously didn’t take Pete too long), we agreed to meet in the bar. When I got down to the bar about 30 minutes later, beers were being brought to the table. Apparently the locals were convinced there was going to be storm, and it seemed for us, the best course of action was to sit in the hotel and down a few pints. This we did, I’m not quite sure how long for, its funny how you lose track of time in this situation.

At some point in the afternoon Jane and Caron turned up after the passport collection.

After a quick wash and brush up we met in the bar once again then took a twenty minute stroll down to the town for dinner. It was very pleasant evening sun as I recall although the impression was that the weather could change in a heartbeat. Dinner in the Restaurant Basilique which was a small, I guess we would call it a boutique hotel incorporating a very nice restaurant. I had Duck Breast in a cherry sauce, and it was superb, washed down with copious amounts of red wine. I don’t recall what everybody else was eating, but the girls made a dent or two in some bottles of white wine. In the words of old Mr Grace “we’ve all done very well”.

Although the restaurant was very nice, it wasn’t the sort of place where you wanted to sit and quaff a few drinks into the early hours. So, the decision was made to return to the hotel bar where we could do just that. We got back to the hotel at 22.30, not late by any means, to find the hotel bar closed! Disaster! And there was no way they were going to open it. Bigger disaster! Now, as it turns out, this was probably for the best. Let’s face it, we had all had a very long day, some longer than others (Dickie and Peter) and although I thought I haven’t been to bed at 22.30 since about 1974 it was probably a good thing. We would reconvene at breakfast time take a look at the weather - again.

Despite having had a few beers and some wine at dinner, I was feeling remarkably fresh, having had a good eight hours sleep (I never do this). Breakfast was a grand variety of things compared to the Holiday Inn. They had a mini hot bath that you could boil your own eggs in. Graham and myself worked out it was probably only running at about 80 degrees, a 4 minute egg was extremely runny or should I say snotty. It turned out that 8 minutes was the optimum time, which was about as long as it took to cook your toast in one of those infuriating toasters that they always have in hotels. Buy a Dualit guys come on!

Breakfast over we decide to ride out into the French countryside. Nick had devised another route. Full marks to Nick by the way, he was designing rides on the hoof all weekend. The route was good, some great twisty country roads. At one point we came into this very small village which was dominated by, what looked like a large millpond and canals. A chap was fly fishing, and you could just imagine the trout in there wild brownies ready to seize the lure - let the battle commence. We moved through various small towns and villages, bizarrely there never seems to be any people around as if they had all been abducted by aliens, leaving these small hamlets deserted and silent.

Artois 2016

We saw a number of impressive war memorials. Anybody that has been to the area before will be familiar with these sights. We stopped at a couple of points, Les and Myself were taken with a memorial of The Royal Tank Corp (Windmill?) which was adorned with bronze models of the tanks that were used at that time. There were two very strange contraptions on it that I hadn’t seen before. It was about this time, and about 60 miles into the ride that the heavens opened. Imagine, lying in a muddy trench, with this, and artillery shells raining down on you. It suddenly puts your life into perspective. Any troubles you think you may have, pale into insignificance.

The thunder grew louder the hailstones grew more dense. What another fantastic idea of mine to wear an open face crash helmet. It was like my cheeks were being sandblasted. I suppose the girls might like it? Some strange facial exfoliation whilst on the move! I remembered Dickie saying on the Saturday morning “hey that helmet looks cool.” Well Dickie it’s not so cool now is it! We rolled back through the worsening weather to the Royal Picardie Hotel, parked the bikes and called time on the days riding.

Le Corner Pub in Albert, which is the only place open on a Sunday was where we headed for lunch. It seemed to take an age to get served “tis the way of things in France I hear.” Eventually, we get beers, wine and it took sometime but we eventually got food as well. We had been in here for sometime, with the backdrop of improving weather conditions, but alas, we were again two of three beers in and nobody had a mind to ride again.

Now forgive me, because everything gets a bit hazy for me at this point. We were to have dinner in this same establishment and I think we did leave and go back to the hotel and then return two hours later (editor, we did). But, it could be that Pete, Dickie and myself just stayed there. I don’t recollect going back to the hotel, quite honestly at this point I couldn’t recollect much at all. For arguments sake, let’s say we did go back to the hotel, as some futile gesture of separating lunch from dinner. What I do remember is that during that evening session that took place, my new partners in crime, namely Peter and Dickie were, after some impressive drinking, attempting to make a dent in the French Cognac supply. I also remember at some point returning quite late to the hotel where, lo and behold, the hotel bar was now open.

We got talking to a bunch of Canadian guests, what about, I know not. We were last seen, these Three Musketeers, clutching a Jack Daniels or a Vodka tonic in the reception area as the chap in charge was finally closing up the bar. I am told we went to bed around 02.00, I will have to accept Pete’s word for that.

Needless to say, in the morning one or two of us were feeling a little shabby and worthless. I had showered and shaved before going down for breakfast, and was greeted by Nick being extremely surprised to see me at all. “I heard you guys went on a bit, you don’t look bad considering.” Years of practice Nick! It was now about 08.30 so only six and a half hours since my last drink. Nick ever the organised one, has a proper breathalyser just like the police have, and gets me to blow into it. “we may have to leave later if you guys are still over the limit” he chortled. So blow I did, that slight delay you get before the result is displayed on the unit, then beep - zero! I think Nick was more surprised than I was and as it turned out all three of us were well under the limit. Although I will admit, I had felt better. The group breakfasted again more 8 minute eggs, more staring at the toaster.

Artois 2016

Graham Willard and his wife Caron being originally from South Africa were very keen to see a particular memorial at Delville Wood. Grahams grandfather was one of 143 soldiers of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade to survive out of 3500 men. As I understand, the battle was of no strategic importance, a lot of men gave their lives for very little. I’m sure this needless exercise was repeated time and again in the First World War and thankfully to a lesser extent, during the Second.

So, the return trip started a little later than schedule. We again took off down twisty country lanes, through small towns and villages of which there appear to be many and across wide open spaces of agricultural land. We stopped for a coffee (a baguette for me of course too), in a traditional patisserie in Auxi-le-Chateau. Twenty minutes later we were on our way again heading to a town called Hesdin where we lunched at ‘Le Globe’ a restaurant operated by a South African woman who despite having been in France for a number of years and living with a Frenchman, hadn’t lost an ounce of her accent. In fact when she started talking to Graham and Caron it got broader!

The food was fantastic, but beware if you hadn’t cleared you plate the South African woman quizzed you quite vigorously asking what was wrong with it! Off we go again on our final leg back to Calais, we were able to board a slightly earlier train so gained about 30 minutes in doing so. Like anything when things come to an end there is a hint of sadness that it’s over. You’ve shared a moment in time with your fellow men and women that will never be repeated. But, you’ll always have the memories of the events that took place during those few days. I will take this opportunity to say to all on the trip, thank you for adding to those memories, it was great fun, a fantastic experience and I would love to do more. As I said at the outset, we have become a ‘Band of Brothers’.

As the train pulls slowly into Folkestone, and I move to disembark, it’s not too late for one last mistake. My riding glasses were steaming up on the train, so I took them off and put them in my pocket. When you get off the train you are directed almost instantly on to the M20, my eyes are now watering, I cannot get my glasses out of my pocket, and as my ‘brothers’ disappear into the distance, I’m am forced into the services to put my goggles on.

The Newbie has arrived!

Mark Luckhurst - C&F Member