Before bikepacking: touring Brittany with panniers

I blogged last week about my first bikepacking trip. I loved the freedom that bikepacking gives the touring cyclist. I wrote that it was a contrast to touring with panniers, as I did several times in the 1990s. Here are my nostalgic reflections on those pannier touring days.

Cycling off the ferry: Brittany tour, 1996

Brittany 1996

There’s something special about cycling off a ferry in the early morning. Especially when the port is Roscoff, a small town that makes a perfect landfall in France.

My friend Richard and I had enjoyed a successful 325 mile tour of England’s West Country in 1995, and decided to cross the channel the following year. Brittany was calling, and we followed a tour featured in the book of the BBC series of Fat Man in France, which recounts Tom Vernon cycling across the region.

Getting to the ferry in Plymouth was an unexpected challenge. We took the train from lovely Kemble station in Gloucestershire, changing in Gloucester. But a landslip in the wonderfully named Mutley tunnel outside Plymouth led to a long delay. One anxious passenger, late for a flight to the isles of Scilly, climbed out of the train window and ran down the embankment! Fortunately the line reopened and we had time to enjoy a meal in the historic city before boarding the overnight ferry.

We climbed away from Roscoff just after 7am, stopping for breakfast in the square at Saint Pol de Leon, a handsome town just a few miles from the ferry port. (It’s twinned with my late mother’s hometown, Penarth, Wales.) Living up to the stereotype of Brits abroad, over breakfast in the square we listened to Radio 4, which was broadcasting former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd’s autobiography. It was then a short ride to our overnight stop, Morlaix, a town dominated by a spectacular railway viaduct.

Shades of Cornwall: near the Brittany coast

Cycling through Brittany reminded me so much of Cornwall and Wales. The scenery was similar, and the place names reflected a common Celtic heritage. (We even saw a sign for Cardiff’s Brains Beers on the door of a bar in Berrien.) We stopped for the night at the lakeside village of Huelgoat. Its historic forest had been devastated by the 1987 hurricane, but happily replacement trees are beginning to recreate that ancient landscape.

A rather more modern sight awaited us as we travelled towards the coast: one of France’s nuclear power stations, sitting incongruously next to a peaceful lake at Brennilis. We found out later that this plant was an experimental one, and had already been shut down for a decade when we pedalled past.

Time for a breather!

One of my favourite parts of the tour was the ride down to the Pont de Térénez, a suspension bridge over the Aulne as the river approaches the sea near Brest. The nearby town of Faou echoes the Cornish harbour of Fowey, and the landscape was certainly similar. We cycled over the suspension bridge, which was rebuilt in 1951 after wartime damage. It still stands, almost 100 years after it was first built, but has been replaced by an impressive new crossing alongside it.

Our destination was Pentrez-Plage, a village on Brittany’s Atlantic coast whose name is a combination of Breton and French. (Pentre is village in Welsh.) We relished an hour or so sitting on the beach in the sunshine before enjoying dinner at the bar and restaurant on the seafront where we were staying. Sadly it looks like that traditional bar has been modernised if Google street view is any guide.

In the morning, Richard enjoyed cycling along the glorious beach before we set off for Douarnenez, a bustling harbour town that was once a centre for sardine fishing. I found the ride challenging at times with a good few hills before we reached our destination. We spent a rest day in Douarnenez exploring the harbour and experiencing a couple of classic French meals. In one of the bars we met a father and son who had sailed over from the West of England. I can’t remember what prompted the conversation on to the Fastnet sailing disaster of 1979, but the son looked less enthusiastic about sailing back across the Channel as a result!

Our next night’s stop was in the picturesque seaside town of Audierne. Yet we made slow progress after finding a bar for lunch that was the centre of operations for a cycle race. The sun was shining and we had a beer. Then another. And another. The waiter looked the spitting image of John Hume, the Northern Ireland politician who was then at the height of his fame as an architect of the peace process. (He was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1998.) After a pleasant couple of hours, we reluctantly got back on our bikes and set off for Audierne.

Tom Vernon was full of praise for the Roi Gradlon hotel on the coast road to Audierne. It was too expensive for us, but we did joke that the name sounded like a 1970s trade union leader. (It was actually named after the legendary King Gradlon.) We stayed at a more modest establishment, and were woken early the next morning by what sounded like the smashing of a thousand glass bottles.

Ferry to Île de Sein

We took our bikes on a much smaller ferry to visit the Île de Sein. This flat, featureless island has a unique place in French history. Every able bodied man on the Île took up arms in response to General de Gaulle’s broadcast call to resistance to the German occupation in June 1940. After the liberation, this speck of land in the Atlantic was honoured as a centre of resistance alongside the great cities of Paris, Grenoble and Nantes.

The final leg of the journey to the cathedral city of Quimper was less interesting, and we had an early start to catch a train back to Morlaix. We wrongly assumed that French railways would be the model of efficiency compared with Britain’s. Instead, we were told that we’d have to wait some eight hours in Brest before getting the next train that carried bikes. We settled down to breakfast in the Brest station buffet, and killed time during the morning. Brest may have one of the world’s finest harbours, but wartime destruction left it a sadly soulless place. (I imagine it’s in better shape 25 years on.) In desperation, we went back to the station in the hope of an earlier train and were thrilled to be allowed on our way, getting to Morlaix hours earlier than expected. It was a joy to look down on the town from our TGV as it crossed the viaduct into the station.

Time for a dip!

Our tour was nearly over. We had a leisurely ride back to Roscoff, stopping off on the coast for a coffee and for me to take a dip in the sea. As we continued the last few kilometres, we marvelled at the fields full of artichokes – one of the region’s signature crops. At journey’s end, we savoured a meal and a few beers before our overnight ferry to Plymouth.

The late Tom Vernon. Photo: BBC

I should raise a glass to Tom Vernon. His route was a perfect introduction to cycle touring in France. As I struggled up those Breton hills, I wondered how 20 stone Tom coped. When he died of a heart attack in 2013 aged 74 his obituarists described him as a Falstaffian figure, whose natural curiosity and novelist’s descriptive powers made him a natural broadcaster. His radio and TV travelogues showed how the bicycle is a perfect vehicle for a travel writer, quietly passing through the countryside and its communities in a way that a car cannot.

No wonder the hills were hard work!

When I got home, I spread the contents of my panniers across my lawn in Wiltshire. Spot the notebook: it listed the contents of each bag! No Kindles in those days – and the paperback of Sebastian Faulk’s The Girl at the Lion d’Or was an appropriate choice for a holiday in France. (I finished it on the beach at Pentrez-Plage.) I enjoyed my days cycling with panniers, but 25 years on I prefer the bikepacking alternative.

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