I am the first to confess that Normandy in France has always just been an area of France that I blast through without stopping. Flat and boring has been my assessment and in my defence, this view has been backed up by friends who have had the same opinion.
I have wrongly ignored the historical significance of the area in respect of the D-day landings and the various important battles that have taken place there; that is until now. Thanks to the husband and wife team of John and Jeanette Eggleton I have discovered at least some the immense history of the area, but also I now know, it has some of the best motorcycling roads anywhere.
The British couple started Bike Normandy eight years ago after spending numerous weekends crossing the channel in search of some good motorcycling, devoid of bad road surfaces and not strewn with cameras. Requests then fooled to organise tours for their Institute of Advanced Motorists colleagues based on their intimate knowledge of the area and started the idea of making it a business. So, after much preparation, Bike Normandy was formed. second world war, motorcycling roads,
To make it work, they totally relocated to France having found the ideal property to base themselves in the Orne department of Lower Normandy, between Vimoutiers and Argentan, just less than two hours from all the coastal ports in the area.
In simple terms "Le Champ Massé" is situated in eleven acres on the side of "Hill 262" part of the Falaise Gap, which was the scene of some of the final battles of Normandy during World War ll.
Situated on the south slope of the hill, it has absolutely stunning views over the battlefields and given the tranquillity that now exists as you stand on their terrace; it is hard to imagine what went on there towards the end of the Second World War.
John quickly converted the old farmhouse to provide five double en-suite rooms as well as spacious accommodation for themselves. Thanks to the amount of space you get with French properties, he added a games room, gym, drying room and somewhere to brew his own cider and calvados from the 1200 apple trees that proliferate his land.
Beginning to sound like motorcycle heaven? Well a large cow shed provides secure and dry bike parking outside, separate to the bike workshop!
Although the original idea was just to provide guided road tours, they quickly realised that Enduro / trail riding is widely accepted in France, even to the point where farmers open gates for you. So they teamed up with some local national standard guides to offer off-road weekends in the Pays d’Auge and Suisse Normandie areas close by as well.
“It all seems to be working well and we get a large number of repeat bookings.” said John last year at the NEC Show as he once again gently tried to persuade me to pay a visit and see for the operation myself. Given the fact I had heard good things about them and felt I really should finally visit the historical sites close by, I agreed to pay them a visit.
Bike Normandy’s big strength is their close proximity to the ports and this was paramount in citing their business so they could provide long weekend breaks. Basically riders get themselves to one of the ferry ports where John and or Jeanette pick them up and start the first days ride ending back at their base with a four course meal.
Day two is out and about after breakfast and ending up back at base for yet another massive meal (all meals include drinks!) before the final day ends back at port. In addition to these every popular short breaks, they now run some long excursions to other areas of Europe, but that is another story.
Having agreed the dates a quick call to the wonderful people at Brittany ferries soon had a night sailing from Portsmouth to Caen arranged with a fast crossing back from Cherbourg to maximise my time in France. (I admit I do use Brittany Ferries all the time to save on road mileage and time as they get me exactly where I want to be in comfort at very affordable prices.)
Next decision was which bike to use and the Suzuki 1250 GT Bandit complete with luggage came out as the best option, so one was duly booked. I know the new F version is now with us, but for value for money the GT is still one of the best deals on the market if you can only afford one bike thanks to all the extras that come as standard for a bargain £7149.00 including VAT.
Having met up with both John and Jeanette and their usual back marker team, they quickly introduced me to a side of Brittany I had never met before, that of hills, valleys and sweeping constant radius bends. The pace was swift and enjoyable as John quickly gauged my abilities based on his time as an IAM observer, but after and hour and half we stopped for lunch in small café they use regularly.
Welcomed with open arms despite a mass of helmets and riding gear, John explained this was typical of the food and coffee stops they use on a regular basis. Thanks to their fluent French I enjoyed a decent snack, although had I realised just what the evening meal would consist of, I might have stayed with a sandwich!
Having, eaten and looked around the historic town (aren’t they all out in France?) we headed off for more roads that did not have a pot hole in sight and were remarkably free of both traffic and gravel. A drop-off riding system is used with large groups so that nobody is put under pressure to ride faster than they feel comfortable. However, they do try as far as possible to get groups of similar riding ability beforehand and the pace is adjusted accordingly.
Likewise on the safety front, stops come around every hour to hour and a half to combat tiredness as the routes are all chosen to make sure the tyres get even wear all around the carcass and not just down the centre!
Certainly the Bandit was proving to be well up to the task, even with fully loaded panniers and top box and John commentated that the former were often quite close to the tarmac at times. This was certainly true while following Jeanette on her GSX-R 750 on some fast open roads locally known as the ‘race track’, the Bandit rudimentary suspension coping well with sport bike riding techniques!
Despite such open flowing roads, speed limits are rigidly adhered to in villages and towns so as not to upset the locals and attract attention and people with loud pipes are always asked to ride accordingly.
The last stop of day one for me after looking at the stunning Chateau d’O was a small chateau that was the site of the first French erotic movie and one regularly leased by film star Johnny Dep, before being introduced to "Le Champ Massé". John had previously shown me pictures of the views from the house, but good though they were, they had not done their home justice, neither had his description of the accommodation and facilities, which are excellent to say the least.
I have also to say the standard of food was well on a par with a Michelin rated restaurant and it is even more amazing given that both John and Jeanette had been out all day riding!
After a restful night the next day saw us head out for a tour of the beaches and some of the historical sites. The Bandit was now devoid of panniers , but the reality was that apart from the lack of width, it made little difference to the grunty 1255cc motor, the bikes handling, or its petrol consumption despite being regularly run up and down its razor sharp six-speed gearbox.
As a result of running these trips for eight years John is now a highly accomplished tour guide and his knowledge of the important sites is excellent. So, we started at Pegasus Bridge which crosses the Caen Canal at Benouvile, this being the only bridge that the allies kept open to allow troops to cross on D-Day in 1944.
The original bridge is preserved in a museum next to the point at where the new bridge carries traffic and this includes full scale mock-up of one of the Horsa gliders that made capture possible.
There is café on one other side, which is reputed to be he first property liberated. However, this was not a stop as John advises it has the most expensive coffee to be found in France!
From here we continued down to the seaside town of Arromanches to see the remains of the floating harbour that was towed from Blighty to give our brave boys a fighting chance as they came up the beaches. There is a 360 degree museum here which gives a true insight into the horrors of war, because sitting in the small seaside town now, it is very difficult to comprehend what really went on back then.
After lunch we went back up to the cliffs to inspect some of the remaining guns that formed part of the coastal defences, before heading down to the American Cemetery behind the famous Omaha beach where the American landings took place.
Despite their being plenty of tourist signs directing you, I was grateful for John’s often different very route that seemed to avoid the delays caused by normal tourists in their cars and coaches. Once again the roads were well suited to the pleasure of motorcycling as opposed to just routes to a destination.
The Bandit was definitely proving to be the ideal choice even in the odd pockets of traffic we came across where its well-balanced nature made even filtering a pleasure.
The US cemetery with its perfect lines (in any direction) of 10,000 white crosses, along with the historical explanation of what went on has got to be one of the most sobering sights anywhere in the world. The sound of the single bugle was poignant to say the very least and maybe places like this should be compulsory viewing for every school child in Europe to prevent it ever happening again!
Although the German cemetery and our final historical stop of the day has double the number of graves it was not quite as impressive, although none the less poignant tanks to the more basic layout. Again a museum helped explain what went on in the locale.
As we sat in a quiet coffee shop discussing what we had seen, John was at pains to point out that on this three day trip there is no set agenda or locations and routes can be varied according to client’s wishes, port of arrival and even weather.
From there it was back to base and after a hot shower in the well appointed accommodation, it was yet another four course meal. Given the level of food, a weight watchers warning should be displayed on the excellent Bike Normandy website in my humble opinion.
The last day saw a slight improvement in the weather as we used a short stretch of motorway (the only time we did) to reach the very picturesque port of Hornfleur where John often meets riders who have used the Le Harve crossing.
This was obviously very popular as the dockside cafes were packed so after a quick coffee in a small backstreet we headed out to follow the river Seine to Vieux Port. Along the twisty winding road could be seen many thatched cottages of the type used to illustrate Normandy architecture in all the tourist brochures.
More excellent roads brought us to a leisurely lunch stop before and afternoon spent on some of the finest roads biking roads you could wish to find anywhere. After a coffee we parted company leaving me to ponder on the whole very positive experience, which I must say is hard to fault.
The Suzuki 1250 GT is also hard to fault as a good all-rounder with a specification that will suit all but those who insist on gadgets and complex technology. Eventually riding back up the motorway from Portsmouth, the only failings I could think off is a lack of an adjustable screen and heated grips, but given the purchase price there would be lots of cash left to have these added for all year round use.
As for Bike Normandy, yes I could have found my way to the various locations we visited after a lot of research, but I doubt that I would have found the best biking roads to get there. I did not have to think about the route at ay time I just had to enjoy the ride.
I had a fluent French speaking guide who had lots of historic knowledge to enhance my understanding of what I was looking at as well as making both fuel and food stops easy.
I had enjoyed excellent accommodation and good company and made the maximum use of my time away, which surely with our busy lives is value for money in every respect and Brittany Ferries aid this in terms of making them accessible at a very reasonable cost.
Would I go again and would I recommend Bike Normandy? The answer to both is a resounding yes and I can see why one customer has been twelve times, just for the ride and I can now appreciate why!
For more information and availability see www.bikenormandy.com
Article by Ian Kerr