Once driver John had got us out of Saint Quentin, (no thanks to satnav or me! ) we had a straightforward journey until we turned off for Banteux, our destination. Diversion signs alerted us to roadworks and limited access due to work on a canal bridge. As always, we were not entirely sure if the signs would affect us and if the Aire was accessible or not, so we carried on only to see for ourselves that we couldn’t access the road sat nav wanted us to turn down. Back to the main road and only a little further on was another left turn directing us to Banteux. We took this turning and within a few yards had a stream of cars coming towards us horns tooting and ribbons flying from car aerials. Anyone who has ever witnessed a French wedding will know this is very typical and can go on all night! Driver John joined in the fun by tooting as well! Another 100 yds down the road and John suddenly said, ‘we’ve been here before!’. Now, dear readers, there was obviously a holiday a couple of years back when we did not mark up the Aires book as per usual. Probably 2016, when we had 2 weeks of rain and fuel shortages due to strikes, to contend with.
Fortunately the Aire was this side of the canal bridge which we could now see was barriered off to traffic. As we turned left into the Aire, I too recognised this one. How could I have forgotten the name of the place where I was done out of my chocolate eclairs by a lady of a certain nationality who jumped the queue in front of me when the visiting bakers van called in the morning?!
Memories came flooding back, we had a fabulous walk here (I had googled a walking route) and ended up at the next canal village, Honnecourt which by good fortune had a bakers shop with huge ‘bap’ style filled rolls and delicious chocolate eclairs that provided us with a picnic (that must have been one of the few days that holiday where the sun came out). The other notable memory was due to the sun coming out and unexpected heat, John took of his sweatshirt and only once we were a good mile away enjoying our picnic did he realise he must have left it in the boulangerie. Oops! He thought about walking back, but no, it was one of his older specimens, and walking back would have meant adding 2 miles on to our already 7 mile circuit, with still a mile to walk.
And here we were again! The Aire has been slightly improved and electrical hook up points are now provided. 5 euros would be collected by someone for our nights stay, not bad value at all. We also had the advantage of knowing that although this village had no commerce, Honnecourt , a couple of miles along the canal path had a boulangerie. John parked up the van and chatted to our neighbour who just happened to be of German origin and spoke excellent English having held a research post at Oxford. He offered to plug in our electric cable as it would mean walking past his dog, who seemed friendly enough but no point disturbing him. Once organised and having had a chat about motorhoming in Scotland we jumped on our bikes and headed down the canal to Honnecourt and the boulangerie, hoping that there would not only be a baguette but a couple of eclairs with our names on them! The canal path was a good one for cycling and we felt almost like locals as we knew exactly where we were going, and yes, not only a baguette was purchased but two eclairs, result!
We had a cycle around the village before heading back along the canal to sit out and enjoy the late afternoon sunshine before the beasties started to bite. Our evening entertainment was watching a horse being put through its paces in the field in front of us.
The next morning, Sunday, we were the last van to leave and sat nav was set for Watten. This time we did take the invitation to use the Toll motorway as it made a fair difference to our drive north.
Enroute to the motorway we passed a large group of men in orange gilets involved in ‘le chase’, a frequent sight at this time of year. Joining the motorway we stopped at the Peage to collect a ticket. I know that I am not the only person to wonder why on earth tickets come out of slots that are either too high or too low which makes collecting them an acrobatic feat. Ever mindful of my lower back problem, I opened the door to stand on the step and reach up and over, nope, couldn’t reach! I had to get out the van. Ticket retrieved it was back in for the barrier to lift and allow us the privilege of driving on what is effectively a dual carriageway!
I had googled and found a Hyper U at Marquion, just off the motorway so we could stop and refuel and buy tasty treats to take home. Not all supermarkets open on a Sunday and if they do it is often just the morning, but we were in luck and after paying our toll, which involved me getting out the van and handing over the credit card to a hungry machine which quickly spat it back at me, satisfied, we parked up and shopped.
More acrobatics were to follow as I wrestled once more with van door, window and the ever illusive toll ticket as we once more joined the A26. An hour later and I had a fail as I directed John to the wrong toll booth and he had to reverse before heading for the one that would take our credit card and head us off in the right direction for Watten. All these acrobatics ended in a sore shoulder and a new plan for the next time we venture on to toll roads. I will drive and John can be the acrobat!
This was definitely a first time visit to Watten but the Aire was easy to find and easy to access. We soon parked up and did a bit of van tidying before heading over the canal bridge to explore. Major roadworks had the high street dug up and our first impression wasn’t good. We couldn’t see a boulangerie and I really wanted to buy patisseries here to take back to the family (#tradition). However, all changed next morning when John took his bike for a run and did a further explore and found a lovely patisserie uphill from the high street area. He came back with baguette and croissants and the opening times so that I could go back with him later and buy patisseries to take home. Our second impression of Watten was much better and goes to show that first impressions can be wrong. We explored the narrow streets uphill from the main road and into the church, well worth a visit and made our way to the patisserie and actually spotted a second one too!
There was a delightful choice of delicious looking pastries and while I was being served eclairs and tarte de pommes, John had got chatting with a couple of young men who have a holiday home nearby and are keen cyclists and they gave him the low down on some of the pastries that are classed as breakfast locally. An apple turnover was one and a cream bun confection another! Good place to have a holiday home!
Enroute back to the van we also shopped at a small grocery shop and then I headed to the supermarket, Netto, to get some Merguez sausages while John took the cakes back to the van. Netto had laundry machines in the car park but no need for us to make use of them on this visit, but noted for another time.
We chatted to an Australian lady who was just heading out to shop but changed her mind when we said the supermarket and the bakers would now be closed for lunch. She and her husband were struggling with the language and customs since crossing into France after touring the UK, but having some great adventures, loved Scotland and the wild camping opportunities.
Back at the van the fridge was now full to capacity and smelling very French! John was eyeing up a van at the opposite end from us opposite the entrance and with plenty space to sit out at the side. The van was getting ready to depart and we were soon parked up in its place.
There were only about 4 vans left in the Aire and we were just getting ready to relax when a GB van arrived and instead of choosing one of the wide open vacant spaces available, decide to park within a foot of us! Absolutely no need! We moved as far over to the right as we could, this gave us 2 feet in between us. The other driver came and asked if we expected him to move closer to us again! No! John politely told him he was a bit too close but GB driver said, oh no he wasn’t, this Aire was designed for 15 vans! I pointed out to him all the empty space and that in our experience spaces only get tight if absolutely necessary. GB man was not for changing and we shrugged our shoulders, shook our heads and bit our tongues!
Time for lunch and then John got the bikes off the rack and we set off to explore the canal path.
The canal path came to an abrupt end, but we had spotted cycle signs and so headed back to follow what was a lovely single track road that took us past the Blockhaus d’Eperlecques. This turned out to be a 2nd WW bunker built by the Germans in order to build V2 rockets. A huge car park area and visitor centre fronts the bunker. We didn’t visit but chatted to a family who had and who found it very moving. The RAF bombed the sight about 25 times in a year and no doubt local people were casualties too.
We cycled on into the village of Eperlecques and by good fortune and John’s instinct for a circular route we returned via lovely quiet and pretty country roads, past farms and cottages and rejoined the cycle route at the Bunker and then back to Watten. A lovely last cycle route in France.
Next morning we were booked on the tunnel at 10.20am. We planned to leave at 8 am though only a 45 minute drive, and have coffee in the parking area. As we were quietly getting ready to leave GB man switched on his engine and we thought he must be leaving too. But, at least 15 minutes later as we were emptying on the service area, GB man still had his engine running and lights glaring at the poor van opposite him. Enough said!
We were heading through the road works in Watten when John suddenly took a right turn, our route goes straight on through I told him! Ahhh, but I’m detouring via the patisserie he said parking up beside it and out he got and returned with 2 fancy buns to go with our coffee for breakfast! Love!
The early morning drive to Eurotunnel was straightforward and in no time the automatic number plate reader was welcoming us and offered us an earlier train at 9.20 am. I accepted before realising that meant a rushed coffee stop! But I can move quick when there is a need, and the kettle was on with the exact amount of water as soon as John switched the gas on. Coffee made, the sign came up to board. I’m sure I have said it before, I should fill the flask we carry with us for this very purpose before we leave our last Aire!
We were the 5th vehicle to board and so were soon able to relax and enjoy our coffee and pastries.
Au revoir France, it’s been fun!