London to Paris by bike in three days: Dieppe to Gournay-en-Bray

Today will be the shortest in terms of distance. We get up with some difficulty at 11:00, after under six hours of sleep, and I take a quick look at the route plan. It looks straightforward, almost monotonous. But, after yesterday’s difficulties, monotonous appeals.

We struggle to remember the French word for “check-out” but throwing the keys on to the counter quickly communicates the concept. After retrieving the bikes from a conference room, where they were stowed for us over night, we head straight to the nearest supermarket to grab some calories.

A few hundred meters from the hotel, we find an Auchan hypermarket. We buy some croissants, some energy drinks and an extra memory card, as our video diary is rapidly eating up my current card. Astonishingly, there are no vegetarian sandwiches in the entire arcade. Nor is there any cold water, as only the Coca-Cola is refrigerated.

Shopping done, we cycle down the gentle but lengthy hill to the town centre, and realise that Dieppe is in fact a beautiful town. There’s not a cloud in the sky and the dark blue English Channel lies straight ahead of us. We spend a few minutes on the pebble beach, enjoying the warm sea breeze.

Then we head through the narrow town centre streets, past packed terraces and out of Dieppe towards the beginning of the Avenue Verte cycle path, a 40km path which follows the route of the former Dieppe to Paris railway. There are now plans to extend this traffic-free trail all the way from Paris to St Paul’s Cathedral in London, possibly by 2012. That would be wonderful.

The Avenue Verte is clearly signposted from Dieppe, and it starts about 10km from the town centre. We leave Dieppe around 14:00 and reach the path at 14:30. Riding along this quiet tarmac lane is a pleasure, although we are battling a slight wind. The Avenue Verte touches several quaint villages but we do not notice any restaurants, cafés or shops.

By 15:45, hunger is settling in and we stop for a small lunch. I picked up a roll at Auchan earlier but Mark is left with just crisps and half an M&S sandwich, left over from yesterday. We are running out of water as well. If we had brought any emergency supplies, this would have been the time to consume them.

Eventually, we see a small hut up ahead, to the left of the path. At first, I fear it is a mirage but, as we approach, we find a tiny wooden snacks counter, surrounded by trees. Even better, it’s open. We purchase the very last bottle of water, along with a couple of ice creams.

Then we continue along the remainder of the Avenue Verte, reaching the end of the path in Forges-les-Eaux at 18:00. Strangely, the key roads around this beautiful town are all equipped with speakers, pumping loud French pop music in to the streets. Maybe it’s a bizarre social experiment, but I can’t imagine how anyone could choose to live under those conditions.

The sun is already low in the sky, but we have another 20km ahead of us this evening, to reach Gournay-en-Bray, where we will spend the night. We finally roll in to Gournay-en-Bray at sunset. And, as we check the hotel address, we realise that we actually booked one all the way back in Forges-les-Eaux.

So we set about finding alternative accommodation, with the wise directions of an elderly gentleman. The first place we try has only one room left and no showers. Not suitable for two perspiring cyclists. Luckily, the second hotel has one room left, which we hastily book. The receptionist even thinks we’re French.

As we take our bikes to a nearby garage for storage, she mentions an event involving horse drawn carriages that is apparently taking place tomorrow. She then goes in to great detail about the show and suggests that we must have breakfast at 7:00 in order to watch the spectacle. It sounds almost compulsory but we have no idea what she’s talking about.

We eventually break free from the reception, making a mental note to avoid the area whenever possible. The room’s decor is just brown and the key ring is the size of an anvil (why do they do that?). After showering, we head in to the town for dinner. We quickly notice a pizzeria but, even in our famished condition, we cannot quite bring ourselves to enter.

After a quick hike around the deserted town, the pizza place suddenly looks quite appealing and, despite the fluorescent lighting, plastic seating and dubious nightclub flyers on every table, we push through the door. The food is surprisingly good and they even have my favourite dessert, the Dame Blanche.

We buy a couple of beers to take back to the hotel and we’re relieved to find the reception closed upon our return. There’s just time to get some French television in before bed. And Mark points out the strange recurring formula on French TV shows: a panel of old fogeys sat around a table, shouting irrelevant abuse at each other.

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