Two weeks after setting forth from Croydon we finally free-wheeled into St.Nazaire on the southern coast of Brittany, somewhat short of our initial target of St.Tropez. The tandem and single bike had survived various alarms and excursions en route and we had realised that perhaps we had reached the furthest extent of our French adventure. We had given ourselves 6 weeks to complete the round journey and allowing for two weeks return (and no misadventure) we had come to the conclusion that if were to do anything but just cycle every day, get to La Rochelle (our secondary destination) only to have to return almost immediately then we needed to find somewhere to bunk down for a couple of weeks. By chance we stumbled across the St.Nazaire Youth Hostel which, in those days (mid 60’s) was situated in sand dunes behind the beach.
The “rules” of youth hostelling were few and far between but one that was mostly upheld was that visitors could stay no longer than 2 consecutive days so we had plans to sojourn at St.Nazaire for a couple of nights before moving up the Brittany peninsula and thereby hopping from hostel to hostel before making the return journey. It was our fortune that the hostel at St.Nazaire was being run by a hippy who was, shall we say, most relaxed about overstays and it seemed to us that he was running less of a hostel and more of a commune and thus it was that our two days ran into no less fourteen. Of our stay at this idyllic spot – now long demolished – I can recall very little but It seemed to involve a fair amount of falling-down water, young ladies and a 6’9” American who wandered in from who knows where. He was so tall that the fairly spartan beds couldn’t accommodate him and he spent most of the time in our one man tent which we generously set up for him in the dunes just outside the hostel. Even so, his feet were often to be seen sticking through the tent flaps.
Pat, the least linguistically accomplished of us all, managed to woo a young French lady. I cannot imagine how the relationship flowered but we supposed that her English and feminine delights were enough to overcome any of the impediments that would normally put paid to any untoward lurches and fumblings that Pat, as an eager entrant into the world of sexual fun and games while retaining all the guilt of a good Catholic youth (like all three of us all), might have put into practise. Whether or not he managed to break his duck (so to speak) was never mentioned or alluded to for the weeks we were there although the grin that was more or less permanently on his phizzog would indicate that his achievements were more concrete than the fantasy imaginings of his fellow cyclists.
Our diet during the two weeks we were in situ in St.Nazaire varied not a jot. Ham, eggs and potato. Every day for 14 days. On occasion we would throw in peas to liven up the plate a little but otherwise our culinary skills were severely limited. I think the American guy came to our rescue on a couple of occasions and created a spaghetti bolognese which was the first time we had come across such an exotic dish.
Venturing out into the St.Nazaire estuary one day we discovered the mud flats that had so exercised the minds of the planners of the raid on the St.Nazaire dry dock in 1942. The Campbelltown had scraped its keel twice in the shallow estuary before successfully ramming the dock gates where it eventually blew up some 12 hours after (I’m sure Blown Periphery has covered this audacious raid in a post). Well, we discovered that the mud was indeed omnipresent – and rather deep. How we finally extricated ourselves from the sucking ooze is anybody’s guess but I do remember the sense of panic that arose when we had to abandon our plimsolls and head for solid land more or less crawling along on our bellies.
So, eventually, we had to leave this rather grubby oasis of a youth hostel and of the journey back to Boulogne I can recall very little except that the penultimate night of out stay found us, once again, in Blangy-sur-Bresle and, you will recall, our somewhat testing interaction with three young ladies and a drunk father armed with, we were told, a gun. Pulling up outside the youth hostel which, being NOT a Monday, was open we checked in at the desk. Who should be the caretaker of the hostel? Oh, yes, the gun toting imbiber. As he had not seen us on our first foray through the town we played the innocents and explained that this was our very first visit to France and Blangy was our first stop. We got away with it and ensured that we steered well clear of his three Siren daughters.
Pat had taken the photographs on our trip and although I remember seeing one of the three of us gathered round our bikes in St.Nazaire the whereabouts of that and all the others is now a mystery. In fact, Pat never returned to the sixth form in September to complete his A levels. He joined the merchant navy in the autumn, sailed away and was never heard from again. If he is still alive I have no idea.
I do have one souvenir of our trip though and it is to be seen at the head of this blog. While in St.Nazaire we managed to locate a small portable record player and put on the Brel single that we had purchased earlier on the trip. Flipping over the disc we found “Le Moribond”. We played it enough times for me to write out the words on a piece of paper – and I have kept it safe for 54 years. My mate Cough was Best Man at my first wedding in 1970 and although we met up very rarely over the years the memory of our cycling holiday stayed with both of us throughout the ups and downs of life. He died last year.
Adieu, Cough, je t’aimais bien tu sais.
© Roger Ackroyd 2022 (republished from 2019)
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file