This is a guest post from our fantastic coach driver, Trevor and gives a different perspective on the 2012 trip to France!
Early start today, got up 03h30 looking forward to French trip with a school we haven’t taken before. Did walk-round safety check of the SOULS Mercedes-Benz coach to make sure that everything was working properly and there were no defects, then drove off to East Hunsbury. All quiet when I arrived, no-one around – have I got the wrong day? Not to worry, staff soon arrived and asked me to back the coach into the playground for loading. Pleasantly surprised by how friendly and enthusiastic the staff were – this is going to be an excellent trip, I can tell!
Left on time, which is no mean feat! Quite often on this sort of trip we are delayed by one missing student who is late. Good run down to Eurotunnel, decided not to use the Dartford Crossing because of high winds forecast – this can mean the closure of lanes 1 and 3, with commercial vehicles restricted to Lane 2 and cars to Lane 4. Naturally this causes long tailbacks, and as the distance going on the M25 via Heathrow is just about the same, this is the way we went – although the western stretch can be very busy at peak times. Had a comfort stop at Cobham Services in Surrey; only opened a couple of weeks ago, so it’s definitely state of the art in the Motorway Services world.
We managed to get a slightly earlier Eurotunnel train and were soon whizzing through the Channel Tunnel at 160km/h – no sign of fishes or sharks out the train windows, so that was a good sign. Short drive down A26 autoroute to our exit at Bapaume but the wind had really got up to severe gale force now. Quite large branches were getting blown off trees on to the road and to prevent sideways buffeting I slowed down to 80km/h instead of the maximum permitted speed of 100km/h. Pleased to note that the electronic Télépeage box on the windscreen worked perfectly; as soon as we approach a toll barrier it lifts up automatically and charges the Operator with the correct toll.
Arrived at Poppies School Hotel in Albert, glad to see there is coach parking right outside. Rapid unloading with everyone’s help and we were soon checked in. Walked with the group to the Museum of The Somme 1916 which proved to be very interesting and well laid out; the exhibits are all placed in a long tunnel under the basilica. We were split into 2 groups and given a guided tour. This was followed by a demonstration of the firearms, bayonets and equipment used by the British soldiers at the Battle of the Somme.
Dinner that night was at the ‘Corner Pub’ owned by the husband of the Hotel Manageress, Lorinda. Turned out to be one of my favorite meals – steak haché in peppercorn sauce
with frites and salad.
What a wonderful day with such an excellent “cabin crew” – Mr Rees, Mrs Hughes, Mrs Dumont and Miss Coad – and friendly, helpful children.
Drove back to Museum of the Somme 1916 to collect out guide Alan for a tour of the Somme Battlefield. He is Dutch but spoke excellent fluent English. First stop was the Lochnager Crater at La Boiselle, 30m deep and 90m in diameter – the result of a planned mine explosion on 1st July 1916. Duckboards have now been constructed round the rim of the crater, so you can walk all round it. There is a memorial cross to a soldier whose remains were found only a few years ago in the bushes. He was originally placed on the register of those missing but was eventually identified from his belongings and DNA tests on relatives; he has now been buried in a nearby British Military Cemetery, something like 82 years after he died in action.
Next stop was the ‘Memorial to the Missing of the Somme’ at Thiepval. 72000 names are inscribed on the walls of the memorial and there is a also a small British and French Cemetery behind the memorial. Alan explained the difference between the military graves of the two countries. Everyone was surprised to see how young most of the soldiers were; furthermore, a large proportion of the graves are unidentified.
The final visit was to the Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont-Hamel. The original front-line trenches are still in evidence and Alan explained why these were in a zig-zag shape to limit the damage from shell blast. The Newfoundland Regiment suffered heavy losses at this location and the site is now owned by the Government of Canada.
This afternoon we drive down to Senlis in Département 60 (Oise). This is where the Norman baron Simon de Senlis, 1st Earl of Northampton and Huntingdon, came from. Originally a Roman City called Augustomagnus, it now retains a medieval core of old narrow cobbled streets and a magnificent cathedral.
Dinner tonight at Lorinda’s Restaurant ‘Aux 2 Saisons’ where we had an excellent spaghetti bolognese.
Breakfast at 07h00 so as to give us enough time to get to the Louvre in Paris for 10h30 booking. Good journey down A1 autoroute until we got beyond CDG Airport, then gridlocked traffic. must have been caused by earlier incident because it soon started moving again. Was expecting long delays on the 6km of Blvd Périphique we needed to drive on, but surprisingly the overhead signs said ‘Périphique Fluide’ and you don’t see that very often on a weekday! Chose Porte de Maillot for entry into Paris. This has a certain ‘wow factor’ because, on top of the hill right in front of you, is the Arc de Triomphe. Bit like a race track going round Étoile with its 12 avenues radiating from it. Unlike a normal roundabout, you have to give way to the right, so traffic coming in from each avenue has priority. In practice though it’s a bit of a free-for-all because it’s wide enough for traffic to merge in fairly seamlessly. Then it’s down one of the most famous streets in the world, Avenue des Champs Élysées. Turned into Avenue Winston Churchill past the Grand Palais, a kind of Crystal Palace Exhibition Centre, then short drive along the Seine Right Bank to the underground coach park at Louvre Carousel. Had my work cut out finding a parking place because it was virtually full already and only bays which were difficult to get into were left. Backing out was even more difficult but Mr Rees turned into a trusty banksman and between us we managed to get out without hitting any of the large concrete pillars or other coaches.
10 minute drive to Eiffel Tour and plenty of room to park coaches right outside. Picnic lunch in adjacent park then the great adventure of riding in elevators up to the 2nd level for a spectacular view of Paris. Couple of minutes drive to the coach park at Bateaux Parisiens for our boat trip along the Seine. So far the weather that day had been dry and even sunny at times but on the boat trip we caught a couple of showers. The sky to the north looked intensely black and, sure enough, a few kilometers north there was torrential rain – on the way home we saw the result: massive floods on the Périphique, often closing 2 out of 4 lanes. It took 30mins to do 8km on the Périphique and then long delays on A1 Autoroute in St Denis with parts of the road looking more like a river because of floods nearly a metre deep.
We had to phone Lorinda to say could we have dinner at 20h00 instead of 18h30 because of the traffic disruption. None of the children complained or caused any fuss. We listened to CDs or watched DVDs to pass the time. Dinner was chicken with mushroom sauce, salad and frites at the ‘Corner Pub’ where we went on Day 1.
Breakfast at normal time of 07h45, so a bit of a lie-in for everybody. Headed south again on A1 autoroute but this time turned off beyond CDG Airport onto Paris north-eastern by pass A104. Surprisingly this was only 2 lanes each way so it was a bit congested. Fortunately most of the delays were for traffic coming in the opposite direction. Joined the A4 Autoroute towards Strasbourg but after about 15km turned off for Disneyland Paris. An easy day for me – just park up in Disneyland then drive back to Albert afterwards. Everyone seemed to enjoy the rides and the train tour of the Disney Studios. Evening meal at Lorinda’s restaurant, chicken fricasée with frites – very nice indeed. Then back to the hotel for blogging and a sing-song with the talented guitarist Mr Tom Rees.
Soon had the coach loaded after breakfast and this time we headed west towards Amiens and up the A16 autoroute which runs parallel to the coast. Short stop at the Baie de Somme service area to fill the coach with diesel and fill the cabin crew with coffee. Headed inland towards a tiny village called Beussent to visit an artisan chocolate factory. We all stood on a walkway overlooking the small production line. The Manager explained about the production of cocoa and how it is turned into liquid chocolate. He then demonstrated how their chocolates were made, filled and decorated. We were each given a chocolate to sample followed a visit to the shop. Short drive to Auchan hypermarket on the outskirts of Boulogne-sur-Mer – this has dedicated coach parking close to the entrance and a small picnic area where we ate our packed lunch. Chance for the children to see what a large French hypermarket was like and maybe purchase a few items.
Just 30km from there to the Eurotunnel Terminal at Coquelles. Train left on time and on reaching Folkestone we were all set for what we hoped would be a trouble-free journey back to Northampton. Matrix signs indicated long delays on the approach to the Dartford Crossing so we again headed clockwise round the M25 with a short toilet stop at Cobham Services. Overhead signs now warned of long delays between there and Junction 16 (M40). By the time we got there I was getting close to the maximum driving period allowed by law, so it was necessary to stop at Beaconsfield services for a longer break. All this made us nearly 2 hours late getting back to the school. The children were excellent, no-one complained or made a fuss. The cabin crew kept them entertained with CDs, DVDs and another guitar-accompanied sing-song. Fortunately the M40 and A43 were free running and when we arrived back at school the long-suffering parents helped unload the coach in world-record time. Maybe they should be entered into the 2016 Olympics in Rio for the coach unloading event!!