Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Speeding Ferry News

Over on This French Life, Craig McGinty was a bit quicker off the mark than I was with writing about SpeedFerries new foot passenger service so I won't repeat the details of his posting. Further details are on SpeedFerries website.

Whilst trying to find a ferry home from France on Monday (from McDonalds car park in Boulogne - see my Blog posting) I was looking at SpeedFerries website to see if they'd any news of the strike and when service might be resumed. Despite searching on all corners of their site I couldn't find any details of current sailing crossings (e.g. are they running on time or are there any localised delays) - black mark to Mr Stavis over this omission I feel.

Anyway I did come across a press release I hadn't seen before from May 2008 announcing that SpeedFerries have purchased SpeedOne the fast-cat they've had on hire from Incat since they started running in May 2004. The purchase comes as no real surprise as they've definitely established themselves as a viable ongoing ferry operation from Dover (with 12% of the ferry passenger vehicle market) and the monthly rental must have been an ongoing financial drain they were keen to remove.

Also mentioned in the press release was written confirmation that SpeedFerries are planning to source a second fast-cat to partner SpeedOne (and guess what it'll be called - no prizes for this one!) and that it might operate on alternative ferry routes.

There's been talk about SpeedFerries acquiring a second boat for some time now and I've even talked to crew myself onboard SpeedOne to see what they knew, but despite rumours for the last couple of years I've not seen it written on their website before. There's no additional news of a second boat on Incat's press releases so we'll have to wait and see what transpires.

It'll be really good if SpeedFerries do open up a second UK/France route, perhaps competing with LDLines on the 'mid-channel' (Le Havre and Dieppe), or even better with Brittany Ferries on the 'western channel' (St Malo, Cherbourg and Caen) - they could definitely do with some cut-price competition in my opinion as their fares right now can be quite outrageous.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Boulogne fisherman's strike meant a detour via Dunkerque

I'm writing this Blog posting whilst sitting on the quayside at Dunkerque waiting to be called to board the 8pm Norfolk Line sailing back to Dover. Unfortunately I can't find a WIFI signal so I won't be able to actually post the entry until I'm back in blighty.

On Thursday I left work slightly early and headed down to Dover en-route for a long weekend in our Brittany Gite. The main reason for going is that we're in the process of moving house in the UK and a friend of mine had recently given me his complete kitchen (cabinets, appliances, et al) as he was having a new one fitted. Thus we were given his old one which after a bit of remodelling would do perfect for the second half of our Gite I'm currently in the process of renovating. And with the imminent house move we didn't really want to have to move all the kitchen pieces from our current UK house to the new UK house, only to then a little while later to then have to move it again to France.

Hence why on Thursday I was driving to catch the SpeedFerries boat to Boulogne with the car extremely heavy on it's suspension. As well as all the kitchen cabinets which in themselves weigh enough I'd managed to fit in two large oak beams that were left over from when our front garden in the UK was terraced, so they too had to go to France before we moved.

Right now the Gite is booked up solid from June through to the end of August and I really wanted to take the things over, so for the first time I decided I'd go over when there were guests staying. I've never really wanted to do this before as I prefer to let people have the run of the place and not be disturbed by me coming and going, but I did need to clear the space so it was a compromise I had to take.

Of course I wasn't actually going to be staying in the Gite that the guests are staying in, now that Bob the builder has connected up the water in the second Gite I can at least "rough it" with a spare bed, the almost completed bathroom and an electric kettle - living on Pot Noodles and Sausage rolls for a few days won't kill me but the sooner I get the new kitchen fitted so I can have a few home comforts the better!

After a late arrival and long drive down from Boulogne I reached the Gite at 3am, left the car in the lane, and crept into the house so as not to disturb our guests. Next morning they were quite surprised to meet me but were very nice about it. Whilst we were chatting they told me how they'd come over via Norfolk Line through Dunkerque and had only paid £39 return for their crossing - an even cheaper deal than Speedferries!

Anyway, had a nice break over in France, did a bit of work on the house, met up with some nearby friends in Brittany, and all too soon Monday came around and it was time to set off back to England and work again Tuesday morning.

When I was over half way to Boulogne I received a text from SpeedFerries telling me that because of a French fisherman's strike none of their ferries were running at all today and I was advised to *urgently* call their UK call centre.

After 15 minutes on hold (which no doubt cost me a bit from my mobile) I finally got through and was told that a "lightening strike" had blockaded the port and so all they could do was to credit me the journey so I could rebook at a later date. Ironically this Boulogne/Dover ticket had already been credited to me once before in December 2007 when strong winds prevented SpeedFerries from operating - perhaps this is a cursed ticket, two cancellations for the same ticket is surely more than just bad luck??

Anyhow remembering my guests advice about the price of Norfolk Line tickets I decided I'd try them for a change instead of P&O or SeaFrance from Calais to Dover. I continued up to Boulogne and after filling up the car a the E Leclerc Hypermarket I parked in McDonald's car park to pickup the Free WiFi signal in all McDonalds restaurants. Worked a treat and by getting online I was able to book at the online *special* price of €46 instead of the standard €120 crossing price !

I did drive around the harbour in Boulogne for a bit to see what the fishing blockade looked like. I was hoping for scenes of angry fishermen waving haddock's or whatever they do when disgruntled, but there was just a few bored looking SpeedFerries staff hanging around the rather closed looking ferry port ...

Dunkerque ferry port reminds me rather of Calais of a few years ago; you drive through miles of desolate wasteland to find the ferry terminal, past rows of container lorries and warehouses, and when you get there there's not much in the way of facilities, just a cafe bar, toilet and a few video games.

Boat's arrived now so better blog off for now !

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Free XML Sitemap tool to describe your website content

Earlier in the week I wrote about how I've added a new website page about Mont St Michel to our holiday home website, but once you've added a new page, how do you ensure that people will find it quickly?

Well one solution is of course to Blog about it, but if you've not got a Blog or don't think a Blog article is appropriate, then you're generally down to waiting for search engine users to stumble upon your page, which in turn means you need to ensure that your new page is rapidly advertised to the major search engines.

And that's where XML sitemaps come in.

A few years ago lead by Google the major search engines including Yahoo and Microsoft agreed a standard method of describing what pages made up your website, a sitemap. In essence a sitemap is simply a text file that you hold on your website that contains a list of all the pages in your website, and like most new Web2 initiatives the file is structured as an XML document which makes it a lot easier for the search engine computers to read and process.

By convention your sitemap is usually called sitemap.xml and is placed in the root directory of your website so ours is and if you take a peek you'll see it looks like this:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" ?>
<urlset xmlns="" xmlns:xsi="" xsi:schemaLocation="">

Ignoring the opening couple of lines you'll see that the structure is pretty simple and consists of each website page URL, it's relative priority compared to other site pages (between 0 and 1.0), when it was last modified and how often the page changes (to give a hint to the search engine as to how often to index your website).

So you can hand-craft your own sitemap if you really want to using any text editor, but I find it's easier and more reliable to use a tool to generate the sitemap for you, such as the XML Sitemap Generator over on

XML sitemaps offer a free online tool that will crawl through your website, find the linked pages, and generate a sitemap for you (for which you then need to save the XML file and upload into your website); or they offer a standalone tool for just $19.99 that will generate the sitemap as part of your website, ping Google and other search engines to tell them you've changed the sitemap and automatically generate a human readable sitemap (my equivalent which I manually have created is at

Once you've got your sitemap created you then need to register it with your Goggle webmaster account, then you can notify Google when you've changed it or periodically Google will trawl your sitemap and download it, looking for changes:

Google Webmaster Console - Sitemap


Monday, June 16, 2008

Mont St Michel - a 'new corner of the internet'

If you've been reading this Blog for a while and following some of the stories of our French holiday home website, you may have spotted that there are several "loose end" bits and pieces whereby I've started a project and then never quite managed to get around to finishing it.

Looking in my "draft Blog postings" I can see I've some 56 entries for the Blog that at one stage or another I've started writing about something and then never finished it, and in my "unwritten website pages" directory there's some 29 new pages for the website that again have never been completed. If truth be told some of these are probably more in the "never really started" category rather than the "never quite finished" category.

All this is I feel a bit at odds to my personality as according to all the times I've ever completed the questionnaire to determine my Belbin team role I've always come out as a 'Completer-Finisher' rather than a 'Plant' so I should be good at working through the detail of problems and finishing things off, but I suppose lack of time is a major contributor to this state of affairs ...

... but I digress slightly (OK I digress lots)

Over the last few weeks of working away from home and staying overnight in hotel rooms I've actually managed to find enough time to finish off one of a new page of the Gite website and finally pushed the button to publish it onto the Internet last week - the UNESCO world heritage site, Mont St Michel which is just over an hour's drive from our holiday Gite.

I've been to Mont St Michel four times now, and we've taken the family on two separate occasions, and on every visit you can't help but be amazed as you drive over the kilometre-long causeway that links the island to the mainland by the towering monastery that sits on top of the pinnacle of rock.

Built over the last 10 centuries it's hard to imagine the amount of physical labour that must have been required to haul the massive blocks from the mainland, across the sea (the causeway is a relatively new construction) and up the top of the natural rocky outcrop to build the church, monastery and town that's now a popular tourist attraction.

Inside the defensive walls and among the winding narrow streets there's plenty of tourist outlets, four museums, a couple of hotels, and of course the obligatory fine restaurants overlooking the impressive view over the Bay of St Michael. Once you climb to the top there's a fascinating tour of the 12th Century abbey and monastery with both written and audio tours available throughout the year.

So there we are, details of a new french holiday attraction on our website and one less "to-do" on my ever-increasing list!

Labels: ,

Saturday, June 07, 2008

P&O Ferries - 5 day sale - ends June 10th

Over on P&O Ferries I noticed they're having a 5 day sale running up to midnight on 10th June:
  • Dover/Calais for £25 each way>
  • Hull/Rotterdam or Hull/Zebrugge for £99 each way (including cabin)
  • Portsmouth/Bilbao for £299 each way (including cabin)

Worth a visit if you're looking for cheap ferry tickets - but be quick!

Labels: ,

Friday, June 06, 2008

Nice to get a cheque *from* Google

Last month I wrote about Google Adwords offering me a VAT refund and today in the post I received a nice cheque for £67.90 for VAT overcharged between 1st January 2004 and 22nd May 2008.

I didn't think I really used Adwords all that much (perhaps a tenner or so a month in advertising fees) but it clearly adds up as shown by the size of the refund cheque.

Unfortunately there was no multi-coloured Google logo on the cheque or a curvy 'g' like Google's new favicon just a plain "Google Ireland Ltd" typed out on the top.

Oh well off to the bank tomorrow to pay it in along with a couple of Gite rental cheques that have come in. We ask for a 25% deposit up front to secure the booking, then the balance payment 8 weeks before the booking. So now there's a nice little deluge of cheques arriving with all our guests paying for their July and August holidays.

All helps the "Gite renovation" fund!

Labels: ,