Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Friday, April 23, 2010

Was in Brittany last week, no problems travelling home at all

Unlike all the other unlucky people stuck at various holiday destinations around the world, I had absolutely no problem at all getting home last Saturday from a week's holiday in our Brittany Gite.

I went out the preceding Saturday lunchtime with Jack, our youngest, having only booked the ferry at 1am that morning. P&O Ferries was "down for maintenance", SeaFrance wanted to charge me an "on the day booking" rate of £120 for the single outbound journey, EuroTunnel wanted £143, EuroFerries still show no sign of starting service - "no available sailings" (no surprise there), so I ended up on LDLines for just £50 for the outbound crossing.

The LD Lines boat turned out to be the rather elderly Norman Bridge which I have to admit to being underwhelmed by. There was one lounge/bar to sit in, some reclining seats, and a restaurant and that was it. The shop was tichy and was not much more than a counter alongside the restaurant, and whilst we were lucky enough to buy lunch in the restaurant as soon as we sailed, the restaurant then closed shortly into the voyage for the staff to count up the takings! Why they didn't do that when they were in dock, I don't know.

Anyway, a good drive down to the Gite, a great week's holiday although I hardly watched any TV at all. Jack on the other hand was glued to Pop TV all the time apart from meal breaks and when he decided to bravely go swimming in the pool. The pool was recording 16 degrees C on one day he went in, and 14 on another, but I drew the line at that and opted to go with him to Loudeac's AquaTides pool where they have a wave machine, a big pool, an outdoor slide and it was a far more acceptable 28 degrees C water temperature.

We drove back through the night on Friday night and arrived with over an hour to go before the SeaFrance crossing from Calais to Dover - a bargain €28 for the one way trip. Seeing as we were so early we parked up in the queue and I thought I'd just catch a brief sleep before the 7:05 departure time.

Fool !

I forgot to set the alarm clock on my phone and quite by accident woke up with a start to find we were the only car on the dockside. No-one in front, no-one behind, and no-one in any other lane.

My watch said 7:00am. Panic! Started the car, stalled the car, started it again and rapidly drove down to the front where a man waved us onto the boat. I wonder if he'd have come and knocked on the window to wake us up or not, or just left us there to catch the next sailing?

Anyway we were pretty much the last ones on board and the ferry wasn't really at all full. This was the day that the UK newspapers and TV were full of stories of flotillas of boats trying to get the Brit's home, and terrible delays at the ports, but the boat had plenty of room and we saw no signs of any weary travellers that had been stuck on the continent by Volcanic Ash grounding all the flights.

This boat was much nicer and had loads of room but for some reason the restaurants, kids play area and the shop didn't open on the crossing at all. We had a coffee and a drink from the bar and ended up stopping off enroute at McDonalds for a snack on the journey home.

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

P&O name their new Dover/Calais ferries - Olympic Pride and Olympic Spirit

P&O Ferries
In March 2009 I reported on P&O's €360m contract for two new super-ferries for the Dover Calais route, the largest ferries to be operated on this route at some 49,000 tons each.

BBC news Kent reported earlier this week that Double Olympic gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes is to name the first of these ferries 'Olympic Spirit' when it's launched in early 2011 (a slight slippage from the original service commencement date of December 2010). The sister ship 'Olympic Pride' remains due to be delivered in Autumn 2011.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Bikes are back in town!

Adults and children's bikes all in a line in the barn, ready for holiday use

I'm delighted to be finally able to take the photo above, showing all the bicycles we have ready for use in our French holiday cottage - it's been a long time coming.

Over the years as I've seen reasonably priced bikes at car boot sales or our own children have outgrown them, I've been accumulating bicycles and taking them over to France for use by our holiday guests. A few years ago we had so many that I had to buy a bike rack for them all (another ebay purchase), and things were looking pretty good at that stage. We have 3 adult bikes, 3 children's bikes of different sizes, 3 smaller children's bikes with stabilisers, two scooters, a child's seat for one of the adult bikes and a Wike bicycle trailer that two children can sit in and be towed behind one of the adult bikes.

Then about 3 years ago when we were over at the Gite I found that one of the adult bikes (the orange one) wasn't riding right. In fact it felt terrible and when I tried to change gear the whole dérailleur mechanism jammed up solid, requiring some emergency roadside repairs.

When I got back to the Gite and inspected the bicycle properly I realised that the dérailleur had been damaged somehow and it was bent out of alignment and several teeth on the cogs were missing. No time to fix it there and then so I put the broken bike in the second house and made a note to buy a new dérailleur when we returned to the UK.

And this then started the long saga of trying to get the bike back on the road again which went something like this ...

Bought new dérailleur off ebay, took it over to France, fitted it, then realised that three of the bike wheel spokes were broken. Measured them, and when next in the UK bought some new spokes. Took the spokes over to France, fitted one of them, then realised that I needed to remove the freewheel unit in order to fit the other two spokes. Returned to the UK and bought a freewheel extractor which I then took over to France.
Had trouble getting the freewheel off, meant I had to clamp the axle in a vice before I could remove it, so in the process damaged the thread on the axle so when I removed the freewheel unit and fitted the new spokes, I couldn't tighten up the axle nuts to put the bike wheel back on the frame.
Took the wheel back to the UK, bought a new axle (and some axle grease), fitted it all back together, checked the wheel was OK, and took it back over to France.
Fitted the wheel to the bike, everything looked OK, so took it out for a test run and on the first hill the dérailleur dive-bombed into the wheel and came apart all over the road. Retrieved all the bits, including newly broken bits of dérailleur, and took the bike back to the Gite to work out what was wrong with it this time.
Realised that the axle was missing half of its ball bearings so hunted around for a French bicycle shop (for a nation obsessed with the Tour de France they appear to be few and far between in my bit of Brittany), eventually found one, and bought some ball bearings. Returned to the Gite and realised that the wheel hub was actually broken and it wasn't repairable.
Back in the UK bought another wheel off an ebay seller that was local to me, arranged for Liz to meet him at a nearby Tesco, but he never showed up and despite several emails via ebay we never managed to complete the transaction. Some weeks later found another ebay seller that had both a front and back wheel for sale so ended up buying both so I had a spare ready for the next bike 'challenge' !
Took the new wheel(s) over to France, fitted the rear one, it worked OK, took the bike for a test run and success at long last, everything worked perfectly.

For the next week I rode the bike most days, usually when we took the dog for a run, and the wheel behaved itself but by the end of the holiday I'd noticed that the pedals and crankshaft had developed a definite 'clunk' at one point as they went round. Fearing the worst I bought a cotter-less crank removal tool from the hypermarket in Loudeac, then when I removed the dust cover off the crank shaft I found that it was simply the crank nut that had come loose and it was easy to tighten it back up with my socket set. The bike is now working perfectly - hurrah!

All of this kind of underlines the difficulties in maintaining a Gite (and in this particular case the bicycles at the Gite) when you're not physically living onsite and have to keep on shuffling back to the UK for replacement parts. All in all whilst it probably was only a few hours of repairwork to the bike I think it took an elapsed duration of couple of years to get the bike back up and running. Of course if I'd realised earlier on that the wheel was damaged and needed to be replaced, then I'd have taken the easy route out and replaced it straight away ... but 'hindsight is a wonderful thing' as the saying goes.

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Friday, April 02, 2010

Dover ferry port up for sale

Dover ferryport

One story that's been bubbling away in the background since the start of the year is of the potential privatisation of the Port of Dover which could raise £300m or more if it goes ahead.

The Port of Dover made £15m profit in 2008 and as a trust port this means that all profits are ploughed back into the business. One of the reasons for the privatisation is to help fund a major £400m expansion of the port with planned construction of a second 4-berth RORO (roll on/roll off) Western ferry dock to support a doubling in freight traffic by 2040.

There is of course claim and counter claim to any kind of major event like this with news being initially greeted positively when it was announced in January that Dover port could be privatised, with the treasury being no doubt especially keen on the deal as any proceeds would go straight to HM Government. By early February the Daily Mail was in uproar at suggestion that Dover could be sold off to the French with a patriotic story including photos of a Spitfire flying over the cliffs, references to Dame Vera Lynn and of course commentary on previous 'scraps' over the centuries between England and France.
In March the ferry companies reported their anger at what would happen to Dover's financial reserves which were earmarked for the new ferry docks, but could be used instead to close the port authority's pension funding gap.

I suspect this story will continue to run for some time.