Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sailing to France?

Now here's a thought, do you fancy sailing on a ferry boat to France?

Not sailing as in crossing the water, but really sailing as in a boat with sails.

Well it might not be as fanciful as it sounds if Transition Town Totnes have their way, TTT is an South Devon eco-organisation that is apparently seriously looking into the possibility of establishing a wind-powered ferry service between Dartmouth and St Malo.

Sailing across to Brittany and Normandy is of course not a new idea, there were lots of established trade routes in the 18th and 19th Century, but it's certainly a novel idea for the 21st Century that would reduce the massive dependence on oil that the current ferry services have.
As an aside, rising fuel costs was quoted as one of the contributing factors in SpeedFerries demise so it's a real issue for the ferry companies nowadays.

The group have calculated that a ship could be converted into a passenger + freight carrying vessel for roughly £850,000 that would take 250 passengers on each 10 hour Channel crossing for about £50 each.

As a business venture TTT are quoted as saying it's very much "at a very early stage at the moment", but they've apparently had interest from the St Malo chamber of commerce who have suggested that they have gathered potential investors for the scheme.

Further information and an email address if you want to offer your support to the project are in the This is South Devon newspaper article.

This does remind me of the proposed bridge from Normandy to Jersey that I blogged about in April 2008. Of that idea a quick Google search reveals no more news or articles have been posted since the original idea was surfaced 2+ years ago so that's sure to have sunk without trace.

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

What a day to go driving in France - but had a worthwhile diversion

According to France Magazine that I was reading just before we went on holiday, the weekend of the 7th/8th August this year, and in fact the 7th August is precisely the worst of the "black traffic" days in 2010. The "black days" are those days highlighted by the French department for traffic information (or somesuch similar) as being those days that are particularly likely to busy, difficult to drive on, and prone to delays.

And of course the 7th August was the day that we were had inadvertently chosen to drive down from Calais to our Brittany Gite.

Oh well, we'd already booked and paid for the Eurotunnel crossing so we had to make the best of the journey.
Only 15 minutes after leaving Eurotunnel we ran into a traffic jam on the autoroute just south of Boulogne and I feared that the travel premonitions had come home to roost. Fortunately the delay was just caused by a small section of roadworks and after 5 minutes or so of queueing we were back on the move again.

In fact the motorway drive down through Pas de Calais, the topmost corner of Picardie, Normandy (both Haute Normandy and Basse Normandy) and into Brittany was fairly trouble free; the only other hold up was at the last toll booth on the Autoroute just outside Caen where they are building a new wider toll booth with more lanes and increasing the section of Autoroute to 3 lanes - and of course we got held up in the roadworks there for a little while.

The last section of the route we take down through Brittany is dual carriageway for almost the entire journey but there are 3 small sections where the N176 narrows down to single carriageway. At the first couple of these restrictions there were slight holdups but nothing to write home about (or at least to write a Blog article about), but at the third where the road narrows to a long bridge over the River Rance estuary I could see the traffic slowing down when we were 2km or so from the bridge and so elected to turn off and try to divert round the bridge.

Well the sat-nav tried to valiantly re-route us back back onto the N176 as we hared down country lanes, through villages and cross-country away from the traffic jam on the bridge until eventually it admitted defeat and selected a new bridge route further upstream across the Rance. As we got to the bridge between Lyvet and La Hisse on the D57 we saw it was a swing bridge which had just opened to let a number of tall sailing ships through into the harbour.
Boats waiting to leave the harbour lock

You don't see this every day - a boat's mast crossing the street!

Entering the lock beside the swing bridge

Next boat ready to pass under the swing bridge and enter the harbour lock

10 minutes later all the sailing boats had crossed through into the lock beside the swing bridge, the bridge closed again and we were on our way. No more holdups and we reached the Gite well before dark.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Passed through Caen enroute to the Gite, Brico Depot shopping and saw Barfleur still there

On our drive down the autoroute from the Eurotunnel terminal to our Brittany holiday we have to drive around the Caen Périphérique Périphérique, normally to the south side following the signs for Rennes, as its slightly shorter that way.

This time though I elected to drive round the Northern side of Caen, mainly because I wanted stop off at a branch of Brico Depot which I know is just off the N13 in the Caen-Carpiquet ZI (industrial estate):

View larger Google Streetview of Caen Brico Depot

(as an aside it's interesting that the Google Streetview of Caen Brico Depotwas obviously taken on a weekend with only a few cars in the carpark whereas the Google maps photo of Caen Brico Depot is obviously on a busy week-day)

I unfortunately had to call into Brico Depot to try to buy a new rubber washer for the toilet float valve in the new toilet we had installed in our second Gite. It was only a couple of years old, we'd probably only used the toilet two or three times and the rubber had already perished so the toilet kept on filling up.

We'd bought the toilet from Brico Depot so figured on going back there to buy a new washer. Unfortunately no such luck, they had no replacement washers at all and all the toilet flush mechanisms looked quite different from the one we had installed in our Brico toilet. So ended up having to buy a whole new flush mechanism but was slightly pleased that was *just* €7 rather than the absolutely outrageous €25 I was charged when I had to go to a local builders merchant to buy a replacement toilet flush mechanism for our main Gite.
Just shows the difference in price you pay with Brico Depot over the 'typical' regional builders merchants. Unfortunately the nearest Brico Depots are in Rennes and St Brieuc both which are 40 minutes drive from the Gite so its got to be "worth it" to make a special trip.

On the way round Caen I spotted that Brittany Ferries Barfleur was still moored up on the Caen river, looking just the same as when I spotted Barfleur on my drive down to the Gite in April 2010.

I managed to take a better photo this time as Liz was driving the car; last time I was trying to continue driving and take photos at the same time!

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Monday, September 06, 2010

We've been on holiday again - travelling out via Eurotunnel this time

We decided this year that like last year we were going to 3 weeks of the school summer holidays for a long break in our french country holiday home. Although it uses up an awful lot of my annual leave, it's worth it to be able to spend a lot of time together as a family and to unwind and not think about work at all.

This year for the first time I decided that we'd try out Eurotunnel as it'd be an experience for the kids and as we were taking Dexter the dog with us Liz wouldn't have all the angst of having to leave him in the car when we went onto the ferry. Eurotunnel did have one drawback though, Liz has in the past said that she was dead scared of the tunnel and didn't want to go through it, but as she had been forced to go through the tunnel twice before on coach trips with her friends I figured the worst of her panic was over and I could safely book a Eurotunnel crossing without fear of being murdered enroute!

I have to admit to being quite surprised by how reasonable the Eurotunnel crossing prices were; when I booked in February 2010, for the peak August summer crossing it was just £69 and as I paid with Tesco clubcard vouchers I was pleased that the actual voucher cost was just £17.50. Mind you as we'd had to spend £1,750 in Tesco stores and petrol stations to earn these vouchers it does show just how you have to spend an awful lot with clubcard to earn something of value.

On a grey, overcast and "typical British" summer morning we set off for Folkestone and for once we arrived with plenty of time on our hands. A quick wee stop for the kids and the dog, a wander round the shopping area which was nothing much exciting (definitely had less than the equivalent airport retail experience, and arguably on a par with a motorway service station), then back into the car and by then it was raining.

If you've not been on Eurotunnel before it's quite an experience. You drive down onto the platform alongside your train and then drive into the train itself. The carriages designed to take cars are double-decker and we ended up being upstairs, giving Liz another anxious moment as she drove up the ramp into the carriage.

You then drive down the train through each of the carriages until you reach the next parked vehicle ahead of you, stop, put the handbrake on and turn the engine off.
When all the carriage is full of vehicles they automatically bring down doors and a roller blind at the end of the carriage to seal the carriage off from the next one, presumably to prevent fire spreading.

When the train is moving you can push a button alongside the doors to release them and walk through into the next carriage if you want to. Every couple of carriages there are toilet on one side and stairs down to the lower vehicle deck, but as its identical to the upper deck there's not really much to see.

And that's about it. There's no other facilities onboard the train, you're not really onboard for long enough to warrant a coffee bar or shop as the whole journey time only takes 40 minutes or so.

The train ride itself is incredibly smooth and in fact is the smoothest train journey I have ever travelled on. I showed the kids a trick I saw one of the Eurotunnel marketing guys demonstrating on the TV some years ago, when the train was speeding along under the sea at 80mph+ I was able to get a £1 coin out of my pocket and balance it on its edge on the floor of the train. There is so little swaying or jolting of the train that the coin will stay perfectly balanced on its edge!

A short while later we emerged from the other side and once the train had stopped and the doors at the end of each carriage had opened we drove off and out of the train and onto the Autoroute towards Brittany.

We also drove into another patch of rain, but this was different, it was French rain!

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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Euroferries - another 6 months on and still not started sailing

I was updating the Brittany travel routes page on our Gite website to remove the LD Lines service from Dover to Boulogne as I reported on the Blog earlier this week.

In doing so I noticed the Euroferries entry which I had commented out from the travel page as in March I'd given up waiting for Euroferries to start their new service after a whole series of false starts this year and last (see earlier Euroferries postings).

There's an interesting posting on Thanet strife's Blog about who actually owns Euroferries and some Google maps photos of their "nerve centres of operation" (i.e. residential addresses).

The latest update from the EuroFerries website is that they are reporting "Sailing schedules & fares currently being updated. Apologies for any inconvenience, bookings will be available again shortly" - i.e. nothing happening.

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

LD Lines closes down their Boulogne service and runs aground at Portsmouth

LD Lines
A double oh-dear this month for LD Lines.

First up after I reported that there was no clear future for Dover operations for LD Lines early last month, the company has have now confirmed to the BBC that the LD Lines service from Dover to Boulogne will cease on 6th September. One of the boats has already been transferred onto a new France/Spain service and the second will be considered to be used on the same route as a freight-only service, but this appears to be "a possibility".

LD Lines withdrawal now means that there are now no passenger services running into Boulogne at all.

And with a second "oops" for LD Lines they've also had to announce a temporary suspension of the Norman Arrow service from Portsmouth to Le Havre after the fast cat hit a buoy coming into Le Havre port on Sunday.

We just got back from three lovely weeks at our Brittany Gite on Sunday morning (2am) and quite by chance travelled back on the Norman Arrow into Portsmouth. The incident must have occurred on the sailing immediately after the one we were on - lucky we missed that one then !

I'll be writing some blog posts about our holiday and will upload some photos of the Norman Arrow as it really is a lovely ship and it really zips across the long western channel crossing from Le Havre.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Popup windows, Javascript and the longest piece of software development ever?

Let's talk about windows.

I don't mean the glass and plastic type that you look out of, nor the type that's made Bill G his millions of mega bucks, I mean the popup type that shows you more information on a website when you click on or hover over something.

In our holiday gite website we've taken a traditional approach used on many other websites of having thumbnail pictures which when you click on them they are replaced by a full size photo.

I feel it's much better for the user experience if you open the new bigger picture in a separate window which can be easily closed rather than opening the picture in the current window as then the website visitor has to click 'back' to get back to what they were looking at before they clicked the photo.

The simple approach to achieving this is with
<a href="pathname_to_large_picture" target="_blank">

which will open up a new window when the link is clicked ... but as I discovered back in 2008 when I tested the Gite website with the W3C website validation tool, this isn't valid HTML 4.01 as the target tag has been removed, so I ended up (after a lot of searching) with:
<a href="pathname_to_large_picture" onclick="target='_blank'; " >

Which did the job just fine.

And then sometime in mid 2008 I found a little bit of Javascript somewhere on the internet that improved on this:
function opwn(url,wd,ht)
var hw=(screen.availwidth - wd)/2, hh=(screen.availheight - ht)/2;,'img','height='+ht+',width='+wd+', screenx='+hw+', screeny='+hh+',left='+hw+',top='+hh);
if (window.focus) {newwindow.focus()}

That when called from an onclick() event would calculate the screen size and using would create a new window of the right size as the image, would centre the window on the browser and would open the image in the popup window.

And all was good ... except that whilst it worked in Internet Explorer, it didn't work quite work as properly in Firefox; the popup window was correctly sized but it always opened up in the top left hand side of the screen. In the grand scheme of things I decided I could live with this irritation so implemented this opwn() function across all the pages of our website.

And there things stayed for a while until quite by chance I came across a website, I don't remember where it was, but it blew me away with popup windows that magically dimmed the background and faded into sight from the centre of the screen. There was animated graphics, next and previous buttons to view multiple images, and and and, ... and I was hooked!

Reading the HTML I discovered that the website had used a really neat Javascript package called lightbox written by Lokesh Dhakar and so I was pretty quickly downloading the javascript and CSS files and created a test version of our Gite website homepage with "lightbox powered" popup image windows.

But the more I played with lightbox the more I decided I wasn't happy with this popup solution. Lightbox visually looks great but all that bling comes at a price - bloat !

Lightbox relies on the underlying Scriptaculous Effects Library and the Prototype Framework so with Lightbox's own Javascript there is a total of 5 additional files to be loaded by the web-browser and a total of 186Kb to be downloaded, plus some CSS changes required as well to make it all work properly.

Google to the rescue though and I quickly turned up a number of alternatives to the Lightbox project, with varying attempts by other people to improve on the original design with slimmer Javascript, easier configurability, more options, etc.

I tried all the ones I could find at the time with test versions of our website homepage being created using litebox, lytebox, lytebox_mod, slimbox, myslimbox and thickbox.

By now though the seeds of doom were set and my enthusiasm for using any of them had waned and I concluded that for reasons variable and multiple I didn't like any of the pre-canned lightboxes and its clones. Mainly I didn't like the additional file sizes that would have to be downloaded, but I also was having second thoughts about the bling. In the end I resolved that "I could do better" and I'd therefore write my own piece of image popup Javascript code - "it can't be all that hard" (ha!) and then I'd have something that perfectly fitted my needs and integrated easily to my website.

I'll pause the story here because the actual software development then took me over 2 years to complete ...