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Wanderings in Northern France 2019

Discussion in 'Bullhead Memories' started by sleepermonster, Jul 23, 2019.

  1. sleepermonster

    sleepermonster Member

    Jun 19, 2007
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    Wanderings in Northern France, June 2019.

    There was a general feeling that it was time for a break. We talked it over on the long winter evenings, there isn’t a big steam festival at St Valery this year, but if we went in June there would be other things to do.

    So, late on a Friday night Tony and I had driven down in heavy rain and were waiting at Portsmouth Station for Dave to arrive, to catch the overnight ferry together. There was a long wait at the terminal and we were on the economy lorry ferry. I’m told there is a pub which serves food nearby which you can walk to while you wait, which we will explore another time.

    Eventually you get waved through and on the boat there is a very steep climb up a narrow ramp to the very top deck where the cars stand in the open. We had booked reclining seats; I had done that before and carried in an overnight bag with a travelling rug, which provided the essential padding for a decent bottle of malt and three glasses. There were others in our party on the boat, sleeping in cabins. They looked in on us later and afterwards said we were fast asleep.

    When we awoke the channel was pretty rough, with white caps on the waves. We got into Le Havre at around 6 am and the apartments in St Valerie wouldn’t be available until mid-afternoon, so we had most of the day to wander around. We made our way up the coast and stopped off at Etretat, north of Le Havre to take a look at the Chemin De Fer Du Pays De Caux; this is a standard gauge hybrid between a velorail operation and a tourist service. If I understood correctly, the visitors can hire one of several pedal powered rail trolleys for the down hill run, then in the afternoon a diesel shunter propels a railcar down the hill and drags them all back up again. Velorail seems to be very popular in France and they reckon to carry 28,000 passengers per year. It was still early in the day and there would be no train for some hours, so we bought a coffee and drove on to St Valery.

    There were nine in our group and we had booked two apartments in one house on the quayside. Someone had already got the key -and had gone out to shop, so we did the same. Up at the supermarket there was something distinctly odd about the self service petrol pumps. The advertised price was E1-51 per litre, but it came out at E1-15, so I crammed in as much as possible.

    Down on the quayside, a very short walk from our accommodation, the railway was flourishing; the CF du Baie Du Somme reckons to carry over 170,000 passengers per year, which means that at summer weekends they run 7 or 8 coach trains, around 56 passengers per coach, pretty well fully laden, so when the train comes in, something like 400 passengers get off, and 400 more are waiting to get on, and they run two trains at once, which cross at the junction at Noyelles.

    However, our first priority on Sunday was to go inland to visit the 60cm Chemin De Fer du Haute Somme. I had travelled on this railway before – around 45 years ago on holiday with my parents. Their operating season begins relatively late in the year, so it never operates at the same time as the Baie Du Somme steam festivals which are around Easter time. This was the only day they would be operating during our visit, but with the extra bonus of a steam gala, with three locomotives in steam.

    The railway is on the far side of Amiens, around two hours drive from St Valery. The surroundings are worth a careful look. The line began as a WWI military railway, running from a junction with a metre gauge roadside line at Pont De Cappy, and ran through Froissy, to Dompierre, where there was a sugar beet factory. After the war the system was adapted to bring sugar from the factory down to a canal wharf at Port De Cappy and loaded onto barges. The section between Port De Cappy and Pont de Cappy was dismantled, and it was here that the preservationists began setting up their railway, so they were ready to step in when the rest of the line closed.

    Back in, oh dear, 1974, it was a very simple operation. I remember sitting on a bench at Pont de Cappy to wait for a train, and that was about all there was. The rails are still there – and a station building built later which does not seem to be used – but the trains now start from a palatial station with museum and roundhouse a few hundred metres further on. The operating society, APPEVA, publish a very good full size magazine, “Voie Etroite” – “Narrow Gauge” – which despite its name chronicles the doings of all the French heritage railways; when travelling through Calais my first move is usually to call at the SNCF bookstall to search for it. I bought the current and several back issues and we drank coffee and waited for a train.

    This turned out to be a rake of open sided toastrack coaches built on the frames of American military wagons and hauled by a large 0-8-0 tender locomotive of German origin which may have been one of the locomotives which was brought to Britain several decades ago as part of an unsuccessful scheme to privatise the Vale of Rheidol

    Unlike most French heritage railways the CFHS actually had a signalling system; the Chef de Gare carried it out of his office and set it up on the platform. It had a base like a standard lamp, with a square board on the top divided into red and white chequers, which faced the driver and functioned as the starting signal. At the appointed hour the Chef reached up and spun the board through 90 degrees and blew his whistle to start.

    The line ran along the canal to Port De Cappy, where there was a passing loop, and then over a minor road crossing and into a 200 metre long tunnel, which was very atmospheric in the open coaches. The tunnel was part of a detour as the original military line simply ran through the streets of the village of Cappy. The train ran through a short stretch of pleasant countryside and then came to the zig-zag: two reversals brought the train up onto the plateau; it ran across a minor road and stopped to run round. The line goes some distance further along the roadside to Dompierre, but this part seems to be very rarely used.

    Back at Froissy we toured the excellent museum before returning home.

    During the week we travelled on the CFBS and lounged about as appropriate but also made a visit to the resort to the South, Le Treport. The branch to the town seems to have been abandoned intact but there is a modernised rebuilt funicular from the top of the cliffs on the south side of the harbour down into the old town, where we had the very best Moules Frites ever at the Comptoir de L’Ocean. On Market Day we took the train around the bay to Le Crotoy; this used to be very much the poor relation of St Valery but is evidently prospering with restaurants and shops springing up everywhere. The market boasted no less than four “rotisserie”: mobile stalls roasting chicken and other joints. One of these was the de luxe heritage wood fired version selling rather small roast chickens for about £15 each. The weather was consistently warm and sunny, the reports from the UK spoke of daily torrential rain.

    One day I met a CFBS volunteer from Harrogate called Tony who gave me a guided tour of one of the workshops by the canal. A typical bogie balcony coach was undergoing fundamental restoration, and it looked very much as if a 4 wheel goods wagon was being built from scratch, using a wheels and axleboxes from one of the wagons from the famous local dump which contained the remains of locomotives and wagons used by the Germans in WWII. This has now been cleared, and one of the last of the locomotive hulks nestles in the brambles near the depot.

    Friday night was our last night in town, and most of our party headed for the ferry on Saturday morning, but with Tony and Dave I had some other ventures planned. The CFBS were holding a “Mini Gala” on the line to Le Crotoy, around three locomotives in steam plus a vintage railcar from the CF de Blanc a Argent and various displays including a model railway exhibition. One of the layouts solved a very old mystery; for me at any rate. Long ago, when I visited Port De Cappy for the first time, there was a short length of derelict standard gauge rails buried in the quayside, and I wondered what on earth they were doing there. On the model they were shown as an isolated installation for a small standard gauge steam crane which loaded sugar into barges. After all those years it finally made sense.

    We dragged ourselves away and made for the Hotel Anzac in Amiens, arranged by Tony, a good overnight bolthole for Gricers on the move. In the morning we were offered “bacon and egg”, a French first. This turned out to be a slice of smoked ham in a little dish, with a lukewarm fried egg on top. The French side of the breakfast was far better.

    Then we struck out for Paris. The first target was Butry Sur Oise, the original base of the Musee des Tramways a Vapeur et des Voies Secondaires: French version of the Narrow Gauge Railway Society, which has been active in one way or another, preserving metre gauge rolling stock since the nineteen sixties. We succeeded in getting in as the gates were open, but there was no-one about and the most valuable items were locked away, however there were some very interesting restored wagons and other items out in the open. We saw a sign which said that the museum was open to the public on special days and for organised parties of at least twenty, and went on our way.

    Butry is quiet for a very good reason. MTVS have other fish to fry, back towards Amiens at a place called Crevecoeur Le Grand, which loosely translates as “ massive heart attack”. This is the northern end of a disused SNCF branch line, left to lie intact with trees growing between the rails. Some years ago MTVS secured permission to rebuild it; they set out to cut down the trees, lift the track, and re-lay it on shorter sleepers to metre gauge. They now have an operating railway about 2 miles long to the site of an intermediate station at Rotangy. The ultimate aim is to get to St Omer en Chausee, a total length of about 8 miles. They operate on occasional Sunday afternoons, which is why we went to Butry first.

    At Crevecoeur the MTVS have got one huge asset, a formerly derelict grain warehouse. This has been rebuilt with a new roof to form a very large secure storage area, about 180’ X 60’. It now has two lines of track laid into it to house the MTVS operational stock. There were a number of coaches, a CF Cote Du Nord 0-6-0T and another 0-6-0T ex CF de la Drome which I understand to have been hidden away for over 50 years; the French have barn finds too. Outside was another hulk from the dump at St Valery, with major parts cut through, as most of them did; a long term candidate for restoration. There was a junction with a metre gauge line here and the metre gauge ashpit has been restored.

    The “station buildings” were a couple of wooden shacks which sold tickets and cider. The train consisted of a very nicely restored 0-6-0 steam tram and a rake of 4 wheel coaches which ran out to Rotangy and back through some very pleasant countryside. A few years ago there was nothing here at all, next year who knows? Items stored on site include what appears to be a large mixed gauge turntable.

    All good things come to an end, and we headed for the overnight ferry at Ouistreham, where we queued up with some very expensive machinery from the Le Mans 24 Hour Race, the owners tended to book cabins. We found our chairs and settled down. I opened the overnight bag; "Nightcap Tony?"

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