Classic Le Mans 2006
(Or - "It is better to travel hopefully than to
Trip Report & photos by Andy Robson
Members of the North Worcs Group of the
visit the Classic Le Mans - July 2006
(Ken Martin and Paul Hollingworth are joint Natter leaders
at The Swan in Chaddesley Corbett nr. Kidderminster.
Thursday, July 6th, 6.45 am. My wife Christine and I are parked in our Midget on the forecourt of Midland Sports & Classics near Ombersley, Worcester. It’s cool, gloomy and threatening rain but, ever the optimists, the hood is stowed. My mobile phone rings. It’s friend and now-overdue fellow traveller Ken Martin, calling from his home in nearby Kidderminster. “Is it raining there yet?”, he asks. “No”, I reply, “but it’s not looking good”. “Well, If I were you I’d put the hood up now ‘cos it’s absolutely flipping peeing down here, I’ve had to put the flipping hood up on our Midget, I’m flipping soaked and I’ve had to change all my flipping clothes!” (Readers with experience of the ‘universite de la vie’ will appreciate that those weren’t his precise words, but the expletives have been deleted to protect those of a sensitive disposition!) We duly erect the hood, and a few minutes later the heavens open, a torrential downpour of biblical proportions ensues, accompanied by violent bouts of lightning and instantaneous thunder. My wife forcefully suggests that it might be a Good Idea to move the car away from the tree under which I have parked. At that point, our other fellow travellers, Paul & Irene Hollingworth, arrive in their MGB, looking rather damp and bedraggled. They have tried to out-run the downpour, bravely (foolishly?) with hood down, but clearly without success. Paul hurriedly erects his hood as the air turns blue and Irene dries herself, a few minutes later Ken and Ann Martin arrive, and we prepare to get on our way with the A449 resembling the nearby Severn, water already finding its way into the cockpit, wishing we were home in bed, and we’ve only driven 100 yards!
Thus started our long-awaited trip to Classic Le Mans, to be followed by a couple of extra days touring the Loire region – three couples, two Midgets and an MGB. Our first time abroad with the MGs, and it wasn’t exactly the start for which we had hoped.
On board the good ship 'Barfleur'
Our run to the ferry at Poole was accompanied by rain and heavy traffic for most of the journey, but thankfully the rain abated in time to board Brittany Ferry’s ‘Barfleur’, albeit 10 minutes late, in the company of sundry other classics - an E-Type and a 3.8 Jag, a proper Mini Cooper-S and various Morgans and Healeys - and the channel was like a mill pond. After a pleasant few hours afloat, we were at Cherbourg; with the sun trying to break through, we dropped the hoods, and an hour later arrived in style at our overnight accommodation, a charming Logis named ‘Au Moyne de Saire’ in the village of Reville, close to St. Vaast-la-Houge, on the eastern coast of the Cherbourg peninsula.
Outside Hotel 'Au Moyne de Saire' in Reville
That evening, we enjoyed an excellent 4-course ‘gastronomique’ meal from the 19.50 euros menu, plus wine, followed by a relaxed night’s sleep. The following morning dawned dry but dull, but we bravely stowed the hoods, and vowed to get to our campsite near Le Mans without erecting them again. We did experience the occasional shower en-route but, in the spirit of British MG-ing, we stuck it out, only wishing that perhaps we hadn’t been quite so bold when we got stuck in the middle of a town, with nowhere to hide! Initially, our route took us around St. Lo on the main drag, but soon afterwards we joined quieter ‘D’ roads and passed through Vire, Mortain, Gorron (where we broke for lunch), and Mayenne, followed by a fast run down the D35 through Conlie, every southbound kilometre bringing increasingly broken cloud and warmer air, a portent of the week to come. We eventually arrived at our destination of the Chateau d’Eporce on the western side of Le Mans later on Friday afternoon, and were directed to a suitable pitch by the very friendly and helpful site staff, whereupon we erected the tents, and settled down for our three-night stay.
Happy campers at Chateau d'Eporce
Readers who have previously taken their MGs to France will already appreciate how enjoyable it is to drive on quiet and relatively traffic-free roads after the bedlam of the UK, but for newcomers to the ‘MGs in France’ experience like us it was a revelation. Our holidays in France in years gone by have normally involved a fast blast down the autoroute from Calais to the Cote d’Azur, with little opportunity to sample the delights of the French countryside, and it was therefore hugely enjoyable to drive at a steady pace along almost deserted roads, to stop wherever we encountered something of interest, and to be able to take in the scenery and the clean and tidy villages.
Irene, Chris & Ann with cars in chateau grounds
Additionally, we were pleasantly surprised by the attitude of the French towards our cars. Almost without exception, we were met with smiles, waves, thumbs-up (hope that isn’t actually a rude gesture), flashed headlights and tooted horns, and every stop saw people gather around the cars for a closer look. It would seem that the French are even more enthusiastic about our classic cars than we are. Then again, as we realised later in discussion with a French hotelier, they don’t really have that many affordable classic sports cars of their own. Yes, they can lay claim to impressive marques like Bugatti and Facel Vega, but they’re not exactly as affordable as a Midget, are they?
Over the weekend we met other happy campers, including more MG enthusiasts, owners of a couple of AC Cobras, a brace of Lotus XI ‘classics’, and a Ferrari 246 Dino. We also became acquainted with a herd of inquisitive charolais cattle in the adjacent field, who took great interest in our cooking, to the point of attempting to join us for evening meals. Thankfully, a stout barbed wire fence saved us from more intimate contact. Clearly, Paul’s culinary expertise found favour with them, which was more than could be said for his sausages ‘bien cuit’ we’d had to endure a week previously at Silverstone! Still, atonement was made when, upon return from the circuit on Sunday evening, we realised with horror that we didn’t have food for dinner, and couldn’t find an open supermarket. In the end, with Paul’s diligence we scavenged a meal from potatoes, both boiled and sautéed (with herbs), assorted salad and a tin of stewing steak that Ken cleverly blagged from one of the campsite staff. Basic, it might have been, but to six hungry campers it was a veritable feast, washed down as it was with copious amount of wine!
Friday evening BBQ at Chateau d'Eporce
It would take too much space to dwell on every aspect of the racing weekend, and race reports will be found elsewhere. Suffice it to say we had a great time over the two days at the circuit, the MG Club de France had arranged a great parking spot right next to the Dunlop bridge, we saw some good dices and incidents from the packed Dunlop grandstand, and took hundreds of digital photos of the wonderful machinery in the paddocks.
After breakfast on the Monday morning, we broke camp, bade farewell to the site staff, and headed south towards the Loire, taking in the Mulsanne straight from Tertre Rouge to Mulsanne corner, noting the section of the track where a day earlier F1 designer Adrian Newey had written off his extremely valuable Le Mans-winning Ford GT40, thankfully without injury to everything except his bank balance.
As with our run down from Cherbourg, we quickly found the quiet ‘D’ roads, heading in the general direction of Chinon, but without any real idea of an eventual destination and with no pre-booked hotel to aim for. After driving back and forth past the nuclear power station near Bourgueil a few times (complete with its own micro-climate), we decided to head for Saumur. There, we negotiated a good deal for rooms in the excellent Loire Hotel situated on the Ile Offard in the middle of the river, including free breakfasts and secure parking for our cars, with views across the river to the chateau (and with a frog chorus each night), and enjoyed more good food and wine at excellent prices, both in local restaurants and in the hotel itself. We even found a Guinness bar!
Andy, Ken & Paul outside Hotel Loire in Saumur
On the Tuesday, we decided to visit the beautiful chateau at Chenonceau, some 70 miles to the east, which would also afford us the opportunity of sight-seeing other parts of the area, and so took the road along the south bank of the river, passing through such picturesque towns as Montsoreau and Candes-Saint-Martin, with their nearby troglodyte community, taking in a very quick visit to the abbey at Fontrevraud and on through the chateau town of Azay-Le-Rideau, arriving at Chenonceau for lunch. Along the way, we passed several other British classic cars, including a squadron of E-Types, and without fail everyone flashed and waved, even the non-MG drivers, something that doesn’t always happen here at home. A case of ‘Brits abroad with their classics’ promoting a sense of patriotism, perhaps.
A hot and humid afternoon ensued (no air-conditioning in a 16th century chateau), and we drove back to Saumur along the N152 on the northern bank of the Loire. On Wednesday, we checked out of the hotel and headed north towards Cherbourg, employing the same empty ‘D’ roads that we had taken on the journey down, and even stopping for lunch at the same bar as on the previous Friday! We weren’t actually due to catch the Seacat to Portsmouth until midday on Thursday, 13th, but we didn’t want to risk missing the boat, and we had been attracted by what we had seen a few days before in St. Vaast-la-Houge and wanted to spend a little more time investigating the town.
The run all the way from Saumur was generally uneventful, but very hot, and we arrived in St. Vaast at around 4.00pm after taking in Utah beach, site of so much carnage during the WW2 D-day landings. The lady in the town’s tourist information office was extremely helpful and secured us three rooms in a lovely hotel, ‘La Granitiere’, usefully within staggering distance of the town centre. The proud owner, Jean-Paul, was charm and helpfulness personified, assisted by his excellent English and enthusiasm for our cars (there you have it again).
Hotel La Granitiere in St Vaast
For the uninitiated, and those who usually head directly south after docking at Cherbourg, this part of the peninsula is generally pretty and unspoilt, if a little flat, reminiscent perhaps of East Anglia; however, this makes it good for those who enjoy cycling, and St. Vaast itself is an attractive little town, complete with a large marina and sufficient restaurants and bars to keep it interesting without being excessive.
St. Vaast harbour
On Thursday at 12.30pm, we boarded the ‘Normandie Express’ for our return home to England, and whilst we were impressed with the speed of the crossing, we were also left to wonder why it should take one third of the total journey time simply to travel the few miles round the Isle of Wight and into Portsmouth harbour!
After a week of driving on comparatively quiet and traffic-free roads, we were rudely welcomed back to the UK by a choked M27, made worse by an accident soon after leaving Pompey. Let’s face it, our cars aren’t meant to run at 70mph-plus on motorways for prolonged periods, even if they are capable of it, but we persevered with the cut-and-thrust of the A34 until we rounded Oxford, and then made our way onto the old A3400 and headed for Stratford, finding with great pleasure and relief that we had the road pretty much to ourselves. The ladies had decided that cooking was out of the question after a long day’s travelling, so the holiday was completed with an evening meal at the Green Dragon in Sambourne, near Redditch, meeting place for the local group of the Sprite & Midget club.
All in all, we had a wonderful week in France in glorious weather, made better by the fact that all the cars performed without fault, covering around 1200 miles in all. (That’s knocked a hole in our insurance mileage restrictions for 2006!). Readers who regularly take their MGs abroad may be unimpressed by our experiences, but for us it was a revelation, and surely only the first of more foreign MG adventures to come.