Instead of being able to really enjoy the scenery above, as we had planned to do, our holiday plans were somewhat scuppered when this happened a short distance from the house, resulting in the car as shown.
Just a week ago, we had not long disembarked from the DFDS ferry in Dieppe and were travelling through the Normandy countryside, heading south towards our small cottage in the countryside south of Limoges. It’s a slightly idyllic place; miles from main roads, with a garden to offer places to relax and also just enough routing activity to ensure that I don’t get bored; I can only sit around for so long before I need to do something. Having a house, bought when my first wife was diagnosed with cancer, as a life project, enabled periods when focusing on DIY offered a respite from other worries.
The journey was uneventful, and we were enjoying the feeling of nearing the house. Just ten kilometres from the house, I was aware of some smoke from behind the car. Thinking we had a problem, I knew that we had half a kilometre before a layby. During this short drive, we also saw small gobbets of material, seemingly in flames, dropping behind us. This was confirmed when we stopped and saw orange in front of us. Opening the bonnet conformed that we had an engine fire.
Two people driving by saw the flames and stopped. One, a taxi driver, ran towards us with two large bottles of water and threw them in the engine, to no avail, the other phoned the sapeurs-pompiers. I phoned the telephone number for our breakdown, arranged through Admiral. We had some time to remove our possessions from the car; it’s surprising what you take for a month away. We had a car boot full, suddenly piled into a layby.
The pompiers, a very young, volunteer group from Nexon, the local village, led by a couple of older members, quickly got to work. By then a gendarme had arrived and was taking charge of the traffic needs. From arrival, they were all solicitous of our well-being. The local mayor also turned up. St Maurice les Brousses is a small dormitory village of some 1500 people. The mayor was kindness itself, concerned for us before anything else. It does help that I can speak passable French, so can converse.
So we had the emergency services hard at work. During this, the breakdown agents called on my mobile and within the first call asked for my credit card details, from which to take £400 in case costs were not reimbursed by Admiral. There was I thinking that insurance sorted things first! They then passed the information of our breakdown to their European agents, where followed a series of missed calls and difficult to follow conversations, eventually requiring the chief pompier to speak with them.
Finally the fire was extinguished and the front of my car was well and truly gone. At this point, the gendarme asked when the assistance would arrive. On explaining that I’d been told two hours, he immediately said that wasn’t good enough and phoned a local garage to pick up the car, to remove the obstacle, especially as the pompiers are required to stay with the vehicle until it’s recovered; wasting their time.
With so much stuff on the side of the road, it was decided that we should put the less valuable things back into the boot, and take our clothes and valuables on that night. It was still not established, via the breakdown people, that we’d be picked up, so the mayor, at midnight, packed all our remaining bags into his car and took us to our house.
Having been in the area for 23 years, we are known by local neighbours. We also have a number of English and Dutch friends. We have a line telephone, so are not incommunicado. An English couple I’ve known for almost 40 years have a house slightly further south. They called in with some essential shopping on day one which was virtually taken up with telephone calls back to the UK, to seek to establish our situation. Relatives of an older couple were going home to the UK and gave us the use of their French van, with the request to put it in the garage before leaving. Because the car or van is insured, anyone can drive it, with the owner’s permission. The 45 minute walk to and from their house is through open country, so that’s a pleasure and allows some quiet contemplation.
Local neighbours with whom I was able to talk couldn’t believe what we were going through. The garage were slightly nonplussed when we turned up to pay for the vehicle retrieval, as requested by the breakdown company, although we also had to pick up the rest of our things. We experienced a great deal of sympathy.
The return home needed to be effected by train, in order to bring home a substantial proportion of our summer clothes, rather than the plane, as the baggage excess would have been excessive. www.trainline.eu offered several options, together with a clear indication of the whole journey and need to change. Two of us booked to travel 360 miles for 89 euros, plus 3.8 euros for the metro. DFDS ferries very quickly altered our travel plans, at no cost, so eased our minds. We had a travel plan.
Friends took us to the station; a round trip for them of some 80 miles. We had a very helpful SNCF employee who sorted the ticket machine and pointed out the need to “composter” the tickets; to validate them as the date of travel. Without that you can be fined, even with a ticket.
Sitting with a very pleasant French lady on her way to a Greek holiday, we spent the best part of the 3.5 hour journey in easy conversation. I have spoken more French this week than in many years of travel. A young man, who joined the train later sent much of the journey “asleep”. He was listening to our conversation about transfer in Paris and just before we arrived, offered to take us to the right metro station to take the two trains correctly, passing us to a 20 year old student to make sure we got off at the right station to change.
Arriving at St Lazare station, the bulletin board showed our train to Rouen to be 20 minutes late. This was critical, as we had only 30 minutes to change platforms in Rouen for the train to the ferry. Spotting that another intercity train was also going to Rouen, but that being the first stop, I asked a guard to confirm that it would arrive earlier than the planned train, as it didn’t have to make every stop, and that we could use our tickets. He agreed, in French, then apologised for a lack of English! He was then quite solicitous during the journey.
We eventually got to Dieppe railway station at around 22:15, with the ferry due to leave at 23:59. As we exited the station, a taxi driver, already with passengers, stopped and asked if we needed a taxi and that he’d be ten minutes.
The staff at Dieppe terminal were helpful, as we’d never travelled as foot passengers, in explaining the routines. While there, I was able to book our trains from Newhaven to Fareham, on www.thetrainline.co.uk Thank goodness for smart phones! They have many uses.
We found a reclining seat at around 00:15, spending five hours twisting and turning to be comfortable. If we’d travelled by car, we’d have had sleeping bags to take a space on the floor. As it was 04.00 when we docked, we sat in the ferry terminal until just before 05:00, when we moved to the station. With a stop in Brighton station for a cuppa and some breakfast, we eventually got home at 08:15, after nearly 20 hours of travelling.
We marvelled at the capacity of people to drop everything and help another, to offer support and guidance having spotted a possible need. In our hour of need, friends and strangers saved our stresses from being exaggerated. I wish I could thank them all again individually.
We got out of the car and got home eventually, safe and well. As for the car, that’s another saga.