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Monday, March 09, 2009

A long weekend in Northern France

Last summer I had to cancel my trip to the Pyrennes due to illness, but changed my EuroTunnel tickets to March 2009 so as not to lose them. As the time approached my plan was to investigate some easy lanes within an easy day's ride of Calais and see some of the little villages that are so easily ignored.

My preliminary research on riding of what we might call 'French green lanes' took two tracks. I posted an enquiry on the Adventure Rider forum (which has a French section) and did a bit of online research. The first source suggested that the French might be a little more laissez-faire than the English and just to ride quietly and take account of any prohibiting signage. Online results were a little more worrrying. As in England, there are strong lobbies to keep engined vehicles out of country areas and especially the mountains. Well I wouldn't be going to the mountains, but there are Reserves and Natural Parks. Most significantly I found a download of the relevant French law, which is explained here. Basically one can only ride on a 'road', and if you read the small print, that could require legal testing for the most minor tracks. The driving force behind the not-quite legislation appears to have been the vast number of 'Quads' that have been sold and registered in France over the last few years. Look at the title of the 'circular':

"Circulation des quads et autres véhicules à moteur dans les espaces naturels"

There are a number of tour companies but I hadn't booked a crossing at the appropriate time, and anyway, I like to wander slowly, rather than blast a set route.

The 1:100000 IGN maps show a number of cart-tracks although I was also told that the 1:25000 are more useful. I took a couple of the 1:100000 but found that in 3 days I couldn't cover everything around St Omer. My key rule was to never cross a prohibition sign:

Secondly, to avoid anything technical as I was by myself, and, importantly, my understanding of the legislation is that a 'road' can be driven by a normal car. I assumed that is a French car, driven by a farmer. If you've ever been to France, or indeed Spain, you'll see Renaults & Citroens in places that an English 4x4 would never go.

So what did I find? As noted above, some 'Communes' have been very active with their signage and everything is closed. Some farmers have placed 'Chemin Privee' notices on tracks, whilst in other places I found the excellent:

What could be better than that? A lot of the terrain was flat, but potentially muddy:

There were also some very traditional looking sunken lanes:

Look at the wear and tear on that! During my travels on the lanes I met 1 family walking a dog, 1 cyclist and passed by 3 farmers going about their business. The farmers acknowledged me, the others ignored me. Certainly, in this area, in March, there is not a lot of use.

There's no way I'm going to suggest that readers repeat this trip as it's built on flimsy legal foundations. However, I'm now more tempted to try a commercial operator to learn more about the lanes and to try other areas. It is worth noting that the previously mentioned law does allow access with their landowners or Mayoral permission so a well-known local guide with a good reputation is likely to have a far wider range of tracks to use.

Incidentally, France has an active organisation protecting the right to travel on rural roads called Codever. They are also linked in to a route appraisal system that allows users to record events whilst using the roads. They also issue a code of conduct which should keep a rider out of the worst trouble! I recommend a rummage around their website if you intend doing a rando.


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