A rather different type of outing this time! During our recent holiday in
For those not in the know,
This stretch of railway line actually has two velorail operations, a few miles apart but on different parts of the same line (http://velorails.pagesperso-orange.fr/ ). There is a society that has been formed to try and restore the line, possibly as a heritage railway. We opted for the Pont Erambourg location as it was nearer and at 13km for a round trip, rather shorter than the other one at Val de Maizet further north, which is a 22km round trip. Our children’s patience would have surely been tested by that one!
Pont Erambourg is also host to something of a museum and the headquarters of the group trying to restore the railway. In the old goods station is a substantial collection of old rolling stock and a couple of locomotives in different states of repair. Sadly, although it is possible to look inside a couple of the railway carriages (old post office sorting coaches), most of the yard is off limits to casual visitors. I couldn’t help thinking that if this was in
However, we weren’t really here for the heritage railway stuff, welcome distraction though it was. Our mission was to acquire one of the nifty little railway cycles and explore the extent of the line that we were allowed to. The experience cost us the grand total of 18 Euros, probably a good deal more than the equivalent train journey would have cost! Before setting off we were appraised of the conventions and ‘rules of the road’. The first thing we had to learn was how to turn the cycle around. At 80kg per cycle it isn’t something you will want to lift unless absolutely necessary. At each end of the line therefore an ingenious little turntable arrangement has been put in place, whereby the whole cycle is lifted off the rails, enabling the users to easily turn it. The other thing we had to remember is that the cycle with the greatest number of people aboard has to give way to the one with the least. At first this sounded counter-intuitive, but the thinking became obvious when you realise that the only way to pass is to lift one of the cycles off the rails entirely. Having had the briefing in a mixture of French and English we felt confident enough to get started. We immediately passed by the station building of Pont Erambourg, now a private house that is well protected by a fence preventing velorail snoopers from gawping in the windows! Another point impressed on us was that there are several railway related buildings alongside that are now private houses, and the occupants appreciate peace and quiet from potentially noisy railway cyclists!
Getting going was quite easy as the first stretch of the line out of Pont Erambourg is downhill. The cycles themselves have no gears and so only modest speeds can be achieved. Braking is fairly rudimentary with a metal shoe being applied directly to the wheel! Anyhow, after the initial novelty value of the cycling it felt really good to be cycling along real rails. Of course I have cycled along many old railway lines, but this experience is much more real since so much of the infrastructure is still in place and not just the rails.
Shortly after getting going we crossed the
When the trees thinned out and we could see the surrounding countryside, the line passed through a beautiful wooded valley save the small area devoted to growing crops on the valley floor (mostly maize). A house on our left caught my eye. It was one of many in
Our first test of the rules of the road came on this section as we approached a level crossing. Unlike ‘live’ railways the priorities are different at level crossings. Velorailers give way to road traffic, but in all honesty the first couple of level crossings that we reached probably only have a handful of road vehicles using them, so the chance of an encounter is probably pretty remote. At the first of the level crossings I admired the crossing keeper’s cottage. Rather like canal keeper’s cottages in
Further along the line we encountered something that would definitely be frowned on by the rail authorities if it were still operational. A herd of goats had strayed onto the track and initially they looked as if they were headed for us out of a sense of curiosity. Thankfully they didn’t get in our way, realising perhaps that we weren’t something to get in the way of as we steamed along the track!
After another crossing of the river we came upon the next station along the line at Berjou. This was formerly a junction station, with a line that headed off to Falaise from here that closed as long ago as 1938. Unlike the
Berjou station would have served a fairly sparse community, so even if the railway is brought back as a ‘real’ line there is no guarantee that this station would be brought back into use. Yet, once it would have acted as a junction station between the two lines diverging from here so presumably there must have been some activity in the early part of the 20th Century. The station now is in good repair, although the platforms are starting to disappear under weed growth. The owner appears to gather rubbish, with a beat up looking Peugeot sitting in the garden which has been there quite awhile I’ll guess.
Shortly past the actual rail junction which is still quite evident, our line crosses the most impressive bridge yet, the Viaduc de Bordeaux. Not quite sure if there is any connection with the city, but the viaduct is still impressive although it looks like it got a bit of a beating in World War 2. Although clearly built for a double track, part of the decking has been badly damaged and removed entirely reducing the otherwise clean lines of the bridge. By now we could feel that the line was beginning to climb and we finally left the
As we got closer we could see that we had made it to the end of the line that could be cycled. Ahead was the 1.7 kilometre long Tunnel Les Gouttes, a formidable obstacle to velorailing. The tunnel is gated off now to put off even the most determined explorer. The tunnel had an interesting World War II apparently, with Hermann Goering supposedly sheltering in here in a special train while he met with his generals. Later in the war it became a shelter of a different nature when it protected nearly 1200 refugees while the battle for Falaise (one of the most ferocious of the
For us, we negotiated past the French family by lifting our cycle off the rails temporarily and then turned it on the turntable. After the girls had inspected the tunnel we made our way back to Pont Erambourg. The return journey was a little less eventful although by now it was turning into a warm afternoon. A few other families had ventured out onto the rails and we had to lift our ‘bike’ off twice on the way back to let them past. Perhaps inevitably they were British!
Once back at Pont Erambourg we did our best to look around at the rolling stock gathered on the sidings. Unfortunately we were only really allowed to look inside the old postal carriages, but there were some interesting exhibits of how the line looked in its heyday. I just wish my French was better for I am sure I would have got a lot more out of the visit if it had been.
Having broken my duck on this exercise, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Had my children been a little more patient (they definitely got quite restless on the way back), I would have loved to have a go on one of the other operations during the week. I can honestly see this being a feature of future trips to