Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Velorail La Ferté-Gaucher

Lescherolles Station
As has now become customary for our holidays we found ourselves a velorail expedition to do on the day after we had completed a visit to Disneyland Paris.  The velorail at La Ferté-Gaucher is the nearest to the resort, but could be a million miles away given how rural the surrounding area is.  

Getting Ready for the New Travellers
This velorail is one of two established on the old line from Paris to Sézanne (the other is at Esternay some 30km or so further east).  The original line was built in 1853 and ran until 1972 but has been truncated in stages until La Ferté-Gaucher, which had been a terminus station, lost its trains in 2002 and the station is now served by bus from Coulommiers.  The station in La Ferté-Gaucher is still in pretty good looking condition should the line reopen, but the track heading westwards towards Paris is pretty overgrown in places and would need a complete replacement.  The line east from La Ferté-Gaucher has been removed through the town and now acts as a greenway for horse riders, cyclists and walkers.

Ready to Go!

We had initially assumed that the velorail operation would start at the station but we were obviously mistaken as the relative positions of the track either side of the station told us.  Despite the fact that the velorail had been signposted for some distance from the town the signs dried up as soon as we reached town and it took us some time to realise that the place where we were supposed to report to was actually the Tourist Office in the centre of town.  The reason that this was the case soon became obvious when we had to board a land train to take us out to Lescherolles station, about four miles away.

Must Get Off!
Lescherolles served what could be said to be a scattered community and it is hard to imagine that it ever warranted enough business for a station of the size provided.  In velorail terms it would seem to be big enough to cope with visitor numbers but I am guessing that parking would be a major problem and arriving by land train is probably the most efficient way of bringing in visitors.  The land train takes the route that would formerly have been taken by service trains before their cessation in 1972.  The old line is now a linear nature reserve, home to many wildflowers, butterflies, insects and other fauna.  The guide on the train waxed lyrical about these facts, but I think we only got a very edited version in English.

Through the Woods
At Lescherolles we transferred to the velorail, opting for a cycle towards the back of the queue.  As with all the other operations that we have visited since Pont Erambourg we set off at appointed times heading out as a continuous group.  We were given a new instruction on this route.  If we were faster than the cycle in front we could ask them to swap bikes so that we could then pedal at the optimum speed.  

More Obstacles
Our route would largely follow the Grand Morin River and the line adopted a fairly windy course along the valley for six kilometres until we reached the next station at Meilleray.  It was an extremely hot day and so the initial section through a heavily wooded section of the valley was quite welcome.  We had managed to develop a bit of a gap both in front and behind us, which meant that we could go at a pretty steady pace.

La Chapelle Moutils

All along the way the woods were full of butterflies, all similar species to those we would find in the UK and especially Red Admirals, which seemed to enjoy these surroundings.  Our brochure showed some points of interest to stop at along the way, but we had been discouraged from doing this on the way out so we passed by the intriguingly named Peter of the Fairies (maybe something to do with the butterflies?), the fauna and the Grand Morin River signboards.  Some of the rail features we were expecting fell a little short of expectation (such as the river viaduct, which was rather shorter and closed in by trees than we imagined), but overall it was a pleasant ride.

Crossing Keeper's Cottage
Along the way we came upon a couple of level crossings.  These were clearly busy enough to impede our progress as they were protected by bungee cords that prevented us from proceeding unless we got off the rail cycle (as required).  Looking at how busy these roads probably were it did seem unlikely that we would be involved in any kind of incident, but I guess the authorities were playing it safe.

Grain Silo
Eventually, just as we were both tiring of the trees and the long slow climb that we had done so far, the line levelled out and we lost the trees entirely.  What followed was a very pleasant trip through ripening wheat fields, already golden and presumably not long before harvesting.  Up on the hill above us was the small village of La Chapelle Moutils, with a very striking looking church that dominated the landscape that it overlooked.

Speeding Onwards
We rattled along at quite a pace along this section of track, the clunks of the rail joins making the distinctive clickety-clack sound that is sadly missing from so many railway journeys in the modern world.  The track was in pretty good order too, a far cry from the poor quality ride that we experienced in Perigord last year.  After ambling through the Morin Valley fo another couple of kilometres and negotiating a couple more level crossings we arrived at the final destination of Meilleray, signified by an old mill building that no longer fulfilled that purpose but served instead as rather a plush looking house.  A large white grain silo dominated the scene although this is clearly now served by road (if at all).

Meilleray Station
The road by the mill was an unprotected crossing but staff from the velorail operation were on hand to direct any traffic that might materialise using good old fashioned flags!  Just beyond the crossing and we entered the station at Meilleray, which presumably served an equally scattered community.  How it remained operational until as late as 1972 was a mystery – clearly the authorities were rather more generous than our politicians had been in the 1960s.  The old station building was almost buried under ivy and this will surely be the first maintenance task that any prospective buyer would have to face.  The old place was up for sale – a tempting prospect, but try as I might I haven’t been able to find any further details out about it.

Heading Back
The velorail stopped here – I imagine partly because we had actually crossed into a new Departement rather than any physical issue with continuing.  According to the map the available track did extend a bit further, but since the operation seems to be run by the Tourist Office rather than a private concern presumably the money wasn’t available for continuing ‘out of area’.  There does seem to be a long term ambition to extend the route according to the blurb on the brochures – maybe a collaboration might one day be possible?

Directing Traffic
At Meilleray we all had to turn around although this was done by the staff rather than us riders.  The turn around was much more sophisticated than other operations we had been to, with proper little turntables being employed.  We had enough time for a breather and a drink before climbing aboard for the return journey.  We aimed for the cycle we had arrived on principally because it was already adjusted to our respective heights.

Running to Open 'The Gates'
However, it soon became clear that the happy position we had found ourselves on the way out could not immediately be rectified on the way back.  Our nice lonely position was created by the person behind us being a lot slower while the person in front was faster.  The opposite was true on our return and the lady in front seemed to be oblivious as to how slow she was travelling while behind us we could sense mounting annoyance by the lack of pace.

Rushing Downhill
Luckily at the first available opportunity when we reached a level crossing we were able to swap bikes and were pleased to speed away from the traffic jam!  Being mostly downhill on our return we picked up quite a bit of speed and soon had our nice isolated feeling on the track once more.  This enabled us to see bigger creatures than just insects, most notably a deer that ran away very quickly as we approached.

Next Group Awaits
Of course when we got back to Lescherolles we still had to wait for everyone as we couldn’t make the onward journey back to La Ferté-Gaucher as we were all due on the land train.  However, it did give us plenty of time to look at the photo exhibition in the old station and grab some refreshments, which were very welcome after such a hot ride.  By now the next group of cyclists were waiting to commence their trip and were huddled together for their induction before setting off.  A degree of chaos ensued while arriving cyclists mingled with departing ones until eventually everything was sorted out and we made our way back.

Land Train
The returning land train commentary told us more about the cultural aspects of local life, including a focus on the food and drink of the area.  The main local products were apple cider and Brie cheese – a combination that is reminiscent of so many northern French regions.  We eventually got back around 5pm, making the whole trip almost 3 hours in total.  On our return we took a quick look at the erstwhile La Ferté-Gaucher station, which looked in good enough condition to still be in use if it weren’t for the dereliction at each end of the station platforms.  Maybe one day it will see trains again?

View From the Land Train
As far as the velorail is concerned we enjoyed it immensely – it was certainly one of the best operations we have been on and the scenery was very pleasant.  Hopefully an extension will be on the cards though as we did feel as if we wanted a little more!

La Ferté-Gaucher station


  1. Hi Paul

    What a great way to see the French countryside. I like the idea of swapping places with the slower users.

    It looks as though you had good weather for it too.


  2. Hi Bill,
    We were very lucky with the weather on our holiday - a revelation after all the poor weather earlier in the summer. I am rather addicted to these velorails now - such an enjoyable activity that we can all do together.

    Kind regards

  3. Interesting trip, Paul. We haven't been to France for many years, so it is good to read about current happenings.

    1. Thanks Gillian,
      We really enjoy velorail trips as you can probably tell! French holidays are very easy for us as we live so close to the Channel ports. We've found that the driving is less stressful and the facilities for children generally better than trying to go elsewhere in the UK