Thursday, 3 December 2015

Velorail Des Andaines

Bagnoles De L'Orne
Whenever we go to France these days we try to look out for a velorail.  These operations are run on disused railway lines where the tracks have not been lifted and it is possible to use a specially adapted bike that takes up to four people.  There are a few such operations in Normandy and we have already tried the ones at Val de Maizet and Pont Erambourg.  A couple of others exist at Conde Sur Vire and Couterne but these weren’t open in October sadly.  We saw one at Bagnoles De L’Orne and weren’t sure whether it would be open as the website was a bit coy.  Nevertheless we thought we would try and if it wasn’t open we could still enjoy the scenery around this old spa town.

Autumn Colours

We arrived at the town shortly before lunch and it was immediately obvious that this town was rather different from others around the area.  It was grandly laid out for the type of discerning clientele you might expect of a place where people come to take the waters.  The railway station was still intact although trains have not run here since 1992 when the branch line from the nearby town La Ferte Mace closed down.  This would once have provided direct access from Bagnoles to Paris by train.  There was a sign up at the station suggesting that we would be in luck early in the afternoon and so we decided to have a look around town and head for a leisurely lunch first.
Bagnoles Hotel

Bagnoles is built around a beautiful lake, and this acts as the focal point of the town.  As it was now the zenith of autumn the colours of the trees were a fantastic palette of yellows, reds and browns.  Judging by the colours on show I rather suspect that the planting had been planned to ensure maximum impact.  Someone clearly had a lot of foresight!  The cloud had cleared just before we arrived to really add some extra colour by virtue of its golden light.  We wandered around the perimeter of the lake and then found ourselves a charming pizzeria/ galleteria for lunch.  Galletes are a sort of savoury pancake eaten in this part of Normandy and two of us had those while the others two had wood fired pizza.  It was delicious and feeling fortified we set off for the velorail to find that it was open for business.
Bagnoles Station

Bagnoles station is a two platform terminus that has clearly seen better days.  It wasn't always a terminus as a line continued on to the nearby village of Couterne but this appears to have closed in 1941, probably as a wartime measure that was never reversed.  Any trace of the onward line has disappeared I imagine under new development and the local road network.  History of the line is hard to come by even on French language websites but maybe one day someone will be interested enough to do some research.  It was even possible to travel by train to Alencon and Domfront by rail from here by changing at Couterne.  Some of this line is available as another velorail route - one for the future perhaps?

Draisines Lined Up At Station

The station seems to be used as some form of community building since its closure but the platform side of the building is badly neglected.  The only track still remaining is on the building side of the station.  The other platform is very overgrown and I suspect that it has not been used for more than 50 years judging by the tree growth on the platform itself.  We paid our money to the young lass in the booth and mounted our velo.  The daughters had really fancied a go at pedalling and so far have not been able to because they were too young.  They were very excited when the lady invited them to have a go and reduced the size of the seats to accommodate them.  Us parents were pleased to have the youngsters do the work for us!

Passing Former Yard
As we left the station along the track it was obvious that there had been some freight facility here in the past for there were the layouts of sidings on either side of the solitary track remaining.  Initially the cycling was easy as we headed through beech forest.  We soon passed the hippodrome, a rather different looking racecourse to ones that we might be used to seeing in the UK.  For one thing it was a much smaller facility with some pretty tight looking corners for the horses to run around.

Heading Through The Tree Tunnel
As we passed the hippodrome we picked up a bit of speed and it was soon obvious that we were heading downhill through the forest.  On the right was a pretty looking large house that was done out to look like some kind of castle and was large enough to suggest that it may be some kind of country house hotel.  That was pretty much the last civilisation that we saw for a while as we descended through the forest.  It was pretty murky in there as the density of trees was such that the low autumn sun struggled to penetrate through the wood.

Level Crossing
On our way down through the woods our passage was interrupted at a level crossing.  As is customary with velorail operations, cyclists have to give way to cars and this is quite effectively enforce by stringing a bungee cord across the line with a big stop banner attached to it.  The effect of that is that you have to get off the bike in order to pass underneath the cord.  As with just about every one of these crossings that we have come across over the years the road was deserted and didn’t look as if any cars would ever come.  There was no sign of any crossing gates or gatekeeper’s cottage so this may well have not had any during operational days.

Getting Through The Forest
Eventually we came out into more open countryside and passed underneath a large arched bridge, the only engineering structure of any note along the route.  Cycling became much harder now as the gradient was against us and we shuffled around to make sure that others could have a go.  It wasn’t long before we saw a crowd of other velorailers and found that we had come to the end of the line.  The rails came to an abrupt end and the onward passage was only available on foot.  The main reason for this is the construction of a by-pass across the line of the track.  This was probably the death knell for the railway in the first place although it was interesting to see that it had been constructed in such a way that the authorities could reconfigure the routes to ensure that both could co-exist.

Only Bridge
At the end of the line we quickly discovered that we were the last of this contingent of cyclists to head out and all the others were therefore waiting for us so they could head back.  We used the turning wheel to turn our cycle and without further ado we headed back to Bagnoles.  The whole route was probably no more than about three miles in each direction.  Heading back took rather a lot more effort for the route was more uphill than down but we soon rolled into Bagnoles station where we saw another crowd of people waiting for our return so that they could do the trip.
End of the Velorail Section
This was a short velorail by comparison with others we have been on and a little short on railway engineering structures to look at.  It was a very pleasant ride through the forest though and especially in autumn (although I imagine that spring would be good too).  Combined with a day out and lunch/ looking round the shops in Bagnoles and you make for a mighty fine day out if you are in this part of the world.
Arrival Back at Bagnoles


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