As young graduates, a friend and I bundled our equipment onto our mountain-bikes and pedalled from our homes in south-west England across France to the town of Béziers. It took three weeks and was the best holiday I've ever had. Nothing beats the feeling of freedom and independence you get when you can travel with everything you need on your back – or the back of your bike.
Last summer, 15 years later, my husband and I were surprised to find that our daughters, eight and five, were perfectly capable of cycling for a whole afternoon – 22km – without complaining. My thoughts turned to tents and cycle tracks: we looked at local maps, I dragged out my old panniers, we measured the muscles in the kids’ legs…And as soon as the weather looked promising, we loaded up our bikes and the four of us rode off into the unknown.
Okay, it wasn't completely unknown. We live in Poitou-Charentes, a few kilometres from the lazy Charente river, along which barrels of cognac were transported on horse-drawn gabarres. The legacy of this is a tow-path along the navigable section (though it changes sides and can be overgrown in parts). As an itinerant route for kids, the tamer parts seemed ideal: there are no hills or cars, plenty of wildlife, a few campsites, and idyllic swimming spots. We’d really get to appreciate the river, which can't be done in a car or on a walk.
We thought we'd need a trailer for the four-person tent, floor-mats and sleeping bags; we didn't want the children to carry anything except water. But once everything was packed, we found we were easily able to load our equipment on the adult bikes. For this first trip we decided not to carry any cooking gear; we took water and emergency biscuits and decided to eat at a snack-bar in the evening, have breakfast in a café, and buy a baguette and fillings in the morning for our lunchtime picnic. Our plan was to ride from home and stay away for one night, as we weren't sure how the kids would take to cycling for two days in a row.
We needn't have worried; on Day 2 it was we parents who groaned when our buttocks came into contact with our saddles! But the aches were worth it – the trip upriver from the town of Cognac was totally absorbing: we stopped at each lock to watch the boats pass; bathed in the river; chatted to fishermen; observed the dragonflies, ducks, swans and herons; raced the pleasure-boats; stopped to read about the history of the river at the information boards; had breaks at village playgrounds; and admired châteaux and their gardens. The girls invented games on their bikes as they cycled, and they loved putting up the tent as well as sleeping in it. Although we were so close to home, they felt a real sense of adventure.
We managed 16km each day. On Day 1, this took us to Jarnac, with its campsite restaurant, snack-bar, swimming pool and playground. The next campsite was 20km further on, in Châteauneuf-sur-Charente. Since the weather was hot and we'd slept longer than intended, we changed our plan (to cycle there and catch the train home on the second day) – this is the beauty of itinerant exploration. Instead, we cycled a little further upstream then came back through the villages before rejoining the river and cycling to the town campsite in Bourg-Charente. Here, the kids and I played in the playground, ate waffles and debated hiring a pedalo while Dad unloaded, raced home to pick up the car and came to collect us. We could have stayed the night and cycled home the next day, but rain was forecast, and we'd noticed holes in the inner tent…
We’re already planning the next trip: a longer one with another family, taking cooking equipment so we're even more flexible. There are so many options: we could do a three-day trip on the Ile de Ré near La Rochelle, renowned for its cycle-paths taking you to places inaccessible to cars. Or there are dozens of coastal cycle-tracks in the rest of the Charente-Maritime and in the Médoc area of Aquitaine. Roll on next summer!
See also our feature on cycle-camping with young children.