Most of our cycling of late has been local rides or familiar, favourite routes. But there’s one route we’ve been meaning to ride for the past two years – and now we’ve finally done it.
Back in 2017, we were having our annual ‘staycation’, where we stop working for a week or two and have days out, exploring places close to home. Looking for places to visit, I dug out the IGN 1:25,000 scale maps of the Orne (our département) and Calvados (just to the north) to see if I could find anything interesting. (I love maps, and can happily ‘read’ them for hours.)
I noticed a section of old railway line in Calvados that ran alongside the River Orne, at one point crossing a viaduct – marked as such on the map, which meant that it must be a notable structure. “Let’s go take a look,” I said to Trish. “It might be interesting. Maybe it’s rideable.”
The viaduct certainly lived up to expectations.
[Click on any of the images to see a larger version.]
This is just to the south of the town of Clécy, a popular tourist spot in what became known, thanks to a successful marketing campaign in the 1950s or 60s, as the Suisse Normande. Yes, this section of Normandy is hillier than most, with jagged escarpments popular with beginner climbers and peaks soaring as high as … um, 1,000ft. Okay, Switzerland it ain’t – but that’s marketing for you…
What was most interesting about the viaduct is that we could see people walking across it. Tracking back a little, we found the start of the path – and it turned out to be a brand-spanking-new voie verte (greenway).
Later research revealed that this was one of several sections of old railway line that had been turned into footpaths some time ago but were (in 2017) just being refurbished as voies vertes – part of the massive Vélo Francette cycle route that runs from Ouistreham/Caen to La Rochelle (650km, give or take). When we discovered this section, it had been open for just a couple of months. The aim was to join up the sections as a continuous greenway, and it seems this has now been done.
Last year, again during our staycation, we explored a little more of the new voie verte, but on foot. (Some images are from our previous visits – I’ll mention where that happens.)
It was time to actually ride it.
The new greenway starts just outside the village of La Lande from where it runs north. The surface, which is two years old now, is immaculate and chocolate-smooth (an analogy I now realise is useful only to those of you accustomed to riding on chocolate).
You soon get to the viaduct.
One of the notable features of this route is that, for much of it, the railway track is still there. It was a condition laid down by SNCF, the French national railway, which is the owner of the land, that the track stays in place in case they want to use it again.
Where you get a railway and a river, you also get industry.
There are some places where the factories are still in use, but much of the infrastructure we saw – such as a former bandage factory – was 19th or very early 20th Century and long ago abandoned. This area was known for its iron mining – particularly hematite, a form of iron oxide that produces a metal harder but more brittle that normal iron.
Some of the disused iron works are buildings that I’d seen many times, back when we regularly travelled to Caen for the ferry. It was good to get a closer look, although the main site was fenced off, with stern danger signs.
Our constant companion was the River Orne, slow and limpid.
Constructing the voie verte had clearly involved building several bridges, as the track switched from one side of the river to the other, then back again.
There are also numerous picnic areas. At one spot, the greenway dips down, away from the railway track, falling to river level.
It was a perfect spot to take a break.
The river has numerous meanders. This is a view from a previous trip, taken from a spot used for launching hang gliders.
You can make out the voie verte just inside the tree line on the left.
The meanders also mean that the river has cut into the hills, making for steep slopes and escarpments that often tower over the greenway.
After 13km, we arrived at the town of Thury-Harcourt. The voie verte runs along one of the former station’s platforms. On the other side is the station house – now a snack bar and toilets. We stopped for artisanal ice-creams on the way back.
There’s also a tunnel. The temperature on the day we rode was around 28ºC, but as soon as we entered the tunnel the sweat practically froze on our skins. It was refreshing and welcome.
Alas, Trish had to break her habit of yodelling whenever she’s in a tunnel. There are signs, just as you enter, that request silence on account of the nesting boxes for bats that have been installed.
In several places, tracks join the voie verte, to provide farmers and other land owners access to fields alongside the greenway.
However, as these are officially roads – even though they are often no more than rough dirt tracks – the authorities have felt it necessary to asphalt a tiny section, where they join the greenway, so that they can paint on the requisite dotted lines. There’s also a give way sign.
Ah well, rules are rules, and this is France, where bureaucracy is a way of life.
This is one of the best greenways we’ve ever ridden. The scenery is fantastic, but varied, including river gorges, orchards, cliffs and more. There are impressive tunnels of trees as well as wide open spaces. And while it was a beautiful day in August (the height of the holiday season in France), it was far from crowded. Nearly all the traffic consisted of cyclists – there were some pedestrians, but not many. And horses aren’t allowed on this voie verte.
Although it’s an hour’s drive from home, this is a route I think we’ll be taking many times in the future.
I loved reading this, and seeing your photos. I may never get to cycle abroad but if I ever do this sounds like a route I’d love to try. I also very much enjoy “reading” maps!
I was taught to read maps at a very early age (maybe 8) by my father. He was ex-army and, for a short while, the navigator in an amateur rally driving team. So he showed me not just what the symbols denoted, but also the story they tell about the landscape. For me, a map can stimulate my imagination every bit as much as a novel.
Great to find your cycling blog .
We are keen cyclists road and ATB with a dog cart for 2 dogs not got electric bikes so love flat old rail trails I
Can you advise which direction is uphill on the Thury-Harcourt Harcourt-Clécy route asprefer to go uphill first !
This website has useful information: https://www.francevelotourisme.com/destinations/la-normandie-a-velo/suisse-normande-a-velo
If you click on the section you want (Thury-Harcourt/Pont d’Ouilly in your case), you can run your mouse pointer over the graph and it shows the altitude at each point. It looks like it’s mostly uphill from Thury-Harcourt, going south, so I think Thury-Harcourt would be the sensible starting point.