It all started with the notion that cybersofa might enjoy a trip to La Coupole, former V2 assembly base and now museum near the town of St-Omer in the Pas de Calais, which I visited a couple of years ago (my first bike trip to France, how times have changed).
Pretty soon I had a list of other people who might enjoy such a trip, as well as people I would enjoy having around whatever their views on the trip itself. Dates were proposed, calendars checked, and in the end five of us set off for the Chunnel on Friday.
I had gone on a recce in December, covering my proposed route in a day to check things out. I still wasn't terribly confident about leading a flock of bikes around the French countryside, but in the end my excitement about the weekend got the better of my fears.
The journey got off to a good start when I joined the M20 at junction 4 just as two hi-viz-clad bikers whizzed by waving at me: cybersofa and Roger, making good progress from Dorset. Jim, the fourth member of the party, subsequently pulled in to the agreed rendez-vous as we were filling up with petrol. This only left Howard, who phoned to say he had mislaid the motorway and would meet us at the terminal. He appeared at the tail end of the group as we were proceeding through check-in; more good timing. Half an hour rattling along under the sea - tip-up seats for bikers in your carriages, please, Eurotunnel - and we were in France!
St-Omer is an easy thirty miles from the port and kindly signposts its hotels, but the street we wanted turned out to be blocked by roadworks. Jim's GPS, Gertrude, came to the rescue, and soon the bikes were ensconced in the car park and we were tucking in to the first of many great meals.
The beauty of planning a trip yourself is that you can plan it around the things that you want to do. On Saturday, therefore, we stopped off at the memorial to the British Air Services in France, whose opening I attended, before a morning watching films about the Occupation and looking at model rockets under the giant concrete dome of La Coupole.
My planned lunch stop, Cassel, lay a short distance but some twisty roads away. The town is the highest point in this flat region, giving spectacular views. The legend is that from Cassel you can see five kingdoms: England, France, Belgium, Holland and, above, the Kingdom of God. Its lofty position has given the town strategic importance, leading to its being taken, retaken, burnt, razed and rebuilt several times over.
We ate at the Kasteelhof, an estaminet perched on top of the mount and serving Flemish fare. I wasn't sure what an estaminet actually was, but it's where Royal Flying Corps pilots always go for an evening of mayhem and debauchery in the kind of novels I like to read, so I was keen to visit one. (I would say it's a gastropub.)
As usual my curiosity got the better of me and I ordered my meal with no clear idea of what it would be when it turned up. On this occasion things worked out and I enjoyed my cheesy potato hash gratin thing (whose proper name escapes me) and rhubarb sorbet, preceded by a shared starter of pâté, sausage and cheese. If only I hadn't been driving I might have had some rhubarb cider to go with it. I also learned that 'Flamande' means 'Flemish' rather than 'on fire' and that 'speculoos' means 'caramel' despite caramel's being a French word in the first place.
We had plenty of time in hand to enjoy another winding route to our 4PM appointment at the Distillerie Persyn. As soon as I found out there was a gin distillery in the area I knew I had to visit it, and I was not disappointed. Madame Persyn herself made us welcome, practised her English on us and showed us around the distillery after a sample of either a liqueur made from gin and red berries, sloe gin-style, or a yellowy, wood-aged digestif. Things do taste better when you know where they come from.
We weren't far from St-Omer as the crow flies, but ignored the road sign and took the pretty way home along the river. Once we hit the outskirts of town, I deferred to Gertrude again. She didn't let us down, guiding us home in plenty of time for dinner.
Nothing was planned for the next day except the ride back to Calais, yet this filled the day pleasantly. We set off in drizzle through sleeping Sunday villages and via single-track roads along the tops of ridges. I went wrong once and stopped for a map check - just as the only major shower of the day started. Good timing: lurk in a nearby bus shelter until it passes. At the next village, Quesques, I spotted a promising café where we were served coffee by a smiling woman and a fascinated toddler. When we left, Madame held the baby up in the doorway to watch our departure.
We had lunch in Boulogne, allowing Roger to partake of mussels while the rest of us watched in admiration, then Jim and Gertrude took over again to lead us along the D940 to Calais via a look back at England from Cap Gris Nez (another name familiar from novels about the Royal Flying Corps).
The terminal at Calais was ridiculously busy - the end of half term! - and the wait to get onto the train long. We said farewell over a coffee at Maidstone services and I discharged my duties by waiting for everyone else to ride safely off into the night, tagging along behind Howard as far as the M20/M26 split.
Having successfully navigated five bikes around a foreign country all weekend, I then went the wrong way up the M25.
Despite my worries, I can honestly say I had one of the best weekends I can ever remember having. I arranged a trip, spent a thoroughly enjoyable weekend surrounded by people I like, and watched them go home happy.
So, what's next?