This July I took our long-term loan Bailey Autograph on its biggest test yet, driving it more than 1000 miles as I set off on a tour to France. This was both to cover a few new model launches and to explore two regions that I have often been intrigued by – one very familiar (Normandy), the other (the Auvergne) perhaps not so familiar, but no less worthy of a visit.

What about the practicalities of such a trip? The Autograph 74-4 is certainly well kitted out for a long journey. It comes with a huge storage area underneath the French bed, a sizeable wardrobe and plenty of overhead lockers all around the interior. 

There’s good capacity in the kitchen, too, with three large drawers, while the washroom has more than enough storage space to put away all of your shampoos, gels and so on.

The 165bhp engine ensured a speedy run down to Newhaven, although because of the ferry’s early start, I scheduled a stopover at the Caravan and Motorhome Club’s Brighton campsite. This well-kept site is unusual for a city-based park, in actually being not too far from Brighton, at Woodingdean. Yet it is close to the seafront if you fancy an evening stroll, and backs onto the Downs. I was warned not to leave any food out because of the local foxes!

Crossing the Channel

The Newhaven-Dieppe ferry crossing has changed since the last time I used it – in 1980. Then I was a foot passenger on a budget trip to Paris with a college friend. We discovered just how budget when we found ourselves stuck for four hours on a cavernous vessel with virtually no seating or facilities. We ended up slumped against a video jukebox that played Cher’s ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ on repeat. (You may remember the video was set on a US navy warship.)

Queueing up to board the ferry
Queueing up to board the ferry

This time, I sailed on DFDS’s Côte D’Albâtre, a far more streamlined vessel with a reasonably priced, very Gallic restaurant and a coffee lounge which is so comfortable that those four hours seemed to pass in no time at all. 

The DFDS Côte D’Albâtre
DFDS Côte D’Albâtre is a comfortable way to cross the Channel

The standard sat nav in the Bailey’s cab works in France, too, although I was reminded early on that it is not necessarily geared for motorhomes. (I don’t think a narrow Dieppe quayside is a great route for a 7m-plus vehicle, somehow.)

On the autoroute, the Autograph showed its mettle, cruising comfortably at 60-70mph even on the slopes further south that French motorway engineers seem happy to include, unlike their British counterparts. I didn’t always have to move into the crawler lane, when one was provided.

The toll booths were slightly more complicated. They seem to have become entirely automatic throughout France these days. That is not ideal if you are driving alone in a right-hand-drive vehicle. Each time, I had to swap seats to be able to reach the machine issuing the ticket.

It also took me a while to realise that, because the Autograph is 2.71m high, the machine would often decide to issue the ticket at the higher level designed for HGV drivers, which wasn’t always in my line of sight. On more than one occasion, I heard car horns blaring behind me as I tried to work out why there was no ticket coming out!

Aires: an excellent overnight stop

Many years of motorcaravanning in England, where even the faintest hint of wild camping is deeply frowned upon, had made me a little unsure about using aires, the locally operated mini-stopover points that you can stay at for 24 hours, often for free. But I had heard many good things about them, so I was determined to give them at least one go during this trip. 

The Aire at Mont St Michel
Your 24-hour stay usually starts when you arrive at an aire, such as this one at Mont St Michel

I spent my first night at a ‘proper’ park – as it happened, a perfectly reasonable municipal campsite in a sleepy riverside town in central France, called Romorantin-Lanthenay. But after that, it was all entirely impromptu.

I need not have worried. For almost the whole fortnight, I stayed on a (town or village, rather than motorway) aire almost every night. Only one I found was full, and as a result of that I came across a charming aire in a beautiful Normandy village that I would not otherwise have gone to. 

Sense of freedom  

So now I am a convert. Aires really do give you the sense of freedom that motorcaravanning is supposed to be all about. 

What I particularly like about them is that the 24-hour period starts from whenever you arrive, so if you choose to turn up at 5pm and stay until 5pm the next day, you can. 

The motorhome at a caravan park in Romorantin-Lanthenay
Peter spent one night at a caravan park in the riverside town of Romorantin-Lanthenay

Many aires don’t come with facilities, other than waste disposal, so you could say I only enjoyed them so much because of the relatively luxurious motorhome I was in. There was the large shower I could still use, after all, and the spacious and comfortable front lounge. I doubt I would’ve had the same experience in a campervan (although if you’re thinking of getting one, take a look at our best campervan guide).

The motorhome was very well ventilated, too. Even on a really hot night in Clermont-Ferrand, there was plenty of air flowing via the rooflights. Air conditioning? Who needs it?

There was one aspect of the motorhome I found a little more trying. There was only one of me, but I hardly used the foldaway table at all. Whenever I took it out, its commendably sturdy legs always seemed to be in the way. I think that foldaway tables are best left in rear lounges. 

They are, of course, common in front lounges in caravans, but that’s because nobody has to get right past them in such layouts. In a motorhome, I found all too frequently I was wanting to get past the table to reach the cab. Those bulky legs were in the way – and the L-shaped layout of the dinette seats meant you couldn’t really move the table out of the way, either.

Comfortable camping  

That aside, the Bailey provided a very comfortable home over the 13 days of my trip. So it was even more of a shame that on my last day in France, on the way back to Dieppe, a coach driver clipped the side mirror. I was left with having to drive the final 40 miles with just the other one. 

I was low on fuel, too, and found that in this bit of France, most petrol stations are fermé on Sundays, and those that are open can’t accommodate big motorhomes. I only just made it back to the ferry, and to England’s more liberal opening times. But I’d thoroughly enjoyed my trip, despite this hiccup.

Are you thinking of trying out a similar trip? Then it could be worth taking a look at our winner of the best motorhome accessory, the All the Aires guides, which provides lists of thousands of Aires to stay at across France, as well as plenty of other useful bits of information.

Bailey Autograph 74-4

  • Price: £71,999 OTR
  • Berths: 4
  • Belts: 4
  • Base vehicle: Peugeot Boxer/ Al-Ko AMC
  • Engine: 2.0-litre, 165bhp turbodiesel
  • Length: 7.37m 
  • Width: 2.49m
  • Height: 2.71m
  • MTPLM: 3500kg
  • Payload: 445kg

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