white cliffs of dover and blue ocean stretching into horizon

The iconic white cliffs of Dover. Image by Callum Wale.

With Brexit, the UK (or some of it) has decided to move further away from Europe, metaphorically, physically and commercially. But the ways of getting from London to France, Germany, Switzerland and other destinations, via land and sea, won’t change, and that’s a blessing, says Darius Sanai

Over the next few years, those of us resident in the UK will be treated to an endless debate about how close or otherwise we should keep ties to Europe, as Brexit becomes a reality. The reality for a traveller, though, is that 2028 shouldn’t be very different to 2018, which isn’t too far removed from 1998. To leave Britain by land, you have to take a boat of some sort, or shoot through the Channel Tunnel, which opened in 1994. Brexit won’t change that, as there are already passport and customs checks coming into and out of the country.

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Back in the 1980s, though, it was a different story; my memories of childhood and teenage years are peppered with images of sitting on ferries, on a long journey to or from the continent; a place that, then, seemed generally impossibly glamorous compared to a UK which was still hauling itself out of its postwar, post-empire malaise of brutalist architecture, depressing corporatism – where you felt grey, unimaginative middle aged men were in charge of just about everything, and their word and deed could not be challenged – and bad food.

Recently, to reflect on just how much has changed (and, thankfully, is not likely to change again, unless the Brexit brigade decide to fill in the Channel Tunnel in the name of sovereignty – anything is possible), I took a car journey out to ‘Europe’, as we still call it in London, by ferry, and back by tunnel.

The Ferry

DFDS ferry crossing the channel with the white cliffs of Dover in the background

The DFDS Delft Seaways ferry crossing the channel with the white cliffs of Dover in the background

From my student days in the late 80s and early 90s, I remember long evenings sitting on the docks in Dover, awaiting a ferry delayed by storms, in the middle of the night, en route to visiting friends in Europe. Ferries were less frequent, then, and still suffering from the hangover of (some of them) having been owned by the state-owned railway system. Once onboard, you’d take a seat next to a bunch of commercial drivers, eating transport-cafe type food, sausages, egg, beans, fried bread, all with a healthy lashing of grease; and there would be much drinking, pint after pint of lager, ale and Guinness. I would look longingly at the icy beers and imagine drinking one on my arrival in whichever continental town or village I was escaping to.

(I’m not suggesting the commercial drivers back then drank beer before making their forays across the continent; but it was certainly very much in evidence.)

What a transformation now. The Dover eastern docks are in the same place, still backed by the spectacular white cliffs, but they have grown from an amateur operation into a vast organisation. We zoomed through the check-in for DFDS Ferries, and onto the boat; almost no waiting at all. Onboard was a self-service cafeteria serving healthy, pleasant food – I had a grilled fish, with peas, beans and a salad, and we sat by a window on the prow of the boat, and watched as it inched its way through the harbour and picked up steam across the Dover Straits.

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A code, supplied with our tickets, allowed access to a club lounge, and a world transformed from my memories. Armchairs, recliner chairs, magazine racks, sofas, a buffet, all in an extensive, silent space with big windows from which you could watch the dunes between Calais and Dunkerque loom into sight.

The journey passed rapidly – I thought perhaps this was an illusion because of its sheer enjoyability, but actually the journey time is only a rapid one hour 25 minutes, an hour shorter than in my days gone past.

One regret: previously, you could escape onto deck and walk all the way around the boat. I remember exploring a staircase going up to a deserted deck strewn with ropes and shipping paraphernalia, and looking at the view over to France (flat, lights) and England (black outline of white cliffs, lights below) while now you are confined to a single deck. Probably for safety reasons.

The Train

eurotunnel trains waiting at a station

For convenience and speed, the tunnel is unparalleled

Le Shuttle, the train service that takes cars through the Channel Tunnel, has plainly upped its ante recently. There is a dedicated priority check-in lane at Calais, and, once you are through the rather slow UK customs checks (and I doubt they could get much slower after Brexit) you are zoomed into a special holding area with a lounge serving light food (either to eat there or to go), welcome British newspapers, and a very nice souvenir bag for each passenger containing a tin box of biscuits from a French seaside resort.

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Priority access extends to when you are onboard – we were boarded first, and drove through the train, to be first to exit. A rapid 35 minutes of tunnelling later, we drove off the train and straight onto the M20 motorway near Folkestone – it took around 25 seconds, without stopping, between being on the boat, and being on the motorway.

For convenience and speed, as well as a welcome and rather classy departure send-off in the priority lounge, the tunnel is unparalleled. But if you feel like a break, some relaxation, and a chance to see the countries you are travelling in between, and hear the bark of seagulls as they follow you across the sea, DFDS is a world apart from the way ferries used to be.

And Brexit, whatever else it wreaks upon the people who voted for it (and those who didn’t), is unlikely to change any of that.