There’s nothing like being in a ship between Britain and France to make a journey into an experience; something a tunnel crossing can never replace.
Progress is a wonderful thing in travel. It has given us two-hour train journeys from London to Paris, direct connections between cities you’d never imagine you’d be able to get between (Dallas to Singapore, anyone?) and we will soon be able to sit in traffic jams in driverless cars while we play Minecraft and update our Instagrams (ok, perhaps that’s not such an improvement).
But…I grew up the son of a traveller: my father was a diplomat and academic, but he also wasn’t someone who’d let lousy infrastructure get in the way of getting from A to B. Coming to the UK from Tehran for his university studies during the middle of World War 2, he arrived by ship, via the Suez Canal. After the war, flights back to Iran involved several stopovers across Europe, in a propeller plane. When he bought a car at the Mercedes-Benz factory in Germany in 1957, he drove it home to Tehran, via Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and what was then the relatively-newly invented country of Turkey, along roads that were not roads.
My own childhood consisted of multiple trips across the friendlier parts of western Europe, and while most of those would be recognisable to anyone on a driving holiday today – French motorway toll booths, roadside motels, slightly grubby city centre hotels with slightly grumpy concierges – there is one element that has, for many, been replaced by progress. And I’m not sure if it is progress.
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I’m talking here about the connection between Britain and Europe; not the metaphorical one that was severed by a majority of nationalistic-minded voters in the Brexit referendum last year, but the physical one, the tunnel that, from 1993, meant the quickest, easiest way of driving to Europe was driving to a train station near Folkestone in Kent, driving your car on board a train, and being whisked under the channel for 40 minutes before emerging onto the motorway at the other end. Swift, easy, simple, and weather-proof.
And yet…travel is not just about being at the other end. It’s about getting there. Having spent the first two decades of my life literally ferrying back and forth across the channel for play and work, assignments and assignations, I felt I was missing something in these, the tunnel vision days.
So last summer I booked myself on a ferry, for the first time in many years, from Dover to Dunkirk. The journey through Kent is largely similar, on the M2 to Dover, to the M20 to the tunnel entrance – until, suddenly, the road sweeps sharply down and to the right. You are dropping through the white cliffs of Dover, the sea and the port in front of you, and the French coast visible in the distance. (You don’t see the sea when you go by tunnel, as the entrance is inland). Load up onto the DFDS ferry and the industrial nature of the journey becomes clear: seamen, sailors, tell you to park here or there and apply the brake: people who actually know how to travel the seas. Up we climbed, past the shop selling not very good wine (some things never change), and into the café, where, armed with some rather decent hot food (soup, fish, vegetables, plus a salad), we got a seat at the front of the boat (the stern, I think it’s called), with a dramatic view of the sea, the clouds, and France in front of us.
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Ferries are faster than they used to be: it took us just over an hour to make the crossing, during which time we ate at leisure, and wandered around to have a look at the cliffs slowly shrink and the English coast expand into the distance. Seagulls kept the ship company as the sky turned from blue to white to deeper blue. We really were leaving Britain, conducting a private Brexit, and we were headed south, towards the sun. After 45 minutes of sky gazing, we relaxed in the near-silent space of the VIP room; the only noise was the ship’s engines.
We arrived in France refreshed and, most importantly, with a strong sense of place, of travel, of actually doing something. Objectively, like mechanical watches or vinyl, the ferry is worse than a tunnel – it takes longer (though not much) and isn’t such fun in poor weather. But subjectively, for that sense of journey and geography – as well as the break in the journey it simultaneously offered – the ferry is in a different league. Just remember to wave goodbye to the white cliffs, if you’re never coming back.