Chapter 1: Crossing the great Divide
On a clear day some people have told me that you can see for 30 miles or more, and I have on occasion, when sailing, listened to the shipping forecast. The shipping forecast is a great British Institution and is broadcast four times a day on BBC Radio at roughly midnight, dawn, lunch and teatime.
Consisting of no more than 370 words it has a strict format. It starts with the gale warnings followed by the General Synopsis and then a report of the weather in each of the thirty one areas. A beautifully crafted concise delivery where veering, backing and deepening are commonplace it culminates in 4 minutes of language which exudes a great mystery, conjuring up a host of vivid imagery.
The thought of sailing around Dogger Bank or North Utsire, South Utsire in gale force 5, rising slowly sounds to me a most magical affair almost cosmic, space like, but rest assured the reality of seeing something 30 miles away over open water or your Dover veering southwest 5 or 6 occasionally 7 later with thundery showers is something different altogether.
Try as I might I have set off from Dover on many occasions and have never seen anything more than a lot of green sea and a stray seagull or two in the far distance. That said, for someone who has braved the open sea on many an occasion I am a nervous sailor and , given the slightest swell or whiff of a thirds parties gastric difficulties I commence chundering with some gusto until my foot once again regains terra firma.
In light of this I have become somewhat prescriptive, some would say anal, in my arrangements for crossing the inevitable divide.
There are many options to get across the English Channel, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and the array of vessels ploughing towards and away from European ports, most notably Rotterdam in this modern shipping age, is incredible.
As a slight aside on a recent trip I met Rudi, a young Dutch man, and his delightful girlfriend Elsa, in a campsite bar one early evening, and Rudi by coincidence worked at the port of Rotterdam in some capacity, the detail of which now eludes me.
Now, my tendency as the first rush of alcohol hits the bloodstream in the early evening lull is to search out an unassuming conversation target and strike up a genial bit of banter based on what I can extract about their life, work, attitudes etc. It has taken me to some strange places along the way and generally what I have learnt is that the observation of Mme P - that 'you can never tell what goes on behind somebody's front door' is more than true and something of a metaphor for people in general.
Now Rudi and Elsa were as good a looking pair as you could wish to meet, and although considerably younger than I seemed more than happy to tolerate an inquisitive bar philosopher. Rudi a tall dark haired white teethed, courteous individual and Elsa, also tall and slender and sporting the sleek blond hair and perfect lemon skin the young Dutch woman engaged with me easily but no sooner had I skirted casually around the where do you live? What's it like there? How did you travel here? subjects, I haphazardly delved routinely into the occupation sphere.
Now as I have said Rudi worked in the Port of Rotterdam and this secondary question indicating that I was showing a vague interest in the subject of the Port of Rotterdam seemed to ignite Rudi like a cheap Chinese firework.
Within seconds he was off on an enthusiastic almost evangelical outburst of facts and figures about loading and unloading, turnaround times, freight volumes, crane statistics you name it he knew it. He knew what was a reasonable time to unload an 11'000 tonne cargo ship, he knew how many cubic meters of water flowed through the port on any given day, he recounted how many ships could be held in the port how many cranes, trucks, kilometres of rail and facts about all manner of jobs and trades that it was mind blowing that anyone could be so enthusiastic about their work and surroundings.
I bet Rudi had never ever been late for work and I also think that given a passing interest in railways he would definitely be one of those blokes you see at the very end of the platform at big stations with a video camera filming the trains coming in.
What also struck me afterwards is not the sheer volume of data he had stored in his head but the way in which he was able to recount it like a 10 year old child who is able to recite the 2 to 15 times table in a mantra like fashion without gap. One two is two, two two's are four, three two's are six, you get the idea.
Now don't get me wrong I liked Rudi and all his facts, how long I would like him if he lived next door to me is another matter but I do like to collect interesting bits of information and what I did learn from our meeting was that the Port of Rotterdam by its very geographical, or is it geological, design it was always destined for success.
Rotterdam is the largest natural deep water estuary in Europe. It is where the mighty River Rhine empties into the North Sea. The distinct advantage that Rotterdam has over other ports in addition to its depth is the way the water flows and the shape of the sea bed. The current and tides continually wash out the silt before it can be deposited by the out flowing river, which in other ports settles and requires constant dredging to maintain the depth. None of that nonsense here, so Rotterdam operates at a much reduced cost whilst maintaining the ability to expand and take in ever more cargo bound for the far flung corners of Europe, the East and beyond.
I will use that at a dinner party at some point, but it will probably be at one which will not make the top ten dinner party experiences of all time lists.
What also struck me about the happy couple was the obvious and encouraging body language being exuded by the fragrant Elsa. As I have alluded to she had the natural silken blonde hair sported by many Dutch twenty something's which fell effortlessly over her clear healthy looking complexion. She nodded enthusiastically as Rudi espoused the virtues of his favourite deep water harbour and gazed in awe as he reeled off the many impressive facts and figures of his workplace achievements.
I am a great lover of human observation having had some level of professional training in the subject, I do have a tendency to try and sum up and compartmentalise people I will probably never meet again, if only to draw some closure for myself about the encounter.
It is in the most part, I am told, utterly wrong to go down the road of stereotyping individuals but I think there is nothing wrong in coming to a conclusion about someone based on a brief encounter questionable as it may be, but I am slightly unnerved by the concept of a woman such as Elsa being so obviously enthralled to the point of addiction by freight quotas and crane volumes.
Ships I must admit do hold a fascination for me, it may be the fact that I don't see them up close that often but the sheer size of the vessel when you approach it lying languid in the harbour is completely reversed when you get out to sea. You start to watch the ever changing skyline of what appear to be small freight ships, tankers, navy vessels and sailing ships which in the early morning meld together to give the impression of some slowly metamorphasizing city skyline. The sheer size of the ocean completely reverses the previous appearance of enormity and although everything still looks like ship it always looks a lot smaller.
The relatively short time spent on the water taking the Dover to Calais crossing can be a devil in disguise if ones ultimate destination is the western beaches of Southern Brittany, whereas the obvious and relative ease of starting your drive from the far west, having landed in say Roscoffe or St Malo can be equally tiresome, if sat on a rolling sea is where you have to spend the next six or seven hours. It is this dilemma I have wrestled with for some years, the one concerning sea miles versus land miles.
I have over the years tried all the various options and I am still not in any better position to make a decision about which crossing is the best. So the only conclusion I can come to is that none of them are. You takes your pick dependent upon where you are going, what tolerance you have a sailor and how much you like driving against sitting down inactive. More frequently now I go for what I see as the safe option which is the medium distance hop from either Portsmouth or Southampton to Cherbourg on the fast craft but for now my journey begins at Calais.
As you approach the waterfront at Calais the two old harbour walls seem to reach out to greet you in a half completed hug the old and algae stained walls look from a distance to evoke a medieval charm but as you approach and the vision clears it presents a slightly gloomy and well worn facade. Victim of the many years of passenger and freight traffic which now, with the effect of the channel tunnel well established gives way to vast areas of empty tarmac and white painted key side metalwork which leeches the oozing stains of unchecked rust.
I have stayed in Calais on a number of occasions but I am embarrassed to say that I have always viewed it as a gateway for stepping into or out of France and on reflection I may one day pay it more attention. That said on the odd occasion I have found myself stopping there I have had a variety of experiences.
On our last trip we stayed at Sangatte, a forgettable ribbon like village which like so many other beach side villages sports a long row of wind battered houses on one side of the road facing a high bank of dunes on the other.
It was however when I overheard Mme P making the booking that something in a dusty corner of my brain moved ever so slightly. There was something about Sangatte that I knew but couldn't at that moment recount. I thought it may have been the fact that I had stayed there before but on asking the ever knowledgeable Mme P I hadn't. It plagued me for the rest of the journey but as we arrived and entered the site it was still no clearer.
I took a walk from the site past the few sand fronted houses to a small square containing the prescriptive set of shops in every French village. Bread, vegetables, hair dressers, Tabac and an open fronted Bar, a sight I have seen almost everywhere I have gone and something of a comfort to know that the staples of life are always available consistent and there are not going to be any surprises.
I once stayed at a pub with rooms in Dun nit Head, a remote Scottish village on the north coast. Windswept and bleak, clear ice blue water throwing angry white waves onto the pebble beach. Just the place for traditional Fare, dark beer and peaty whisky.
Not a bit of it, the landlord could not believe our luck to have arrived on the opening night of his Mexican Restaurant. Now I have a wide appreciation of all world cuisines as you may know but Mexican is not even close to my top ten and in Dun nit Head I ask you. Needless to say it was as good as I expected it to be, and to slightly twist the old phrase 'you can't polish a re-fried bean'.
Back in Sangatte I was still wandering and searching for the answer to my nagging thought of why I recognised the name. The beach once you get through the sand dunes is wide and flat with a large imposing white cliffs at both ends headland at its northern end.
At one end of the beach on the Cap Blanc Nez there is a statue, now you don't get many statues on beach headlands so intrigued I strolled over for a look. The beach below is called Bleriot Plage and I discovered that this was in fact the very beach where on the 25th of July 1909 Louis Bleriot has taken off in his aircraft Bleriot Xl to complete the first successful crossing of the English Channel by air and claim the one thousand pound prize which had been put up by the London Daily Mail.
On reaching the statue however it was of Hubert Latham another pioneering French aviator who had attempted the crossing a few days earlier but 6 miles from Dover had crashed into the sea. In the true French style of turning participation in any event into a celebration he is remembered for the first successful landing of an aircraft on open water. A distinction I presume he acquired upon surviving the ordeal. According to the accounts a small shard of wire entered the engine an caused it to stall but Latham managed to level his decent and come to a safe landing on the water where is plane, Antoinette lV, floated. Latham calmly lit up a cigarette and waited to be rescued by a nearby Navy vessel.
Even armed with these fascinating new facts my internal cranial itch was still in need of scratching so I descended towards the village once again. It was as I turned and faced inland that I could see in the distance the Channel tunnel complex less than a couple of miles away. It's a vast sprawling car park that if you let your eye follow the rail disappears into the ground. From the hill the complex looks like a giant tadpole which has managed to swim up a hidden passage from the open sea and beach itself in the middle of the green fields which surround it.
I could go on about the Channel Tunnel but having only used it once in the very early morning I do not at this point feel qualified to speak about it with any great authority. It was however, as I was musing over the Channel Tunnel that it struck me.
That was it Sangatte was the village that gained such notoriety in 1999 or so when the Red Cross turned a disused warehouse, that had been used to store tunnelling equipment next to the complex, into a makeshift camp. Now I'm not knocking the Red Cross in any way shape or form but I recall at the time it soon got well out of hand and there upwards of 1500 people living there. Most were displaced people from Middle Eastern war zones but what did they expect to happen.
You have been living in a bomb site for the best part of your life, all you have is the clothes you stand up in, the French authorities are chasing your tail every time you stop for a breather and you haven't even the price of a small croissant. You hear about a group of well meaning individuals who have opened up a huge space who are giving out free food clothes and a bed where you can get your head down fatten up and steal yourself for a proper go at climbing into a truck or sneaking down the tunnel to Dover.
I remember at the time there was a hell of a fuss as people were able to develop ever more ingenious ways of boarding trains. A number of refugees were killed trying to jump onto trains from bridges and there was even a mass storming of the fence line by 500 or so. Riots ensued, the water cannons came out, the French blamed the UK for having such a lily livered asylum rules, the UK blamed the EU for not having implemented a uniform immigration policy, but in the end the French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkosi ordered its closure.
The company was losing so much money because of delays they built a new fence to stop trespassing on the site, the French undertook to do more to restrict the access to the area and we in the UK agreed to let a number of people cross over. In 202 it all went away and since that time the French authorities have gone back to the default position of making it as hard as possible to eke out an existence close to any of the Ports of northern France.
I however have never tarried long in Calais and the unnerving feeling generated by the resounding clunk of the metal ferry ramp as you put your first foot once again onto French soil soon drifts away as you enter the familiar stark port roads.
When first visiting France I was taken aback by the apparent lack of any sign of customs officers Gendarmerie or anyone else in a yellow jacket. Once off the boat the road snaked through the various deserted car parks and freight holding areas, past large harbour patrol boats laid up on wooden supports and low concrete buildings with silent radar dishes. It was like entering into France by osmosis as the mesh fences gradually become sparser and circumnavigating a small roundabout you found yourself on a sweeping bend which gradually became the A16 Autoroute.
Nowadays they put up more of a show positioning a small herd of uniformed individuals sporting an array of pseudo military garb. The ankle elasticated pants of many pockets over shiny military boots, a nylon wind cheater gripping the waist just above the hanging small side arm and the obligatory Kepi. They stare menacingly into your car as you pass over the speed hump thumbs in belt webbing but I get the feeling that they are not really performing this duty with any expectation of finding anything sinister.
Historically we Brits have not snuck into France like some steely eyed killer in the night we have, as history shows, announced our arrival en masse with all the gusto we could muster – and we have usually had a few thousand others with us, along with some tanks.
I suspect that the token display of dock officialdom is a facade played out in an effort to show that they take border security seriously. I however have inkling that there are not many refugees and immigrants passing in this direction as the residents of Sangatte will probably tell you.