Well, that was an interesting day. On Friday afternoon, in a fit of despair at the sight of IDS’ Brexit celebration, I pulled a Tracy Jacks and declared I was going to leave the country. Then, as soon as Nathan got home, we packed the car and left home without warning, heading to Dover to stare at the seafront with the aim of getting on the first available ferry to France.
Except it wasn’t entirely without warning and it wasn’t nearly as spontaneous as I made it sound. I just sometimes like to be a bit dramatic on social media and IDS chuckling with Tim Martin over some Turkish food was enough to make me declare something along the lines of “if you don’t hear from me in the near future, I’ll be planning to leave the country”. It was entirely true but honestly, it was something we’d been planning for weeks. A day trip to France as a kind of Brexit farewell tour. Of course, by the time it rolled around it was becoming increasingly clear that we wouldn’t be leaving the EU at the end of March but still, it was a symbolic gesture. A complicated, high-effort gesture but not as pricey a gesture as if we’d taken the Eurostar.
Still, we had our reservations, looking at the yellow weather warning hovering over Dover for Saturday. The ferry was a tenth of the price of the train, which helped me to constantly justify *why* we were on a boat in a hurricane…but we’ll get to that. We also had to pay more as foot passengers than we would have as car drivers but again…we’ll get to that.
Seeing as the crossing only cost us £40, we decided to splash a further £30 or so out on a hotel for the night before the crossing. The Premier Inn on Marine Parade looked pretty close to the ferry terminal, although Google Maps worried me by telling me it was a 28 minute walk to the ferry “via car lanes”. That didn’t sound good at all. I also found it tricky to work out whether we could leave the car at the hotel for the day while we went across and back.
But that’s why I do these things – to find out how it all works so that I can impart my “wisdom” to all of you. Here’s some wisdom – don’t go to France in a hurricane.
Or if you choose to ignore that wisdom, join me at the Premier Inn and we’ll take it from there. Yes, you can leave the car there for the day – the parking was free while we were checked in but we had to pay £6 to leave it there from the time we checked out to midnight on Saturday. At no point did we consider that we might not make it back before midnight but – spoiler – we did make it back. Just about. The £6 had to be in change and I only had a tenner so once I’d installed Nathan and the kids in our room, I went down to the bar to get a glass of wine, which pleasingly cost £3.99. I’d like to say that I enjoyed the glass of wine in the bath with a book, without flooding the bathroom…but that wouldn’t be entirely true. Oops.
Let’s skip ahead to the next morning, where the carpet hadn’t entirely dried out and we were busy getting blown along the promenade towards the ferry terminal:
There wasn’t a lot of obvious signage showing us where to go but we followed the instructions of the hotel receptionist – along the sea front and across the road at the pedestrian crossing. Well, first we got it wrong and walked right past the sign which said “No Access to Docks” before realising that the sign might actually mean something and backtracking.
Once we got on the correct side of the road, we wandered in through the big “Welcome to the Port of Dover” sign with still not much clue at to what foot passengers do. That was to be a theme of the day. Eventually we found a map, telling us to stick to the black and white walkways even though we could only see a red line that was meant for cyclists.
We followed that anyway, crossed a lane intended for HGVs and found a black and white walkway on the other side. It was a bit like following a trail of breadcrumbs but we picked our way to the terminal building and managed to check in on time. Somehow.
Then we sat on some chairs near a Costa for what seemed like an incredibly long time. Eva was looking longingly at the Tangfastics in the vending machine but I had to remind her that it was only just gone 8am and not exactly prime haribo time. She stole Reuben’s joke book and amused herself by telling us all jokes instead. Reuben complained about having his joke book stolen. Time dragged on. Luckily, the sole glass of wine I’d had wasn’t enough to give me a bad head in the morning but I wasn’t exactly filled with a sense of enormous wellbeing.
What we were waiting for was a bus. It hadn’t been at all clear on the P&O website what foot passengers were meant to do at Dover so I’d assumed there would be some kind of walkway from the terminal to the ferry, like at an airport. But no, a bus was going to drive us all onto the car deck before all the cars were loaded and drop us off there, I say all – there were probably around ten of us. No one knew exactly when this bus would turn up, hence the seemingly endless waiting time. And no one mentioned what we were meant to do when we got to Calais either.
But eventually yes, the bus arrived and drove us in circles around the port before stopping at the edge of the ramp and making us all get onto a different bus which, as promised, dropped us on Level 3 of the ferry. Anything we might want to do on the ferry started around Level 8, so it was quite the climb to get up there. Stair climbing would be another theme of the day.
Seeing as we’d boarded before all the cars, we pretty much had the run of the ship. So we went for a breakfast at the food court, where they were very generous with the replacement items (although I didn’t realise they weren’t so generous with the condiments – you have to pay for those) so I ended up with four rashers of bacon plus some scrambled egg for Roo. We didn’t really need to buy him his own, especially as we trying to encourage him not to gorge too much before heading out on the shaky seas. But we did buy him one and he did gorge himself. Luckily, we got breakfast down before we started moving so weren’t trying to eat a Full English while feeling queasy. In case you’re wondering, Eva had a pain au chocolat and a pot of jam. At least she ate *something*.
The journey over was pretty uneventful, if a little rocky. We made a base in the Family Lounge, where Nathan and I alternated who got to lie down on the squishy chairs and who got to sit in the Kids’ Zone on the child-sized red sofa. Reuben made friends with a talkative boy called Ben who liked Marvel, so that was the perfect entertainment for him all the way across. There was a screen with what looked like DC episodes lined up but no one to operate it and unlike the ferry journey to the Isle of Wight, no magic people to amuse the kids. Lucky we found Ben, really. No one felt too seasick and Calais appeared before too long.
Now for the tricky issue of how we got off the ship and into Calais. Nathan had spotted a sign somewhere saying “Calais Foot Passenger Exit” but neither of us knew exactly where to find that sign so we did a full loop before locating it near the Information desk. It led us down a flight of stairs where we could see a door that might link up to some kind of walkway. And then we saw the walkway which would link up to the door and it was all making sense…except that no one else was standing in this particular bit of corridor. Where were the other six of so people we boarded with? Eventually Nathan went back up the stairs to see if he could spot them and yes, there they all were sitting around by the Information desk. So we went back up there and waited…and waited some more…. it had a similar feel to leaving Dover.
It was a while before a cheery man in a high-vis turned up and escorted us back down to the car decks to wait in a very small stairwell for the bus to turn up. Obviously, every single other vehicle had to clear out before the bus could drive onboard, so that might give you some idea of how long this whole “waiting at the bottom of the stairs/waiting at the top of the stairs/waiting at the bottom of some different stairs” malarkey took. It was alright being first on the boat but combining it with last out made the whole journey about an hour longer than it should have been. I think we started looking for the exit around 11:30 and didn’t touch French soil until 13:15 French time…so 45 minutes of waiting around by my best guess. Seemed longer with whiney kids.
Once we were on the bus, things were pretty quick. We didn’t need to go through customs as we’d had our passports checked at Dover by both French and British border control – the French officer had surprised Eva by addressing her by name and she had charmed him by saying “merci” as he handed it back. And we already knew our way out of the port and onto the main road, thanks to a mini-excursion on the way back from the Netherlands in 2017. Google Maps again reckoned a 28 minute walk to the town centre but it was more like 20 minutes, even at dawdling pace. My main aim was to “get some fresh air” after so long cooped up in terminals, buses and boats….we certainly got that. The air was so fresh that it was like having a hurricane blowing in your face. Again.
From the boat we’d spotted the Calais Lighthouse and the kids were keen to have a closer look. So we climbed the hill to see if we could climb the lighthouse but it was shut for lunch, so we just took a photo instead:
Lots of things in Calais were shut for lunch or just shut full stop. Eva, who’d not had a cooked breakfast, was whining for lunch and specifically some french fries or pommes frites as she’d been practising saying. She later informed me that she’d learnt the French word for “French” and I was suitably impressed. Less impressed when I realised she was thinking very literally and now had deduced that “pomme” meant “French”. Good try, Eva. Roo had been practising a phrase that I had cobbled together in my pidgin French – “Ma souer voudra l’escargot s’il vous plait”. Sadly, he didn’t pluck up the courage to use it.
We did find a place to eat pommes frites, if not escargot. I’d seen The London Bridge pub on Google Maps and it made my heart sink a little to consider eating out in France in a place so heavily Brit-themed. But the menu contained things that both kids would eat, at a reasonable price and the reviews were positive and the location handy so it was a legitimate option in my mind. As it turned out, it was the only eating establishment in Calais that we passed at 1:30ish that was open and busy and ready to serve us food. So, to The London we went.
I spoke some French though. My skills in translating ice cream flavours for the kids surprised even me and I managed to more or less order for us all without resorting to too much English. The kids mumbled their “merci”s and got disproportionate amounts of praise for it. Eva didn’t eat her chicken nuggets because…she’s Eva…but made a good effort on her chips and her jus de ananas. Needless to say, her glace framboise disappeared without trace. Those of us who’d had big breakfasts struggled a bit to eat our lunches but Nathan managed his chicken burger and I had most of my “Bacon Groove” pizza although it was a little odd. I wanted something I wouldn’t typically eat in London itself and this pizza certainly fit the bill. Stonebaked base, BBQ sauce, lamb mince, boiled potatoes, mushrooms and a sparing amount of cheese. Tastewise, it was more like a cottage pie than a pizza. Not bad, just….odd. And I never eat the crusts on pizza anyway, so I was always going to leave a bit of it.
After lunch, we needed yet more fresh air and exercise so we walked around the square and looked at the statues of Charles de Gaulle and Yvonne Vendroux and the watchtower – Tour de Guet. I worked out that it was built in the 13th Century as it had an inscription saying “XIII siècle” and I know the phrase “fin de siècle”. Aceing this Year 7 French lesson recall!
We wandered past the Notre-Dame church but Eva declared that she was bored so we decided to go back to the lighthouse and see whether it was open for climbing yet. It was! We had to resort to English to navigate the tricky conditions around climbing the lighthosue in such tricky weather and our lack of change in Euros but the staff had excellent English so they did all the hard work.
(As I’m writing this, an advert has just popped up on the TV urging me to “soak up the sun” and “get that ferry feeling” aboard a P&O ferry – “where time is the only thing flying”. Thanks, but I think I got enough of that ferry feeling yesterday and time wasn’t exactly flying. More on that in a moment. Plus, it was not the weather to be thinking about sunny beaches)
So, we paid our 12EURO for the lighthouse and started off by watching a short film about the site before starting the 270-step climb. I was getting a little paranoid about making it back to the ferry on time so think we skipped some of the elements of the guided tour but we made it all the way up, even if only Nathan went out onto the balcony. It was really, really windy so they’d made us promise not to take the kids out there and I think that was probably wise because Eva may well have been whisked away as she weighs so little. Her weight had definitely worked to her advantage as she was skipping up the steps like a mountain goat though. I was ready to give up by halfway but she kept urging me on with a “come onnn Mummy! Why are you so slow?”
I’d probably been a bit overcautious in leaving an hour to get back from the lighthouse to the ferry port but I was still working on Google’s estimates, which were well over the top. It was actually about a 12 minute walk back and we got to the terminal with a full hour before the bus was departing at 4:45 to take us onto the ferry. But at least we’d been told an exact time for the bus departure, and the route into the terminal had been signposted with big friendly signs:
An improvement on Dover, that’s for sure. We were all exhausted after our lighthouse climb, so just found four seats together and slumped there, all reading our books and ignoring each other. I also plugged my phone in to charge for a bit, even though it was out of arm’s reach. My phone is so covered in sellotape that no-one would ever bother to steal it, even when it’s left unattended and the battery was almost out. We were indeed having trouble in the message centre.
When we’d checked in, the lady had mentioned that our crossing had been changed to the delayed 2:20 crossing, which would indeed be quite delayed by the time we sailed at 5:30. But we thought little more of it. Ships were still sailing and that was all that mattered. The bus arrived when they said it would and we got to the ferry fairly quickly, even though we had to go through proper customs this way with a bag scanner and everything. Not entirely sure why as, again, there were only about ten of us and no-one was checking the bags of anyone in the hundreds of cars but still…in this climate you don’t question, you just comply in whatever way you’re required to do in order to get back into the country. I wasn’t *actually* planning on starting a new life in France.
Once again, we were the first passengers on and went straight to the Family Lounge, where we claimed the sofa nearest the Kids’ Zone and collapsed onto it. There we were for an hour or so, slouched on the settee, reading and snoozing and at some point we moved out of the harbour and into the Channel, which was now even rockier than it had been on the way over. By my best guess, it was around 6:00pm French time by the time we left.
On this leg of the journey, someone did turn up to operate the telly and the kids happily watched DC Lego Superheroes for an hour or so, which should by all rights have got us almost back to Dover. But something was afoot – even though we’d been going for hours we were still apparently quite far out from the Kent coast. It later transpires that the wind we were sailing into was so strong that it was preventing us even getting close. Around 6:30 British time (so 90 mins in), we were told that it would be at least another hour. It was around that point that the kids’ DVD finished and they suddenly paid the price for staring at a screen while the floor was rocking – they both felt sick and wanted to get off the boat Right Now. That was a low. Nathan had been sleeping but was woken up by Roo suddenly having to run to the loo. He wasn’t sick but looked a suitable shade of grey and Nathan wasn’t looking much healthier. We’d been given refreshment vouchers in Calais as compensation for a delay we hadn’t yet suffered so I was planning on getting coffee as we got close to Dover, in order to perk Nathan up for the drive home. But the timings were all messed up now and the coffee I bought for him went largely undrunk as he and Roo sat huddled and queasy on the sofa.
I was sick a lot when pregnant with Roo so had a few virtual tricks up my sleeve. Roo refused mint chewing gum but Nathan accepted and I went to Plan B for Roo – combing the decks for a fruity ice lolly to combat the nausea. I took Eva with me and had just failed to find the shop when she was unexpectedly sick in my hand. Even more unexpectedly, I managed to keep the coffee in my other hand untainted and drinkable.
She felt a lot better after that but we were starting to need to get off the ship. Another announcement around 7PM told us that we were in a queue to get into Dover harbour and that it would be another 45 minutes to an hour before we docked. It wasn’t great news when kids around us were being sick everywhere. Weirdly, the Family Lounge had never filled up although a short-tempered PA announcement suggested that there was child-led anarchy upstairs in the Food Court, with a party of school kids running around and shouting unsupervised. I think we were all losing the will. Eva alone was perky, playing in the Kids’ Zone with some older girls she’d just met.
The last announcement had proved to be accurate and we were docked around 7:50, which was almost three hours since we’d set off, given the time difference. And we yet again had no idea where we foot passengers were meant to be. A steward and the signs both suggested an area past the bar, at the very front of the ship where another door was to be prove to never open on to another walkway. We found the people we’d been on the bus with and together we stood around for another half hour or so, watching all the staff descend in the lift and walk out past the HGVs. We guessed that we wouldn’t be allowed to try that ourselves. Once again, no one told us what was happening and as it turned into four hours since we’d boarded, tempers started fraying. Eventually, someone in a high-vis turned up, escorted us down to the car deck and dropped us back at an entirely deserted terminal building where Eva finally got her paws on those Tangfastics she’d been lusting after. She assured me that they wouldn’t make her sick again and, as it turns out, she fell asleep in the car still clutching a nearly-full packet. Worked out well for me once I’d eased them out of her sleeping hands. And finally, it looked like we’d made it a la fin.
So…lessons learnt from our France trip. Could do with longer to explore as we’d planned to go to the Meccano Lab but it was just too far away to get there and back in the time we had. Don’t sail during a hurricane. And if you’re sailing as a foot passenger, be very prepared to do a lot of waiting round, imagining that you’d been abandoned and losing hope of ever setting foot on dry land again. And remember at all times that you paid more to go on foot than you would have as a driver. I’m not convinced we got our money’s worth.
But as we parked up at home at 10:30, a sleepy Reuben from the backseat piped up with “That was a nice day out, wasn’t it?” And that, for me, makes the whole thing worthwhile. Pretty much.
Footnote: If you’ve been confused by some of the slightly random wording in this post, let me leave you with two images that might explain everything. There was a theme to the day, which I hope I’ve captured here. Well, there were several themes but I’m not talking about the sickness, the stair climbing or the hurricanes. Like I said, this should make all clear. Here’s the kids at two of our local hangouts. Firstly Hugs W Mugs Cafe:
And secondly, the beer garden at the Royal Oak:
There you go….is it all clear now? Or still a bit blurry?