Liz Garnett writes … This Easter holidays brought with it the urgent need to stock up on French goodies. So a day trip to France was called for and on a day when the weather forecast looked promising I booked a ferry crossing from Dover to Calais. The choice of ferry operators has diminished over the last few years with the demise of My Ferry Link. For a time it was my preferred ferry operator as, even at peak times, their ferries were relatively quiet. The staff were mostly French which meant that as soon as I boarded the ship I could speak French.
The first challenge on any Dover to Calais crossing is the Port of Dover itself. Once you have gone through the French passport control drivers need to be vigilant and follow the numerous obscure signs – not easily seen at stupid o’clock when you are worrying whether you will get to the ticket booths in time.
Tickets issued and line number given, you are then left to your own devices to find the right lane – the number of which is on the tag hanging from your mirror facing out so you can’t see it. Trying to remember the number while looking for the right lane can be challenging. As I get older the whole exercise gets harder and I know one day I will end up on a ferry going who knows where. One day, when I have more time, this might be rather fun.
Thankfully the crossing is short and before long we are on French roads and the worry has turned from wanting peace and quiet to concentrating on driving on the French side of the road.
The Port of Calais and approach roads have changed dramatically since I lived there over 20 years ago. There are now 5 metre high fences either side of the roads leading to the port as well as French police at various points waiting to prevent migrants from entering the port area. Only last year t
here were also migrants hanging around waiting for an opportunity to sneak across the channel.
The Nord Pas de Calais regions are so often ignored by travellers in favour of warmer southern climes or by day trippers trying to track down cheap booze. This is a great shame as the region has a wealth of historical sites, a diverse landscape and interesting architecture to explore.
On this trip I decided to head up the motorway to St Omer and the nature reserves just outside this historic town at Clairmarais. Arriving just after midday meant that the visitors centre was closed for the obligatory 2 hour lunch and the nature reserve was free of visitors so we had the opportunity to enjoy the peace and solitude of the marshland. All around we can hear the sound of migratory and native birds and at several points we can see the birds. There are two routes to an observatory, one of which is suitable for wheelchairs and prams. The second route takes in a small self-service chain ferry which adds to the novelty of the visit. It is little things like this that help to give my children special memories to look back on when they are adults. This was only a brief visit. A walk to get a feel of the place and set the seed for future visits to explore this area rich
landscape. In summer a boat trip along one of the waterways beckons along with exploring the local villages on the marsh.
Of course no trip to Calais is complete without a grocery shop. The wide variety of cheeses in France is far more interesting (and smelly) than in the UK and I don’t feel I have succeeded in shopping in France if I don’t return to the UK and can’t smell my car on the car deck of the ferry. Jambon de Bayonne is another essential along with Le Fermier yoghurts. Smoked garlic gives our kitchen a long lasting aroma reminding us of our trip. A tour of the alcohol aisle is essential for all British shoppers. So, a few bottles of wine, Pineau de Charantes and cider complete the trolley. When I lived in France it was easy to spot the British shoppers at the checkout in the supermarkets: a trolley laden with alcohol with the obligatory camembert on the top. At one point there was a craze for them to buy enormous boxes of washing powder. Sadly, since those halcyon days the Franc has been abandoned in favour of the Euro and the exchange rate hasn’t been the same since.
As I drive back to the port of Calais we speed past the old Hoverport and I am reminded of how the options to cross the channel have changed over the last 20 or so years. Before the Tunnel the Hovercraft and Seacat were the fastest and most sick inducing but I still look back on them nostalgically as they were a rather fun way to cross the channel on a flat calm.
After a short wait in the queues for the ferry and an opportunity to people watch, we board the ship and park up. I leave a car window a little open so the waft of fromage can permeate the surrounding area of the car deck and we head upstairs to find somewhere quiet to sit.
Liz Garnett – www.lizgarnett.com