The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Dover Beach – Matthew Arnold
What an amazing night! I’m still not 100% convinced that I didn’t dream it all. First Olivia announced that she would be able to come and stay the night at Mike and Stella’s house in Shepherdswell having taken our daughter up to London to settle her into her new flat share in Fulham. Then our son Freddy and girlfriend Nicola kindly agreed to drive down from Oxfordshire to Winterbourne Stoke to look after our dogs ‘Islay’ and ‘Puzzle’. That meant that Olivia could stay the night rather than having to drive on back to Wiltshire. Heroic.
After Olivia had arrived and settled down with a mug of tea, Mike disappeared into a structure in his garden which from the outside resembled a Mongolian ger.
I’ve spent quite a few nights sleeping in Mongolian gers over the years in Hovsgol Province near Lake Baikal, so I thought I knew what to expect when Mike and Stella announced that supper was ready and led us down the garden into their ger.
However, nothing could quite prepare us for what lay behind the door of the ger. It was a cross between entering the Tardis/a Swedish sauna and a Korean norae bang or indoor karaoke bar. In the centre was a huge barbeque with hot coals above which was a retractable chimney. We sat around the sides of the ger on sofas bathed in exotic multicolored flourescent light which could be altered at the touch of a button to deliver a strobe . In the background music was piped from hidden speakers. It was not unlike being in a small intimate discotheque!
As we sat down to eat the delicious barbequed lamb which Mike had prepared, I thought to myself that we could have been dining with nomads on the Steppes of Central Asia!
I awoke this morning feeling slightly groggy, slightly regretting having drunk four bottles from Mike’s craft beer collection the previous night! It was then time to bid Olivia a fond farewell as she departed back to Winterbourne Stoke but what a fantastic evening it had been – one that will live long in the memory!
Fortified with yet another ‘Full English’ with white eggs from the hens at the bottom of Mike and Stella’s garden, I made my way out of Shepherdswell towards Dover, bowled over by the kindness and warm hospitality of Mike and Stella who had gone from complete strangers to close friends over the course of the last 24 hours!
I passed in front of Waldershare House, the Queen Anne house built for Sir Henry Furnesse whose mausoleum I would later see in All Saints Church Waldershare. An impressive pile!
All Saints Church Waldershare has been deconsecrated and is now managed by the Churches Conservation Trust. When I entered the church I saw that there was somebody praying in the wooden pews who was clearly somewhat surprised by my unexpected appearance in the church. He told me that he had cycled there from Dover to find a place for silent contemplation.
Whether it was the after effects of Mike’s craft beers or the weight of the IGN maps of France that had been added to my rucksack, I found the morning’s walk to Dover quite tough going. Stella had kindly given me a couple of her home made chocolate brownies (150 calories each she mischievously informed me), so I guiltily decided to throw caution to the wind and consume them as a mid morning energy boost. It seemed to do the trick!
Shortly thereafter I bumped into John who asked me if I’d come from Canterbury and where I was going to. It transpired that Mike was a Kiwi from Waihi on the Coromandel Peninsula of the North Island of New Zealand. John, whom I noticed was sporting an elaborate Maori tattoo on his arms, had been on the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostella as well as the Camino del Norte.
I mentioned that I’d done some ‘tramping’ on the South Island including traversing the island on the Wangapeka Trail, walking the Abel Tasman Trail near Nelson and crossing the Arthur’s Pass where I remember camping out in the snow and having my tent attacked during the night by a Kea bird, a feral and aggressive variety of parrot!
“Forget the South Island’, come to Waihi when you next visit New Zealand. It’s the most beautiful place in the country. We’ve got everything – miles of beautiful unspoilt beaches and little blue penguins. You couldn’t ask for more” John imparted to me as he hoisted his bike through a gap in the hedgerow and rode off towards Dover on the busy A2.
I made it to Dover shortly after lunch, checked into my AirBnb near Dover Castle and then struggled up a long flight of steps to visit the Castle and get a grandstand view of Dover.
It was humbling to remember that Operation Dynamo ( the British evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk in 1940) was co-ordinated from Dover Castle by Sir Bertram Ramsay.
Called out of retirement in 1939 by Winston Churchill, Ramsay was made Vice Admiral of Dover. Working from the tunnels beneath Dover Castle he and his staff worked for nine days straight to rescue troops trapped in France by the German forces. For his success in bringing home 338,226 British and allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk he was asked to personally report on the operation to King George VI and was made a Knight Commander of the Order of Bath.
Despite the continued absence of any sign of the ‘barbeque summer’, I wandered down to Dover beach – the subject of Matthew Arnold’s elegy to the recession of empire and faith and more recently the spot where swimmers have ended their epic Channel crossings.
As I sat on the shingle with a Flake 99 icecream and looked out over the deserted beach, I couldn’t help wondering where I would be in less than 24 hours time and whether I would succeed in crossing the Channel on the 7.55am Dover-Calais P&O Ferry tomorrow.