Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
‘Cargoes’ – John Masefield
As my alarm sounded at 5.45am I must confess that I wasn’t hugely optimistic about my chances of making it across the channel. I hadn’t even tried out the foldable bike that Mike had kindly given me, so had no idea about whether it would safely convey me the one mile from my AirBnb to the ferry without my coming a cropper!
Donning my high vis top ( as advised by Mike, so as to avoid being flattened by an HGV in the ferry terminal) I gingerly made my way downstairs, having attached my walking stick to my rucksack so that it resembled something akin to a prehistoric antenna.
Having given the folding bike a quick spin in the deserted road in front of my AirBnb, I headed off towards the ferry terminal, the route to which I had cunningly recce’d the previous evening. Despite a few near misses with low hanging trees, I somehow made it through the ferry concourse in one piece and onto stand 189 where I waited to embark onto the 7.55am P&O Ferry.
It would be an exaggeration to claim that I was accompanied by a convoy of fellow pilgrim bicyclists. As far as I could see, I was standing in glorious isolation, the only bicyclist waiting to embark!
At this point Jeremy appeared. Jeremy, who was originally from Newcastle and whose father lives in Poitiers had set up a business exporting Japanese sports cars to France. It had apparently been a highly successful and lucrative enterprise until Brexit reared its ugly head and he had suddenly been clobbered with 20% export duties. I commiserated with him and shared my own experience of the impact of Covid and Brexit on our language school business. The law of unintended consequences.
Our conversation was abruptly terminated by the announcement that we were about to board! I was given the green light for go and manfully cycled up the ramp onto the ferry. Halfway up the ramp, my progress was checked when I realised that I wasn’t going to make it up the ramp in 3rd gear ( yes, mirabile dictu, the bike had gears!) So after a nifty gear change into first, I safely made it onto the ferry, and immediately hared up the stairs in search of another ‘Full English’.
One of the strange features of my walk so far, has been the uncanny number of ‘chance’ events that have taken place. Call it serendipitous if you will, but another one occurred on the ferry crossing today.
As I was waiting patiently in line to order my ‘Full English’, a couple of gentleman who were ahead of me in the queue, struck up conversation with me and asked if I was a pilgrim. I answered that I was walking along the Via Francigena to Rome to raise money to restore the church roof of St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke, of which I was the Treasurer, and my wife, churchwarden. At this point I was nonplussed to hear them ask the chap at the checkout to include my ‘Full English’ on their bill!
I joined them at their table and we struck up conversation. The elder of the two gentleman ( who were brothers) was Luigi and his younger brother was Riccardo. Luigi was planning to walk the Via Francigena, so was fascinated to learn more about my endeavour.
Luigi and Riccardo own and run a chain of Italian restaurants in London called ‘Spaghetti House’. They were on their way to see their family and friends in Mergozzo in the Piedmont region of Italy. Their father had originally come to England in the 1940’s and had worked as a butler at Milton Lilbourne Manor near Pewsey. When I mentioned that I had close friends in Milton Lilbourne who would probably have known the family their father worked for, Luigi and Riccardo’s interest was piqued!
Coincidence then followed coincidence! Their 92 year old father lives in Norfolk at Dersingham near Sandringham. I mentioned that my wife had at one time worked in a goldmine in the Yukon with a member of the Coke family who own Holkham Hall. It transpired that Luigi and Riccardo were keen fieldsportsmen and that their particular passion was dry fly fishing on chalk streams including the Test, Itchen and Nadder. It turned out that Riccardo had recently been fishing the same beat of the Test ( although on the opposite bank) as I had! It really doesn’t get any more unlikely than that!
On arrival at Calais, I was somewhat bemused not to be frog marched to customs control and asked for my passport/proof of Covid vaccination. Instead a couple of ‘jolie’ young female French gendarmes in a van, ushered me out of the port and pointed the way into Calais. The Lord moves in mysterious ways!
Miraculously the weather seemed to have undergone a fundamental change during our 24 mile Channel crossing. The clouds had entirely disappeared and the mercury had risen a good 10 degrees. My heart bled for the hundreds of thousands of UK staycationers valiantly waiting for the arrival of the much heralded ‘Barbeque Summer’.
It seemed prudent to get full value from my trusty steed before abandoning it, so I cycled into Calais which is blessed with a lot of bicycle lanes. Nobody seemed in the least bit surprised to see somebody cycling around Calais on a rickety bike in a yellow high vis top, a ruck sack and a thumb stick. Maybe that is what they call ‘Sang Froid!’.
Tempting though it was to hang on to the bike and ride it all the way to Rome, I decided this wouldn’t be in the spirit of the charity walk, so I reluctantly decided to abandon it at Bleriot beach – the spot from which Louis Bleriot completed the first flight across the Channel in 1909.
The rest of the day passed relatively uneventfully. I kicked off my boots at Bleriot beach and walked along the beach to Sangatte. After an hour’s walk along the cliffs to Cap Gris Nez, I rejoined the beach, kicked off my boots once more and walked through the surf to Wissant. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the beach was largely deserted apart from the occasional kite surfer, and life felt good!
Wissant which means white sands and is on the Cote d’Opale, has quite a few claims to fame. It is believed to be the spot from which Julius Caesar in 55 BC and William the Conqueror launched his invasion of England in 1066. It was the place from which Becket sailed from France in December 1170 knowing that his death was imminent – commemorated in a plaque on the side of the church in Wissant. ‘I have come to risk life and limb for Justice and for Truth’ Becket is reputed to have said before he set sail from Wissant on the 1 December 1170. Less than a month later he had been brutally bludgeoned to death in Canterbury Cathedral.
Again I was reminded of Edith Cavell, Olivia’s cousin, and the inscription on her memorial in St Martin’s in the Fields in London.
Wissant is famous for its flobarts, a shallow draught boat used in Wissant to fish for plaice and flounder. Last weekend was the annual Flobart carnival, when the entire town celebrates its maritime history.
Wissant is also famous for its 19th century colony of painters who used Wissant as a base and were attracted by the coastal light in much the same way as the Newlyn School of artists flourished during the same period in Cornwall.
There is a lovely painting from the Wissant School of Painters by Virginie Demont-Breton of her husband, Adrien, painting a Flobart which reminded me of Laura Knight’s paintings.
Yes it was good to be back on the Continent again I thought to myself as I wandered around the Friday market in Wissant, wondering what to buy for supper!