After a good night’s sleep in Reims, we headed onward towards our appointment with the cross-Channel tunnel at a rate of knots, passing through the first toll booth of the day as we headed on through northern France towards Calais. We made pretty good time as the roads were exceptionally clear – by our experience, they usually are in northern France – and stopped off near Laon for the first fuel stop of the journey. This part of France is quite peculiar: flat and with few distinguishing points of interest, peppered with towns which seem to show a certain level of decline. Pulling off the Autoroute des Anglais (“Motorway of the English”, according to Google Maps) to find fuel, we ended up finding a filling station and a supremely dull Buffalo Grill restaurant to photograph as evidence of the general feeling of bleakness of this part of France.
Once back on the road again, we were entertained in part by trying to spot hunters in the massive fields, mere specks in the vast landscape with their dogs and lines of cars parked along adjacent tracks. The weather, so good photographically on the previous day, left us for the time being and the low misty cloud really enhanced the flatness of the landscape through which we passed; something we’re not used to at home in the Alps!
Once back on the motorway, we found ourselves passing into the area of France with much wartime history, being the scene of countless trenches and battles during the two World Wars. For such a historic area, there are of course many memorials and graveyards, one of which we came across near Loos-en-Gohelle. I’d pulled off the motorway at the photographically apt town of Lens to photograph some bizarre pyramidal hills, which turned out to be two of the largest coal spoil heaps in Europe. We ended up walking around the Dud Corner Cemetery to stretch our legs; little did we know at the time that I have an ancestor on my father’s side of the family remembered there. The graveyard was in immaculate condition and the vivid green lawns, beautiful flowers and butterflies made for a very peaceful half-hour.
But, we couldn’t hang around for ever and so we made our way along the last part of northern France, heading for where the coast is just 26 miles from England and where the Channel Tunnel feeds travellers and their transport from Calais to near Folkestone, rumbling through one of the two undersea tunnels in just under half an hour. Passing British car after British car, not to mention the countless British heavy goods vehicles making their way home, one could be forgiven for thinking that we had already arrived in Britain. But no, the motorways were clean and clear, so we still had a little way to go! Passing along the industrial corridor to the east of Calais, we followed the well-trodden route to the tunnel check-in and parked up to stretch our legs and head for the duty-free shop and toilets. (The toilets were duty free too, which isn’t a given when you’re used to the immaculate (but tolled) McClean public toilets in Switzerland.)
Foregoing the usual array of tourist junk, we ordered sandwiches in fluent French from a counter where dithering, monolingual British travellers were tryeeeeing to get the womaaaan to un-der-staaand, and returned to the car and departure point to board an earlier train than we’d expected. (If you arrive ahead of your booking and there’s space on an earlier train, they considerately don’t hold you back.) Memories of pre-tunnel humour come back to me – the tunnel being built between 1988 and 1994, within my memory – where we all thought that the traffic would have to run a gauntlet of a huge, dodgem-style cross-over point in the centre of the tunnel, where driving on the right carriageway would have to turn into driving on the left carriageway as one approached the U.K.. (What can I say: we were young and silly.)
And so, under the sea to England, repeating our first journey through the tunnel from 2006 in reverse.
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