Utterly Alive | Pushing the Wave

Utterly Alive

Opinion, 7 April 2023
by L.A. Davenport
On the Ferry
On the Ferry
Last week, I talked about catching a ferry from Tarifa to Tangier, which brought me to a whole new world, while the week before I reminisced about a trip from London to Amsterdam, taking the long way via a boat from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, in which I discovered a new side to myself.

Now, I want to start the last of this three-part series on this majestic, if rather austere, form of transport on the car ferry from France to England.

Over the years, I have crossed the channel many, many times: sometimes on the Eurostar passenger train; other times on the Eurotunnel drive-on, drive-off trains that whizz you under La Manche in just over half an hour; but most happily on a boat.

One journey in particular springs to mind. I had a single day to drive from the Côte d’Azur on the south coast of France to southern Lincolnshire, a distance of roughly 960 miles, and one which the maps say should take around 15 or 16 hours, depending the time of day.

But that’s non-stop, solid driving all the way. On top of that, at the very least, you will need to stop once for fuel, which will add another half an hour onto the journey if you include the slowing down and setting off, and unless you want to eat a sandwich and some snacks in your lap while you push on, you will have to stop for food.

Of course no one would recommend that anyone drive non-stop for 16 hours, and I am certainly not doing so now. It’s not at all a clever idea, but unfortunately life does not always allow us the luxury of doing what we should do. Sometimes, circumstances force us into doing things that we would not otherwise choose.

And so I found myself setting off from the crystal azure waters and blazing sunshine of Nice with 11 hours to get to a ferry leaving that evening from Calais, to arrive in Dover at some point during night.

The beginning of the route can be tedious, as the motorway snakes its way between the coast and the foothills of the Alps, before it finally bursts out onto the plains of southern France around Avignon.

From there, beyond the odd detour, it is pretty much a straight line all the way to the north coast, and while that sense of direct, efficient travel is initially seductive, it can become boring and soporific once the tiredness starts to set in. However, I was helped along the way by taking people with me via the car sharing app BlaBlaCar.

Frankly, my passengers were a godsend, as the endless kilometres whizzing by and the ceaseless chasing of the horizon, which seemed never to get closer even as the hours continually counted down to the ferry’s hour for casting off, started to play with my mind. In particular, an extremely chatty and friendly hairdresser from Aix en Provence, who stayed with me all the way to Calais on a visit her family, kept me entertained and sane.

Despite her funny and diverting conversation, I couldn’t stop the fatigue creeping in, and I was extremely grateful finally to arrive at the port, with its bright lights to guide me and snap my mind back to attention.

Finally and safely parked on the boat, I wanted to get a cabin, which hadn’t occurred to me as a necessity when I made the booking. But they were all taken, and so I tried to sleep on the sofas that lined the main passenger deck. I think I managed 10 minutes before the discomfort and the rocking of the boat woke me up. Initially, I lay there in a half-conscious fog, but I needed to move.

Night had fallen by this time, and I hesitated before deciding that, yes, I would venture outside to have a cigarette (I gave up smoking the next year, thankfully). I had noticed that the boat was rocking, but I was disorientated and dizzy in any case so it didn’t really register. And of course, out at sea, the night is perfect black and it is impossible to judge the weather from indoors, especially through the reflections of the lights inside.

I struggled to open the door to the outside world. I assumed it was simply sticking in its hinges, but I quickly realised, once I had forced it open, that the heavy weight that had been preventing me was the wind.

I stepped out into a fierce gale, with rain lashing the boat in the winter’s night. There were one or two other people out there, all men, with grim expressions fixed on their faces. Swaying on my feet, I gave up the idea of smoking. I held onto a railing and I gazed out into the vast nothing, pierced by the occasional splash from the waves slamming against the side of the boat. The roaring of the wind was so loud that it gave the impression of being alone, isolated, in the awful cold, with only your thoughts for company.

I felt utterly and helplessly mortal, insignificant and meaningless. I had been ready to drop a moment before, but the need for sleep was already a distant memory. Now I was fully alive, and staring death in the face.
When I think of other ferries I have taken, a boat from Nice to Corsica comes to mind, with its plume of thick black smoke arcing up into the pure blue sky. I remember the searing sunshine that beat down as the Côte d’Azur retreated into the distance and we headed into the twinkling expanse of the Mediterranean.

I also think of a memorable trip from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye, for which we were blessed with wonderful May weather as we took a journey that I had dreamed of since I first heard about the delights of Scotland as a child.

This was part of a holiday taking advantage of the ScotRail pass. We followed the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Skye, and then the Kyle Line to Inverness, before heading down to Edinburgh, where we spent a couple of magical days.

The fabulous thing, which we didn’t realise when we bought the tickets, was that they are not only rail passes. They can be used to take all forms of public transport in Scotland. So we were able to go on the ferry to Skye, and take buses across the island, first to our hotel and then a couple of days later up to the ferry when we wanted to go back to the mainland, all as part of the ticket.

I could wax lyrical about the delicious food we ate all along our route, which underlined the adage that the best food is made by preparing the best ingredients in the simplest way possible, or the warmth of the people, who were open-hearted and welcoming. I could go on about the magnificent scenery that we saw day after day, and talk about valleys we passed in which there were no roads, and so were amazed by sights that could be seen no other way than by train or on foot.

But I will simply say that ScotRail are still doing the passes, and I could not recommend them highly enough as a means of getting to know a wonderful country and its people.
This week saw the publication on here of another story from my collection Dear Lucifer and Other Stories.

Blacks and Whites is a piece that occurred to me after I witnessed terribly prejudiced behaviour towards a woman with Tourette’s syndrome while waiting the queue in the post office in Islington, London. Initially I was shocked both at the casualness of it and the idea that two people could be so uninterested in the impact of their actions on someone standing, to all intends and purposes, right next to them.

I turned it over and over in my mind for a few days, until I went running and I passed some crows searching for food in newly turned ground. They cowered from me in fear, and I was reminded me of the fear the woman showed when she was in the post office queue, trapped as she was in a condition she could not control.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Utterly Alive | Pushing the Wave