Posted in Writing

Channelling Calm for the Dover to Dunkerque Ferry

(My contribution to the March edition of the Tetbury Advertiser, written in the middle of February as we were about to embark on a week-long trip to France, Belgium and the Netherlands)

As I write this month’s column, I’m just 22 miles away from becoming the Tetbury Advertiser‘s foreign correspondent: I’m poised to cross the English Channel. In a Force 10 gale.

This morning, the idea of spending a week in February touring Northern France in our camper van has lost its charm. When we booked our passage in the dark days of December, far-off February seemed comfortingly spring-like. We knew we’d have to pack warm clothes to guard against the colder climate of a continental landmass but did not foresee such storms.

Photo of the HMS Belfast moored by Tower Bridge, London
The Royal Naval vessel on which my father served: HMS Belfast, now moored in the Thames as part of the Industrial War Museum (Photo: Creative Commons by Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia)

Naval Advice

My parents phoned before we were due to set off yesterday, just after the lunchtime shipping forecast.My mother did not exactly suggest we cancel our trip, but I’m sure that’s what she was hoping to hear. My father, a former Royal Navy meteorologist, sounded positively excited on our behalf. The prospect of our trip brought back fond memories of his days serving on the HMS Belfast during the Korean War. He offered us the benefit of his advice.

“Just close your eyes and think of the sea as rocking you to sleep.”

That might have worked when he was in his navy issue hammock, but unfortunately our chosen ferry service, DFDS, doesn’t provide hammocks.

“Tinned peaches are the best thing to settle your stomach when you’re seasick. Make sure you pack tinned peaches.”

We have none in the larder, so I slip tinned pears and pineapple rings into my bag instead.

“We are allowed to postpone the trip to the Sunday when the forecast looks better,” I tell him.

“Oh, the swell will continue for days after the storm,” he assures me brightly. “That’s how it was every time we set off towards Korea, as soon as we were away from the shelter of the land.”

Outlook: (Fun)Fair

My daughter on board the Channel Ferry, late afternoon
After boarding the ferry late afternoon, Laura demonstrates how many cuddly toys she can fit into one small “Wanted On Voyage” bag

My daughter asks what our crossing will be like. I try to frame the prospect as a positive adventure.

“Think of it as crossing the Channel by rollercoaster,” I suggest.

I know she’s just reached the age where she loves rollercoasters.

“Will we go upside down?” she asks eagerly.

“I sincerely hope not!”

I’m thankful that the journey will be relatively short, until my husband recollects a memorable Channel crossing from his distant past.

“Once we had to wait outside the port for four hours because it was too rough to dock,” he remembers. “We just had to ride the storm out at sea.”

I try to banish images of the final scene of the movie The Perfect Storm.

So if my copy for this column turns up a little late, that’ll be because we’ve been shipwrecked and I’ve resorted to old technology to submit it. But not to worry, I’ve got an empty Cotswold Spring water bottle in the van that I can use to send my message. I’m just hoping it has a homing instinct.

Postscript: Our scheduled 10am departure on the Saturday morning was delayed till early evening. DFDS bumped us up to the 8am crossing instead – which left around 4pm. The reason for the delay? The ferries had been stuck out at sea for not four hours, but 10 hours, awaiting conditions sufficiently calm to let them dock. By 4pm, thankfully, all was calm. And my tinned pears and pineapple stayed in their tins. Phew.

More posts about our February trip coming soon! Here are the first two:

A Question of Priorities – about a strange encounter on the dockside as we waited to board

A Theme Park By Any Other Name – a theoretical tour of prime European theme parks, resulting in our visit to, er, Plopsaland

Posted in Travel

A Theme Park By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

Parc Asterix logoThe second instalment of the travelogue of our half-term camper van trip to France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

With our usual degree of advance planning for our travels, we are already at Dover awaiting the Channel Ferry before we discover that the only place we had identified as a must-see on this trip will be closed for the duration of our stay. The Parc Asterix website , which I’m idly browsing on my smartphone, informs me that this attraction operates only from March to October. I’m anxious that my daughter Laura (10), an ardent Asterix fan, will be bitterly disappointed.

My husband is less than helpful.

“Isn’t this what happens in the National Lampoon movie, Vacation?” he reminds me. “The Griswold family base their entire trip to visit a particular theme park and turn up outside its gates after a long road trip to find it closed?”

I sincerely hope that the similarity between our holidays will end there, and am starting to wonder how I have the nerve to call myself a travel writer when inspiration strikes.

“Plopsaland!” I declare. “Let’s go to Plopsaland!”

Plopsaland logoThe Secret Theme Parks of Europe

Some time ago we realised that certain European countries like to keep their best attractions a secret, discouraging visits from pesky foreign tourists and preserving all the fun for their fellow countrymen. Choosing names that do not sound alluring in other languages is another great tactic for repelling non-national visitors.

Exhibit A: France’s conservatively named Grand Parc, which sounds like damning with faint praise. It strikes me as a bit of an understatement for a place that is meant to outshine Disneyland Paris.

Exhibit B: Efteling in the Netherlands. Not only does the name mean nothing to the non-Dutch speaker, (it sounds to me like some sort of fish), it’s listed in the Rough Guide under “D” for “De Efteling”rather than “E”, which explains why I couldn’t find it until after we’d been there.

Exhibit C: Belgium’s Plopsaland. We’ve seen copious signs on the Dunkerque-Bruges roautes, but the name sounds so unalluring to the English ear that we’ve always passed it by. Laughing. Well, when you have a small child on board, it’s hard to ignore any signs that offer the opportunity for toilet humour. Apparently there’s also a PlopsaCoo and a couple of PlopsaIndoors too.

The Call of Plopsaland

Last Easter, on our way back from Luxembourg, we managed to collect a Plopsaland leaflet to show Laura’s cousin Tim, who embraces lavatorial jokes ever more enthusiastically than she does. He was delighted. So this trip, to compensate for Asterix playing hard to get, we decide before we’ve even left Dover that we’re going to make a bee-line for Plopsaland, where, according to its website, we can look forward to such treats as the Gnome Plops Garden.

“Well, gnomes have to poo too,” observes my husband, who really ought to have grown out of toilet humour by now.

And bee-line proves to be an appropriate word, because it turns out that Plopsaland was founded by a honey manufacturer. Sweet.

As we board the Channel Ferry, I’m already looking foward to visiting the gift shop, because I’m sure Tim would love a souvenir t-shirt saying “I’ve been to Plopsaland”.

  • Catch up on the first instalment of this tour at my previous post: A Question of Priorities
  • Coming soon: a full report on the Belgian theme park, under my new suggested slogan – “Plopsaland – Much Nicer Than It Sounds”
Posted in Family, Travel

A Matter of Convenience

la p'tite maîson ès danmes: un êcritchieau en ...
Image via Wikipedia

Inspecting the toilet on the ferry is part of Laura’s summer holiday ritual, so it’s  no surprise when, crossing from Dover to Dunkerque, she asks to visit the Ladies.

I’m not unsympathetic to my daughter’s fascination with public toilets.  I was just the same at her age.  And like her, I was a well-travelled child.  When I was 8, my parents gamely took me, my brother and sister on a trans-American road trip.  We drove from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in a fortnight, on a scenic route that memorably took in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, Mount Rushmore, the Great Lakes, Yellowstone Park, the Black Hills of Dakota and Las Vegas.  Whenever I see the famous giant letters spelling out HOLLYWOOD on those famous Californian hills, I still feel proprietorial.

It was on this trip that our family stayed in hotels for the first time.  To me, the new Holiday Inn chain seemed the height of glamour.  And the many diners and restaurants that we visited on route offered a multitude of lavatorial inspection opportunities.  Best of all was the one that included a perfume machine.  When you put a dime in the slot, 10 cents worth of Chanel Number 5 squirted onto your proffered wrist.  To my eight year old mind, life couldn’t get more sophisticated than that.

Laura’s first ferry trip came when she was just three weeks old, travelling on a passport in which her photo included a giant hand (mine) holding her tiny head erect.  Ever since that initiation eight years ago, she has been passionate about ferry travel, whether crossing the English Channel, island-hopping in Greece, or adding to her collection of Hebrides, Inner and Outer.

So, hand in hand, legs braced against the gentle summer swell of the ferry, we make our way towards the symbol for the ladies’ loo.  The raised ledge of at the entrance to each cubicle is a reminder of rougher crossings in which water may be sweeping across the floor.

As we enter the cubicle, a big red sign catches our eye.  Laura reads the text above a large downward arrow.

“No foreign bodies.”

She frowns.

“What does that mean?”

I hesitate.  It’s a good question.  What indeed does it mean?  Perhaps there should be some translations. We don’t want continental travellers inferring that our chosen (Danish) carrier, DFDS, is xenophobic.  Even armed with an English phrase book, our European neighbours could easily get the wrong end of the stick. In my mind, I anticipate possible mistranslations: “English evacuation only”, “Defense de pooer”etc.

Whatever its intention, the sign does not bother us.  After all, we’re not foreign bodies.  We’re British.  And now, our visit over, there is a corner of the English Channel that will be forever England.

Bemused, we emerge to wash our hands.  Above the sink, we find another sign entreating us to “Beware of sharp objects!”

We are startled  by this: we hadn’t noticed any such dangers on our way in.  I scan the room.  There are categorically no sharp objects to be seen.  The sink, the taps and the hand-drier all have beautifully rounded edges.  So what’s this sign in aid of?  Is it just a general warning for life?  A philosophical point to be borne in mind for future reference? They might as well have posted up a notice beseeching us “Do not run with scissors”, “Never ride a carousel while eating a lollipop”, or, that old favourite,  “Beware Greeks bearing gifts”.

For a moment I feel grateful to DFDS for caring so much about our well-being.

And though I don’t mention it to Laura,  I wonder what notices they’ve put in the Gents.