I had forgotten Europe exists.
Not because of some “Fog in Channel – Continent cut off” insularity, or because I am a mud-encrusted 13th century peasant who has never been further than Bessie’s hillock.
Let me explain.
During the pandemic my world, as for many, because a lot smaller. My brain adapts easily – too easily – to circumstances and set patterns of behaviour.
I live in Brighton but occasionally forget the sea.
Cycling to Edinburgh, my trip to Berlin for work, and now an opportunity to spend a couple of days in the French capital have all helped re-expand my receding horizons.
Travel, like access to nature, is a privilege, and one that 40 years of collapsing public transport and car-centric policy has rendered more complicated than ever.
From Brighton, the easiest and most relaxing way to Paris is by train and ferry. Provided you’re not in a hurry, of course.
Unlike the traditional Dover to Calais route, which has been made as difficult as possible for foot passengers (short of some Hunger Games style antics) the train to ferry transfers are pretty easy and convenient here – with one massive caveat, which we will come to.
Ferries leave Brexit isle from Newhaven, a small port which nestles near the mouth of the River Ouse.
My nearest Brighton station is London Road, a beautiful and Italianate structure which makes a nice juxtaposition with the shitty three-carriage train that arrives to take us away.
The train hugs the South Downs to Lewes, past the obligatory out-of-town sports arena and Brutalist university campus in Falmer. Geology then compels us south, over the A27 and the Ouse, and we follow the river down past Newhaven Town to Newhaven Harbour.
Newhaven to Dieppe
This was my first mistake. There is no signage or information to tell you, but Newhaven Harbour is no longer the interchange station for the ferry. It has not been for a while.
You can still cross the footbridge, and gaze, impotently, at the ship you want to get on to, but your short walk is thwarted by razor wire and the implication you have done something terribly wrong.
I could have climbed this, but the odds would not necessarily have been in my favour.
Anxiety rising, I gradually figured out that I had to walk back to Newhaven Town, past some run-down houses and a murderer’s pub, across the level crossing and a car park, and finally into a prefab structure, where I had to wait for 40 minutes for a bus to take me back to where I had been an hour before.
As Geoff joked by WhatsApp, “I believe that’s called ‘integrated transport planning’”.
Finally on board, I found myself a nice quiet seat away from other people – not a luxury flying provides – and then went on deck to watch the departure and the gorgeous, undulating chalk cliffs of the Sussex coast.
The crossing is 4 hours, which passed pleasantly enough. I enjoyed the grumpy French crew – notably non-sacked, unlike their P&O comrades – and the working mens club vibes of the bar. I had brought a picnic onboard, so I grazed and avoided the mesmerisingly grim-looking restaurant deck.
Soon enough, the line of French cliffs – a continuation of the English chalk, which is why I find the “white cliffs of Dover” nationalist symbolism so absurd – came into view, and we arrived at Dieppe.
Foot passengers had to wait for all the drivers to leave, which felt the wrong way of going about things. But at least we had a nice escalator down to the exit.
Once through security, it’s about a fifteen minute walk into town at my pace, and the station another ten from there.
Dieppe to Paris
Dieppe is lovely. As with a lot of European cities, neoliberalism hasn’t bitten quite so hard and so deep as in the UK.
You notice the implications immediately: functioning post offices, libraries, and other civil amenities, and a transport system that works outside the capital.
I wandered amid the flea markets and the day trippers before heading to the station – slightly gone to seed, but still beautiful, like the concept of social democracy.
The train to Paris involves a change at Rouen, but is otherwise stress-free. While a high speed train is always more sympathetic to the landscape than a motorway, a local train remains the most rewarding way to see a country outside of a tandem with someone you love.
I travelled slowly enough to take in detail, and to enjoy the heavily wooded French chalk ridge, and its contrast to our bald, sheep-maintained Downs. Countryside beauty and what is “natural” has a long, human-manufactured history.
The train from Rouen was that continental marvel, the double decker. Britain has too many 19th century bridges for this to be possible on our existing lines, but I am an optimist. One day a British train will be like this, perhaps as Germany introduces its quadruple-decker.
The wifi worked, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happened; I wrote, looked out of the window, and dozed, until arriving in Paris in time for wine, cheese, and delightful company.
Curious to know who was the ‘delightful company ! ‘
We may never know.