Thursday, 14 March 2019

Four hops to home (the elephant in the van)

Hop one: Sully-sur-Loire to Neufchatel-en-Bray.

Topic of the moment concerned the impending stormy weather. Today is forecast to be a tad stormy whereas the middle of the week promises to become positively tempestuous. It seems to make sense to do a longish drive now as the windier it is the less comfortable the van becomes. 

In fact despite dire warnings, apart from a short stretch between Orleans and Chartres when we were buffeted by a blustery hail showers, it was an uneventful 320km trundle to Neufchatel-en-Bray.

Perhaps the most exciting moment was being delayed for a few moments by Gilet Jaunes protesters on a roundabout in Rouen. 

We were confronted by a shocking sight. In some previous outbreak of crazed mob violence the protesters had destroyed the cartoon style figurines of black and white cows which once graced this obscure roundabout. Rouen's 'cow roundabout' has featured in out mental map of France for decades, and now it was gone, an unlikely victim of political violence - 'mere anarchy is loosed upon the world', as Yeats once wrote. Anyway the protesters themselves seemed like a jolly bunch and let us past with a cheery wave.

It was an evening of sunshine and scudding clouds when we arrived at Neufchatel Aire. Despite the single digit temperatures we donned coats and hats and took a short stroll up the via verde. No matter what the season, the landscape is very pleasant hereabouts. 

Anything to avoid on-screen clicking at the moment. Our glorious PM has been in Strasbourg today in a last ditch attempt to rescue her deal before tomorrow's 'meaningful vote' in the Commons. Brexit shenanigans have been 'the elephant in the van' for the last couple of years. I have done my utmost not to go on about it on the blog, but as matters stagger chaotically towards the crunch article 50 leaving date in 17 days time it becomes ever more difficult to ignore it. We do try though.

Distraction strategy number one, find a particularly nice bottle of wine in the garage, sample it, then post somewhat pretentious comments the experience on social media.

Distraction strategy number two, engage is 'ignore the elephant' pleasantries. For example, Gill poses the question, "Name three things you are actually looking forward to when we get home...."

Tricky. After a momentary silence all I could come up with was:

1. a bath
2. a haircut
3. tidying the garden in preparation for summer.

These are hardly uplifting reasons for driving a thousand miles north through gloomy weather.

Gill's list was no less mundane:

1. More room inside the house 
2. Watching the birds in the garden
3. Being somewhere familiar for a while.

You can see why we prefer out wandering existence.

Hop two: Neufchatel-en-Bray to Watten

The wind and rain continues, now it has been blessed with a name - Storm Gareth. Winds were forecast to be less intense inland so we planned a route north from Abbeville to St. Omer avoiding the exposed Somme estuary and the high chalk hills around Boulogne. The D928 is not a route we have taken before, it crosses pleasant rolling countryside. It's a quiet road with few trucks, it would be an enjoyable drive on a sunny spring day. Today it was wet and dull but at least the dangerous gales never quite materialised 

Our resident elephant has grown bigger this evening after we entertained ourselves by watching The Commons vote down May's Brexit deal. It was an international occasion with Jackie in France and Sarah in Portugal both chipping in on WhatsApp as they viewed the live feed too. Apart from a shared WTF! reaction there a was a general consensus that the star of the show had to be John Bercow; a new role model for all of us, whenever life gets tough just bellow 'ORDER! ORDER! ORDEEER! It seems to work.

Hop three: Watten to Cité Europe.

I woke a couple of times in the night, gales rocking van, rain hammering on roof, pillock across the way running a generator. In the morning not only was it single digit temperatures but also very draughty. In better weather the aire here would be a good place to stay, less than an hour from Calais, flat hardstanding with well designed service point. 

The place too is interesting, a nineteenth century industrial village built alongside the wide canal. The waterway is still used for commercial traffic, which is good to see. As for the architecture, very red brick, but not entirely utilitarian. - for some reason it reminded me of the outskirts of Wigan.

The main road to Calais runs alongside the motorway. Lorries were stacked-up all along the hard shoulder. Gill checked her phone. All crossings had been cancelled due to the stormy weather. We should be ok tomorrow as we are booked on the tunnel.

We arrived at the Auchun supermarket in Coquelles just before noon. We always do a wine shop before we cross back to the UK. With a 'no deal' still possible, Sarah WhatsApped from Lisbon, "Will you be stockpiling?" What do you reckon?

There is dedicated motorhome parking area at the Cité Europe shopping complex near the tunnel terminal. Surprisingly we have not used it before. It's ok. We ended up eating lunch at Flunch. We used these fast food cafeterias often when travelling with the kids. It just shows how our standards have changed. The food is terrible. We need to apologise to all three of them for the years of historic gastronomic abuse. 

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the shopping mall. I quite like over-designed shopping malls, the more kitch the better. Top notch is Manchester's Trafford Centre which looks like a golden age Hollywood movie set gone horribly wrong. Cité Europe is pretty good though, more a strange mix of Jetson style modernity with the sinister ambiance of one of J. G. Ballard's later novels.

Later, another evening watching the BBC House of Commons feed, bemused by what is happening, awaiting Laura Kuensberg's Tweets to explain it to we lesser mortals. She says she's 'never seen anything like it'. What hope is there for the likes of us? Anyway, among all the chaos it appears the Commons have put two fingers up to a no deal Brexit, good news, except the Mogg made the point that Commons motions (a disturbing concept) have no legal force, so we are still headed towards crashing out unless the exit bill is amended or Article 50 revoked. The Mogg, what a horrible human being!

Pachaderm update: our pet elephant has grown even bigger and eaten all of the crisps we bought in Mercadona. She has a name now - 'Nellie'. You remember the song - how she packed her trunk and ran away from the circus... We all remember how that ended...trump, trump, trump.

Perhaps if Nellie had understood her fate at the outset she may have opted to remain in the big top...

Hop four....and then home.

Today dawned with a full-on storm rocking the van about like a yacht rounding Cape Horn. Eurotunnel texted us at seven in the morning to instruct us not to join the lorry queue. Apparently as well as the weather affecting Channel services French customs have taken industrial action. We should take the hint, read the runes, note the augurs, turn around. At a steady 150 miles per day in five days time we could be on a Minoan Ferry heading to Patras....

A bit of a mystery this morning, Ellie has vanished. We can only assume she is conforming to the lyrics and heading for the jungle. There used to be one hereabouts in Calais I seem to recall.

So, no need to mention about you- no-what, even though you-know-who is threatening to pop the question again for the third time...that's it I won't mention it again, I promise.

From where we parked overnight we could see passport control through the white mesh of the 25m high anti-migrant fencing. At most it was about 150m distant. It might as well have been on the moon. Due to the truck jam all access from Cité Europe to the Tunnel junction had been coned-off and police cars parked across the road. After a failed attempt to reach the terminal via Calais we changed tack and drove south towards Boulogne on the A16 for two junctions until the lorry stack was intermittent enough to allow us to use an interchange to make a U turn. It worked, we found the one Eurotunnel access road that remained open for non commercial traffic.. 

By now we had missed our scheduled crossing and was allocated one an hour later. This proved necessary as the action by the Doannes had halted all trucks, but every other vehicle was being checked thoroughly. Progress was painfully slow. 

Still, finally an hour late we were on the train. Gill found an article in the LA Times which explained that the French industrial action had been dubbed a 'Brexit simulation'. The French Customs officers 'go slow' was designed to demonstrate that Brexit would create more work for them, so therefore they needed a pay rise. Nice try! 

"Oh, hello Nellie, there you are!"

There is a certain irony to all of this. We purposely planned our return in mid-March to avoid Brexit related disruption, only to have our journey disrupted by a practice run.

Kent was a mirror image of the Pas de Calais. On the south carriageway of the M20 all cars had been diverted at Maidstone. Only trucks were allowed to proceed, then had been stacked up in a 15 mile queue from Ashford towards the Channel ports. The motorway has been adapted to allow this with a metal barrier along the third lane of the northbound carriageway to facilitate an instant contraflow. All engineered as part of 'no deal' preparations I presume.

As we were heading north the chaos on the other side of the M20 did not affect us. A normal journey - fast but busy around the M25; slow though Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire (making the M1 'smart'... still); usual grumble in Toddington Services - litter, terrible food, why is everyone two days time it will be the new normal.

Home at dusk. With Laura house-sitting, the place was warm and she had cooked us a meal. All good, apart from the car battery seems to be flat and Laura needs a lift to Stoke station tomorrow morning.

So, a roof, a bed you can sit up in, a bath, a dishwasher - but the same view every day, well apart from watching the Spring perform its usual green revolution in the ancient woodland at the back of the house. A nice prospect.