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Sunday, 22 August 2021

Checkpoint Charlie

We woke early after a disturbed night. The funiculaire station aire is, as the name suggests, on top of a cliff and very airy. The weather in the town below may be conforming to the forecast 'fresh breeze' but up here it is blowing a gale. It's not comfortable in a motorhome in these conditions, unless you have caravan style steadies the vehicle rocks a little, and the bike cover, only a couple of feet behind the bed, flaps about annoyingly.


I felt a bit grumpy next  morning, but an early start was not a bad thing as we needed to get to Dieppe by mid morning to give us plenty of time at the port. We figured that dealing with the extra paperwork might slow the check-in. It was good we decided that we were embarking from Dieppe where there are only three sailings per day, whereas Dover can have more than that in an hour in the middle of the day which is must result in longer queues at the border control given all the additional checks, some temporary due to Covid, others more permanent such as those at passport control resulting from Brexit.

It's a good idea to avoid the Dover Calais crossing at the best of times. In our experience the UK border at Dover is the most overtly aggressive we have ever encountered. Admittedly we have never tried to enter Chad, Myanmar or the People's Republic of North Korea, but in terms of random body searches, infra-red vehicle anti-migrant scans, visits by drug hunting Labradors, random vehicle searches by customs and excise officers, scary warning signs about tyre stingers, and bored looking policemen standing around casually holding machine pistols - over the years we've noted all these things in Dover, but they're conspicuous by their absence elsewhere or perhaps simply more covert. Not just in Europe, but the USA, Japan, Singapore, The People's Republic of China, Australia, New Zealand -  all these places in our experience have had low key border controls compared to the UK.

Anticipating slow progress at the ferry port we planned to get on the road early. In fact it was not delays at the border which proved to be the problem, it took far longer than we anticipated just to to exit the aire. There are two parking areas for motorhomes next to each other. Both charge €7 for a 24 hour stay. The one we were in was the smaller of the two and had a single entrance barrier operated by a code. This was used both to enter and exit the area. Just to complicate matters further the motorhome service point had been built directly opposite the barrier and just to make matters a tad  trickier the small 'waiting bay' next to it was about two metres shorter than the average sized van so its front end jutted out into the road. Exiting the aire more than one at a time was challenging. This resulted in complete chaos around 10am when half a dozen vans decided to leave at the same time. 


Things would have sorted themselves out eventually, however the service point also served the larger aire down the road and vans from there started to queue up too, spilling out onto the main road. We just sat tight and watched the chaos escalate from a minor 'bouchon' to a potential international incident. In the end no one got beyond the extreme fuming stage and after 20 minutes or so we managed to negotiate our way slowly through randomly parked vans and head for Dieppe port.

Of the many silly slogans bandied about by Leave during the referendum, the idea that we needed to 'take back control of our borders' has to be the most delusional. For years entry to the UK has been the most aggressively policed in Europe, well, apart from Russia and Belarus perhaps. Brexit and the pandemic may not in themselves resulted in extra security paraphernalia at our borders but it has upped the ante so far as paperwork is concerned and slowed things down considerably. This morning it took over 10 minutes to complete the checks for a single vehicle on the French side in Dieppe. Passports, Covid vaccination certificates, the test certificate from the French authorities and evidence that we had completed our UK passenger locator form  were all checked 
carefully by DFDS staff at the  first barrier, then again at a second barrier by immigration officials who also took away our passports briefly so they could be stamped. Then it was time for two border guards to search the moho for migrants, one of them ordered me out of the cab and waved a wand around me in case I had a sub-machine gun hidden beneath my hoodie. Gill must have looked less suspicious. Onto the ferry we trundled assuming all checks now had been completed. No, some hapless crew member had been placed at the top of the stairs to check passenger's handbags and daysacs as they boarded. Why?

 
The dysfunctional testing regime put in place by the UK government has effectively suppressed the usual summer rush to sunny France, which is what it aimed to do probably. I estimate that there were fewer than two dozen vehicles boarding this morning's ferry, at times it seemed we were the only people onboard, it was eerily quiet. We departed on time. What shenanigans await  I wondered when we disembark in Newhaven?

Four hours later ..

Showed passports, waved straight through, all our details had been entered at Dieppe. It's Dover docks that operates like the barbican of fortress GB,  other smaller entry ports are less aggressive, though the regulations are as stringent they are managed in a more personable way. Maybe using Newhaven is the way forward.

The question remains was our ten day break worth all the additional bureaucracy and cost? Probably not, we should have rearranged our commitments at home and taken a three week break instead. However, part of the reason for doing it was as a dry run before we take off to Spain for a couple of months later in the autumn. We certainly feel more confident about a navigating the Covid testing requirements for travel, so we have achieved that objective. Aside from that, the few days we spent cycling on the Avenue Verte were memorable, a brief 'fix' of picture book summer in France. Maybe that alone more than compensates for the costs of tests and the tedious form-filling.

Above all Normandy felt peaceful and unhurried. Not so England. After an overnight stay in a CL site near Lewes we headed home. It took over seven hours to drive 240 miles, the M25 and the M42 alternating between slow and standstill. Beaconsfield services was jam-packed and people seemed stressed and edgy. We bought a couple of sandwiches from M&S and retreated back into the van. 

It's not as if we haven't managed to get away over recent months - short breaks to Devon, Anglesey, Cornwall and Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. The thing is, I don't want a break I need a journey.  Hospital appointments and family commitments are scattered through September and early October. Mindful of those I hit the Brittany Ferries website and changed our pre-booked crossing to Portsmouth - Santander on the 19th October.  That's over two months from now.  

Three days later  - the only thing that has happened to relieve our utter boredom, oh joy! the arrival an email from 'everything genetic' that cost  £120 informing us that our two day tests were negative. the question I am asking myself  is how do I avoid going into a complete slump between now and mid October?