30 years ago | Centre-Ville, Calais, France | 5th-7th February 1993
In my first year at University, I found myself doing all sorts of things I’d never done before and one of the most memorable was the annual RAG Week Charity Hitch to Paris – sort of…
A load of us signed up, paired up, did next to no preparation and dressed perhaps marginally differently, for the wintry conditions. I was paired to travel with my mate Paul, which was great, mostly because we get on so well. With what was to come, we’d need to!
We got up ridiculously early (even for non-students) that Friday morning and hung out at the hitching post on campus, to get to our first port of call – anywhere on the M6. “See you in Paris”, we’d say, as each of us got in our respective lifts, heading south.
Time now clouds my recollection of much of the day’s travelling. I remember taking most of the day to get from Lancaster to Dover, with ‘stops’ by the side of the road at (think) Hilton Park on the M6, Gaydon on the M40 and (again, I think) South Mimms on the M25. There were probably more than that.
I do remember taking, for my first time, the new Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at the Dartford Crossing over the Thames, opened just over fifteen months previously, and then being dropped off at the intersection of the M25 and the M2 – which I think was then just the A2. Either way, it was a ridiculous place to expect someone to stop for hitch-hikers. Miraculously, before long, a truck did pick us up, headed for France. We hoped he’d offer to take us onto the ferry – and beyond Calais – but he didn’t.
It was late and we could only get foot passenger tickets for the first sailing the next morning so we managed to get a couple of hours’ kip in the terminal.
The next day, we got on the boat, ready for the short hop from Calais to Paris. Scotland were due to play France at the Parc des Princes in the Five Nations so we were confident we’d get a lift right into Paris. We disembarked at Calais and walked to the gates at the entrance to the Port and got our thumbs out. This was going to be easy!
Sadly, it was the opposite. It seemed every car that went past, all morning, was full of expectant Scots, with very few able to take two extra passengers and none of that small cohort offering to do so. Hours ticked by and we knew that as time passed, even the best scenario of getting to Paris would involve us having to turn around and come straight back.
We had to make the call and, by early afternoon, we made it. It was gut-wrenchingly disappointing. Now, we had to get home. We booked our return foot passenger tickets and, again had hours to kill before the next available sailing. There was nothing else to do but mooch around Calais.
From what I remember that day (and one day there since then), it’s a charming little place that’s unfairly saddled with being associated with ‘booze-cruise’ warehouses and its status as just about the least exotic part of continental Europe. This may be, in part, due to the fact that, from 1347 to 1558, the town was actually a part of England, not France.
We trooped around the street market and walked past the Town Hall, as darkness fell again, before walking back to the port to get on our return ferry. By the time we arrived back in Dover, we’d had enough of hitch-hiking and just wanted to get back as soon as possible. We bought National Express tickets to London Victoria Coach Station. Once again, we dozed on benches, waiting for our next ride.
I remember looking blearily out of the window as our coach left the South Circular and began to approach London, and then wind through the Elephant & Castle on a deathly quiet early Sunday morning, before crossing the Thames. At Victoria Station, we booked our next journey to Lancaster and found somewhere to sit and wait with our vending machine cups of tea. The next thing I remember was seeing tea splash everywhere as Paul fell asleep where he sat, dropping his full cup in front of us. We were both so tired.
I remember very little of that day as our coach wound its way up the country, other than that it was dark (again) by the time we arrived in Lancaster. I think we persuaded the driver to drop us at the entrance to the campus and we walked dejectedly up the hill to our rooms in Bowland Tower. I’m pretty sure we then ate everything we could find in the fridge and just crashed out. We’d just about managed to travel internationally that weekend – but Michael Palin had nothing to worry about!
The photo I took of Calais Town Hall was not from that weekend but from a day, 20 years later, when we arrived early at the EuroTunnel and they wouldn’t change our return train time. Once again, we had hours to kill in Calais. That’s why, for every year since then, we’ve paid the extra for a Flexi-Pass…