An interlude: The Midnight Ferry to Dieppe

Leaving England now, the virtual pilgrimage from Worcester to Compostela encounters White Van Man on the cross-Channel ferry and discovers his name is Elvis. (This post is in homage to Geoffrey Chaucer.)

(Previous post: Day 12 Wych Cross Newhaven ferry.)

Newhaven: the midnight ferry departs.

I bought my ticket for the midnight ferry in the old railway terminus in Newhaven. The departure car park outside was sparsely filled with two short lines of vehicles waiting to board the midnight ferry to Dieppe. There was a white van at the front of the queue near the ticket office, and at the coffee machine just inside the door White Van Man was hitting the machine with his fist.

“Come on! I’ve put me coin in! Where’s the f**kin coffee?” He hit it again and reached into the opening. Coffee trickled over his fingers and disappeared down the drain hole. No cup appeared. I stood nearby, my passport and ferry ticket clutched tightly against the bourdon in my hand.

“Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” asked White Van Man, wiping his coffee-stickied fingers on the left sleeve of his grey track-suit top. “With that f**kin big stick!”

“Yes,” I replied. “You drove past me in the rain on the main road from Worcester to Tewkesbury. I was tired and cold. You made a rude gesture with your middle finger and shouted something I didn’t hear, as you showered me with muddy water from the puddle that you swerved into deliberately and it drenched me to the skin. Then five days later you passed me again on the M4 near Reading and shouted something rude again. Or maybe it was another White Van Man?”

“What you on about, you prat? This ain’t the only f**kin white van in England.” He spoke in the Estuary accent that now covers the entire south of the country from the Cinque Ports of Kent to somewhere roughly on an east-west line between Kings Lynn and Hereford. (The line would take 53 hours walking, approx 160 miles, if you were to do a linguistic walking-and-listening Estuary-accent survey.)

“I’m surprised they f**kin let people with f**kin big sticks even f**kin get onto international transport, what with f**kin towel-heads and terrorism all over the f**kin place nowadays! Pardon my French, mate.”

“And where are you heading in France?” I asked, trying to show interest in my fellow compatriot gentleman traveller, as we boldly embarked on our separate journeys in the Englishman’s beloved Grand Tour of Europe.

“Dieppe, mate!” He walked out of the ticket office, as the announcement for boarding came over the tannoy. “That’s where the f**kin boat’s goin.”

All the way, walking from London, I had been looking forward to boarding the boat to France. I had so many memories of leaving Kent or Sussex on a boat and crossing the Channel to arrive in a land of croissants and funny trains and the pungent smell of drains and garlic. But the boat was always an exciting foretaste of that different world, a nautical experience like going on a foreign cruise but barely losing sight of the white cliffs of England.

Leaving the docks behind and climbing up the gangway to board a ferry had once been to enter a world of adventure, and passengers would be whistling sea shanties as they went aboard. There had been a smell of paint, a salty taste in the air, and gleaming polished oak furniture. On the white painted bulkheads and passage ways there were paintings of ferry ships and paddle steamers and lighthouses. The decks were full of deck chairs, which is why they are called deck chairs, and they must have had the same on the Titanic, occasionally re-arranged to provide a future political metaphor. The onboard shops sold postcards of sailor’s knots and bottles of rum. And seasick pills for when you became giddy with the knots and rum.

On this occasion, however, I went into the interior of the ferry and found myself in what could have been Croydon High Street. Most of the inside of the ferry was now an enormous Macdonalds and the old sailing boat paintings had long gone, replaced by brightly lit panels displaying burgers, chips and plastic buckets of Coca-Cola so large you could sail a toy boat in them.

It is often said that any High Street in any town looks much like another these days; or the city centre of London looks much like the city centre of Rome, give or take a Big Ben here or a Colosseum there. But when a boat begins to look like a shopping mall, the pleasure of the voyage is somewhat diminished. You might as well sit on a bench in the High Street and sing your sea shanties.

I walked quickly through the ferry looking for a bar, and finding one that resembled the average fast food outlet, I rested my rucsack and bourdon at an uninviting nearby metal table with upright-backed plastic easy-wipe chairs entirely unsuitable for a relaxed five-hour voyage, and I went to the bar.

White Van Man was already there, drinking a pint of chilled John Smith’s bitter with condensation running down the glass; a brewing curiosity which is a marketing invention. Lager drinkers uneducated in actual beer think it is a traditional northern English pint, with a thick creamy Guinness-type head to top-off this draught freak show of a drink. I ordered a small glass of Stella Artois. When you are nearly in France – and good English beer lies well behind you in Harvey’s brewery beside the river Ouse – then it’s time to drink as the French do. A small beer in a stem glass, sipped frugally like Jean de Florette celebrating after selling a basket of rabbits at market in Aubin. White Van Man half-sneered at the sight of a small beer in a stem glass. Poofs’ drink. Not for proper men.

“You didn’t say where you were heading,” I said.

“Straight down the f**kin middle of France on the A75 – over the new Millau suspension bridge – and down to Spain. I’m doing light removals with me van. For expats movin to the Costa Blanca.”

“I’m heading for Spain too,” I said. “Walking all the way.”

“F**k off, you tosser! Nobody walks to Spain!” He drank from his John Smith’s. “Unless you’re some f**kin gyppo! Look mate, if you’re tryin to hitch a lift with me you can just f**k off.”

“I’m not,” I said. “I’m a pilgrim. I’m walking.”

“Everyone f**kin knows me down there. I’m f**kin famous in Benidorm, the best Elvis Presley look-alike for karaoke nights in the whole f**kin Costa Blanca.”

“Really?” I stood back and looked for some resemblance. “You mean look-alike from when Elvis was going downhill, overweight, no charisma and a bit like someone’s embarrassing teacher at a school disco?”

“F**k off, you c**t,” he said. He clearly thought we were good friends by now. “I also do weddins as well.”

I tried to picture such a wedding but – after a long day’s pilgriming and getting lost in Sussex – my imagination was not up to the task. In any case, with that, the conversation had ended, in the same casually insulting bonhomie as it had begun. We continued drinking in silence, each in our own private thoughts, on our voyage to the exotic shores of Dieppe: two Englishmen, disconnected from England and from each other, in a time-honoured ritual of brutal alienation which had once forged a mighty empire.

“Don’t look now, Sigfrida, but that dreadful man with the
White Van is doing his awful Abba impressions again.”

Historically, a pilgrim to Compostela crossing to France from England would have set off from somewhere like Newhaven or ports much further west in Devon. Some sailed directly to El Ferrol in Spain. If you remember my reference to Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the blasphemy debate, on the walk a few days ago, the writer of that article, Kevin Dixon sent me a link to a piece on pilgrim voyages.

“Throughout the pilgrimage period Dartmouth and Plymouth were by far the places that provided most capacity. Yet the demand was more than the two medieval ports could satisfy and it became a much larger enterprise. And so, for more than half a century, Brixham, Topsham, Exeter, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Portlemouth contributed their ships.”

Kevin Dixon, https://wearesouthdevon.com/on-medieval-pilgrimage/

Then he points out the parallel with today, as we shelter and are confined by Covid: “But the pilgrimages weren’t to last. The route was most popular in the first half of the fifteenth century, but then the Black Death and political unrest across Europe led to its decline.” The first half of the fifteenth century: the period that my replica bourdon dates from. The time of the Worcester Pilgrim. He sailed down to Nantes, it was reckoned, and I would join his walking route when our paths converged at Saintes.

I found a quiet area behind some uncomfortable looking inclining chairs, spread out my sleeping bag, and intended to spend the next four hours sleeping, recovering from the long walk from London. Marion Marples (R.I.P.), the much-loved Confraternity of Saint James Secretary, had given me a booklet when I left Westminster Cathedral. It was the new CSJ publication called Roads to Santiago: a Spiritual Companion, “Twenty-five pilgrims share their journeys.”

“Put it in your rucsack, it doesn’t weigh much!” Marion said, with her characteristic cheery smile. “It will come in handy for the moments when you want to pack it in and go home.”

I took the booklet out from a side pocket of my rucsack and opened it at random in the middle, at a page headed “Seeking and finding,” with a photograph of a thirsty pilgrim cupping his hands at a drinking fountain on the Camino and the text, “So do not start worrying. Your Father in heaven knows what you need. Instead first seek the kingdom of God and what he requires of you, and he will provide you with everything you need.”

I needed a stamp in my pilgrim passport and the parish church of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle in Dieppe should provide the first one in France. I woke up as the boat entered the harbour at 5.30 in the morning.

The steamer “Newhaven” enters the port of Dieppe in 1911:
the tower of the church on the hill above the cliffs can be seen next to the funnel.

9 thoughts on “An interlude: The Midnight Ferry to Dieppe

  1. Yes. That’s it. You’ve made it. It doesn’t matter now.

    My van was three tone white, blue and rust. And I was very polite on the ferry. Even to the English. And tramps. And pilgrims.

    One is immediately reminded of the inadequacy of the place one just left behind. There’s a strange sort of relief when you are reminded of things which on the face of it would appear to be distinct disadvantages. The first of these, a large sign, ‘tenez la droite’, accompanied by a vast arrow, is in fact, one of the first signs you’ve reached civilization. Wonderful. Then comes the boy at the filling station, ‘Mais c’est un fourgon Monseiur.’, in disbelief as I insist he gives me le plein d’essence. Equally wonderful. (Yeah. Not easy, that one. I’ll leave you with it.)

    Our pilgrim still had two months to get to Compostela. I, two days to Barcelona.

    OK. I’m convinced. I’m gonna become a travel writer. I’m just hoping there’ll be an opportunity later on in the pilgrimage for me to sneak in another ferry story. There’s an outside chance he may have crossed the estuary north of Landes via Royan. Will have to wait and see…

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  2. Glad you enjoying the virtual pilgrimage, which has just arrived in Dieppe (in real time at 05.30 a.m.) and you’ll be pleased to enjoy again the little road to Rouen (the D3) alongside the river Scie.

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  3. I always remember the gangway moment! And the paint. And the first sight of the mysterious foreign land at dawn. I also clearly remember that, in 2008, you were bitterly disappointed by the loss of the old pictures of boats and the giddying combination of postcards of knots and bottles of rum. It just was not the same. They have some strange sea shanties, these White Van Man Estuary folk…

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  4. Oui, but n’est pas necesario le grande panique porque White Van Man est prohibide entrar le Pays de Gales, durante el lock-down, and this particulaire WVM est probablement stuck in la Costa Blanca, porque nous avons une strictemente fermeture des provincial boundaries. Ceci n’est pas prevent WVM from practising su ghastly Elvis impressions somewhere dans une windy deserted plage, closely monitored por la Guardia Civil coastal división.

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  5. Quelle horreur! Elvis vive en la windy playa, en su Blanca jumpsuit, dreaming of la Costa coffee, hecho from une machine. Parfait. Hecho. Oh heck!

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  6. My experience with the Newhaven-Dieppe crossing has always involved the Paris-London/London-Paris night train, though I’m unsure if this still exists (you can still DIY similar), so it was always more tiring overnight than just the ferry alone as a foot or bike passenger. It usually felt more civilised, or at least more normal, than the Folkestone/Dover – Calais/Boulogne ferries ; though some exceptions did exist.

    There were once some old ferries still run by the French on the quicker routes, having a proper restaurant, not expensive, with good food to pass the time.

    And there was that time I hitched across with a lorry driver (long before the days of the Calais Jungle), and so got into the lorry-drivers cafe for a not-too-bad English supper, instead of having to suffer in the garish commercial muzak-filled areas for the ordinary public.

    But the old Newhaven-Dieppe did have a poetry to it that is missing on the shorter journeys from Dover. It’s a long enough crossing to feel like a sea journey more than a ferry. It’s sad to hear that it has not escaped from the supermarketisation of everything.

    Or perhaps it’s just that we crazy pilgrim types prefer trips that take longer rather than shorter ?

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  7. Good comment, Julian. Your comment about hitching across the channel reminds me that this is a method of travel few are familiar with and it deserves a moment’s elaboration. If you travel across in a car or lorry there is no need to buy a ticket! I used to hitch all over the place in habit when a Franciscan friar, down to Spain, Italy, or various abbeys in France when I was invited to stay. Crossing the Channel in a lorry – gratis! – was the standard method for one who often travelled with no cash at all, or at most some pocket money given to me while hitching! From Assisi (halfway down Italy) to Glasshampton monastery near Worcester (right across England) in 36 hours was my best record!

    I agree about the meals on the French ferries – do Seafrance still operate? – and also there was a super restaurant in the old SNCF Gare Maritime in Calais. Almost Michelin star standard (in fact I believe it did have a Michelin star!) After hitch-hiking in one stop from Lyon the car driver – a businessman in a Jaguar – bought me a three-course meal, “On expenses, brother,” before continuing and dropping me at the Franciscan friary in Canterbury for a night stop-over!

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