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,

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.

Wycke Rissington to Wychwood Forest

Day 3 of Walking Out of the World: a two thousand kilometer 86-day pilgrimage to Compostela on foot across England and France to the north west corner of Spain.

(Previous post: Day 2 Tewkesbury to Wycke Rissington)

Good morning pilgrims! Welcome to any members of the Confraternity of Saint James joining this virtual pilgrimage. A link for it is now posted on the CSJ website:

In the previous days walking from Worcester, I talked about obtaining stamps for my credencial or pilgrim passport. Now there is a more complete explanation of the purpose of pilgrim records in the Walking Out of the World drop-down menu above. The WOW Pilgrim’s Guide to this virtual pilgrimage will contain practical information, maps, book references, etc. The sort of left-brain thing that we don’t want cluttering up the conversation here as we pilgrims walk.

As I explained on pitching my tent in the hidden corner of a farmer’s field near the village of Wycke Rissington, it is important to be up and on the road early when camping surreptitiously. Leaving no trace of my stay, I washed in a stream in a small copse next to the Oxfordshire Way (map: see arrow). The rain had gone and it was a bright Sunday morning. I hoped there would be a communion service in the village church.

At the parish church of Saint Laurence I found that I was in luck: the church was open for cleaning and flower arranging but I would have to wait a couple of hours for the service. One of the difficulties of a walking pilgrimage is that the pilgrim spends much of the day in the middle of nowhere and finding a Mass or communion service can be difficult. Some of these parish churches in the English countryside now open on alternate Sundays or even monthly and it is a similar situation in France and Spain.

It sometimes takes some discipline to delay your continuing walk when you find that your route plan for the day does not coincide with the times of parish church or the cathedral worship. But the decision to delay and make time is precisely the attitude of mind that the pilgrim should adopt. Why call it a pilgrimage – and not simply a recreational walk – if we are not going to seek out the numinous in the places we walk through?

From long experience as a pilgrim wayfarer, I have learned that the deliberate delay – loitering with intent, as we used to call it in parish missions – is often the start of the best discoveries even if it costs an hour or two of daylight for walking. The gifts received on pilgrimage often come from these moments of delay and a morning in Wycke Rissington turned out to be its own reward.

Forty years ago I learned that the medieval parish churches of the English countryside are kept running, not by priests but by flower arrangers and hassock weavers. I visited many churches while making an audio-visual about medieval communications and these ladies with old faded yellow dusters in their hands were the keepers of the local knowledge. Today the church of Saint Laurence was opened by two such ladies who put a cup of tea and some biscuits in my hands, for they knew what a pilgrim required. As they carried on with their cleaning they cheerfully sang for me: Bunyan’s hymn “To be a pilgrim.” I didn’t join in as I sipped the hot tea and ate the thin plain biscuits: the first food since yesterday’s lunch.

After I had thanked the stalwort ladies for the tea and biscuits I washed up the tea mug in the vestry sink and sat down in an ancient carved oak pew at the back of the church to pass an hour with my prayer rope. I found myself in imagination repeating the previous day’s footsteps from Tewkesbury to here. The previous day’s bluebell woods, green hillsides, farm animals and villages had become imprinted on my memory and I could mentally walk the whole route again.

For the second hour of waiting for communion, I explored the church of St Laurence. There is a very fine 1915 stained glass window in the Arts and Crafts movement pre-Raphaelite style. I was reminded that William Morris once lived not far from here. Then I looked at the organ and was astonished to see a brass plaque recording that Gustav Holst had once been the church organist. For a few moment, some bars of Jupiter – the Bringer of Jollity – went through my head as I gazed at the organ once played by the composer of The Planets suite. For the first time on this pilgrimage, on Day 3, it was clear that I was slipping into the serendipitous world of the spiritual wayfarer in which many things begin to join together and form a pattern. I felt deeply moved, for a reason which was entirely unclear, and then I turned to a different wall and saw the maze.

A plan of a maze that a former rector once constructed in his garden for his parishioners to walk around pausing at stations for prayer. He was inspired by a dream. What a marvellous sign for a pilgrim! Especially one who would be passing through Chartres in three weeks time and revisiting the great maze in the flagstones of the nave.

The present incumbent turned out to be a lady priest and there was no organ player. The Communion service was Book of Common Prayer, with which I had lost familiarity twenty years ago, and the small congregation of a dozen parishioners were welcoming – with formal smiles – but had no great warmth to share with one more passing walker on the Oxforshire Way.

I had already received my spiritual nourishment from the hours waiting for the service and I decided to forego the bread and chalice, quietly leaving by the side door and shouldering my rucsack left outside the porch. I re-wound the prayer rope onto the bourdon and set off. The badly hummed Bringer of Jollity saw me through the next few miles until I got distracted and – somehow, somewhere – I left the Oxfordshire Way and wandered lost in the countryside on a compass direction going north east but there were no paths or roads going south east where I needed to be.

I had my Ordnance Survey map (sheet 164) ready for the Oxfordshire part of the route and kept checking, but I didn’t see anything in the landscape that told me I was on this map. Getting lost while walking is an ever-present hazard on pilgrimage, and it is always a great relief when the panic is over, particularly when it provides a symbolic sign to the pilgrim. I found the south-eastbound path I was looking for by Sarsden Cross (map).

Sarsden Cross is an interesting monument and clearly a medieval pilgrimage waymarker. But experts say it is either 14th century or 19th century, which is an admission of archaeological ignorance that you don’t often see from “experts”.

Their reasoning is there’s no way of telling if it was reassembled in the 19th century from stones carved in the 14th century. Really? You could say that about Stonehenge. Or maybe that’s a bad example as there would probably be some Victorian plans in a library in Salisbury and it would have been redesignated the Prince Albert Neolithic Bandstand. Sorry about that. These are the inner conversations that run through the solitary pilgrim’s head. When you get two pilgrims meeting up and walking together the conversation usually deteriorates further.

Now, where was I? Oh yes. Lost.

I discovered I was already on my sheet 164 map and I had been on it for some time, but had failed to match it to the landscape till now. I picked up the d’Arcy Dalton Way from here. To get onto it I had to negotiate a deliberately sabotaged gate, where the mechanism had been jammed with a block of wood to prevent walkers from entering the Sarsden Estate to use the public bridleway. My Swiss army knife removed this obstacle after a few minutes work! Ultreïa! The Sarsden Estate will not stand in the way of any pilgrim heading for Compostela.

I hit a road, then a main road, bought overpriced sandwiches for lunch from a petrol station shop, and passed the Oxfordshire Way again. The path was running to the north-east now, so I said goodbye to it and carried on south-east with a reliable OS map to guide me. In Ascott-under-Wychwood some residents looked up from their Sunday gardening and seeing the bourdon and the scallop shells on my rucsack, asked me if I was walking all the way to Compostela. They were pleased when I told them I was indeed, and they wanted to know how long it would take and how I would cross the Channel, where I would stay at night?

It was a rare moment, meeting people who know what you are doing, for mostly the English have lost all touch with their old pre-Reformation traditions. The reactions of most English people to an oncoming large pilgrim staff are usually suspicion and nervousness. People with dogs on a village green tend to quickly call their dogs to them, put them on the leash and feed them biscuits, muttering pacifying words. Maybe they think the dogs will act aggressively towards the pilgrim staff or will want it thrown for them to retrieve?

There was certainly nothing to be fearful about: after the third day from Worcester carrying the bourdon my arms and shoulders were agonised with pain. Walking with a 15th century replica pilgrim staff was a new experience but I wondered if it would be practically possible to continue?
Should I leave it with my daughter when I reached London and ask her to have it shipped back to Katherine Lack in Worcester?

I finished early on this third day because my arms could not continue. My legs were fine and the Scarpa boots were wonderful. Even the weather had been kinder, with just a couple of short showers. But the bourdon was killing me. I found a place to pitch the tent. It was a quiet glade of bluebells off the Wychwood Way, in Hatching Hill in the Wychwood Forest (map). And I went to sleep quickly wondering why all these place names reminded me of a Rupert Bear story.

I dreamed of Rupert Bear dressed as a Compostela pilgrim fighting off skeletons armed with bourdons the size of tree trunks. In the village of nearby Leafield next day, they told me Wychwood Forest was known as one of the world’s top haunted forests. I looked it up later, but nowhere does the legend mention Rupert Bear, or how he fought off skeletons while singing “He who would valiant be…”