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.

Abingdon to Maidenhead

Days 6 & 7 of Walking Out of the World, in which our intrepid pilgrim joins Year 9 bunking off from school in royal Berkshire and is greeted on the road again by White Van Man.

(Previous post: Day 5 Oxford to Abingdon)

As it was a clear night and I was a bit merry after the evening pub stop, I did not put the tent up last night, but found a small park and wrapped the tent around my sleeping bag as a bivouac to keep off the morning dew. I set off early, after a blessedly swan free slumber and walked half a mile, only to remember that the Thames Path that I was following was on the opposite bank to the town.

So I had to retrace my steps to Abingdon bridge, which was an opportunity to stock up with food and drinks from a small grocery shop, which was just as well because I couldn’t easily calculate the miles to the next town because of all the meanders in the Thames. It is something to take into account when opting for a river-walk: the winding bankside route almost doubles the walking distance.

After those first days of walking in the rain, the second leg of this journey now faced the challenge of hot weather, which in England is humid, and more so when walking alongside a river. For two days I trudged alongside the Thames, stopping for rests occasionally. All was reeds and menacing swans or cows blocking the path, and transport planes circling on their bumps-and-rollers circuits around RAF Benson. Years ago I had gone there for a few days as an airframe technician on a trip away from my home RAF base, to help repair a crash-landed Canberra bomber. Now I was just a part of the riverside wildlife. I camped overnight somewhere with noisy water rats on the south side of Wallingford bridge, heading to Goring (map).

As I lay in the tent I wondered if I would make it all the way to Compostela. The heat and humidity and the continuing struggle with the weight of a two kilo staff was taking its toll and I hadn’t even got within sight of London yet.

Day 7 From somewhere near Wallingford to a night under a motorway bridge near Maidenhead

Next day it was more of the same: miles of Thames walking. Hot and humid weather and by mid-afternoon, I made a decision to miss the long meander of the Thames around Henley. I would leave the Thames Walk, cutting off a long loop in the river and walk through the urban centre of Reading instead (map), and take a look at the old site of Reading Abbey before heading straight down the A4 to Maidenhead.

The pilgrim bourdon gained some attention from three school kids in the centre of the green park in the old abbey grounds. They gestured at me. Possibly in a rude way. A boy and two girls. As a seasoned teacher, I clocked them straight away as Year 9 kids bunking off. It was too early for school to finish. Probably sneaked off at lunch time and never went back.

“Are you a wizard?” asked the boy with half his white shirt front untucked, blowing cigarette smoke out together with the question. One of the girls snorted and giggled. The knot of her school tie was slung carelessly halfway down her blouse, like a dishevelled airline steward with ankle socks. Her face was daubed with cherry red lipstick. She was absent-mindedly lighting matches and throwing them in the grass at her feet.

“No, I’m not Harry Potter’s grandad: I’m a pilgrim,” I said, immediately realising by their blank expressions that I might as well have said I’m Vlad the Impaler.

“What’s one of them?” demanded an overweight girl with straggly pigtails, while trying to snatch the cigarette from the boy.

Luckily, I had years of experience of teaching Year 9 so I can explain things in a clear and simple way, at once appropriate for their age and understanding and appealing to their natural curiosity and sense of wonder at the world around them. You must – of course – begin by assuming a low level of general knowledge. A person less acquainted with the way non-linear learners struggle to assimilate an oppressive post-enlightenment rational-based, and largely left-brain pedagogical construction of reality might easily fall into the trap of blinding them with jargon.

To begin by asking how much Chaucer they had read – and playfully quote a few lines of drawling Middle English from the Prologue – would be a hopeless start. No, anyone with long experience of these matters knows the Year 9 history curriculum includes a good little basic section on religious life before the Reformation. With colour pictures of pilgrims in Merrie England! But the good educator also knows that keywords often haven’t been grasped, so knows when to move swiftly on after blank looks upon the term “pilgrim” and instead reach for more basic linguistic building blocks.

“Well, you know how people sometimes go on long walks…” I began. (You see how I avoided technical vocabulary there?) “And occasionally very long walks… Even all the way to Spain…”

“Why?” interrupted Cherry Lipstick, “You mean walking the dog out? So it can have a shit?”

“Ermmm… Yes, some people might take a dog with them. Yes, but…”

“What’s happened to your dog then?” demanded Half Untucked. “You lost it? Or did you brain it with your wizard stick?”

Cherry Lipstick was hysterical at this. Half Untucked looked pleased with himself. Straggly Pigtails peered at me through smudged glasses, so I couldn’t see her eyes; like a sort of female version of Piggy in Golding’s classic story of schoolboys turning savage on a desert island. She asked, “Where have you come from?”

At last a sensible question. I could make some progress with this. I seized the opportunity to deliver an explanation of pilgrimage that would be suited to a Year 9 audience. One of my lessons had been judged ‘Outstanding’ in 2005 during an Ofsted inspection at the Archbishop’s School in Canterbury. “It was the way you brought the whole lesson down to their level,” the inspector told me. I had actually just read two chapters from a Roald Dahl story, using silly voices for different characters; but – what the heck? – having some retired teacher who has lost touch with present reality in the classroom, and needs to supplement their pension, come and give you a pat on the back and tick all the Ofsted boxes is always welcome. But I digress.

“I came from Worcester,” I said. “I began… at a big church where a vicar – which is a sort of wizard but without the hat – said some good things to me to help me set off on my walk, and I’m going on foot all the way to, um… To another big church in Spain, where… Where another vicar will say ‘Well done and thank for coming all the way here.’ And I’ll get a piece of paper that says I’ve done it. And I can see you’re looking slightly puzzled but… Well, hey: I’ll meet all sorts of interesting people on the way… Like you!”

“Walk to Spain! How can you walk through the sea anyway?” asked Half Untucked. “You’re a loony. Are you a terrorist ?”

This wasn’t going as well as my usual delivery to a Year 9 class, but as an inspirational Ofsted outstanding-rated professional I could still turn this around. I was suddenly inspired!

“This very park was the site of Reading Abbey, destroyed by Henry VIII’s vandals in the Reformation.” I waved my arms around me in a theatrical gesture, pointing with the bourdon, like one of those charismatic cultural national treasures, making a twelve-episode TV documentary series, Great Unknown Pilgrim Routes of England

“You know at one time, this park where we stand now was a place filled with… Wizards in long black hoodies…” (Cue choir singing slow plainsong dirge in bass tones:Kyrie Eleison...”) “All this park would have been a big church full of monks swinging thuribles… Erm, a sort of smoking silver handbag thing on a chain that smelled nice, and…”

“Monkey, monkey, monkey!” Cherry Lipstick began leaping in a circle, around the smouldering cigarette-end thrown down in the patchy grass.

The others took up the chant and joined the war dance. The abbey grounds witnessed the horrible living embodiment of Lord of the Flies. If I stayed a moment longer I could suffer the fate of the good and wise Piggy and be bludgeoned to death by Year 9 with my own bourdon.

I raised my arm weakly to wave farewell and walked away swiftly but not fast enough to trigger a chase. Yes, it would have been a mistake to have started with Chaucer. I walked out of the park through the impressive medieval gateway – all that remains of Reading Abbey – the rest now being just a patch of grass for Year 9 to hide while bunking off and stub out their cigarettes. Henry VIII has a lot to answer for.

I paused to ask a lady with a small growling dog to take my photo by the gate. The dog bared its teeth as I gave my phone to the lady and it let out an aggressive continuous yapping and began to froth. Mrs Dog-Lady struggled, with the mutt’s lead in one hand and the phone-camera in the other. I tried to smile for the camera for nearly a whole minute and as soon as I stopped smiling she took the photo, lost her grasp of the dog’s lead and he immediately rushed for my trousers. I resisted any defensive reflex action involving the bourdon, realising this was the second incident in Reading abbey within half an hour that could have turned into a potential police matter.

“He doesn’t like your big stick,” she said. “Are you from the army?”

I decided further explanations were futile in this godforsaken place. I hadn’t expected the Reading Inquisition. A few yards away from the abbey gate, in the shopping centre, I found a fish & chip shop and bought a big portion of chips and a Cornish pastie. There was nowhere to sit down and eat. I thought it unwise to return to the abbey grounds. I shuddered at the vision of Year 9 spit-roasting a tramp over a pyre of blazing park benches.

I made a fast exit from Reading, eating chips and I walked straight down the main A4 road towards Maidenhead feeling disappointed and defeated by the brief return to the world of people. Another White Van Man drove past me making a one-fingered salute and shouting something unintelligible. Is it the bourdon? A two-metre phallic symbol with knobs on: guaranteed to evoke a Pavlovian reaction in White Van Man? Have any scientific studies ever been done on this?

Like all long journeys – pilgrimage or otherwise – nostalgia for the early part of the trip set in. I now wished I was back on the Gloucestershire Way in the rain. Even walking through the grotty wet blanket of Witney was better than this! Berkshire was pure savagery.

Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy.

A Bridge Too Loud

I walked late into the night, rejoined the river Thames at Maidenhead bridge, walked a short distance further and slept under the New Thames Bridge where the M4 motorway crosses the Thames (map), waking up next morning not much rested, due to the noise of motorway traffic above me echoing through the metal girders. The next main town would be royal Windsor.