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Hitch-hiker's guide to the Channel

Getting a lift via Le Shuttle is the easy part. Landing in France is another story. By Simon Calder
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Remember Pegwell Bay International Hoverport? Like Geoff Hurst, it was big in 1966, when the first cross-Channel hovercraft service began. These days the old Hoverlloyd terminal, just south of Ramsgate, is just a decaying hulk. Yet in hitch-hikers' folklore it is still celebrated as the last free trip across the Channel. What it had going for it, in the days when you could hover from Ramsgate to Calais, was the pay-per- car idea. Up to five people could travel in each vehicle at no extra cost. This was a hitch-hiker's heaven: not only could you travel across Britain and Europe for free, but you could also cross the Channel buckshee.

Le Shuttle reinstates the idea; prices are calculated per vehicle, regardless of the number of people. So all the cross-Channel hitcher has to do is stand at the turn-off from the M20 and hope. Perhaps a market of sorts will develop, with motorists selling spare capacity. But finding a place on Le Shuttle is the easy part; when you reach the other side, your problems have only just begun.

At the best of times, France is bad news for hitch-hikers: grumpy drivers, belligerent police and autoroutes designed by someone with a grudge against the autostoppeur. Trying to get a ride from the French side of the Channel tunnel is a futuristic nightmare for the hitcher.

In order to find the only sensible hitch-hiking spot, you have to exit through the terminal's car entrance, and aim for the low, grey Hertz car rental building. From here, you head across the wasteland in the direction of the Mammouth hypermarket. You reach the side of the autoroute; at this point, the reckless might try (illegally) to cross six lanes of fast-moving traffic, but it is much safer to follow the slip road and scramble up to the bridge over the autoroute. Slip past the Transports Carpentier yard (there is a hole in the fence), and you find yourself on a route nationale. Bear left along to the roundabout (a rare but welcome feature on French roads), then start hitching back the way you have just walked. A handy lay-by means you are now on the fast track for the whole of Europe. When I tried it, I got a lift after five minutes - but only as far as Calais railway station.

The ideal, of course, is to secure an onward lift either with the driver who took you into the tunnel or from any of the other motorists. You have a 35-minute free run at drivers, since everyone will be standing or sitting around wandering what to do after using the loo and reading the safety instructions. Eventually, hitchers will prowl from one carriage to the next, seeking out the most advantageous onward connection: "Only to Paris? No thanks, I think I'll hold out for a ride right through to Nice." The hitch-hiker's nightmare could become a dream.