Hovering on the verge of oblivion

The trick still works. Ever since the
Princess Margaret started hovering between Dover and Calais in 1968, the cheapest way to cross the Channel has been by hovercraft. When the sea lanes from Ramsgate, Dover and Folkestone to Calais and Boulogne were the most expensive stretches of water in the world to cross, Hoverlloyd and SeaSpeed pioneered the idea of a flat fare per vehicle regardless of the number of occupants. The impecunious traveller could stand outside the entrance to the hoverport, hoping for a free ride across the Channel on the reasonable grounds that the cost to the driver was zero. The two hover companies have since merged to form Hoverspeed. But for the traveller keen to reach France for a pittance, a hovercraft is still a good bet: the "Calais Flyer" costs just £7.50 for a day return.

The trick still works. Ever since the Princess Margaret started hovering between Dover and Calais in 1968, the cheapest way to cross the Channel has been by hovercraft. When the sea lanes from Ramsgate, Dover and Folkestone to Calais and Boulogne were the most expensive stretches of water in the world to cross, Hoverlloyd and SeaSpeed pioneered the idea of a flat fare per vehicle regardless of the number of occupants. The impecunious traveller could stand outside the entrance to the hoverport, hoping for a free ride across the Channel on the reasonable grounds that the cost to the driver was zero. The two hover companies have since merged to form Hoverspeed. But for the traveller keen to reach France for a pittance, a hovercraft is still a good bet: the "Calais Flyer" costs just £7.50 for a day return.

To buy one, you must look as though you intend to come back the same day. Turning up with an overstuffed rucksack and a hitching sign reading "Kathmandu Please" will suggest to the sales staff that you do not intend to return on the first hovercraft, and render you liable to the full one-way fare of £24. But travel light, and half-an-hour later you are strolling ashore in France - or, if you have plans for onward travel, sprinting from the vessel to be first in line to thumb a ride as the cars leave the terminal.

This is a hitching variation of Russian roulette: the hovercraft holds only 50 vehicles, so the chances of finding a ride are strictly finite. Against the odds, the second car stopped, and I was in Lille before you could say " Train a Grande Vitesse"

***

All the sadder then, that from 1 October, there will be no longer be any "hover" in Hoverspeed. The Princess Anne and Princess Margaret, Britain's last hovercraft, are hitching up their inflated skirts and retiring on 1 October.

These two venerable craft have, at least, outlasted the monstrous pair of French hovercraft that used to roar between Dover and Calais. Both were lost to fire.

Those who enjoyed the pre-Tunnel fast track to France may feel misty eyed at the prospect of the end of a transportation era - but given the fog of seaspray that obscures every journey on the hovercraft, it will prove difficult to check. Yet such is the sense of nostalgia among the hovering community that every single space on the last day has already been booked.

"The belief that all Frenchmen are short with dark skin and dark hair is a generalisation rather than a fact; about 80 per cent of them fit that description. The belief that they eat frogs' legs all the time is pure myth - but they do eat garlic all the time, which may or may not be why they wave their arms around so much when they're talking."

The first book in the Travellers' Survival Kit series was published less than a quarter of a century ago, but a glimpse at the chapter on France reveals a certain disdain for our nearest neighbour.

On driving skills, for example: "They are Europe's finest exponents of 'the shunt' - ie they all drive nose to tail, so that when the first car stops, they all run into each other."

In need of a smoke? "Never buy them from a cigarette girl unless you fancy the girl", recommends the travel guide. There is also useful advice for men who wish to pursue an amorous adventure:

"If you want to get on with French women, make out you are Irish or Scottish - they find this much more chic than English or American."

The widely feared concept of "Abroad" had earlier been tackled admirably by the 1960 BP Touring Guide to Europe, which elaborates on the finer points of French customs regulations: "If you are over 17 you may bring in 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 400g of tobacco provided they are in your hand-luggage. Ladies are allowed 200 cigarettes only."

Fortunately for any females tempted to smuggle in some ready-rubbed, "French customs officers are particularly pleasant and lenient". This could also come in handy if you were inclined to exceed your limit of "a gramophone with four long-playing records" or "two guns with 50 cartridges".

***

By the Eighties, we had begun to master the finer points of seeing France without paying our way. "For cheap sleeping in Paris," suggested a contributor to the 1983/4 Hitch-hiker's Guide to Europe, "go to a Metro station at around 1am and wait for the attendants to lock up. They will almost always leave you alone, and you have a warm, dry kip until 5am when they open again."

Another traveller suggests defrauding French Railways using the tried-and-tested ignorant foreigner technique: "Buy a ticket for the first station towards your destination and then board a train which stops only at big towns. When the conductor tells you that the train doesn't stop at the town on your ticket, babble in English, pull out maps, panic etc, and odds are he'll shrug and leave you to work things out for yourself. I once travelled from Marseilles to Boulogne this way for 80 francs."

The bible of the cash-strapped, Alternative London, reported profitable abuse of Inter-rail cards: "In France a reader met three people travelling on one card that didn't belong to any of them."

Back in the Hitch-hiker's Guide, Pete Edwards from Manchester made a study of coins to use fraudulently in slot machines: "Use 10 Austrian groschen as 10 French centimes... use 1 Dutch cent as 5 French centimes." This could be an essential way to conserve cash, since according to the guide, "You must always have at least 10 francs on you, to avoid a vagrancy charge."

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