Stephen Bayley: Taking the Channel ferry to a Jerusalem called 'abroad'

The View From Here...

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The Independent Travel

Crossing the Channel by ferry was once a rite of passage. And perhaps, beginning this weekend, it will be once again.

From the economic wreckage of SeaFrance, a new ferry crossing is being floated between Dover and Calais. This is a joint venture between Denmark's DFDS and the stylishly named Louis Dreyfus Armateurs. Rival P&O Ferries is now owned by Dubai. Suddenly, the shortest link between England and France again has romantic possibilities.

Now that SeaFrance has joined Townsend Thoresen and Hoverspeed and ceased to churn and vibrate across the Channel, a little watery-eyed sea nostalgia may be permissable. As I write, I am humming Charles Trénet's violently saccharine "La Mer". Have we lost something valuable? Or is it just that last month an irrelevant, floating business calamity with no more allure than (and all the bad smells of) a French autoroute service area, has ignominiously fallen off the maritime chart?

If you started travelling before the Channel Tunnel and before cheap flights, Dover had the significance of a pilgrimage stop en route to the Jerusalem that we insular British called "abroad".

I am too young to remember the 1821 paddle-steamer that inaugurated Channel crossings, but as a Euro-innocent 150 years later, getting on a car ferry with a treacherous Fiat or an argumentative Citroë* was the most attractive feature of existence.

There was an unforgettable cocktail of sensations which, even on a bad day, Stansted Airport or St Pancras station cannot readily imitate. The unending wait in the wind-buffeted parking lot, anxiously listening to the BBC as the weather forecast deteriorated. The mournful squawk of wheeling gulls. The groaning of hawsers. Eventually, rumbling up a swaying ramp to a salt-water sloppy deck complete with shouty deck-hands.

Upstairs to the light and, if memory serves, a brightly lit restaurant where scampi and chips (with "garni") appeared with Anjou Rosé in a bottle shaped like a skittle. And while we are afloat on memory, let's not forget the sea itself. Blue-black or grey-green ... and usually churning. The narrow stretch between Dover and Calais is only 45m deep, and hydrodynamic laws dictate that thin, shallow channels are often spectacularly lumpy.

But arriving was better than travelling. The sense of exhilaration at Calais was of an intensity near enough erotic. The atmosphere – the cigarettes and drains – was tangibly different, cafés were open all day, girls in pleated skirts were (I imagined) similarly liberal of access.

Meanwhile, road signs saying Orléans or Metz offered a prospect of, I know it sounds weird, infinite promise – a vista of escape. Calais may have its limitations as a city, but as the front door of the rest of the world, it was always thrilling.

The ferries made you experience traveI in its component parts: anticipation, experience, anxiety, regret, remembrance. Not always delightful in bits, but as a whole, dignifying and enlarging in a way that playing bingo at 37,000 feet is not. I do hope someone at DFDS is saying "Ah yes. La Mer. 'Qu'on voit danser le long des golfes clairs.'" But somehow I doubt it. I think romance may be a personal, not a corporate thing.