Rolf Richardson remembers the night when he was in for a big surprise - and no picnic - in the Foret de Boulogne
THE BEST holiday disasters come unexpectedly - out of a clear blue sky. Like the time I was trundling contentedly home from the Continent. It had been a longish drive from Germany, but now Calais beckoned and the 6.30pm ferry looked a good bet: it was mid-week out of season, so space wouldn't be a problem.

Calais was indeed quiet: suspiciously so. I was stopped at the port entrance by a surly pair: "Sorry mate, place is closed" (or Gallic equivalent). Slow to grasp the situation, my reply was a gormless "it can't be".

"Seamens' strike. Whole port closed," they explained.

"What do I do now?" I asked. Their reply was to the effect "Sod off, we don't care." But they did volunteer the information that Boulogne was still open.

I wish they hadn't. I should have gone to Ypres - anywhere far enough from Calais to offer some chance of a bed: it was still only 6pm. As it was, lured by the prospect of my own home, I headed for Boulogne.

Everyone had had the same idea and Boulogne was locked solid. After an hour or so in the jam, I abandoned the ferry in favour of a good meal. Bed would have to be the car.

Over dinner, I decided that parking in town might be noisy and rather public and that the nearby Foret de Boulogne could prove less unpleasant. So, at about 10.30pm, I came off the D341 onto an even smaller road; my headlights picked out what looked like a picnic area with wooden tables. I turned off and headed for it.

Without warning, the car lurched and the nose dipped. Like the anti-tank traps in the Second World War, modern invaders were apparently being deterred with "anti-car traps": hidden in the grass, between road and picnic spot, was a ditch. I was well and truly stuck, with not a hope of getting out under my own steam.

My only option was to spend the night in the car and sort things out in the morning. Sleeping in small hatchbacks is not my forte; doing so at an angle closer to the vertical than the horizontal even less so. I had just dozed off when I was woken by a voice and a tap on the window. My French is good for telling someone that the pen of my aunt is in the garden, but otherwise limited. Whatever the reason, having established that I was alive, my would-be rescuer departed: he must have thought that the mad anglais liked sleeping in crazily tilting cars. Half-asleep, I had let my chance of being towed out there and then just walk away.

Discomfort woke me at 4.30am. There was no point in hanging around so off I set, on foot, for Boulogne. What little traffic passed I tried to flag down: no one stopped. Shortly after 7am and 12km later I trudged into an empty town. Eventually, I came upon a taxi-rank: with a mixture of Franglais and gestures I explained my problem. Would Monsieur drive out to the Foret de Boulogne and tow me out of a ditch? I waved a pounds 10 note.

Monsieur agreed. We had the car out of the ditch in no time and, by 8am, I was driving onto the early-morning ferry. I was home by mid-morning. Say what you like about the French and strikes, their taxi-drivers can't be faulted.