The Big Trip, Day 1: Long Road to Rouen

Today’s mileage: 303 miles.

Yes, I couldn’t resist calling it that. It has been a bloody long day though, with most of it spent driving and the rest sort of… hanging around. Lots of new exciting experiences though, the most interesting of which was the Eurotunnel.  

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I set off later than I’d wanted for my 14.50 train. Get as far as the M11, then realise I’ve forgotten my antidepressants, which is kind of a big deal as I’ve been having a major problem with depression recently. “Shit,” I mutter, and take the A603 exit, turn around and head for home. Adding an extra hour to the journey, all told.

Still, I’m hopeful that I’ll get there in time for the departure window of roughly 45 minutes before the appointed time. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Pulling up to the first of what will turn out to be many sets of barriers, I find myself greeted by name on a screen, which then informs me that there is a 120 minute delay.

Oh well, that means I have time to fit the headlamp deflectors to the van while I wait in a big car park. Of course, the LDV Convoy isn’t covered in the voluminous set of diagrams that came with them, so I have to sort of… guess. Squinting through the lenses, I decide it’s probably best to line them up with the actual bulbs,  so I do that.

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After much meandering round the ‘Victor Hugo Terminal’ (actually a small shopping mall entirely devoid of hunchbacks or Miserables), the big display says that they’re calling my letter. Yes, as you pull in, you get given a ticket with a barcode and a big letter that you display in your windscreen. Then you wait till they call your letter,  and move on to passport control. This is relatively quick, on the English side. But then you traverse a sort of no man’s land to French customs, because the border is in Folkestone for reasons of British negotating incompetence.

There you wait even longer. In my case, because the booth I’ve pulled up to is instantly vacated by the customs official who has to help her colleague check an entire coachload of people. Eventually I lose patience, reverse, and squeeze into the next queue, which goes fairly quickly. I’m waved into Lane 12. Where I park up and wait with many other tall vehicles for the next half hour.

It’s not a quick process, this. But it‘s kind of cool when you eventually get moving and find yourself driving onto, then into, a large train.

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The train itself is rather grey and uninteresting to look at. But then, why bother painting something that spends the majority of it time in a dark tunnel? It is fun driving into it though. You go into an entrance at the back, and drive what seems like several carriages before you have to stop as a big set of shutters closes between you and the next carriage along. Then a bloke comes along and waves you forward to as near as possible to the vehicle in front, you put your handbrake on, and kill your engine. Nothing more – I’d expected some sort of anchors for the wheels, but no, the handbrake is enough.

When the train starts moving, it’s almost imperceptible – you just notice the outside starting to slide past the sparse windows. You can get out, stand by your vehicle and look out, which I do; but about five minutes after you start to move you’re in a tunnel, so there’s not really anything to look at. Except the hot Spanish guy from the van behind.

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Often, when I’ve been in tunnels under rivers, I’ve had the awesome sense of millions of tonnes of water just hanging right over my head, only separated by a few layers of concrete. This isn’t like that – because you’re in a vehicle, inside another vehicle, you don’t really get the sense of the entire bloody English Channel just above you.

And it’s pretty quick too, which is a relief after all that waiting. No sooner have I finished the very small can of drink I opened when we set off, and the Calais daylight is shining through the nearby window. “Wow, I’m in France,” I think, and try to remember which side of the road to drive on.

Actually that comes easily enough. What doesn’t is any kind of decent phone signal. This is unfortunate, as I’d intended to pretty much rely on Google Maps for the trip. Unfortunately, Three’s partner network at Calais, the rhymingly named Free, has only a terrible 3G signal, and Google Maps won’t even load up.

Since I’m still rather excited by the trip, this doesn’t stress me out too much. I aimlessly drive in what I think is the direction of Rouen until an idea strikes – all I need to do is get onto a wifi network briefly to load the route into Google Maps, and after that GPS will do the rest. The nearby ‘Electro Depot’ provides this (with my judicious use of a phoney email address so I don’t have to receive their spam), and I head off with route loaded.

It’s actually a devilishly simple route. France appears to have great motorway network spanning its sparsely populated northern countryside, and the road to Rouen is just two big dual carriageways, the A16 and the E402. For about 200 km (yes, Google Maps does everything in kilometres here). As I leave Calais I cross a really tall and impressive bridge, which I can’t take pictures of since I’m driving. Unfortunately darkness sets in not long after that, and any sense of wonder at my unfamiliar surroundings is replaced by utter boredom. I’m afraid 200 km of dual carriageway in the dark is pretty dull no matter what country you’re in or what side of the road you’re driving on.

The journey is at least enlivened by road signs that instantly recall school history lessons. Crecy floats past, followed quickly by the Somme. Thankfully both are quieter than the times they’re famous for.

France is well set up for camper vans. As is most of Europe, with the unsurprising exception of the United Kingdom. Road signs frequently direct me towards various Aires de Service – cheap or free parking for campers, sometimes with amenities like water and showers, sometimes not. I could stop at one – but I’d set my heart on reaching Rouen on the first day.

Luckily I found an awesome app called Park4Night, which has listings of places you might park in any areas around the world. It even integrates with Google Maps, so you can research the area you’re going to, find a likely place to park, and program that as your destination.

That’s what I’d done back at Electro Depot. Unfortunately, as I come into Rouen I go through a tunnel, which totally scrambles the negligible GPS signal I’d had. “Rerouting,” says Google Maps, fruitlessly seeking a signal. “You bastard,” says I, knowing it won’t find one.

I think I spy some camper vans parked under a bridge, and head in that general direction. And get totally lost. Google Maps, of course, is still rerouting. But then serendipity strikes. I round a corner on the street I’ve somehow ended up on, and there’s a big car park, right next to the Seine, full of camper vans. I thank the fates and pull in. It’s not the site I was looking for, but it’ll do fine.

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Later I discover that I’m actually on an island in the middle of the Seine, called L’Ile Lacroix. I discover this when my phone finally switches network to one called Buoygues, which still only has a 3G signal but a much better one.

I had actually wanted to go out for the evening in Rouen, but the train delay and my hopeless navigation mean it’s after 10pm when I get there, and apparently a long walk to anywhere interesting.  There is, however, Grindr – I’m not seriously expecting to actually meet up with anyone, but it’s always interesting to see who’s about.

I’m fairly surprised when I start getting messages almost immediately. I’m even more surprised that I don’t know what the hell they mean. My French is ok, but this is another language entirely. Turns out it’s the French version of what we used to call text speak, and the conversation I have with this guy is punctuated by much Google searching. I don’t really fancy him particularly, but I’m fascinated by the conversation. I think I acquit myself well enough – at no point do I ask if he speaks English, and we have a perfectly coherent, if basic, conversation which concludes with us both saying we’re tops and therefore sexually incompatible (that was his view anyway).

For the record, Cc = Hi, STP = s’il vous plait, MRC = merci, CV = ca va. And monte combien = you’re well hung. Which is always nice to hear.

Tomorrow – let’s spend a bit of time actually looking at Rouen. Not too much though, as a three hour drive to Orleans will be waiting…

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