Early in 2009 I invited Sally and Molly to join me to cross the Channel on a holiday to France. I calculated that it would be more convenient to go by car rather than by plane because this meant no luggage restrictions, which is important for Sally who is not the World’s best suitcase packer.
I didn’t propose to go too far and I found suitable looking accommodation in a gîte in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France in a village called Maninghen-Henne just a few miles inland from Boulogne. I didn’t think at the time that I was letting myself into anything too arduous because at four months old Molly didn’t do very much except drink milk every few hours and then sleep a great deal. What I failed to take into account was that six months brings a lot of change and by the time of the holiday she was crawling and moving about and poking her inquisitive little fingers into everything. This wasn’t going to be quite as easy as I had first imagined.
Sally was bringing a friend with her and soon after booking the holiday my brother Richard asked if he could join us and bring his daughter Rachel along as well. For the past three years Richard and I had been in the routine of taking a holiday with our sons so this was going to be a different experience and instead of golf courses and bars we began to mentally prepare ourselves for baby sitting and shopping.
Just a few days before departure Sally’s friend dropped out and it turned out that it was a good job she did because when we all met at the rendezvous point it was clear that on account of Sally’s unique style of preparation and packing that there would not be enough space in the cars for an extra person. There were overflowing holdalls (which plainly couldn’t) and plastic carrier bags bursting at the seams, a travel cot, a baby car seat and a full sized push chair to accommodate. Then there were our own modest luggage bags and our golf clubs which, it turned out, we took all the way there and back but didn’t get to use even once.
The meeting place was at my Mum’s house where we left Sally’s car, had a full English breakfast to set us up for the day and then set off on our adventure. We thought we had been generous with the time allowed to drive to Dover and we set off at a sedate pace south on the M1. We should have driven a bit faster because when we hit the M25 we predictably ground to a halt and queued in slow moving traffic through road works and accidents all the way to the Queen Elizabeth Bridge and then we really had to get our foot down on the M20 for the final one hundred kilometres to Dover where we arrived with just thirty minutes to spare before our crossing.
While we waited in the line of traffic we checked our emergency bags for warning triangles, headlamp beam deflectors and high visibility jackets and Richard opened his to produce the most important emergency item of all – two big bottles of gin! Things were immediately looking good. On board the ferry we climbed to the open top deck and watched the white cliffs disappearing as the boat slipped away from its berth right on schedule towards Dover’s twin town of Calais. The sea was calm but it was a bit windy so we abandoned the outside option and found a spot in the bar and as soon as she was able Molly was away to explore the ferry and she crawled in a determined style towards the duty free shop. With three girls to cater for I guessed I was going to see far more shops than I normally like on holiday and this looked like the start.
When we left Dover the weather was still a little overcast with a chalk white sky to match the cliffs but not far into the channel the weather began to improve. The English Channel is only twenty-one miles wide at this point but over this short passage I never cease to be amazed at how different the weather can be just as though all the grey stuff travels north and east and leaves the Continent bathing in glorious full sunshine. It was shirt sleeves weather for sure when we disembarked and drove directly to the Cite d’Europe just outside of Calais to visit our first shops and to make essential food and alcohol purchases.
The Cite d’Europe is an international shopping centre that was constructed as part of the Channel Tunnel project and is designed to bring English shoppers across to France to stock up on cheap booze and cigarettes. The place has one hundred and forty shops and restaurants but we made straight for Carrefour and the substantial alcohol section where we piled the trolley with cheap beer and wine, French bread and cheeses and enough food for the first couple of days. When we were sure we had enough and Sally had bought a paddling pool for Molly from Toys ‘r’ Us we set off for the short trip down the A16 towards Boulogne and our holiday accommodation.
We found the village quite easily and after only a moment or two of confusion found the gîte and pulled into the driveway. I had been told that there would be someone there to greet us but there was no sign of anyone so I called the owner on the phone and she assured us that someone would be along soon. Still no one came and except for a friendly cat there was no real sign of life. We decided to make ourselves at home and sat in the garden and opened some bottles of beer while the girls played with the cat and we congratulated ourselves on a good choice of accommodation. Eventually a young man arrived and explained that he had been waiting for us next door because we were in fact at the wrong property so we had to load back up and move the short distance down the road to our correct holiday home.
This one was even better with a compact garden with a good view across the fields towards Boulogne to the left and the sun-dappled sea to the right. The gîte was a simple stone built affair with green doors and windows, a red tiled roof and inside plenty of space for the five of us and all of Sally’s luggage as well. The man who had met us gave us a quick guided tour, took the rental and the damage deposit, gave us a local egg custard tart with dates as a welcome gesture and then left us to ourselves.
It was a beautiful evening, warm enough for Molly to play in the paddling pool and for a round or two of drinks for us sitting outside at the garden table and admiring the views. The sky was completely clear and things looked settled and promising for tomorrow. Later Richard and I prepared our evening meal and after the girls had gone to bed we opened the emergency bag for the gin and sat up for a while and made plans for tomorrow.