We crossed the Channel on a cold and rainy early May day – Sunday May 9th to be precise. Driving rain pursued us from the M25 down the M20 towards Dover, and we stopped only twice en route – once, to fix with tape the new Renault wiper blades that seemed to come with a different attachment from the one our 5 year-old van expected, and secondly, to buy new pigtail hoses for our two Camping Gaz 907 cylinders, purchased only yesterday but unusable without these parts. Like so many things in preparing this trip, we glibly assumed it would all be easy, and were left rushing around at the last minute when it wasn’t. Thankfully, Kent Motor Caravans near Maidstone saved the day, and we were knocking on their door at 10 am as they opened.
The journey begins
We caught the ferry to Calais rather than the tunnel, on cost grounds, but I for one was very glad. I haven’t caught a Channel ferry for nigh on 20 years, and it seemed once again like ‘real’ travel. If you’re crossing the sea, cross it by sea for goodness sake - get out and walk around so that you can see the sea, feel the movement of the ship and watch coasts receding and approaching. Or at least that’s what I feel, and that’s what I did. Despite the drizzle and biting wind I thoroughly enjoyed our 90 minutes and it felt like a suitably ‘real’ milestone at the start of our adventures. Charlie seemed unfazed by the momentousness of the events and slept contentedly in the van in the ship’s hold.
On the ferry
Arrival at Calais seemed mundane. We drove off the ship and seamlessly onto a motorway, and without lingering we drove north-east past Dunquerque and towards the Belgian frontier. We descended from the motorway just before this point, and soon passed a small blue-and-stars Euro plaque announcing ‘België’ and we were in another country. Almost immediately we turned left to the coast, and arrived in the resort of de Panne.
Beach huts at de Panne
The Belgian coast is one long chain of seaside resorts interrupted by a couple of major ports, and only in a few stretches does the natural landscape of high sanddunes backed by woodland still exist free of urban encroachment. De Panne is the western extremity of this chain, and is a pleasant-enough place of medium-rise seafront apartment blocks which have superceded the fin de siècle townhouses with their gothic twists that must have stood there a few decades ago. It had a broad seafront promenade which was whipped by the biting wind, and the customers of each café huddled behind lines of upended beach umbrellas that stood as windbreaks in rows across the sands.
We got as far as Ostend that night, and found its municipal aire, a few spaces in a car park by an area of parkland, and the starting point for a park-and-ride shuttle bus to the town centre (which was not far by foot either). Our first celebratory meal of the big trip was sausages we had brought from home.
Our progress on day 1 - the journey begins!