Leaving the UK: Southam to the White Cliffs of Dover
That’s it then. I’ve gone and sold my boat.
I moved on board on Friday 2nd April 2010. I spent my last night on board on Saturday 8th October 2016. For 2,383 days I’ve lived aboard a 62’ long, 6’10” wide narrowboat on the English inland waterways.
I had to adapt from living in a fairly large detached family home to a boat with just three hundred square feet of living space. Now I have to adapt again, this time to less than two hundred feet. I won’t be on my own either. I’ll share this tiny space with Cynthia and bassets Tasha and Florence. Fortunately Cynthia has had fatty Florence on a diet since she collected her just over two months ago. She’s not exactly skinny now, but there’s much less of her than to 105lb tub of lard Cynthia picked up from the kennels where she (Florence not Cynthia) had been used for breeding for the first four years of her life.
I expected Sunday to be a tearful day. When I moved on board both the boat and I were in a pretty sorry state. Since then, we’ve recovered together. James No 194 is now a pretty smart looking and superbly equipped live aboard narrowboat. I’m neither smart looking nor well equipped, but I’m in a much better place financially and emotionally than I was six and a half years ago.
I spent half a day with Deanna and Rob please-take-the-helm-from-me-because-I’m-scared-shitless Sharratt. We dropped down the three locks in the Calcutt flight, negotiated a narrow marina entrance made even more interesting by two boats waiting to ascend the flight, then pulled onto a vacant mooring close to our Hymer so that I could explain the boat’s workings to Rob and Deanna and remove the last of my belongings.
I’ve had two months to transfer over half a decade of accumulated possessions from boat to bus. I started slowly and methodically, carefully considering and packing each item or, as often was the case, donating what we couldn’t accommodate or didn’t need to a worthy cause, and then carrying it to the Hymer for storage in an equally carefully thought out spot. In the last week, all of that careful planning has gone out the window as the few remaining days passed at an alarming rate. On Sunday, when I finally became boatless mid afternoon, the Hymer looked like a bomb had exploded in it.
After an afternoon cramming stuff in already full cupboards, and wondering how on Earth we were going to fit Cynthia’s five suitcases into the already overflowing motorhome when I was due to collect her from her rented Rottevalle home on Wednesday, I relaxed for the evening over a meal in the King’s Head with Rob and Deanna.
Monday was last minute job day; changing all my English notes for Euros, last minute food shopping, donating some old cameras and lenses to the Southam College’s photography department, picking up a new pair of glasses to replace the ones I dropped in the cut last week and, last but not least, dealing with my repulsive thumb.
A few days earlier I suspected I had an ingrowing thumbnail. It swelled a little on Saturday, a little more on Sunday, and grew to the point where I thought it would explode on Monday. I popped into the local pharmacy for a remedy. They took one look at it insisted I visit my GP.
On a day already full of tasks and hour an a half wait to be seen was a little frustrating. I was a little apprehensive about my visit. Lancing the swelling didn’t bother me at all, but all I could think about was the cartoon below.
With both hands firmly clutched around my belt buckle, I stepped nervously into the surgery. My doctor told me that I had the worst infection of its type that she had seen in over fifteen years of general practice. Arms outstretched, she nervously stabbed the bulging skin with a needle, ducked as a jet of bloody pus shot across her desk onto her computer’s monitor, gagged at the nauseating stench, and sprinted across the room to throw open a door to the practice garden.
She told me that penicillin possibly wouldn’t kill the infection and that I would be wise to visit the nearest hospital to spend a few hours hooked up to an intravenous drip. I didn’t have time for a hospital visit so hoped that the prescribed medication would do the job.
Dusk was fast approaching by the time I ticked off the last item on my to do list. I had an appointment at 8.30am the following morning to have an MOT done on the Hymer, and then a service and habitation check booked for an hour later at the Kent Motorhome Centre. I also wanted a few small jobs doing by Kent Motorhomes before my 6.30am Eurotunnel crossing on Wednesday.
After a surprisingly restful night at Clacket Lane Services on the M25 I drove half an hour Stockbury near Sittingbourne for my MOT. The garage was buzzing at 8am when I arrived, but they still managed to fit me in the minute I pulled onto their forecourt.
An hour later and sixty four pounds lighter for the MOT and a replacement headlight bulb – “I don’t advise you to try this yourself by the side of the road mate. You need two blokes with very long arms who know what they’re doing!” – I drove twelve miles to Kent Motorhomes ahead of time and feeling very happy with the day’s progress. I was feeling very happy until I arrived at Kent Motorhomes to find the business closed.
A lady member of staff sitting in her car by the business’s locked front gates told me that I couldn’t get in because the owner was stuck in heavy traffic on the M20. Not that his arrival would help me at all. She told me that their sole mechanic had died a week ago so they didn’t have anyone to do either my service or habitation check.
I appreciate that the death of a fellow employee and friend is a painful experience, but I was a little upset that they couldn’t find the time to let me know before I arrived on their doorstep.
The MOT was an important part of our future plans. We have to return to the UK every twelves months to have the Hymer tested. The previous MOT was done in March this year, but we didn’t want to be forced to leave our winter sun in Spain for a 2,000 mile drive north to a crossing at either Dover or Felixstowe next spring. An autumn MOT should coincide with us heading south to Spain after our northern Europe exploration draws to a close for the year.
A full service and habitation check were desirable rather than essential. We can get both of those done somewhere in Europe on our travels. Kent Motorhome’s failure to let me know they couldn’t accommodate me was an irritating waste of time, but nothing more.
I had the rest of the day free before my scheduled Eurotunnel crossing the following morning, so I headed towards an iconic British landmark. The three hundred and fifty feet high white chalk cliffs at Dover and the footpaths above them have been maintained by the National Trust since 1999. As is usual with the National Trust, there’s a high quality cafe and toilet block and plenty of strategically placed information boards.
Parking is always a consideration with the Hymer, now 30’ long with two substantial bikes strapped to the rear. There are two separate car parks on site, one for cars and another for coaches.
I had the tranquil coach parking area to myself. I picked the best spot overlooking Dover harbour with its constant stream of P & O cross channel ferries entering and leaving. I sat on the bed with my Kindle and a sunny ocean view and promptly fell asleep.
I woke to the sound of screaming teenagers. Three tour coaches and one hundred and fifty German school children now shared my not so peaceful space. A five minute walk along the cliff path was enough to leave the crowds far behind.
As I neared the end of a two hour brisk walk to 170 year old South Foreland lighthouse and back to the car park, I looked forward to a relaxing night above the cliffs… until I discovered that the car park entrance was due to be locked for the evening shortly after I returned.
As my channel crossing the following day necessitated a 5am start, and the car park wasn’t due to be reopened until 10am, I had to move. I suspected that finding a suitable alternative parking spot at that time of the night was likely to be a bit of a pain so I called Eurotunnel to see if I could move my scheduled crossing forward. For a very reasonable additional £3 I was able to switch to a 9.50pm crossing that night.
Eurotunnel’s terminal at that time of day is a pleasure. Using the automated check in service I was able to change the crossing again for no charge to an earlier 8.20pm crossing. I later discovered that Eurotunnel charged me an additional £77 for amending my crossing at “no charge”. I imagine that getting a refund is going to be a difficult process.
At 10pm I was in Calais. At midnight I was tucked up in bed wedged in the middle of an endless row of articulated lorries at a motorway service station close to Gent in Belgium at the end of a very eventful day one of our motorhome adventure.