Despite it being the middle of July, the weather was as dreary as when I had left the UK at the start of this journey in mid-September. A chill wind whipped across the waterfront at Calais, tearing at my hair and hastily-found jumper. The history of the town – British on and off until 1558; a beautiful medieval tower right in the heart of the city – was less important than finding somewhere sheltered to write up my diary. The place seemed abandoned, the streets devoid of tourists, pedestrians and vehicles. A little further away, at the channel port, a thin plume of blue-black smoke rose from the Pride of Canterbury.
Having reached the passenger departures area through a gateway that looked more like the entrance to a high-security prison than a cross-channel ferry terminal, I found I was one of only eight foot passengers on a boat that could hold several hundred cars. We got our own bus, and a staff escort through passport control. (It was one of the only times I’d had to show my passport in three months of travel.) It must be how the rich and famous experience travel, if they don’t mind carrying their own bags or waiting around while everyone else sorts themselves out.
The slight vibration of the engines, passing through the hull of the ship, hid the exact point at which we ceased to be bound to the continent. Equally, the dirty full-length windows made it difficult to determine the exact point at which the white cliffs of Dover stopped being a smudge on the horizon from the busy food court. No one else seemed to care they were there. No one could get an external shot unless they wanted to take on the stench of cigarettes from the smoking area a couple of decks up. Yet the sight of the chalk cliffs, proud of the sea, ignored by everybody else, made me feel like I was already home.
My great uncle reached Folkestone, just a few miles along the coast from Dover, on New Year’s Day 1946. Though he would be held in the army reserves for months and years to come, his time with the armed forces was over. Conscript soldiers had the jobs they had had to leave reserved for their eventual return. Receiving his pay, and a box of undoubtedly ill-fitting and unstylish civilian clothes, he returned heavily-tanned to his job as a joiner at the local bus company. It was a job he would hold until his retirement, and for which he would receive a long service award three decades on.
As one journey ends, another begins. For me, returning home from Dover meant another sort of journey, as I take on the challenge of recording his and my experiences in North Africa and Europe. It will be what I work on over the coming months, and will form the basis of my next travelogue, tentatively entitled Into Adventure and Sunshine.