Jason spent the next hour and a half doing a comprehensive walkthrough of the vehicle. We started with the exterior of the van covering how to do basic (but important things) like not mixing up the fuel tank with the fresh water tank, location of spare tires, operation of bike rack and awning and engine basics. We then moved on to the interior of the camper where we learned how to: swivel the front seats, raise the pop-top roof, convert the back seat in to a bed, put in the dining table, operate the stove and fridge and operate the onboard satellite navigation system. Once the walk-through was complete, Megs spent an hour or so getting the sat nav setup (the manual for this device is 192 pgs long!). She also familiarized herself with the van and entering our directions into the sat to the closest supermarket (so we could pickup some basic supplies to stock our fridge). Jason zipped off into town to purchase our road tax (pretty steep at ₤220 for the year (even though we’re not going to be driving the car much in the UK, we needed to purchase the tax – it only comes in either a 6 month or 12 month block so we went for the 12 month as we’re going to have bring back (reluctantly, I must add) the van next year. I used the time to get both our bicycles assembled. Thanks to the tutelage from Rod before we left, I managed to assemble the bikes without too much trouble – although, we haven’t actually ridden them for too long so I shouldn’t be patting myself on the back just yet! Jason also was kind enough to print us a list of all the British road signs although I didn’t have time to study them before leaving. We loaded the bikes onto the bike rack, put our 3 duffel bags in (these were all waiting at the dealership from when Dennis had picked them up on Friday) and left around 4pm, having been at the dealership for about four hours.
Using Jason’s rule of thumb of “keep the curb closest to the driver”, Megs fearlessly drove out on the wrong (correct?) side of the road. We made it to the nearby Tesco (equivalent of an IGA/Safeway) and purchased some basic food supplies. We were excited to pick up our first French melon and some gouda and cranberry wensleydale.
You really can’t beat the prices for dairy products over here!
Then we set the GPS to Dover and off we went! Now, most of you know that we are not a fan of the electronic navigation systems but we thought it best to have it keyed in since we only had a 1:4 (compared to our 1:2 road atlas for continental Europe) road map of southern England which isn’t very detailed when you’re only relying on it to navigate. The drive itself was pretty uneventful except for two moments. The first was when Megs almost exited a roundabout onto an entry road! The second moment that had our hearts thumping in our chests was when we were on the M26 freeway to Dover and I was fiddling with the sat nav (aka GPS) system – which is also the onboard entertainment system – trying to get the radio working. I had the volume turned up high (near max) so we could hear the GPS narration when unknowingly I managed to switch on the radio. The radio suddenly started blaring and it was so loud it was unbearable. The combination of driving at 80 mph on unfamiliar roads while having the stereo on max unexpectedly, set our hearts racing. It took me a frantic 5 seconds (which seemed like an eternity then) to find the volume buttons and finally turn it down! We had a good laugh after about the whole incident but before I touched the GPS again on that drive, I pulled out the manual !
We arrived around 7pm at the Keats Farm campsite, situated just a few minutes from the ferry terminals at Dover. The view coming into Dover is quite spectacular – you see the white cliffs immediately followed by the impressive docks and the ferries. Once at camp, we made a quick spaghetti and pasta sauce dinner (luckily there was a small shop at the campsite as we’d forgotten to pickup both pasta and sauce earlier) and then crashed for the night. It was an eventful day but we were safely in Dover and we had our house on wheels to begin our adventure!
The next day, Aug 7, we ended up having a very late start out of the campsite as we couldn’t figure out how best to get the bicycles onto the rack. After tinkering with it for nearly an hour, we managed to get both bikes secured and then drove off to see the infamous white cliffs. The cliffs of Dover are under the protection of the UK Heritage Trust (a national organization that aims to preserve natural areas and sites of historic significance) so it’s like entering a national park. We were given walking maps of the area and that’s when we realized that we’d definitely have to come back to explore again at the end of our trip. We had about 1.5 hrs before we had to head off to catch the ferries so in that time we checked out the info centre and took a short stroll along the cliffs to the first of the viewpoints.
It was overcast and the wind wasn’t blowing very hard so it was quite a pleasant day to be out on the cliffs (remembering our last trip to Oregon where we occasionally had to lean into the wind to walk forward, this was a bonus). We saw some horses out grazing along the cliffs and wondered if they were wild – we soon read that this is part of their “conservation grazing” program where they let the horses out graze in an effort to encourage a wider variety of wildlife to develop. As for the cliffs themselves, they’re quite amazing. Trivia: chalk is believed to form at the rate of 1 cm per 100 000 years! I’ll let the pictures do the talking at this point.
Having had an overview of the cliffs national park, we made our way down to the Dover ferry docks. We had made reservations well in advance so weren’t worried about an overload situation. I thought I’d be prepared to navigate the docks after having travelled BC Ferries for many years now but were we ever mistaken! The docks and surrounding area for the ferries are enormous – probably a good 5-6 times bigger (by my not-so-accurate estimation standards) than the biggest BC ferries dock. This is probably because about four or five different ferry operators use the terminals and they’re used for both cruise ships, ferries and commercial cargo vessels.
Upon entering the terminal, we had to decide which ticket booth to choose. We picked the “All Passports” lane and we saw the border guards so we promptly got our passports and I was a bit concerned because the French consulate had said that with our visa (Youth Exchange), the border officials would ask for the original paperwork we submitted and that was all neatly tucked away at the back of the van somewhere. We pulled up to the counter and the French border guards didn’t even open their window – we waited a few seconds but saw no movement inside so we drove another 20 feet forward and pulled up to the British border guards booth. There were easily five guards inside, all of them engrossed in their smartphones. They barely glanced up and I’m guessing, seeing that we had GB plates, just waved us through – once again, they didn’t even open the window to their booth. And just like that, we were through customs in what took about 30 seconds! As we happily drove on to find the lane for DFDS Seaways (the ferry we were taking), we suddenly realized that the border control hadn’t stamped our passports! We had received a stamp at Heathrow upon arriving and it would definitely raise some questions if we left via Heathrow a year later with no indication in our passports to prove our whereabouts. So we quickly looked for the EXIT signs instead of getting into the lineup and joined the string of vehicles exiting the docks. We ended up taking the incorrect exit and had to drive a couple of miles before there was a roundabout to turn around to head back to the docks. We were starting to get a bit tense now since we had about an hour before departure and were supposed to be there 45 mins at the latest. We entered the docks again and chose a different border control lane this time. Once again, the French didn’t open the window to their booth and waved us through. We pulled up at the British booth and idled. One of the guards looked out quizzically at us and waved us through. Megs had to ask loudly “We have a question, please!” at which point they opened the window. We asked them if they could stamp our passports and they said, “Not necessary”. We explained our situation once again and then they asked us to pull up behind the booth and walk back to the French station as they were the ones to do the stamping. So we walked back to the French booth minding our way so we weren’t run over in the process. Knocking on the French booth, they finally opened and once Megs had explained the situation to them, they finally stamped each of our passports indicating that we were leaving Dover, arriving in Calais. We breathed a sigh of relief and with that headed towards the lineups again – this time though, we got pulled aside for a random security check. At which point, British security guards looked under our vehicle and one of them got into the van, had a look around and was distracted by the slick interior that he only asked us a few questions : “Are you delivering a package?”, “Can you show me the knife drawer?”, “Are you transporting any arms?”. He seemed quite thrilled that he got to sit in the back seat quite comfortably while asking us these questions! The security check only lasted a couple minutes and then we were through and lined up for the ferry –
finally! The ferry left only a few minutes late and I rushed up to the main deck to get some photos of the white cliffs.
Once on our way, we settled down in the restaurant to watch some Olympics gymnastics that was being telecast. An hour and 45 minutes later, we were heading off the ramp and had arrived in Calais, France. We had a short drive to Arques where we camped for the night at a 3 star municipal campsite with good and fairly clean facilities, large sites, and free wi-fi. We had a dinner of pan-fried zucchini and chicken breast with some carrot rapees. We were fairly exhausted by that point and decided to call it a night.
On Monday (Aug 6), we made our way out of London to Burgess Hill– it was campervan pickup day! We said our goodbyes to Aksinia in the morning – she was a great host (and on top of it all, let us have her comfy bed for the weekend and made us a roast chicken dinner on our last evening there). We had a really exciting time exploring the Olympics from her centrally located flat by Old Street Station. We caught the tube to Victoria Station and then took the train to Burgess Hill (Wivelsfield station) for a whopping ₤6 each. I had emailed VW Campersales in the off chance that someone might be able to pick us up from the train station and sure enough, Dennis was on hand again to receive us – that’s twice in 4 days! Jason, the general manager, received us with a steaming cup of tea which was very much appreciated. The dealership was very impressive – an office to your left as you entered, the main lot for storing all the vehicles, an area in the back left for doing all the mechanical work, and then a large loft above the office for storing all the spare parts. Everything was well organized and right in the middle of the dealership, ready to begin her grand adventure, was our 2003 VW T4 California Freestyle! The camper looked exactly like it had in the pictures and we were super excited from the moment we saw it. Both Megs and I gave each other a look that said “This is awesome!”.