Here I am, back in the UK. This time, as usual, I flew in. There’s nothing exciting about arriving by plane nowadays. I’ve done it so many times, and am blasé about it all. Approach, descent, landing: it all goes so fast I hardly notice anything any more. Yes, there is still the distinctive patchwork appearance of the English countryside, with copses rather than forests, and fields divided up by hedges, although even that is beginning to change as farmers are using larger machines and you can see in many cases where hedges have disappeared to make several fields into one large one. In a few years’ time, England will probably look very much like the rest of Europe from the air.
It is so much more impressive coming here by sea from Calais to Dover: especially on a bright sunny day, with the sun reflecting off the waves, and finding the point in the middle of the Channel where you can see both France and England. But for me the heart-in-the-mouth moment is when the white cliffs become visible, and then grow slowly clearer and clearer, bigger and bigger, whiter and whiter against the blue of the sky and the sea. That never fails to make my heart beat faster and my eyes fill with tears. Happy tears, of course: it’s a sight that means I’m coming home, I’m back, I’m almost there.
My first experience of this was just after I turned fifteen, on a dirty British Railways ferry. My first trip abroad: I had been excited on the way out, getting my first glimpse of France, and was slightly disappointed that the first foreign country I was ever to visit was not more spectacular. The homeward journey more than made up for that. I had had a wonderful holiday, the crossing was smooth so I wasn’t seasick, and the first view of Dover’s white cliffs was like the icing on the cake, the perfect welcome back to my homeland.
Over the years, there have been many sea trips home from the continent, first as a foot passenger, then by car ferry, hovercraft and catamaran, with the vessels gradually becoming bigger, better and more sophisticated. But even on my earlier trips, when passengers had to sit squashed like sardines on wooden slatted benches on deck, and it was sometimes so rough that the sailors would come round throwing white enamel bowls at the feet of the green-faced landlubbers, the feeling of joy always bubbled up in me, defeating any hint of seasickness, as soon as I saw the white cliffs rising up out of the sea in the distance.
I hadn’t made that trip for many years until last May, when the opportunity arose for me to come to England by car. We drove to Calais where we spent the night, and then boarded the ferry at around 8 am. As I said, there have been many improvements over the years, and modern ferries are like miniature cruise ships in comparison to what they were fifty years ago. A good English breakfast, a walk around the ship to see just how state-of-the-art everything is nowadays, and then we were already within sight of the English coast.
These ancient white cliffs have been greeting home comers for centuries, millennia. I am sure I am not alone as I try to keep a stiff upper lip, and the tears squeeze out of the corners of my eyes. No matter how many years I have lived out of the UK, this is home.