My time in Europe is up, and it’s time for me to go up to the UK in order to reset my Schengen visa. We’ve spent a lot of money over the last week in Paris, and we’re hoping to balance that out by camping and cooking for ourselves during our first month or so in England. So we smuggle some chocolate croissants onto the bus to London, where the driver eyes the packaging suspiciously (“no food on bus,” he says, emphatically, several times), and read for the several hours to Calais. We board the Channel ferry in the mid afternoon and have a sunny crossing with a stiff, cool wind. The white chalk cliffs of Dover rise across the water, and within an hour we’re back on British soil.
We set up camp in the ruins of an abandoned stone building outside of Dover with the full intention of getting up early to hitchhike, but the first of many weather mishaps hits us the next morning: freezing, driving sleet, piling up against the side of the tent and nearly drenching our exposed packs and gear before I manage to get a tarp over them. We spend the entire afternoon in the tent, reading and waiting for the weather to clear, and by the time it finally does it’s much too late to get on the road. Instead, we walk into Dover for groceries. It’s a surprisingly nice little town, with parks and cafes and old pubs, more than I expect from what I always assumed was just a waypoint for travelers passing between France and the UK.
While asking for directions to someplace that will sell us butane for Kate’s camp stove, we meet an eccentric local photographer, who ends up walking us around and showing us his favorite spots, including the WWII memorial down by the harbor — “no matter what you think of the War, you have to respect the boys who fought in it.” He leaves us at his favorite pub, and by nightfall two hours later we’re back in camp.
Kate, as it turns out, is an excellent cook, and dinner is delicious. The sky is clear and cold, and we go to bed with high hopes for the following day. It’s drizzling again in the morning, though, and we manage barely an hour shivering on the side of the road before giving up and hopping a local bus north to Canterbury.
By the time we arrive it’s cleared up again and the warm light of evening has settled on the town. Canterbury is the most-visited city between Dover and London, and for good reason: it’s lovely, with its well-preserved historical center, all white plaster and dark wood beams, and the great stone towers of the Canterbury Cathedral rising behind it. People have lived in the area on and off since well before the arrival of the Romans, but the modern town largely owes its existence to the Church. By the late sixth century, the Anglo-Saxons controlled the whole south of England under the loose rulership of a king called Aethelberht, the “bretwalda,” or Britain-ruler, of south Britain. Pope Gregory I, in no mood to let a pagan empire gain too much power on the borders of the Catholic realms, sent a Benedictine monk named Constantine to Britain. Constantine converted the Anglo-Saxons, gaining the title of “Apostle to the English” and becoming the first Archbishop of Canterbury — the political position in England that was later to become head of the Anglican Church.
All in all, a very interesting to place to someone who likes history, but after two hours of walking we’re unable to find a place to stay. So, back to the bus station and onto a local bus out of town. We stop at what seems like the middle of nowhere and set up camp off the road in the dark. In the morning we awake to a view of a field of yellow flowers and a shading of blossoming trees. It’s difficult to leave, but when we do it only takes half an hour or so to get our first ride, with a pair of Estonian friends who run a combination book and chocolate shop in London, who are on their way back from opening a second location in Canterbury. They take us a fair distance, and a second ride a few minutes from where they drop us off takes us a little further on. By now we’ve cut well north of where we meant to go, but a series of roads points west toward Devon and Cornwall. We spend the night in a patch of woods in the center of a roundabout, and it rains on us again.
By now the weather is starting to get to us, so we catch one final ride from a middle-aged Englishman who tells us about his favorite villages in the region, and find a local bus to the nearest city — Brighton, down on the coast. After several nights of camping, we’re both ready for a hot shower and a warm hostel bed.