Sunday, 16 August 2009

Day 33 - England South East Coast - Dover to London - My journey ends on an inspiring note...

I spent the last night of my journey on top of the cliffs of Dover at Varne Ridge Holiday Park. It's a small site with two bungalows and couple of caravan homes. It's got unrivalled views of the coast, across the channel to France. On a clear day you can see the cliffs on the continent, and at night you'll almost always see the lights.

I've been on the road now for 33 days, and have spent every night in a new town. So by the time I got to Varne Ridge, between Dover and Folkestone, I was ready for a break. And it couldn't have been a better spot to unwind and reflect on the last month of travel.

The view from Varne Ridge Holiday Park...across the channel to France. One of the finest views of my for a full screen version.

I got talking to owner and manager David Frantzeskou, and we spoke randomly and easily about the effect the ocean has on one's life. David moved with his wife Evelyn from London, leaving his job in an architectural firm. They saw the views, and bought a little house straight away. Game over.

Then they bumped into a little old lady who owned the caravan park next door, and she sold it to them...

The reason I'm telling you all this, is because David's holiday park is now the base for almost all the channel swimmers who swim the 20-odd miles across to France (and sometimes back again, and sometimes again across to France! More on this later).

Varne Ridge has become the "unofficial" official place for channel swimmers to wait for the right tide and time to make their crossing. On the walls as you drive in are the names of all the successful swimmers who've swum the distance, along with their national flag. And on the day, your national flag is raised when you come back to Varne Ridge...

David Frantzeskou at Varne Ridge Holiday Park, where most channel swimmers stay before and after they make the 21 mile crossing...every successful swimmer gets their name up on the wall.

David introduced me to Julieann Galloway, who at the wise old age of 23 had just swum the channel. She mentioned it like I mention brushing my teeth. Like "oh, I've just brushed my teeth" or "oh, I've just swum the channel". She's a Texan who's studying her PhD in Dublin, and thought she'd pop down to Dover to have a dash. For sure, she's trained in Dublin harbour right through winter, acclimatising to the cold water - but she had never swum in the ocean before 2007! And yes, she is an Olympic triallist for the 200 metres, but hey, she drove down from Dublin by herself with her dog Gibson, and now she's driving back to get on with her life. No friends, no family...just herself, her dog and 21 miles of powerful ocean currents. Talk about willpower.

Her pilot (that's the guy with the boat who follows you across, and feeds you as you go along) gave her the call at 8pm, telling her that the tide will be right at 2:40am the next morning. So it's pitch black, and Julieann says the first hour was the hardest. "I knew that once the sun comes up, I'd be fine" she said. "But swimming in the dark like that, by yourself, with another ten hours of swimming ahead...that was tough."

Her time of 9 hours 51 minutes is very respectable. Most people do it in 12 to 14 hours...including the men. The first person to do it was Captain Webb in 1875, who swam it in 21 hours 45 minutes. The record belongs to Chad Hundeby, who swam it in 1994 in 7 hours and 17 minutes...

Then there's Philip Rush, a New Zealander, who in 1987 wasn't happy swimming across the channel once, so he swam it twice, then turned around and thought he'd swim it again. He swam from England to France (7 hours 55 min), back to England (8 hours 15 min), and then back again to France (12 hours 11 minutes). His total time was 28 hours and 21 minutes...non-stop.

Think about this...up to 2009, 3000 people have climbed Everest, but only 734 have swum the channel. For sheer physical triumph, I guess the Tour de France might match swimming the channel three times. Well, for me, swimming it just once would be a superhuman achievement. Well done Julieann!!!

Channel swummer Julieann with her "pilot" who followed her in his boat, making sure she didnt' get eaten by any sharks...and no, she didn't swim naked, but she is definitely a "real" swimmer.

The next morning, after another good chat with David about the swimmers, the channel and life in general, a young girl drives out of Varne Ridge. "She's 18," says David, "and she's going to swim the channel today or tomorrow. They're programmed like robots, they're just so incredibly focused."

What were you doing when you were 18? Not sure about you, but I was falling out of pubs, chasing girls and trying to figure out what to do with my life (still am, I guess!). I certainly wasn't about to swim the English channel. People like Julieann deserve all the success they achieve...

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