Sunday, 16 August 2009

The end and the beginning...and everything in between

I started my trip around the coast of Britain in Brighton on the 12th July, and have ended it here on the 14th August...

I've loved every minute of it. There are a couple of things that will stay with me forever:

Drinking illicit whisky with Johnny Clotworthy at Loch Ewe Distillery.
Kayaking at sunrise with Chris Wilson on Loch Torridon.
Eating fish and chips in the rain on St Ives harbour in Cornwall.
Walking through the Eden Project nearby to Penzance.
Chatting on the cliffs of Dover at Varne Ridge with Julieann Galloway, who had just swum the English Channel.
Watching the bagpipers and the fireworks under a glittering sky at the Edinburgh Tattoo.
Seeing the sharks being fed at The Deep in Hull.
Sitting alongside the ghosts of ancient Scottish kings on Dunadd Fort near Kilmartin.

The list goes on and on...I've compiled a couple of Top 5 selections, which I'll keep posting during the week...

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...

Day 33 - England South East Coast - Dover - The "key to England"...

Ask someone what comes into their heads when you say "British coast", and chances are they'll mention the white cliffs of Dover. (I think I would!?) For centuries, the cliffs were the first thing international travellers saw, arriving on passenger ships from the continent.

Today it is still a major port, with ferries leaving every few minutes to make the 21 mile crossing to France. And the best place to see them coming and going is Dover Castle, perched on the hill above town. It is a superb spot. The castle is imperious, with 270-degree views of the coast. It's been a very important military stronghold since its beginnings nine centuries ago. Indeed, it's always been known among army men as the "key to England".

Dover Castle to the left, Roman lighthouse and St Mary's Chapel in the centre, and Dover harbour to the for a full screen version.

Dover Castle...

The iron age folk used it as a fort, and then the Romans built a huge lighthouse, which still stands today next to St Mary's chapel on the castle grounds. And the castle has been garrisoned continuously from 1066, when William the Conqueror built the first version of the castle, to 1958. Only the Tower of London and Windsor Castle can claim likewise.

It's a worthwhile visit. There are three things you shouldn't miss. First, Dover Castle itself. It's very well preserved...perhaps more so than any other castle I've seen on my trip. Make sure you walk to the top of the Great Tower in the centre, for fine views.

Second, St Mary's chapel next to the Roman lighthouse...the chapel is one of the oldest in the land. It's also got the best view across the channel.

And third, do the Secret Tunnel tour...

When Napoleon and the Brits locked horns in the late 1700s, the army built a vast network of tunnels underneath the castle, to house up to 2000 soldiers. No threat really materialised, but the engineers of the time could never have known how important their work was to become.

During World War II, the tunnels served as the bomb-proof command centre for Operation Dynamo. In May 1940, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were cornered by the advancing Germans on the northern beaches of Dunkirk in France. The Britisn army's survival was at stake. The navy was tasked with getting them off the continent and back home, so they could fight another day.

From the tunnels the senior naval staff commandeered close to 700 ships, and in nine days more than 300 000 troops were rescued. The ships comprised naval vessels, fishing boats and any number of volunteer leisure boats. It came to be known as the "miracle of Dunkirk," because initially it was thought that only 90 000 troops could be rescued.

The Tunnel Tour will let you see what it was like for those naval officers, as well as the doctors and nurses that worked in the underground make-shift hospital.

Trying to look like Churchill...the Prime Minister came to Dover Castle to monitor the Battle of Britain...

Soon afterwards, the castle's tunnels were used again to monitor the Battle of Britain (July to October 1940). Winston Churchill watched the Spitfires and Hurricanes dogfight with the Luftwaffe's planes, knowing that the war's outcome depended more on this battle than perhaps any other. For it was Hitler's intent to invade Britain across the channel, landing 60 000 German soldiers on the 21st September 1940 between Dover and Brighton. The Nazi leader knew that air supremacy was crucial to the success of his naval operation, so he sent hundreds of planes across the channel to destroy the British air bases.

Three thousand British pilots in 20 squadrons were waiting for them, and the battle reached its climax on the 15th September 1940, when 85 German aircraft were destroyed or seriously damaged, and only 26 Royal Airforce planes were shot down. It was one of the turning points in the war, and led Churchill to praise his pilots with perhaps an incomparable commendation: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Almost 600 Allied pilots died during the Battle of Britain, and more than 800 died later in the war.

And that's why the most memorable thing you can do is visit the Battle of Britain Memorial on the coastal road between Dover and Folkestone. On top of the cliffs is a statue of a young pilot, sitting, waiting...pensive and silent, alone. He's looking out to sea, across to France...watching for German planes, ready for the call to jump into his Spitfire or Hurricane. It's a powerful experience...and brings home the sacrifice that each pilot had to make during those few weeks in 1940.

The names of all the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain are engraved on a wall behind the statue, and nearby is "Bob", a statue of one of the squadron dogs, who's also looking attentively out to sea, waiting for his pilots to come back safely.

Dover Castle is a great visit, but the Battle of Britain Memorial is more impressive, despite it's simple design and slightly run-down state. (It's maintained by volunteer money, so make sure you donate when you're there!)

The Battle of Britain Memorial between Dover and Folkestone...

"Bob", the squadron dog...waiting for his pilots to come back from their battles above the channel.