IAIN ROBERTSON

Our most recent festive period created a number of headlines about ‘refugees’ attempting to gain access to UK shores, recalls Iain Robertson, but, for those of us making legal trips, the relatively friction-free crossings are about to end.

Having heard on the ‘grapevine’ that the ‘Brexit’ debacle would create Customs & Excise searches, additional passport checks and other travel-bothering delays, I sought to assess the situation with my customary (for the past 20 years at least) annual day-trip to Belgium, using the Dover-Calais ferry route. In that double-decade experience, I have never been subjected to a vehicle search, or much more than a solitary outbound question at the passport check booth as to my intended destination.

However mad it may seem to take a day-trip to the continent, it is an adventure that I have always enjoyed, by which to carry out a minor shopping expedition, enjoy a meal, or two, and to take some photographs, all of which had started in the halcyon days of ‘duty-free’, which exists no more naturally (thanks to a certain Mr Blair). Departing my Lincolnshire home at 3.15am, to catch a Dover ferry, or Folkestone Chunnel train service at around 7.00am, returning to British soil at approximately 7.00pm, adds additional lustre to my festive period, even though a ‘booze/fags run’ is no longer an applicable description.

Yet, for the first time ever, the delays commenced in Dover. It took more than 30 minutes to pass through Gallic Passport Control at the port. I have never experienced that delay before, in all my years of Channel-hopping. The DFDS ticket control was a delight by comparison, my e-mail booking (£49.00 return) supported by a cheery greeting from a DFDS operative, notification of priority boarding and receiving the access code for the Premium Lounge (a more comfortable and peaceful means of making the crossing).

If you want to avoid the sometimes static-affected clashes with ‘shell-suits’, I strongly recommend the additional investment (around £10pp) that is more than obviated by the free Champagne, fruit, soft and hot drinks, newspapers, snacks, TV and recharging points for electronic items. The sofa-beds provide an additional comfort option in the leather and wood-trimmed lounge. While children are allowed (with parental control), the Premium Lounge is both quiet and luxuriously comfortable.

Naturally, the ferry ride was fantastic, in favourable (if misty) crossing conditions. The predominantly French on-board staff are helpful and accommodating. Being able to buy Euro currency on-board, at preferential rates, which saved well over £30 in fees (on a £250 exchange, made on the return journey) was an easy benefit. The DFDS on-board shop offers not only a good range of discounted products but an extensive line-up of impulse-purchase items. I use it as a means to stock-up on ladies’ perfumery, personal gentlemen’s colognes and to check on available booze deals, of which there are always several and positive savings can be made.

Having never been stopped at French Customs on the route into France, until this trip, it factored in another minor delay. My usual drive north to Bruges was unproblematic, although a heavier police presence was clear on both the autoroute and other roads. Having completed my tasks, which included a stop at the Leonidas Chocolatier and Delhaize supermarket at Adenkerke (the best and most affordable Belgian beer and highest quality fruits and cost-effective wines) before continuing to the beautiful, medieval city of Bruges, followed by a steak lunch at a lovely restaurant I know in Westende (Euros 22.99pp), I headed back to Calais for the return DFDS ferry trip. However, before even reaching the DFDS desk, my vehicle was subjected to a boot search by the Calais port Gendarmerie. There was a further delay at the French Passport Control, before another one at the British unit, which was followed by another, thorough car search barely 20m after the first one. This was applied to every vehicle on each line of cars entering the port and all drivers were questioned in detail about where they had been and their onward destinations.

We missed our intended ferry but the return trip on the next one (DFDS operates up to 30 crossings daily) was comfortable and there were no additional hold-ups at Dover. I took time to ask other travellers, if they had noticed the extra delays, and all agreed that they were both questionably unnecessary and very time-consuming. When you factor in a future £7.00 travel visa fee per person, what was once a £60.00 annual day trip (not including fuel costs), starts to look inhibitive and, if crossings become more time-consuming with what are intentional and clearly spiteful ‘Brexit’-delays (and we are not ‘out’ yet!), this may be one joy that I shall cease to pursue in future.

Conclusion:    If Iain’s experience on his recent European trip becomes the norm for the short crossing to France, drivers will need to make greater time allowances for their trips. DFDS provides a welcome, high-quality ferry service that provides a perfect respite from the car, in readiness for disembarkation on either Gallic, or British soil.