What’s the best way to cross the English Channel? Given the recent events in Calais, you can almost certainly rule out crossing via the Channel Tunnel or on a ferry from Dover. When it works, the shortest route is obviously the most convenient, but it’s becoming a game of chance. The last thing you want is to spend a day motoring up through France or the low countries, only to find your scheduled crossing has been delayed or cancelled.
Then there’s the small matter of driving once you reach your destination. It’s fine if you’re French-side, as more often than not the roads are blissfully free of traffic and the surroundings are far more pleasant. It’s the English side that creates the problem. No matter what time of day you arrive, you’ll inevitably be delayed by the M25. Then there’s the roadworks on the M1 and M3. Not to mention the mild torture presented by the M20. The fact is, there are too many opportunities to be royally screwed over by the Dover-Calais route.
But there is an alternative. And right now – perhaps more than ever – the Plymouth to Roscoff route might be the best way to cross the English Channel.
Put it this way. In the days before the Channel Tunnel – that’s pre-1994 for our younger reader – you had no choice but to hop on a ferry or hovercraft to cross the Channel. And for many of us, the ferry crossing was part of the journey. The holiday officially started once you boarded the ferry. It was such an adventure. Clambering up the stairs from the car deck to the cruise-liner like floors above. Listening to the safety announcements and wondering what a muster station was. Saying goodbye to the White Cliffs of Dover and waiting patiently for the French coast to appear on the horizon.
The ferry gave you a chance to take stock after a long car journey and prepare for the next leg. With the Channel Tunnel, the romance is lost. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been incredibly lucky with Eurotunnel, often arriving at Coquelles and fast-tracked on to a waiting train within a matter of minutes. For speed and efficiency, the Channel Tunnel is hard to beat. When it works. But there’s no time to chill and the sense of adventure is completely lost.
Earlier this year I discovered the Brittany Ferries crossing from Plymouth. Despite living in Devon for the best part of 10 years and living less than an hour away from Plymouth, it’s taken me all this time to make the crossing. And right now, I reckon it’s the best way to cross the Channel.
Sure, Plymouth represents quite a trek for the majority of the country, but Roscoff is a delightful place in which to arrive. Time it right and you could land in Roscoff at 7am and be in a traditional French patisserie enjoying croissants and fresh coffee within the hour. It’s exactly what we did, although we may have been delayed by the wealth of French tat littered around the town. Have a look at The Cars of Roscoff and Morlaix for a small hint at the treasures ready to be unearthed.
There’s also the alternative cross-country route to factor in. For me at least, the journey from Dover to Devon is one of pure hell. The M20, M25 and M3 – that’s enough to give you nightmares. Whichever way you’re headed, there are far too many opportunities for disaster presented by that trio of nastiness.
Compare that to the visions of loveliness offered by the port of Roscoff, which itself must be one of the nicest ports of arrival in the whole of Europe. A terrific journey through Brittany makes way to near-empty toll roads to Le Mans, Paris, Rennes, Nantes and beyond. The three aforementioned English motorways or a journey across northern France – I know which route I’d rather take.
Then there are the ferries themselves. We took the late night crossing on board the Brittany Ferries Bretagne, complete with cinema, shops, restaurant and a wonderfully cosy ensuite cabin. Whichever way you look at it, the longer journey is most welcome, either to prepare yourself for the long drive on the continent or to relax after the long jaunt to the ferry. From a purely personal perspective, arriving back in Plymouth is so much more convenient than any other English port.
Sure, it isn’t perfect. Spending the best part of a day or an entire night on a ferry won’t suit some people and the ports of Plymouth and Roscoff are a bit off the beaten tourist trail. But that’s half the appeal. Isn’t it nice to get away from the crowds?
If nothing else, I’ve found the perfect way in which to buy a MK1 Renault Twingo. A quick trip into Plymouth, hop aboard a Brittany Ferries ship to Roscoff as a passenger and spend the day in Roscoff or Morlaix (seen above) searching for the ideal car. Simple.