From England to Belgium, via France
Bonjour from the French-Belgian border!
After a week of waiting for the weather to clear up enough for us to attempt the Channel crossing, last Friday we were finally able to cross from Folkestone to Calais. The wait was well worth it as we were rewarded with one of the calmest days the support crew has ever seen. The sea was completely flat and glassy, blue sky and sunshine above us, while the horizon was too hazy to differentiate between sea and sky, let alone see France on the other side. It created the illusion that we were paddling into a vast expanse of nothingness, something we were both very happy about.
Overall the crossing took over five hours. Beautiful as the conditions were, it was still a long and hard paddle and we were very happy to set foot on land again on the other side. Anna’s dad was waiting on the beach just outside of Calais with a bottle of champagne at the ready, much to the confusion and bemusement of the locals enjoying a sunny Friday afternoon on the beach.
The good weather continued the following day as we were straight onto the Calais Canal. Somehow, our first day in France felt like a bigger milestone than starting in London, possibly because it was the first time we were facing fully unknown conditions; we didn’t even know where we would be finishing the day until early afternoon.
It didn’t take long for us to paddle out of Calais and into the beautiful countryside of Northern France - or what we could see of it from water level. That evening we found a campsite right by the river to spend the night, where we were befriended by a gaggle of inquisitive children. Fascinated by Benji our kayak who was lying by our tents, they almost jumped for joy when we let them clamber into the seats to have a go with our paddles.
Monday brought with it Kate’s 20th birthday. We started the day with presents and cards over breakfast in the tent, the highlight of which was definitely the hat for our mascot Harvey the bear, complete with his name carefully embroided in by Kate’s mum.
Back on the water we had a long day ahead of us with two intimidating locks to portage. As we’re not able to paddle through locks, we instead have to find an accessible point along the bank to climb out, followed by emptying out some of our bags so Benji the kayak is light enough to pull out the water. This is easier said than done as often the bank is incredibly steep, covered in nettles and spiders. Once out of the water, Benji is then put on a set of wheels and towed to the other side of the lock, where we have to find somewhere to put him back onto the water.
Though time-consuming, the two locks on Kate’s birthday went smoothly. Unfortunately, we’d miscalculated the distance we needed to cover that day and ended up paddling for an extra few hours, finally reaching the campsite at gone 8pm. However, our perseverance paid off as we were given a bottle of rose to help celebrate Kate’s birthday. We enjoyed dinner and wine outside our tents as the sun dropped below the horizon, at which point we snuggled into our sleeping bags and devoured the whole chocolate cake that Anna had smuggled all the way from England.
We’ve camped in an array of locations during our first week, from picturesque riverside wild camp spots to a less pleasant mosquito-infested hollow in some eerie woods. On Thursday night we were taken in by a wonderful and incredibly generous couple who not only let us camp in their garden and shared a delicious dinner with us, but also arranged for the local press to pay us a visit in the morning. Before waving us off, they even donated a pair of wheels that are much better suited to the task ahead than our existing set were. Thank you so much for everything Janique and Jeff!
Unfortunately it hasn’t all been beautiful weather and kind locals... Earlier in the week we faced our scariest moment yet. Towards the end of a tiring and hot day, Anna had left Kate in the kayak while she recced the area for somewhere to pitch the tent for the night. In the meantime, three enormous barges appeared, heavily laden with cargo. At the exact moment they reached Kate, one decided to overtake the other, causing the water level to drop significantly. Benji - and Kate - plummeted lower and lower until Kate was clinging onto the top of the canal wall by the tips of her fingers. The wash following the boats created powerful waves that threw Benji against the concrete side, leaving him with a scarred nose. Had Kate not had something to hold onto, the story would have had a much more disastrous ending.
This experience, combined with the disturbing number of dead rats, fish and birds floating in the water, made us very happy to finally leave the canal. After several days paddling through industrial areas heavily populated with cargo barges it was a relief to join the Scarpe River. Non-navigable by anything other than a kayak, we’ve enjoyed two days of having this serene and picturesque river to ourselves, disturbed only by the occasional fisherman and raft of ducklings.
After 170km and ten locks in France we have now reached the Belgian border. We’re ready to see what a new country has to offer, though we will be returning to France in a few weeks.
Through this expedition we are aiming to raise £50,000 for the charity Pancreatic Cancer Action. To sponsor us, please click here.