French Flanders had an entirely different feel to the still-summery Provence, where we’d left the Mediterranean grape harvest in full swing. The suburbs of Lille, with their steep-roofed red-brick houses and street-facing gardens littered with the orange and brown leaves of autumn, felt distinctly British in comparison.
We still had a couple of days’ riding to the Channel crossing from Dunkerque, so we popped into Belgium for some frites. The invisible border of these two Schengen nations intertwined with our route north-west, and at the end of the day we worked out that we had crossed into Belgium from France and back on five separate occasions during the day’s riding and never even seen a policeman, let alone been asked for a passport. I imagined trying to pull the same stunt between any two countries in the Caucasus, and decided that the most likely outcome would be getting shot. Freedom of movement within the EU is a luxury we rarely consider.
The flatlands and low hills sprawled towards the North Sea under a grey, nondescript sky which promised neither rain nor sun. The rural farmlands delivered on two successive nights when it came to wild camping. One evening we knocked nervously on the door of a vast, renovated farmhouse turned luxury family home – I still felt nervous about cold-calling for camping opportunities – and a young and well-dressed young woman answered the door.
“Porquoi pas? Why not? We have the space!” she replied after a thoughtful pause and a smile when we asked if we could camp on the farm’s land. She told us to make ourselves at home on the huge lawn behind the house and to watch out for inquisitive rabbits, and disappeared inside.
In the morning the cars were gone and the gate left open for us. We pinned a hastily-written note of thanks to the door and were on our way. The pattern repeated itself almost exactly the following night, resulting in a lovely night’s camping amongst copious colonies of magic mushrooms, which, it appeared, were just in season.
My faith was well and truly restored in people’s good nature, after the down-the-nose glances and haughty refusals of assistance on the Cote d’Azur that had temporarily put me off the idea of asking strangers for help.
Mid-morning we arrived in Dunkerque, and I expect we weren’t the first tourists to discover that there isn’t actually a ferry to Dover from Dunkerque at all; rather, there’s one from Loon-Plage, which is a convenient 15km away down a dual carriageway. The fact that the ferry operator sells a bicycle-specific ticket begs the question of how said cyclists are supposed to reach the port in safety, but I was in no mood to make a fuss by the time we had negotiated the flat wasteland of highways, depots and articulated lorries.
And despite missing the 2pm sailing by less than five minutes, and facing the prospect of arriving in Dover with barely an hour of daylight to find food and a place to wild-camp, I felt a nervous thrill run through me – I was about to ride out onto English soil for the first time in nearly three and a half years…