At the Eurotunnel terminal I find it strange to hear so many English voices, automatically saying oui, s’il vous plait and merci. The attendant on the train speaks to us in French, switching to English when she overhears our conversation – I realise she’s presumed us French because of the car. The border guard asks: ‘why the red number plate’ and we answer honestly (it’s a lease car), only later realising I should have thought up something far more interesting. (I’m still working on that, snappy retorts being something I can only come up with after hours of thinking.)
Arriving in England via le tunnel sous La Manche and not Heathrow airport is strange. (This is the first time since we moved to New Zealand that we haven’t flown straight to the UK.) It soon becomes less so – we aren’t even on the motorway, driving down the slip road, when a van tears up the inside lane and cuts into a space that doesn’t exist in front of a car that brakes to avoid the collision. Having spent a month driving on the right, it’s clear we’re going to have to pay attention, especially as the steering wheel is technically on the wrong side for these roads.
‘It’s grey!’ says Neil as we drive away from the terminal. To be fair, it was grey when we left France, and drops of rain had landed on the windscreen before we cleared French customs. It soon starts to rain heavily. Neil swears. He swears some more as we drive through thirteen miles of roadworks with no evidence of any work whatsoever and not a single person in view let alone working. In nearly three thousand km around France the only time Essie (our friendly sat nav) had to adjust arrival time was when we stopped for a coffee – after less than thirty km in England I’m pretty sure that behind the dashboard she’s checking her watch is working correctly as the travel time extends. As penance she sends us on a joyride around Carshalton before Neil cops a strop and turns her off, following his nose and getting us to our destination within minutes.
Our Airbnb is very pleasant, overlooking the owners’ large garden. Fat wood pigeons waddle around looking for crumbs that smaller birds have dropped from the bird feeder, and a squirrel peers through the window looking for a handout of almonds (which he gets – I’m a sucker for a cute face). When he turns around I see he has no tail – how does he balance in trees?
These are expensive streets, large houses with sweeping driveways in big gardens but despite all the green there’s no sign of life. On a warm, sunny Sunday the street is deserted, the houses closed and gardens that in New Zealand would be full of the smell of barbeque and the sound of life are empty. Our windows are the only ones thrown open to the fresh air. Despite the peace I feel unsettled here, as though I don’t belong. And I don’t. It may be pretty, with rolling hills and gentle slopes, leafy suburbs and a quiet air of sophistication, but the south of England is too tame, too ordered, for me, like a lady at a garden party. My kind of countryside is the wilder northern landscape, letting its hair down and throwing itself around the dance floor, probably drunk.
In some areas new roads are springing up where developers have persuaded residents to sell half their land and then built multiple houses behind, still leaving a lot of green space. There are even farms around here, although we’re both astounded at a lavender farm that charges people an entrance fee, bans photographs without payment and has zero tolerance for picnics unless the food is purchased at their shop. Even more astounding is that people are actually paying it! A public footpath runs right through the field, a sign allowing passage across this public right of way but warning against taking photographs even of family and forbidding stopping on the way through to your destination. We walk across, our destination being the other side. We then turn around and walk back, our destination being where we’d started. We aren’t the only rebels, noticing one woman feeding her toddler a piece of apple from a container she’d clearly brought with her.
Closer to London it feels more claustrophobic, so many people, so many cars, so many houses squashed together, many where the front garden is now hardstanding for cars that are squeezed right up to their walls. One row of shops looks like another and I am constantly disorientated – are we in Carshalton or Sutton? Crystal Palace or Streatham? Our nearest shops are Carshalton Beeches (not to be confused for the treeless one, although there are as many trees in Carshalton as there are in Carshalton Beeches – Surrey is nothing if not full of trees) and I’m impressed there is a butchers – when we lived in England they were as rare as hen’s teeth. I’m more astounded to see a haberdashery and wool shop, thinking they’d all gone the way of the dodo decades ago. We even spot a milk float gliding past! It gives me some hope that maybe people are in some way moving away from mass production and going back to local. Just like the French.
We finally manage to see some cycling, catching the train to Box Hill for the ride London classic and some of the world’s top cyclists. These guys are professionals and even uphill they flash past quickly. But they have five circuits and each time they come around they are more spaced out, some struggling to stay with the peloton.
Neil manages to grab a few shots, although I suspect Caleb Ewan wasn’t too pleased to be caught on camera as he struggled up the final climb. (He’ll be even less pleased at me putting it on my blog!) But he is a sprinter, not a climber, and has just cycled three thousand miles around France, taking three stage victories on the way so there’s little shame. I had a hard enough job walking up here – I would stand no chance on a bike.