It’s still incredible to me, that I can show my parents the success that I’ve built in such a way that I can bring them to another part of the world for the very first time. I think it’s safe to say that my parents likely would never have made it to Europe had I not moved here. Life takes us in so many different directions and changes our plans so much that good intentions sometimes remain just that – intentions. As a family, we’d always talked about big trips to England, Scotland, or Ireland. But life has a way of showing us what is truly important, and our big European dreams just didn’t make it to the top of that list.
Alas, here we are now. Life took me in a direction that I was shown I could make big changes (thanks April and Trish!). And now, instead of my parents providing me with some big vacation to Europe, I can provide that for them. I can’t possibly explain the pride I feel in that, only that it completes me in a way. I can show my mom the Swiss Alps, take my stepdad to his very first real castle; and eventually take my dad back to the city he was born in, maybe even to the countries our ancestors immigrated from. And take my stepmom to all of the Christmas markets. I have had dreams of this since I was a child – and it absolutely amazes me that I am now living those dreams.
Which brings us to one of my longest dreams – visiting England.
I think my love of all things Medieval – knights and Lady’s, castles and sword fights – began with Kevin – my stepdad. I remember clearly when he made his appearance in my life. I’m sure he remembers too as I was absolutely terrible to him. It was the usual tale of mom and kid living a happy little life to themselves until mom introduces someone new – kid isn’t going to allow someone to steal attention easily – and there we are. But Kevin was patient, understanding and had a trick up his sleeve.
I don’t know if he really knew the impact his trick would have on me, even to this day as we’ve never really spoken of it – but it changed things. Many people who know me know my love for the movie The Princess Bride – you know that I can obnoxiously repeat every line throughout the movie; yell “have fun storming the castle!” at not always appropriate times and know that my very first crush was Cary Elwes as Westly. It was Kevin that introduced this movie to me – this movie that we bonded over. It somehow took the edge off of losing some of my mom’s attention to him.
And so began my love of castles, England and Scotland, knights and Lady’s.
When we arranged for Kevin to visit us in Germany, his very first time really out of the country to a place full of the medieval history he loves, I couldn’t decide where I wanted to take him. I thought about France, Poland, Italy… maybe Finland to see the Northern Lights. But really, I was making it more complicated than it needed to be.
My mom and aunt suggested England and it made sense. I could take him to castles and Stonehenge, explore both modern and Medieval England. It would be a new experience – a new country for all of us – and one that all of us had exceptional interest in.
My planning began almost immediately. Originally I’d considered flying, but after I mentioned the Chunnel to Tristan (the underwater channel tunnel that connects the British island to the mainland), it quickly turned into a roadtrip.
Driving from Germany to England in a day is absolutely possible as it’s only an 8-ish hour drive. Comparatively, it would be like driving from Richmond, Virginia to Nashville, Tennessee (which is actually about 45 minutes more). We’ve spent longer time in the car as we’ve made many drives to both Tulsa, Oklahoma and Albany, Georgia to see family.
There are a few options for crossing the Channel that are not planes: ferry, passenger train, vehicle train. We chose both the ferry and Eurotunnel (the Chunnel). We decided to ferry in one way and take the Chunnel the other. Once transportation was resolved, planning our stops along the route became the next challenge.
There are a few different routes to reach the coast of France where you catch both the ferry and the Eurotunnel – one route through Belgium and another through France. I wanted to optimize Kevin’s time here, so I needed a couple of different places to stop along our way. One of my favorite things to do is search Google Maps – just peruse all the different places in all the different countries. It’s an easy way to find hidden gems sometimes – or places you’d forgotten. It was in doing this that I’d come across Dunkirk and immediately added it to our list. Once buying tickets for the ferry and tunnel, I quickly added Calais as this is where both the ferry and Chunnel leave and return (there are also ferries from Dunkirk).
We planned to spend two full days in London, so then I had to find places we could stop on the way in and on the way out. This was more difficult because there are so many places we wanted to visit in England. We settled on Stonehenge, Canterbury, and Dover.
Once the plan was solidified, the anticipation was palpable. I couldn’t wait!
Our first official stop of The Great English Roadtrip. Tentatively, I’d planned for lunch in Brussels or Ghent, but we decided to just truck it through instead. I think Kevin and I were both pretty eager to reach Dunkirk.
This French beach town isn’t exceptionally large, but it’s impact on the world has been great. This impact, I believe, wasn’t really well known until more recently – excepting those knowledgeable in the history of the Second World War – due to, I think, the 2017 Christopher Nolan film. Remnants of the war are scattered around Dunkirk – from forts to sunken ships, museums to monuments, and the beach itself.
We visited the Operation Dynamo museum, where we learned about the encroaching German army, hellbent on defeating and absorbing Luxembourg, Holland, and Belgium, and did so in a matter of days. This ended what was known as the “Phoney War” between Britain and Germany. The German invasion pushed the allies towards the coast into the mass evacuation known as “Operation Dynamo.”
Operation Dynamo, led by Admiral Ramsey of the British Navy, succeeded in evacuating over 338,000 British, French, and Belgian soldiers in nine days while the Germans continuously attacked the beach by air. These soldiers were loaded onto warships, fishing boats, pleasure boats, sailing boats, barges, and commercial vessels and sailed over the English Chanel to safety. Those that were left behind were taken as German prisoners of war. I also found it especially interesting that most of the French soldiers saved during Operation Dynamo opted to be sent back into the war.
Coming to Europe has not only been exceptional in its ability to culture us and experience the ancient, but it’s also successfully put the more recent wars into perspective. There is a vast difference in learning about the First and Second World War from a textbook or documentary versus actually seeing these places… stepping foot on the beaches, touching the walls of cells, walking through gas chambers… it puts it all into perspective – the then and the now.
Stepping onto the beach at Dunkirk blew my mind. Imagining the soldiers lined up, patiently waiting for their ship to safety with nowhere to run and hide from the attack in the air.
The sand seemed to go on forever. We attempted to make our way down to the water, but gave up half way. It was easy to see discouragement as each step only seemed one foot closer to another step of sand. But then I remembered that on clear days, the coast of England can be spotted in the distance, and that was hope.
Here are some other photo’s from Dunkirk.
After we had a late lunch at the beach, we headed to our overnight stay in Calais. Originally, we’d planned to take the Chunnel both ways and the station is located in Calais – so that’s where I booked our overnight. Plans changed a bit when we decided to take the ferry (which can also leave from Dunkirk), but it was easier to maintain the hotel and sail from Calais. Besides, I was a bit excited for this location.
I think most wouldn’t bat an eye at a place like Calais, but I eagerly anticipated visiting. As an avid reader, one of my favorite genres is historical fiction. Calais often plays a role between characters from England and France meeting or sailing. It’s actually a pretty interesting place that’s seen quite a bit of history.
It’s been inhabited since Celto-Germanic tribes held the territory, then defeated by Julius Caesar before his expedition to England. It’s been conquered many times, passing back and forth between the French, English, and Belgians. In 1347, during a siege, it once again became French after a 100 year tenure by the English. According to the website The Regions of France, “During the siege, six prominent citizens volunteered to be hanged in order to spare the people of Calais.” These men were pardoned but inspired many including one artist that sculpted a statue of six hostages in one of Calais’ many parks in 1895. According to the same website, even England’s Queen Mary (Tudor) was inspired: “After my death, you will find Calais written in my heart.”
Being only 34km (a little over 21 miles) from Dover, England, it’s an easy access point for shipping, sailing, and travel between the island and continent – even now!
I wish we could have spent more time exploring here. Enjoy the photos!
Our trip continues in the second part of The Great English Roadtrip…