|A Marriage Happily at Sea
by Sarah Shuckburgh
Her Norman husband has converted Sarah Shuckburgh to the joys of our oldest
My husband Guillaume and I have an unconventional living
arrangement - I live in London and he lives on his family's
farm in Normandy - thus each conjugal visit involves two
solo Channel crossings. As the crow flies, the shortest
route from Shepherd's Bush to le Pays de Bray is due south,
via Newhaven and Dieppe.
The crow sensibly opts for a dignified and stately
sea-crossing, rather than spending hours hunched over a
steering wheel, dashing east and then west to cross at the
Channel's narrowest point. Guillaume never takes any other
route, and I have come to appreciate the quirky charm of the
Channel's oldest ferry crossing.
Newhaven is London's nearest sea-port, but the ferry
terminal is a ramshackle, semi-derelict hangar surrounded by
cracked Tarmac, railway sidings, wasteland and wire netting.
French tourists must be dismayed when they land here. The
pleasure of the crossing is all at sea.
Last weekend, the sea was grey and choppy, beneath a granite
sky streaked with paler cloud. Gannets swooped over the
foaming wake which led in a smudged arc back towards Sussex.
Gradually, the clouds lifted, and the white cliffs of the
Côte d'Albâtre gleamed through the haze. Tiny white sails
billowed with the wind as dinghies tack towards home.
Sometimes I head straight for a cabin, strip off and snuggle
down between the crisp sheets and sleep for the whole
journey, lulled by the murmur and gentle sway of the boat. I
am woken by a violent rapping. The bangs get louder and
louder until my door vibrates. I think they use a metal
hammer to jolt us out of our slumbers. As the ship sidles to
the jetty, there's time for a shower before, washed and
refreshed, I reclaim my car.
Sometimes I feel like being sociable. Every summer, I meet
dwindling bands of Canadian and British veterans and their
descendants, heading for the Normandy battlefields and, in
particular, Dieppe's pebble beaches. Sixty-five years ago,
on August 19 1942, this shoreline saw carnage. More than
3,000 Allied troops were killed and a further 2,000 taken
prisoner during Operation Jubilee, a disastrous commando
Few holidaymakers today choose the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry,
but for nearly a millennium this route was the most
important link between England and France. Dieppe's maritime
history started with the Vikings, who gave the harbour its
Norse name, "deep".
In 1066, William the Conqueror set sail from Dieppe for
Hastings and, for the next 900 years, Dieppe remained the
busiest port in the Channel, with traders, travellers and
worshippers heading for Santiago di Compostela. (Dieppe gave
this pilgrim path its scallop emblem). A regular passenger
service started 200 years ago, and by the 1920s crossings
took only three-and-a-half hours (quicker than today). Ships
docked in the centre of Dieppe and passengers could step off
the boat and tuck straight into coquilles Saint Jacques in
Things started to go wrong for Dieppe as flights became
cheaper and the tunnel opened. The docks in Newhaven and
Dieppe fell into disrepair and for two years no ferries
sailed. Then in 2001 the Seine Maritime local council formed
a company, Transmanche, which bought up part of Newhaven
docks and reinstated a service.
The two Transmanche ships were second-hand, shabby and
lumbering, with five-hour crossings, but Guillaume and I
became loyal customers. A two-hour Seacat ran for a time
between Dieppe and Newhaven, letting Britons lunch in
Dieppe, but the sea was often too rough and the service was
In the past few weeks, a French shipping company called LD
Lines has taken over Transmanche, introducing two
spanking-new Spanish-built ships, the Seven Sisters and the
Côte d'Albâtre. These ferries cruise at 22 knots and can
cross to Dieppe in under four hours, but they are vast -
each holding up to 500 cars and 60 lorries. The mouth of the
river Ouse at Newhaven is narrow and shallow, so sailing
times have to coincide with high tides - sometimes at
inconvenient hours. The dock is being dredged, and the
situation may improve.
The new ships have ultra-modern stabilisers, 50 cabins with
berths, children's play areas, shops, TV lounges, bars and
The crossing is never dull. Out on deck one sunny afternoon,
I watched as a toddler delved into his mother's bag and
offered her the contents - a glove, a diary, a pen, a bunch
of keys. His mother and I watched fondly as he practised
walking, stumbling a few steps to and from the
railing…before throwing the car keys in a gentle arc into
Arriving in Dieppe, anglers look up from their lines as you
chug past the jetty into the calm, dark waters of the port.
Perched above the harbour on the limestone cliffs is the
church where seafarers' wives once prayed for their men's
safe return. Even on dull days, the light is mesmerising.
Turner, Delacroix, Vernet, Monet and Gauguin all painted
here, attracted by the luminosity of the alabaster shore.
The ferries now dock outside the old harbour, the massive
vessels looking ungainly and out of scale beneath the dainty
cliff-top church. A new road cuts through the white cliff,
leading lorries up to almost-empty autoroutes leading south
to Rouen and Paris, or west to Le Havre and Brittany. But
people in the know can still turn right out of the dock and
be in a quayside restaurant within minutes, with coquilles
Saint Jacques, Neufchâtel cheese, une tarte Normande and a
glass of Calvados. Divine.
First published by the Telegraph