Travel Magazine

Driving from Paris to England, a Description

By Sedulia @Sedulia

Right after I got back to Paris and unpacked, I had to drive to England on some family business. I know the road so well I don't need a map.

First you get onto the Périphérique of Paris, the ring road that is always crowded, night and day-- one of its problems is that if you are driving from north to south across France, you must take the Périphérique to get past Paris. So that the ring road is always clogged with commercial trucks from Sweden and Poland, buses full of British tourists going to Spain, and RVs of Dutch families going to their camp in the south of France, along with the Paris commuters. In France, everything passes through Paris!

The Périphérique at sunset

At roughly "noon" on the ring road's clockface, you turn off at the exit Porte de la Chapelle  [la chapelle here means the cathedral of Saint-Denis-- the name is ancient and this road was once a Roman road], and head north/northeast toward Roissy/Charles-de-Gaulle airport, first plunging into a long tunnel under the suburb of Saint Denis. Maybe because every important person in France takes this unpleasant tunnel regularly, you can get wifi, radio and telephone service even in the middle of the tunnel. You come out of the Tunnel de Landy and the huge Stade de France is on your right. Surprisingly it did not create noticeably more traffic, maybe because no one would have the foolish idea of driving to it.

The A1 curves to avoid the Cathedral

The road curves to the right and just there, if you look off to the left due north, you will see, in the midst of a typical urban wasteland, the tower of cathedral of Saint-Denis, one of the oldest in Europe, and the place where the kings and queens of France were buried for a thousand years. (By the way, the large walled park next to the cathedral is not public and belongs to the elite girls' boarding school in the park, reserved for the daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters of Legion of Honor recipients.)

Radar fixe near Paris

In the next few miles of autoroute are several radars and if you don't watch where the taxis are slowing down, you might get flashé and have to pay an amende (they will track down foreigners who rent cars in France too). Once you pass CDG airport, there are no more traffic jams, but still a lot of traffic, mostly trucks heading north to the Low Countries. Parc Astérix, a big (and fun) amusement park based on the Astérix comic books, is on your right after ten minutes, and just after the park is the péage, or toll, where you take a ticket. The toll from Paris to Calais is about 20 € at the moment. By the way, the péage begins just after Paris Disneyland on the highway east of Paris, too. The two parks were created at about the same time and negotiated similar deals with the French government. 

The A1 goes through the country of the Somme battles of World War I. The Somme is a little river with lots of marshes, quite pretty. You can see how the Germans invaded so easily-- Picardy is a broad fertile land as flat as a pancake. There are war memorials everywhere.

There is a radar fixe at about km 135. People don't drive as fast as they used to-- most drivers stay under the speed limit these days and few drive more than ten km/h faster. There are now many movable radars, and you can get major fines and points off your license for going too fast. Still, in twenty years of driving in France, I have seen people stopped for speeding only two or three times.

Picture 5

Empty northern France. On French autoroutes, historical and cultural monuments are shown on brown road signs in silhouette. Sometimes even a poem!

After about an hour and a half, you turn off toward Calais. Suddenly, there is no one on the road. A wide empty highway stretches before you with green fields and occasional towns on either side. Off in the distance to the left you can see the hill of Notre-Dame de Lorette, very high over the flat plain, where a memorial church stands commemorating the 100,000 French and colonial soldiers who died in the battles of Artois in 1914 and 1915. Further on, the road passes the Canadian National Memorial at Vimy, another hill rising out of the flat plain, where more tens of thousands of young men died in the Battle of Vimy Ridge during the First World War. You can see the huge white monument from the road. 

This area has been a battleground many times. The battle of Agincourt, or Azincourt as it is called in French, took place nearby in 1415. An outnumbered army of Englishmen trying to get back home was cornered here by a huge French army including the flower of French chivalry. But the English longbowmen, the machine-guns of their time, were able to mow down the French knights trapped by their heavy armor, narrow open spaces, and mud. The French lost thousands-- up to ten thousand men; the English, fewer than 200. They didn't stick around though, but took off like a shot for Calais and home. There is a nice little museum of the battle in Azincourt, near the farm fields of the actual site, which is not very evocative. Shakespeare depicted the English king's heroic speech to his men just before the battle in Henry V

Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more
or close up the wall with our English dead.

Another reminder of how close you are to England comes with the road sign commemorating the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where the 25-year-old French king François I and the 28-year-old English king Henry VIII met to compete in brilliance in 1520. At the time, the spot lay between French and English territory in France. This episode is memorably depicted, complete with wrestling match between the kings, in the HBO television series The Tudors.

As you get closer to the English Channel (called the Sleeve, La Manche, in French), you see more and more trucks and buses going to the ferries. They leave from the port of Calais right near the old town, with its strange multi-spire town hall. But on this trip I decided to take the Eurotunnel, the train. It is not as pretty as the ferry ride and is more expensive, but shaves considerable time off a journey to London.  I wanted to get there before dark. 

Picture 10
Waiting to board the Eurotunnel train

I bought a ticket, was given a big letter R to hang from my rear-view mirror, and since I was on the next train, drove to the queue. To do this, you have to pass French and British passport control and drive over a camera that looks underneath your car. Earlier that day, a man had been found clinging to the bottom of a British school bus and the tunnel was closed for a while, but I missed the excitement and the delay.

I didn't see any other French cars waiting. Most of the car traffic across the Channel is British people coming and going. After I drove onto the train, I rolled my windows part-way down as instructed, put the handbrake on and climbed into the back seat for a jetlag nap until I heard the signal that we had arrived in Britain.

The train through the Channel Tunnel is not only faster than the ferry, but when you drive off at the other end, you are eleven miles closer to London. And it never fails-- I left sunny, uncrowded northern France, and as I arrived in England, there was a traffic jam on the M20 and it was raining.

Picture 11
The highway from Dover to London


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