My career as a tour guide started when the French lycée, where I had been a language assistant in 1979, asked me to escort their annual coach trip to Canterbury. As soon as I picked up the microphone on the coach, I discovered that I was a ‘natural’. My dream was finally realised when I qualified as a Blue Badge Guide for South-East England in 1987.
I used to love showing French people my home county
From the onset, a very high proportion of my work involved day trips from Northern France. I’d meet groups at Dover Eastern Docks and take them to Dover Castle, Canterbury, Leeds Castle and other places of interest.
Battle Abbey in East Sussex, where the Normans defeated the Saxons in 1066, was an especially popular destination with French visitors. I also sometimes escorted groups for two- or three-night tours, or took out excursions for students studying at local language schools.
After the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, I would meet some groups at Cheriton or, with a local coach and driver, at Ashford International Station.
But now I can’t
This work disappeared completely in 2020 with the pandemic, but it shows no sign of ever returning. I guided just one solitary French group in 2022 and have none at all booked yet for 2023. Of course, some group organisers may still be worried about Covid. But by far the main reason for the catastrophic slump in French visitor numbers is the fact that, since Brexit, each French citizen must obtain a passport – at a cost of €86 per adult or €42 per child.
That’s a huge addition to the price of what was an inexpensive day trip, especially for those from the more deprived regions of the Nord and Pas-de-Calais, where few residents have passports and the school day-trip was often a child’s first introduction to a foreign country. Groups from Germany have recovered to a certain extent, but they tend to stay longer and travel a much greater distance, so the passport fee is a smaller proportion of the overall fare.
How long to stamp 50+ passports or get through Dover?
Passports are only part of the story. A coach with 50 schoolchildren, all of whom had EU identity cards, would previously have been waved through Customs and Immigration in seconds. Now each passport has to be examined and stamped on arrival and departure: even if that takes only a minute per person, it’s still quite a big chunk out of the limited sightseeing time available on a day trip.
And the hideous delays at the Port of Dover, such as the virtual shut-down of the port on 22 July, have put many organisers off the whole idea of arranging a day trip. Who would want to spend hours stuck in a coach at Dover Eastern Docks? And the continued and inexplicable closure of the international platforms at Ashford station means there is no longer direct access to the county from Europe by rail.
Home-made sandwiches and cheap red wine
A further reason for French groups not visiting the UK is even more worrying. For several years up to 2015, I used to arrange day-trips to Kent and Sussex for a group of ex-Army veterans from the Lille area, and their families. They travelled on a strict budget, coming over in a rickety old coach and insisting that my itinerary allowed for a long lunchtime stop at a suitable picnic area. Here the coach boot would be opened to reveal home-made sandwiches, which were washed down with generous quantities of cheap red wine.
Fear of abuse from the locals
When in 2016 I did not receive my usual email from the group organiser, I phoned him and asked whether they would be coming to Kent again. The reply was “Non!” It emerged that he had seen a report on French TV about attacks on foreigners in Britain following the referendum result, and that he was seriously worried that his customers might be physically or verbally abused on the streets!
I managed to find the actual TV report online, and it was primarily about attacks on Polish immigrants. That would certainly have concerned a group organiser from Lille: thousands of Poles came to the Nord and Pas-de-Calais after World War I to work in the factories and coal mines, replacing Frenchmen who had been killed or disabled in the war. Their descendants still live in the area, and in recent years have been joined by family members and other Polish migrants. A 50-seater coach from this part of France will usually have a few passengers with Polish surnames.
No more excited children
Much has been said about the economic and political effects of Brexit but, for me, what is saddest is that people living just 22 miles away are now virtually unable to visit Kent. I remember French children pointing excitedly at red telephone boxes and double-decker buses, and senior citizens drinking wine at picnic tables. I loved introducing them to the history and culture of my beautiful home county. Now all they will know about the British is that we hate foreigners.