Before 2020, most of my work was with cruise ships calling at Dover and groups of French schoolchildren studying at local language schools. Both sources of work disappeared altogether with the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the loss of FOM and the requirement of passports for EU citizens, the French student work will probably never return. But the Dover cruise business has recovered well in 2022.
On Friday 22 July the cruise ship Carnival Pride was finishing a cruise at Dover. I was due to escort a group of North American passengers to London and take them on a sightseeing tour: the coach would then take them to Heathrow Airport for their flights home.
I normally drive to Dover and park my car at the cruise terminal. However, as I was not sure what time I’d be returning to Dover (as I would have to use public transport) and I didn’t fancy having to walk from the station to the cruise terminal to collect my car late at night, I decided on this occasion to get the train from my home station of Folkestone West to Dover Priory.
Traffic at a stand-still
As soon as I left the station in Dover, I realised that something was terribly wrong. Both Folkestone Road and York Street were solidly blocked with immobile cars and lorries. Many drivers had switched off their engines and were standing listlessly outside their vehicles. As I got nearer the cruise terminal and turned right onto the A20 dual carriageway, it became surreal: was this real life or a scene from ‘28 Days Later’?
All roundabouts and traffic junctions were blocked and no traffic could move in either direction. I then started passing cruise passengers, mostly elderly North Americans, struggling with their suitcases as they walked along the pavement towards the town centre. Several asked me directions to ‘the train station’.
When I got to the Cruise Terminal, the scene was utter chaos. There were about 2,500 passengers on board Carnival Pride, and a large proportion of them were milling around waiting to get home. There should have been around 20 coaches ready to transfer passengers to airports or take them on tours, in addition to shuttle buses and taxis running them to the Central Station.
Only two coaches had actually made it through the traffic, and only one other guide (based in Dover). Taxis were offering to take passengers to Folkestone Central Station, but for £50 a time: one cannot accuse the taxi drivers of profiteering, as they had no idea themselves whether they would be able to get back to Dover, as all the roads were blocked for several miles outside the town.
After waiting for about an hour, the ship’s shore excursion manager asked me to take 17 passengers on a tour of Canterbury, as the coach allocated to that excursion had arrived but the guide hadn’t. Passengers on early flights were being advised to walk to the station and, when the London coaches eventually did make it to the cruise terminal, the drivers were advised to head straight to Heathrow or Gatwick airports, with no time for sightseeing.
My coach was fortunately able to turn left out of the cruise terminal and head along the A20. My passengers could not believe the endless queues of cars and lorries heading for the port. I was asked if this was typical: I responded that I had never seen anything like it in my life!
Luckily I was able to persuade my driver to ignore the signs to Canterbury via Hawkinge (which would have taken us onto the log-jammed A2) and I directed him via the westbound M20 and B2068 Stone Street to Canterbury. I was able to take my group on a pleasant guided walking tour of the city before they boarded the coach for their transfer to the airport.
Heading for home
“Ah!” I thought. “Now I can get the Number 16 bus and it will drop me just down the road from my house!” I walked to Canterbury Bus Station to find long queues and no buses running at all to Dover or Folkestone. After waiting for a while, a 16 bus finally did appear, but the driver said he was only going as far as Hawkinge as it was impossible to get to Folkestone.
So I walked to Canterbury East railway station, got a train to Dover Priory and changed there for Folkestone. (In the 1920s it would have been possible to travel from Canterbury to Cheriton Halt, near my house, in about 25 minutes via the Elham Valley Railway, closed in 1947, but that’s another story!)
I could not believe it when I heard everyone blaming the traffic chaos on the French! They were not responsible for Brexit. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realise that it will take much longer for vehicles to cross an international frontier if every passport has to be examined and stamped.
How things used to be
In 1985 I was working as a courier escorting coach tours around Europe. When crossing between Spain and Portugal, I recall having to collect a huge pile of forms to hand out to my passengers to fill in. I then had to collect all the forms and the passports and take them to an office for processing. This took between one and two hours, so I would send the passengers off to buy some refreshments (the tour was cleverly scheduled to reach the frontier around lunchtime) and to change their Spanish pesetas for Portuguese escudos. When I escorted a coach tour across the same border in the 21st century, we didn’t even need to stop!
When some friends asked me in 2016 how I would be voting in the EU referendum, I said “Remain”, and described my Portuguese border experiences in 1985 as one reason why I didn’t want to go back to the old days. My Brexiteer friends said I was just being silly and that there would be no return to hard borders if we left the EU, as the UK would be in control and would make sure our current freedoms were maintained.
Less red tape, not more!
What concerns me is that this was not just an isolated incident. Rich Americans who spent thousands of dollars on a luxury cruise and then had to lug their suitcases one-and-a-half miles in 28°C heat to a train station are not going to come to Britain again. Cruise lines preparing their schedules for 2023 and beyond are just going to stop calling at Dover. I’ve already been told of one cruise ship that has cancelled a planned Dover port call.
All of this means less revenue to British and Kent people working in the tourist industry, who have already suffered from the double blow of Covid-19 and the stupid requirement that all EU passport holders now need a passport to visit the UK.
When will the media and politicians realise that the only way to solve this problem is to restore Freedom of Movement and to rejoin the Customs Union?