While we waited on the tarmac at Calais, a tanker reversed down off the ferry with 5 people sitting atop the tanker. Several high viz police were ushering the vehicle away from the ship grandly named the Spirit of Britain. You could tell we were heading to Britain, the border at Calais was the first time we had our passports rigorously checked. There was no doubt we were about to pass over into a different country. You can sense a fortress mentality as Britain is surrounded by an expanse of water on all sides like a castle moat. As we watched the migrants on the lorry and fellow passengers took pictures, I wondered what these migrants hoped to find in Britain that they wouldn’t in a European country such as Germany, France or Sweden. The immigrant I worked with in Sheffield told me it was the language, he had tried to learn German but found it too difficult compared to English. I guess if you’ve crossed deserts and seas and survived imprisonment at the hand of Libyan people smugglers, the English Channel doesn’t seem like a big deal.
On our journey from Brussels we had stayed with a lovely social campaigner in Kortrijk who again showed us a humbling generosity and welcome. She talked about the frustrations of working within a political party and how she had left to go back to social work. She was also an impressive photographer. The day we left her the gentle landscape of Flanders and a pleasant tailwind ensured us easy riding on our last long day on the continent. Once back on the roads in England I instantly missed the wide cycle lanes and respectful drivers of Belgium. Speeding lorries accompanied me to Folkstone where I was getting a train home.
As I sat on a cushioned seat hurtling across the country mesmerised by the speed of travel, I wondered how the pilgrimage had changed me. I heard the thick eastern European accent from the man selling drinks and felt reassured that our connection to Europe was still intact. The Brexit vote hadn’t isolated us from Europe yet. Whilst I’m sad we voted to leave the EU my main concern is with the tone of the referendum. The kindness of those we met along our way made me feel we have friendly neighbours who understand us. They have a similar rising of nationalist parties across Europe and population divides of their own. Our challenge is to improve the debate we have. Brexit it may make us poorer but it alone isn’t the Armageddon it was made out to be. It is up to us to decide how this independent Britain relates to the world.