We overtook one car with German number plates, furry dice in the back, go-faster stripes painted on, and the inhabitants' names over the front window: Harald and Lizzi, Harald driving on the left side of course. We decided they were Essen Man.
It was dark as we were passing the Channel Tunnel terminus, just after Ashford. A tall and robust fence went on for miles along the side of the road and, as we crested the hill, we could see a collection of brobdingnagian train platforms, all expansively lit in the night.
But the tunnel was not for us: Stu, Grand Organiser of Trips to France, had decided on the ferry, partly because he's a creature of habit but also because he goes so often that he gets ferry tickets really cheap.
"The ferry," Stu explained, "is always a fairly degrading experience". The ferry's on-board televisions showed pop videos, "classic British comedy", High 5, and Howard Stapleford explaining why catamarans (as used on the same company's more expensive crossings) are a Good Thing, scientifically speaking -- all with pictures but no sound, which made it all a bit pointless. One piece of classic comedy they chose to show was one of Harry Enfield's Wayne and Waynetta sketches -- we all agreed that satirising Essex Man on a cross-channel ferry was like showing disaster movies on an aeroplane.
The duty-free shop was the most degrading bit -- it was tiny and seemingly only one step removed from being a conveyor belt: pipe Essex Men in one end, make sure they pick up precisely one 1-litre bottle of spirits, pipe them out the other end. We actually thought about our purchases with some care, although it must be said that our selections did end up being drunk quite as unceremoniously as any yob could have managed. Jen, token Irishwoman, got some Jameson's; Stu, Grand Marnier; I, Beefeater gin (I got some stern looks here from the others for Not Playing The Game as the Gordon's had been 25p cheaper); and Ian, a bottle of Ricard.
"What's that?" I asked.
"It's pastis," explained Ian, "it's an extremely authentically French drink. You'll -- well, you won't like it, you're not meant to like it, but you'll, er, drink it."
"We have richard every time we go to France," furthered Stu, "It's impossible to imagine anyone actually drinking it for pleasure, it's just something we do."
We docked at Calais at about midnight, French time. Without even having to wave the covers of our passports at anyone we were off, out onto the autoroute. We hurtled through the French night. Calais, Boulogne, Montreuil, Abbeville. It was a long time before we saw a car on the roads that wasn't British. Occasionally we'd pass a sign in English reminding us to drive on the right side of the road, which I thought a sad indictment of the average British tourist, not to mention frightening if it meant that people really did penetrate that far into France without having noticed. French road signs are, I was pleased to see, mostly the same as British ones -- but all with slight differences in proportions or typography, contributing to a sense of what I suppose really was foreignness.
Neufchatel-en-Bray, Rouen (looked like quite a top floodlit cathedral), Dreux, Evreux. By now it was about 3am, and, seeing as I don't drive, Ian was getting pretty exhausted. Repeated sugar rushes from Mars bars and Yorkies weren't getting through to him, so we stopped at a layby and ate some jam tarts. Occasional British cars continued to whip past us -- we were only about 50 miles from Le Havre and Dieppe.
The sun was still balanced on the horizon, steadying itself for its long, long trek across the sky, as we reached Châteaudun, but sadly we only caught a brief glimpse of the château itself. Then Vendôme, after which the journey was torture as we were so nearly there, but the roads were tiny and wiggly and impossible to travel fast. Every few miles after Vendôme, Ian would be saying, "Ah, yes, I recognise this bit now" or, when we were closer, "We cycled out here one year".
Almost the last place he said this was les Roques-d'Évèque, a tiny village set into a cliff face, where all the houses have perfectly normal fronts but just turn into caves at the back. Living somewhere like that has been a dream of mine for a long time -- but I'd never before seen a place where it was possible. (Every house I've ever lived in has been tyrannically right-angled everywhere -- I mean, a right-angled thing isn't a Real Place, it's more like a VRML session.)
Eventually, at about 7am, we pulled into the car park at Alf's campsite in Montoire-sur-le-Loir.