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Sharon Cain
Time for Life Correspondent
6:00 PM 9th April 2020

Back In Blighty After 2,000 Mile Marathon Across Spain And France

On the right track: boarding the Eurotunnel from Calais to Folkstone
On the right track: boarding the Eurotunnel from Calais to Folkstone
Our Time-for-Life Correspondent Sharon Cain and photographer Steve Hare are back home in Blighty after a 2,000 mile journey from the Costas in Spain.

The endless stretches of empty motorways reinforced the severity of the coronavirus pandemic as it relentlessly continues its upward spiral with a combined 230,000 confirmed cases across Spain and France.

Arriving back in UK with an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude, Sharon reflects on the tense experience, which included having to park overnight in petrol station garages.


Spain - no longer an option

After being in lockdown in Spain for three weeks in our holiday flat, the escalating number of confirmed cases - coupled with no sign of a clear strategy from the Spanish government - made our situation untenable.

It was becoming too risky to venture into the local supermarket, which had no restrictions on the number of shoppers milling around - some of whom were venturing out regularly despite the strict instructions to limit visits.

With provisions running low, we needed to return to the UK where healthcare developments - such as the opening of new Nightingale hospitals in London, Harrogate and Bristol - and plans to deal with the epidemic are being communicated and shared daily.

With no possibility of booking a cabin with our golden retriever Bracken on the Bilbao to Portsmouth crossing - a 500 mile drive from our Spanish base to Bilbao in our motorhome - the only options were a ferry from Calais to Dover or the Eurotunnel to Folkstone.

We opted for the latter as the less risky option as passengers remain in their vehicles. And after taking Bracken to the vets for tapeworm treatment, we set off on a marathon that would last almost 80 hours.

Memories of risk-free days in Spain earlier this year
Memories of risk-free days in Spain earlier this year

Deserted motorways

Our route took us across the North of Spain where a police patrol thankfully waved us on and we saw a convoy of army trucks, lorries and a few cars.

We had planned to stop at an Aire - a camping site for motorhomes and caravans - in Zaragosa but it was closed with the town in total lockdown.

Continuing on B roads through farming villages, the uplifting sight and grace of storks, an eagle and flocks of small birds were poignant reminders that this brutal pandemic cannot destroy the force and magnificence of nature.

Overnight parking challenges

Our overnight stop was a Repsol garage where we parked in between two lorries and cooked a meal. Fortunately the facilities included water so we topped up our supply before setting out on day two.

This stretch took us underneath the Pyrenees and through a cluster of picturesque French villages on the way to the city of Le Mans - home to the iconic 24 hour motor race.

Some villages demonstrated a high level of non-essential activity considering the country - now officially in recession as a result of the virus - is about to further extend its lockdown.

Long and winding road: the Pyrenees
Long and winding road: the Pyrenees
Skirting round Bordeaux, our second night’s stop was an Aire near La Rochelle in the north; just slightly off the motorway. Its green and peaceful location offered us a temporary semblance of normality.

The lashing rain on day three was a stark contrast to the streaming sunshine the day before and saw a heavy build up of traffic, primarily lorries, in the lead up to the populated port and city of Rouen.

En route to Calais

On day four we would head to Calais and the Eurotunnel. Because we had heard so many disturbing stories - some first hand from fellow motor home travellers - about desperate displaced people breaking into motorhomes near Calais to get a passage to England - we vowed to park at least two hours outside Calais.

Motorway truck stop en route to Calais
Motorway truck stop en route to Calais
With so many Aires closed, we finally came across another petrol station car park right on the motorway.

Feeling quite vulnerable opposite 30 plus trucks and wagons we kept a low profile as traffic raced relentlessly by.

A step closer: the lead up to the Eurotunnel
A step closer: the lead up to the Eurotunnel
We set off for our 12.20pm Eurotunnel crossing with trepidation. We had tried to pre-empt being stopped by police by placing our ‘Attestations’ - documents from the French authorities giving us permission to return to the UK via France - to the windscreen.

Border control and check in

The roads were eerily quiet as we paced our journey for fear of arriving too early and having to wait outside the enormous terminal. First stop was the canine check in where we presented Bracken and his documentation and scanned his microchip.

Pawsome pets: Bracken was checked out before the crossing
Pawsome pets: Bracken was checked out before the crossing
Our travel document and ‘Attestations’ for the crossing were inspected before we reached passport control. Up until then Eurotunnel personnel were gloved and masked but those handling every passenger’s passports had no protection. That was extremely disconcerting.

Issued with a carriage number and pet visa, with bated breath we followed the directions and drove into the carriage for the 31 mile journey, which takes just 35 minutes.

We breathed the most enormous sigh of relief once safely ensconced in the world’s longest undersea tunnel.

Once we’d disembarked, the last leg from Folkstone wasn’t all plain sailing with motorways closed and diversions through the district of Eltham in South East London where far too many people were flouting government guidelines for social distancing.

Traffic on the motorways was astoundingly busy compared to what we had encountered the previous three days - and included high volumes of cars.

In the right direction: heading home
In the right direction: heading home
Although returning to bleak news about the pandemic in England, the sense of team unity and national spirit here shines through - along with a genuine appreciation for those on the front line who are putting themselves at risk to save the lives of others.

The phrase ‘It’s good to be home’ is one I have previously glibly used. The words have now taken on a whole new meaning and are ones I will never take for granted again after this four-day emotional rollercoaster.

Wishing everyone a peaceful Easter as we settle down to two weeks self-isolation aligned with government guidelines returning to the UK.

Stay safe.