Popping under France

Article excerpt

In the belief that it is the duty of a thoughtful periodical to identify new social trends as they appear, and offer some comment on them, I would like to draw attention to a new custom in southern England, that of 'popping over' to France for the day. This is now perfectly practical from anywhere southeast of a line through Nottingham, Derby, Birmingham and Bristol. Thanks to the motorway network, these towns and all places southeast of them, are now within cruising distance of the Channel ports and tunnel. In the weeks leading up to Christmas thousands of British drivers will be doing day trips to France.

How easy it is! Twenty-five years ago, inspired by some optimistic publicity by the ferry companies, I had the idea of going, from London, to Boulogne for lunch. I set off at 7 a.m., and counted myself lucky to get back at 1 a.m. It was not an experience to repeat. Now there are more ships, faster ships and - above all - le Shuttle, the train that takes your car through the Channel Tunnel. I do it, not frequently, but regularly. It is exactly two hundred miles from my front door in Somerset to the tunnel, and 180 of those miles are on motorway. Allowing an extra half-hour for the congestion west of London, the journey on the M4, M25, M26 and M20 sees me in France five hours after departure. Le Shuttle is one of the managerial marvels of our time. It works, it works fast, and is run with no fuss or bother. With no noise or vibration to blur it, a disembodied voice tells me that I am halfway to France and travelling at 85 mph - faster than my car ever goes under its own power. I am travelling with a day return ticket; le Shuttle has a variety of economy offers - mine costs me [pounds]35.

I have gone, of course, for the booze. At the French terminal, a vast and unprepossessing shopping mall is just across a hedge. One is not allowed through the hedge, but must drive two or three miles round following signs to 'Cite Europe'. Here, I park by a familiar name. 'It's a long way to come to Tesco', I say to a couple parking a British van. 'Not for us', they reply. 'We live in Kent, and it's a weekly day out for us.' I must stress that the drink is not duty-free; it has all paid tax - French tax, that is, which is good enough to allow one to take back a 'reasonable quantity' for one's own consumption. Enough for six month's personal drinking, plus a couple of Christmas parties, plus a few bottles as gifts to friends, can all be fitted into a modern saloon car - with a little ingenuity.

The shop is jammed. Every customer is English. The staff are all adequately bi-lingual, and both credit and Tesco's own loyalty cards are accepted. It sells nothing but drink, but even so it must be a jewel in Tesco's crown. Customers fall into three groups. First come those who do not drink wine much; they are excitedly picking individual bottles for their 'chariots', and getting in the way. Then there are relaxed, sun-tanned family groups, obviously on their way back from holiday, who have decided there is enough space left in the car for two or three cases before they board the train and return to the grip of HM's Customs and Excise. The third, and the largest, group are grimly dedicated to filling their chariots rapidly, paying and coming round again. This is hard physical work: to put cases in places one didn't know the car had - and then do it all again. One sweats, and wonders: is it worth it?

Is it worth it? Not half. It is hard to make exact comparisons, because there are so many wines, and so many vintages, that one rarely sees in England exactly what one bought in France, but roughly speaking [pounds]250 spent in Calais equals [pounds]600 in England. The only exact comparison I can make is Fitou - a good-quality everyday table wine - which is usually about [pounds]3.50 a bottle in England and FF12.90 - say [pounds]1.35 - in France. My rule is: don't buy the cheapest - it's not worth the car space; don't buy the most expensive - French ad valorem tax narrows the advantage, and a residual Puritan streak in me rebels at wine costing more than [pounds]10 a bottle. …