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Between night and day – a journey to England

May 4, 2023

When you cross from one country to another, there are times when the differences are very obvious. On a land border, the geography might not have changed, but the human imprint leaves you in no doubt that you are in another place, and usually another culture.

After a sea crossing from France to Southern England, I normally don’t notice that difference. The landscape looks similar. In the spring, the trees are more or less at the same stage of blooming as they are on the other side of the channel. But on a night drive, things take on a different hue.

Thus it was when we took a ferry from Le Havre to Portsmouth on our way back from our little farmhouse in Lot et Garonne. As different as night from day. Or as day from night, in this case.

Our daytime drive to Le Havre took eight hours. The road signs are well designed: large, clear and consistent. Only on the odd occasion have I missed a turning in France (though I exclude Paris’s Peripherique horrifique from that observation). The roads themselves are excellent. A few roadworks, but much of the work carried out since the last time we drove the route has paid dividends. There are large stretches of immaculately resurfaced road. Locally, on our many trips around the southern countryside, I don’t remember a single pothole unexpectedly rattling the car. Clearly the result of something called investment.

After a five-hour crossing we reached Portsmouth at nightfall. On our way home the contrast was obvious,. Forests of signs, but the ones that matter are barely lit and poorly maintained. We stopped at a gas station to get some supplies for home, only to find that the M&S store was virtually devoid of food. They were waiting for a delivery, we were told by a rather embarrassed manager. I have never come across this problem in a motorway service station in France, strikes or no strikes.

Heading back to the A3, we went round the roundabout twice, because the entry to the motorway was far from obvious. The sign was obscured by trees. Too many signs when you don’t need them; none when you do.

Not that we don’t invest in roads in the UK. But most of the money seems to gave been spent in recent times on so-called smart motorways. Hard shoulders have gone, replaced by little turn-in areas every mile or two. Which doesn’t help if your car hasn’t the decency to stagger on to a safe area when it breaks down. Then you’re trapped on the inside lane with trucks bearing down on you. No wonder so many people have been killed waiting for assistance. If my car stopped on a smart motorway, I’d do the smart thing: jump across the barrier into the woods and leave the car to its grisly fate.

When you go further up the A3, you come across a major project. A new intersection between it and the M25. Here, for the sake of shortening the average journey through the existing intersection by five minutes, hundreds of trees have been ripped down within a radius of half a mile. Which says something, really. Spend millions of pounds turning precious trees into firewood for the sake of a modestly improved traffic flow. As the ancient British chieftain might have said if he had viewed the devastation: they created a desert and called it progress.

My purpose is not to write a France Good, Britain Bad polemic. Both countries have their issues. Always have and always will. But it’s worth pointing out when one country gets something right and another gets the same thing catastrophically wrong. A first world problem, I know, but if you’re lucky enough to have the resources, the least you can do is use them wisely.

Perhaps our roads suffer from comparison with those of the French because we’re an island – things are pretty dire everywhere. There’s little chance of an invidious contrast between one system and another, as is the case with France, from where you can drive effortlessly to and from Germany, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland. Once upon a time the poor relation was Italy – it was very obvious that you had left France. Now, it seems, Britain has taken Italy’s place.

Oh, and I almost forgot. Back home in verdant Surrey, the dozens of potholes that pitted the local roads before we left have still not been repaired.

Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.

From → France, Travel, UK

  1. Rochna Tebbutt permalink

    Hi Steve. We met on a Gulf Air flight a very long time ago! Glad to read you are well. Where on the A3 are you? I also live somewhat off the A3 in Southfields.

    • Hi Rochna. Nice to hear from you. We’re fairly close to the accursed new intersection! S

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