The journey began before we even caught a glimpse of a boat, a ship or a patch of water, let alone the open sea. The motorway, having swept across flat fields, canal-flanked and criss-crossed, now swung around Rotterdam and – beyond the pylons and the billboards, the railway wires and a raised bike path that might be a dyke – the first cranes of the Port of Rotterdam appeared against the skyline. It is the largest port in Europe, a fact that I knew and yet was unprepared for as we seemed to drive for ever past a procession of container yards, refineries, warehouses, yet more cranes and – finally – the first glimpse of ships flying flags from all around the world.
At the terminal for the ferry to Hull we stood in line as the ship loomed over us, above the waiting room for foot passengers (there were not many) and the wire fences that kept us all in place while advertising the sun-faded glories of the East Riding of Yorkshire to the travellers about to head across the North Sea. A family kicked a football across an empty patch of concrete. Motorbike riders compared horsepower and routes. Cyclists compared panniers and aching legs. We walked down the line and counted the numberplates.
GB. D. F. B. DK. NL. White letters on a blue background, surrounded by stars.
There was an air of excitement as we waited to embark, the sense of anticipation of a journey to come that reminded me of the platform before a night train or the car park outside darkened school buildings, waiting for the bus to take us away from our parents to northern France.
Once on the ferry and with our bags dumped in the tiny cabin, we headed up on deck. There was still hours until we left but there was a view of the port from above that was always interesting, and a bar serving cold beers or gin and tonics to the excited travellers. The closer to departure time we came the more people joined us on the deck. I tried to see if I could guess who was a cyclist and who was a family camper; who had a motorbike tour ahead of them and who was heading home; who were the Germans, the Dutch and the French. Who were the British?
Finally we moved, out past banana boats and barges, huge oil tankers and the tug boats that moved among choppy waters between them. As we moved beyond the last strip of land, looking down a beach where tiny figures made the most of the late evening sunshine, the sea stretched out ahead of us, seemingly littered with boats that looked all the world like they were abandoned, floating alone and silhouetted on the horizon. We watched a little longer until the lights of the Netherlands had retreated from view and then headed down to the cabin.
The next morning a tri-lingual announcement roused us from our bunks and we resumed our position on deck. At first we could see nothing but grey, the sea mist thick and the foghorns loud. Somewhere, over there, was the English coastline as we moved along towards the Mouth of the Humber, but for the time being there was nothing doing. As heavy-headed smokers joined us on deck the sea mist began to retreat and a line of industrial complexes that seemed to occupy the entire shoreline welcomed us to Britain; a land seemingly populated by chimneys and gasometers, rusted cranes and piles of sand and cold; a dystopian vision of my homeland as I made my first return since the shock of the referendum vote.
Perhaps that shaped my impressions, these first impressions of the eastern English shore, even more than the weather and the industrial landscape. Or maybe it was a mix of them all. As we moved ever closer to Hull and the impressive span of the Humber Bridge appeared through the gloom I wondered if I was seeing this land of muted colours through different eyes because of Brexit. Fifteen years away and maybe I did not know this country as well as I thought I did. A seal popped its head out from the water alongside the ferry and seemed to be welcoming us, but there was no question that my sense of this place had changed in the previous couple of weeks. Later, as we followed the dual carriageway towards the M62, we passed by a farmhouse flying a huge Union flag. Was that new? Had there always been such displays of national pride along such roads when I was younger? I couldn’t remember.
The excitement of the day before, of the journey being part of the experience, had given way to a sense of melancholy. But then the sun began to burn through and we moved inland, towards the places and the people that we had come to visit, that too began to lift like the earlier sea mist. The journey… that was the thing. What connects Hull to Rotterdam and Britain to the rest of Europe. Because we are still connected. By boat and by plane, by our words and our ideas. Not everything can be exited from. And not all ties can be broken.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig