By Anita Graafland

Photo by Frank Samet on Pexels

“Congratulations on booking your trip”. I’d just advised the chap that will stay in my Amsterdam apartment of my travel dates. What on earth was he talking about? And then it hit me: after 45 years, Dutch people still think my travels to the UK are about going on holiday. They have no clue that, to me, it feels like going home. To my other home, granted, but nonetheless: home.

I’ve been travelling to the UK four to eight times a year ever since I was 17, sometimes to stay for weeks, sometimes for months, and twice for a whole year or longer. The UK stopped being a holiday destination for me long ago, probably during my student days at Durham University. It became home, even if I’ve never officially resided in the country. I’ve done flights but most of all, I’ve done ferries. Hook of Holland to Harwich was the ferry I took in the early years, as that was the standard route for non-drivers. I cycled to Rotterdam once, to take the ferry to Hull and then onto Durham, riding my bloody Amsterdam city bike on motorways between Hull and Durham. Sheer madness on a bike without gears. But what can I say? I was 21 years old.

As a family, we used to always take the Calais to Dover route and then, after we had moved to the UK in 2014, every six weeks would see me either leave Amsterdam at 7.00 am and arrive in Mullion on the Lizard at 9.00 pm the same day, or I’d do the reverse. Six weeks with my family in Cornwall, six weeks running my business from Amsterdam, seeing our other kids and grandchildren, and catching up with my Dutch friends. It was a brilliant life. But never once was either destination a holiday for me.

Grief, cancer, brain damage and age have since caught up with me. No longer am I able to drive for long hours at a stretch. Still doing the Dunkerque to Dover route, I would stop off in the south of the Netherlands, in Brighton, the New Forest, Exeter and then home, visiting and staying with friends along the way. Never even considered changing my route, even though I now loathe the roads around Antwerp and go straight to Zeeland and then onto Dunkerque the next day. I’m familiar with the border checks, and in fact often recognise the border officials.

And then last year Durham happened. I got together with a bunch of friends to celebrate the 40th anniversary of us meeting at uni, and decided to take the IJmuiden to Newcastle route. We’d only ever done that once before, when exploring the option of perhaps spending a year in Scotland, before settling on Cornwall. But this time, it was just me and it opened my eyes: IJmuiden is a mere 30 minutes’ drive from my home in Amsterdam. An overnight stay in a comfortable cabin and the morning found me bright-eyed and bushy tailed. And in England straight away! No Belgian roads, no French speeding tickets, just from one of my home countries into the other! Why hadn’t I done this before? After all, the drive from Amsterdam to Mullion via Dover is 979 kilometres, whereas Newcastle to Mullion is only 765 kilometres. Granted, it’s 16 hours on a ferry instead of two, but I need my rest anyway.

The border force in Newcastle were a friendly bunch. Wanted to know how often I did this and I assured them I took care to stay well within the six months a year limit. And for the first time in my experience, an officer struck up a chat: How had I managed to keep my English up to scratch after returning to Amsterdam post-Brexit? Suddenly, I felt like a person instead of a potential invader, I could hug the man. And here too, no-one batted an eye at the kilos of cheese I had brought over for my friends.

The return journey was just as smooth: I’d travelled to Hereford for a meditation course two weeks before and we only had the journey to Durham to do on one day, driving on to Newcastle the next. Why on earth had I robbed myself of seeing my alma mater for so long?

The only hitch I hadn’t counted on was our arrival in IJmuiden on the way back. Border checks are in Dover, and arrival in Dunkerque always means hitting the road straight away. Not this time: border controls were on the Dutch side and all these bloody English cars and their drivers were stopped and had to have their passports stamped. It took ages, but when I asked the officer whether this was all caused by Brexit, he just shrugged: “700 cars getting off the ferry and yeah stamping those passports.” But still very smooth, he felt. Having since crossed the border from Morocco into Ceuta in Spain, I have to agree with him: there’s no comparing travelling between the UK and Holland, or coming into the European Union from a “less desirable” route.

Anyway, my mind is made up: IJmuiden to Newcastle is a great alternative and I’ve just booked my trip back home to Cornwall for mid-March. No congratulations needed.

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