HIT THE ROAD: LONDON to PARIS
from Travel + Leisure, November 1993

 
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Going the long way to the Continent. 

No foreign cities are more fundamental to the American traveler than London and Paris. Yet the idea of driving a car between them occurs to few. Certainly, there’s the physical obstacle of the English Channel. And the thought of wrestling with a British right-hand-drive car in France, or a French left-hand-drive in England, is a daunting one. The key to the trip’s practicality is securing two rental cars: and English car for the drive from London to Dover, and a French one, picked up after the 90-minute sea crossing, for the ride from the coast to Paris.

My late father always maintained that Britain would be “done for” were its splendid isolation ever breached, and so, recognizing that the Channel Tunnel (the so-called Chunnel) will open someday soon—the last estimate is May 1994—I decided to make the drive as an ironic salute to him. With the idea of meandering, you should plan to devote three days to a drive that can actually be completed in less than seven hours. Mosey through Kent to the English Channel the first day. Begin the next morning with the crossing to France, followed by a drive into Picardy. Arrive in Paris on the third day. 

Driving out of central London is cheerless. Along the heavily trafficked A-2, you’ll pass mile upon mile of gentrified houses and course over suburban high streets filled increasingly with the likes of McDonald’s restaurants. Then, just after the road becomes Shooter’s Hill, you’ll emerge suddenly onto Blackheath, a vast oasis of lawn skirted by imposing Georgian mansions. 
 

London effectively ends at Blackheath; along instantly, you’re in the countryside of Kent. The A-2 crosses the North Downs, a range of gently undulating green hills, slopes and pastures with munching sheep. Soon, you’ll see the conical-shared roofs of the first oast-houses, where England’s beer-makers have dried Kentish hops for more than a millennium. As you cross the estuary of the river Medway, look left toward the old port of Rochester—the setting for Dicken’s Great Expectations and Pickwick Papers—where the 12th century Rochester Castle, with its four perfectly proportioned turrets, evokes the quintessential toy fortress.

Faversham's rambling Abbey Street is a welcome departure from the Hectic A-2 that leads into town.

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The first stop is at Faversham, a delightful town with more than 400 landmark-status houses. For 900 years, citizens of Kent have been gathering beneath the arches of Faversham’s Guildhall in Market Place. After parking nearby, you can spend a couple of hours shopping (Kent’s cherries and apples and England’s finest), browsing at the visitor center on Preston Street and ambling through narrow lanes.

Unlike neighboring seafront towns, Whistable never flaunted any pretensions of resorthood, choosing instead to remain old-fashioned and dedicated to harvesting its eponymous oysters. Britain’s most delicate. The route to Sea Street is lined. By rows of Lilliputian-scale fishermen’s houses. Park near the distinctly unglamourous, shopfront Whitstable Yacht Club stroll the Sea Wall, bordered on one side by simple white-painted wooden fisherman’s cottages and on the other by the shingle beach. Along the way is Pearson’s Crab & Oyster House, a 175-year-old pub, where lunch might include lobster bisque, a half-dozen sparklingly fresh oysters and a pint of robust Kentish apple cider.

Around a bend just beyond the village of Blean to the south, Canterbury suddenly reveals itself in the valley—the gray-stone and red-roof sprawl of the town, with the mammoth cathedral soaring from its core. The vista, framed by a statuesque cedar of Lebanon, helps you understand the trek that Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Nun’s Priest made here 600 years ago. Upon arriving, follow the signs to a high-rise parking lot. Then wander through arched, ancient streets to the cathedral, started in 1071; explore its cloisters, tall nave and shrive to Thomas à Becket and to the Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time.

Michellin Map No. 404 for Great Britain and Nos. 236 and 237 for France show all routes

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From Canterbury, the A-257 goes east into a characteristic olde-England countryscape. Acres of cherry orchards line the route through villages with mellow stone churches, serene graveyards, oast-houses and half-timbered cottages. At the hamlet of Ash, visit the St. Nicholas Winery to sample its Kentish wines and admire its corpulent geese. Next comes Sandwich, a port in the Middle Ages and now inland, whose High Street seems unchanged since the time of Thackeray. Sandwich entered immortality two centuries ago with its earl, too engrossed in bezique to pause for dinner, had his butler improvise a meal by placing hunks of roast meat between two slices of bread.

The seaside towns of Deal and Walmer both have a rotund castle built by Henry VIII in the shape of a Tudor rose. And both reached their zenith as resorts in the Victorian era, but are now tired and pale. Yet, the stately mansions and wrought-iron streetlamps lining the seafronts manage still to exude genteel coziness. Just to the south, in St. Margaret’s-at-Cliffe is a collection of mansions and follies built by millionaires—Noël Coward among them.

From the beach, it’s a two-minute backtrack by car to Wallett’s Court, a country-house hotel at West Cliffe, with just 12 commodious guest rooms. You should arrive in time for afternoon tea, when you can collapse into one of the sagging sofas before a roasting fire in the wood-beamed lounge. Owner-chef Chris Oakley, who trained with the Roux brothers at London’s Le Gavroche, produces a spectacular dinner: capellini with smoked trout, salmon and haddock; tender medallions of venison with a pureé of plums; a sublime concoction of strawberries, meringues and Devonshire cream.

The ferry dock to France is a short drive from Wallett’s Court. After turning in the car, it’s liberating to stride aboard the boat. A few minutes later standing at the railing, amid sea-spray and the warming rays of sun, watching the stark White Cliffs of Dover and its castle recede into the horizon, it’s easy to muse on how the opening the Channel Tunnel will change this experience. Who could prefer the tunnel to this? When completed, it will not even be drive-through. Travelers will load their vehicles onto glorified subway cars where they’ll have to remain for the under-channel ride, an enterprise taking as long as 50 minutes. And, as if to prove the point, by the time you’ve finished a hearty breakfast, the ferry will be docking in Calais.

If you catch the 7 A.M. ferry, you can be back on the road by 9:45 (France is one hour ahead of England). Drive into Calais to admire the Gothic town hall, and then follow the coastal road to Sangatte, where Caterpillar tractors and mud mark an exit of the Chunnel. At Cap Blanc-Nez, Dover’s white cliffs are clearly visible until the road switched back and reveals a patchwork of green and brown treeless farmland. At Wissant and Audreselles you’ll confront the rusting and weather-stained concrete remnants of the Nazi’s Atlantic Wall fortifications.

Wimereux, a pretty resort town much in vogue in the Teens and Twenties, is noted for its collection of lavish holiday houses with gabled Norman turrets. Broad, sandy beaches and Waikiki-quality surf contrast with England’s ozone-pungent shingle. Upon entering the port city of Boulogne, follow signs uphill to the massive, medieval walls of the Vielle Ville (Old Town). Inside the northernmost of the ancient gates is the 19th-century Notre Dame Cathedral, with its vast, frescoed dome. The pastries and antiques in historic Place Godefroy-de-Bouillion are tempting.

On Route N-1, once the main highway to Paris, it’s a 20-mile drive through apple orchards and nondescript villages to Montreuil-sur-Mer, an engaging town with walkable ramparts and cobbled lanes, which for centuries, like Sandwich, has been miles from la mer. Park at Place Darnetal, a square with fountains and trees, enjoy a café au lait, or have an early lunch at the elegant Château de Montreuil, where owner-chef Christian Germain and his English wide, Lindsay, are charming hosts.

 

From Montreuil, you continue through hills and forests to Hesdin. The town’s Gothic Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) in the Place d’Armes was the palace of Marie of Hungary in the 16th century; Rue Daniel-Lereuil, where little bridges cross the canals of the river Canche, is good for window-shopping.

 

Continue on through Picardy’s undulating farmland to Arras, a city battered and brutalized in World War I, but magnificently restored shortly thereafter. Sites include the Place des Héros, a gorgeous Flemish square surrounded by imposing 18th-century gabled mansions and arched colonnades, the opulently ornamented Hôtel de Ville and the adjacent Grande Place.

Place Darnetal in Montreuil-sur-Mer

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From Arras a short pilgrimage to the northeast leads to Vimy Ridge, site of untold horrors from 1915 to 1917. At any of the many walled cemeteries, it is jarring to confront row upon row of anonymous Allied graves, the tombstones inscribed merely “Known Unto God,” and the nearby Canadian War Memorial, France’s most impressive World War I monument. Hauntingly close to the memorials are authentic battle trenches through which visitors can clamber.

Retrace the route to Arras and continue 20 miles southwest to where the highway is suddenly framed by a tunnel of tall trees on the descent into the market town of Doullens. Keep watch for maroon signs to the Château de Remaisnil, then ascend a narrow country lane until the house emerges on your left, grand and impeccably proportioned at the apex of an avenue of poplars. The château was built in 1760 and, until recently, was the home of the late designer Laura Ashley, whose tastefully opulent decoration has been retained by current owner-hosts Adrian and Susan Doull. Tea is served at 5 P.M. in the eau-de-nil paneled library. I chose to spend the night in the Ritz Bedroom, with its Louis XV commodes and escritoire, Aubusson tapestries, emperor-size bed, and an Art Nouveau tiled bathroom whose clawfoot tub could comfortably sleep three. Dinner, served in the Louis XVI dining room, is