The long drive to Poland: Part 1

The first time I visited Poland, a couple of years ago, we drove there.

We didn’t really have a choice – we needed to return my girlfriends car there. She’d bought it across to the UK when she’d moved here six months ago, and the law stated that it could only stay in the country for six months before having to register it.

She loved her car, an American model (2.4l auto) 2004 Toyota Rav4, and we’d considered registering it here in the UK to be able to keep it. However, it was left hand drive so not ideal in the UK, and other tax and insurance complexities meant that it had to go. Selling a left hand drive car in the UK is always difficult, and the market for these types of car in Poland allegedly being good at the time, we decided to drive it back there, and for a friend to sell it on.

On a Friday afternoon in grey  October, I left work on the borders of North Wales, near Chester, early at about 3:30pm, picked up the girlfriend, and we set off for the south coast.

Friday afternoon motorway traffic being what it is, and having to cover a long distance over several major motorways and known congestion spots, we’d decided to set off as soon as we could and had opted for a ferry option that gave us some flexibility.

Long drive to Dover ferry port
Long drive to Dover ferry port

Direct ferries allowed us to buy a ‘standard’ ticket that allowed us (should there be sufficient space on board) to board a ferry one time slot before the purchased time, or one slot afterwards. P&O wanted a significant amount extra to be able to add any flexibility.

We decided to purchase the 10pm ticket (via our favourite site, TopCashBack, of course!). If the traffic was sweet all the way down, the earliest we could arrive was just after 7pm, which would set us up nicely for the ferry one time slot before the midnight slot, i.e. the 8pm ferry. However, we knew that this would be unlikely, and were happy to accept the 10pm ferry. If things were really bad, we could still get the next slot, the midnight ferry.

Some ferries went to Dunkirk, others to Calais – it didn’t make a huge difference to us, as the time made up on the shorter Calais crossing was eaten up by about the same amount of time driving east past Dunkirk and into Belgium.

As it was, it was slow going. We suffered the usually sluggish traffic going down the M6 near Manchester & Knutsford, and hit the expected congestion around Birmingham. The roadworks around Luton had further impeded our progress, as had the petrol, toilet and snack stops. By the time we hit the M25 though, the worst of rush hour was over. Nonetheless, it was still slow going, and traffic crawled pathetically slowly over the Dartford bridge.

Progress wasn’t much better when we got off the M25, due to some more roadworks, and the inevitable slow lorry in front of us on the single carriageways. Added to all this, there was a torrential rain storm, and visibility was vastly reduced. Deep puddles built up at the side of the road threatened to pull us off the road. It was hard going!

At half past 9 at night, bombing towards the docks, we read the ferry arrival procedures. It seemed to suggest that you needed to arrive at least 45 minutes prior to sailing, else they might not let you on. So we may have had to wait until the midnight ferry, which would have been a pain.

We decided to call the ferry company, and let them know we were coming.

The lady on the phone was somewhat stroppy, but she said that depending on how busy it was, they may let us on with fiften minutes to spare.

We reached Dover at 9:45pm.

Searching frantically for the correct port and lane, we bounced along the rough ground and flew into the stop & search area. We were asked to open the boot, and they held a mirror underneath the car, but only delayed us for a moment.

At ten minutes to ten, we drove onto the ferry.

It actually sailed only five minutes later, i.e. five minutes before it was due to leave!

We breathed a sigh of relief and headed off to find some comfortable seats. If we’d had to sit in the car for another 2 hours, in the cold, that would have been very frustrating, especially as we planned to try and drive for another hour or two once we’d crossed.

Had we taken the best route to Dover?

We’d actually had three route options: carry on around Birmingham, taking the M40 down to the M25; turn off at Birmingham and take the M6 to the M1 and to the M25; or cut across the M1 to take the A14 cross country to get onto the A1, down to the M25.

None of them were ideal. We couldn’t avoid the M6 traffic, nor Birmingham – unless we opted to go across country to Nottingham at Stoke on Trent, but we knew that would take longer. But what would be better, the M40, the M1, or the A14 & A1?

The M40 would most likely be the least congested, but it bring us to the wrong side of the M25. This route had the longest stretch of the M25, which put me off.

In hindsight, it wouldn’t have mattered so much – rush hour was more or less over by the time we would have hit the M25.

The A14-A1 option didn’t appeal as it meant quite a few stretches of single carriageway and I knew that if we took this option, we’d have been stuck behind countless lorries and tractors or other slow moving vehicles.

So I’d recommend the M40 option if you are considering doing a similar journey from the North West to the South East on a Friday afternoon at a similar time of day.

Have contemplated this and found a reasonably comfortable corner of a quiet restaurant on board the ferry, we piled our coats up as padding and laid down for a couple of hours, trying to get some sleep.

At midnight the ferry arrived at Dunkirk.

As soon as the announcment came on that you could return to your car and the doors unlocked, a mass of humanity poured to the lower levels to get to their cars as soon as they could.

And waited.

It took about 30 minutes before we could even start to crawl forward; and another 15 minutes passed until we finally drove off the ferry.

It was a quarter to 1 in the morning, on Saturday the 12th of October 2013, but we were in France!

Only that, and three more countries, to drive through, in order to reach our destination.

See Part 2 of the story

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