Thirteen years ago, on May 14 2007, I set off on a Sea France ferry from the port of Dover headed across La Manche for Calais, almost forty-four kilometres away in France. Four hundred and twelve years ago a man of Somerset named Thomas Coryat made the same journey, without the joys of a duty-free shop or expensive rubber croissants.
His aim on arrival was to walk a goodly part of Europe, the Protestant bit – or rather the non-Spanish – write a book about his trip; get rich and famous. My aim was to copy his walk, day by day, for the five months it took Tom Coryat to walk almost two thousand miles from Calais to Flushing on the coast of Holland – via Venice, the length of the Rhine, the Alps…Strasbourg, Heidelberg…
We know the route because he did write that book, publishing “Coryat’s Crudities” in 1611.
It detailed each day, each encounter. Each walk.
He was our first tourist.
It didn’t sell well. Few believed he’d made the trip.
They said it was Faketh Newse.
This morning in mask-wearing quarantined London I’m revisiting the first day of my recreation.
Which took three summers to complete, in the end.
Thirteen years on from that rainy Monday I can post a bunch more images on my Instagram story. @TomCoryat. Photographs that never uploaded to the original blog because of slow Wi-Fi. No smart phone.
These days I can find extraordinary library and journalistic resources online. Can learn and post from anywhere.
Anywhere on earth.
Except I’m following self-isolation at home. A virtual tourist with a terabyte of images from my travels 2003-2020.
Still trying to finish a historical novel about power that’s grown and shrunk and grows again.
Every morning I photograph the sunlight on our bedroom blinds. Pretend on sunny days I’m looking out onto the coastline of Cassis or the Sahara. Post the images to #Blinds on my Instagram.
I’ve even been back to some of my favourite places on the route, a few of them several times.
Dover, Paris, Worms, Lyons, Heidelberg, Venice, Bonn…Montreuil sur Mer.
And Calais too.
We took Portia’s son there to work in The Jungle.
But until this year, this terrible year that has made each of us a solitary desert island of memory and fear, and trapped longing, I hadn’t realized the radical beauty of my journey; of Tom’s. The utter luxury and privilege of the absolute freedom we were both afforded by our class, the times in which we travelled.
The temporary absence of war, or plague.
The borderless Europe of utopia.
Tom’s lingua franca was Latin. He held a pass port issued personally by the Prince of Wales. Who was fourteen.
My lingua franca was Microsoft English. VISA, Apple…Leica. Booking.com.
I realise today that #BetwixtEurope is a lifelong project, is dedicated to a Europe I can imagine, and already miss. And will always be engaged with.
Whether today’s experience mirrors 1938 I couldn’t say, or 1847, or any one of the five major outbreaks of bubonic plague in London during Shakespeare’s lifetime, when the well-to-do got out of town.
And Shakespeare took his players to Rochester and Dover.
Where he saw that cliff.
And wrote King Lear? Who really knows?
I do know that in this anxious age of populist walls and panoptical surveillance we need to remember from time to Netflix binge what is found outside, out of the window, across the sea.
Over the hillside.
Down the road.
And I’ve been lucky enough to be over the hillside a great deal. So, I’m going to travel back, breath it in.
I got ill almost as soon as I checked into my humble hotel in Calais on the afternoon of Monday May 14.
Sweated out the first day feeling stupid and searching fevered for a signal.
My Instagram handle is @TomCoryat, if you want to see what the rain looked like.