Pont Aven

We are on a ferry! Going to Spain! Escaping Covid, Brexit and the peculiar malaise of being British in the summer. We have slipped the surly bonds of home. Windblown and barefoot, small Nicholls flit across the sundeck like sparrows. We have all of our travel essentials ready: Pringles, beer, a G&T in a plastic cup; binoculars, a picnic and an orange hoodie to wave at tiny far-off Grandma on Plymouth dockside, who cheerily returns our farewell using a Sainsbury’s plastic bag.

We were leaving England on a magnificent adventure, only three months later than planned, and it was Spain of all places that was to be our first overseas destination. Spain I tell you! A country of lemons and olives, jamón, paella, Rioja; with matadors strutting around in their finery like a relics of a bygone age. There would be lush coastlines and parched desert interiors, granite massifs peppered with vineyards, olive groves and precarious adobe villages clinging to the rock face. We would follow the footsteps of George Orwell, Laurie Lee, Ernest Hemingway. The Spanish are a dark-eyed sinuous race, ever laughing and twirling, impervious to the heat of the day. Their glossy hair is always groomed. Some of this flamboyance and self-belief will rub off on us surely. Not for us the Mediterranean sun traps of Malaga and Marbella though – claro que no! We are going to surf our way around the Atlantic coast. Live on pan y chorizo and apricots picked from the tree, fall asleep to a soundtrack of flamenco guitars and Balearic beats. We would camp in the clifftop wildlands of Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia – and just how satisfying are those names as they bubble through your mouth, with their deep Spanish assonance, strange feminine ‘c’s, vibrant fricatives and trilled rhotives (rolled ‘r’s right?)? The Iberian peninsula is the only place to be in summer 2020.

And the ferry was awesome! Huge and new, proudly proclaiming herself the flagship of the Brittany Fleet. The Pont Aven, God Bless her! Or rather que Dieu la bénisse! as onboard there was an charming francophone insistence, which meant all signs, announcements and crew interactions should be initiated in French, despite the fact that the boat was heading between Plymouth and Santander and had nothing to do with France whatsoever. Magnifique!

Our cabin was a triumph in ergonomics. It had a sofa that flipped into a bed and three further bunks that pulled magically down from wall and ceiling panels. There was a bathroom the size of a phonebox full of clever folding gizmos. The kids nearly exploded with excitement, but given the lack of space they could only squeak and bounce furiously for a while before creating a game where you had to hop from bunk to bunk in a certain sequence. I tried it, but was disadvantaged by my size and then Menna told us all off before I could really nail it. We stayed up long into the night, piled on one bunk ,watching Jurassic Park on my iPad, then we slept in very late, confused by the total darkness of our internal berth.

The best thing about the ferry was the wake. A churning highway that stretched straight and true for miles behind us, gleaming foamy white against the dark bottle green sea. I sat on the top deck and watched it for hours with Menna as the kids scampered between decks. At one point we saw a commotion of gulls and dolphins in a feeding frenzy and later there was a lone tern that seemed to navigate along its line for some hours (I wished it had been an Albatross!). We passed the lonely Edistone lighthouse, far out at sea, a navigation milestone that unleashed many nostalgic tales of Menna’s childhood cross-channel voyages.

That wake was a road that connected us to our home port, but it was also a symbol of progress. We were surging forwards on the unmarked face of the ocean, blazing a new path where there was none before.

We have a one-way ticket outbound and who knows when we will be home again.

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