Lord Warden

We are all Europeans now. The English travel throughout continental Europe, and the UK is a leading tourist destination as well as a magnet for job seekers from Poland to Portugal. Today’s travelers don’t think twice before boarding a plane or a train, alighting shortly after in Brussels, Budapest, or Barcelona. True, one European in three never leaves home; but everyone else makes up for them with insouciant ease. Even the (internal) frontiers have melted away: it can be a while before you realize you have entered another country.

It wasn’t always thus. In my London childhood, “Europe” was somewhere you went on exotic foreign vacations. The “Continent” was an alien place—I learned far more about New Zealand or India, whose imperial geography was taught in every elementary school. Most people never ventured abroad: vacations were taken at windswept English coastal resorts or in cheery domestic holiday camps. But it was a peculiarity of our family (a side effect of my father’s Belgian childhood?) that we crossed the English Channel quite a lot; certainly more than most people in our income bracket.

Celebrities flew to Paris; mere mortals took the boat. There were ferries from Southampton, Portsmouth, Newhaven, Folkestone, Harwich, and points north, but the classic—and by far the most heavily traveled—route lay athwart the neck of the Channel from Dover to Calais or Boulogne. British and French Railways (SNCF) monopolized this crossing until the Sixties. The SNCF still used a pre-war steamer, the SS Dinard, which had to be deck-loaded by crane, car by car. This took an extraordinarily long time, even though very few cars used the service in those days. In consequence, my family always tried to schedule trips to coincide with departures by British Railways’ flagship ferry, the Lord Warden.

Unlike the Dinard, a tiny ship that bucked and tossed alarmingly in unsettled seas, the Lord Warden was a substantial vessel: capable of handling a thousand passengers and 120 cars. It was named after the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports—the five coastal settlements granted special freedoms in 1155 AD in return for services to the English Crown. A cross-Channel ferry service from Dover to Calais (an English possession from 1347 until 1558) dated from those same years, so the ship was well-christened.

As I remember it, the Lord Warden, which entered service in 1951 and was not retired until 1979, was a spacious modern ship. From its vast vehicle hold to its bright, capacious dining room and leatherette lounges, the boat promised adventure and luxury. I would rush my parents into breakfast, seizing a window table and ogling the ever-so-traditional menu. At home we ate sugarless cereals, drank sugar-free juice, and buttered our wheaten toast with sensible marmalades. But this was holiday-land, a time out of health, and concessions were made.

Half a century later, I still associate continental travel with English breakfast: eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes, beans, white-bread toast, sticky jams, and British Railways’ cocoa, heaped on heavy white plates emblazoned with the name…

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