Mr Hilaire Belloc sails across the Channel for the first time

Cape Gris-Nez,France

‘I saw Gris-Nez, a huge ghost, right up against and above me; and I wondered, for I had crossed the Channel, now for the first time, and knew now what it felt like to see new land’ Image shot by Donar Reiskoffer, available from the Wikimedia

These days we tend to remember Hilaire Belloc for two amusing cautionary poems for children – Jim and Matilda Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death – but the writer, poet, political activist, historian and proudly dedicated Roman Catholic was also an enthusiastic yachtsman. It’s difficult to imagine how he found time to go afloat, but he seems to have been successful in yacht racing as well as cruising.

In the early 1930s, I understand he was given an old pilot cutter, which he sailed around the coasts of England; one of his crews, Dermod MacCarthy, wrote a book about his time with Belloc, titled Sailing with Mr Belloc.

On returning this afternoon from what should have been a weekend of sailing ruined by bad weather, I turned to my books and found this description of Belloc’s first channel crossing. I can only describe my feelings as mixed!

He talks as if he made the trip single-handedly (though there are reasons to doubt this – seen Chris Partridge’s comment below), and to have an odd attitude towards the French despite the fact that, as a boy and a young man, he held French nationality.

The sea being calm, and the wind hot, uncertain and light from the east, leaving oily gaps on the water and continually dying down, I drifted one morning in the strong ebb to the South Goodwin Lightship, wondering what to do. There was a haze over the land and over the sea, and through the haze great ships a long way off showed, one or two of them, like oblong targets which one fires at with guns. They hardly moved in spite of all their canvas set, there was so little breeze. So I drifted in the slow ebb past the South Goodwin, and I thought: ‘What is all this drifting and doing nothing? Let us play the fool and see if there are no adventures left.’

So I put my little boat about until the wind took her from forward, such as it was, and she crawled out to sea.

It was a dull, uneasy morning, hot and silent, and the wind, I say, was hardly a wind, and most of the time the sails flapped uselessly.

But after eleven o’clock the wind first rose, and then shifted a little, and then blew light but steady; and then at last she heeled and the water spoke under her bows, and still she heeled and ran, until in the haze I could see no more land ; but ever so far out there were no seas, for the light full breeze was with the tide, the tide ebbing out as strong and silent as a man in anger, down the hidden parallel valleys of the narrow sea.

And I held this little wind till about two o’clock, when I drank wine and ate bread and meat at the tiller, for I had them by me, and just afterwards, still through a thick haze of heat, I saw Gris-Nez, a huge ghost, right up against and above me; and I wondered, for I had crossed the Channel, now for the first time, and knew now what it felt like to see new land.

Though I knew nothing of the place, I had this much sense, that I said to myself: ‘The tide is right down Channel, racing through the hidden valleys under the narrow sea, so it will all go down together and all come up together, and the flood will come on this foreign side much at the same hour that it does on the home side.” My boat lay to the cast and the ebb tide held her down, and I lit a pipe and looked at the French hills and thought about them and the people in them, and England which I had left behind, and I was delighted with the loneliness of the sea; and still I waited for the flood.

But in a little while the chain made a rattling noise, and she lay quite slack and swung oddly; and then there were little boiling and eddying places in the water, and the water seemed to come up from underneath sometimes, and altogether it behaved very strangely, and this was the turn of the tide. Then the wind dropped also, and for a moment she lolloped about, till at last, after I had gone below and straightened things, I came on deck to see that she had turned completely round, and that the tide at last was making up my way, towards Calais, and her chain was taut and her nose pointed down Channel, and a little westerly breeze, a little draught of air, came up cool along the tide.

When this came I was very glad, for I saw that I could end my adventure before night. So I pulled up the anchor and fished it, and then turned with the tide under me and the slight half—felt breeze just barely filling the mainsail (the sheet was slack, so powerless was the wind), and I ran up along that high coast, watching eagerly every new thing; but I kept some way out for fear of shoals, till after three good hours under the reclining sun of afternoon, which glorified the mist, I saw, far off, the roofs and spires of a town and low piers running well out to sea, and I knew that it must be Calais. And I ran for these piers, careless of how I went, for it was already half of the spring flood tide, and everything was surely well covered for so small a boat, and I ran up the fairway in between the piers and saw Frenchmen walking about and a great gun peeping up over its earthwork, and plenty of clean new masonry. And a man came along and showed me where I could lie; but I was so strange to the place that I would not take a berth but lay that night moored to an English ship.

And when I had eaten and drunk and everything was stowed away and darkness had fallen, I went on deck, and for a long time sat silent, smoking a pipe and watching the enormous lighthouse of Calais, which is built right in the town, and which turns round and round above one all night long.

And I thought: ‘Here is a wonderful thing! I have crossed the Channel in this little boat, and I know now what the sea means that separates France from England. I have strained my eyes for shore through a haze. I have seen new lands, and I feel as men do who have dreamed dreams.’

But in reality I had had very great luck indeed and had had no right to cross, for my coming hack was to he far more dillicult and dreadful, and I was to suffer many things before again I could see tall England, close by me, out of the sea.

But how I came back, and of the storm, and of its majesty, and of how the boat and I survived, I will tell you another time, only imploring you to do the same; not to tell of it, I mean, but to sail it in a little boat.