In April of 2019, I traveled through an England in political purgatory: The “Brexit” vote to leave the EU had passed nearly three years earlier, but Britain seemed farther than ever from enacting it. While I was there, yet another Brexit deadline was deferred, and the Brits I asked was unsure whether, when, or how it could actually happen. And it seemed like everywhere I turned, Britain was determined to provide me with historical context for the moment it now faced. Today, several months later, Brexit is a done deal. On the occasion of Britain formally leaving the EU, I’m revisiting this chronicle of my visit during a surreal moment in history — a trip when Chaucer, Churchill, and the Chunnel were all driving home the same message: Britain and Europe have always been strange bedfellows.
On my first trip to Britain, 20 years ago, I visited some old, dear friends of my parents. Over my first-ever chicken tikka masala at the town’s finest curry house, I explained that I was excited to visit all the different parts of Europe — starting here in England. The awkward silence that ensued made it clear I had said something inappropriate. “Well, yes, but…” they finally said, kindly but firmly. “Britain is not Europe.”
Brexit may be dominating headlines today. But, as I learned on that first trip, Britain has long defined itself as something apart from Europe. I’ve just spent three weeks traveling in London and southeast England. And everywhere I go, I am reminded that Brexit is not a bold new idea. It’s the culmination of Britain’s centuries-long, love-hate relationship with the Continent.
When planning my itinerary for this spring’s trip — linking guidebook research in England with a visit to Paris — nostalgia compelled me to book a ticket on the Eurostar train through the Channel Tunnel. On that first backpacking trip in 1999, I took the Chunnel between London and Paris. Open just five years at that point, the Chunnel seemed so exciting…futuristic, even. For the first time in history, there was a “land” connection between Britain and Europe. This was the heyday of European unity: A few years later, eleven European countries would voluntarily do away with their traditional currencies in favor of the simplicity of the euro. And a couple of years after that, the European Union would expand aggressively to the east — bringing a flood of Polish and Slovak and Lithuanian workers to British shores.
In retrospect, perhaps that was too much integration, too fast. Today the Chunnel tethers England to a continent a majority of its voters have decided they want no part of. And at Ashford International train station, it shows.
Ashford International — where I’m hitching my ride through the Chunnel — is sprawling, characterless, and drab. Nobody here seems to like it very much. The simple task of driving my rental car to the station proves to be an ordeal. Circling the station, eyes peeled for a Hertz sign that never materializes, I keep winding up on the parkway to the adjacent Ashford Designer Outlet. Many times the size of the station, it exerts a strange and inescapable gravity — as if everybody in town has quietly decided that the shopping mall, and not the station linking Britain to Europe, is what Ashford should be known for.
Like all avid travelers, I’m a connoisseur of train stations — especially here in Britain, where historic brick, steel, and glass architecture mingles with modern amenities. But Ashford International has no personality. It feels like a too-big boondoggle airport in a depressed city, whose developers are currently serving five to ten in minimum security prison. My warm, fuzzy, romantic notions of “taking the Chunnel to Paris” are facing a harsh reality check.
The concourse is a ghost town. In my imagination, tumbleweeds swirl past the shuttered newsstands. There’s a scrum of loud French teenagers, apparently returning home from a class trip. And at the opposite end of the concourse — conspicuously keeping their distance — are a few weary-looking Brits, sitting sourly as if in a backed-up NHS waiting room. All of this is starkly at odds with the many colorful, life-size Mickey Mouse cutouts with the message, “Disneyland is closer than you think!” and encouraging me to “Find all 10 of the hidden Mickeys!” (Apparently, the only entity still gung-ho about the Chunnel are marketers responsible for luring British families to Disneyland Paris.)
While most of the shops in the station are closed, two indistinguishable cafés are open. Comparing the two, I choose the farther one…if only because it’s easier than backtracking to the first one. The cashier — casting suspicious glances up the concourse — grumbles about the other café. “It’s Saturday!” she whinges. “And on Saturdays, only one of these two cafés is supposed to be open. And today is our turn. But this lot” — more accusatory glances up-concourse — “apparently decided to open anyway.”
“Um,” I say. I noticed, walking by earlier, that the offending café is French-run.
“Don’t worry,” she says with a satisfied wink. “I’ve already reported this to the supervisor.”
Duly relieved, I slink away with my mediocre, burned-tasting latte (a British specialty!) and my cheese and ham panini. I munch my sandwich, looking out over the heartbreaking mediocrity of the Ashford International platforms. The gray metal canopies over the tracks match the overcast sky. I think about how that very name — Ashford International — is infused with a cheeky optimism. Fancy that! An in-ter-na-tion-al train station — in England! This must have seemed thrilling when it opened. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that the station is the embodiment of a deeply unsatisfying British-French compromise that made nobody happy — and, increasingly, feels like a regrettable albatross.
I’m probably overstating it. Maybe existential malaise is simply a prerequisite for working at a train station on a Saturday. But there’s no doubt that Brexit has stoked hard feelings on both sides of the English Channel. For most of my traveling life, Britain has prized its ties to Europe, but now the pendulum has swung back the other way — hard.
Looking over those gray tracks, I think back on what have, until now, seemed a random assortment of impressions that have stuck with me on this trip through Britain. Waiting for my train, I weave them together as strands of a thousand-year-long tale of Britain and Europe.
My first night in London was just days before the EU-imposed Brexit deadline. Curiosity drew me to the Houses of Parliament. Big Ben was entirely covered with scaffolding — a too-on-the-nose symbol of Britain’s current “work in progress” approach to sensible governance. I happened to arrive at the fence just in time to see a gaggle of pro-EU protesters, waving flags and hollering. They huddled together and mustered all their energy for a chant: “No Brexit! No Brexit! NOOOOO BREXIT!” It seemed like they were just getting warmed up. But then, having said their piece, they dispersed just like that…wandering off in every direction, aimlessly, with their limp EU flags dragging on the pavement.
A few blocks up the street, I walked by one of my favorite monuments in London, which honors British women who died serving and fighting in World War II — many of them on European soil. It stands immediately in front of Downing Street, where, at Number 10, another exemplary British woman’s talents were being squandered trying to clean up the mess created by headstrong men. Theresa May already had one foot out the door; the pinnacle of her career, it seems, was to take the fall for David Cameron’s Brexit referendum, then quietly excuse herself for another headstrong man to take the reins.
A week later — after EU authorities extended the Brexit deadline for six months, extending May’s torture (I mean, tenure) — I sipped a burned latte with a Cornishman at café under London Bridge. I asked him to look into his crystal ball: What will become of Brexit? He shrugged. Like everyone — including (especially!) Theresa May and Brexit’s other supposed architects — he had zero clue whether and how Brexit will be implemented.
I asked why they didn’t just do another referendum, to clear up the confusion and ensure the true will of the people is being heard. (This was also my brilliant suggestion in Florida in 2000. Nobody listens.) He pointed out that many people in poorer parts of the country — especially in the industrialized North, sort of the “Rust Belt” of Britain, whose Thatcher-era economic struggles worsened with David Cameron’s austerity measures — are angry at the “Soft South” (as they call London and its posh satellite communities). And, just like a significant percentage of Donald Trump’s voters were simply disillusioned people who wanted to throw a live hand grenade into the hallowed halls of government, Brexit can be seen largely as a protest vote. The problem is, in both cases — like it or not — that vote is binding, and the consequences are real.
Throughout London, the effects of European integration are evident everywhere. London may well be the most cosmopolitan city on earth, and certainly in Europe — which is one of the things I dearly love about it. And yet, selfishly, I must admit that London’s international bent sometimes complicates my guidebook research. On several occasions, I stepped into a big chain hotel to update our book’s details, and the receptionist (in a thick Italian, Spanish, or Polish accent) explained — almost bragged— they had no idea how to answer my questions, because they had just started working there a week or two before. They struck me as freewheeling young people who’d come to London on a lark, to enjoy living in a big city for a few years before moving on to the next thing. While the “revolving door” culture of the EU has its benefits, I could imagine, if I lived in London my whole life, feeling a sense of loss for a time when I used to interact with people with a less transient connection to the city.
Hastings, Chaucer, Dunkirk, Churchill, and ABBA Too
Moving on from London, I did a little road trip throughout southeast England, from Brighton to Dover to Canterbury. Here, in the corner of Britain that’s closest to Europe, the air is thick with insights about Britain’s historical connections to Europe.
Brighton, just an hour south of London by train, fancies itself Britain’s Riviera — a beach break for those who don’t have the money to head to Nice or Mykonos or Dubrovnik or the Costa del Sol. On an unseasonably warm spring day, the beach’s chunky pebbles were filled with working-class Londoners trying to get comfortable on towels and sling-back chairs. Most people seemed to be staying well back from the actual water, with just a few kids dipping numb toes into frigid surf. This struck me as a poor substitute for balmy Adriatic or Aegean beaches — but at least it’s English, dammit!
On a walking tour, my guide pointed out the Brighton Dome, where ABBA’s “Waterloo” won the Eurovision song contest in 1974, vaulting the group to super-stardom. (Am I pushing it too far to point out that the winning song was, in a very roundabout way, about Britain’s defeat of Napoleon’s French forces? Yes? OK, never mind.) There was a time when Eurovision captivated all of Britain. It was the pop music equivalent of the Olympics or the World Cup. But these days, the Brits have grown hardened and cynical: “It’s not what it used to be. After the Iron Curtain fell, the Eastern Bloc broke into a million little countries that just vote for each other all the time. It’s not fair!”
An hour’s drive east, in the town of Battle, I trudged through the drizzle around the site of the Battle of Hastings — where, in 1066, the Norman (read: French) William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxon (read: English) Harold Godwinson with an arrow through the eye. Thus began centuries of French rule over Britain. While seemingly a loss for “England,” many credit this event with bringing the until-then-remote island more fully into the European fold. If not for the Norman Conquest, Britain might still loom on Europe’s distant periphery. The English language and culture not only survived, but were enhanced by their French connection. Most English-speakers don’t even realize how many words came into our language from French — including ones for fundamental concepts like art, money, justice, diplomacy, theater, cuisine, and many, many others.
In Canterbury, I found myself reciting the first few lines of Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century masterpiece, Canterbury Tales (which I was required to memorize in college). A museum docent pointed out that Chaucer’s work was so influential, in part, because it was written in vernacular English, at a time when French was still the language of learning and literature. But things were changing. A few decades before, the Great Plague had cut England’s population in half — disproportionately killing off French speakers (who tended to live in cities, where the plague spread like a stomach bug on a cruise ship). And Chaucer was writing just as the conflict that would come to be known as the Hundred Years’ War was turning popular opinion even more strongly against French. Chaucer boldly asserted the worthiness of English as a literary language; two hundred years later, Shakespeare would cite his influence.
In Dover, peering across the English Channel, I could plainly see France despite the cloudy, drizzly, blustery weather. It’s right there, after all — just 20 miles away. Up at Dover Castle, I toured the secret tunnels from which British authorities orchestrated the “Miracle of Dunkirk” — rescuing 338,000 British troops who’d become stranded on a broad French beach after being boxed in by Nazi forces in some of the earliest fighting of World War II.
Standing atop a windy white cliff, looking across to France, I recalled the words of Winston Churchill’s most famous speech, delivered the day after Dunkirk to rally Britain for the coming winner-take-all war with Germany: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Churchill — who knew his Chaucer — made a point to use exclusively words of Anglo-Saxon origin, with just one pointed exception that came from French: “surrender.”
And then, down on Dover’s waterfront, I stumbled upon a chilling monument: a panel (donated by Germany in peacetime) where Nazi artillery forces made a note of each one of the 84 shells they lobbed at Dover from their positions on the cliffs of Calais across the English Channel. Imagine: The Nazis were so close to Britain — on French soil — that they didn’t even need airplanes or rockets to bomb it.
Just four decades later, however, Britain was again moving toward Europe. Leaving Dover, I pulled off the highway at a quiet little park called Samphire Hoe, tucked away from the world through a tunnel at the base of some of Dover’s famous white cliffs. This artificial meadowland was created by dumping more than six million cubic yards of chalk left over from the construction of the Chunnel between 1988 and 1994. By the seaside, a poignant plaque lists the names of 11 workers who died during construction.
From Britain to Europe
Back at Ashford International, I’m jolted awake from my little history lesson zone-out by the announcement — first in English, then in French — that it’s time to head down to the platform and board the train that will take me through that tunnel.
Crossing from Britain to Europe proves anticlimactic. The train pulls up, I get on and find my seat, they serve a meal. A few minutes later, while they’re bringing around coffee, it grows abruptly dark. No “Cheerio, England!” No nothing.
Writing this, feeling my ears pop as I travel under the English Channel, the future of Europe, and of Britain’s place in it, feels uncertain. But looking back over the last millennium — and over my last few weeks of travel — I realize that’s nothing new. While Brexit adds a new wrinkle to the saga, Britain’s struggle to reconcile its relationship with Europe is as old as “British-ness” itself. My crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s. But I have a hunch that, as ever, Britain can’t live with Europe…but can’t live without it.
Several minutes later, it gets light again, and my phone jingles: “Welcome to France!” (My cell phone company — eager to explain their roaming policy — seems to be the only one who cares that I’m in a new country.) And then, the loudspeaker: “Mesdames et Messieurs, nous approchons maintenant Paris.”