Getting to a CCI5* is always an enormous undertaking — but never more so than in a pandemic year. Our own Tilly Berendt is on the road to Luhmühlen with Great Britain’s Mollie Summerland and her horse Charly van ter Heiden – and she’s documenting the whole journey as it happens. Welcome to part two: in which the girls risk it all for a trucker’s breakfast.
“The UK Border Force have identified an issue with your transit movement. Please report to the front office for further details.”
The scene: 9.00 a.m. in the maze of Dover’s port. The weather was that uninspiring combination of heavily overcast and deeply, deeply muggy, and I suddenly had a sweat on that rivalled a five-star horse at the end of cross-country. We’d successfully managed a 5.00 a.m. wake-up call (for me, not for Mollie – I’d left a slew of freshly-washed knickers outside overnight in the hope that they’d dry in time for me to finish my packing before we left, and so my early morning routine involved groggily scooping up a bunch of damp undergarments and hating myself), had coaxed Charly up from the sweetest of dreams in his deep straw bed, had squeezed in a much-needed coffee break, and had found our way to the offices of John Parker International, the incredible shipping agents who had organised our passage across the English Channel. They’d also taken control of the carnet, an in-depth itemisation of the items on board the lorry, which sounds like it should be a single sheet of paper but is actually a weighty, formidable tome that would be inspected twice over in the course of our journey. It looked terrifying, and I was sure it could smell my fear. Now, we’d taken the carnet to the Motis Freight Clearance depot, a place that looked a bit like a trucking version of the elephant graveyard in The Lion King, but with more seagulls and a bathroom so revolting that I was sure I’d found the origin of the coronavirus.
The job in hand? Deliver the carnet to the Motis agents, who would inspect it and effectively run us through customs. There was a small chance they’d want to actually see every item on the list, which would have required us to unload Charly and somehow locate everything we’d squirreled away while playing lorry Tetris the night before. This felt like the sort of job I’d only be able to manage after two more coffees, and so I gamely put on my best ‘sweet, simple horse girl’ face, chucked on a Team GB jacket for good measure, and shouldered my way through the queue of burly men and their bleary-eyed come-ons, as advised by Jenna, shipping agent and hero of the universe.
“You’ll be able to jump queues if they know you have an animal on board,” she’d told me the day prior, when I’d phoned her to ask her to go through my own checklist with me and explain the whole process as though I was a bit slow.
I took her at her word.
“I have a horse!” I bellowed, documents held aloft as though they’d get me access to a lifeboat on the Titanic. The Dover trafficking ring kindly parted to let me through, and I was relieved of the most boring book I’ve ever seen and told to wait in the lorry. In thirty minutes or so, they told me, I would get a text to come collect the signed-off paperwork – as long as it was all correct. Bumcheeks firmly clenched in fear, I tottered back to the truck.
And then the text came, just 15 minutes later, shrill and shouty and frightening.
“Oh wow, are they done already?” asked Mollie, looking mildly interested. I glanced at the screen, forced a fake smile, and confirmed.
“Yep, looks like it,” I said, sticking firmly to my weeklong ethos that the less the rider knows about how precarious the whole plan is, and the less involvement they have generally, the better. Grinning manically, I headed back into the office, absolutely certain that I was about to discover that the Border Police had discovered a hidden meth lab in our bathroom, or something. Was I about to go to prison for a very, very long time? Or, more likely, were we about to be sent on the long road back home?
As it turns out, these pesky Border Police just quite enjoy watching horse girls squirm early in the morning. There wasn’t actually a problem with the carnet; instead, all they needed was for me to confirm that every item on the list was, in fact, present and accounted for, and sign my life away accordingly. I’d have been livid, really, if the chap in uniform wasn’t so dishy in a kind of 90s boyband way. It’s very hard to be frightened of a man with better eyebrows than me, even when you’re responsible for what was starting to feel like the heist of the century.
And so we headed on to the port itself, my bum slowly unclenching and our route made easier by a familiar sight: the enormous visage of Australian eventer Andrew Hoy splashed across the sides of his colossal new lorry. We began utilising a system that would serve us well through the day: follow Andrew, and ignore the fact that he probably glimpsed us in his wing mirrors and thought that the local Pony Club was stalking him across the sea.
At this point, I definitely thought we were over the worst of the hurdles; after all, all we had to do now was get through check-in, fight our way onto a ferry, and then go in search of bacon. Somehow, though, checking in ended up being the most difficult bit – not because they wanted to see all our various letters of exemption, nor our negative COVID test results (neither of which they ever actually asked for), but because they didn’t seem to actually remember what they were there to do. The conversation went something like this:
[FADE IN — EXT: CHECK-IN BOOTH]
TILLY BERENDT, 29, plasters on her forty-seventh beaming, manic smile of the morning.
Hello! Hi! How are you!
In the booth, A DISINTERESTED CHECK-IN PERSON, 40s, eyes the idling lorry beadily.
DISINTERESTED CHECK-IN PERSON
What do you want?
[Visibly confused] To…check in for our ferry?
DISINTERESTED CHECK-IN PERSON’s eyebrows raise so high they nearly disappear into her hair. She says nothing.
We have…a booking? From John Parker International?
DISINTERESTED CHECK-IN PERSON says nothing, with some added fervour.
For the 11.40 P&O ferry?!
DISINTERESTED CHECK-IN PERSON looks disapproving.
DISINTERESTED CHECK-IN PERSON
MANIC TILLY unsheaths a pair of passports from her BIG BINDER OF PAPERWORK, a sickeningly vibrant lime green one that will ostensibly be harder to lose than a less hideous one might have been. DISINTERESTED CHECK-IN PERSON takes a perfunctory look at them, puts them on her desk, and returns to staring at MANIC TILLY.
DISINTERESTED CHECK-IN PERSON
What do you want now?
…To…go…to the ferry…? Do I need to give you further documentation?
There is a pregnant pause. DISINTERESTED CHECK-IN PERSON’s eyebrow muscles appear to be under some strain. She turns to mutter — disinterestedly — to her colleague. Her job appears to be done.
Can we…get our passports back?
DISINTERESTED CHECK-IN PERSON hands them back — eventually — and waves the lorry along, while MANIC TILLY and TRUCKER MOLLIE wonder how on earth they’ve managed to get the full French customer service experience before even crossing a border.
Fortunately, check-in point number two was considerably more helpful, and we even managed to get bumped up to an earlier ferry – a welcome prospect, both in terms of getting to breakfast sooner, and also because we’d be more likely to make our customs and vet inspection appointments on the other side.
And then we were on board, and finally, for the first time in the whole convoluted process, I felt like I could let myself comprehend the huge adventure we were actually embarking on. Ten days based with one of the best eventers in the world, with a few more exciting horses (and their people) joining us there, and then on to one of my absolute favourite events and a second run at the level for Mollie and Charly, who were tenth and utterly excellent at their first at Pau last year. It was time to celebrate in the best way that eventing folks know how: with a 2,000 calorie breakfast and for me, a completely indulgent morning beer to mark the start of the ultimate working holiday.
We opened our little lorry up to allow a fresh-faced Charly to size up his fellow freight on board the ferry, offered up drinks, snacks, and plenty of cuddles, and then headed into the lion’s den: a boat full of middle-aged, hungry-eyed professional truckers murmuring lascivious suggestions under their breath in a variety of languages. To toughen up our appearances, we did the right and natural thing: we headed straight to duty-free to buy ourselves a large stuffed unicorn to act as our lucky mascot for the week.
They say you can find strength in numbers, and between the three of us – Mollie, a stuffed unicorn called Sprinkles, and I – we survived being the only women on a weird, horny ferry. We were in France. It was all actually happening – and all we had to do was play one final game of Follow the Hoy Boy to find our way through the last customs and vet inspection stops.
This was the bit that I felt like a lifetime of being really bad at languages had prepared me for. I’d spent a hectic week before Houghton frantically squeezing in Rosetta Stone German lessons to ready myself for dealing with the German border police; consequently, I was absolutely fired up and ready to tell them that the man is smelling the milk, the rice tastes bad, and that we have twelve plates — all very helpful stuff. Here, despite having actually lived in Paris for six months a few years ago, I had just one trump card to play: I could fire out a sharp “arrêtez de me toucher ou j’exterminerai vos testicules.” I hoped I wouldn’t have to use it.
In the end, no Frenchman nor his testicules crossed my path. Instead, Mollie, Charly and I waited with our unicorn. And we waited. And we waited some more. Then we met a nice (?) man who appeared out of nowhere in the customs carpark and circled our lorry as though inspecting it a few times, before standing approximately a foot from Charly’s curious little face and smiling benignly at both of us while I tried not to make it obvious that I’d moved to physically guard the horse from the wandering man. (Will men ever realise that invading people’s space is not cute, or fun, or anything other than unnerving for anyone? Probably not. Testicules everywhere, beware.)
And then, despite the achingly long wait, it was all over. We were given our paperwork back and welcomed into France. Finally, for the first time in a week, my solidly-clenched bum muscles could relax, and we could settle in for the important stuff: arguing over what constituted an ‘old school’ playlist (according to the 23-year-old, this is anything released prior to 2017), locating the best possible stop for a graze and some waffles, and putting the entire eventing world through a ruthless game of Shag, Marry, Kill. It was road trip time – for real now.
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