The Old Duffers Flying Club have lunch in Calais

Travel Talk

Though I am a sociable type, I've never been what you might call "clubbable", preferring my own company to that of others – or, at any rate, others in large numbers.

Back in the dark ages, when Fleet Street still lived and it was not a hanging offence to pay a compliment to a passing lady, the equivalent of being in a club was "having a drink with the lads".  It happened in all the nearby pubs, but I was not an enthusiast. 

I am told that "having a drink with the lads" is now regarded as utterly anti-social, especially if driving home afterwards is on the cards.  And, in any case, it doesn't exist any more, having been replaced by something called "networking". 

Which brings me to the point, concerning a very old pub in the City of London, which is used as an unofficial headquarters by a club of sorts to which I belong. 

(I may also mention a now defunct organisation of which I was a member.  It was called – wait for it – The Useless Information Society.  But we'll come to that in a moment.) 

Ye Old Mitre First, the very old pub.  It is The Mitre in Ely Place, off Hatton Garden, and dates from 1546.  In the summer of that year Henry VIII signed the Treaty of Ardres.  It was the last treaty he ever signed, though he did put his name on his will in December, which was just as well as he died the following month. 

Ardres is about ten miles south east of Calais, and I have a soft spot for it because, one November, I hired a minibus on the strict understanding that I would not leave the country, and drove it to Dover, the Cross Channel ferry, and Ardres.  With me were colleagues from the BBC's Holiday programme, and our aim was to spend two or three days having a pre-Christmas party.    

We occupied two small hotels, one providing our pre-Christmas dinner, which involved a small hillock of roast chestnuts, lots of vegetables, masses of chicken and a fearsome amount of wine.  We stopped at a hypermarket on the outskirts of Calais to take on board wine, cheese and enough produce to stock a medium-sized delicatessen.  Ah, happy days!

But back to The Mitre and the club I mentioned.  It is The Old Duffers Flying Club and has around nine members, most of whom are hacks who have travelled the world and written about it, much as I have. 

When I write "hacks", I use the word in its proper sense, for we spent most of our lives hacking away at the literary coalface trying to fashion readable articles.  We are all fairly old, but try not to let that influence our judgement. 

We usually meet in The Mitre, but our latest jaunt was to Calais – unfortunately we had no time to include Ardres.  The quite splendid "Spirit of Kent" took us out and the equally impressive "Spirit of Canterbury" brought us back and, thanks to the kindness of P&O Ferries, we travelled in their Club lounge, looked after by efficient ladies who greeted us with a complimentary glass of champagne (each!) and brought other refreshments on demand.  For which we paid, of course.

The Eurotunnel must have done much damage to the ferries, and the ships seemed to have a lot of wide open spaces, though there were many lorry drivers, tucking away their grub and handling large mugs of tea with aplomb. 

Calais Our vague plan was to spend as much time as possible eating and drinking in Calais, and do absolutely no sightseeing.  A suggestion regarding shopping for souvenirs floated like an aimless bubble for a few seconds before being popped by commonsense. 

Calais is not a dream destination.  The shuttle bus from the ferry terminal dropped us near the Place d'Armes and the unattractive centre of the town.  A larger than life size statue of General de Gaulle and his wife Yvonne was installed there at the end of last year and is supposed to symbolise the city.  The fact that she came from Calais and that they were married there in 1921 may also have something to do with it. 

We found our restaurant, ate and drank modestly (very modestly compared with that Ardres trip long ago), and returned to the ship.  Our cross Channel jaunt had no greater purpose, unlike that of those much older chaps who travelled to the Normandy beaches that same week.  We thought of them, and raised our glasses in a toast.  And drank another toast, too, to one of our number, now dead, whose birthday it would have been. 

I wish I could think of something nice to write about Calais, and I am sure there are nice things to write about it.  However, that brief visit left an impression of much concrete, brutal blocks of flats and a feeling that Dover and Calais are sort of Siamese twins. 

And that's more or less that, apart from my former membership of the Useless Information Society.  In this context the Useless Information is that, at The Mitre, is the remnant of an ancient cherry tree, around whose trunk a young Elizabeth is said to have danced.  And that, in 1572, as Queen Elizabeth I, she became the proud owner of a wristwatch.

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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