Varne Ridge is a caravan park just south of Dover, operated by David and Evelyn, an enthusiastic couple who proudly provide accommodation for intrepid English Channel aspirants and crew. Weather across the Channel is notoriously fickle - some swimmers stay for weeks, waiting for the winds to lessen and the opportunity to swim. My English Channel swim is booked for the 12th – 17th September tide window, and there is a very real possibility that I will spend a lot of time sitting and waiting for the weather conditions to become favorable for a swim. Varne Ridge will be my home for the next 10 days.
Pulling into the driveway I can’t help but feel as though I’m reenacting someone else’s story. Varne Ridge is a legendary place for Channel swimmers. The exterior walls of the main buildings at the entrance are covered with plaques detailing swimmer names and swim times across the Channel accompanied by their national flag. I'm literally surrounded by a tremendous collection of memories and history. Dozens of dreams made of hard work, grit and determination displayed for all to see. I can't help but wonder for every dream realized, how many other dreams are not. How many swimmers leave here under a cloud of disappointment? And will that be me?
Turning off the loud euro pop music that has accompanied me on my journey through the south east of England, I wind down the window to say hello. “You must be Kimberley” smiles David. Jet lagged and anxious, David's understanding demeanor is particularly calming. Parking the car at the back of the property, I take a moment to observe the caravans situated on the grass. Plastered on the window of the caravan behind me is a small yet distinctive Union Jack. A large French flag consumes the front window in another caravan directly in front of me. It’s evident that swimmers and their crews for this tide window have already set up camp.
David locates a cart to load my baggage and directs me to my accommodation, next to the French caravan, which I later learn belongs to Sylvain who will attempt to be the first man to swim butterfly across the channel! As I walk towards my caravan, following closely behind me is Tigger, a stray tabby cat who has recently taken up residence with Evelyn and David. Tigger and I make fast friends and I enjoy the comforting sound of his glorious and happy purr. “Just call me the Cat Whisper.” I joke with David.
I settle into my caravan, focusing first on the important task of displaying my New Zealand flag in the window. Using a little kiwi ingenuity and a little more duct tape, the flag is soon positioned across the window. It looks marvelous. Self-catering accommodation requires a quick trip to retrieve groceries, especially since the carbohydrate drink I use for my swim needs to be mixed. An exhausting task after so much travel.
Waking up the next morning, bundled up in my bed, a large white plume of warm air escapes from my mouth. Thankfully low overnight temperatures in a caravan without insulation are helpful for my acclimation ahead of my swim. Peaking out of the window, on this gloomy Day 2, I observe the activity of Varne Ridge: nothing. Everyone is huddled in their caravans conserving energy as they await news from their boat pilots for the first opportunity to swim.
Welcome to Base Camp.