We are foreigners here: our arrival in Calais, 1878

Beautifully bound cover of first edition William Forwell, ‘A thousand miles cruise in the 'Silver Cloud': from Dundee to France and back, in a small boat’
Beautifully bound cover of first edition William Forwell, ‘A thousand miles cruise in the ‘Silver Cloud’: from Dundee to France and back, in a small boat’

William Forwell, clergyman of Dundee, had ‘Silver Cloud’ built for him by A. Burn, Montrose, in 1876 to his own specifications, half-decked, just 19’ overall with 7’ 9” beam.

In the book, he describes his passage froom Dundee to France and back, recounting the adventures he and his 14-year old son, the only crew-member, have.

This extract provides an entertaining account of how he ‘got by’ in French, having arrived in Calais to find that no-one can speak English amongst the fishermen and Customs officials they meet.

Search for other extracts from this delightful book on ‘Sailing by’.

We are abreast of Calais piers by 6.30; we left Dover Cliffs at 2 o’clock – time 4 hours – thus beating by more than one-half the mighty Roman, Julius Caesar, for he took 10 hours the first time he crossed from France to England. Here we drop anchor till the tide rises, make tea, and drink it with grateful hearts, as our eyes wander along the lovely shore of France.

By 7.30, with reefed jib and two reefs in the lug-sail, we bear away in between the long piers, singing out to every human being within reach, ‘Parlez-vous Anglaise’ that is. ‘Can you speak English?’ The invariable reply was a shrug of the shoulders and an emphatic ‘Non’.

Well, if they cannot speak English I must try French, and so I stammer out, ‘Ou est une bonne place pour mon bateau?’ ‘Where is a good place for my boat?’ To which I get a voluminous answer with such rapidity that I cannot catch a word, but accompanied with as much gesticulation as was quite sufficient without any articulation at all.

Pausing for a survey, we lay hold on a French fishing vessel, and are instantly surrounded by a dozen men and boys, to whom I put my old question in their own language, ‘Parlez-vous Anglais?’ but not one of them had a syllable. After gaping at us one of the boys addressed me as John, or rather ‘Yeon’ whereupon my little fellow remarked, “We are foreigners here.” No mistake about that, we are foreigners. Those with whom we were now surrounded had no more English than our fishermen have of French – that is, not one syllable.

The shortest and simplest way of acquiring the power of letting yourself be understood is to get on memory a number of useful nouns, and do the verbs with your arms, which latter mode of speech is perfectly French. With a sufficient number of French nouns, a sufficient number of English sovereigns (gold), and a pair of flexible arms that know something about significant gesticulation, you may travel the length and breadth of France at ease till you become more accomplished.

My French was meagre, and what I had was learned from books, with the exception of a single lesson long ago on the pronunciation. Two men with blue frocks came on board with a quantity of gibberish about ‘une papier’ – that is, a paper – in other words, asking a sight of our passport. It took them, of course, a tremendous time to get us to understand what they meant, seeing we had no such thing. No vessel can pass out of a French port without a passport. For this and harbour dues we paid 10 franc, illustrating what a friend told us before leaving England, “They’ll make you shovel out over there.’’ No English port charged a farthing.

However, look at the passport, the thing for which we paid. It is both bigger and bonnier than a ten pound note. It gives various particulars of a vessel from Dundee, by name ‘Silver Cloud’ and literally rendering the French, right in the centre of the paper, partly written, partly printed, I read my designation thus ‘Lord Forwell, captain.’ If this, in addition to being entered in the French books in the same style, is not worth 10 franc, I leave my readers to judge.

During the time these clearance papers are being prepared I elicit such information from Monsieur as the following: “We are none the worse of the late war now, except in the locality of action. We have now more money than we had as a nation before the war began. And perhaps in five years the glory taken from us by the Prussians will be sharply looked after.”

Our boat is drawn into the quietest corner of Calais dock, a Frenchman who speaks English is promised so many francs to cast an eye on her till I return, and by 10.10 am on the day after our arrival we are off by rail to Paris, breaking the journey for two hours at Boulogne.

William Forwell, ‘A thousand miles cruise in the ‘Silver Cloud’: from Dundee to France and back, in a small boat’ Blackie & Son, Glasgow, 1878