Varne Ridge Caravan Park is such a personal part of the Channel swimming experience for myself and so many others that it is impossible to contemplate a Dover visit without Varne (as it is called) being an integral part. Every Channel swimming or crewing trip of mine to date (and I’m losing count) has involved a stay in Varne, and on the other occasions when I’ve visited Dover, a stop at Varne to say hello to my adopted parents is a prerequisite and guarantee.
Varne Ridge Channel Swimming Caravan Park is situated on the White Cliffs south of Dover, in Capel-le-Ferne, about halfway between Dover and Folkestone and is owned and operated by David and Evelyn Frantzeskou. It is named after the Varne Sands which is a sand bank directly out in the Channel where the Varne Lightship, well-known to Channel Swimmers, is anchored.
Apart from some regular repeat customers, and as indicated on the sign, Varne Ridge caters exclusively for Channel swimmers and is available by prior booking only. It is so exceedingly and justifiably popular with Channel swimmers that you are best advised to book your stay at the same time as you are booking your Channel swim.
Varne has a collection of fixed mobile homes or varying sizes, a studio apartment, and a couple of houses on the same short stretch of road and a few berths for caravans for their regular visitors. Everything is situated in a small park behind the house where David and Evelyn live. There is also an external shower block and toilets, useful when you are sharing a home with lots of swimmers all wanting to use the shower at the same time.
Sitting as it does high on the cliffs above the Channel, directly across from Cap Gris Nez, the ultimate goal of Channel swimmers, Varne is subject to both the unusual almost-French amounts of Sun and yet also the excesses of the storms of the English Channel and the winds that you can imagine afflicit the top of a one hundred metre cliff. Your weather memories of Varne will likely be one or both of the two extremes, glorious sun looking at the Channel and wondering why you are not swimming, or howling wind and rain. Usually both.
What makes Varne so ideal for swimmers are a number of factors.
- The primary reason: David and Evelyn.
I am not the only swimmer in the world that treats both as surrogate parents. They are always solicitous and helpful, personal and personable. You feel they are looking after you. This alone is a reason to choose Varne over any other accommodation. I cannot imagine another hospitality venue in the world that endures the same extreme highs and lows that afflict any and every swim tide and does it week in and week out. Every tide window sees successful and unsuccessful swims and David and Evelyn are part of each and supportive of all. Every successful swimmer returning to Varne will be greeted by their national flag hoisted at the camp entrance. That’s not insignificant. If you’ve never had your own country flag raised for an achievement of yours previously, it’s quite special.
- Clean self-catering
Eat like a Channel Swimmer, Swim like a Channel Eater. Channel swimmers eat a lot and all the time. It’s therefore so much easier and cheaper to do your own catering. Every visitor to Varne finds the accommodation will already have milk and tea and coffee and maybe some biscuits and cereal in place for the first essential cuppa. Each house or mobile home has all the essentials for the serial eating and cooking required of crews of swimmers and support. Many departing groups leave unopened food behind, and while things are always immaculately clean, if you arrive late night Dave & Ev usually will have sufficient supplies to tide you over any initial lack (pun intended).
- Other swimmers
This is a huge attraction of the park. During Channel season the homes rotate swimmers and crews. You will get to know the other swimmers on your tide window, more if you are unlucky with weather, swimmers on other tides. Not everyone likes the idea of swimmers popping in and out so your privacy is your own to keep or adapt, as you see fit, and should you want to engage in yet more swimming talk, because your life doesn’t have enough of it, you will find and get to know swimmers from around the world. I’ve met swimmers there from North and South America, across Europe, the Middle-east, Africa, Oceania and the Far East. Not least is the possibility that depending on the year and time, there could be an entire squad of Irish there. This is a good thing, we bring the craic (and Evelyn is half-Irish also). Each house and mobile home also has a visitors book. Great pleasure is derived from reading these and seeing your friends or maybe even heroes and even signing your own.
- Swim support
David and Evelyn provide a lot of the equipment needed for Channel swimming. Flasks, blankets, feed poles, whiteboards, grease, electronic lights and even feed material left behind by other teams, some like the food mixes are gratis if they are there, some for purchase (lights and Channel grease which is hard to find if you don’t make your own, and no longer available in Dover) and a large supply of swim boxes for boats. No need to buy things you will use once if you’ve travelled a long way. (Though you also shouldn’t rely on Varne happening to have sufficient swim feed material lying around, as I’ve seen happen).
- Cost and comfort
Channel swimming, solo or relay, is not a cheap pursuit. Uptight swimmers may have no interest is visiting tourist attractions prior to a swim. Long days of web-browsing and kill time when not swimming are more comfortable when you can come and go as you please without the essential claustrophobia that hotels can provide. and provide hotel rooms for many people can become very expensive very easily.
- The Varne Ridge Channel swimmer plaques
The walls on either side on the entrance of the park are covered by commemorative plaques for the swims of everyone who has stayed in Varne. New plaques are added every year after the end of season. These are far nicer and more photogenic than the White Horse signatures. Swimmers never get tired of looking at these, searching out friends and well-known swimmers.
- The view
Passing Varne you can tell the swimmers. Dave and Ev own the patch on the land on the cliff side of the road and swimmers shuttle back and forward throughout the day, to sit on the benches and stare at the battlefield, getting lost in our thoughts. Following an idea by Rob Bohane, a new bench was placed in Varne by Sandycove Island swim club and friends last November in memory of our sadly and tragically departed Pariac Casey, lost to the Channel in 2012. Paraic had of course stayed in Varne as have all the Sandycove swimmers.
- Varne is not in Dover
Once you’ve seen Dover, what might initially seem to be a problem, turns to be a positive. A car is essential for Varne, but you are less than ten minutes from Swimmer’s Beach.
I’m still waiting for David and Evelyn to pass on the operation of Varne to Dee and I, despite promises! I can imagine nothing better. Ah well…
I am not an unbiased reviewer of Varne Ridge. I love the place and am always happy to return. I cannot recommend Varne Ridge highly enough as an essential part of the Channel swimming experience.
Tell them Donal sent you.
- A guide to Dover for swimmers – Part 1 – Dover Harbour (loneswimmer.com)