by Mary Jackson (July 2008)
It’s very nice to go trav’ling
To Paris, London and Rome
In search of a post-theatre drink a couple of months ago my fellow playgoer and I found ourselves in the bar at London's recently re-furbished St. Pancras station. I have always liked this station, which, but for John Betjeman’s campaigning, might have been demolished by the architectural vandals of the Sixties. The refurbished station is spectacular, the picture below not doing justice to the scale of it.
We saw some people getting off the Eurostar train, and it occurred to me that you could simply hop on a train to Paris for lunch and perhaps more.
A day return from London to Paris on Eurostar, if you book well in advance and do some research, is cheaper than a day return to Manchester. Unbelievably, it’s also quicker: an absurd two hours fifteen minutes. It helps that I live within easy reach of St. Pancras, but door-to-Gare-du-Nord, including the briefest of check-ins, it was a mere three and a quarter hours. I hope the French don’t invade us again, for at such short notice how could we find another Sellar and Yeatman to turn defeat into victory?
Travelling at High Speed 1 through the English countryside was exhilarating and unnerving. The train glides along with scarcely a sound. The speed makes you dizzy because it is impossible to steady your sight on the trees or buildings you pass them. I strained to see a sign for Dover – now far ahead, now long gone - then we were in a tunnel. After about five minutes, I realised that it was the tunnel: the Channel Tunnel or Chunnel. Another fifteen minutes and we were out of it. “We’re in France,” said my companion. “The pylons are different.” And so they are. British pylons are elegant and benign, like miniature Eiffel Towers. French pylons are squat and menacing. “Welcome to Belgium,” said a text message on my mobile phone, pour épater les anglais. We were definitely in France. One hour from St. Pancras – or San Porn-cra, as the French call it – and two and a half hours from my bedroom.
It isn’t just the pylons. France is different. There’s more of it, for a start. Calais to Paris is empty and flat compared with Folkestone to London, so you don’t get the sensation of speed. That stretch of the French countryside is nowhere near as pretty as Kent; it looks like the duller parts of Norfolk.
The approach by rail to a major city is generally unattractive. In London, the ugly parts tend to be close to the station, and the prettier suburbs are further out. The stretch leading up to the Gare du Nord is ugly all the way, with massive grim concrete blocks. Perhaps these are home to "restive youths” – youths by the name of Mohammed, Bilal, or Ahmed. Youths, old and young, seem to have plenty of time and energy for graffiti. And plenty of money – so much spray paint cannot come cheap. Every surface coming into the station is covered with it, some walls and bridges so inaccessible that the graffitists must have risked their lives for their art. Few of the words were recognisably French or even English. “Words” is too kind – these were grunts and screams, the language, I concluded, of hip hop. “Kung Fou,” proclaimed one exception. Was this a bilingual pun about the madness of martial arts? For about half a mile, the same author had sprayed “Kung” at irregular intervals: Kung…Kung…Kung. I looked out for the “Fou”, but it never came.
The Gare du Nord is grand but shabby, as St. Pancras once was. For now we English are one up, but the French will get even in due course. As I stepped off the train I smelt humidity, not an unpleasant smell, but one which brings home the foreignness of a place. London can occasionally be humid, but never stays that way long enough for a humid smell to stick.
Our ticket included a day’s pass on all public transport. It was my first time on the Metro, which is harder to negotiate than the London Underground. Of course I am familiar with the Tube, but I remember a time when I wasn’t, and the Tube was still easier. The main difference is the map: the London Underground map is a masterpiece of logic, while the Metro map is a muddle. In recent years, too, the Underground has been improved, and the stations streamlined. On the Metro it seems that every station has a different kind of exit barrier; some platforms have maps and others not, and the signposting doesn’t warn you if a line is closed until you have spent a good while finding the platform. On some trains the doors open automatically, on others manually, and on yet others not at all, because they’re broken and you must dash to find doors that work. All this made my journeys more, not less, pleasurable. Even the humidity – far more intense underground - simply added to the fun: Paris is not meant to be like London, much as the Eurocrats would like everywhere to be the same. Besides, the muddle of the Metro was more apparent than real – trains were regular and comfortable. They were old fashioned, though; if it hadn’t been for the posters advertising “Le WiFi” and “Le Freebox”, I would have assumed I had gone back in time. Again I was fascinated by the graffiti, which extended far into the tunnels. Who would go to such trouble, and why? Was it always like this in Paris, or is it les beurs?
A leisurely lunch, a tower, two cathedrals and a park later we were back at the Gare du Nord. For a busy station in the rush hour, the pace is unhurried. A few random observations before I leave for home:
1. The taxi drivers – what I could see of them – all appear to be Arabs.
2. French waiters are not rude.
3. The people are friendly, but not always helpful; some of them don’t seem to know their own city.
4. People are no more chic than in London, but they seem to think they are, which may help.
5. Everyone smokes.
6. Many Arab men, but not Arab women, sit around in cafés.
7. Some Arab women, but not Arab men, beg on the streets.
Back in the station, the customs/passport control was set up so we had the bizarre experience of leaving France and entering the UK, all in one room. Ten yards or so separate French and English passport control. On passing through the latter you have been admitted to the UK, even though you are not yet on the train home. There are no checks at the other end – you just walk off.
Once again we were gliding through the French countryside. Just before you get to the Chunnel, there is an ugly concrete warehouse, with a massive sign saying, in English: “Beer and Wine”. This, I concluded, must be aimed at the English “booze cruisers”, who go over to France, fill their car with cheap plonk and come back.
“Have we stopped?” asked my companion about ten minutes into the tunnel. We hadn’t, but this is not a silly question. As in an aeroplane at night, you lose a proper sense of movement: it’s pitch black outside the windows and the going is so smooth you can’t feel it. Like a take-off and landing, though, you feel a change of pressure in your ears as you go deeper and then come up again. Up we came and out: good old Blighty, Kent, a touch of Essex, a short tunnel … and London St. Pancras again. The statue of John Betjeman greeted us far more warmly than the meaningless piece of modern sculpture at the Gare du Nord. Exactly twelve hours for the round trip. To round it off:
It’s very nice to go trav’ling
To Paris, London and Rome
It’s oh so nice to go trav’ling
But it’s so much nicer, yes it’s so much nicer, to come home
Seasoned Eurostar travellers will be blasé about popping over to Paris for the day. For now, at least, I am struck with wonder that this is possible. Paris is wonderful, too, but everyone knows that.
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