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Are We There Yet?

Posted by on March 6, 2016

The journey home. It has been possible to ignore the approaching end of the trip until Barcelona, but this next three train rides are an extended full stop to our adventure. The TGV takes six hours from warm spring sunshine to deep winter chill, with some snow thrown in on the way. By the time we made Nimes, people were walking down the platforms pulling their coats closed around them against an unkind wind.

At Paris we're buffeted by another storm, of people on the Metro getting across the city. A very kind person, who confesses to not being a Parisian, helped us find the gate to the Metro Ligne between Gare Lyon and Paris Nord. Our luck holds all the way. In fact weirdly, I didn't have to put my metro ticket in the barriers on getting in or out of the system. The gates opened as I approached. I'll take that thank you. And neither of us got stranded wrong side of a barrier. As we waited for the Metro, a local woman took it upon herself to advise us on which train to wait for and then stayed on the platform to make sure we got on OK.

Paris Nord still does not look, on the inside, like an international station, not even one where the pride of SNCF, the TGVs, line up. They have started to work on the interior and the clacking, cascading, destination board that once dominated the concourse has gone. When you come up from the modern, clean and impressive Metro interchange the contrast is remarkable. Eurostar travellers are dumped in a couple of soulless, waiting areas. The use of the term lounge is stretching it beyond ironic. There is not enough room on the long benches for everyone and nearly half the passengers, on a quiet evening departure are standing with their bags around them. What the French think of their side of the deal, when they have experienced Gare du Nord and St Pancras on their return trip, I can only imagine. And they have to endure that really annoying three note sound they play before each station announcement. It is a change to be able to say something positive about the modern British contribution to rail travel, but it's almost as if the French would like to pretend that the rail link through the La Manche tunnel did not exist.

After sitting for hours on a moving train, it is so much harder to sit waiting for the next one, but we have no choice at Paris Nord for the Eurostar. When we finally get underway, it is made even sweeter by the change in tone of the announcements by the train crew, telling us to put any suitcases “smaller than a semi-detached bungalow”, on the overhead racks. Or “For those too important or too cool to read the safety cards, in an emergency just do whatever the train crew tell you and nobody will get hurt”. At Ashford International, the incongruity involved in putting those two words together in the same sentence, is heightened by the announcement that “Ashford is mostly famous as the home of the Batchelor Cup-A-Soup”. Which merely serves to highlight the absurdity of the only high speed train set we have involvement with, stopping in the middle of the Kent countryside. Marginally less surprising is that a whole lot of people can't wait to get off here. They can't all be French travellers trying to avoid being made to look at St Pancras and being told, “This is what an international railway hub should look like. Not a miserable social security official's waiting room in a Franz Kafka novel, like Paris Nord”.

It's not just St. Pancras International that the sensitive French traveller should close their eyes to, but Kings Cross, with all that light interior and the square outside. The views back across the way to Gilbert Scott's fine red station facade, revealed by the removal of all the clutter that used to obscure both stations, is a reminder of the glories of the past as well as the promise of the future that exists behind it. For this reason I won't put a picture here of the London termini to help with the comparison.

Throughout our journey, at almost every station we passed through and the ferry to Morocco, we had to endure security checks, baggage machines and the presence of policemen, sometimes on board. We noticed the absence of this at Kings Cross, where the only safety announcement was a warning not to rollerblade or skateboard through the station.

All fine so far. There has to be a but and it is that even after twenty years of privatisation of the rail network, we are still suffering continual weekend disruption on intercity routes, that saw us diverted through the fenlands, because of 'planned maintenance' on the East Coast line to Edinburgh. It took over four hours to get from London to Newcastle, via Cambridge, although we didn't stop, but shuffled through like a local commuter train. On a tv in a Moroccan hotel we saw the celebrations to mark the restoration of the 'Flying Scotsman' a steam train that covered this route in the 1950s at a faster speed than today's journey.

At Newcastle we were met by our son Arthur. We could have taken a train to Hexham and on by bus to Allendale to close the circle, but the ticketting website wanted to add £40 onto the cost of the train from London-Newcastle, something we could get cheaper on the day, if we bought return tickets for two on the train. And there is no bus service to connect with our schedule.

Home to a cold spring day and to reflect on the trip. We loved it, but if we planned it again today, we would both have added a couple of extra days to the journey out and back. We'd have liked to have seen more of Madrid, Barcelona and Córdoba. And even if we were indifferent to the charms of those cities, what, we asked ourselves is the use of staying in wonderful hotels, if you use the bed for one night and never even get beyond the track from station to front desk to your room and back?


3 Responses to Are We There Yet?

  1. Green River Canoes Ltd

    Got to agree with you on the demise of the huge destination (and arrival) board at Gare du Nord. I love these things whereever they are. Small television displays are naff. I love to read about all the possible destinations I might be taking instead of the [generally] prosaic one I am. Long gone are the days of staying at the exotic names on Victoria Station for the connecting boat trains. Also I liked the noise when they changed. Wiki tells me they are split-flap boards and were made by Solari (Italy) or Pragotron (Czech).

  2. Green River Canoes Ltd

    Ashford International: dont get me going. Eurostar invested a huge amount to build this station when services started in 1994 and then they builkt Ebbsfleet International a station with nothing – no town no nothing and Ashford is left with a meagre 1 service per day to Brussels and 1 to Paris. As you can guess I’ve used it often in the past because my family is from near Canterbury. It’s handy. I didn’t know that about cup-a-soup though and I agree Ashford itself is souless. The Kent countryside is sublime though.

  3. Green River Canoes Ltd

    ‘staying’ should be ‘staring’ in the first comment. The ‘ding dong ding’ of SNCF is both strangely comforting and irritating! On board annoucements are the bane of modern train travel Irritatingly bland, repetitive and loud. Still I’ve enjoyed your travels a lot, and look forward to the next one even if it’s just a little chug down to Carlisle or wherever.

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