In Hercule Poirot’s day the train to the Continent left from Victoria station in London, trundled down to Dover and literally boarded the ferry. Since 1994, with the arrival of Eurostar and the Channel Tunnel linking the UK with France, the journey is much simpler and still with a touch of glamour. A couple of weeks ago, we caught the Eurostar and headed for Paris. A few days later we would be heading further into La France Profonde (Deep France) and away from the influences of the big city.
The journey started with a short walk to the bus stop and, in a few minutes, we were on a bus to Richmond Station. [The bus is operated by London United, appropriately, given our final destination, a subsidiary of RATP, the Paris Transport conglomerate.] A train arrived in less than five minutes for Waterloo – the London station not the scene of past battles in what is now Belgium. We got off at Vauxhall, went down the stairs to the Victoria Line of London Underground and caught the next train to St Pancras International, the station for trains to continental Europe.
Check in and passport control were ultra-efficient and we were on the train at 15.35, just over 1½ hours from our back door. The coaches looked familiar on the outside and on the inside the decor did not appear to have changed since 1994. You can carry ‘preservation’ a bit too far – a good refresh would be welcome. The train departs on schedule, travels about 6 feet, then stops – the guard announces an unscheduled stop!!
By 16.05 we were really on our way, out of St Pancras Station and into the first tunnel. The train emerged briefly into daylight at Stratford (now the scene of the 2012 Olympic Games). Then it was back into the tunnel to re-surface amongst rough pastures with the London business district of Canary Wharf disappearing in the distance. It was raining of course. Very soon we passed under the approach road to the Dartford Bridge crossing of the Thames. The traffic was stationary but the train is travelling at a good speed.
Into another short tunnel and we’d gone under the Thames leaving the County of Essex behind and into the County of Kent. It was even wetter. The line through Kent is now a high-speed track so in half an hour from St Pancras the train entered the Channel Tunnel. There was no fanfare as there used to be in the early days of the service. They used to announce that the train was approaching the tunnel and how long the crossing would take. Obviously in 2012 everyone is very blasé about this major engineering feat. So we were now deep under the English Channel or La Manche as they say in France – time to brush up our French.
At 17.57 precisely, having lost an hour due to the time difference between the UK and western part of Continental Europe, the train emerged into La Belle France and it was not raining, the sun was shining.
It was time for a coffee to celebrate. The Buffet Car was Coach 13 and we were in Coach 18, the very front coach, so it’s a long walk. The aisles were remarkably clear of baggage but remarkably crowded with legs, even though legroom is pretty good – certainly compared with that on aircraft. The train was full – only about ten empty seats in the five carriages I walked through. It’s a very popular way to travel. I bought two coffees for 5 euro, equivalent to £2 each, not too bad. Also there was an opportunity to buy Paris Metro tickets. They are sold in carnets of 10 tickets for 14.90 euro, i.e about £1.10 each, a bargain. This will save time later when we get to Gare du Nord the Paris terminus of Eurostar.
At one point while crossing the flat lands of the Pays du Calais in northern France it started to rain – we were back in England??? However, it only lasted a few minutes then it was back to glorious sunshine. The journey now took us through the low rolling hills of Picardy as the train got closer to Paris.
At 18.50 the guard announced, first in French then in English as is the custom when the train is in France, that the train was running a whole 6 minutes late – quelle dommage – thank goodness we had our Paris Metro tickets to help regain that lost time!!
As the train approached the Gare du Nord, passengers started to crowd down the aisle desperate to be among the first to leave the train. On arrival, 1 minute early by the revised time, we sat patiently until the queue had subsided. Then it was off the train and, being in the front carriage, straight onto the concourse and a short walk across to the entrance to the Metro. Ligne 4, the line to Montparnasse where we would be staying, is the first Metro entrance and we were onto the platform in seconds. One of the benefits of the Paris Metro is that it is only a short way below the surface. The tunnels for the most part are of the cut and fill variety which means that basically a deep trench was dug, the walls lined and then a roof put on top. [This type of “tunnelling” is similar to that employed in the construction of the Circle and District lines of the London Underground.]
The wonderful Paris Metro trains are always clean and with proper headroom like a train. But the real winner is the rubber tyres so that they are nearly silent in operation. A train arrived almost immediately and we got the two folding seats beside a door and settled down for a 14 station journey across the city. It was still commuter time so the train was quite busy but by the time it got to Montarnasse-Bienvenue it was thinning out a bit. Two short escalators later and we were at street level. The Timotel staying was just round the corner.
The hotel reception was very quiet and we were immediately served. A little to and fro, all in French you’ll be pleased to hear, and we had the key for room 31 on the third floor. There was a lift and we entered the room at 8.00 exactly, precisely 5 hours, allowing for the time difference, since we walked out of our flat in Richmond. And the whole journey was accomplished by public transport at the excellent price (free pensioner travel across London and a pensioner discount on Eurostar) of £35.60 each. From South West London to South West Paris with no hassle – a really great deal.