Postcard from Lille, Part 1

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Old Wembley Stadium
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

In the prologue we recalled a fond age of travelling to the near continent via rail, ferry and hovercraft. This landscape changed with the opening of the Channel Tunnel.

At the beginning of Eurotunnel operations, some international services were planned to run direct from the regions to the continent. Day trains would operate ‘north of London’ (NoL) with sleeper trains covering the longer distances.

When the tunnel first opened ‘shadow services’ using existing rolling stock were run, via Kensington Olympia, which terminated at Waterloo International to connect with Eurostar services to Paris and Brussels. These trains were not promoted and didn’t even (I think) appear in all of the relevant public timetables. Thus they quickly withered and were cancelled as were the planned through regional services.

A cynic might say that this was the intention from the start and that NoL was presentational, for political reasons, to make a controversial and expensive project appear less ‘Londoncentric’. However construction of the NoL rolling stock was begun. Eventually they were sold to Canada and are still in use there today.

I had my first chance to travel on Eurostar thanks to our local XI. As they hacked their way to an unlikely semi-final victory, the phone rang. A friend had the misfortune of not only having married very well but of being so successful in business, that he was forced to live in central London in a luxury apartment which, horror of horrors, was not only within striking distance of Wembley stadium but big enough to include a guest room. This needed to be filled pronto, to prevent acquaintances even less savoury than myself from landing for the cup final.

I felt obliged to allow myself to be invited, the icing on the cake being that the rest of the weekend could be filled by a trip to Paris on the train.

In those days there were only about six daytime services direct from Glasgow to London on the West Coast route and the trains was unreliable with carriages and engines showing their age. Sometimes locomotives were at the back of the train propelling, with a driving van trailer (DVT) at the front. At times there were car carrying motorail carriages behind  the locomotive, making for some interesting formations. The DVTs were unreliable too and often ended up being hauled by the locomotive.

Another interesting feature was security scares at transport hubs. On our journey down there were a number of diversions to avoid mainline stations which meant, for instance, travelling through Crewe via the goods lines.

The high speed link between St Pancras and the channel hadn’t yet been built with, as mentioned above, Eurostar trains originating at Waterloo International (rather than St Pancras). They travelled via one of the boat train routes across Kent at low speeds taking power from the third rail, past wooden signal boxes and manned level crossings.

Although the trains were slow by high speed rail standards they were fast compared to commuter trains, were non stop, and were also exceptionally long and very heavy.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Eurostar at Waterloo
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

Connoisseurs of J. W. Davis’s traction and rolling stock performance formulas promised us that the power cars would need so much current from that third rail that the shoes that connected to the two would get hot enough to weld the train to the track.

Fortunately this never happened but unfortunately the French managed pyrotechnics in the tunnel anyway, by waving through a freight shuttle containing a burning truck. The resulting damage meant that during our trip the intermediate crossovers between the two single line running tunnels were in use, meaning that trains travelled ‘wrong tunnel’ for part of the channel transit.

On reaching France services could take advantage of their full speed (186 mph) on the then new high speed line to Gare du Nord, current now being collected from overheard wires.

Incidentally, part of the first Mission Impossible film includes a trip on Eurostar. For dramatic reasons the tunnel is wrongly shown as being a single bore with both lines running through it. Part of the scene is CGI but the live action sequences, approaching the tunnel, were shot on the Glasgow and South Western route (ie Carlisle to Glasgow via Dumfries). In the background, while the neds are fighting on the roof, you can see the flat topped hill at Burnswark. Reaching ‘Postcard from Asia Minor’ (on a Friday morning in 20XX) will allow a shout out for Skyfall’s Cowan Sheldon breakdown train and its Moss Bay rolled rails in Adana.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Bucket of sea food
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

Meanwhile, during my own adventure, arrival in Paris was at about dinner time which allowed me to exercise my appalling French in a restaurant opposite the station.

Early afternoon entertainment was provided a giant TV on a bracket on the wall next to our table, showing a documentary on brain surgery.

A friend once asked a French waitress “qu’est-ce qui c’est Le Special du Jour?” to which she replied, in stumbling English, “it means today’s special”.

I can better that by, on this particular occasion, eating a bucket full of raw seafood after thinking I’d ordered chicken and chips – while watching a lobotomy. I belong to a generation of Englishmen who don’t like to complain and can’t anyway if a foreign language is involved. Even I thought ordering ‘juice de pomme de terre’ just didn’t sound right but fortunately chef took pity on me and sent apple juice anyway. Either that or they were out of spuds.

For dessert I’d asked for marinated kidney, which was quite nice.

Thus fortified we struck out on a walking tour of Paris taking in as many of the sights as possible in one circuit, including the war memorial ceremony at the Arc De Triomphe,  before catching an early evening train back to England. A great time was had by all and our local XI went on to win that cup on penalties.

Did I mention my heavily pregnant wife was in tow?

The decades passed, a channel tunnel rail link was built, our local XI continued their tumble through the divisions and the aforementioned number one son spread his wings and went to study in France. It would have been impolite not to have allowed myself to be invited to stay.

The days when I travelled alone and on impulse are long gone and looking through the calendar the only time we could go was towards the end of November. Train prices were eye watering so an overnight bus journey loomed with a hike from Victoria to St Pancreas first thing the next morning.

However, I kept checking the rail fares on the internet and, sure enough, a special offer appeared, presumably to fill empty seats in the quiet spell between half term and Christmas. A family group could travel anywhere on Virgin Trains for £65 each way, with double that price in first class. The more of you there are, and the further away from London, the better it gets. Although number one son has siblings, some of them have left home meaning that a nearby niece had to be roped in to make it even cheaper per head. I’m not mean, I’m careful.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Arc de Triumph
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

Upgrading to first class was very tempting as it offers food and drink in your seat en route and also use the first class lounge at Euston. As an over made-up lady of a certain size and age, sat in front of a bead curtain, next to a cash box, once assured a friend at the entrance to professional premises in a backstreet in Tangiers, “the more you spend the less it costs”. I clicked the button and reserved our first class seats.

A family group is defined by up to two adults and up to four children, so far so good. A child is defined as someone 15 years of age or younger. Some heavy coaching ensued. Remember in the Great Escape when Gordon Jackson has everything immaculately prepared and rehearsed whereupon he takes a row of bullets across the back because of an impulsive momentary lapse when a German bus driver wishes him ‘good luck’ in English? You won’t catch us out that easily Mr Branson.

It would be a shame to spoil this second episode of ‘Postcard from Lille’ by actually mentioning ‘Lille’ so I will allow myself to be distracted.

Thankfully nobody reads the comments, especially after a prologue to a postcard. If they had then they would have spotted references to ‘InterRail’. A friend tells me that InterRailers were starving, barefoot unemployables, living out of a carrier bag while travelling around Europe on cheap rail passes. Obviously, dear reader, there are other reasons for continental travel, a love of adventure, espionage, academic research, romance, trade. As ever half of the pleasure is in the not knowing. The part of the story not told excites the imagination as much of the part that is. Imagine Professor Schrödinger, broken by concrete certainty, standing by an open box gazing down on an emaciated, goggle spectacled cat as it reads railway timetables for pleasure. I shall hold my council.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Monte Carlo Casino
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

One correspondent even surmised that your humble author’s previous references to the gaming tables of Monte Carlo and anecdotes about Princess Grace might suggest ‘going to the south of France to sell ice cream’. I cannot possibly comment.

© Always Worth Saying 2019

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