In praise of…

…the Channel Tunnel.

Some of you reading this will remember those crazy days when to get from England to France, and vice versa, you had to take a boat or an aeroplane. Very early in our courtship, and I took it into our heads to buy a bunch of European papers one Sunday morning in, I guess, 1991. As it happened, it was the day after the tunnelers between England and France had made contact, deep beneath the Channel. It is amazing how many countries found it appropriate to giggle at the scent of garlic which had, no doubt, been detected wafting northwards through the workings.

Nowadays the tunnel sous la Mancheis well open for business. There are two ways you can use it. If you just want to get on a train in Paris or Brussels, and get off in London (or vice versa) then you take Eurostar. The stations are in all cases decently central (Gare du Nord in Paris, matched symmetrically by Bruxelles-Midi/Brussel-Zuid; in London it’s now St Pancras rather than Waterloo, which is a shade less convenient for my own work, but I recognise that I am in a minority). It’s far more pleasant than a plane flight and (if you take into account check-in etc) probably quicker.

The other possibility is to drive your car to Calais or Folkestone (not Dover!) and load it onto the train to whiz under the sea-bed. These trains are about 500 metres long, and the carriages (for cars at least) are double-deckers, so you can work out how many fit on each run. It’s actually much more like the old ferries, except that it is a) faster and b) a train rather than a boat. Whoomph! You’re underground, in darkness (apart of course from the bright cabin lights in the carriages). Whoomph! You’re in England, or France, depending, and just have to remember which side of the road to drive on.

My first memories of both methods are quite special. When we drove to Bosnia from Belfast in late September 1997, we had baby B, then three and a half months old, in our little old Skoda. (We travelled from Kidderminster to Brussels that day, little realising that it would become a regular run for us in the future: then stopped twice overnight in Germany, before reaching Zagreb and then Bosnia.) Poor B reacted badly to the change of pressure in the tunnel, and howled all the way. Of course, 35 minutes is not all that long, but it seemed a bit eternal at the time. (She also reacted badly in those days to Bosnian mountain passes. She grew out of it, and anyway doesn’t travel much any more.)

A year or so later, I took a weekend in Brussels to mutually size up a potential employer. I needed to be in London anyway for a funeral, and my prospective boss recommended that I take the Eurostar, declaring that “it is a most agreeable experience”. Indeed it was, and this led to a sufficiently good set of first impressions that I ended up working for him for the next three years.

I must say that if I can avoid it I will never fly between Brussels and London again. Even doing it for connecting flights to elsewhere in the UK, my experience has been hellish – I remember one attempt to return from Belfast where I got home ten hours later than I expected thanks to the Curse of Heathrow. Quite apart from the environmental impact, the train is simply a lot more pleasant.

It’s weird, though, in a way. I am just old enough to remember the last of the Apollo missions, when moon landings were current affairs and the Channel Tunnel a fantasy. Now it’s the other way round.

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1 Response to In praise of…

  1. yea_mon says:

    From Northern Ireland, admittedly distant from mainland politics, New Labour seemed pretty much Conservative lite. PFIs need I say more?

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