I blame Portillo. The romance of rail seduced me. And those virtuous Extinction Revolution bods, who also partially influenced my decision to take the family all the way to the south of France from Yorkshire by train. I was sold on the idea that, with unfettered quantities of sun lotion and unlimited litreage of mineral water in our rucksacks, we would simply sashay effortlessly through the barriers at St Pancras and board our spacious high-speed steed, like movie stars of yore.
In reality we faced a snaking queue of two hundred thousand fellow travellers. This is in truth the daily average number of Eurostar passengers passing through London, but on this sweltering July Monday morning it felt like they were all boarding our 12.37 to Paris Gare Du Nord with us.
The usual agonies of airport security and passport control would have been quite bearable here were it not for the fact that our youngest is still sixteen days away from her twelfth birthday and therefore not yet permitted to use her biometric passport in the automated barriers, (go figure) so while Arthur and I waltzed through to the little Duty Free shop and browsed the giant Toblerones, Danny and Rose joined another impossibly long queue slowly filtering past just two languid French officials who, according to Danny, (ardent Francophobe) were going extra slow on purpose, just to piss him off. The last half of our party finally proffered their passports with just moments to spare and we boarded the sleek and sexy Eurostar just in time to start the second leg of our railway adventure.
Using the Googlemap app on my phone I was able to anticipate the moment we would enter the legendary mouth of the tunnel at Cheriton. The prospect made me giddy with excitement, a feeling not shared by my young companions who plugged in their headphones and zoned out shortly after Ebbsfleet.
I thought of the furore in 1980s Dover when they began work on ‘The Chunnel’ as we called it. Many locals at the time mistrusted the whole project, anticipating the economic collapse of the passenger ferry port and a catastrophic return of rabies. But those two giant drilling rigs kept rumbling towards each other like enormous fat moles, and in December 1990 there was a momentous exchange of Tricolor and Union Jack as the engineers gingerly broke through the last thin wall of rock to meet in the middle.
Twenty minutes in darkness ended with us bursting out into brilliant French daylight and we gained speed, slithering smoothly through a strangely familiar landscape towards Paris where we would be swapping to a TGV for the final leg of our journey across this wide country to the Mediterranean sea. The only clues to our being in a foreign land were the occasional farmhouse and church of a french persuasion, the rest looked a lot like home.
Landing in the capital, we trekked the mile or so down the platform at Paris Gare Du Nord, marvelling at the epic (for Europe) size of our train, negotiating past the many tourists posing for pictures against its sleek eel’s nose at the buffers. We took our time seeking out a cool corner in which to wait for our connection. Having nonchalantly eaten lunch and sauntered to the loos (70c) we noticed that our departure was still not showing up on the boards.
Then, I put my glasses on.
We should have been making our way, toute suite, directly to Gare du LYON for our connection.
Hurling our luggage into a taxi with a cool uncharacteristic forgiveness that unnerved me, Danny instructed the driver not to spare the horses. This was willingly taken as a challenge, and Jo Le Taxi showed off his advanced extreme driving skills, screaming through Paris on the wrong side of the road like Starsky (or Hutch..?) with pedestrians flying up over the bonnet on every crossing and the elegant rues and boulevards blurring past our eyes in a haze of grey and green. Only fleetingly did I think of Diana, RIP, before emitting another involuntary whoop of glee as we jumped the lights again.
At the ticket barriers at Gare du Lyon, just feet from the end of our bull-nosed TGV, the ticket inspector’s hand-held gizmo decided that our tickets were not valid. Danny very nearly chose this moment to unleash the full force of his Francophobia on the poor man, who, sensing this and surrounded by our four crazed faces drenched in sweat, eyes rolling in panic, he waived us through. (Danny would have to bide his time and look for a different victim on which to vent his Agincourt grudge)
We made it on board with 50 seconds to spare. My travel learning-curve had steepened dramatically. Note to self: Always wear reading glasses when checking ticket.
For the next instalment of our French adventure, stay tuned…