Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2013/14 posted by hidden europe on

I like the 11.31. It departs at a civilised time. While others slip into communion with their laptops and smartphones, I watch. We glide gently out of St Pancras. As the track curves to the east, eyes right for a view back over St Pancras - one of Europe 's most remarkable railway stations. The journey on Eurostar from London to Paris is pure theatre - a journey of many moods and changing landscapes. Within a minute or two of departure, London is eclipsed by darkness. Watch for tantalising shadows at Stratford, then a burst of sunshine as our train, picking up speed now, storms out of the London tunnels onto the Thames marshes.

article summary —

Join hidden europe co-editor Nicky Gardner on the 11.31 train from London to Paris.

***

Dear fellow travellers

On a sunny morning, St Pancras railway station in London is as inspiring as any cathedral. Great train stations have their own energy. Each has its own shades and shadows. In St Pancras there is a bluish tinge to the light which picks up the blue of the soaring ironwork in William Barlow's dramatic train shed.

The commuter crowds have gone, and St Pancras has settled into the quiet rhythm of an early summer day when all the trains are running to time.

I like the 11.31. It departs at a civilised time. While others slip into communion with their laptops and smartphones, I watch. We glide gently out of St Pancras. As the track curves to the east, eyes right for a view back over St Pancras - one of Europe 's most remarkable railway stations.

From industry to cherry orchards

The journey on Eurostar from London to Paris is pure theatre - a journey of many moods and changing landscapes. Within a minute or two of departure, London is eclipsed by darkness. Watch for tantalising shadows at Stratford, then a burst of sunshine as our train, picking up speed now, storms out of the London tunnels onto the Thames marshes. This is a busy, fractured world of overhead pylons, silt lagoons and container parks: the unhappy edgelands where the capital blurs with Essex.

Only those who crane their necks skyward glimpse the QEII road bridge spanning the Thames at Dartford. The train cuts below the northern approach to the bridge. Eurostar dives under the river, emerging in moments in industrial north Kent which quickly transforms into a green and pleasant land. The Medway Viaduct is a gem, one that sadly goes unnoticed and unremarked by most travellers. Eurostar speeds over the river where once the Dutch tried to attack the English fleet. The view up the Medway Valley (to the right of the train) is one of delicate beauty.

The rail route dances with the ancient Pilgrim's Way, our train coasting past orchards and oast houses, and within half an hour of leaving London we are approaching the Channel Tunnel. It has all been so breathless, such a kaleidoscope of landscapes, that the tunnel comes as a welcome break. The dark beyond the window is suddenly a blessing.

Through Flanders and Picardy

The first glimpses of France at Calais do the country no favours. But industry quickly gives way to an expansive rural landscape. Brick villages sit squat in Flanders fields. We slow, for no evident reason, and here's a chance to see the forêt de Guînes - hardly a forest at all, but a mere wisp of a wood where silver glades of birch grade into mixed stands of oak, beech and hornbeam. It was into this woodland that two balloonists decanted from the sky one afternoon in 1785. Jean Blanchard and John Jeffries were the first men to cross the English Channel without a boat.

Speeding south-east towards Lille, the town of Cassel stands bold and clear on a rare hill away to the left. Just beyond Lille, our Paris-bound train turns sharply to the right, now heading decisively south towards Picardy. We dash through a landscape once full of sandbags and barbed wire, now scattered with war cemeteries that burst with poppies. The ashen face of death, drenched by hopeless rain and shrapnel scarred, has been replaced by quiet beauty, broken only by the whoosh of the fast trains that speed by on their way to Paris.

This is territory defined by its rivers. We cross the Scarpe, the Somme and the Oise. The first clear hint of approaching Paris is the line of planes away to our left descending into Charles de Gaulle airport. Now we surf the northern suburbs of the French capital until suddenly, to the right, there is a tantalising glimpse of the River Seine. We are nearing the end of a 136-minute performance that is Eurostar. And what other piece of theatre opens in London and ends in Paris?

Nicky Gardner
(co-editor, hidden europe magazine)

An earlier version of this article features in the current edition of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable (ERT), which each month showcases a different European rail journey. Next month's ERT, for example, has an article by Susanne Kries and Nicky Gardner on a June journey through Swedish Lapland to the Norwegian port of Narvik.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.