Faster trains and cheaper flights have reshaped our perception of distance. Eurostar has remapped the near continent — at least when viewed from the south of England. The trains from St Pancras to Sheffield take longer than Eurostar from St Pancras to Brussels — and London to Amsterdam takes less than five hours with just one change of train. When Eurostar starts its direct service from London to Amsterdam in 2016, the journey time could well drop to just four hours.
We often use the new generation of highspeed rail services that have transformed European travel. And, for journeys to and from Britain, Eurostar remains our first choice. But we still make time for ferries too. Rail-sea connections have become worse in recent years. The connections between train and ship for foot passengers at so many ports have become considerably more difficult. Quayside railway stations at Calais, Esbjerg, Dover, Weymouth and many other ports have closed, so foot passengers arriving on ferries must either take a shuttle bus or walk to the town centre for onward rail connections. Few travellers today have the time and appetite for such journeys. When, a few months ago, we made a journey using P&O’s excellent Calais to Dover service, we were evidently the only foot passengers on board.
There is only one surviving ferry service between Britain and the continent that offers seamless transfers between train and ship at both ends of the journey. That is the route from Harwich to Hook of Holland. So we set off to rediscover an older way of doing things — using a rail-sea route from London to the continent.
There was a time when one could buy a through ticket from London to Paris (and beyond) via the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry. There were also through tariffs via Dover or Harwich to the continent. The only remaining ticket of this kind is the Dutch Flyer ticket which allows travellers to purchase (in a single transaction) a ticket from London (or any one of about 170 stations in eastern England) to any station in the Netherlands using the Harwich to Hook of Holland ferry. Take your pick: Audley End to Amsterdam, Norwich to Nijmegen, March to Maastricht. With one-way fares starting at 45 pounds (about 53 euros), the Dutch Flyer ticket can be very much cheaper than purchasing the component legs of the journey separately. The one-way ferry fare alone (for a foot passenger) is 36 pounds.
Liverpool Street Station is an obvious place to start. Before it was renovated in the 1980s, this railway station was a place of drama and shady ambiguity. What John Betjeman dubbed ‘a black cathedral’ has been reshaped for a busier world. A cluster of retail premises has replaced the old Edwardian tea room that Betjeman once commended (most definitely in pre-cappuccino days) as a fine spot for elevenses.