The editors of hidden europe magazine, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, highlight some of the views from Eurostar on the journey from London to Paris and reflect on what makes this route so special.
There are few railway stations better suited to a grand departure than St Pancras in London. It is audacious, daring, beautiful – as is the journey on Eurostar from London to Paris. You’ve perhaps travelled on Eurostar so often that familiarity has numbed your reaction to this journey. But take another look and you’ll discover that the ride to Paris is 140 minutes of pure theatre.
That’s why we chose the journey from London to Paris as the debut route in our book Europe by Rail, the 14th edition of which was published in 2016. In terms of travel time, it’s the shortest of the 50 journeys described in the book, but few trips evoke such a mix of moods and landscapes. This is a journey which has transformed the relationship between London and the continent. On the departure boards at St Pancras, Bedford now rubs shoulders with Brussels. Leicester jostles for space with Lyon.
The superbly renovated St Pancras station in London (photo © Bombaert / dreamstime.com)
It’s a bright winter morning, and the commuter crowds have swept through St Pancras on their way to work. The station is settling into the quiet rhythm of a January day with Eurostar trains all running to time. The first corks have been popped at the station’s pretentiously long champagne bar, and oysters and quail eggs are being served to those who know a blanc de blancs from a blanc de noirs.
Let’s climb on board the 11.31 to Paris. It could be any Paris-bound Eurostar, but we like the 11.31. It departs at a civilised time. While others slip into communion with their laptops and smartphones, we watch. The train glides gently out of the station. As the track curves to the east, eyes right for a view back over St Pancras, an extraordinary piece of high Victoriana.
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.
Eurostar dives under the river, emerging in moments in industrial north Kent which quickly transforms into a green and pleasant land. The rail route crosses 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.
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 there’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.
Farmstead in a typical Flanders landscape (photo © David Elliott / dreamstime.com)
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 which each spring 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 latter is bridged just at the spot where Æthelwulf, King of Wessex, married his bride Judith of Flanders in the year 856. Æthelwulf, the father of Alfred the Great, was on his way back from Rome, a journey which took many months. Today it is possible to leave London by train early in the morning and be in the Eternal City by late evening.
Final act: the Gare du Nord in Paris marks the end of the line for the Eurostar train from London (photo © hidden europe)
The first clear hint of approaching Paris is the line of planes away to our left descending into Charles de Gaulle airport. Suddenly, to the right, there is a tantalising glimpse of the River Seine. We are nearing the Gare du Nord in the centre of Paris. Time for the final curtain in this dramatic journey. And what other piece of theatre opens in London and ends in Paris?
Main image and thumbnail: Eurostar trains at St Pancras station (photo © Michael Foley / dreamstime.com)