Recently I mused on what it means to be an Interrailer and a ‘True European’, suggesting the two are intrinsically linked. In this guest post, the wonderful Berlin-based travel writers behind Hidden Europe magazine, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, reflect on London’s lost links with the continent.
Victoria Station in London is among the more prosaic of the capital’s great railway termini. Victoria has nothing to rival the great train sheds of Brunel and Barlow at Paddington and St Pancras respectively. Victoria was originally two adjacent stations, each built by a different railway company. The two were eventually – and less than elegantly – combined into a single terminus. No surprise perhaps that John Betjeman judged Victoria to be “London’s most conspicuous monument to commercial rivalry.”
Through carriages to Bognor or Bâle
Scan the departure boards at Victoria today and you’ll not find much by way of exotica. Gone are the boat trains to Newhaven and Dover. No longer do the Pullman cars of the Brighton Belle or Golden Arrow grace the platforms of Victoria.
The most adventurous journey on offer nowadays from Victoria is with the hourly train to Southampton. The English, it seems, are always in a rush so we suspect that no-one takes the slow train from Victoria to Southampton when you could speed down the main line from Waterloo in less than half the time. But the train ride from Victoria to the Hampshire port is a very fine journey, one which takes in the beautiful Arun Valley. As these things go, it is pretty tame travel. The worst that could befall the unwary traveller is that he or she might inadvertently join the wrong part of the train and end up unexpectedly in Bognor Regis.
Gateway to the continent
Yes, they still split many trains that leave Victoria, just as they did in the days when there were through trains from Victoria to the continent. Railway staff at Victoria still talk of the station’s eastern platforms as the continental side, thus nicely recalling the days when the Night Ferry would leave Platform 2 every evening bound for the continent. The train conveyed sleeping cars for France and Belgium, and for a spell even had through carriages to Switzerland.
For half a century, well before the advent of the Channel Tunnel, England enjoyed direct trains to the continent. The Night Ferry was a premium service, composed of smart dark-blue Wagons-Lits sleeping cars. Passengers would check in at Victoria at 9.30pm. Those so inclined could take dinner in the restaurant car on the run down to Dover, where the train was loaded onto a ferry bound for Dunkerque. Travellers on the train could travel in the comfort of crisp linen sheets from London to Paris.
Checked baggage to Calais and beyond
British affection for speed and the national obsession with security have massively reduced the quality of travel. Cast back forty years, and a traveller might turn up at Lincoln station and check her bag right through to Lugano in Switzerland. There was no need to book luggage in advance. The station authorities merely asked that you arrive at the station in England twenty minutes prior to the departure time of your train. This simple and safe arrangement allowed passengers to make journeys from Manchester to Munich by train and ferry unencumbered by their luggage.
Many rail operators on the continent still offer a luggage service, but the option has long since disappeared in England. Just as the night trains from London Victoria have disappeared. The modern traveller evidently prefers a pre-dawn check-in at Heathrow for the first flight to Paris to the civilised comfort of the night train.
The appeal of the overnight rail link from Victoria to France and beyond was not merely for capital to capital journeys. Thus, for a quarter of a century from the mid-50s until the autumn of 1980, you could board a night sleeper in London and awake next morning in the French village of Baisieux without having moved from your bed. As it happens we stopped in Baisieux a month or two back. Not a hint that this station once enjoyed a through train from London.
Overnight from England to Switzerland
The through carriages to Switzerland were much favoured by English skiers. Along the way, they provided a useful direct link from London to communities in eastern France such as Metz and Strasbourg. The Swiss carriages did not run after 1969, but the Night Ferry still attracted many passengers bound for Switzerland and beyond. The through carriages for Bâle and Milan were attached to the Night Ferry as it was off-loaded from the ferry in Dunkerque. So travellers from London, once they were up and about, merely needed to walk down the train from their sleeping car to take a seat in a regular day coach for their onward journey across Europe. Nothing could be simpler.
The Nightstar fiasco
These happy arrangements prevailed until late 1980 when the Night Ferry ran for the last time. Travellers were assured that with the opening of the Channel Tunnel, Britain would benefit from a wonderful new range of direct overnight services to and from the continent. The marketing men dreamt up a brand: Nightstar. Sleek new sleeping cars were built, timetables were prepared, but the night trains never started. Worries in the UK over security and immigration control put paid to an imaginative venture. And during the years of wrangling, Brits discovered discount airlines. Many took to the skies, enjoying cheap fares and enduring airport queues. There was once a better way to travel, but that hardly mattered to a clientele that now looked for bargain-basement deals and rock-bottom service.
In a recent post here on Trains on the Brain, Jools Stone nicely captured the differences in attitudes that separate Britain and continental Europe. It’s not just that we worry less than do folk in Britain about the fate of the euro. Nor is it that we speak many languages, are often less hurried and shop in outdoor markets. It is much more. Our perception of our shared European space is fundamentally different. For us, it is the most natural thing in the world to go to the main station in our home city of Berlin and hop on a direct train to any one of more than a dozen European countries. And two trains each day from Berlin, a daytime service to Denmark and the overnight train to Sweden, still get shunted onto a ferry to cross the Baltic, recalling the way that passenger trains were once shipped from England to France.
Night trains criss-cross the continent. They are a wonderful incentive to just hop on and ride. We still have a choice of over a hundred destinations served by direct sleeping cars from Berlin. Some of those trains to far-flung spots we have never used, and yet they still shape our imagination. Sturovo beckons, as does Saratov. Somehow the departure boards at London’s Victoria station, where the longest journey on offer is to Southampton, lack that frisson of excitement which is so common across the continent.
About the Authors
The authors are co-editors of hidden europe magazine. You can find out more about their work at www.hiddeneurope.co.uk and www.europebyrail.eu. Both women are committed to slow travel lifestyles, and rely extensively on rail travel on their journeys around Europe.
You can read their ‘Manifesto for Slow Travel’ on the hidden europe website at http://www.hiddeneurope.co.uk/a-manifesto-for-slow-travel and sign up for their free newsletter, called Letter from Europe, at www.hiddeneurope.co.uk/letter-from-europe.
© 2012 hidden europe, Gardner & Kries GbR