Monday 17 June 2013

La Ligne des Horlogers! (Part 1)

Switzerland had always been on the "to do" list. It is the only country in Europe whose density of railway services is anything like that of the UK, and the scenery is, of course, quite amazing to a fenlander like me! The intention had been to save up and take a package tour with one of the companies that operate rail tours across Europe, but Alison's family history research took us to the small town of Le Locle near the French border, where a several-times-great grandfather was born. Just as we had with her East Anglian and London ancestors, we had to go and look ... and it turned out that the house was now a B & B, so that was where we would have to stay. Via (because it is in English but their own website is only in French!) I booked four nights in the autumn school holiday and turned my attention to getting there.

Now, in the past the British Rail timetable used to include the international timetable with exotic services like the Rome Express and the Golden Arrow, but now I had to turn to the DB website which includes all the continental railway services. Unfortunately I was not able to book online so I toddled down to Thomas Cook's office in town, but even the great Thomas Cook no longer deals with train tickets and gave me the telephone number of Trains Europe, a small firm in March, who do. I rang and gave them my requirements, having some idea of the route I wanted to take and left it to them to book us right through. The tickets they acquired for us were for the specific trains we wanted but did allow for some flexibility in the event of a train running late and missing a connection - important when travelling such a long way.

Since the opening of High Speed One, the new line from London to the Channel Tunnel, the UK terminus for European trains has been London St Pancras which is very much handier for travellers from north of London, being across the road from Kings Cross and not far from Euston. Since the renovations at Kings Cross which have moved the main concourse to the west of the mainline platforms, access to St Pancras is even easier and travel by train to Europe has become almost as simple as travel within the UK: some security and border formality is necessary, but nothing like that faced at airports. We decided that on the way there we would break our journey in Paris, partly because that's a nice thing to do anyway, but also in order that if something should go wrong would not find ourselves in the middle of the night in a strange rural place with nowhere to go; we would return in one day because once in the UK we would easily be able to cope with most eventualities. In the event all went as smooth as silk, although unseasonably early snow in Switzerland had caught out even the French and Swiss railways which had severe delays on the very night we would have been trying to get to Le Locle had we not stopped in Paris!

So we left Stamford on the 11:01 on the Monday morning and changed at Peterborough for London Kings Cross. Over the road to St Pancras International, as it now grandly calls itself, and there was plenty of time to check-in for our Eurostar to Paris. Insert ticket into barrier and it opens, through into baggage check (just X ray and metal detector) and passport control (quick glance at UK passport) and we sit and wait for the announcement that our train is boarding. All of this is on the lower ground floor at St Pancras, an area originally built by the Midland Railway for the storage of beer from the Burton-on-Trent breweries! The trains have always been "upstairs" in the roof of the trainshed and now the Eurostars are the only ones that still occupy the splendid single-span train shed, trains from the East Midlands cities now stopping a little short in the extension built when the station was expanded for its new role.

Soon we were called and made our way up the travelator to our platform where our train to Paris waited. The Eurostars are getting on a bit now and several years of hammering through the atmosphere at up to 180 mph have taken their toll of the gleaming white paintwork, but they still look very impressive. For some reason the French insist that all baggage on trains has to be labelled with name and address, so we had bought some secure labels with flaps to cover the information from the eyes of casual observers and so we could store our bags with confidence on the luggage racks and take our seats. All seats on these trains are reserved so there is no problem finding a seat. With minimal fuss the train slid out of St Pancras, entered the covered bridge across the street and made its way to the tunnel which takes it under north-east London, briefly coming into the light as it passes through Stratford International, and eventually under the River Thames and out into Kent. I understand the trains are restricted to 140mph in the tunnels under London but that is still not a bad speed in an urban area, and once out in the countryside we were soon going flat out across the Garden of England.

With a daughter at university in Canterbury for four years I had motored along the adjacent M2 motorway many times and was disappointed never to have seen a Eurostar on this stretch of line; now I was on one and it was strange to think that we were going more than twice the speed of anything on that motorway!

The approach to the tunnel is marked by a slowing down again and the sight of lorries and cars queuing for the cross-channel shuttle trains which share the tunnel with the long-distance passenger and freight trains which pass through by day and night taking people and goods across in far less time than the ferries used to do. Once through, the train sped its way to Paris among the other French high speed trains. We were amazed at the grafiti and general tattiness visible from the train in this great city.

Trains from London arrive at the Gare du Nord in Paris, and I had asked Trains Europe to book us an inexpensive hotel room near our departure station for the morning, Gare de Lyon, so we made our way to the RER and caught our train there. Finding your way out of Gare de Lyon is not easy the first time! Exits are not labelled with street names but the atmosphere was so grim we just made for any old exit and worked our way round to where we wanted to be. It was quite evident that we had taken neither the short route nor the scenic route but we were not QUITE among the dustbins when we found the outside world. At times like this you understand why it was London that was granted the Olympic Games :-)

We checked in at our hotel. The young lady on the desk apologized for her terrible English but it was far better than our combined efforts in French and in any case she was, after all, French in France, so I didn't feel she needed to apologize. It was a tiny hotel and our room was microscopic, but it did the job and we had our dinner at the Gare de Lyon that night and a decent amount of time sightseeing around the Bastille area both then and after check-out in the morning. Breakfast was in a little basement room which was well-lit and had murals of Paris, so it did not feel at all claustrophobic, and we soon learnt our way around the French names for types of coffee (which turned out to be no use in even the French-speaking part of Switzerland to which we were heading shortly).

Our TGV was due out of Gare de Lyon at 11:23 and we were on the lower deck of a duplex coach opposite another British couple. We had a picnic lunch bought at a Paris supermarket that morning but bought a coffee-time snack from the buffet on the train. Most British trains now have a trolley service but these have not penetrated France yet - and probably never will because the stairs of the duplex coaches probably preclude it. So it is back to the days of queing at the buffet: at least it gave me time to prepare my French request for when I got to the counter! At TGV speeds we'd probably covered 100km while I was getting the coffee.

We were heading for Besancon TGV, a brand-new station on the edge of Besancon where trains on the high speed line stop to connect with local trains into the town, some of which extend beyond into Switzerland along a winding branch line serving small towns and villages. As we got off the TGV at this all-new station there was waiting our two-coach diesel multiple unit, the antithesis of the train we'd just left, waiting for us and several other passengers. I had expected to change again in Besancon's town station, for that is what the timetable had said, but was delighted to see that the train had "La Chaux de Fonds"  on its destination display, this being the town beyond Le Locle, so we need not change again and could settle into our seats. So new was this service that the published timetable was clearly a draft which needed updating! After all the excitement of the fastest trains we'd ever used, this meandering little branch line was to be the most exciting part of the whole week, and next time I'll tell you all about it, and about our time in the ancestral home and the journey back to Stamford.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Coming soon

Next month's magazine article and 'blog entry will be the first of two instalments of a trip to Switzerland via Paris, crossing the Franco-Swiss border on a winding branch line, La ligne des Horlogers.