Monday, 30 November 2020

How we used to do it

 To the continent by train and jetfoil

In the early 1980s I used to visit Brugge (Bruges) in Belgium from time to time on ecumenical business. Most people involved in the link between the dioceses of Lincoln and Brugge used to take their cars by ferry, one or two Belgians preferred to fly, but I used my preferred form of transport, the train (I did not own a car then anyway). This was years before the Channel Tunnel, of course, but there were international train services between British and continental stations using a variety of means to cross the Channel, and although it was, naturally, a lot slower than it is now, in some ways it was very much simpler.

The first time I went to Belgium I was just a student at Lincoln Theological College and once my trip was arranged I consulted my British Rail Timetable and its International Section then walked down to Lincoln Central station and visited the booking office to buy my tickets. I simply asked for a return ticket for myself and a colleague to Brugge on the dates and times we wanted: the clerk consulted a great big manual, took a book of vouchers and a ballpoint pen and wrote out my tickets, telephoning to ensure that Jetfoil seats were available and reserving them for us. No fuss or complexity: there was a voucher for a journey each way between Lincoln and Dover Western Docks, for the Jetfoil and for between Oostende and Brugge, with times for each. I cannot understand why this cannot be done today, given how much simpler it is to know what seats are available on what service and that a bar-coded ticket can be simply printed without the need for the ballpoint pen!

On the day of departure we went down to Lincoln St Marks and travelled up to London, crossing to Victoria by Underground for our train to the continent. At Victoria there was a Continental Departures board with four different departures shown, all for the same time. This was, of course, a single "boat train" which connected with three sailings and a jetfoil flight at Dover for different continental destinations. Jetfoil passengers were requested to check in at the Jetfoil Lounge and wait there to be shown to the train. At busy times baggage was taken and loaded into a luggage van and stowed onboard the jetfoil separately like on an aircraft, but we were not travelling on such a day and took our luggage with us as normal on British trains.

Illustration from the front of the onboard menu
It was an ordinary electric multiple unit of the then Southern Region of British Rail, not yet even the still-to-come Network SouthEast, and took us to Dover smoothly and on time. At Western Docks station our part of the train stopped conveniently for the escalator boldly signposted for jetfoil passengers and we crossed to the jetfoil dock beside the pier on which the station was located. There was a small room where we waited to embark and then we filed onto what was essentially a modest-sized boat sitting low in the water in the harbour. When time came for departure the lines were cast off in the usual manner and the boat made its way towards the sea, through the harbour mouth, then once at sea there was a roar from the engines, a thud under the hull and we were in flight just above the water and thrusting our way across the Channel. The jetfoil, built by Boeing and with a lot of aircraft technology, took 100 minutes less to cross to Belgium than the ships, so we overtook at least two ships on the way over. There were a couple of crossings when the jetfoil was unable to fly and I had to cross by ship instead and in the days before mobile telephones that involved some complex means of letting the Belgian end know I'd be late. There were only two jetfoil craft and if one broke down that meant a gap in service (in winter it was a one-boat service while the other was being maintained; in summer both were operating a full timetable), and if the weather was especially rough the jetfoil could not operate.

The concourse at Oostende
Arrival at Oostende was interesting. As the docks loomed so there was a thud and the hull settled back onto the surface of the sea and we made our way to the dockside at the usual pace of a small boat, dwarfed by all the ships around us, mostly the large vehicle ferries that lumber across to and from England, and dwarfed by the wharf, too! We made our way up to the rail station, a terminus on land at this end rather than a pier as at Dover, with a collection of trains for various destinations. We looked at the information and found the next departure for Brugge and boarded the train. As I looked out of the windows I noticed on the other side of the platform was a train for Moscow and I though to myself that one day, one day, I would come and travel to some of these more exotic places. Back then eastern Europe was another, mysterious, world behind an "iron curtain", and although I have yet to visit Russia I have been to several places which would once have been difficult and a little scary. Off we went to Brugge, and there was a slight moment of panic when we arrived and I did not know how to open the doors! Mercifully the signage was in French as well as Dutch for at that time I knew no Dutch but my O Level French was still more-or-less intact.

We were met at the station and had a brilliant visit making new friends and cementing an ecumenical partnership which continues to this day. I became secretary to the English organising committee and made several further visits, usually taking others with me, including eventually my wife and (the) two children to stay with the family that accommodated me on that first visit. By then we lived in Cirencester in Gloucestershire and the only difficulty we had on the entire trip was in getting to and from the station (at Kemble) for which we needed a friend to take us in his car - ridiculous that a town that size had no station reachable without a car. All the international bits went smoothly.


Heading out to sea from Dover Western Docks
Approaching the Belgian coast at Oostende


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