Due in Paris by tea-time, Modern Traveller takes Eurostar’s speedy service from St Pancras to Gare du Nord.
WORDS & PICTURES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS
“No check-in until an hour before your departure time, sir.” Thoughts of a 2-hour wait in business lounge comfort are crushed as our eagerness betrays us.
With 120 minutes until our early-afternoon departure, we toddle, clutching our economy tickets in hand, to find somewhere on the upper concourse to grab a foamy cappuccino.
It’s hard to complain, though, being in St Pancras International Station: the 19th-century building is a marvel of gothic architecture – inspired by Nottinghamshire’s Kelham Hall – and, with the Eurostar fleet waiting patiently beneath the golden Dent clock that hangs helpfully from the vast single span of the iron-and-glass roof, there are worse places to await a train.
As hoards of football fans heading to the 2016 UEFA European Championship hover in the station, we grab some currency – at a drastically reduced rate, courtesy of Brexit speculation – before heading to check-in.
Increased security procedures mean passing through the gates and into the waiting area takes quite a while, but safety apes speed – and it’s still certainly speedier than any international airport we’ve been to.
Once we’re in, we head to the Business Premier lounge – an upgrade that’s Eurostar’s answer to premium waiting space – weaving between milling travellers awaiting their boarding announcement.
Scooping up a complimentary newspaper and a cool bottle of Harrogate Spring Water, we head for the nearest vacant leather podium and plug our smartphone into the seat-side charger.
Members of Carte Blanche (Eurostar’s frequent traveller program) receive the Premium experience gratis, and it’s certainly not a bad decision to go that way: free, fast Wi-Fi is a nice distraction – particularly when there’s power going spare – whilst the quiet, if business-chic, vibe is a welcome contrast to the rush of the main concourse.
Reminiscent of a European hotel lobby, suits in the lounge are a little sharper, and curious eyes all-but-frown at the presence of a camping rucksack, but, all the same, this is a pleasantly relaxing way to unwind before boarding, whilst sipping a cup of complimentary coffee.
Having just settled into our serene surroundings, with 20 minutes to go before the scheduled departure time it’s time to board. Emerging from the hushed, softly-lit lounge back into the glare of the main hall, it’s up an escalator and into our Standard class carriage.
With our bag safely stowed in one of the many luggage racks, we settle down in our dark-patterned perch and stretch out. Whilst it’s a slight come down from the leather-clad comfort of the Business Premier lounge, we’re content nonetheless with our coach: to our surprise, even the cheapest ticket category offers a good amount of leg-room, supportive seats, and a relatively clean interior – more than can be said for many European trains.
What’s more, there’s free Wi-Fi to tap into. Sure, it’s not the speediest, but it’s enough to mean you can keep posting pictures all the way to Paris – provided the 4G signal says strong (which, in the Channel Tunnel, it doesn’t).
On the dot, we’re off, heading towards Ashford for a final pickup before venturing into the Tunnel. As the carriages crawl out from beneath the hulking arch of St Pancras International, there’s already a sense of this being an experience superior to standard train travel: the coach is quiet, clean and really rather relaxing (but for the football fans).
Picking up speed, the train barrels into the blackness under London, as the air-conditioned carriage keeps passengers cool, a sense of surreality pervading as the outside world hurtles past with a muffled hush.
The rapidity of Eurostar – whether one’s experienced it previously or not – is astounding. Within seconds of our departure Stratford flashes past, as small rises and falls in the track cause the stomach to leap just a little, the train sustaining its breathtaking pace even through sweeping bends.
Remarkably, it’s incredibly smooth: there are no jolts, and the slightly contoured seats are helpfully supportive on the cambered turns. Sure, there are brief moments of airtime and a dash of lateral g-force here and there, but it’s nothing like the turbulence of many a train and plane.
As we whizz through the southern countryside, the sun emerges and the green expanse beyond the window becomes a postcard-perfect picture of rural beauty, inspiring us to go in search of an appropriately English cup of tea.
Sadly, there’s no at-seat service and – due to travelling football fans in search of beer – the bar has become unbearably busy. We abandon our quest for something to sip and go for a wander instead.
Up and down the train, the aisles are plenty wide enough for easy strolling and, whilst there’s not all that much to see, it’s nice to have the option to stretch one’s legs. Mercifully for those consuming quantities of alcoholic beverages there’s also an ample provision of toilets.
As the train dips into the Tunnel, gliding forwards on its sprint to Paris, we pick up our book, only to doze off shortly afterwards, lulled by the gentle side-to-side of our ride.
We wake up just as the train barrels back into the light on the French side of the Channel, threading between green fields, rolling hills and swathes of swaying poppies.
Having happily snapped on our smartphone for most of the way, things are looking a little tricky in the battery department – but there’s not a plug to be seen. As several other passengers bemoan, Standard seats aren’t gifted any form of socket (European or otherwise), which means you’ll need to be smart if you’re using a phone as your entertainment friend.
Is there much to draw the attention besides looking out of the window? No, but that’s fine: the ride is smooth enough to make reading a real option, whilst the Standard seats are plenty comfortable enough for a brief snooze.
Having done both of the above, a little less than 130 minutes after leaving London the outskirts of the sprawling metropolis that is Paris begin to appear. Slowing from its fastest, the Eurostar trundles with purpose towards Gare du Nord, distinctly Parisian architecture passing by with less blur than before.
A brief pause to allow a train to pass holds us before our high-speed service slips alongside a platform in the heart of Paris. Having crossed the French border back in London, there are no passport formalities here: we simply disembark, bags on our backs, to begin the next leg of our journey – which, having bought Metro tickets on the train itself, is sublimely straightforward.
Station to station, we can’t say it felt like no time at all – but, arriving in Paris less than three hours after checking in at St Pancras is nothing to scoff at. There’s no baggage reclaim hassle and no taxi to the centre is necessary: we’re there already. For a French getaway, there are few better ways to get there.