How did we ever live without Eurostar, the high-speed train diving under the Channel since 1994 to link us more closely with our European neighbours?
Remember the clanking old ferries criss-crossing their turbulent way between Dover and Calais, lorry drivers swigging cans of Carlsberg for breakfast and day-trippers throwing up in the detritus-strewn café?
Or the cushioned hovercraft lifting its noisy skirts above the Ramsgate tarmac, with engines as noisy and whining as Janet Street-Porter?
We’ve been lucky to be fairly frequent users of Eurostar over the years. For leisure rather than for business trips.
To Brussels, for a delightful long weekend In Bruges after a pain-free transfer on a local Belgian train. Sightseeing and chocolate eating, rather than killing time with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell.
To Paris several times, recently to see the French Open tennis at ultra-cool Roland Garros. After a full day’s work in London, we checked into our hotel in the Marais still in good time to enjoy a few late night drinks and a couple of Gauloises in a louche jazz bar. Actually, we don’t smoke. But it sounded better.
In the summer there’s a special direct service all the way to Avignon, within touching distance of the glamorous Riviera. In just under 6 hours you’re transported from the grimy streets of north London to the sun-baked walled city of the legendary Pont and the imposing Palais des Papes, the epicentre of the Catholic church in the 14th century before migrating to Rome.
And from 1st May 2015, the direct service will also extend to Marseille. So just 6 hours 27 minutes after leaving St Pancras you can be in this edgy, exotic Mediterranean city – France’s 2nd largest – with an easy ferry link to Corsica, should you want to extend the adventure.
But our favourite Eurostar memories are the skiing trips. Leaving St Pancras on a Friday evening, indulging in a glass of fizz or Côtes du Rhône with a decent 3 course meal, grabbing some intermittent seated sleep before arriving in snow-laden Bourg Saint Maurice at 6 am on a crisp Alpine morning.
After good old Taxi Capucon has whisked you up the mountain at breakneck Gallic speed, you can hit the pistes by 9 o’clock….at roughly the same time as everyone else is cursing the long frustration-filled Easyjet queue at Gatwick, still 2 hours before flight time and an all-day transfer.
The Eurostar on-line booking and check-in systems are as well-oiled as a WD-40 salesman. St Pancras has been restored to its Victorian splendour, and an hour or two browsing its high-class shops or eating in its bistros is a pleasure, rather than a travelling chore.
On-board, the service is quietly efficient as the land- and soundscapes shift from city outskirts to Medway in-filling, orchards in the Garden of England, a gentle hum underneath the busy Channel and the bland flatlands of northern France.
The trip from London to Paris can now be done in just under 3 hours. Unless somebody jumps off the platform at Ashford, of course. In which case you can be sat on the train at platform 10 for 5 hours, as I did recently.
Imagine the carnage at Heathrow or Gatwick with those delays.
But Eurostar brought us lunch early – together with extra free booze – as we all sat reading, chatting with other passengers or the on-board staff, playing cards or discussing preferred suicide options.
Eventually arriving in Paris, one team greeted those who had missed connections and needed help with transport options, while another handed out free boxed suppers.
And a few weeks later, they confirmed I would be given a free return trip AND 50% compensation. Despite having no control over depressed jumpers.
Now that’s customer service.
Eurostar, we salute you. Next stop Marseille….