MEETING MY WATERLOO
by Sarah Griggs
I arrived at Waterloo East just before nine o’clock on a cold and damp Tuesday morning, having left Folkestone Central just after seven, and still feeling half-asleep (getting up at five thirty in the morning just doesn’t feel natural!!). Having found the check-in desk for Eurostar, I went through the quick and simple routine of checking in, and Passport Control. It’s only the second time that I’ve gone through this procedure, having used Eurostar for the first time just after Easter, when I went to Paris for the first time. I found that international rail travel was a novel experience, but for everyone on continental Europe, it’s probably more commonplace. Maybe it’s just an island thing……
Anyway, to the journey itself. Half an hour before departure, the gate still hadn’t been opened, and there was, by now, quite a crowd of people waiting to board. However, I now realise why. Although the trains are a quarter of a mile in length, as long as you know your seat and coach number, boarding the train is a lot simpler than boarding a plane. In fact, in comparison to checking in and boarding a plane, the Eurostar takes no more than an hour. On this occasion the gates were opened just 20 minutes before departure, which was plenty of time.
Thankfully, my seat put me within sight of the case of covers that I was taking with me, so I could just sit back and enjoy the ride. The train left Waterloo slowly at first, as we went through London, but picked up speed as we left the suburbs. I couldn’t help but notice how quiet it was. Most people – if they talked at all – were whispering, possibly as people in nearby seats may have been sleeping.
Once we’d left the suburbs, we went quite fast through Kent – I glimpsed a few Oast Houses but it felt that we started to slow as soon as we sped up, so I knew then that we were on the approach to Ashford. At this point I’d been up for 5½ hours and was sorely tempted to sleep but resisted on the way out – if I slept now, I’d have less to write about, especially as the return journey was made in the dark!
After Ashford, I looked out for more familiar landmarks (to me, that is). It was especially strange seeing Folkestone, (and not quite able to see the office from the train) and then being plunged into the darkness that is the Channel Tunnel. At this point, I decided that now would be a good time for a nap, as we would be in the Tunnel for almost 25 minutes. Once out of the Tunnel, the train picked up speed, as there were no stops now until Paris.
In the coach that I was in, there seemed to be equal numbers of British, American and French passengers. I would imagine that the French would be making journeys home and, judging by the mobile phone calls being made, the British and American passengers were on business or pleasure trips.
The further we got into France, the mistier it got outside. I started to wonder if I’d get to see anything of Paris. As we got closer to Paris, the weather started to worsen. Although we arrived in Paris on time (just before 2.00pm), it was, by this time, raining heavily.
With a heavy suitcase, and no knowledge of Parisian public transport, I knew that my only option was to take a taxi, which got me to La Poste Paris Louvre at half past two. I’d already phoned them (with my limited French) and let them know that I’d arrived in Paris, so everything was pretty much ready for me when I reached La Poste.
Although more than half of the covers had been stamped here in the office, I still had stamps for the remaining covers to tear from the sheets that were waiting for me. In the time that it took me to tear the required number of stamps, Bernard from La Poste had already postmarked the previously stamped covers! I was impressed! It only took another 45 minutes to stick and postmark the remaining covers.
When I left La Poste, it was still light, and it had stopped raining so I decided to make the most of it and make my back to the Gare du Nord on foot. It took me a little over an hour, and I’d made a few wrong turns but it gave me the chance to see a little more of Paris. More importantly, it was a much needed opportunity to stretch my legs, having been on trains since seven that morning.
Tony, Cath and I had been concerned that Eurostar services might be affected by the impending French strikes, but I’d checked at Waterloo that morning and was assured that Eurostar services would not be affected. When I reached the Gare du Nord for the return journey (and the reason for the whole trip) I was able to check in and board without a problem. As soon as I took my seat, I sat back waiting for the return journey to begin……….
The train left on time but this time it was difficult to gauge the mix of passengers. Some were evidently rail enthusiasts, eager to be part of an historic event (I know, as I’d spoken to some of you in the days and weeks before the big day – I’m hurt that none of you came and talked to me as we waited to board the train) Some were more likely to be returning holiday makers and day trippers and those who got off the train at Ashford were obviously businessmen. I’d heard one of the train managers say that there should have been a press party, but they hadn’t shown up. All I can say is “Why?”
Just over half an hour into the journey, another of the train managers announced that, as this train would be the last into Waterloo International, everyone was invited to the buffet car for a complimentary glass of champagne. By the time I got there, it was packed and the next tray of glasses was cleared as soon as it was brought out. I waited patiently for the next one, took a glass and managed to make my way back to my seat – without spilling a drop, I might add! But I didn’t drink it until I’d written further notes (I wanted them to make sense when I got back to work)!
We re-entered the Tunnel at 7.35pm (French time) and exited at 7.00pm GMT. How’s that for time travel! There was one brief stop after this, at Ashford, and then on to Waterloo, for the last time.
The train arrived at Waterloo five minutes ahead of schedule and there to meet us was a trio of jazz musicians, playing “When the Saints go marching in”. As I passed the concourse, I noticed lighting rigs being dismantled and I found out later that there had been a concert, called “Waterloo Sunset”, to celebrate the last trains to leave Waterloo (despite the fact that it would be another two hours until the final train arrived). Other than the jazz trio, there was no welcome for the weary passengers on the final train into Waterloo, and it seemed a very subdued atmosphere when we all walked into the station itself.
Tony was waiting for me and, more importantly, to collect the covers. He had been worried that, with all the talk of strikes, that the covers wouldn’t all be postmarked but I was able to reassure him that all was well with these.
After that, I headed off to Waterloo East, to catch the next train home. I’d worked out that I’d spent almost 10 hours travelling on trains that day. But I have to admit, as part of it was spent of Eurostar, I didn’t mind, and I’d recommend it to anyone as a quick and relatively hassle-free means of travelling to the continent.
Normally £20 This week £15