12 June 2008

Brussels in the rain

Out of my hotel shortly after five to walk to St Pancras in time to catch the 0600 Eurostar to Brussels. It was raining lightly in London and, it turned out, pretty similar in Brussels. At St Pancras, from where I used to commute every day between London and Bedford until 1990 but which is transformed now it is the London terminus for Eurostar, with raised platforms under the great roof, I bought coffee and pastries for breakfast only to be refused entry to the departure area by the while I still had the coffee. The staff were apologetic and spoke English with a delightful French accent, but I still had to pour half a capuccino down the nearest drain.
The trip to Brussels was impressive. We passed landmarks outside the station that filled me with nostalgia for the old commute, then we diverged from the line to Bedford and swung through the cement works with which this part of north London abounds. Then the train entered a tunnel, and when we emerged we were travelling at a speed I had never previously experienced in Britain.
There were green fields in the drizzle between the industrial estates of the outskirts of this part of London, then we reached Ebbsfleet (12 minutes out) where the train stopped to pick up passengers, but not to let any out. My reservation was for an aisle seat - I hoped that no-one would come to claim the window seat, and fortunately no-one did.
We passed under the A13, and then (presumably) under the Thames, as I never saw it. The train ran for a while alongside the M2, crossing the Medway at Rochester on a viaduct that runs alongside the road, giving that great view down the estuary then passing a rather desirable property on a large site, sandwiched between the motorway and the railway line.
27 minutes from St Pancras and we reached the complex that marks the entrance to the tunnel. At a motorway service place a little earlier, banners proclaimed the presence of high street retailers - HMV among them: who needs to peruse a record shop on the motorway? And, for that matter, what fun is to be had from buying music in a clinical modern atmosphere? Music belongs in a grungy shop filled with hidden and obscure delights: but perhaps the modern retail outlet is the right environment for soulless contemporary music ... which came first, the shops or the music?
Twenty minutes of darkness then out into what daylight there is on this most un-June like day: normally by this time I'd be on my bike cycling through Didcot, though not if the weather was like this.
Calais was visible in the distance, beyond the marshalling yards. We passed a compound containing several wrecked cars, lacking their roofs I noticed: were they taken apart by customs?
The north-west of France, though the landscape is similar, is utterly different from the crowded south-east of England. One might live here and commute a couple of days a week to London
The train was never going to get me to the start of the conference, unfortunately, but it did arrive bang on time in Brussels Midi. Unfortunately as well as raining in Brussels, the city was swarming with roving bands of red-clad trades unionists protesting about the cost of living with the aid of football rattles and firecrackers, which sounded alarmingly like gunshots. It was like being in the middle of a small and not very dangerous war. As I reached the head of the taxi queue, after some twenty minutes, reinforcements poured out of the station, and the taxi I eventually took had some trouble negotiating the syndicalists marching across the road wearing their red polythene capes.
I paid €10 for the ride (including a good tip) but, remembering as I alighted from the taxi that the building across the road was Brussels Central station, I took a train back in the evening - €1.50, and a greater sense of adventure. It doesn't take much to make me feel adventurous now. The departure board offered me a train to Louvain, a journey I made in late 1980 to an encounter that still makes the town's name resonate with me - but that was a long, long time ago.
Brussels Midi is in sharp contrast to the station at the other end of the Eurostar line: low ceilings, industrial construction methods, dingy lighting and a long queue for the security check. At least I had a bishop in the line ahead of me.
As for the conference, I should blog that elsewhere, if at all.

No comments: