into the abyss
By and large, we Brits have never been into tunnels. Hmm, let me rephrase that. We've been into them but not 'into' them. Compared our continental cousins we have very few mountains littered around to tunnel into. This has meant that a) we are usually able to skirt around any obstacle or b) we are can meander slowly up to the top of said obstacle and down again without the aid of an ice pick. The scarcity of big tunnels has left us with a rather lopsided appreciation of our little ones. From a very early age we have been bred to get very excited when our train enters a railway tunnel, very wet when a narrowboat enters a canal tunnel, and very depressed about the queue to get into the Dartford Tunnel. Yes, indeed! Tunnels were daunting, exciting, pleasurable and sometimes even naughty.
Apparently this is what certain fellows got up to whenever dark tunnels were in the offing. In this song the philandering takes place on the London to Brighton line but rogue smoochers could doubtless strike anywhere. To make things worse this scoundrel not only steals an illicit kiss, he also makes a feeble attempt to pinch the maiden's purse before justice and the railway police intervene. To be quite honest that dodgy false moustache was never going to help. Nowadays a similarly poor attempt at elementary disguise would probably result in a rugby tackle somewhere in the vicinity of St Pancras International passport control.
When the tunnels we got near,
I expressed to him a fear,
Being terribly afraid of the same.
And scarcely we were in,
When I felt above my chin,
Such a tickling in the railway train.
When the darkness had cleared,
How strange he appeared,
His moustachios I looked for in vain.
Oh goodness! What a fix.
They were sticking to my lips,
While riding in the railway train.
Unfortunately this fear of the unknown wasn't always restricted to Victorian music hall songs. Some of the politicians who had gazed in horror at the French Revolution did start to wonder whether the new unstoppable force Napoleon Bonaparte might have a crack at invasion by digging his way under the English Channel. The Channel was continually portrayed as the bulwark of our nation. A protector! A final line of defence!! But protecting us from what? Why, people who were different from us and who didn't speak English of course.
The critic Kenneth Tynan was one of many who poured scorn on the whole idea of getting closer to Europe. In 1975 he described the EC (then EEC) in the following withering terms.
'I do not see the EEC as a great love affair. it is more like nine middle-aged couples with failing marriages meeting at a Brussels hotel for a group grope.'
However this didn't stop the desire to get closer to our European partners. Plans for a tunnel - which had been proposed as early as 1802 - emerged yet again as new technologies rose to the challenge. But although the will was increasingly there, even the best of plans were usually beaten back by two major problems. The huge financial cost and ever-present fears of armies of rabid continental foxes descending upon Kent. The first was eventually overcome and I think we're still waiting for the second.
Tunnelling started from the English and French sides of the tunnel in 1988 and the first trains emerged to greet the paying public in 1994 - Eurotunnel dealing with the transportation of vehicles and Eurostar with passengers. But what of the service?
Now let me be honest here. For somebody like me, Eurostar has been a bit of a blessing. Why? Well I'm not at all keen on flying or messing about in boats. My last attempt at flying was some years ago. Any confidence that hadn't been questionably stiffened by Bach's Rescue Remedy took a bit of a dent mid-flight when I thought I could smell smoke and attempted to convince my wife that I might well be right. This was received politely but batted away promptly. I was told to stop planning my emergency ditch and escape route over the Alps and concentrate on my rather sad looking meal instead. A further attempt to plead my case fell on deaf ears and by this time I only had a small amount of remaining orange juice for succour. The coup de grace came later on when two stewardesses stopped alongside my seat and whispered to each other far too loudly - 'What's that burning smell?' . I sat quietly and awaited my fate. Nothing happened but I decided to stop flying anyway. I never was keen on heights. As for the ferries? Well I never did manage to learn to swim and in spite of countless attempts at various ages buoyancy and disinterest stopped me in my tracks. Having lived just minutes from the sea for over 50 years I made sure that both my children could swim but retained the right to maintain a healthy fear of drowning. I last took a paddle in 1981 but keep a pair of trunks handy just in case I change my mind.
So Eurostar gave me a new lease of life. Without them I would still be quivering in the Heathrow departure lounge and gazing fearfully nto the waves at Dover. But although I really love the service I am still old enough to get dewy-eyed about the demise of Eurostar's much mourned and truly excellent 'Leisure Select'. This first class service was...well, first class. It provided excellent food, champagne (was it really unlimited?) and a delightful feeling of being pampered. I seem to remember a wonderful dish of chicken breasts in a delicious sauce. The name said it all. Every trip seemed to be a special event and you really did feel 'select'. I'm not absolutely certain that God had reserved a seat just for me but I did feel that more than a credit card transaction had taken place. The ambience was more 'Brighton Belle' than 'Intercity Sizzler' but sadly it passed away in 2010 and affordable luxury gave way to something jolly but a tad more sensible. You stopped being 'select' and suddenly became 'standard' - Standard Premier. Nevertheless this is still worth the upgrade. The food is simpler but still tasty. The tea, coffee and soft drinks seem to flow frequently filling the cross channel trip perfectly. You have more spacious seats and most importantly you don't seem to be competing for luggage space. Always worth considering and when there's an offer, a must! Standard Class is perfectly okay but Standard Premier is just the ticket.
There is however one further class of Eurostar ticket that has always been beyond my reach. The fabled Business Premier! Having neither a major business nor an aluminium laptop I'm not altogether sure I'd fit in but I'd rather like to try. Sadly my lack of an expense account is a bit of a hurdle as this particular golden ticket is a tad pricey. The ever elusive BPs apparently hide within their own luxurious station lounges, appearing amidst a flurry of Financial Times pages to mount the train with mere minutes to spare. They then get hot food courtesy of that all-round good egg - or should that be 'oeuf'? - Raymond Blanc. (Sorry but I can feel the Leisure Select tears flowing again). Now I'm pretty sure that Monsieur Blanc isn't busy frying and baking away in the train's kitchen galley but I do like to think that he works the occasional shift and at the very least bends the croissants. So until I am on speaking terms with the Cayman Islands, Business Premier will remain but a dream. But be it standard or select, whenever I arrive in Belgium it's always heavenly.