The English at Ebbsfleet

It seems frivolous to complain about a single and comfortable journey from London to Avignon when thousands are struggling across the entire continent, on foot, by train, by bus, by any means at all, to reach a safe haven called Germany. So I’ll complain only quietly about the mishaps that befell my friend Caroline and me at the hands of Eurostar and SNCF. en route to a bicycling holiday in the south of France. We chose to travel by train this year rather than by low-cost airline (never Ryanair if we can avoid it). Trains are comfortable, fast, civilised and you can eat in style as the scenery whizzes by.

I’ve only two observations to make. The first is about cheerfulness, the second about superstition.


Things went wrong from the start, our Eurostar train halting at Ebbsfleet, just outside London, fifteen minutes into the journey. There was an announcement about technical problems. Eventually disgorged onto the platform, we waited an hour or so for a ‘rescue set’ of carriages. Two hours meant that we would miss our connection at Lille. But what was remarkable about the whole experience was the cheerfulness with which the English reacted to this minor inconvenience. True, in our carriage they were mostly elderly passengers on a Saga holiday, with all the time in the world (or less, depending on how you look at it). But you’d think that the adversity were some kind of bonus, something they would even pay for if they could. You could feel the mood lift and camaraderie set in as the situation worsened. It’s as if the English take pleasure in inconvenience as long as they can all be in it together.

We switched to a later train at Lille, and sped towards Avignon just two hours late. Two hours into the four-hour journey we slowed to a crawl and the driver announced there were problems with the track. We were three hours late at Lyon, where we remained in the station for a further two hours. Track problems further slowed our journey so we were seven hours late at Avignon.

We couldn’t then leave the car park because another passenger was blockading the exit, protesting at the extra hours he’d been charged because the train was late. Remonstrations, threats, made no impression, but this insane man eventually gave up, and finally we arrived at our hotel eight hours late at two in the morning.

My second point is about superstition. It’s hard to resist the feeling that bad luck is sometimes personal, caused, or planned for a purpose, the effect of divine or satanic interference, or witchcraft or wizardry. Bad things come all at once. But it’s nonsense, of course. A bad run of luck at the roulette wheel is precisely that. But even so, I can’t help feeling we were meant to arrive late, but whether so that we should be delivered from disaster, or into it, I don’t yet know.


Just Another Form of Sitting

People often suggest I should be exhausted by travel. I travel a lot, I suppose, but mostly over short distances in Europe, and I always carry my own bag (as, I note, the Pope does nowadays). There are many people my age, older, and younger, who travel much more than I do. David Cameron, for example, and he looks well enough on it, and Angela.

I’ve taken 44 flights so far this year, flown around 90,000 km (just more than twice around the world) visited about twenty countries and still have the appetite for more. I’m off to Sofia today, and thence by bus to Plovdiv. But don’t think for a moment that I travel in great luxury or style. Only 10 of these flights were not economy – most of them were on low-cost airlines, on planes where the seats don’t recline and conditions are cramped. Wizzair, easyJet, and the like (though I avoid Ryanair if I can  because I can’t bear their pizzazz).

No, I don’t have patience with the view that travel is tiring. Of course, jet lag is unpleasant, and getting up early, or arriving somewhere late at night, but that’s not the point. That’s not the travelling part. To my mind, travelling is just another way of sitting. Sitting on trains, sitting in taxis, sitting on buses, sitting in other people’s cars, sitting on a plane, in a departure lounge, in a hotel room. It’s all just sitting. Sitting, and generally working. Sitting is not tiring at all. After all, what else do we do at home, or in the office? Sitting, doing emails, that’s actually the whole of life, with a little lying down thrown in at night.


Standing, of course, is tiring, a lot more tiring than walking (think of how exhausting it is to stand in front of paintings and glass cabinets in museums), and I will never buy a standing ticket for an aeroplane if they ever become an option. Ryanair once mooted the idea of ‘standing seats’ and came up with a design, but surely for no other reason than publicity. Perhaps they were inspired by those discreet ledges that medieval monks perched on to relieve their legs after hours and hours of standing and praying.

Ryanair’s proposed ‘standing seats’…

standing seats

Salisbury Cathedral economy class

monks standing

No, I don’t find travel tiring. I still find it stimulating.

What’s important, is to follow some basic rules:

  • Don’t fly early in the morning. Get up at the usual time.
  • Don’t arrive late at night. Arrive in time for dinner.
  • Don’t drink alcohol at all whilst on the road, or in the air, but eat everything they put in front of you.
  • Don’t be anxious about departure times. Arrive at the airport an hour before a flight is due to leave. It’s always plenty of time, whatever they tell you. After all, there’s always another flight, or an airport hotel, and in all my years of travel I’ve only ever missed one flight. (Note that if your flight is about to close, there’s always an official who will shout out your destination and call you to the front of the queue.)
  • Treat the queues at security and passport control with a Buddhist nonchalance.
  • Treat delays with a Buddhist nonchalance.
  • Always have some work to do. I do my best work at 10,000 metres, blissfully uninterrupted.
  • Don’t talk to the person sitting next to you until the plane starts to descend.
  • Don’t join queues until you have to. I’ve never understood why passengers queue just in front of the gate as soon as the flight starts boarding. You have an allocated seat, so what’s the point? They won’t go without you. Just sit and watch and wait, with a Buddhist nonchalance, if possible.
  • Sit near the luggage carousel and wait for your luggage to appear before rushing forward to pick it up.
  • Take your own tea bags.
  • Don’t be anxious about turbulence. The wings never fall off.