The train journey has made me think of all those years ago when I was a student...in the days when students had grants, not debts. With a bit of management, a student could find a shared, if grotty, flat, could eat, go to the pub, buy books and....go on holiday.
I used to put a bit aside for the annual visit to France by train, booked in those days at the French Railways office off Piccadilly - long before 'online' was even thought of, when it was necessary to buy things with cash or by cheque. It used to be possible to book all inclusive tickets covering a week or a fortnight, in first or second class, covering the whole of the French network and I could just about afford a week in second class if I planned to use the night trains to avoid booking a hotel. It was necessary to check the French national holidays and buy the relevant number of Thomas Cook's international railway timetable to make sure of making the best use of the ticket and it was also necessary to budget for the return fare from London to Paris as, in France, everything starts and ends in the capital, including trains which then departed at 00.01 on the first day of the ticket.
The pervasive smell of drains as the ferry docked at Calais announced the arrival in a foreign land, closely followed by the shuffle over the cobbles to the dock sidings where the train to Paris awaited - in that period, postwar rolling stock with hard plastic seats and space to hang your rifle while being shipped to the front should Germany take it into its mind to invade again during the August lull. It stopped just about everywhere when it finally got going, struggling up to Boulogne and relaxing later, rolling through the long chalk hills down to the Seine and Paris. In those days, I was not hampered with much luggage.... a bag was enough, with a couple of changes, toothbrush and comb, knife, spoon and bottle opener, so once put down at the Gare du Nord I would assemble a picnic and a bottle of wine in a grocer's shop nearby, stash it away and head for whichever station offered the best just post midnight train, resolutely turning my back on the neon lit sign beside the station advertising the 'Hotel Kuntz'.
Over the years, the offerings varied...one year it was Brest, on the Brittany coast, in the company of a train full of inebriated sailors returning to the naval base, another year it was down to the Pyrenees....always somewhere new when I woke up and descended to the platform, already washed and brushed up in loo on the train and, in those pre terrorist scare days, leaving my bag in the left luggage lockers before wandering out for the day to see what was on offer. The only constraint was checking which night train to take, the only peril, the French railways going on strike.
My mother, in the ATS during the war, described being on a platform at a London station during an air raid with the crowd jostling and, finally, when the platform gates opened, the fear of being trampled underfoot as everyone rushed for the train. Well, when French railways went on strike, I was at Lyon, and only international trains were running which meant, in this case, the train to Paris from Barcelona...it might even have been the Talgo, the one where they lifted the carriages up to change from Spanish broad gauge to French narrow gauge, but I no longer remember. We had neither German bombers nor doodlebugs, but the rush for the train must have been similar to that experienced by my mother, as I remember being quite frightened about what would happen if I lost my footing. I made the train, but thanked my stars that I only had light luggage as one man struggled to load his cat in its travelling box and his suitcase, afraid to let go of the cat in case he himself could not board. Eventually, standing all the way, we made it to Paris, only to find that, due to the strike, I had to return to the U.K. via Belgium - and pay extra for the ticket!
Strikes apart, it was a wonderful way to see France, whether from the train window, or on foot in the towns, but only when I came to live in France did I truly appreciate the difference between visiting and living in a country. As a tourist, my only interaction with French commerce was buying my picnic, or, if the dibs were in tune, having lunch in a cafe. Living in France I had to learn to deal with shop assistants who closed the doors if they saw you coming at ten minutes to twelve, so that they could close down on the dot to go to lunch, ladies on the charcuterie counter who, after patiently serving several ladies with two slices of this, three of that and perhaps a piece of garlic sausage, met my request that they slice half a kilo of smoked belly pork with a counter request that I telephone ahead next time for such a difficult order, and key cutters who seemed to think that I was going to pay twice when I returned the keys they had miscut the first time. But I digress.
I visited some chateaux, but on the whole I liked to stroll in the towns, retaining many fond memories of Nevers, with the black swans in the castle moat, of St. Jean Pied de Port, the railway line bordered with crocosmia all the way up from the Atlantic coast, majestic Bordeaux, quiet little Lucon where Richelieu was bishop before becoming the power behind the throne of France and so many others...Annecy, where I managed to fish up enough francs to take a boat out onto the lake, Perpignan, whence I took the train to Villefranche, fortified by Vauban and then the seat of the Casals music festival. The little yellow electric train with its' toastrack seats ran from Villefranche along the Pyrenees, leaving the almond trees behind as it climbed to its precarious viaducts, clicking its way round the Spanish enclave and back into French territory at La Tour de Carol where the night train for Paris awaited, vast in the tiny station perched high in the mountains.
I was too late for the steam trains, but I did travel on the first of the TGVs, from Lyon to Paris, and remember thinking how cramped they were and how disappointing it was not to be able to see the countryside, just a blur beyond the windows, but they were designed for speed, not for sightseeing, unlike the slow, all stops cross country trains, now all but disappeared or replaced by infrequent buses, where people straightened up from their work to wave to the driver and the guard loaded and unloaded little parcels at every stop.
I enjoyed those trips....later, with a bit more money and a car I drove over to France, but it was never quite the same. I suppose it was never to be the same again. I had swapped mass transport for the individual cocoon of the car, with its' differing imperatives, and now I moan when I have to clamber up into the carriages of the few, if high tech, trains which are left.
And the drains at Calais no longer smell.