Sunday, 5 January 2014
It has been decided: I shall be doing another one of my beloved road trips, this time on the European continent, and to add spice to the experience I shall be driving my British car. (Well, the car, being Peugeot, is actually French, but the steering wheel is nevertheless on the non-continental side.) My experiences with seasickness on the recent cruise have made me reluctant to cross the English Channel on a ferry. To take the train through the tunnel under the sea seems an altogether more attractive option.
It is imperative to book the ticket in advance and via the internet, as I discover when I pull up at the barrier after a day of driving south-east. I had confidently assumed that there would be a kind of information desk where one could get advice and consider the options, but no. Once you head into the access lane marked ‘Channel Tunnel’ at Folkestone, that’s it and you are supposed to be on your way, with your time slot chosen and financial transactions concluded. Oh dear!
At the machine that operates the barrier, I explain my mistake to a friendly voice summoned with the ‘help’ button and am issued with instructions and a free exit slip that opens the gate and lets me escape this funnel to the tunnel. It is already late. I had no intention of making the crossing at this hour and set out to find a B&B for the night. This is easy, and fairly cheap too, given the fact that the holidays are over.
Now I study the departure times of the Channel Tunnel trains on the internet and see that the earliest ones around six o’clock are more expensive, but later the prices drop. I opt for a slot shortly after eight, pay by card, make a note of my booking number and set the alarm clock for an early start. Pity the poor traveller without internet access!
Monday, 6 January 2014
Early in the morning I arrive once again at the barrier, but this time equipped with all that is necessary. The machine issues a card covered in safety instructions and a big X, the letter corresponding to my time of departure. Passing through the barrier, I come to a large terminal where I park the car, have breakfast, buy a gadget that allows plump British plugs to fit into slim continental sockets, and keep an eye on the bilingual departure board. To my dismay, the message displayed there announces:
“Timetable currently disrupted. This is due to a technical fault. – Service actuellement perturbé, en raison d’un incident technique.”
Having made an early start to make the most of another day’s driving, the prospect of thus losing over an hour (the given estimate on the board) is frustrating, and pondering the nature of a technical fault in the setting of a train trapped in a tube under a large amount of salt water does nothing to lighten the mood.
However, it seems that nothing untoward has happened, for suddenly things begin to move. Letters appear next to departure times on the board, and I see that it is time for me – and other eXes – to drive along the arrows pointing ‘to France’ and through passport control. Then all cars are directed into lanes according to the letters printed on their cards, conveniently hooked to the rear-view mirror, and we wait until the red cross of the traffic light turns to a green arrow.
One by one the cars follow each other down a ramp and into the waiting train, which is a bit like driving into a multi-storey car park.
Inside, train personnel make sure that each driver parks in the correct space and does not perhaps stop between carriages. Overhead, running messages are displayed with instructions:
“Apply handbrake, switch off engine, leave vehicle in first gear or park. Open sunroofs and vents and leave windows open half way. Do not stand or walk between vehicles. Do not use flash photography. No smoking – offenders will be prosecuted.”
Thus briefed, we wait until the train is loaded, the doors are shut and we glide from the damp, wintry shore of England into the darkness beneath the sea floor. Despite the warning about the disrupted timetable we depart exactly on time.
It is still early in the morning and all the other drivers are resting in their seats, fully reclined for maximum comfort. But I wander up and down the carriage, do discreet star-jumps and stretching exercises in view of the long drive ahead, and take a few hasty photos without flash, nervous of setting off the security system.
Barely half an hour later, the overhead messages begin to prepare us for arrival:
“Thank you for choosing to travel with Eurotunnel. Relax, we’ll drive.” – “Do not start the engine until unloading begins. The speed limit is 10km/h. We hope you have had a pleasant crossing. We look forward to seeing you again soon.” – “Attention: please ensure that the carriage in front is clear before preparing to move off.”
The actual crossing has taken no more than 35 minutes and has been the smoothest transport experience imaginable. And so we emerge, blinking, in France, where the time is an hour later and the weather considerably brighter.
Driving south on the ‘Route des Anglais’, the first thing l’Anglais notices is the good quality of the road surface, then the ease with which one switches to driving on the right-hand side, and finally the total absence of other Anglais travelling south on a weekday in January.