Heading South: A Stormy Start
Ideally a blog about overland travel would tell you about how quick and easy train travel is, being whisked effortlessly from place to place while the world rushes by. Well, often it is like that, but inevitably sometimes it doesn’t go to plan. This was one of those times.
We are lucky enough to be able to take a good few weeks off holiday every year. I find the damp and dark of British winter really depressing so we usually take our main holiday around late January/February. That time of year when the drizzle has permeated to your bones and you start to believe that this might be the year that spring actually never comes. In early March 2020 we went to Sardinia and were chased home by a mysterious virus. I had a sore throat on arrival back at home and when we called 111 they had no clue what to do, except that we definitely shouldn’t leave the house. A few days later figures in hazmat suits arrived at our door to take throat swabs. We tested negative but lots of people didn’t and it turned out to be a global pandemic. Our big trip in Jan 2021 didn’t happen as the waves of covid washed around us and everyone generally had a bit of a rubbish time. The plus side of A being a nurse through covid is that he didn’t take any holiday in 2021 but we were pleased to find his leave got carried over to 2022. With little T due to start school, we got a few months off to go on an adventure.
Covid shrunk the grand plans. We’d been hoping to travel through lots of countries down to turkey. Endless changes of border rules and the appearance of omicron in winter 2021 made us rethink and we decided to go easy on ourselves. The final extremely refined plan was ‘head south’. I started researching options. I was annoyed to find the ferries heading to Spain weren’t allowing foot passengers (they started again at the end of March 2022) so Eurostar looked like the best option.
We booked tickets to Paris and arranged house sitters to look after our chickens. Going in to France at that point we’d need an on the day covid test and to sign a sworn declaration saying we hadn’t had close contact in the past 14 days. Fine, until the week before leaving we had close contact. Rubbish. I’d bought the cheapest tickets I could so we had paid to rearrange our train for a week later, we wrangled our plans and managed to arrange to see a few friends in the UK on our way. Always a nice thing to do and good to slot in some visiting friends with kids for little T to play with.
After a stop in Cambridge, we ended up with some old friends in Kent. They are restoring an old house. It’s an inspiring project, a plot of land with a big pond, a peaceful old roofless cottage currently inhabited by free range chickens. Sitting in their static caravan the night before our Eurostar we looked at the weather warnings for the next day. Storm Eunice. Hmm. It’s always hard to know how seriously to take weather warnings but the UK is not made for weather extremes. We can deal with warmish, coldish, dryish and drizzly. Give us an inch of snow however and the roads shut down. Strong winds knock over the wheelie bins and drop leaves on train lines. Chaos ensues.
We decided to chance it, leaving super early, rather than pay to change our Eurostar tickets again. We were staying only just over an hour from central London and the trains said they were still running. And to be fair, they were, for the first 7 minutes of our journey anyway. Then the train in front of us was stopped by a fallen tree. No one was hurt but not ideal. We had lots of extra time so weren’t too worried and luckily we’d just pulled into a station so could get off the train and walk around. Noone could tell us what was happening or when the train would continue but the wind was definitely picking up, in a getting hard to walk through it kind of way. We found a shop and bought food for lunch and dinner, realising this might a long day.
An hour later and the station staff encouraged everyone back on the waiting train. We were on our way! For another seven minutes. Yup, another tree, my son found this hilarious. This time we waited on board until it was cleared. The toys and books came out. The conductor had only nipped on board to help out and wasn’t feeling impressed with the delay. Eventually we were moving again only to stop at the next station and be told that that train was cancelled. Whatever happened I was getting a lovely tour of Kentish railway stations.
Finally a train arrived that was heading to London. Guess how long that one lasted? It was a good one. We covered ground. I’d say maybe 10 minutes worth. At the next station the announcement said that all trains were cancelled for the rest of the day. The station staff ushered all the bemused looking passenger out into the station forecourt and locked up. Everyone stood there looking at each other. There was a transport for London sign on the wall. We had no idea where we were but it was somewhere in the vicinity of greater London. Yes! We were getting there. This was one of those moments that I really loved my smart phone.
After chatting to a few other passenger we got a couple to agree to share a taxi. We scooped up little T and led everyone down the street to a mini cab depot. No cabs. A bus went past and google told me it would take us to Lewisham and the start of the docklands light railway. Knowledge disseminated, a line of rail passengers traipsed to the bus stop and clambered onto a packed and fogged up double decker bus. It was a twisty 45 minute ride through suburbs. Both me and the little one get travel sick on buses so A did a sterling job of storytelling while I stubbornly concentrated on the road ahead.
From the bus top it was only a short walk to the train station. The mainline trains here were all cancelled too but the DLR was still running and we got on board and from there we zoomed comfortably to St Pancreas. Nah, only joking. A few minutes after boarding the lights began to flicker and the train ground to a halt. “We are experiencing technical difficulties, we hope to be on our way shortly”. We started, then stopped again. By the time we’d crawled to Canary Wharf the DLR decided it too was closing. We were advised to find alternate transport. We were laughing quite a lot, maybe slightly hysterically at this point.
The thing is we were now in central London. Time was really ticking and our head start had vanished but we were getting close and had not yet missed our Eurostar. A short run took us to an underground station and onto a functioning train. The underground carriage was not busy, just us and a few other windswept weather-warning-ignoring idiots. We whiled away the journey huddled around someone’s smartphone watching live footage of the roof being ripped off the O2 Arena. A few changes later, with just minutes to spare we found ourselves sprinting (I mean, relatively, with backpacks and 5 year old, so maybe lolloping?) through London St Pancreas to the departure lounge. The Eurostar, thank goodness, was also delayed but it was running and somehow we made it on board and finally collapsed into our large and comfortable seats. Speed restrictions were in place so our high speed train hobbled rather than whooshed along
Our friend’s house in Kent, which we’d left about 7am is just a few miles from Ashford International Station, which is actually on the Eurostar line. It was closed due to covid but I still shared a grimace with A as we passed it, going away from London at about 4pm.
We were rather dazed by the time we arrived in Paris. It was past little T’s bed time but he was a hero and I think enjoyed Journey even if he’d gone a bit weird by the time we arrived. An RER ride across the city and a walk up a hill took us to a tiny little rental apartment in Montmartre. The storm had passed and the lights of Paris twinkled out into the sea of the night. We collapsed on the rickety bed and vowed we would never ever get on a train again. Not a great outlook for the start of a 6 week European rail adventure but we thought we’d tackle that after a good nights sleep and some croissants.
Lovely. At first glance I assumed you were talking about a red warning for the summer heatwave – I’d forgotten about Eunice. We were travelling in France in the heatwave – like you, I really want to say how rail travel will save the world, but it won’t until stations have opening canopies for ventilation, solar panels on their acres of glass roofs, and there are rails that don’t buckle in the heat. At least you were home by then – to find it was even hotter in the UK! Jxx
Brilliant! Really enjoyed reading your blog!