Under the English Channel: London to Antwerp by rail

I find train travel relaxing. By this I don’t mean commuting in hot, crowded carriages at peak times but rather more leisurely journeys with a comfortable seat and adequate provisions, such as a good book and a large coffee. When you live on an island, the most obvious ways to travel abroad are flying and ferries but thanks to the Channel Tunnel and frequent Eurostar services, it’s easy to get to France and Belgium by rail, too. Of course, once you arrive at Paris or Brussels, for example, you also have a great choice of onward connections to other cities and countries.

My latest trip was to Antwerp via Brussels from St. Pancras International, a grand Grade I listed Victorian building that was under serious threat of demolition in the 1960s.  Luckily the station survived and after a major redevelopment project it became the stunning UK terminus for Eurostar in 2007. Besides regular connections to continental Europe, it provides a great choice of restaurants, bars, lounges, and retail stores. I’ve sometimes popped in for a coffee even when I’ve just been on a stroll in London! The frontispiece of the station is a cathedral-like Gothic revival building, which has been beautifully restored and is now home to five-star Renaissance London Hotel and apartments. I don’t think I can stretch my budget to an overnight stay there any time soon but at least it’s free to admire its beautiful architecture.

The check-in for the service to Brussels opened two hours before the departure, and as the only other passengers going through security and immigration were those catching an earlier train to Paris, it only took a few minutes to get through. What may strike some as surprising is that the French border control is situated only a few metres after the British one but it’s actually practical not having to have passport checks at the other end. The security-sealed terminal area only has a shop and a couple of cafes after the check-in so if you are planning to buy gifts or a nice meal, it’s best to do it beforehand.

“Train I ride, 16 coaches long” sang Elvis Presley in Mystery Train in 1955 but if you ride on Eurostar, you sit in one of 18 coaches. Speaking from experience, that can be a long walk along the platform! A fleet of new trains is now operating between London and Paris but the routes to Brussels seem to be still waiting for theirs. Not that the old trains aren’t comfortable: I was just curious to check out how sleek the new ones really were. Although I love to watch the changing scenery, there was little to see until we reached Calais because the first part of the journey was mostly in tunnels. At least I had a 700-page book to keep me occupied.

The Channel Tunnel is  50.5 kilometres long and at its lowest point 75 metres deep. If being under that much water and seabed makes you anxious, the good news is you are through in about 20 minutes and it doesn’t feel different from any other tunnel. After Calais we were speeding through sunny France towards Lille and then across the border towards Brussels through the Belgian countryside. I felt I was properly on holiday!

If your ticket is from St Pancras to ‘any Belgian station’, you can use it to continue your journey anywhere in Belgium within 24h from arrival at Brussels Midi. It’s a great opportunity to have a stopover in the capital even if your destination was further afield. I had already planned to spend a few hours in Brussels on my journey back so upon arrival I just hopped on the first Belgian Railways service to Antwerp. It’s best summed up as a quiet, uneventful trip. The Antwerpen-Centraal station with its four levels, however, is an impressive place to end your journey. With its grand entrance hall staircase, arched windows, and marble pillars its architecture can rival that of castles and cathedrals.

What had changed since my previous visits to both Brussels and Antwerp was the very visible presence of police officers and armed soldiers at and around the station. Although they all looked quite relaxed and I didn’t sense anything bubbling under the surface, it was sad to think that armed soldiers roaming the streets of European cities is now the new reality. On the other hand – and I’m saying this slightly tongue in cheek – the owners of Antwerp’s numerous diamond shops may be glad about visible extra security. (Antwerp itself deserves a post of its own but I can reveal there won’t be any diamond stories.)

There was a moment of uncertainty too as Eurostar staff were going to go on strike on the day I was travelling home. Luckily my service was not affected so after spending half a day in Brussels admiring the flower carpet and street art as well as sampling both the fries and waffles, I headed towards the station. The check-in and security procedures ran smoothly once again and I even had time for a chilled glass of wine at the bar before boarding. St Pancras was as beautiful to arrive at as it was to depart from, and on another platform stood one of the new trains I had wanted to travel on. Maybe it’s time to book a new trip!

 

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