IN a world where many customs are being overturned to make life quicker and easier - newsagents sell railway tickets, garages sell bread, and a tunnel has been dug under the Channel - it is rather surprising that it still takes seven hours to drive from London to Paris even if you take the hovercraft.
It still does so, I'm glad to say, because nothing will ever eradicate that most timeless of mankind's many foibles: the human error.
Mercifully, it afflicts us all. As we took our seats in the hovercraft at Dover, a man was attracting some opprobrium from his wife because he had failed to pack a map of France. 'Here we are rowing, and we haven't even started the holiday,' she said.
We weren't exactly rowing when we started circling Paris in an increasingly manic attempt to locate the Eiffel Tower - but then we are not man and wife, just two journalists who assumed we could effect a straightforward rendezvous at one of the city's most obvious landmarks without needing a map.
Given that we were sailing past Charles de Gaulle Airport at 2.25pm, we should really have been taking our late lunch at the foot of the tower by 3.15. At 4.10, however, we were still five minutes away and had only got that far because we had finally swallowed our pride and consulted a man in a bed shop for directions. I was interested to observe that the tower appeared to have moved since my last visit, although my colleague said he had always known it was on the south side of the Seine. But then he had been pretty sure of the whereabouts of our hovercraft terminal at Dover, and that had gone horribly wrong.
After a painless journey from London, we were smugly positioned at Dover's Eastern Docks by 11.05.
If we didn't require a map of France, we were certainly not going to be told how to find our way on this side of the water - which may explain the rather embarrassing sticker slapped on our windscreen, informing the world that we should have parked at the Western Docks, a potentially hair-raising drive away, given the hovercraft's departure time of 11.30.
But Hoverspeed's dear old The Princess Margaret failed to stir herself until 11.49, giving us plenty of time to buy gin (which we did), and a map (which we didn't).
The cause of the delay was unclear, and we were not about to complain. A stewardess upgraded us to Club Class as if there was no tomorrow, and sadly that seems to be more than a possibility. The company announced 50 redundancies yesterday, said it was halting ferry operations for January and was booking its two hovercrafts and Seacat for their annual refit, all at the same time. Eurotunnel, it insisted, was not responsible.
BY TUNNEL: High-speed rail link promises more
THEY have made it easy to get to the Channel tunnel - at least once you manage to leave London. We set off from the Independent's offices just north of the City at 9.40am, intending to take the 11.54am train from Folkestone.
Commercial Road through east London was blocked but after doubling back a few times we reached the Blackwall tunnel just after 10am.
There was a short section of single carriageway through Kidbrooke in south London and a couple of roundabouts after that, but otherwise the route to the tunnel is now a straight run on dual carriageways and motorways.
As we drove along the M20, a Eurostar train flashed briefly past us, showing us what will undoubtedly be the best way to reach Paris from London as it will take just three hours from centre to centre. Unfortunately, the trains are not due to be in service until next month at the earliest.
The Channel tunnel terminal has been built right alongside the M20 near Folkestone and a wide slip road takes you straight to the toll booth. Our dash for the 11.54 train is, in fact, not what will happen when the tunnel is open for business next month.
Bravely, Eurotunnel has gone for a no-booking system, with motorists expected simply to turn up without the comfort of a reservation. They will be told at the toll booth whether they can catch the next shuttle or whether they will have to wait. Even then, they will not be able to book a particular shuttle and go off to the airy passenger terminal that will soon house McDonald's, Boots, W H Smith and, most important, the only duty-free shop available for Le Shuttle travellers. Instead, people will be expected to do their shopping and then wait in line to be sure of a place on the train, where no drinks or refreshments are sold. At the moment, there are only occasional trains for VIPs, press and shareholders paying a token pounds 30 each because the service is liable to disruption, not least from people using camera flashes, which apparently set off the fire alarms. There are signs that this is still an experimental service. There are panels missing in the toilets - paper, too - and as you drive on to the train the signs flash a message telling you to get ready to leave. But Eurotunnel expects everything to be ready by mid-November, when it hopes to start an hourly service during the day at the normal winter price of pounds 220 return or pounds 130 for a five-day excursion.
We reached the terminal at 11.10am. Normally we would be able to catch a train within 15 minutes but instead we had to sit around for 45 minutes.
Both British and French formalities are undertaken in the terminal from which you depart, ensuring you have a clear run on to the motorway once you leave the train. We were waved through and drove up a steep but wide ramp on to the upper section of the double- deck train.
The train left 12 minutes late, at 12.06pm, but the ride was smoothness itself and we were on the motorway exactly 40 minutes later.
Paris is 280km away on the autoroute at a cost of 95 francs ( pounds 12). Again we were overtaken by the high-speed trains which, in France, are already operating a regular service between Calais, Lille and Paris. We reached Charles de Gaulle Airport on the outskirts of Paris at 3pm, having cruised on the clear motorways at around 80mph.
By keeping up that speed on the Peripherique, Paris's orbital motorway, we reached the Eiffel Tower at 3.42pm, almost exactly six hours after leaving the office.
BY PLANE: Just making it to victory on a wing and prayer
9.32am. City Road: I hop into Ed the photographer's car for the short ride to London City Airport. We've generously allowed half an hour.
9.36am: The sign says 'City Airport 6' miles. The petrol warning light flashes on, but there are no worries, plenty of time to stop en route.
9.41am: Looking lumpy down Commercial Road, so we do a quick detour to join The Highway, which runs parallel. Traffic does not seem to be moving. But 17 minutes later we've advanced just 30 yards. I should have checked in three minutes ago. Still, another 55 to take-off.
10.14am: Joke's over. Railtrack and the RMT have made more progess than this. We're now wedged in on the inside lane. I get out and walk, mainly to ask a line of cars outside to nudge forward and allow us to do a U-turn. A woman leans out of her jeep and tells me the Limehouse Link is shut. This is serious.
10.18am: U-turn. Fuel is critical, so a quick pit-stop. We've filled up in two minutes, plotted a new route south of the river and found out about the next flights from a call box. (City at 2.25pm, or Heathrow at 12.35pm. Both would almost certainly leave me trailing).
10.35am: Round about this time I had expected to be slurping a cappuccino, chewing a croissant and pretentiously leafing through a French newspaper at the airport. Instead my head's buried in the A-Z guiding us through deepest Deptford.
10.45am: 'City Airport 1/2 ' the sign says. We're going to make. No we're not. There's a queue on the road leading to the airport. I can see the aircraft on the tarmac, I can see the last passengers walking up the steps.
10.54am: Charge across the airport concourse yelling 'Paris'. They radio the aircraft - they'll let me on if I run. Gate number 7. Far end of the airport. No time for searches, no time for Duty Free, just one long sprint.
11.01am: I'm seated on the plane. The propellers start up. Propellers] Too late now, we're airborne.
11.28am: Crossing the Channel. The others probably made it to Dover in the time it took me to get beyond Docklands.
12.29pm: Waiting for the Metro to Paris. A cab would be much quicker but for some reason I'm off roads.
13.50pm: Arrive at the Eiffel Tower. I've won. pounds 245 and 32 francs later, I've won. If I'd travelled from Heathrow at the weekend I could have flown to Paris for pounds 80. For a similar price next month, you'll be able to take the train from London to Paris. Was it worth it? For the sweet taste of victory (not to mention the tarte aux framboises and demi devoured while I waited), I'd say every penny.
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