On board for Aix: St Pancras to Provence
Saturday 09 February 2013
"Railway stations and hotels are to the 19th century what monasteries and cathedrals were to the 13th century," observed a contributor to Building News in 1875. "They are the only truly representative buildings we possess."
The departure boards at London's St Pancras station are regaining their eclectic character of yesteryear. Cast back half a century and St Pancras had trains to fire the imagination. A bright star on the morning departure boards was The Palatine, which steamed out of St Pancras at 07.55 and sped north to Manchester, using a beautiful rail route through the English Peak District that has long since disappeared. Then there was The Waverley at 09.10, a handsome express which took in some of the country's finest mountain and moorland scenery on its 10-hour run to Edinburgh.But perhaps the most distinguished morning departure in those days was the 11.20 Midland Pullman to Nottingham. This train consisted only of first-class Pullman cars, affording cushioned comfort for passengers taking a leisurely luncheon as the train cruised north. With two stops along the way, the Midland Pullman reached Nottingham in just two hours.
Beeching's cuts and the demotion of the Midland Main Line saw St Pancras slip quietly into obscurity. The grand expresses no longer left from there and the station and its once-magnificent hotel languished in neglect. But those twilight years ended with a landmark restoration and Eurostar's move to St Pancras in 2007.
Suddenly, the departure boards came alive again. No longer just Luton or Leicester, but Lille now popped up and sleek Eurostar expresses with such names as Voyage Vert now graced the platforms in the superbly restored train shed.
St Pancras is a station born of mighty ambition. When it first opened it was the showpiece London terminal for a mighty railway company: the Midland. Today it showcases Eurostar (although it is well used by other companies).
Eurostar has its own ambitions, symbolised this year by an experimental service in May and June. On the morning of 4 May, Eurostar will operate the first direct train to Aix-en-Provence, a journey of 1,215km taking just over six hours. Just think how that will look on the departure boards.
This link will also earn a place in the record books. Never before has there been a regular scheduled train from London to so far-flung a spot. Even in the days of overnight Continental sleepers there were never services to match this.
Railway stations are temples to modern mobility, veritable cathedrals of transport. And the listings on their departure boards map a city's connectivity. Aix captures the very spirit of the south, the essence of Provence. And this spring it moves a little closer to London.
Eurostar (08432 186186; eurostar.com) is selling services to Aix-en-Provence for 4 May at £132.50 return; if you are booking online, note that the website insists you type in "Aix En Provence TGV" before it will recognise the city.
Hidden Europe is a print and online collection of writing that reflects the Continent's diverse cultures and landscapes. You can subscribe through hiddeneurope.co.uk
Threat of 'catastrophic cascade of collisions' must be averted, warn scientists
Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: Despite expected death toll we must remember air travel has never been safer
The 10 Best hiking boots
Come to Crimea: Could tourism help heal the divisions in Ukraine?
Malaysia Airlines MH370: the missing aircraft, and what investigators will be looking for
The 10 Best city bikes
- 1 Australian man Rod Sommerville reacts to bite from deadly snake by reaching for cold beer
- 2 Pakistan vs Paul Smith: Sandal-wearers bemused by famed British designer's attempts to sell traditional Peshawari chappal-style shoes for the distinctly untraditional sum of £300
- 3 North Korea elections: Kim Jong-un wins 100% of the vote
- 4 Steve Irwin’s final words: Cameraman present at death opens up about deadly stingray attack for the first time
- 5 Sharknado 2: Former WWE wrestler Kurt Angle to fight second wave of flying sharks
Britain's top vet sparks controversy with call for ban on slashing animals' throats in 'ritual' slaughters for halal and kosher meat products
Poor 'live like animals' says Boris's privately educated sister after going on 'poverty safari'
Exclusive: Impact of immigrants on British workers ‘negligible’
Vince Cable: Teachers 'know absolutely nothing' about the world of work
Ukraine crisis: Russia pledges to 'retaliate against sanctions' as Ukrainian president says Crimea vote will not be recognised
The quiet diplomat: Catherine Ashton - recognised and admired in all the world’s troubled countries, yet ridiculed at home
£16000 - £27000 per annum + Benefits: Flight Centre Limited: We're looking for...
£18000 - £34000 per annum + Award-Winning Benefits: Flight Centre Group: Becom...
£18000 - £27000 per annum + Commission + Award-Winning Benefits): Flight Centr...
£18000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Flight Centre First and Business: This i...