BY THIS time next year, the Channel tunnel should whisk travellers from London to Paris in around three hours. The fastest surface journey this summer, using trains and the SeaCat between Folkestone and Boulogne, takes a shade less than six hours. It struck me that the trip could be even quicker by cutting corners and making tight connections. So last weekend I set out to prove it.

The outbound plan involved a non-stop train to Dover, a sprint around the docks to connect with a hovercraft - the fastest way across the Channel - then a non-stop bus down the autoroute to Paris. On paper it looked a good prospect to beat six hours, but it ended up taking more than seven: the train stopped three times and lurched into Dover late; the hovercraft was delayed; and the direct bus stopped at two service stations between Calais and Paris.

On the return leg, my sprinting potential was handicapped by a case of vin de pays in my luggage, but my trump card was a flying start to the journey. The week- old TGV Nord line, built to serve the Channel tunnel, whisks you to the town of Hazebrouck in 80 minutes. Unfortunately, the schedules do whatever is the opposite of dovetailing, and the Calais train leaves three minutes before the Paris express is due to arrive.

Hazebrouck is halfway to London and only 35 miles from Calais. Rather than pay pounds 50 for a taxi, I thought the distance could be hitch-hiked in an hour. The prospect of beating the schedule evaporated when it became clear that the motoring public of northern France was in a collective bad mood. Hitch- hiking took three hours and ended with a three-mile walk across Calais.

Worse was to come at the hoverport. I intended to use the crafty Channel traveller's trick of buying a cheap day return, price pounds 12, and throwing away the return half. This is invariably cheaper than a one-way ticket. Deteriorating weather made a return journey look doubtful, but I said that was absolutely fine with me. Unfortunately, company rules say day returns are not allowed if the journey back cannot be guaranteed. So that will be pounds 30 for the one-way trip, thank you. The wound to my wallet was exacerbated by the hovercraft being half-an-hour late getting to Dover. I was well over the six-hour limit, and still 75 miles from London.

'British Rail', 'Sunday' and 'punctuality' do not always sit easily in the same sentence, but the boat train pulled into Victoria on time. I had taken nine hours to get from Paris and failed abjectly to beat the schedule. Furthermore, the whole hapless exercise cost pounds 96, about twice as much as the cheapest return fare.

Over-optimistic hitching targets and delayed hovercraft apart, it may still be possible to beat the timetable. The Independent Traveller would be pleased to hear from anyone who can travel, or has done, between London and Paris by public surface transport in less than six hours; a bottle of specially imported vin de pays for the fastest (and wittiest) entry. Write to: Simon Calder, Weekend Traveller, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.