"Hello to 186mph" announced the advert for the inaugural Eurostar service from St Pancras, the words set against a backdrop of graduated greens. The message was that this (British) train not only whizzes through the countryside at breakneck speed, but does so in a thoroughly eco-friendly way.
As a one-time Paris resident and frequent visitor to France, I am as ecstatic as any UK francophile to have a new, environmentally untainted vehicle to whisk me from one capital to the other. For someone whose trains to the parental home always left from a dark and decrepit St Pancras, it is also gratifying to see this landmark restored, not only exquisitely, but on time and on budget. Perhaps we British can accomplish French-style grands projets after all, if only we set our minds to it.
Unfortunately, I returned to the self-congratulation of the St Pancras jamboree from 10 days of travelling in France and Germany. And, while the station and new high-speed line are unquestionably British successes, it was puzzling to find such a co-operative enterprise as a train service linking London with Paris and Brussels being treated as a uniquely British achievement. Still more disconcerting was the inference that the greenness of this train somehow gave Britain a claim to be in the vanguard of European environmentalism.
If this is really what those who commissioned the advertising believe – and want the rest of us to believe – they would do well to take a few more trips on their super-clean "British" Eurostar. Rather than stay in the capitals, though, they should change trains and set off into the rest of the country. They might be surprised at how deeply green-ness is now integrated into the life of the cities, towns and villages of "old" Europe, not for show, but for real.
Let's start with the small things. As many cross-Channel shoppers will know, plastic bags are simply not supplied at many Continental hypermarkets any more. You either buy big biodegradable bags from the check-out or bring your own bag or trolley. Germans routinely take their own bags and baskets to the market, just as they did 50 years ago. We British are only just getting around to voluntary and individual council initiatives to curtail the plastic bags that litter grass verges across the country.
Over there, street litter-bins are generous in size, regularly emptied and often divided into clearly-labelled compartments. Outside Paris, dog mess seems like a relic of a primitive, unsanitary past. Household-waste bins are colour-coded; they may be collected every two weeks, every week, or every day. But the rules are clear, well-publicised and many towns have built screens to keep the plastic out of sight.
And it is not just in obvious tourist destinations that thought has been given to the overall look of the place. Some of the towns I visited in the past 10 days I first saw 30 years ago on family holidays, and then again five years or so ago, as I covered election campaigns. There is not one town that I knew before that has not been improved, both aesthetically and practically, to the benefit of residents and visitors alike.
Pedestrianisation has advanced apace; these are not the faux-precincts of too many British cities, where cycles, vans and buses vie for space theoretically set aside for those on foot. They are clean, agreeable and unthreatening places to walk and sit.
Small shops and markets flourish; along with new supermarket chains. Public toilets are open, mostly free of charge, and well-signposted. One of the most striking distinctions between there and here, however, is the location, quantity and quality of new housing. While British urban housing is dominated by the two genres currently favoured by our builders and permitted by our planners, "loft-style" flats and undistinguished boxes, recent urban housing there is easy on the eye and exudes solidity. Planners confidently mix residence and commerce, to the advantage of both. And environmental features are obligatory, from insulation to the efficiency of the boiler.
I am not blind to the depressed banlieues that ring so many French cities or to the dereliction of the German rust belt. "Old Europe" has its conspicuously poor towns, with rundown, graffiti-daubed public spaces, and young men loitering around the bus station. But development, at least as I observe it, has generally been in the right direction. A single, local hand guides planning, design and building in a way that happens all too rarely in Britain. The interests of people and the environment are seen not as add-ons, but first principles.
So let's celebrate the success of St Pancras and the "green" Eurostar by all means. But we should not brag about leading European environmentalism when, despite the supposed economic boom of recent years, so many of our towns remain blighted by Sixties "regeneration", much new housing would not meet even the council housing standards of the Fifties, and there is no money for a high-speed train to Scotland. Such boasts only expose our insularity.