The grass is always greener over here

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The Independent Online
First impressions are often worth remembering. When Robert Benchley first went to Venice, he cabled back home: "Streets full of water - please advise ", but that was just an American-style joke. A far more interesting reaction was provided by the French writer Alphonse Allais 100 years ago when he went from Paris to Venice for the first time and wrote: "The most striking thing about the city of Venice is the complete absence of the smell of horse dung ...", which, I think, tells you a great deal about what cities were like in the 1890s.

Well, I have just made my first Eurostar trip to Paris and I think it is worth recording my first impressions while they lie hot and sticky on my mind, a bit like the pain au chocolat stains on my tie. Now the one thing I knew about the Eurostar route is that while going through Kent the Eurostar express trundles along at a snail's pace and while going through northern France to Paris it races along at supersonic speeds. The reason for this, we have always been told, is that the Tory government, in true British style, has never been able to get its act together to build the special Channel tunnel link line while the French, with the determination that has already given them a nuclear power programme, the TGV and bombs in the Pacific, built their high-speed rail link many years ago.

Now it is certainly true that the Conservative Party's main remaining talent is for selling things off - the Tory government is a car boot sale on a gigantic scale - and this doesn't help to get new railways built, but I discovered at the weekend that there is another reason for the difference between Eurostar speeds in Kent and in northern France, and that is that there is nothing worth looking at in northern France.

It is such a dull, flat, uniform landscape between the Channel and Paris that the only natural reaction is to get through it as fast as possible. Between you and the horizon, the land barely rises or falls at all, and if it does so, it is with no more enthusiasm than a brackish pond on a dull day. And on the landscape itself there is little more to be seen than vast fields merging into each other, occasionally separated by long straight roads leading to grey little towns. There are many parts of France with delightful scenery, as we all know, but Eurostarland (Eurostarlingrad?) is not one of them.

It is very different when you pop up in Kent from the tunnel. The first thing you see (apart from a forest of metal fences) is the side of a chalk cliff. It is the tallest thing you have seen since you left Paris and looks immense. And then you start crawling through the Kentish countryside to give you a close-up, slow-motion view of an extremely intimate landscape, full of gardens, and trees in blossom, and oast houses, and pub gardens and village corners.

Now I know that this is deceptive, and that Euro-regulations have forced us to convert our oast houses into stockbroker homes, and grub up our apple orchards, and make Kent not the garden of England so much as the ornamental border of England until Derek Cooper is crying into his beer (which is probably brewed by Whitbread under a false name), but it still looks a lot better than what you get on the other side of the Channel. Even when you get into the suburbs of London, you realise (if you have just returned from Paris and are still seeing things through French eyes) that there is nothing in France to rival these suburban gardens jostling next to each other, these little Kew Gardens leading up to their own Dunroamin, each exactly the same in shape and size, and each completely different in shrubs and ambience.

My journey then took me through London and out on the old Great Western line, where on a spring evening I saw many a hot air balloon floating in the distance and, just the other side of Reading, what looked like a field containing llamas, and rabbits scattering for cover as the train came past, and I felt that there was something good about the old place ...

Look, I am as Francophile as the next man, and I would rather spend a weekend in Paris than London, and I know that Ashford International Station looks like a temporary arrangement of scaffolding (and so does Waterloo International) but I still think the best advice for a Eurostar traveller from Waterloo is this: if you intend to do any sleeping on the train, do it on the French side.