The trip had really already started by Monday, insofar as I had already packed and left Cambridge. I had been staying with Jacqueline in London as we had spent the weekend at the BBC proms. But it was almost time to head to France in earnest.
I wouldn’t be leaving until the afternoon, so we had the morning to spend. Jacqueline suggested heading out to Kensington Palace in Hyde Park to get some brunch from the orangery there. I agreed, and so we cycled out there on hire bikes.
As usual, the palace and gardens were beautifully manicured and tended to. The hedges were trim, the lawns square, the trees conical. We sat outside on the terrace to eat our food; Jacqueline ordered their Full English, while I opted for their waffles. It was a nice and peaceful locale right in the heart of London.
Once we had returned, it was time to pack up all of my things and head off. I walked my bag and my bike to the nearest Overground station, and we headed off. Jacqueline left first to transfer to the Tube to get to London Liverpool Street, where she would catch a train back to Cambridge. I ended up getting a Thameslink train from West Hampstead directly in to St Pancras Station.
I had arrived especially early for the train, as one often has to do when catching the Eurostar. I took my bike around to the back of the station, where the contracted company for handling bikes on the train was located. Unlike domestic trains, you can’t just walk with your bike through the passport control and onto Eurostar; it needs to be prearranged and prebooked by a company which puts it on and takes it off the train themselves. My bike now booked through, I waited around the busy station until it was time to head through passport control.
In my opinion, St Pancras station is the most airport-like feeling you can get at a train station. Everybody is pulling around suitcases of luggage through the shop-lined corridors. When you go through to the train, you have to go through security, and then two rounds of passport control. Finally, you mingle in a pre-boarding area before heading up the escalator when your train is called. It definitely feels like you’re travelling.
My Eurostar left on time and raced through the English countryside and down under the English Channel. We didn’t stop at all until we had reached Paris Gare du Nord. After getting off the train and walking nearly its entire length (as my coach was near the rear), I had to turn around and head the length of the train again down the adjacent alleyway to where the bike collection point was. It was really out of the way and not obvious at all, I had to pass under forklifts moving pallets of things to get there. Once there, I had to wait seemingly ages until a truck arrived carrying my bike from the train. From there, I was ready to go.
I rode across Paris, getting helplessly confused by all of the traffic, pedestrians and bikes. There were bike lanes most of the way, but it still was unusually hard to navigate an otherwise straight road. My destination was Gare d’Austerlitz, where my onward train would be leaving from. I arrived at the station with plenty of time to spare, and so ate dinner at a nearby restaurant, not wanting to walk too far from the station. When I returned, I joined the queue for ticket checks; railway staff were checking passenger’s tickets one by one as they went onto the platform and into the train. It was an overnight sleeper train, that would take me all of the way to the French Alps. There was a special compartment for my bike, and I shared a couchette with a couple of other cyclists. We raced off into the French night, with the promise of mountains in the morning.