In this blogposting...
*Robinson's Grand Tour: First Day
ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: FIRST DAY
NEWCASTLE TO LONDON AND BRUSSELS
FRIDAY 19 MARCH
I feel as if I know the East Coast Main Line better than the back of my own hand. This is hardly surprising when you consider how many hundreds of times I’ve travelled along its hallowed tracks since I left home for London well over four decades ago. It’s probably only a slight exaggeration to suggest that you could plant me anywhere along its route and I would know roughly - or even precisely - where I was.
As the 0832 train carried me southwards over the Tyne and I realised my Grand Tour had actually begun at last, it dawned on me that this route, so familiar to me over so many years, was covered end-to-end in unusual significance that morning. It was launching me into the Great Unknown and within hours, its comforting predictability would be replaced by wholly unfamiliar lines, crossings, points and stations; the view through the window would not be so easily ignored.
Perhaps, after all, I’d taken my train-window view of England for granted for forty years. Perhaps I’d even ignored it a little too much. As the train took the gentle, slow curve into York station, I realised that, although much - like the stately view of the Minster - had not changed, a very great deal had. Trading and industrial estates outside Newark and Retford, vast sports complexes and shopping malls south of Doncaster.
And poor old Peterborough. On my teenage journey south all those years ago, it had been a rather sleepy provincial English city that few people really noticed, despite its noble and historic cathedral (where Mary, Queen of Scots, no less, is buried). Since my salad days, though, it has quadrupled in size. The cathedral’s low towers and small, spikey spires now jostle for attention with office blocks and shopping centres. And still...nobody really notices Peterborough.
As the train rushed me across the featureless wide-skyed fens I became almost uncontrollably excited. Hitchin, Stevenage, Hatfield. Soon I would be in London. All I needed to do was cross the road from King’s Cross (which king? where’s the cross?) to St Pancras (who??) and Eurostar would whisk me away to new adventures.
But first, there was the little matter of my checklist...
My Stereotype Confirmation List (SCL) already needed updating. Had there been a ‘typical’ English train passenger annoying everyone by talking loudly and at great length on a mobile phone?
Check. Yes, there had indeed.
She boarded the train at Doncaster and almost immediately telephoned an unfortunate lady called Sharon who, along with the rest of us, was given a blow-by-blow account of Ms Doncaster’s truly horrendous week.
It turns out she had a met a Sheffield man called Terry who wanted to buy a house in Bradfield which, as everyone knows, is far too far from the city centre. Ms Doncaster, on the other hand, had her eye on a house in Netherthorpe, where there was much more life and activity. Such was the rift between them that they even slept in separate beds on the last two nights.
(I’m not making this up.)
As the details of her time in Sheffield became more and more shamelessly graphic, so the embarrassed squirming of her fellow-passengers became more and more obvious. The beleaguered Sharon was finally able to find an excuse to cut the conversation short so, just after Peterborough, Ms Doncaster called her mother who had, apparently, been looking after the dogs (Sherry and Brandy). The whole of Coach B (the ‘quiet coach’) then found out that Ms Doncaster Senior’s neighbours had been complaining about the activities of Sherry and (especially) Brandy. The awesome Ms Doncaster’s advice to her mother was to tell the neighbours where to shove their complaints.
Interestingly, it was exactly the same place I wanted her to shove her mobile phone...
I checked the box marked ‘stereotype confirmed’ and moved on to my next list.
I had come armed with lists of various kinds. All of my Grand Tour’s train times and fares, all of my accommodation addresses, who not to forget to remember to send cards to. And a checkbox list to remind me to take a photograph of every train I travelled on and every station I visited. I know - I suffer from SID (Systematic Idiocy Disorder). So, obeying my own instructions to the letter, I took the picture you see above.
Truly, St Pancras is a lovely station. When it was built, it had the widest unsupported roof in the world and, as you can see, it’s still pretty impressive. The station’s rebirth as England’s Eurostar terminal has given it a spectacular 21st-century makeover - a kind of digital version of the old-fashioned romance and grandeur of the best Victorian railway stations. King’s Cross - right next door - is a veritable slum by comparison.
I spent a few moments soaking up the magnificence and then it was time to leave London and England. To pass under the Channel and, for the first time, to turn left at Lille and head for Brussels.
To be totally honest, Eurostar trains are beginning to look a little haggard. The tired grey velour seats are starting to peel and the automatic internal doors occasionally stay obstinately shut, automatically.
Nevertheless, this was the first part of my Grand Tour that would take me to new territory, even though the new territory was ‘only’ Brussels.
Belgium in general, and Brussels in particular, get a notoriously bad press in England (and elsewhere, if the truth be told). Most of us have heard the ‘Name a famous Belgian’ challenge - Hercule Poirot seems to be the most popular, and most sarcastic, answer although Herge (creator of TinTin), a motocross biker with an unpronounceable (and unspellable) name and the wonderful surrealist painter Magritte could be added to the list, too. No doubt a little Googling would bring up plenty of others.
Brussels, on the other hand, suffers mightily from being the headquarters of the EU. The city’s name has become a byword - specially in England - for pettyfogging, over-scrupulous bureaucracy.
Neither of these considerations takes into account the real, physical Belgium; what it looks like, how it feels, what are its people like. These were the questions I was most interested in answering...
As Eurostar dashed through the Belgian countryside between Lille and Brussels, I could see quite clearly how well-manicured and even ‘clipped’ it looked, even compared to France - which has its own, Gallic way of tidying up the scenery. All the roads seemed to be adorned with freshly-painted white lines. The farms and villages seemed to have been painted onto the landscape and the occasional small, walled cemetery apparently unlinked to any nearby settlement reminded me of how different this same scenery must have looked during and after the First World War. After all, the Somme and Passchendaele are both in this part of Belgium and its largest memorial is at Thiepval, only a few miles from the railway.
In fact, the country seems always to have been the cockpit of its warring neighbours, even going back to Waterloo in 1815 - before Belgium even came into being. Peace sits uneasily here. I found out from conversations I had in Brussels that the country is even at war with itself right now.
Belgium is, of course, bilingual. In the south (the area known as Wallonia, where I was travelling) they speak French; in the north (that is, in Flanders) it’s Flemish, sometimes unkindly referred to as a mere dialect of Dutch. And, at the moment, the twain look as if they are never going to meet.
For years, Wallonia dominated the economy and politics of the whole country. The sophisticated French-speakers regarded the Flemings as a rough-hewn underclass. Times, though, have changed with the recent financial crisis and industrial Flanders is in the ascendancy. It is no exaggeration to say that, in many ways, the country is falling apart at the seams.
I felt this very strongly in Brussels, a French-speaking enclave trapped in Flanders. Having fought my way through the intimidating throng of drunks and drug-addicts who seem to target all arriving visitors ( - I’m not joking about this; Brussels South is a truly awful station to arrive at - ) I made my way by tram (naturally) to my hotel in the city centre. I was immediately aware not just of the bilingual nature of Brussels but also of its ‘bicultural’ atmosphere. White-collar French, blue-collar Flemish. I can see why the Flemings have a chip on their collective shoulder.
But I only had one night in Brussels and, interesting though its politics and history may be, I was determined to tick all the tourist boxes in the time available to me.
I say ‘all’. People more discerning than me have said how easy it is to become cynical about Brussels. They say that once you’ve seen its great central square - the Grand Place (or, in Flemish, the Grote Markt) you’ve just about seen it all. I’m sorry to report that, in the admittedly limited time available to me, I found no real evidence to prove them wrong.
By the time I’d settled into my hotel, admired the mediaeval flying buttresses of the church over the road, had my first delicious cup of continental coffee and tweezered my eyebrows, it was early evening. So my first sight of the Grand Place was at dusk.
It was lovely. Like all the best places, it outshone all the photographs I’d seen of it. Grand buildings of many dates, including the old Town Hall with its striking tower (a Belgian speciality), enclosing a space big enough to accommodate all the tourists who wanted to experience it. The floodlighting added to the magic, as did the street-performers, the bars, the cafes and the restaurants around its edges and in the narrow side-streets that lead off it.
It really was captivating; a perfect place to be spending the first night of my Grand Tour. My elation as I walked around the square and its surrounding lanes was made more intense by the addition of a another feeling new to me. I didn’t feel threatened or intimidated at all. Even on my first evening and in my first destination, I was beginning to notice big differences between English and continental customs and culture.
At first, I thought there was something missing and wondered what it was. It didn’t take long to realise that there were no screaming teenage girls puking and falling over. There were no gangs of drunken lads fuelled by cheap, tasteless lager roaming the city centre. For the next fourteen days my evenings would be blissfully free of what is assuredly a British phenomenon - city centres abandoned after dark by everyone over about 35 who value their lives, sanity and physical wellbeing.
Except in Munich. But that’s another story...
I make no apology if I am starting to sound like an ageing, reactionary curmudgeon. Over the next two weeks my liberal, Guardian-reading tendencies were tested again and again and in various ways and by various people. The comparisons I was forced to make with my native country were often uncomfortable, rarely complimentary.
But for now, I was relishing the strangeness of this confused and confusing city. Pretty but somehow ‘untidy’. The street (where I ate) full of Greek restaurants on one side and Turkish on the other. The ubiquitous waffle-shops and their truly mouth-watering fare. Nothing prepares you for a genuine Belgian waffle smothered in hot chocolate, ice-cream and raspberries eaten ‘on the hoof’ in one of Europe’s grandest civic squares as the floodlit Town Hall clock strikes midnight.
Not all those who wander are lost...
...will take place on Wednesday 2 June. Even though the venue is undecided - put it in your diary. After all - a splendid time is guaranteed for all.