Tuesday, 4 December 2007

The end of the line

I knew I would hate it. I dreaded it so much I went into denial and refused to think about it. At the same time I consoled myself with the idea that travelling from St Pancras to south London could not possibly be as bad as I feared. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It was not bad, it was worse. Much, much worse. It was hell with satanic bells on. I read the rave newspaper reviews about St Pancras and its official opening. All I can say is they must have put on a good show for the Queen then stripped away the facades quicker than you could say "Potemkin Village" as soon as the Royal limo had disappeared. Talk about emperor's new clothes.

The Eurostar journey itself was astonishingly quick. Once the UK side of the Channel, the train that formerly trundled embarrassingly through The Garden of England, flew into London in just over half an hour, a total journey time of two hours and eleven minutes. I was momentarily impressed, but only momentarily. At Waterloo, the Eurostar terminal was designed so even passengers sitting in the rear of the train could exit quickly. At St Pancras, it took ten minutes to walk from the carriage to the customs point (admittedly, this was with a recalcitrant child), but even so it was a hike.

As La Fille was being difficult, I headed directly for the taxi rank. I followed the signs even when they me into an abandoned corridor with a lone workman in hard hat doing something with wall panels. There was so much hammering and drilling going on nearby I thought I had taken the wrong direction. When I finally arrived at the rank there were some 50 people waiting for taxis...and no taxis in sight. Not one. Not one coming. Not one on the horizon. (A taxi driver later told me black cabs are avoiding St Pancras because of the hold-ups caused by the building work...great!). I took a deep breath and decided we would struggle our way south on the Underground. I was undecided between the similarly Hadean circles, the Victoria Line or the Northern Line, but on a whim chose Victoria from where we could get an overland train or taxi. It was another hike to the Underground from the mainline station along stifling, under ventilated passages dotted with flights of steps - not easy with a pushchair - so by the time I arrived on the Victoria Line southbound platform I was already sweating, cursing and ready to shout at someone. A train arrived but was so stifling that after just two stops I thought I was either going to pass out or be sick. La Fille, who looked like she was about to do both, was panting like a dog with her tongue hanging out. By the time we arrived at Victoria she was lolling from side to side with her eyes rolling back into her head. We collapsed into a taxi driven by a pleasant chap who probably wished afterwards he had not asked: "Come far today?". He was heading for a serious ear-bending when he suggested that the St Pancras move was a 'win-some-lose-some' situation. "North Londoners are happy about it," he said. I refused to reply. When we arrived the figure on the meter was half my 38,50 euros Eurostar ticket from Paris. I was red-faced, flustered and furious and had arrived more than an hour after that same Eurostar had arrived in St Pancras, the so-called centre of London.

Maybe it was the tip, maybe it my sulky silence after his remark or my evident distress as I struggled out of his cab that prompted a flicker of remorse from the driver. "You're right, this part of London is very badly served for public transport," he conceded. "Pity they couldn't have had kept a few Eurostars into Waterloo." He must have realised this was another 'Come far?' question and before I could begin another rant said: "Good luck," and drove off. Afterwards I was thinking; here is something that has not changed since I left London for Paris. In the great North-South London divide the south is still the poor relation.

Now my days are infected with worry about how I am going to get back to St Pancras. I think I need to lie down in a darkened room

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