The Eurostar train descended gently into the Channel Tunnel, went halfway along it, and then stopped. There it remained for what seemed a very long time, the silence broken only occasionally by mumbled announcements in French and English. The speaker was French, and his English was incomprehensible, his French only slightly less so. All that we could gather was that the train was being delayed by some sort of trouble in Calais. Only much later did we learn that migrants from a refugee camp had been swarming on to lorries heading for England and generally creating mayhem. They had even lit a fire on the railway track. Eventually it was announced that we wouldn’t be going to Paris quite yet but would go backwards instead to Ashford in Kent to await the all-clear to resume our journey. So that’s what we did, and at Ashford we waited for another long time until we were finally told that we wouldn’t go to Paris at all but would return to St Pancras station in London, where only an hour or so earlier we had braved security searches before boarding the train with bottles of champagne to get us in the right mood for our trip to the French capital.
‘We’ were the eight members of the Oldie magazine’s editorial and advertising staff going on our annual foreign jaunt. Every year the publisher, James Pembroke, sounds us out on where in Europe we would like to go so that we can live it up together for a couple of days and nights. It’s part treat and part bonding exercise, since the advertising people work in a separate building from the journalists, and we don’t normally see much of each other. Last year it was Bruges in Belgium, and very jolly it was too. This year it was to have been Paris — two nights in a hotel on the Left Bank, dinner at La Coupole, drinks at the Café de Flore, culture, shopping and general merriment. But thanks to the wretched Calais migrants and their desperation to get to Britain, we never made it.
It felt strange sitting silently under the sea, thinking of the busy life going on above — the fishes, the boats, and maybe the odd cross-channel swimmer. It also made me a bit uneasy to be under some colossal weight of water, almost as uneasy as being in a plane thousands of feet up in the air. But all the other passengers appeared completely calm, even happy. I kept blaming the French gendarmerie for failing to disperse the migrants with tear gas and put out the fire on the track with water cannon (I had seen them in Paris in 1968 and had come to respect their enthusiasm for this kind of thing). But nobody else seemed to mind about not going to Paris after all but being sent back to London instead. People stepped off the train at St Pancras with the cheerful faces of ones who had just had an unexpected and amusing adventure, a nice change in life’s dreary routine.
We of the Oldie were disappointed, however. We gathered forlornly in a bar at St Pancras to discuss what to do next, how to fill the next day that had been set aside for our Parisian revelry. Pembroke, always one to look on the bright side, came up with a bright idea: we would make a day trip to Brighton. So next morning we gathered at Victoria and disgorged an hour later at Brighton’s magnificent railway station, then ambled through the old town down to the beach. Since this was a Wednesday, the beach was only modestly populated with strolling visitors and local drifters. The sun shone. The sea glistened. And we had a delicious lunch in an open-air restaurant on the beach, opposite the burnt-out remnants of the old West Pier and next to the construction site of the new 530-foot observation tower oddly named i360, as if it were some new Apple product.
When this opens next year, it will be encircled by an ascending and descending viewing platform from which 200 people at a time will enjoy views along the coast, over the South Downs, and across the English Channel. The hope is that it will be a great tourist attraction and perhaps even generate the funds needed to rebuild the old West Pier. Let’s hope so. But in the meantime Brighton is still wonderful on a sunny summer weekday. Who would rather be in Paris at such a time?
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