How to find the boat train to Paris

By Andrew Martin, Daily Mail

Last updated at 14:35 04 March 2002


At Cannon Street station in London there's an obscure doorway. Next to it is a bell.

If you press this you are summoned up to a concrete walkway where you get lost for a while until you glimpse a little office.

It's fitting that the office is out of the way, for it's the source of a very unusual kind of ticket: a ticket for a boat train.

Once the words 'boat' and 'train' were easy companions. In 1939, Britain's railway companies operated 164 vessels.

Maybe terror in the skies will bring about a revival of British boat trains, but for the moment we're down to one.

The term 'boat train' was always associated with crossing the Channel, and the only service remaining with any echo of the old glamour is the 7am from Charing Cross.

Officially, it is merely the recommended train for getting to Paris by train and boat, because no trains today are timetabled to connect with cross-Channel boats.

It just happens, by pure coincidence, that things link up pretty smoothly if you catch the 7.00, and you can be in Paris in time for a bath, a cocktail and a good dinner, all of which, frankly, you will need after your ten hour journey.

There again, you will be able to afford them, for the second class return ticket from Charing Cross to Gare du Nord costs a hilarious £49, one sixth of the the fully flexible Eurostar fare of £298.

The 7.00 runs every weekday. One of its attractions is that it's unlikely to be targeted by Osama bin Laden; by the same token, though, most of the staff at Charing Cross don't know that it's the recommended train for Paris either. As far as they're concerned, it's just another knackered slam door train dividing at Tonbridge, the back half going to Canterbury, the front to Dover and other bits of the South Coast.

The Golden Arrow was the second most glamorous boat train.

Between 1929 and 1972 it ran every day from Victoria to a station called Dover Marine, where it connected with a ferry; passengers continued on from Calais to Paris via the Arrow's French counterpart, the Fleche d'Or. The carriages looked similar to a compressed version of the Royal Opera House: on the front of the engine, besides the two flags, was a noble arrow of the sort fired by Robin Hood.

There was nothing on the front of the 7.00, of course, except a lot of dirt, so I trudged to my seat.

There was one other person in the carriage, a glum businessman sipping coffee from a plastic cup. It would have been so different on the Golden Arrow; and even more different on the Night Ferry.

The Night Ferry was the pinnacle of boat train glamour.

Instead of an arrow, Night Ferry locomotives had a crescent moon on the front.

The outbound service left Victoria at about 9pm pulling a heady combination of Wagon Lits sleeping cars and Pullman dining cars, in which the plates were pale blue with crinkly edges.

In what seems in retrospect a fantastical, Jules Verne-like operation, Night Ferry carriages were placed directly on a Dunkirk-bound ferry by the raising or lowering of water in the dock at Dover Marine.

Dover Marine, like its counterpart Calais Marine, no longer exists, so the 7.00 must go to Dover Priory in the centre of town.

It did so on time at 9.44, and I then had to wait for a bus around the corner from the station, in front of a sign stressing that ferries and buses were no longer through connected, adding that courtesy buses to the ferry port were provided.

The marginalisation of foot passengers on modern ferries begins with that sign and continues almost infinitely.

When, in the Seventies, I went to France with my dad and the British Rail Touring Club (he worked for the railways) we used the trainconnected Sealink Ferries.

Sealink was the banner under which BR ran its shipping interests.

The French nationalised railways also ran their ferries under the name Sealink, and you always knew if you were on a French-run one because the sandwiches were actually edible.

BR divested itself of its maritime interests in 1984, and today the ferries of Sea France and P&O Stena are floating car parks.

One hour after leaving the train, I was on board my own P&O Stena, one of the tiny minority of passengers without a car parked below, but with a licence to drink as much lager as we wanted.

As we approached Calais, the car drivers were given detailed instructions as to how and when to approach their vehicles.

We foot passengers were told, as if by an afterthought, to wait outside the gift shop.

I alone, it turned out, was going to the surviving railway station at Calais Ville where my not-officially-connecting connections dictated a tolerable half hour wait for the 14.14pm to Paris.

I seemed to have the train all to myself as we left Calais, this service having been completely overshadowed by the heavy promotion of Eurostar.

From the 14.14, however, you can rediscover the mellow countryside of Northern France, which is a blur from Eurostar.

We pulled into Gare du Nord at 17.17 and, mindful of the cheapness of my journey and its relative irksomeness (which only adds to the fun really), I looked forward to a night out in that most beautiful of cities, for once without guilt.


The 'boat train' ticket is available from Connex's Network LeisureTravel Service, tel 0207 904 0500.

It costs £49, £79 first class. For a taste of Golden Arrow/Night Ferry glamour, finish your journey with dinner at the Terminus Nord brasserie, opposite Gare du Nord at 23 rue de Dunkerque, tel 01 42 85 05 15.

A double room in the Grand Hotel, (tel 00 33 14280 20 00) above the restaurant costs €160 £100).

Other hotels in the area tend to be bland, so go to the next arrondissement, the 9th, and try the Hotel des Croises, a bewilderingly under priced late 19th-century gem for £50 a double.

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