We were soon on our way via the A6 and the A49 passing through Wigan to the first stop on Bridge Street in Warrington, it must have been just after midnight, perhaps a toilet stop for the driver, I'm sure there was no transport cafe there. The plan was to arrive at Victoria Coach Station at 7am the following morning so the programmed comfort and refreshment stops at several all night transport cafes had to be tightly controlled by the driver and there was always doubt as to whether anyone had been left behind. The nocturnal comings and goings at these transport cafes were fascinating to young explorers like us, car parks full of coaches going to all corners of the country North West Road Car Company from Salford, Smiths of Wigan, Crosville Motor Services from Chester and Wirral and Midland Red amongst others. Heavy goods vehicles of all shapes and sizes Leyland, Scammell, Erf, Foden, Atkinson, Albion, Commer, Crossley, Bedford, Austin, AEC, Morris and Thorneycroft, drivers enjoying their bacon sandwiches and pint mugs of tea as they renew acquaintances and social network with colleagues they regularly bump into on their travels. A busy nightlife we never knew existed until today and all part of the education. Sleeping only in fits and starts from all the excitement around us we realised we would have to make up for it later but neither of us wanted to miss anything. There is something surreal about bowling along the main thoroughfares of England during the night with the coach in overdrive quietly whisking us through sleeping towns with only the occasional disturbance from other traffic. Approaching Northamptonshire the breaking dawn appears on the horizon and we begin to see the occasional early riser emerging from their homes to begin the journey to work. We take the next comfort break in broad daylight amid further signs that the world is springing to life at the beginning of a new day, and taking to the road again we soon find ourselves on the outskirts of London navigating the North Circular and Edgware Roads. From here it's only a skip and a jump to Marble Arch and into Park Lane, Westminster, Belgravia, and Buckingham Palace Road to Victoria coach station our destination.
We're on time and with more than four hours to kill before we catch the afternoon boat train to Folkestone Harbour we decide to do some sightseeing. By 11.30am we have seen Buckingham Palace, the changing of the guard and other attractions within walking distance and are footsore and a little weary. We find a little coffee bar near the station and order some drinks. The Greek owner exhibits a rather large red scar across his left cheek, we decide it must be a hazard of the late night trade in this area with its rather curious mix of opulence and neglect. Feeling a little uneasy (but determined to look nonchalant) we sit down at a table facing the counter and near the door for a quick escape should anything kick off as they say up north. The only other patron of the cafe is a strange looking young man who looks a little high on drugs, of course he couldn't have been we didn't use drugs in those days did we? He was sitting on a step at the side of the juke box feeding it with coins, probably shillings playing the same record over and over again, I fully expected Sidney Tafler to put in an appearance any minute to collect his protection money. This cafe was not like your modern day Starbucks it was something else, when you have heard "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" for the fifth time without respite you begin to feel you've stumbled into the asylum. Looking back it was probably the result of an over-active imagination but both of us began to feel there was something sinister about this place and its rather strange clientele, we became rather uncomfortable and picked up our rucksacks and made our way to the station for the train.
It's with some satisfaction therefore that we stash our luggage on the rack and sit back to enjoy the next leg of the journey, as the green Southern Region electric train pulls out of the station bound for Folkestone Harbour it feels good to be on our way again. Before long the gentle motion of the train and general fatigue induce a deep sleep, we awake in a panic with the train stationary on the dockside and have to scramble to gather the bags for the transfer to the ferry. The sea is calm as we set out for the short crossing to Boulogne with British Rail's shipping line Sealink, a time to relax and tuck into some of the food we have brought with us for the journey. We don't have long to wait at the other end as the most enormous steam train pulls into the dockside station, SNCF's finest connected to an apparently endless set of mixed carriages first and second class, sleeping cars, couchettes and normal seating accommodation for those on a budget like us. We have reserved seats just in case the train is full and hope against all the odds to discourage others from joining us in the compartment so we can sleep across the seats, on the floor or the luggage rack. In the event we offer only token resistance as the train is invaded by what looks like an elite regiment of the French army, only two join us in our compartment but their equipment leaves little space for anyone else. To our great relief conscription into the British Army has just been abolished but we have a sneaking admiration for these soldiers and speculate what they are up to and where they are bound, Algeria or some other North African state is a good bet. We look for badges and other insignia, could they belong to the Foreign Legion and heading for their depot in Marseilles? We don't speak the language so we'll never know! It's dark as the train gets under way and takes some time to build up speed, I'm struck by the smooth progress on the French welded track and the speed across the flat countryside, but the gentle motion makes us feel sleepy after a hectic day and we are soon curled up in our seats and sleeping like babies. At some point during the night I wake conscious that the train is stationary and find we are again alone in the compartment. Pulling the blind to one side I see the bright lights of a deserted station and can just make out the word "Paris" on one of the platform signs but cannot tell which station, I guess probably Paris Est. The train seems to remain in the station for quite a long time, but I settle down again to sleep for another few hours to wake aware of movement along the corridor outside, it's dawn and people are taking advantage of the opportunity to wash and brush up before reaching our destination. Not sure how much time we have we join the queue and emerge onto the platform in Basle fresh as daisies and raring to go again after a thirty six hour journey. We pass through customs and set out from the Swiss side of the station to explore Central Switzerland, the Bernese Oberland, Valais and Neuchatel before retracing our steps back to England. (Above is a picture of the buffet bar on the French platforms of Basle station just before midnight and the departure of the overnight service to Boulogne taken sometime in July 1960).
How times have changed! It's now a pleasant Thursday morning in February 2010 after a long and cold winter and we are standing on the platform of Wigan North Western Station waiting for the 9.09am Virgin Trains service to London Euston. We are setting out on a short city break to Strasbourg but for some strange reason which I'm bound to regret I seem to have persuaded other members of the party to agree to a day trip to Basle before the return journey. The route we are to travel will be very similar to the one I took almost fifty years ago and to my mind an opportunity to compare the two transport experiences, little realising at the time how pleasant memories can sometimes be embellished as they sit in the cellars of the brain ageing like wine of good vintage. Modern road transport I imagine will be relatively cheap and good value as it was all those years ago, and because of the motorway network would nowadays take perhaps only five or six hours without the need for overnight travel. However we are travelling by train this time, marginally more expensive but relatively good value if you book well in advance and are flexible with the arrangements, and with only one stop the journey time is a stunning 2 hours 3 minutes. We're in London by 11.15 and have ample time to wander down the road to St Pancras International to catch the Eurostar service to Paris using the new high speed link across Essex and Kent to the channel tunnel. A previous journey with Eurostar to Perpignan from the old terminal at Waterloo was made tedious by having to use the existing Southern Trains local network as far as Folkestone and suffering delay due to a signal failure close to Clapham junction. The new line by comparison is a giant step forward into the twenty first century and a vast improvement over its Victorian predecessor, Eurostar now regularly achieves speeds of 180 mph on both sides of the channel a fact verified by my GPS. In little more than two hours we are leaving the train in Paris and setting out on the short walk from Gare du Nord to Gare del Est and the train to Strasbourg. On previous trips we have experienced the French transport system's predilection for striking without notice at the most inconvenient moments and have screamed in frustration but you can't help admiring them for their foresight and courage in building such a magnificent high speed network which is the envy of the world. This time everything is going to plan and we are soon setting out on the third and final leg of the journey another two hours or so to Strasbourg. This section is even faster than the Eurostar the train maintaining speeds of 190 mph for most of the journey and at one point touching 201 mph, sounds a bit geeky I know to be interested in these things but the French railways are so good, they're like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
Even allowing for the time change to European Standard Time we arrive in Strasbourg less than ten hours after leaving Wigan and much fresher than if we'd flown O'Flaherty's Airways via some far flung airport in no man's land. Discounting transfer times between connections actual travelling time amounted to between six and seven hours and within fifteen minutes of our arrival we were checked into the hotel and seeking out a good restaurant, although it's not the main purpose of our five day visit we do like to sample good food and the local wines for which Strasbourg is certainly well served. There is plenty to see and do in this fine city, a visit to the astronomical clock in the cathedral is a must do experience, climb the cathedral spire, take a trip on the river, visit the European Parliament buildings and other European Institutions such as the Court of Human Rights located here, visit the old town and the many museums. The city is well served by trams and buses and good value day tickets are available but be warned don't under any circumstances be tempted to visit Pont du Rhin it's like Platt Bridge on a rainy day in November, I think we confused it with the Botanical Gardens and felt slightly foolish as we decided not to stay and re-boarded the bus we arrived on, the driver welcoming us back with a knowing wry smile, he'd obviously experienced similar mistakes by other English tourists.
The last day of our stay in Strasbourg is to be my nostalgic visit to Basle, an opportunity to renew acquaintance with a city I haven't seen for nearly fifty years and to retrace the last leg of a journey made previously as a youthful seventeen or eighteen year old. The atmosphere is rather different to the earlier journey as we now join a few early morning commuters on the local train calling at Selestat, Colmar, Lutterbach and Mulhouse and terminating at Basle. The weather is sunny and the sky blue as the train makes it's way through the pleasantly flat countryside of France with the outline of the Vosges mountains over to the right in the distance. Stepping from the train onto the platforms under French jurisdiction it became apparent that although little had physically changed over the years somehow this side of the station looked a forlorn shadow of its former self with customs posts and restaurants empty and abandoned. The contrast between this image of a slightly neglected backwater and the bustling centre of activity I remember in the sixties with hundreds of happy holiday makers jostling for position on the platforms for the journey home or disembarking from boat trains on arrival weaving their way with heavy suitcases through the waiting crowds couldn't possibly be more pronounced. Basle has obviously lost its status over the years as the prime gateway to the Swiss alps for travellers from Britain, no doubt due to the ever increasing popularity of flying, Zurich and Geneva having gradually taken over this role. Like an England football supporter after the world cup, slightly deflated and more than a little disappointed, I realise my expectations were never going to be met, but it still took some time to pull myself together. On the positive side, if our experience is anything to go by, the recent improvements in train travel with Eurostar and the advent of the truly high speed link between London and Paris, overland services to Europe may yet become fashionable again as new destinations become more practical and widely advertised. A quiet revolution has been taking place over the past decade or so and the new European rail network which is gradually emerging will prove increasingly popular as environmental issues play an ever more important role in decision making, with this in mind I begin to feel more confident that one day Basle will be restored to its proper status as a major hub. These optimistic thoughts lift the gloom brought on by the initial shock of arrival and I cheer up as we make our way smugly but unmolested through the customs hall to the other side. (The picture above left is the same buffet bar shown above but taken in February 2010).
The Swiss side of the station has retained its place as a major hub in the superb Swiss railway network and still has a certain cosmopolitan glamour, the architecture a dominant landmark high above the other significant feature of the city the river Rhine. The city too hasn't changed much, in fact it probably looks even more prosperous and well kept than previously. Take a tour of the glamorous shops, visit the old town hall, the cathedral quarter of the city and lunch at Restaurant Spillman overlooking the Rhine, you won't be disappointed (exchange rate permitting, that is).