There was a time, not so long ago, when the only way off this Sceptered Isle was by ferry. ‘Harwich for the Continent’, as the signs read – usually supplemented with graffiti offering ‘Frinton for the incontinent’.
The digging of a tunnel under the Channel does not seem to have brought the predicted influx of rabid dogs and French archers – though that hasn’t stopped the good people of Rochester and Strood and Clacton from trying to brick the end of it up.
A great French influence does exist at St Pancras, where a bilingual PA robot tells us in a very nondescript Home Counties way where the trains are going. It then ditches its cup of tea and, in a voice sounding for all the world like Jane Birkin sat on a Zanussi in spin cycle, breathes: “Le train pour Paris… Zut alors!”
I will be heading to Brussels, where a small glass of Leffe may just about pass my lips, before boarding the Cologne train.
As Aix-la-Chapelle becomes Aachen we enter Der Fatherland – and there I shall hopefully find a golden cup of Kölsch awaiting, in the shadow of the largest Gothic church in northern Europe.
The S-Bahn pootles on, by smoke-belching chimneys, through Mettmann-Stadtwald, Velbert-Langenberg, Essen-Kupferdreh and Zollverein-Nord.
If you find yourself in Bottrop-Boy, you’ve probably gone too far in more ways than one.
Gelsenkirchen, for the uninitiated, is a one-horse town. Or it was, until they sold the horse for kebab meat.
The trip will give me the opportunity to take coals, from where they are indeed still mined in the Ruhr valley, to Newcastle – where, in 2014, a ‘slag heap’ has a completely different meaning.
Both the Mackems and the Geordies lie in wait, just seven days apart, and it will be a test of both Jose Mourinho’s championship credentials, and of my thermals.
Grand Central is a happy little train company that provides free wifi, loads of leg room, cheap tickets, and even children’s games to its passengers. The only downside is that you have to be willing to go to Sunderland in order to get these things.
The evening kick-off provides the added bonus of my third over-nighter in the city inside a year – not to mention my third different Travelodge there. Under UEFA rules, I think that means I get to keep the place.
The early kick-off at Newcastle the following weekend requires six hours in the company of East Coast trains – bookended by a bracing ten-mile each way cycle ride through the best weather December can offer.
It takes a fair bit to stop me on my bike so it is an unhappy coincidence that my last two journeys on this route both involved unplanned interruptions to my journey home.
On one, a blown valve and no replacement tube saw me pushing my bike for 10 miles through hours usually better spent drunkenly ordering more and more poppadoms.
On the other, Britain’s privatised railways finally got their own back on me, by locking me irretrievably in a train toilet as I donned my cycling gear.
Half an hour later, and following a procedure which forced the driver to climb onto the roof of his own train, the Fulham Chron One was released – to take the long ride to freedom through the stinging tail of some appropriately named Atlantic wind movement – Hurricane Pardew, perhaps.
Schnell, schnell and howay!
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