We didn't have a summer holiday, as such, this year due to lack of funds. However an unexpected windfall arrived in time for us to book a short stay in London during the first week of the Gruesomes' Autumn holidays.
We elected to go by Eurostar, partly becuase I love trains but also because from where we live to any airport, and then from any destination airport into London and all the waiting around involved with air travel it's just as quick to go on the hot and sexy eurostar.
Our original plan was to go for three nights (our budget) and stay at the Premier Inn, but some friends suggested we try the Youth Hostel Association which meant that our budget could stretch to four nights. There were no vacancies at the Kings Cross one, but Earls Court Youth Hostel had a family room which we promptly booked. Unfortunately there were no 2nd class tickets available for the Eurostar and for about 2 minutes it looked as though the trip might be off. But then... Chef and I both said "stuff it, let's go in styleeee" and we booked first class.
Horribly expensive but lovely.
We also took the precaution of booking seats for the parts of the journey not on the Eurostar which paid off on the way home on Friday (15th October)
So, 11th October dawned bright, cold and sunny. At 07:30 our taxi arrived and ten minutes later, horribly early for the 8:02 train, we arrived at the station. Chef and Gruesome #2 were promptly despatched for coffee while #1 and I piled our bags artfully and started to take photos.
The first train took us to Aachen where we had a cold 40 minute wait for the ICE to Brussels. The coffee and the cold had worked on us, so the 3 girls in our party set off to look for the loo. Unfortunately we found it - bleuch, but needs must. The time passed quickly but we had time to check the timetable for the Thalys to Paris while we waited - that will be our next Capital City Destination.
The ICE is a beautiful train, I've always loved them. The shape is just fantastic, and in the first class the seats are wide and comfortable. We had a set of fourr seats with a table, which was lovely, and there is a waiter service to bring coffee and snacks. We stuck to coffee.
Unfortunately I didn't manage to take a photo of Liège station when we stopped there, but it's totally beautiful. Very modern and clean looking - a real change from my local station and the horrrible thing they have at Aachen.
We rolled into Brussels perfectly on time and decided to use the Brussels-Midi station facilities before finding the Eurostar check in. These were slightly better than those on offer at Aachen but it did provoke me to wonder why when you have paid a fortune for tickets (first or any other class) you still have to put up with horribly stinky, cramped and sometimes downright disgusting toilets?
What struck me during the journey to and from London is that stations can be incredibly efficient, sometimes beautiful places. But the toilets are all disgusting. Why, for example, do they persist in the horrible stainless steel fittings and grey non-slip floors. This combo just always always looks disgusting and dirty no matter how recently it's been cleaned. Even in St Pancras which is my new very favourite station and v v fabby and marvy has the most horrible facilities. Added to which, if you're travelling alone with anything other than a small rucksack or bag, there is nowhere to put them while you pee. An oversight which I'd like to see addressed.
Anyway. Where was I?
We checked in for the Eurostar. To get to the UK from mainland Europe you have to show your passport. There were several school parties, and it seemd that each one had one member who had either forgotten their passport, didn't have one, or just couldn't find it. Total nightmare for the teachers I'd imagine.
The train itself is beautiful. Sleek and smooth, like the ICE with lovely comfortable seats. Again we had a 4 group with a table and settled down with our various books, mp3 players and what-have-you.
Soon after we started an airline-stylee meal was served which consisted of prawns in some kind of dressing, sheep's cheese with some kind of dressing and something else with a bit of fig. There was a small bottle of water for each person, and we could have wine or a soft drink too. After that there was coffee or tea. Not too bad and, a with flying, soon after the dishes were cleared away we arrived in London.
One thing: we whizzed into the tunnel without any announcement which I thought was a bit odd. One minute we were zooming through the countryside, the next there was total blackness outside which seemed to last for ages but was about 20 minutes in reality.
St Pancras, a place I'd last seen during my time travelling between Bristol and Germany as a schoolgirl, has changed beyond all recognition. For starters it's St Pancras International. But it has been modernised, the trains are all upstairs, and there are wonderfully shiny new restaurants, cafés and shops in the main concourse. The nice thing is that they have preserved the basic structure of the station, which is a beautiful Victorian edifice, within the small glass-fronted shops. More about St Pancras later though.
For now we decided that rather than annoy the lunchtime tube travellers we'd take a cab to the Youth Hostel at Earl's court. We passed through Hyde Park on the way, and it was such a beautiful, sunny, autumn day we decided that we'd check in, dump our bags and go for a walk.
The taxi driver didn't know the Youth Hostel in Earl'sC ourt but thanks to the fact that I'd noted down their directions from their website, we found 38 Bolton Gardens with no problems. As we don't use a credit card, we'd booked and paid for the room in advance - making the bank transfer at the end of September. But it still hadn't been registered by the YHA - apparently they receive payments at the head office and they inform the place you've booked when the payment is received. They had received my email with the payment details though so there wasn't much to worry about.
Having checked in, paid the non-YHA members fee, we went up to our room. It was at the back of the hostel and was the very basic room I was expecting with two bunk-beds and 4 lockers for our things. There was a loo and a shower close by which was good.
We dumped our bags, re-arranged our rucksacks and consulted a London Guidebook for a walk. Originally we'd planned a route through Notting Hill, but having seen how gorgeous Hyde Park was looking we changed our plans and jumped on the tube.