Trains and boats and planes … maybe we don’t often think about coaches. Which is a shame, as they are a more leisurely way to travel, giving time to savour the countryside in a way that is impossible from a train racketing along at a hundred miles an hour.
I took the iDBUS from London to Lille – they go all over Europe, but this short hop was what I needed this time. Seats are easy to book online – and don’t change, so if you book three months in advance or three days, you pay the same. (Why don’t more companies do that? Then passengers would know where they are? … Maybe that’s why they don’t. But give me clarity on prices every time.)
I caught the bus at Victoria Coach Station. Like many coach stations, it needs a facelift. There’s a flock of pigeons on the scrounge for yesterday’s sandwiches, and flock of students with large musical instruments, but it works. Gates are easy to find, and there are a few seats while you wait, if you are early enough.
Checking in was easy, and the driver welcoming. My bus left promptly – and my experience of Victoria Coach Station would suggest this is the norm.
The coach is just as the website describes. Plenty of leg-room, arm rests (so no giving in to the bloke on the seat next to you for somewhere to put your elbow), and wifi. And sockets – though this is a French company and the sockets are continental, so you’ll need to remember to keep an adaptor in your hand luggage if you want to charge your phone. The toilet – well, this is a coach, so it’s not going to be palatial. It’s under the stairs, so you need step down to it: I didn’t find this a problem, but I chose to use it when we were on motorways and the road reasonably straight. It was clean enough – though, on the return trip, when the bus I joined had begun in Paris in the early hours of the morning, it was a bit whiffy and had run out of loo paper by the time we reached London. But don’t let that put you off – anyone who travels by public transport generally keeps a stash of loo paper for emergencies (and has met much whiffier on London Stations!).
If you have mobility problems, and making the stairs to the loo might be a problem, I suggest you contact the company in advance and ask for toilet stops – they take wheelchairs, and so must be able to make arrangements for you.
How do you cross the channel?
How do you cross the channel? On the train. It feels like a performance – we seemed to stop and start at countless checkpoints, security points, and passport control points – all of which involved queuing and waiting and being a nosy soul I wanted to know what was going on. However, from my position near the back of the bus I could see nothing, and had to reassure myself that they knew what they were doing (and they did). We then had twenty minutes to wander round a service station waiting for our turn to board the train – just long enough to use a full-sized loo and take in the retails outlets, but not long enough for a cup of tea. I suspect this can vary, as on the way back we drove straight to the train without a service stop.
So what do you do for food, with no service stops? Take it with you – I suggest plenty of water, sandwiches, and salads. It takes a bit of planning, but isn’t a problem.
Once the coach was secured on the train, I got out and leaned against a yellow bar lining the side of the carriage. That way I could feel the rumble of train beneath my feet, which was, to me, more comforting than the rocking of the coach without the rumbling. And it was significantly cooler – all vehicles have their engines off when on the train, which means no fans and no air conditioning; it grew significantly steamy on the coach. I’ve no idea why other people stayed on – but they didn’t. The smell of feet and bodies soon shifted once the engine was going again! Disembarking is straightforward – the coach just drives off and you are on your way again.
And then we trundled across the flat fields of northern France for a couple of hours, reaching Lille just as the sun was turning the barley into gold, and the walls of the city shimmering in late afternoon heat. There can’t be many better ways to arriving in a new city.
JO CARROLL’s Gap Year adventures can be found in her book: Over the Hill and Far Away.
You can find more of her writing, photographs from her travels, and links to ebooks of her trips to Nepal and to Laos on her website: http://www.jocarroll.co.uk