8th September – a new way across the Channel on the final day of the trip

Bruges – Ostende – De Panne – London Victoria – London Euston – Crewe – Wrenbury

Bruges in the morning felt every bit as lovely as it had the evening before. I had a late first train, so there was time to make good use of the breakfast buffet, whilst sitting by the canal. Lovely, especially their specially mixed muesli with berries that I started with.

I packed my bags and walked back to the station. It was a delightfully warm day, even at 9:30am. I entered the station through a different door and found a lovely entrance/waiting area that I’d missed yesterday.

My train to Ostend was deserted. I initially accidentally boarded in the first class area, but the train manager spotted this and asked me to move. I couldn’t actually see any difference between the two areas of the same carriage!

The station in Ostend marks the end of the railway line from Brussels. Here the docks are a short walk in one direction and the tram is in another, under the same huge roof. I was here for the tram, “De Lijn“. This is the longest tram line in the world, 42 miles long, though I was joining at the mid-point as I wasn’t sure I’d have time to do the whole thing.

The line today runs along the entire coast of Belgium, from De Panne on the border with France, which was my destination to Knokke-Heist on the Dutch border. There are short branches off at various points but originally it was part of a network of lines using the 1 metre gauge, across the country.

The trams run very frequently and are extremely well used by locals as well as tourists. Running so close to the coast the route is interesting. The first section of my trip took me alongside the harbour in Ostend before passing a mix of new apartments and old hotels on the coast. Before long we were running alongside the beach.

The tram stops every few minutes (there are 67 stations on the line.) Some sections run on the road and others on dedicated tracks. We passed through various small towns and about a third of the way into the journey I was able to nab the seat at the back as other passengers left the tram. The station at Nieuwpoort was rather fun, being an arch of metal and canvas.

The journey lasted 75 minutes. The penultimate stop is at the Plopsaland theme park. Apparently this is a very popular kids TV series in Belgium.

The terminus is not only for the tram but is also a railway station and bus/coach stop.

De Panne itself is not much more than a street. Barring the theme park I suspect it’s one claim to fame is that it is on the French border, by a major road. After walking back past the theme park to a cafe to grab something for lunch, I settled down in the shade of the station. By now it was very warm to be out in the sun.

The next section of my journey was to be by coach, through the Channel Tunnel and on to London. It was by some distance the cheapest way I’d found to cross the Channel this year – just under £25 including a reserved seat on the front row upstairs (well worth the extra £1.99) and the fare got me not just to Folkestone, but to central London.

The coach was 45 minutes late in arriving, indeed I was online to the company at the time it arrived at 2pm. The company website had unhelpfully told me it was running on time and I was starting to worry that they had bypassed my stop. It seems the website wasn’t tracking the actual coach, just the times it “should” have departed. In this case it had started in Düsseldorf and come via Brussels where there were traffic problems. The schedule allowed for such delays though, so I was assured that we should make up time.

The journey to the Channel Tunnel terminal near Calais took just 40 minutes.

The check in process is a little convoluted. Firstly the coach goes through the check-in barrier. Then everyone has to get off and clear French customs, which is a building off to one side. You then get back onto the coach, drive for about 30 seconds and repeat the process for British customs.

It was at the latter that a German passenger who was sitting on the front row on the other side to me ran into a problem. He was only carrying his national identity card and no much how he pleaded that he’d used it many times before the visit the UK, they weren’t going to let him continue as the rules have now changed. His bags were taken off the coach and the last we saw of him, he was being taken back to French customs (who had presumably been quite happy to let him through with an ID card, a couple of minutes earlier.) The incident really did not reflect well on the coach company who check ID as you board. They should have told him that he wouldn’t have been allowed into the UK without his passport, while he was still in Germany.

There were delays in boarding after customs and we were sat for quite a while, in full sun, which was not pleasant as the air conditioning could not keep up when the coach was stationary. Once we had boarded the Shuttle, lots of us got off as it was a lot cooler.

The crossing was uneventful but when we arrived and all got back on board to leave it became evident that there was a problem with the coach. Thankfully we were the last vehicle in our section so were not blocking anyone in.

The driver and Shuttle crew had a discussion which I couldn’t properly hear and eventually we moved forward very slowly. Once we were off the train we pulled into the service area at the exit and it became apparent what the problem was, the main door of the coach would not close properly.

We all got off again and spent time getting drinks and the like from the service area while the driver was on the phone to his company. By now quite a few of the passengers had got to know each other so it became a rather sociable time.

It seems that the solution was to completely power the coach down, then let it start up from scratch. That re-initialised the systems and we were back on our way, though another half hour had been lost.

Once we were on the motorway, the first thing I noticed was the queues on the opposite carriageway. This is the infamous “Operation Stack” where all vehicles other than lorries are taken off the motorway and it is used as a car park. I dread to think how long those drivers are waiting but the queue took 5 minutes to drive past. It was no fun for other drivers either as they had their own queue to deal with as they were turfed off the motorway.

After this the journey passed largely without incident. At one point we passed a transit van carrying Romanian number plates which was hogging the middle lane. The driver seemed to be reading his emails rather than looking at the road. Our driver saw this and angrily sounded his horn repeatedly as he was alongside and eventually the driver of the van noticed and put his phone down.

We had a fairly clear run through south London, passing The Oval, which I’ve not seen in years, just before 7pm and crossing the Thames over Vauxhall Bridge. We pulled into Victoria Coach Station 53 minutes late.

The delay was annoying for lots of passengers but I’d predicted that this might happen and had allowed myself plenty of time. I took the tube from Victoria to Euston then after checking that my train was running headed back out of the station to get something to eat at the Royal George across the road.

An amusing moment while I was waiting for my food – I looked around for a power socket and had the momentary thought that I didn’t have an adapter with me for a UK mains socket…!

I had a reservation on the train to Crewe and had booked a window seat. Hmm this was not quite what I was thinking!

The train was busy but at least it was on time. I had a fairly short change of trains in Crewe before the final leg back to Wrenbury. This is now a request stop, and I was the only person leaving the train here. I took one last photo as I stepped over the level crossing back to my car (the photo at the top of this diary entry.)

It was just after 11:30pm when I got to the car. I started the engine and was immediately warned that one of the tyres was flat. Not quite completely flat, but low enough that I couldn’t ignore it until the morning. I very slowly drove the 6 miles to the nearest open petrol station to pump it up before heading home, as my car doesn’t carry a spare.

Another really fabulous trip. I REALLY have a taste for this life now. Unfortunately no more trips are booked, so I’m going to need to give that some thought!

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1 Comment

  1. Celia Lyon

    Thanks Steve, I absolutely love reading your diaries and am sorry that there won’t be any more for a whole. I’m very jealous but not sure that even if I had the time I could keep up with your constant being on the move.
    Look forward to see where you get to next

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