Love Trains. Hate Trains. Love Trains.

I loved trains as a kid.

When my mum used to treat us to a visit to the London museums, we would get the train. The original Stevenage Railway Station was a 19th century brick building in the old part of the town, an archetypal period train station, with a glass panelled roof over the platform, edged with a cream painted, scalloped timber pelmet. The waiting rooms, filled with men smoking pipes and ladies wearing headscarves, were small and cosy, with wooden seating and a heavy door insulating it from the passing trains. The ticket office was fronted by a little window, behind which a jolly man in uniform politely advised on which train to get, then directed you to the right platform.

And the trains were wonderful.

A long corridor ran along the length of each carriage, with doors to small compartments for maybe six or eight passengers on two bench seats facing each other. The seats were covered with a heavily patterned, bristly fabric – comfortable whether it was hot or cold – above which were string-bottomed luggage racks.

The carriage doors to the platform were opened by putting your arm out of the window and turning the handle on the outside of the door. This was done many seconds before actually coming to a halt by seasoned train users.

Because in those days, operators did not assume that the public would open the doors and leap out while the train was still doing 40 miles per hour.

In the same way that the station toilet had a tap you turned on or off. Because they trusted that, as adults, you knew how taps worked. Just like a tap in your house. You turned it on to make the water come out. And off to stop it.

Nowadays, architects of public toilets feel we have regressed to a level of stupefying idiocy. We now apparently need a system that requires that you wave your hands under one infra-red sensor in a frustrating, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to get it to spit some soap onto your hands. After giving up on the soap, you move on to the second stage, which involves you waving your hands pointlessly about again, accompanied by much swearing, under another infra-red sensor which, after three minutes of sullen inactivity, finally relents and ejects a thimble-full of cold water onto your hands, before refusing point blank ever to do something so rash again.

Then, instead of drying your hands on a towel, you now have to poke them into a plastic contraption. The job of this product, manufactured in Malaysia by a fiercely patriotic, British multi-billionaire, who moved himself, his 7.8 billion pound fortune and his flag-waving British company to Singapore to benefit from its generous tax regime, is to blow the collected moisture and bacteria from a hundred previous hands, along with yours, up and into your face, borne on a stream of high-speed hot air.

But I got a little older, began working in London, and started to hate the train.

They were noisy, uncomfortable, unreliable and bucked about like rodeo bulls. The cosy, convivial little compartments were gone, to be replaced by cramped coach-style seats, with all the springiness and comfort of plastic garden furniture, and the kind of ambiance which forced you to spend your journey listening to yuppies yelling at painful volume into mobile phones the size and weight of house bricks, or if you were late coming home, watching drunken young men eating cheap burgers and trying not to be sick.

The trains had all the reliability of an ill-maintained, Friday afternoon manufactured Alfa Romeo. And the staff had become surly and uncaring – young men with bad skin, greasy hair, wearing uniforms made for someone ten sizes larger, and intent on providing the kind of customer service you’d expect in Soviet-era Bulgaria.

And my word was train travel expensive. I recall having to go to Manchester one day from London. I was quoted over 230 pounds. I drove instead. I used maybe twenty pounds worth of petrol, and I got to listen to Radio 4 all the way, rather than the musical selections of some kid in an Iron Maiden tee-shirt with a Walkman, or the loud discussions of two heavily hair-gelled young men, making up stories about the imaginary birds they met the night before.

Then I moved to France.

Now, I love trains again.

They are fast. They are smooth. I can drink a coffee without it splashing all over my face, or rocking all over the table and ending up in my lap.

And they are comfortable.

We got a train from Bordeaux to Angouleme recently. The rails themselves have been replaced all the way from Paris and Bordeaux and a new ultra high speed train launched – even faster than the old TGV. The trains are smooth and quiet. And fast. Really fast. These modern marvels will whisk you from Paris to Angouleme (our local town) in just 1 hour 40 minutes.  That is a distance of 450 kilometres – the same as London to Carlisle – in just 1 hour 40 minutes. We can go shopping for the day in Paris. That is what a train service is supposed to be like.

The trip from Bordeaux to Angouleme on the new train takes a mere 35 minutes.

Each seat on these new trains has its own little workstation – a drop down desktop, a USB socket to charge your phone, a mains socket to charge your laptop or iPad. It has a little personal desk light, pockets to hold documents as you work. The trains have free, hi-speed wi-fi. And the seats are an executive office dream. Comfy and supportive. And they recline. But they recline within the frame of the seat, so you can pitch the seat backwards and forwards to your heart’s content, without it altering the position of your seatback for the person seated behind you.

I did not want to get off the train. It was such a nice place to be.

If you travel to France, consider the train.

For long distances, it is a revelation. And you may fall back in love with the train too.

Important Information for guests driving via Paris

There is a new piece of legislation in France which will impact on all our guests driving from the channel ports via Paris.

It is called the Crit’Air.

Basically, it’s a pollution charge. The Mayor of Paris is apparently vehemently “Anti Car”, and has promised to rid the city of its car problems. I assume this means she will be going to her many and varied meetings by skateboard, with a fleet of outrider security personnel on roller blades, rather than the normal stretch limo and BMW motorcycles, but I may be wrong.

For us mere mortals, it means you need to have a certificate and sticker for your car, showing its category with regard to pollution, and confirming you have paid a charge of about 3 quid.

Any car or motorcycle driving within the outer “Peripherique” of Paris must have one (Grenoble and Lyon have the same scheme). Failure to do so will get you a fine of 68 euros, in addition to a stern Gendarme harrumphing at your anglo-saxon silliness, followed by some energetic shoulder shrugging at your claims of not being aware of the new law.

It is a one-off deal, so it lasts for the life of the vehicle. But let’s be honest now, these are politicians we are talking about. People with all the integrity of a hungry lion eyeing up a buffalo with a gammy leg when it comes to money. So that may change.

But, at least for the moment, you only have to do it once.

So, what do you need to do?

Firstly, DO NOT just go online and click on the first site you see. There are apparently a lot of shady gentlemen with dark glasses and sovereign rings running websites purporting to offer Crit’Air registration. They will take your details, then tuck you up for 30 or 40 euros, and if you don’t pay, Big Ron will pay you a visit in the early hours and cause your own personal emissions to peak somewhat. Some sites also insist on using Premium Rate Phone Numbers for registration, so you may find yourself happily chatting about the weather to some bloke in Uzbekistan, whilst your phone bill multiplies at an alarming rate.

So, don’t do that. That would be silly.

Here is what you do.

Get hold of your car’s Registration Document.

Then go to https://www.certificat-air.gouv.fr/en/

The registration is simple, quick, and costs 3.62 euros. This includes postage of your sticker to the UK.

The website has an English language version, and you can do the whole thing from home in 15 minutes online. I did, and I am a compete numpty.

Just answer the questions with details as they appear on your reg document, then pay with a credit card.

Once you have completed it, take a screenshot of the form confirming payment (just in case).

An email will be sent to you (mine arrived within an hour – on a Sunday) with a receipt, and a document which confirms you have registered and paid, and the Crit’Air rating of your vehicle.  You can use this before your sticker comes through if necessary.

The ratings range from 0 (Green) to 5 (Dark Blue), and your category can make a difference to where, and when, you are able to travel though Paris.

If you are travelling to the south-west of France where we are, you can always by-pass Paris. Just enter “Le Mans” as a waypoint on your route, and it will bring you to the west of Paris, by-passing the city entirely.

You don’t need a certificate to drive AROUND the Peripherique, only inside it. But do bear in mind that many routes around the Paris will divert you inside the ring to avoid traffic – such are the vagaries of Sat Nav.

But, if you do envisage going into the city, your rating may affect when you are allowed in.

For example:

Crit’Air 0: Green and White Sticker.: These are the zero polluting cars. So electric cars, hydrogen cars, those cars with engines that run on water that the conspiracy nutters claim are being kept secret by the oil companies, skateboards and canoes. (I made the last three up). There are no restrictions when these cars can go into the city, or where. Indeed, apparently, you will be worshipped as a hero and showered with flowers and free champagne as you coast down the Champs Elysee if you have a green and white sticker.

Crit’Air 1: Purple Sticker: Hybrid Cars and Euro 5 or 6 petrol vehicles (small engines and efficient) registered after 1/1/2011. Our Fiat Punto is this category. Yayyy..Go Punto 😊

Crit’Air 2: Yellow Sticker: Euro 4 petrol cars 1997 – 2005, and Euro 5 and 6 diesels reg after 1/1/2011

Crit’Air 3 Orange Sticker: Euro 2 and 3 petrol cars (registered from 1 January 1997 to 31 December 2005).
Euro 4 diesel cars (registered between 1 January 2006 to 31 December 2010).

Crit’Air 4 Dark Red Sticker: Euro 3 diesel cars registered between 1 January 2001 and 31 December 2005.

Crit’Air 5 Dark Blue Sticker.:These are the most polluting carts – twenty-three cylinder diesel luxo barges with central heating, that burn rare furniture and puppies for fuel. Cars with a Crit’Air 5 rating are barred from entering Paris within the Peripherique between 8am and 8pm, Monday to Friday.

PLUS – Diesel cars OLDER than 1/1/1997, and Petrol cars registered BEFORE 1997, do NOT qualify for any sticker. At all. So don’t bother applying. These vehicles are also barred from entering Paris between 8am and 8pm, Monday to Friday. And you can’t even have a sticker. So there.

So, if you are coming down to see us, just go online beforehand, register your car, get your certificate (and your sticker) and then you are good to go.

If you are in a car that would fit in Crit’Air 5 or does not qualify at all, just by-pass Paris.

And if you are hiring a car, make sure it has a Crit’Air sticker on the windscreen. If it doesn’t and you envisage driving into Paris, demand a car with a sticker from the hire company. I am sure, being the fine upstanding and professional organisations car hire companies are, they will smile broadly, apologise profusely for their oversight, make you a cuppa and dash out to get one. Or maybe, as personal experience may suggest, they will shrug and try to stiff you for 500 quid for scuffing the wheels despite you not having been within two yards of a kerb.

Drive safely,

Mark

Chateau de la Couronne