Joyeux Noël

Can a Boatwif report on a totally boat-free trip…?

It had been the idea of Godmanchester Friend 2. “Lille,” he’d suggested back in October. “For the Christmas Market…?”

Failing to find any serious objection to a fun-sounding plan the Captain and Boatwif agreed.

As the designated day drew nearer unforeseen aspects became apparent. The 1104 Eurostar train from St Pancras (such a civilised time) would require a very early start. True, there is little daylight in mid-December but to leave the house before 8 am was, well, unusual – and barely light.

All went well – and before 0930 the Cleddau crew had met Godmanchester Friends 1 and 2 right outside the Eurostar terminal    (just beyond the saccharine pink Eiffel Tower on the lower concourse).

Tickets scanned, passports inspected, coats, bags and persons screened airport-style, the four were through to the Other Side.

Time for a coffee. Time for a comfort break. (“Hmm, smells like we’re on French soil already,” sniffed Godmanchester Friend 1, and she, as a frequent visitor to France and one-time Bordeaux resident, should know…)

The information screens were watched.   A number of trains were cancelled – but not the 1104, due to stop at Lille, then Brussels, then Rotterdam before terminating at Amsterdam.

What a murky day it was. The train gathered speed, out past the St Pancras gasometers, re-purposed now for urban living,    out through southern London, out along the Kent marshes, hastening towards the Tunnel.

The train sped under the English Channel. Were there boats and ferries above…?

In less than 90 minutes there was Lille, a city in northern France.

The streets of Lille are broad and grand,     boulevards and squares, with narrower streets behind the main ones. Many of the buildings have impressive facades   and the street lights have elaborate ironwork curls…

A magnificent doorway

led through to the courtyard of the old Stock Exchange. Anyone for books?

Every open square    seemed to have some form of seasonal entertainment or other.

And then ahead there was the Christmas market  – an array of chalets selling seasonal textiles,  seasonal edibles,     mulled wine and warmed cider, Nativity figurines, toys …

It was grand – and with two fluent French speakers on hand sales negotiations were smooth and jolly.

There was more to Lille to explore of course: a T-shirt shop was displaying this.   While Godmanchester Friend 2 checked out a model train shop the rest watched an outdoor miniature train.

A little distance away were three gatherings of police – why? Blue lights flashed, occasional bangs penetrated the festive air. A hint of smoke hung above the crowds. What was going on…?  Godmanchester Friend 1 approached the black clad police to seek information.

“He said there are 15,000 people coming this way,” she reported, “and that we’d better move back a bit.”

As she spoke the view ahead was changing: red and white flags were being unfurled in a corner of the square, a mass of people were progressing towards the plaza, the bangs became more frequent and the police moved into “battle formation”, three lines deep.

The operator of the miniature train cast light upon the situation: this was Day 2 of France’s nationwide pension strikes. His cynicism caused a laugh. “Some of them just want to draw a pension without ever having done a day’s work… “

Closer the flag-waving crowds came, ready for a rally on the square. Some dozens of protesters broke away, continuing on through the streets, their part in the protests played out now. 

The episode gave Godmanchester Friend 2 chance to ruminate: where had been his “edgiest” location… Not Albania last September, he claimed, but San Paolo in Brazil some years ago.

It was late afternoon, the light beginning to fade.

How would the streets and stalls appear when dressed in Christmas lights?

Rather glorious, was the verdict.

And as for the verdict on the 15 hour door to door Away Day – it was pretty good all round.


Christmas is being spent in Cheshire. Though Boatwif might have felt deprived of  boaty moments in recent weeks there has been a brief visit to Cleddau. Look, she seems to be “wearing” some of her Christmas present already, ahead of Santa’s visit.

Spot the difference, folk!

Happy Christmas!

May the New Year bring you peace and safe travels, whether on land or on water…


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