I hadn’t left the country since 2018. Was there anything still beyond our crinkly coastal borders? Was it all a mirage? How fares Europe?
I was travelling to Berlin for the WHO World Health Summit. I hate flying: for environmental reasons; for airport security reasons; for being forced into a tiny space with other humans with no reasonable hope of escape reasons.
At least with a train you can wander down to the buffet car, if the buffet car still exists.
So I went by train. Illogically, this is the more expensive option. I take this as further evidence we are living through the evil Back To The Future timeline.
I went via the sea and the Netherlands. Harwich International has seen better days, like the country it serves.
But its decline has been managed fairly well, and one is able to get onto the boat with a minimum of fuss via an enjoyably bleak waiting area.
After an uneventful crossing, uncannily timed for the Zebrugge Disaster episode of the engineering podcast I listen to, I was the first person off the boat and down the metaphorical gangplank to Hook of Holland.
Hoek’s station is now closed, and hosts a Japanese restaurant. You have to walk 500m in the drizzle to the new metro stop, which is tauntingly close to the covered departure gangway from the ferry.
But at least there is a new metro stop.
Were it not for customs, the tram would be a direct slide down from the ship, if the fun-loving Dutch were that way inclined.
I arrived in Amsterdam to pouring rain. I had some work to do, so rather than wandering about getting soggy, I tried to find a quiet corner of Centraal station and instead found its beautiful First Class Restaurant, now a cafe available to all.
I had to given myself more time than I needed for my connection, but spent it happily in this grand, democratised space.
The train from Amsterdam to Berlin is approximately six hours and has a buffet car and coherent space for bikes. It is far better than any route on the British network, including those run by German state railway.
Like a lot of up-is-down ideology that has defined the past few decades, we’re fine with things being publicly owned; as long as it’s not the British public.
I was determined to spend a fair chunk of this time either reading or looking out of the window. Pretentiously, I had brought appropriate reading material.
Travelling through The Netherlands, I enjoyed gawping at the beautifully designed cycle and walking facilities, and smiling at cars waiting at level crossings while people on bikes or mobility scooters passed under the rails through clean and bright underpasses.
A lot of what I saw – well maintained public housing and communal spaces, coherent and comprehensive public transport, and kids safe enough to get to school without the supposed protection of SUVs – made me wonder if I’d wandered back onto the non-evil timeline.
The truth is more complicated.
There is also neoliberalism, privatisation, and migrant-blaming populism in these countries across the sea.
It’s just we are 20-30 years further into the experiment. I would advise any European social democrat to travel to England and see what future awaits them, unless they change course. And quickly.
And despite the far better infrastructure, car ownership – and therefore air pollution – remains high in Dutch towns and cities.
I arrived in Berlin in early evening. The weather was unseasonably warm for mid-October.