Rail trip, pt 1: BL, St Pancras, Colmar

I’ve just returned with Mrs TD from a wonderful holiday by rail to Switzerland via London and Colmar. As I prepared a narrative with pictures I realised it would need more than one post.

After travelling from Cornwall by train to London we checked into our hotel in that literary hotbed, Bloomsbury (home of the Virginia Woolf burger), then walked to the British Library. I’d worked often in the old home of the BL in the British Museum, usually in the manuscripts reading room or the old, domed Reading Room, now an exhibition area and café. This was the first time I’d entered the new place.

Newton after Blake by Paolozzi

Newton after Blake by Paolozzi in the square in front of the BL

The outside of the building is rather forbidding and prison-like, with a huge number of red bricks and very few windows. Inside is airy and bright. We looked in the Treasures room and marvelled at some beautiful manuscripts and books. Must go back and have a proper look. There are some interesting touches and humorous details, like the bench in the shape of a book, chained to a huge cannonball to stop it being stolen – a witty take on medieval chained libraries, like the one at Hereford.

BL chained bench

We had to move on to St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, where we were to meet old friends for a drink prior to a meal at the new Ottolenghi restaurant near Oxford St (delicious).

I remember this imposing Victorian Gothic cathedral to the train from my student days when I often passed through the station on trips to London from Luton, where I lived for a few. Like the BL, it’s a brick structure, but of contrasting colours. It was designed by Gilbert Scott and opened as a hotel and rail terminus in 1873. It was refurbished, restored and reopened as a sumptuous hotel in 2011, having narrowly escaped demolition.

St Pancras Renaissance bar

The bar where we had our g & t, in the splendid old booking hall of the station

Who was St Pancras? A Roman Christian convert, martyred at the age of 14 during the Diocletian persecutions around 304. He’s known as one of the ‘ice saints’, a trio whose feast days fall between May 11-13, dates which in northern Europe are traditionally believed to bring the last frosts of spring.

St Pancras old church, further along Euston Road, is one of the oldest Christian sites in England.

Often confused with St Pancreas.

Next morning via Eurostar to Colmar, and old town in Alsace, France. We stayed with our group in the hotel opposite the station, another fine example of the late 19C fashion for grand statements of steam power.

Colmar station at night

Colmar station at night

Colmar station in daylight

Colmar station in daylight









I’d never been to this part of Alsace. It was part of Germany from 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war, then returned to France after WWI in 1919. The old town is lovely, full of wooden-framed and gabled houses, very Germanic. The central area around the canal is known justifiably as Little Venice. Breakfast on the terrace outside the old covered market, where farmers would land their produce for sale, boated in from the country farms. Nowadays electric-powered punts ply tourists along the tranquil canal. The bridges are so low they all have to duck their heads when passing under them.

Colmar timbered houses

Colmar timbered houses

At lunchtime we boarded another train and headed for Grindelwald, Switzerland, via Basel and Interlaken.

I took with me to read a novel by Patricia Highsmith (I posted on her novel Carol last year HERE ) and a collection of prose pieces by Swiss author Robert Walser, both of whom have featured here at TDays. Our days were so full, however, I didn’t get much time for reading, and only finished the Highsmith earlier today, back in Cornwall. More on that another time, too.

Here’s a taster of what we were about to experience in the breathtakingly beautiful Swiss Alps. More on this part of the trip next time…

Hotel view: the Eiger

This was the view from one of two terraces to our hotel room: the Eiger

View from the hotel room's other terrace

And this is the view from the terrace at the side of our room: another mountain – I think the Wetterhorn

23 thoughts on “Rail trip, pt 1: BL, St Pancras, Colmar

    • Tom: it’s a charming town. We sat in a cafe by the central church watching the world go by: that curious Alsace world that’s very French but with a trace of Germanic – I found it in Metz when I lived there for a short time – Frieda Lawrence’s birthplace, of course. I’m not sure which art work you mean; the most famous is Grünewald’s famous Isenheim altarpiece, with its stark depiction of the hermit saints Anthony and Paul, complete with raven. I’m an aficionado of desert hermit saints. Didn’t have time (just three hours before the train to Switzerland) to explore the museums – will be sure to go back and explore properly.

      • Such a shame, Tom, that we didn’t have time to go and see it. I particularly admire the way the artists who made altarpieces were happy to have parts of the triptychs hidden when the wings were folded shut. The two hermit saints are favourites of mine. All hermit saints, in fact.

    • Susan: Mrs TD and I love travelling in Europe by train. You get to see so much more than when driving along motorways. We were in Amsterdam station a year or so back (I posted about its fabulous café complete with parrot named Elvis) – such a vibrant city. Have never been to Poland; hope to rectify that one day. But also want to see more of Switzerland, which captivated me on this first visit.

    • Thanks, Gmac. Sorry about the delay in replying. Yes, train travel is so much more satisfying than flying, if you have the time to indulge in it. I love the surprise of pulling into or passing through places you hadn’t anticipated – Dijon was one such example, which turned up in a part of France I hadn’t expected it. Even the plains, though scenically not v interesting, are full of history.

  1. I agree entirely about train travel. We haven’t bothered with cars since our first trip to Europe long ago.
    There’s much to comment on in this post, but I’ll confine myself to telling you about one of the treasures of the British library that I saw on my visit in 2005. (Yes, we stayed in Bloomsbury too, and did a lovely ‘literary walk’ using a book called London Literary Walks.) I’m afraid I waxed lyrical in my blog post, but it’s authentic. I really was quite awestruck to see Beethoven’s tuning fork. See https://hillfamilysoutherndivision.wordpress.com/2005/11/28/london-beethovens-tuning-fork-thursday-29-9-05/

  2. Count me as another fan of travelling across Europe by train – it always feels so much more relaxing than being packed into a plane! I’m also rather jealous of your trip to Colmar, a place I’ve often thought about visiting. It does look very picturesque.

  3. My father was born in 1914 in Alsace and he and his family were never entirely French :-). When they talked about other regions they would say “chez vous, en France…”. His elder sister couldn’t even speak French. That was fun. Some of my cousins thought everything was better in Germany, and even my half-sister and I are germanophiles, and we both have studied German at some point (in my case, it’s nearly all forgotten, unfortunately).

    • I come from Moselle, also part of Germany between 1871 and 1918. There’s a strong sense of place when you come from there.

      One of my relatives in Moselle recently mentioned one of his friend who “emigrated” (!!) to Lyon.

      • I live in Cornwall, the peninsula to the far south west of England. The Cornish are Celts, and consider themselves a separate nation, with their own language and country. They have limited recognition in the EU and elsewhere as a nation. We joke about needing our passports to cross the Tamar to leave the county.

  4. Colmar is a lovely city. The train station looks like it was built during the German occupation between 1871 and 1918. It’s very similar to Metz, a city that deserves a visit.

    • I lived in Metz for some months back in the early 90s – a lovely city, as you say, Emma. Home of course to the von Richthofen family of Frieda Lawrence, and the graoully monster (not sure of spelling). The whole region is so steeped in history, and beautiful – Nancy, for example. Mirabelle plums, pinot gris wine…Do the Alsatian dogs aka German shepherds really come from Alsace?

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