A tale of two cities… and the epoch of incredulity

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” – Charles Dickens,  A Tale of Two Cities

The two cities of Dickens’ great work were of course London and Paris and the contrast between them is one of the pervading structural themes underpinning the narrative.

At the immense risk of dumbing down Dickens, the contemporary contrasts between the two cities’ inter-linked train stations – Gare du Nord and London St Pancras are just as great as any he portrayed back in 1859.

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I took the Eurostar from St Pancras this week for a meeting in Paris. What a magnificent job the developers did in their £800 million makeover of this sprawling Victorian institution. For those, like me, who use and admire the modern-day facility, it’s easy to forget how derided it once was. Here’s what the BBC, for example, wrote when the refurbished station opened in 2007:

“In the early 1960s it was considered by many to be frankly grotesque – a hideous neo-Gothic folly, ridiculously fussy, not to mention grimy and impractical.  It represented everything mid-20th Century Britain hated about the 19th Century – at once obsolete, pompous and absurd.  It was considered a shame that Hitler’s bombs had not done more damage. It was time to tear it down and start again, with something sleek and modern and efficient – like Euston Station, just along the road.”

Fortunately nothing of the sort happened and today St Pancras is one of the transport wonders of the world, a trendy destination in its own right. It also boasts one of the best food & drinks and shopping offers of any world transport hub, including the longest Champagne bar in Europe, a regular farmer’s market and upmarket shopping. Fortnum & Mason, The Betjeman Arms, Carluccio’s, Cath Kidston, Hamleys, John Lewis, L.K. Bennett, MAC, M&S, Thomas Pink – and a whole lot more besides. Most of them very good indeed. All backed up by a superb website which includes extensive and illuminating sections on food & drink and shopping.

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[A nice contrast to Heathrow’s ‘self-playing’ piano]

Oh yes.. and there’s WHSmith. Now let me put what follows in context by saying  I have been very impressed by the way in which the news and books specialist has upgraded its travel offer in recent times, notably in airports such as Gatwick.

Not here though. I watched an early morning throng of customers (some clearly frustrated at the technology) grapple with the quirks of the self-payment machine while a handful of staff members wandered around looking bored and aimless. The place is dark and depressing and I found it astounding that not one of those employees was on hand at the solitary traditional cash point. Awful shop. And an awful statement about customer engagement.

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So, from the (mostly) best of times, to the frankly worst of times… I have to say the shops in the Eurostar ‘trainside’ (post-immigration) zone are dismal.

Now I suspect there were all sorts of building limitations here but that’s no excuse. And for a usually excellent French retailer such as Aelia to be associated with these cheap-looking little boxes is surprising. Incredible actually considering this is one of the main gateways to and from Paris.

The beauty and (far too expensive) wine offer is passable but the stores themselves… oh dear. Even the lovely Mediterranean colour and vibrancy of the L’Occitane  range and display can’t stop the unit looking like something temporary. If St Pancras is indeed the spring of travel retail hope, then the Gare du Nord is the channel’s winter of despair. Truly, as some great English writer might have said,  the epoch of incredulity.

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