I’d been on the road for, well, quite a long time.
And then at one o’clock in the morning, having driven with a reasonable amount of determination through the evening in order to make the 1.22am train back to Blighty from France, I arrived at the bank of tollbooths at the Eurotunnel. Not one of which contained a human being.
So I pressed the button for attention, and after 30 seconds or so the voice of a human being said “Bonjour.”
“Hello” I said to the human being, which wasn’t really a human being but was, instead, just a big chunk of steel with a screen in it and a speaker system at the bottom. “I don’t have a reservation,” I said. “But I would very much like to catch the 1.22am train if possible so, er, what happens next?”
“OK” said Hal 9000. “Please drive to station number one and someone will be with you shortly.”
A few minutes later the someone arrived. She was a French lady who couldn’t quite summon a smile, what with it being so late and all, and what with it being so thoroughly inconvenient for her to have to leave the warmth of her office and serve a stupid Rosebeef, who is so stupid that he hasn’t made a booking online.
“Hello” I said to the actual human being in the form of a grumpy French lady. “I’d like to get the 1.22am train if possible, just a one way ticket please, so how much will that cost?”
She then smiled before saying the words – and I swear there was a look of unadulterated joy in her eyes as she did so – “Two hundred and twenty two euros.”
Come again, I thought, although the actual words I used may have been somewhat different in the event: it’s hard to remember the specific details of my response, so completely frazzled was my mind by what she’d just said.
Two hundred and twenty two euros. For a one-way train journey. That takes 35 minutes. And runs for about 30 miles. How on earth could that be?
A few days earlier I’d researched the prices of crossing the channel online. To take a P&O ferry costs anything from about £40 return or around £60 for a fully flexible ticket. To take the Eurotunnel with a fully flexible ticket was £179. Each way. So I plumbed for the ferry on the way out, and a very pleasant experience it was too.
But on the way back, with the homing goggles firmly in situ, and having been on the road for a good few days by that time, I decided to go for the train – because it’s faster. And all I wanted to do at that precise moment was be at home.
I didn’t need a flexi ticket, just a straightforward one-way basic fare. Which, in this case, turned out to be more expensive than most return air flights to pretty much anywhere in Europe at this time of year.
How can that be? How can the people who run the Eurotunnel justify charging that much money to sit on a grubby little train, in the middle of the night, with about five other people, with loos that look like they need cleaning with a flame thrower?
So guess what I did? I reversed out of the tollbooth in a hail of wheelspin and drove to the ferry terminal instead. No, unfortunately I didn't. Instead I handed over my credit card quietly, put my pin number in the machine, and then drove towards the customs booth with a sense of defeated astonishment. The homing instinct had well and truly kicked in by then and was too strong to resist. I was too knackered to object, basically, so I caved in and wore it.
Had I turned up at the P&O booth unannounced at the same time of day it would have cost about £90, so I’m told. And next time that’s precisely what I’ll do.