Forget the jet set, join the train set
The new high-speed rail link will bring many places on the Continent within easy reach of British buyers, says Helena Frith Powell
The day before I was due to take the train back to my home in France during a visit to London, my husband called to tell me the French railworkers were on strike (again!). “But don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve managed to book you on Ryanair.”
“Great, thanks,” I replied. I didn’t mean it. Flying has become so problematic and irritating that if coming to London means getting on a plane, I don’t come. At airports we are treated no better than common criminals, told to take our shoes off and throw away our lipglosses. It’s a wonder anyone ever makes their flight at all.
So why not travel by train instead, especially with the opening not just of Britain’s new high-speed rail link, but of a couple of fast new lines on the continent, too? From November 14 next year, high-speed trains will be able to dispatch homeowners and holiday-makers across the continent in time for lunch in a German beer garden, French chateau or even a seedy bar in Amsterdam.
Journey times from the new Eurostar terminal at London St Pancras to Brussels, Lille and Paris will be cut by 20 minutes compared with the current service from Waterloo International.
Add in the impact of new faster TGV services between Paris and Strasbourg and between Brussels and Amsterdam, and the saving could be up to two hours.
“This will not only have a positive effect on those travelling to the continent,” says Eurostar, “but our new location means that a lot more travellers in the UK will have easy access to Eurostar. St Pancras is flanked by King’s Cross as well as Euston — in total, those three stations serve seven train companies.”
Eurostar is also opening a new station at Ebbsfleet, just off the M25 close to the Bluewater shopping centre. There will be seven trains to Paris a day from Ebbsfleet as well as five trains to Brussels.
The Brussels train will no longer stop at Ashford, Kent, but there will still be three trains a day from there to Paris as well as the Disneyland Paris service, ski trains and the Avignon summer service.
One to two hours from London
If you leave London at 5pm on a Friday and head west, chances are that after two hours you will still only be halfway to your weekend home. Take the Eurostar, however, and you will be able to reach hundreds of locations in less time than it takes to get to Devon and Cornwall — or even some parts of Kent on a bad traffic day.
Although Calais — just 55 minutes away from London by next November — is not famous for its charm, there are some lovely spots around there, both inland and down what is known as the Opal Coast.
“This is such a beautiful part of France,” says Frances McKay, director of Francophiles estate agency (01622 688 165, www.francophiles.co.uk), “but most people just whizz straight through it.”
Among the coastal gems are Hardelot, founded by Englishman Sir John Whitney in 1900 and still popular with British buyers, and Wimereux.
Keep going down the coast and you reach Le Touquet, a grand resort otherwise known as Paris-by-the-Sea. Just an hour from Calais, it is one of the nicest towns in France and, consequently, a little pricier than its smaller neighbours: one-bedroom flats start at about €200,000 (£135,000), while a two-bed wooden house is on the market with Agence Bergounioux (00 33 321 058 100) for £220,000. The agent describes it as “cosy”, which probably means tiny. Still, you’re paying to be in a lovely place and with the new rail-link access, it couldn’t be easier.
Brussels has something of a bad name with British buyers, probably because of its association with the European Commission, which has its headquarters there. It is undeserved. The Belgian capital is a fine city with wonderful art nouveau architecture and property prices that are still remarkably low by British standards, despite more than a decade of double-digit rises.
Patrick Menache, head of Brussels-based Macnash Associates (00 32 2 347 1147, www.macnash.com ), advises caution, though. “Prices will start to go up as a result of the rail link towards the end of 2007, but buyers should wait for a few months before investing,” he says. “Prices are high at the moment, and we expect a correction in the market.”
The city is probably most of interest to investors: the large number of transient Eurocrats makes for a buoyant letting market. If you felt adventurous, though, you could buy a great flat for about £170,000 in the centre of town, commute to London to work, and be home in time for moules-frites every evening.
Menache also suggests checking out properties in the small villages to the south of Brussels, such as Alsemberg. “I have a client who sold his apartment in Brussels for €230,000 (£155,000) and bought a beautiful village house for €300,000 (£200,000),” he says.
Two to three hours from London
Once the new link is up and running, Paris will be just two hours and 15 minutes away — and with prices still 60% lower than in London, it remains an attractive place for British buyers. The most popular arrondissements with Brits are the 1st, 3rd and 5th, but there are also plenty of places near the city that combine a rural setting with ease of access. As with the capital itself, it is the areas to the south and the west that have been the most popular with Parisians.
The Val d’Oise region to the north is gaining in popularity. The ancient village of Maffliers, for example, is just a 35-minute train ride from the Gare du Nord. According to local estate agent Françoise Ellery, of Ellery Ludlow (00 33 134 087 813), the old inn in the centre of the village will be up for sale in spring 2007, in plenty of time to take advantage of the new train times.
“It is a lovely 17th-century building,” she says. “It has five bedrooms, three bathrooms and all the traditional fittings including tiled floors and beams.”
But why confine yourself to France? Bruges, in northern Belgium, is a perfectly preserved medieval city with canals and cobbled squares, only 60 miles from Brussels and a 20-minute drive from the sea. Property prices are similar to Brussels.
Veronique Vermeersch, director of estate agency De Neve & Partners (00 32 50 343 848) says £170,000 will buy you a two-bedroom flat in the centre of town. “But if you go just outside town, prices drop dramatically,” she says. “There, you will find the same thing for about €200,000 (£135,000).”
Antwerp is also a delight. If you decide to stay longer than Vincent Van Gogh did (four months), it might be worth looking for somewhere to buy. Again, about £170,000 will buy you a two-bedroom, central flat.
Three to four hours from London
If you are prepared to spend another hour on the train, Amsterdam will be just 3 hours away, although you will have to change trains in Brussels. The Dutch capital has traditionally been a place we Brits go to get stoned or laid — maybe both — but not to live. With the new rail link, this could all change.
After all, it is a beautiful city with lots to offer: canals, museums, nightlife. Until 2001, Holland experienced the greatest increase in property prices in the EU. At its peak, prices were rising between 15% and 20% a year. After 2001, prices took a dive due to the economic situation in the Netherlands — but they are rising again, according to Jesper de Groot, chief executive of estate agency Pararius, in Amsterdam (00 31 206 713 416, www.pararius.nl).
A two-bedroom flat in the centre of Amsterdam will set you back about £200,000. There is one for sale at www.stayamsterdam.com for about £250,000 in the Waterloo Square area, just behind the town hall.
Travelling time to Cologne, Germany’s fourth largest city, will be slashed by an hour and 10 minutes, meaning you can get there with a change at Lille in just 3 hours. So even if you leave your home in Manchester after lunch, you’ll be in time to watch the sun set behind Cologne cathedral, a World Heritage site since 1996.
“Property prices in Cologne have seen a slight increase during the past six months,” says Sylvia Faustmann from the estate brokerage Greif & Contzen. “This applies to traditional buildings and new developments.” The trendiest area in town is Ehrenfeld, filled with theatres, shops, live-music bars, as well as expensive and attractive property. Greif & Contzen (00 492 219 377 930, www.greif-contzen.de ) has a 150sq m loft for sale there for about £235,000.
More than four hours from London
In just five hours, you will be able to get to the French culinary capital of Lyons by train — only just over half the nine hours it can take to drive. It’s the perfect place to put on weight: Lyons has more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in France. Chic, smart and cosmopolitan, it is often described by the French as like Paris, but without the crowds. The countryside around is idyllic, with lavender fields and views of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak.
Property in and around Lyons is reasonably priced. Two-bedroom flats in the centre of town start at about £120,000. France Immobilier (00 33 478 423 131, www.billion-immobilier.com ) has one with wooden floors and views over the city for £140,000. In idyllic villages around the city, such as St Etienne des Oullières, you can find villas on the market for about £200,000 upwards.
Travel times to Strasbourg, via Lille, will be slashed from 6 hours to just 4 hours. Strasbourg, the capital of France’s Alsace region, may not be an obvious choice for anyone who doesn’t work for the European Parliament, but you could leave from Leicester (which it is twinned with) just before midday and be there in time for an aperitif.
Lorraine and Jacky Harris, from Leicester, bought a second home there three years ago: a three-bedroom chalet in the village of Geishouse, just below the Grand Ballon mountain. “We usually drive there or take a flight from Luton to Basle,” says Lorraine. “But the drive is 12 hours door-to-door, so we will definitely be looking into the train option. And even though the flight is only one hour and 40 minutes, by the time you’ve got to the airport and done all your waiting around, it probably doesn’t work out any less than five hours.” Frankfurt will take 10 minutes longer to reach than Strasbourg.
It may not seem an obvious choice for a second home to someone living in Britain, but, according to Petra Kunz, project co-ordinator at estate agency Select Immobilien (00 49 699 002 090, www.select-immobilien.com ), there are already plenty of Brits buying in the city and around it. Once travel times are slashed by an hour to just four hours and 40 minutes from London, that interest is likely to increase.
“Brits buy mainly as investments,” says Kunz. “They like apartments and small houses.” Select Immobilien has a two-bed flat on the market for £150,000 in Schwalbach, a picturesque town at the foot of the Taunus Mountains just 10 minutes by underground from central Frankfurt. If you want to be even closer to the city centre, Kunz has a three-bedroom house available for £235,000 in the neighbouring town of Unterliederbach.
As for me, I never took that Ryanair flight home. I preferred to take my chances despite the train strike. After a very pleasant journey from Waterloo, I caught my TGV home. The only problem was that because of the strike it stopped just before my station, and I had to wait an hour for a connection. Even with that delay and hassle, it was still a much less stressful way to travel than by air.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019