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Sunday, 2 October 2011

Brighton to Antwerp in four and a half hours

Up the A23/M23, along the M25, down the M20 to the Channel Tunnel. That's an hour and a half on a good day.

Onto the E40 heading towards Brussels, off at Gent onto the E17, onto the Antwerp Ring, through the Kennedy Tunnel, follow the signs to the Centrum and with any luck you will have parked up in another hour and a half.

It's hard to get the Tunnel down to the bare minimum of one hour and ten minutes, so with an hour and a half allowed for the crossing, you get to four and a half hours plus whatever stops you care to make. For me, it beats the train (up to London, across London, change at Brussels)

It also beats the train on price. I can do the return trip in my Skoda Octavia 1.9 TDI on a tank of diesel - about £55 at yesterday's prices - to which the Eurotunnel crossing added another £58 for a short stay trip.

Belgian roads are pretty awful: the carriage ways bumpy, the exit systems alarming, the signage demented. But it's only a short distance from the French border up to Antwerp, and Antwerp is a very pleasant city with good restaurants and strollable streets. It's very much a zoned city. The area around the Centraal Station is rough (though I chose the Radisson Blu there which is spacious and good value - 109 euros for one night and breakfast). The shopping area contains a lot of up-market boutiques - there is money here. The Jewish district on a Friday and Saturday is full of strikingly tall and well-built men in eighteenth century costumes, and women who seem small and stooped in comparison. Both manage the pushchairs.

This time I combined work with pleasure and visited the Rubens House. The paintings on display are mainly indifferent, though I liked the porttrait of the young van Dyck, but the garden (on a hot sunny day) was delightful.

Some years ago, I used to take Stands at the Antwerp stamp fair (Antwerpfila). Indoor smoking was still allowed and the hall used to fill up with a haze of cigar smoke. I always came away with a sore throat. Strangely, in a rich city it was a very down-market fair, and I never made any money and stopped going. I wanted to see if anything had changed, so this time I went as a visitor and would-be buyer. It hasn't changed and I was only able to buy a very little stock - not even enough to cover the very modest cost of the trip.

English is the second-language and I hesitate now to use my French. As everyone knows, Belgium is now pretty much a non-country, only recently emerged from a long period without a Government and with high levels of inter-communal dislike.

And then there is the language dilemma which confronts Flemish / Dutch speakers: you can learn English as your first foreign language (and it's an easy language to learn if you are coming from Flemish / Dutch), and English is a world language and allows you to deal with tourists and be a tourist yourself in other countries. Or you can learn French in order to communicate with your fellow countrymen. Imagine if schools in Kent offered a choice of French or Welsh. I know what I would choose.


  1. If you buy a rail ticket several months in advance, it's a lot cheaper than driving. Brighton to London St Pancras International is £17.80 for an off peak return bought with a Senior Railcard. St Pancras to Antwerp via Brussels is £38.50 each way, a grand total of £94.80 altogether. Thus a saving of £18 without adding the saving on depreciation to your car. On the other hand, if your trip is made on the spur of the moment, then - as you say - the car is cheaper. No doubt there's a moral there somewhere.

  2. There’s an interesting portrayal of Rubens House in the 1650s in Lucy Worsley’s gushingly enthusiastic life of William Cavendish (Cavalier, Faber & Faber, 2007) chapter 7