From Shanghai to the Roof of the World

Enriched oxygen was supposed to smell and taste sweet. But the stream of air hissing out of the gold nozzle by my head had dank undertones of cigarettes that induced a wave of nausea. Reaching up to 5,200 metres above sea level, train compartments on the Qinghai railway are fitted with oxygen jets to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness, along with several warning signs that do little to deter stubborn Chinese passengers who hide in the loos and smoke.

Pulling on my thermals, I readjusted the surgeon’s mask around my mouth and nose and sulked quietly, my asthmatic lungs withering in despair. After a month on Chinese trains I’d become accustomed to the spitting, hacking and crunch of empty sunflower seeds beneath my feet, but the constant flouting of no-smoking rules had turned me into Miss Marple, and had me and my nostrils twitching our way up the train, sniffing at compartment doors to admonish the culprits.

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Now resigned to the situation, I pulled down a seat in the corridor and leant against the window watching the soft, sugar-dusted brown mountains slope in the foreground. Tumbles of white cloud rolled around a sky so blue it made my eyes shrink from the glare, and rough-looking yaks nibbled at the yellow dryness of the plateau. Silver lakes like spills of liquid mercury were darkened by shadows of cloud and every hour or so the odd nomadic yurt appeared fringed with multi-coloured prayer flags. As the train climbed towards Lhasa we swept closer to the shimmering blue ice and snow of the Kunlun mountains and I soon forgot about the headaches and shortness of breath. I had seen nothing like this in my life and knew I never would again.

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Opened in 2006, the Qinghai railway from Xining to Lhasa is a feat of engineering excellence, holding the record for the world’s highest track and the highest station at Tanggula. Passing through an earthquake zone, the train travels on more than 300 miles of track built on permafrost that can melt at the slightest increase in temperature – a problem which engineers combatted by circulating liquid nitrogen below the rail bed in an attempt to keep it frozen year-round.

But complications surrounding the railway are not just limited to practicalities. The birth of the railway was considered an ecological threat to the region and also a cultural one as it opened up another route for the already huge influx of ethnic Han Chinese flooding Lhasa and displacing the Tibetan people. Even today, it’s unusual to see Tibetans on board, almost all of whom are forbidden by the Chinese government from travelling in and out of Tibet.

However, I had made my peace with my choice to travel to Tibet. I had travelled to North Korea a month earlier and had had no regrets, witnessing the country first-hand instead of reading reports and forming opinions, and I wanted to do the same in Tibet. As the train approached Lhasa, red Chinese flags poked up from every house and I took a deep breath before setting foot onto the roof of the world.

 

On the Rupert Rocket in Canada

“Ladies and gentlemen we’ve been informed there are moose coming up on the south side…”

Popping up like a gang of meerkats in fleeces, passengers craned necks towards the window with cameras in hand and false hope in their hearts. For the third time that day the alleged wildlife had scarpered so I slumped back in my seat. I’d long since given up on spotting bears and was content to gaze at the army of Douglas fir descending the mountainside – and maybe spy a skunk or two. For a brief moment I was filled with a sudden and sociopathic urge to slap the glass and scream “BEAR!” just for the fun of riling up my companions. Alas Gill and Tracy, a double-act in navy and neckerchiefs, began serving coffee and tea and I was forced to abandon the plan, sit back, and behave myself.

Two days earlier in Vancouver I had boarded The Canadian, a train so beloved it’s even on the Canadian $10 note. Resembling a Dualit toaster from the 1950s, the silver juggernaut of a train rolled off at dusk, on a cross-country mission to Toronto, but pulled into Jasper after breakfast the next morning where I had hopped off to take a round-trip detour on the Skeena.

The Skeena train from Jasper to Prince Rupert, also known fondly as “The Rupert Rocket”, or the rather dull official name “Train 5”, goes where no one else really goes. Way up north and wiggling west a little bit, the train cuts through British Columbia, terminating at the port town of Prince Rupert just 40 miles south of the Alaskan border where there is nothing to do but fish, hike and eat crab on Cow Bay Road. Canadians don’t take trains. They fly or drive their monster trucks from one province to the next, so taking the Skeena is the perfect way to go off-piste and travel with local residents and First Nations people, who, if not hitchhiking or waiting four days for a bus, have no other way to travel in this remote part of the country.

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It’s also home to some of Canada’s most beautiful scenery. Dusted with snow, the Rockies soared into an electric-blue sky, a perfect mirror image broadcast onto the still waters below. Tall trembling aspen lined the tracks, their round leaves shaking like tiny silver bells ringing in the slightest breeze. Staring mindlessly out of the window I began to tally up all the different trains of the previous four months when a large black bear standing in the middle of a field looked up as we flashed past. “BEAR!” I yelled, thrilled, and a bit smug that no one else had seen it. The sighting was a blessing as I saw little more than a herd of tatty-looking farmed bison once I’d got back on The Canadian – while munching through a bison burger. But where The Canadian faltered on wildlife it excelled in lamb steaks, pancakes, and beautiful lakes. Over four days and three nights we curled around mountains, cruised through prairies and arrived amid Toronto’s skyscrapers having undergone one of the greatest journey’s in the world.

www.viarail.ca

Japan: Shooting around on Shinkansen

A mistake I made before travelling to Japan was to watch Lost in Translation and fall prey to Sofia Coppola’s soft-focus illusion. After two weeks of shooting around the country by Shinkansen – the fleet of high-speed, bottle-nosed beauties – it became clear that the film was little more than a stereotypical, insular portrait of a magnetic, complex and multi-layered nation.

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Kanazawa railway station

Almost everything in Japan is designed for efficiency: packets of chopsticks come with a toothpick; a sachet of mustard with ketchup squeezes out two separate lines on a hotdog; the backs of toilet doors have harnesses for mothers to set down their babies. And trains are designed to take passengers from one destination to another as fast and as safely as possible. Nothing more. The average delay is 36 seconds and a series of earthquake counter measures triggers automatic braking that can stop a train at 187mph within 300 metres – while our own trains are cancelled as a result of leaves on the track.

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Nagasaki station

But where the spirit and soul of other Asian countries heaves out of train doorways – from clanging tea vats and steaming dumplings, to raucous card games and rocking babies – Japan’s trains are devoid. They slide up the platform with stealth, their bodies gleaming. On a blue square outside the doors, marked by a pair of painted white feet, a line of passengers makes a queue at a right angle. They slip in, take their seats, put in earphones, swipe their phones or shut their eyes. No one speaks. Sometimes they bring out ekiben – bento boxes containing regional specialities sold at stations. These beautiful wooden boxes are fitted with rice, breaded pork fillets or chicken teriyaki, black shreds of nori, or ginger, pickled pink. Ekiben look more like antique lacquered pieces for a mantelpiece, but they’re fast being replaced by the warm waft of KFC on board.

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An orderly queue forms before boarding

During my first ride on the Sakura Shinkansen from Osaka to Hiroshima I stood a ten-pence piece on its side, and (just to check), stood on one leg in the aisle – neither of us fell over. Nothing but a low whistle of wind filled the cabin and when a fellow bullet train shot the other way we tilted for no more than a few seconds. All heads were bowed, some dozing, some reading, when the conductor entered the carriage, removed his hat and bowed deeply before working his way up the aisle checking tickets. After he reached the top of the carriage he turned around and bowed again before leaving. No one looked up and I felt bad. But it didn’t matter, nothing was lost in translation. In that small motion it became clear that Japanese trains didn’t need music and mess and colour to be alive and filled with soul.

Japan specialists, InsideJapan Tours, offer tailored travel by rail across the country. A rail pass for two weeks costs £242. www.InsideJapanTours.com 0117 244 3263

Thailand: The International Express from Bangkok to Butterworth

Joe hugged his bag to his chest and looked from the floor to the ceiling fan and then out of the window. At the age of 65 this was his first ever train journey: after retiring he had decided to treat himself to a week in Bangkok followed by an overnight journey home to Malaysia. Fishing a tiny Pentax from his breast pocket, he slid over to the window and put one hand to the glass, his eyes following each rusted rooftop and billboard as it sailed past. His tangible delight reaffirmed my own love for train travel. No matter how many trains I boarded, windows I peered through, or doorways I sat in, each new journey was like a present waiting to be unwrapped.

Within an hour the dust and concrete of the city had given way to waterlogged paddy fields lined with palms so bent they grew in diagonals, criss-crossing at the waist. Passengers slipped into comfy pyjamas and spread woollen rugs across their knees. They peered into the baskets of vendors hawking chicken and steamed-up bags of sticky rice, and slurped on carrier bags full of rambutan – splitting open the hairy red cases to reveal white, lychee-like fruit.

As the afternoon blurred into evening, un-read books lay face down on snoozing chests and outside the sun twinkled off the paddy, turning it to sheets of gold. At each station a gold-framed, mural-sized painting of the Thai king loomed through the window, flags and flowers adorning his figure. Shivering in the air-conditioning, I wandered into the vestibule and stood on the hinge of two carriages as they slid around, crashing against each other. Muggy air seeped in through the cracks and once I’d thawed out I swayed down the corridor following the deep aroma of fried fish and lemongrass to the dining car.

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Here was the hub of activity: French tourists in baggy T-shirts smoked through the open windows of the wood-panelled car; a Malaysian student sat sideways in a booth, his iPhone playing Selena Gomez; and waiters in waistcoats arranged red trays on white table cloths. For 170 baht (£3) four set menus offered a main of fried pork in oyster sauce or stir-fried seabass with celery, with a side dish of duck red curry or chicken green curry with jasmine rice and three firm pieces of pineapple for pudding.

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Stuffed, with my lips tingling from the dregs of chilli pork broth, I lingered until the sun had gone and the sky had darkened before winding my way back to my berth. Bedtime soon approached, and the guard arrived to push down the seats into one large berth, wide enough for two. This should have lent itself to a wonderful sleep had an attendant not called through the curtain at 6am to hand me a tray of steaming chicken congee sprinkled with diced spring onion and crisp shallots. But it was so delicious that all was forgiven and it was hard not to be drawn in and shaken awake by the scene outside the window of farms and lakes and villages setting up for the day.

At the Malaysian border of Padang Besar the train was stripped down to two carriages and passengers disembarked for immigration checks and luggage scanning – where I found Joe. Bleary-eyed and disheveled he wandered over with a coffee in hand and I asked him how he’d found his first train. “Oh, it’s special, it’s really something,” he replied. “I don’t know why I waited so long to do it. But I’m going to keep on doing it now.”

You can buy tickets for train 35, the International Express, from Bangkok to Butterworth, at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station. You can also reserve tickets from https://12go.asia/en which charges a £3.50 processing fee, and then collect them at the 12Go.asia counter at Bangkok station. A second-class air-conditioned sleeper costs around £25 one way.

The Godfather of Trains: The Trans-Siberian

Oxana set down my green tea and a fork and patted me on the head. The dining car’s waitress had taken to mothering me since I boarded four days previously and seeing as she was the one who held court – and the keys to the fridge – I was more than happy to let her. At the next table a man in a singlet and slippers, scowled at my pot of instant mash and waved his hands, before tearing in half his buckwheat pancake filled with cottage cheese and tossing it across with a nod and a smile. Having watched him put away three cans of Stella since 9.30am, I obliged, and they were sweet and delicious.

The Trans-Siberian is the godfather of trains. Strictly speaking not a train but a route, it features on the bucket list of most rail enthusiasts, stretching more than 5,500 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok. But to mix things up I had chosen the more varied Trans‑Mongolian route (which veers away from Russia, dipping down through Mongolia into China), and broken up the journey by hopping off to ride the Circum-Baikal railway above Lake Baikal, and watch Swan Lake at the opera in Ulan Bator, before arriving in Beijing 11 days after setting off from Moscow.

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For the first two days I took up residence by the window watching leafless trees flash past until the scenery induced a meditative lull. Every few hours farmhouses and scarecrows in potato patches would breathe life into the greyness. But the real entertainment took place in the train’s corridors where passengers gathered to brew tea at the samovar or exchange stories – and during long-awaited stops where elderly women sold punnets of strawberries and young women in neon shorts hawked dried omul fish speared through the eye. At one such stop I rifled through the trolley of a lady who was picking her teeth while chatting to a friend, and offered her 90 roubles (85p) for a pack of playing cards. Even her son smirked and shook his head in disbelief that anyone would offer more than a cursory glance for what turned out to be a pack of 36 cards.

More than anything the train provided a geographical perspective that no aeroplane or car could ever match. Having picked up our location on Google maps in Moscow, I followed the blue sphere for five days as it moved across the globe, floating across territory that contained no cities, no lakes. But outside the window that territory was very much alive. At dusk on the eve of arrival at Ulan Bator rust-coloured sand dunes rose in the distance and rivers began to bend by the tracks. The sun threw stripes of red and orange across the sky, wholly unlike the mists that had hung across Siberia only days before.

Sunset over Mongolia

Sunset over Mongolia

Waking on the fifth morning, I pulled back the curtains to find Smurf‑blue sky and cliffs rising all around the train as it snaked into tunnels and burst out onto bridges over green water, at the edges of which squatted fishermen in wide trousers and bamboo hats. Stepping onto the platform at Beijing, I couldn’t quite believe how far I had come, but also how far there was to go…

Rail bookers (www.railbookers.com 020 3780 2256) offers holidays on the Trans-Siberian railway from £919 per person. As tailor-made rail-holiday experts they will create a unique trip for you, including stops along the way, hand-picked hotels and a range of excursions.

The story so far…

Shortly before half past six, the Regionale creaked and began to inch away from Platform 10 at Milano Centrale. The station’s arched ceiling slid back like a sunroof, allowing a blaze of orange light to ignite the carriage. Wet with sweat, I peeled myself off the seat and tugged down the window as fellow passengers pulled open doors, wiped their foreheads and fanned themselves with copies of Metro. Within a few minutes the train had gained pace, and a steady blast of air was beginning to make the ride more comfortable when a grand Frecciarossa high-speed train slammed past in the opposite direction, making our flimsy regional train rattle in its wake.It would be two hours to Verona, so I picked up my Kindle on which Tim Parks was teaching me about the fiddles and frustrations of the country’s railways in his book Italian Ways. I soon put it down again and stared out at the vineyards rolling past the window, the bushes glowing in that wonderful evening light that Italy laps up and in which it basks. suitably reflective mode, I conceded that I was obsessed with trains. Five years ago I stepped off the Charminar Express in Chennai and marked my 80th train journey around India. Armed with nothing but a 90-day rail pass, an outdated map, and extraordinary naivety, I had travelled 24,855 miles – the circumference of the Earth – reaching the southern, western, northern and easternmost extremities of India’s railways.

Leaning out of doorways, perching on steps and sleeping in the odd linen cupboard, I covered the length and breadth of the country in four months and was drawn into its warm embrace by the whole railway family – from her royal highness the Deccan Queen and the sleek and chic Durontos, to the puffing and panting toy trains and thundering Rajdhanis. I hung from the badly behaved Mumbai commuters, had sweet dreams in the Indian Maharaja’s double bed, and witnessed orthopaedic surgery on the world’s first hospital train. But it was through the cast of characters who wandered the aisles, snored in the bunk above me or chatted by my side that I came to understand how the railways had earned the nickname “The Lifeline of a Nation”.

A little secret: when I first arrived in India, I didn’t care for trains. They were simply the cheapest and most practical way to travel (my rail pass cost £350 for 90 days, the same price as a first-class return from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh Waverley – and that price included sleeper services and most of my hot meals). But when I was back home in London writing my book, something changed: I found that I was magnetised by the sound of wheels on steel. Scrolling through television channels, I’d perk up like a meerkat at any programme about trains; at night, the distant hoot of the overland service through Finchley and Frognal felt like the mother ship calling me home.

So, a few weeks ago I left my job, packed my bag and boarded the 14:31 from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. Having travelled around India in 80 trains, the most obvious, albeit daunting, next step was to take on the world. Unlike Phileas Fogg and Passepartout (from whom I stole my idea) I don’t have a bet to win: the journey is not a race. I’ve never understood the bizarre need to complete a route in the fastest time possible. Why waste an opportunity to absorb all that a place and its people have to offer by shooting in and out? I could travel around the world in 10 trains; I could do it in a hundred if I wanted to. Eighty, I thought, was a nice round number that would make the journey a challenge – but not an impossibility.

In the coming months, having already travelled extensively in Europe, I’ll make my way to Moscow via Riga for the big one (although I plan to take the trans-Mongolian, dipping south at Lake Baikal to Ulan Bator and on to Beijing, rather than the trans-Siberian). I have sketched out various journeys in Asia – through Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan – followed by a route across North America, from the Rocky Mountains to the deserts of Arizona. I will obviously have to “cheat” and fly across the Pacific Ocean.

Much of the trip remains open: I want there to be spontaneity. But the penultimate leg of the trip should take me winding across China and on to the ancient route of the silk traders through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Visas permitting, I will return to Europe through Iran and Turkey, and would like to conclude the trip with the Venice to London route. And I will be sending regular dispatches to the Discover section of The Sunday Telegraph. Why do all this by train? For me, flying is expensive and boring, while car journeys are cramped and tedious. Trains, on the other hand, take the traveller into the nooks and crannies of a country and into the heart of its people. They are a microcosm of society, embodying literal class division: in India I could eat hot cornflakes with the ambassador to The Hague in a first-class carriage, then 36 carriages along, sit on wooden slats sharing pears in paper bags with a farmer from Gujarat. On trains I feel free: if I’m late, I can always catch another – and I can carry as much luggage as I like, with liquids in opaque bags. I can eat my own sandwiches, go for a wander, even move seats should I object to my companion.

When I set off, my goal was to spend the next 10 months finding out whether the charm and character of India’s railways extends around the rest of the world. Our British trains have lost the sparkle and spirit of their heyday, reduced to little more than a tired, delayed, grossly expensive form of transport for jaded commuters. But perhaps the glory of rail travel survives in other countries and undoubtedly there are pockets of the world where trains continue to play a vital role in enabling communities to survive and countries to thrive. With a one-month second-class Eurail pass in hand, I began my journey through Europe. From Paris I snaked down to Limoges and Clermont-Ferrand, weaving between forests and trundling over rivers tumbling through the Massif Central to Béziers, before curling down to Barcelona and blasting across to Madrid on the high-speed Ave opposite Rosita and Emily, two sleeping pensioners whose mouths had dropped open so far I could see the black plastic on their false teeth.

Madrid Atocha station

Madrid Atocha station

From Madrid I sat upright overnight to Lisbon, arriving with a sense of awe and a cricked neck, then circled the Douro Valley and back across Spain, hugging the coastline to Cannes, and spending the last week hopping between Milan, Verona, Florence and Rome . A Eurail pass is worth it if you’re planning a series of long-distance journeys: it pays for itself in five or six train rides. And if you have a fixed itinerary, reservations can be made anywhere from 90 days in advance. But it has its restrictions. I don’t like rigid plans and my best moments have come through serendipitous encounters with other travellers dishing out advice and redirecting me at a moment’s notice. I don’t know what I’m doing next week, let alone in 90 days’ time – and I wouldn’t want it any other way. With a rail pass, though, this presents a few problems.

The view from the Glacier Express in Switzerland

The view from the Glacier Express in Switzerland

At Milano Centrale I met Marie, a 50-year-old designer from New Zealand. She and I struck up a friendship through a session of mutual sighing and eye-rolling at the inability of Italians to form a queue – a queue, by the way, for a ticket to get into a second queue, so you can then sort out your pre-bought ticket.That’s Italy for you. I like it, though, because it’s as close as I have come to anything vaguely resembling the insanity of Indian Railways in terms of bureaucracy. Marie pushed her sunglasses on to her head and pulled a face: “You think a rail pass gives you freedom, but actually it’s the opposite. When you make a booking you have to stick to it or you end up queuing forever to change your booking and only get some of the money refunded.”

And that’s if you’re lucky. Trenitalia agents in Florence refused to change tickets I’d booked two days earlier in Monaco by SNCF, which refused to amend a booking made two days before that in Valencia by RENFE. Each insisted the other was responsible for voiding the tickets that were no longer needed and that any refunds had to be requested by post. Needless to say, I’ve racked up a fortune on reservation fees, ranging from €5 for a seat from Avignon to Cannes, to €35 for a high-speed service from Mannheim to Prague. Owing to temporary track replacement and repairs, there were no trains between Munich and Prague when I wanted to do that journey , forcing travellers on to a five-hour-long coach journey – my idea of hell. So I took an unplanned and long-winded route via Mannheim and, just before midnight, boarded the 10-hour overnight service to Prague. It was the first sleeper service of my journey, and I cleaned my teeth, picked my way back to my bunk and slid into my sleeper sheet, plumping my fleece into a pillow. My companion flipped off the switch and wriggled around below for a few minutes until his even breathing told me he was asleep. I lay blinking at the ceiling. As the air conditioner hummed and the train relaxed into a gentle rock, a familiar feeling came over me. It was the unmistakable feeling of coming home.

On the sleeper train to Prague

On the sleeper train to Prague

If you want to book a rail pass with Eurail visit: www.interrail.eu

Madrid’s Grand Budapest Hotel

Hopping around Europe over the last month has been enormous fun and we are currently at the Palazzo Victoria in Verona digesting a late lunch of lobster, mashed potato and herring eggs – who knew eh? It does work in case you wondered.

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It might seem like the stuff of dreams, leap-frogging from one hotel to the next, but over a stretch of nine months, it’s normal to miss creature comforts: PG Tips from your favourite mug in the morning; BBC breakfast news; ironed clothes (rather than what’s least smelly). But what makes it easier is when staff go that extra mile to make an effort for guests and to make sure they feel more at home. And so far the place we found that was at The Urso in Madrid (click the link to read about it).

The lead up to departure

In the space of two weeks, I have left my beloved job, moved house twice, and condensed my life into a 60-litre rucksack. I knew that planning for a 10-month trip around the world was going to require patience, resilience, and balls of steel, but what I never anticipated was that attempting to coordinate 80 train journeys with visa bureaucracy, border restrictions and below-zero temperatures would reveal less about what lay ahead, and more about what I was leaving behind.

Every morning, until the day of departure, I updated my to-do list which, somehow, grew at least five items overnight: walking shoes, Kindle cover, cancel phone tariff, travel insurance, new retainer. But soon a different list began to grow in my head: spend time with mum and dad, visit Kelly and Violet, stay at Ham Yard Hotel, enjoy a last BLT sandwich at Brioche. And it was that latter list that eventually overrode all my other stresses until they ceased to exist. The evening before I left, I found myself on a sunny bench outside London’s National Theatre with a glass of prosecco in one hand and Violet, my friend Kelly’s three-month-old baby, in the other. I was supposed to be buying a pair of walking shoes and the shop was about to close, but I’d shelved the trip to meet them on the Southbank. Kelly had Violet in early February but I’d been too “busy” to organize a time to see them. Only I wasn’t busy, I just had skewed priorities. I could always buy a pair of shoes en route, but I couldn’t give Violet a big cuddle or see her smirk at her mum. Two days earlier, I was toasting a family friend and his new wife at their wedding in Norfolk. They had decided to celebrate 21 years together by getting married and I had initially told them I couldn’t travel up because I had to collect last-minute tickets from Riga to Moscow and there was no other appointment available. But when I saw Tony appear in a top hat and tails and twirl Lizzie onto the dancefloor, I knew that attending their wedding had been the right thing to do, even if it meant having to have my tickets FedEx-ed abroad.

Then there came the seemingly frivolous things. I love bacon. Not that streaky nonsense that Americans call bacon, the rigid strips of crisped fat that snap in two, but the thick-cut baby-pink rashers of smoky meat, curled at the edges and trimmed with rind. My Saturday mornings aren’t complete without a couple of slices snuggled between hunks of white bread and slathered with ketchup, and on my last trip, I really missed the home comfort. So I took myself off to Brioche, my local café in West Hampstead and ordered the cinnamon toast with bacon and maple syrup—twice if I’m honest—just to make sure the taste and smell were safe in my memory bank.

Having rented out my home to a young Polish couple for the next year, I was essentially homeless for my last week in London and had to rely on the kindness of friends and the scum of the King’s Cross Travelodge for a bed until I checked into the Ham Yard Hotel for my last night. The newest edition to the Firmdale group of hotels owned by husband and wife team Tim and Kit Kemp, Ham Yard is carefully slotted into a square just behind Piccadilly Circus, and you would never know it was there if you weren’t looking for it. I’ve long been a fan of the Firmdale group, largely because they’re at once so utterly barmy and beautiful—much like London. From the Union Jack flapping above the entrances to the stripped-bare wooden floors, blast of colours and fabrics and lighting and action, the Kemps’ properties are the hotel equivalent of a mad British family, odd and delightful, but always warm and welcoming. After my last stay at the Haymarket Hotel, I foraged around the pillows to see that they were from The Best Bed Linen in the World, and bought some for my own bed. Ham Yard is even more outlandish than its siblings: the reception is strung with a giant cat’s cradle of multi-coloured wool, the orangery is lit with a tangled bunch of at least 15 different lampshades, and the cosy, colourful library has a tiny Queen Elizabeth in a jar—complete with tiny handbag. After dinner, I lay in the huge bath watching Britain’s Got Talent and drinking a cup of tea. Ham Yard isn’t exactly subtle in reminding you where you are. Not to say it’s like a UKIP rally, but they like their flags and British bulldogs and the Archer room, a navy-blue private dining room with swirly chairs has LONDON emblazoned across the wall and a phone box painting by the mirror. It’s quite comic at the best of times, but that night it just felt reaffirming. At breakfast, I went for my last real Full English and although this terrifying patriotism may be misconstrued as that English reluctance to let go of the familiar and venture into foreign territory, it was my way of taking a good long look around before I left it all behind. The next day I bought my walking shoes at 12.15pm before meeting my friends and family at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel bar at 12.30pm to board the first train to Paris. And they were none the wiser.