Is the era of multibillion-pound embassies in west London mansions over?

The new US embassy in Nine Elms. Image: Getty.

Ask somebody to picture an embassy in London, and their mind will likely conjure up images of grand buildings dotted across the heart of the city. China’s townhouse on Portland Place, for example, or the Netherlands’ mansion in South Kensington, which is just a few doors down from the Royal Albert Hall, or the imposing Grade II listed Australia House on the Strand.

Few would instinctively veer towards a surburban house in Willesden, north London, which looks no different to any other on its road – aside from, that is, the flag pole in its front garden. Or to a semi-detached in Ealing. Or to an office block in Hammersmith. But for countries like Cambodia, North Korea and Tajikistan, their embassies are metaphorically and geographically miles away from the palatial splendour enjoyed by the majority of London’s diplomatic corps.

So strange appears the Cambodian Embassy’s suburban location that it became the subject of Zadie Smith’s short story, The Embassy of Cambodia, which opens: “Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!”

Smith’s book points towards the commonplace assumption that embassies are, at the least, grand buildings located in the parts of London that very few could afford to live in. Does maintaining this aura matter in 2019? According to both diplomats and experts: not really.

Iulian Fruntasu, the former ambassador of Moldova to the Court of St James’s, has positive reflections on his time spent based in Moldova’s quaint embassy in leafy Chiswick. He described the joy of his commute to work, a seven-minute bike ride, and wryly noted that with regards to embassy locations “diplomacy now is played everywhere, including the Millennium Hotel, where tea comes with polonium instead of sugar or manipulation of referenda”.

Fruntasu also pointed towards the symbolic importance of the US embassy’s move to Nine Elms last year, long planned since George W Bush’s presidency. Its former Grosvenor Square location, arguably one of London’s most famous embassies, failed to meet the heightened state department requirements for embassy security introduced following the 1998 bombings at the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. In 2006, it even provoked a hunger strike from a local resident, who just happened to be a Russian countess, over the potential security threat brought to those living in the area by the embassy’s presence.

Evidence also suggests that avoiding the London property market’s sky-high prices is proving irresistible to many countries in a post-Great Recession world. In 2013, Greece sold its consul’s Holland Park villa for £23.3m as part of a privatisation programme to address its sovereign debt crisis. The Netherlands, also set to move to Nine Elms, was estimated in 2014 to have saved its foreign affairs ministry €185m with the sale of their South Kensington embassy, allowing them to halt the closure of consulates in Antwerp, Chicago, Milan, Munich and Osaka.


In 2013, the Evening Standard described the sale of central London embassies as creating “£3bn of super-prime homes in the most exclusive streets in the capital”, something that strikes a discord six years later in a UK acutely aware of the dire consequences manifesting from housing shortages. Fears that Nine Elms and the area around the new US embassy would become filled with hundreds of “buy to leave” properties appear not to have manifested to the extent many feared, but it is clear that for most embassy sales those benefitting in the long run are those least in need of new residences.

But why were these huge buildings so important in the first place? According to Venetia de Blocq van Kuffeler, the editor of Britain’s foremost diplomatic publication Diplomat Magazine, much of this boils down to how, in the days before mass tourism, an embassy was often the only representation that many would see of a country, and was therefore of huge importance as a manifestation of a nation’s identity.

“Hundreds of years ago an embassy and the physical building in London was the main impact that [a] country had in London, in the UK, and in many countries case in Europe” she explained, adding that “the physical manifestation was really important in terms of their image”, noting that in an age of globalisation and 24-hour news cycles this is now of little importance.

That’s not to say that being close to the heart of power isn’t something that is still being taken into account by London’s diplomats. According to John Mulyran, the managing director for Nine Elms’ property developer, Ballymore, one of the things that sealed the deal when the US was choosing its new embassy location was that Nine Elms is a shorter walk to the Houses of Parliament.

Is the era of Mayfair, Belgravia, and South Kensington being the must-have embassy areas coming to an end? Nine Elms is marketed as “London’s new diplomatic precinct”, but has yet to see any big moves beyond the US and the Netherlands, which is yet to actually move, with China deciding against moving there in 2018 and instead going for a space in the City of London.

What is clear is that in an era in which countries have had far greater financial priorities than the prohibitively expensive maintenance of Kensington Palace Garden mansions, the spaces in which diplomacy in London is played out will continue to expand – meaning suburban embassies like Cambodia’s will become increasingly less surprising.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.