Travelogue London 2000
Stop #5 on my 2000 Round-The-World trip
This Travelogue is Incomplete
Twenty years ago I was a high school senior, and going through classic teenage angst in the worst way. My father was going on a business trip to London and felt that bringing me along might help snap me out of the worst of my puberty-induced trauma. On the night of March 21, 1980 he took me to dinner at Simpsons-in-the-Strand, a fine old English restaurant in the grandest tradition. Over a dinner of beef and Wiltshire pudding, we had a friendly argument about the state of the world twenty years hence. I asserted that in twenty years the world would be significantly changed; either we would have destroyed ourselves, or the flower-children and baby-boomers (the children who grew up with "the bomb") would have risen to political power causing and end to wars, the fall of political borders, and a new era of unheard of prosperity. My father's much simpler claim was that things would be largely unchanged. He proposed a bet: we would return to Simpsons-in-the-Strand in twenty years. If the world was unchanged then he would win and I would pay for dinner. If I was right and the world was very different, then I would win and he would pay for dinner. Being a bright young man I refused to take the bet, realizing that if I "won" it could mean that civilization was destroyed and we wouldn’t be able to London let alone use currency of the ruined economic system to pay for dinner. In the end we agreed that we would come to dinner at Simpsons-in-the-Strand on March 21, 2000 and flip a coin to see who would pay. As March 21 is also my grandfather's birthday, we agreed that we would bring him along, and the loser would also pay for his dinner.
To me at the time, twenty years was an unthinkably long period of time. I wasn’t even twenty years old myself. Just as "1984" was impossibly far away when George Orwell wrote his classic novel, and "2001" was a distant glimmer when the movie "2001 A Space Odyssey" was released, March 21, 2000 was infinitely far away in 1980. In January of 2000 I found myself planning a trip around the world involving Brazil, South Africa and Australia. It looked good, travelling around the southern hemisphere in an easterly direction. I was having a little trouble planning it all out, so I printed out a set of calendars using Microsoft Outlook. And there it was, smack dab in the middle of my trip, "Dinner with Dad at Simpsons-in-the-Strand." Even though my plans had put me in Australia in March, there was no way I was going to skip out on a twenty year old bet. So, I changed everything. I would go to Brazil, then backtrack to Australia and head up to Europe from there to meet my dad in London. It was quite a trip…
Friday March 17, 2000
Leaving Prague for London via Dusseldorf. The Dusseldorf-London leg is on a Lufthansa 737, and I have the bulkhead row all to myself in seat 3F. A fine seat indeed. It was an uneventful flight, and in little time we were touching down at London Heathrow airport. Wow, what a confusing airport! I travel all the time and have arrived in a lot of airports in a lot of places and never felt so disoriented. I even speak the language here but I am flummoxed.
When I made my hotel reservations with "Starwood Vacations" on the web, I clicked the checkbox for a shuttle to my hotel. The charge for this was £18. In my packet of Starwood Vacations materials, I had received a coupon for a shuttle ride with the Hotelink shuttle service. But I couldn’t find them anywhere. Eventually I found a payphone and called them. It turns out that they had never heard of me and weren't expecting me. Furthermore, I had landed at terminal 2, but they were at terminal 3, and they couldn’t come and get me. Also, they only run a shuttle once per hour, and the next one was scheduled to go in 5 minutes. I got them to agree to hold it for me, and headed off at a jog with my cart full of luggage for terminal 3.
Nothing in my prior airport experience could have prepared me for the distance from terminal 2 to terminal 3. With my luggage cart in front of me I found myself hurtling down corridors, into subterranean passages, back up ramps and around construction sites finally arriving at terminal 3 20 minutes later out of breath and dripping with sweat. Needless to say the shuttle had left without me. The next shuttle wouldn’t depart for 50 minutes. To add insult to injury, the sign on the counter said that the shuttle cost only £12, not the £18 I had pre-paid. Grrrr. Furthermore, back at terminal 2 there had been innumerable hotel busses that I could have taken instead. Lesson learned: do not sign up for the Starwood Vacations shuttle service! Annoyed and tired, I took my voucher back from the attendant at Hotelink (who had never heard of me), and went out to get a taxi. Lesson #2: never use Hotelink.
I must say I love London taxis. They're so big, and clearly represent a venerable tradition. On the other hand it cost me £42 (US$66) to get from the airport to my hotel, making it the most expensive taxi ride of my life.
I am staying at the Sheraton Park Lane, a very nice grand old hotel. It is only recently that the Park Lane became a Sheraton, and it has been largely upgraded, but with many old touches left intact that allow it to retain a lot of character. The location is ideal, right on Green Park on Picadilly road behind Mayfair. Because it is now a Starwood hotel, they upgraded me to a "small executive suite" on the 8th (top) floor. While very pleasant, this room is indeed small. I shudder to think what an un-upgraded room looks like - the bed must touch all 4 walls. That is no surprise for London though. For some reason the bathroom is huge - I wish some of the bathroom space were in the bedroom. Thankfully, the room is very quiet, largely due to the triple pane glass. As usual the first thing I did was to dial up to the internet to get my email. I was amazed to learn that local phone call costs 86p (US$1.35) per minute! Ouch. One quickly realizes that everything in London is going to be insanely expensive, and that is all there is to it. Just close your eyes and open your wallet.
After settling in I immediately called the Indian embassy to see if I can get a visa for my upcoming trip to the Andaman islands. It turns out that today is an Indian holiday, and they will not be open until Monday. My prospects for getting a visa are getting dimmer and dimmer.
I walked out the back of the hotel to the quaint and old Mayfair neighborhood where I popped into a great little café called The Village Coffee Shop (#27 Shepherd Market) for a cup of tea and an excellent warm goat cheese salad. It was perfect, and by local standards reasonably priced at £7. Later in the evening I came back to the Mayfair area, where all the pubs were absolutely packed with Saint Patrick's Day revelers (perhaps that's the Indian holiday that closed the embassy?) I chose "Ye Grapes, fine ales and wines, est 1882", a fine old pub which was not quite so crowded as the rest and bellied up to the bar. I asked the bartender what porters he had, and he replied "Guinness." "Uh, isn't Guinness a 'stout'?" I asked. He proceeded to tell me the story (which I knew) about "porters" being named "porters" after the porters who worked on the piers in London and drank these beers. "Yes, I know about all that, nonetheless, Guinness is a stout. What porters do you have." In the end I ordered a pint of Guinness.
Later still I returned to Mayfair yet again for some dinner. At the Shepherd's Tavern I had a Steak and Stilton pie, Strongbow hard cider, Treacle sponge pudding, and decaf coffee for £11.40, while singing along to "American Pie" on the juke box. Eventually I staggered back to the hotel and put myself to bed.
Saturday March 18, 2000
Morning comes to London like a thick comforter on a big old bed. The day started out cold and completely overcast, though by 10am it had burned off and was clear and beautiful. My room rate includes continental breakfast, which is a good thing because the regular charge for coffee, juice, and a basket of breads and croissants is an appalling £14 (about US$22.)
Very little in life is certain, least of all the weather in Europe in March. By the time I finished my brief breakfast, the skies had clouded over again. The bellman assured me that it would not rain, and I headed out for a walk in London. In spite of the overcast, it was a beautiful crisp day in spring, with the Green Park run amok with daffodils. At the far side of Green Park I emerged through the Canada Gate to see Buckingham Palace in all its glory. After the obligatory gawk, I headed through St. James park in the direction of Westminster. The sun was now starting to come out again, the park was full of people, it was becoming a very beautiful day. It was certainly "spring" for the pigeons in St. James park as the male birds puffed themselves out and strutted about for the amusement of their feathered female friends.
In the middle of the stream that runs through St. James Park, a pair of coots had built a nest, and though I didn’t get to see the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, I did get to see the changing of the ducks in the river. It was very touching.
>>>Walk to Big Ben, saw it strike 12.
The Ugly new ferris wheel marring the skyline of London
Got some passport photos for a visa
Lunch at The Silver Cross (33 Whitehall, SW1A). Had a burger and a coke. I can't figure out how they cooked it to make it come out the way it did, but it was just terrible. Perhaps they deep fried it? Perhaps it wasn’t beef? Beats me. I ate enough to sustain me for the museum and left the rest for science to study.
National Gallery (Trafalgar Square), free, free headphones (I donated £2). Rick Steves suggests about 90 minutes for the National Gallery in his bookMona Winks. I spent about 4 hours.
Devonshire Tea at the hotel, £10.00 (US$15.75) for 3 scones, a "pot" of Devonshire cream, strawberry preserves, and a pot of tea. It is a beautiful room though. Light and airy with a great gold-leafed vaulted ceiling. Very nice.
Slept 3 hours. Woke up, didn’t want to go out but realized I needed food. Through crisp cold air and under a full moon I walked back into Mayfair again, but the pubs stopped serving at 10pm. I went to a little French café (where no one spoke French) and had an acceptable pate de campagne and a poor salad with chicken and avocados for the mind boggling price of £16.40 (about US$26.) I finished up about midnight. Tonight would be the night to see London's clubs and nightlife, but I am just not up to it. My lingering cough from the cold I had in Prague will not quit, and I feel generally worn out.
Sunday March 19, 2000
Though last night it was so clear that at midnight I felt I could pluck the moon right out of the sky, this morning it is gray and overcast again. The predictions are for clear and high 50's. I hope that it clears up again as it did yesterday.
Move over to the United Oxford & Cambridge University Club (71 Pall Mall), where my dad is staying.
Help! Someone forgot to put a room in my room. This is absolutely the smallest room I have ever stayed in. I'm surprised they had room for a painting! It does have a great view though: big ben, parliament, the ferris wheel, etc.
Tate gallery (www.tate.org.uk). What a strange museum. It is organized by themes, not styles. Modern is placed next to old, blending artists, styles and eras. For example, one room presented the theme of "the city", another "artists abroad", and another "family life." It is interesting to see how different artists from different eras and backgrounds approached such a theme. On the other hand, it is somewhat jarring to see abstract next to classical, cubist next to impressionist, and so on. Furthermore, you cant say "I want to see works by Whistler", or "I want to see landscapes", or late 19th Century French watercolors, they are all blended and jumbled together. The collection is very large, and they circulate pieces in and out of display, so you can never be sure what you will see at the Tate. Some of the pieces that were on display that I particularly liked were John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, Meredith Frampton, Portrait of a young woman, John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shallot, and John Everett Millais, Ophelia.
Walked to Westminster Abbey, but because it is Sunday it is closed to tourists and only open for worshippers. The guard told us that St. Paul's would be closed as well. So much for that plan. Walked by Downey St. and attempted to see #10 which appears to be a rather unimpressive building. Went to St. James Park and watched the birds. Sat on a bench and talked.
Dad looked through his London Events guide and found that there was going to be an organ recital at St. Paul's Cathedral. So, we took the tube over there. Sure enough the guard at Westminster was wrong, St. Paul's was open and the recital was set to go. St. Paul's is certainly a huge cathedral, but it is not the most beautiful church in Christendom by any means. Organist Edward Batting was performing works by Dietrich Buxtehude and Max Reger. It was a fun experience, but the pieces that the organist chose to perform were distinctly unpleasant. My father commented that Bach certainly has nothing to fear from Buxtehude and Reger.
Dinner at Quaglino's (16 Bury St., St. James, SW1. Tel 020-7-930-6767).
Stylish, see-and-be-seen place full of handsome people of all ages. A very chic bar.
Rocket salad with aged parmagian, very nice, Swordfish, excellent, desert: lychee sorbet with exotic fruits, yum.
Monday March 20, 2000
Wow. What a beautiful sunny morning!
Breakfast at the O&C club. I had to wear a jacket and tie. When I went down there I was told that though my jacket and tie were fine, my jeans were unacceptable. I thought I looked like I had just fallen off the pages of GQ magazine, and resisted the urge to impress upon them the stylishness of my Zegna garb. I had to go back up to my room and change into slacks. At the end of our breakfast a man came in and was seated without a tie. My father and I were both <traumatized> by this audacity!
Went to Indian embassy to try to get a visa. No joy.
Took the train from Charring Cross to Paddock Woods, then a taxi to Finchcocks.
Back to the city. Met Simon and Dougal at a great pub called William IV on Harrow Road in the Ladbrook Grove area of London. Drank a pint then went in for dinner. This rather unassuming pub had fantastic food. Started with Mackerel which melted in my mouth, then a wonderful chicken with avocado dish that was marvelously seasoned. Everyone was very pleased with their meals, the wine was great, the conversation engaging, challenging and entertaining. Looking forward to seeing the Glanvilles again soon.
Tuesday March 21, 2000
Insisted that we go out for breakfast instead of having to deal with putting on my best for breakfast. Had a quick bite at a little place down an alley off Pall Mall. Had a lot of plans for today, but nothing opens before 9:30. So, we walked around for a while, through Picadilly Circus, towards Soho, down Carnaby St. (everything is closed.)
Headed over to British Museum, bought a coin for tonight's dinner.
Brit museum, Michaelangelo cartoon, Durer wood block prints of Revelations.
Tube over to "the City"
Lunch at Jamaca Inn, St. Michael's Alley.
Watched part of a Bach's birthday choral performance at St. Michael's Cathedral on Cornhill.
Tube to Westminster Abbey. Tour the abbey, lots of dead folks
Taxi to Royal Acadamy of Art. Michelangelo's Taddeo Tondo. Beautiful.
Pret a Manger for coffee.
Back to hotel to take a nap. I am just exhausted.
Dinner at Simpson's-in-the-Strand, 100 Strand, London, tel (020) 7836-9112, www.simpsons-in-the-strand.co.uk Maitre d' shakes our hands, gives us free glasses of champagne. Appetizer of smoaked duck on apples, excellent. Perfect beef from the trolley. Merlot. Crème Caramel. Coin toss, I win the toss.
Wednesday March 22, 2000
This morning I leave glorious London to return to the USA. Though I knew it was going to be expensive, I took another cab back to the airport for one last taste of London's excellent big black taxis. The trip was wonderful, and today is a good day to fly. America here I come.