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Trip Report, final entry - RonO's Ramblings

Aug. 16th, 2005 03:27 pm Trip Report, final entry

This should be the last installment of my report on our trip this summer to the UK. I may follow up with some further observations later.

This last part of our trip began in high style. When I got our rail passes, I deliberately spent the extra few -- and if I recall correctly it was just a few -- dollars to get First Class tickets. I did this primarily for the trip to London. In retrospect, that was a very good investment. The direct trains, or most of the direct trains, from Glasgow to London are run by Virgin Trains whose ad slogan is "The return of the Train." They are attempting, and I believe succeeding, to recreate the kind of service one got on British trains fifty to seventy years ago, but with such modern twists as airplane-like music and power ports.

Because I misunderstood the schedule, I thought that we would not get a meal on the train. We could have waited for the 12:47 and had a hot lunch, or tried to rush for one of the morning trains with a hot breakfast, but the 11:00 train suited our schedule the best. Since we did not think we'd get a lunch we had purchased some sandwiches from the same shop that had provided our first meal in Scotland (albeit at another Glasgow train station). However, these became our dinner when the train steward offered us a choice of three different sandwiches. We enjoyed our sandwiches as we wound through the Glasgow suburbs.

First Class on the Virgin trains is very comfortable. We had reserved three seats around a table, but our seat reservations had not been needed, since we were nearly alone in our coach for the whole trip, and never had anyone sit at the forth seat. The seats were wide and very comfortable. The train was quiet and fast, although not so fast as to limit my ability to enjoy the Scottish and English countryside we rode through. The whole trip took about five and a half hours, but that time sped by. (In retrospect, the 5 and a half hours from Glasgow to London seemed fairly quick, compared to the 6 and a half hours from Chicago to Glasgow or the nearly eight hours from London to Chicago).

We arrived at the Euston Road station in London on time. As we were getting our luggage off the train, we were met by a station employee with a cart who offered, nearly insisting, to take us to the taxi queue. We ended up taking him up on the offer, in part because he started loading his cart before we got a chance to refuse. This caused us some concern. We did not have a lot of cash on us since we had been spending up our Scottish bank notes hearing that they are not always accepted in England. We were driven to the taxi queue, passing through parts of the station normally only seen by the train crews and the catering staff.

Our taxi driver did not recognize our hotel by name, but when we gave him the address, he was able to find the hotel quickly and easily. Our hotel, the Comfort Inn Notting Hill -- formerly the Hillgate Hotel -- is located in 5 houses along a row less than a block from the Notting Hill tube station. Especially after our experience on the train, this hotel was a disappointment.

We checked in and got the first real key I've been given to a hotel room in years. I took the lift up to the third floor with my suitcases and another new arrival. However, before we got to the third floor, we ended up in the basement. When we got to the third floor, we had to confirm it by reading the number on the room closest to the lift, which forced us to leave the lift. Our room was on the end of the third floor hallway, not too far from the lift, and next to a stair case. This so-called "family room" was the smallest we stayed in, smaller even than the room we were almost given in Edinburgh. The regular two full sized beds were shoved against the window and a third, smaller, bed was placed in the remaining floor space, leaving almost no room for walking, suitcases or anything else. There was no air conditioning, and the open window was noisy and letting the bright afternoon sun into the room.

For me, perhaps the biggest problem was the lack of outlets on the side of the room with the beds. I should sleep with a CPAP at night, and had brought it to the UK complete with the necessary adapter to plug it in. In Glasgow I had to sleep on the wrong side of the bed and run the cord around a corner. However, in London that wasn't an option. The only way I could have come close to using the CPAP would have been to sleep backwards on the bed. Since I have enough trouble with loosing pillows at home where there is a shelf behind the bed, I knew that this would be a disaster, so I went without the CPAP.

We ate the sandwiches we bought in Glasgow and I wandered out to find the tube station (80 steps from the hotel door), and get some cash, ironically at the Royal Bank of Scotland which had printed much of the Scottish bank notes we didn't think we could use in London. although the Notting Hill branch gave me notes from the Bank of England.

Our Wednesday started with the continental breakfast in the hotel's breakfast room. Being used to an American take on the continental breakfast, I was not expecting rolls, meat and cheese, canned fruit and cereal. Fortunately, I was able to make due with a roll, some cheese (which I didn't make into a sandwich), and a lot of the canned fruit.

After breakfast, we walked a few blocks to where we could catch a "Big Bus" tour. These tours in open top double-decker buses were "Hop on-Hop off" tours, similar to the one we'd used in Edinburgh. We took the bus on the "Blue Line" to the Marble Arch where we were able to transfer to a "Red Line" bus with a live guide. Tara's knee had been bothering her since we were in Edinburgh, so she didn't want to climb to the upper deck. We were able to find seats on the lower deck, and could see reasonably well. This bus took us around many of the sites of London, crossing the Thames several times. We got off the bus at the Tower of London, got tickets from the bus companies sales person at the stop, and went in.

Near the tower was a place serving an all you can eat fried chicken lunch, which we took advantage of. This chicken was much better than the KFC in Glasgow, and was probably better than the KFC upstairs in the same building.

We then went into the tower. For a while we followed a tour lead by one of the beefeaters, but left when we realized that he was emphasizing some of the darker and bloodier stories from the Tower, and they were bothering Derrick. We split off from the tour and found our way to the jewel house. I don't know if Derrick was being stubborn, or if he really didn't remember seeing the Scottish Honors a week before, but I was unable to completely explain that these were similar. One observation I have is that there are a lot more jewels in the Tower of London than at Edinburgh Castle.

After the jewel house, and a visit to "The Gents," we worked our way to the "Bloody" tower where Walter Raleigh and the Little Princes were housed. We didn't end up going to the white tower, which later disappointed me when I realized that it was the oldest part of the Tower of London.

After visiting the tower, we took advantage of a river tour included as part of our bus tour. Officially, there was no tour guide, but the young man who also handled the lines when docking the boat did a very professional job of giving a tour of the section of the Thames that we traveled. We got off the boat very near Parliament and the clock tower. We got some drinks and walked down to where we could catch the next bus. Once we caught the bus it took us through the rest of the tour. Unfortunately, buses are not allowed to pass the front of Buckingham Palace, so we didn't see much of it. When the bus returned to the Marble Arch, we got off intending to get on a bus that would take us back towards our hotel. We were directed to follow a group ahead of us. Somehow we followed the wrong people and got on a bus that was getting ready to cover the part of the tour we'd already been on. We found this out too late and had to take one more ride around London, getting off where an employee of the bus company said we could find a toilet for Derrick.

We got back to our hotel. Tara and Derrick crashed and I wondered around the neighborhood a bit, not finding anything much to do at that time of night.

On Thursday, we got an earlier start, contemplating using the last bit of time on our bus tickets. However, we decided not to worry about it. So, after breakfast, we walked down to the Tube station and got a one-day family ticket, unfortunately at the peak rates since it wasn't quite 9:30 yet. We then took the tube to the Westminster station, by parliament. We then walked across the Thames and got on the London Eye. We all enjoyed the Eye, although Tara enjoyed it from the bench in the center of our pod.

After getting off the Eye, we walked back to the Westminster station and took the Tube to Bond Street -- Oxford Circus was closed that day for unscheduled repairs, and walked to the Regent Street shopping area. We spent an hour or so in Hamleys, looking at five levels of toys, got some lunch and went back to our hotel for a brief rest, and then went and did some more shopping. While we were out, I finally found an extension cord, but it was more than I wanted to pay for 2 nights use (I'd have paid that much if I'd found one the first night we were in London). After shopping, and a tour of the maze of underground walkways under the marble arch looking for the toilets, we grabbed some drinks and headed back to Notting Hill.

For much of that afternoon, I'd been noticing the signs at the Evening Standard stands with a headline talking about chaos at Heathrow. Not knowing what was up, I picked up a copy of the Standard when we got our drinks.

After finishing our drinks, we got back on the Tube and headed back to Notting Hill. Not wanting to walk very far, and not being sure what was around, we ended up getting our dinner at a Burger King, which was not as bad as the McDonald's or the KFC in Glasgow, but still wasn't a very good dinner.

After dinner, I finally got around to reading the Standard, and found out about the problems with British Airways. By the next morning, we learned that the problems had gone from no food, to canceled flights. Because of this, I tried to call American Airlines to see if their flights were affected, but ran out of prepaid minutes while on hold.

On Friday, we spent the day at Herrod's. When Tara said that we should plan on spending a day at Herrod's, I was skeptical that we'd all be able to enjoy that. Overall, it wasn't too bad. We spent most of the morning in with the Toys and kids books, and got lunch at an "American Style" restaurant on that floor. The food there wasn't bad, but wasn't quite American style either. (A Cobb salad doesn't have a single chicken breast with avocado slices inserted into cuts, it has a sliced chicken breast and sliced avocados). This lunch would have been better if the service had been faster, and if Derrick hadn't stalled eating so that it took over an hour for what should have been a quick lunch.

After lunch we did a quick tour of the other floors, spending between 20 and 40 minutes on each. This is when Derrick started to get tired, bored and misbehave. We picked up a couple of things, and saw some lights we'd want for our kitchen if they'd been 1/3 to 1/4 the price. We stopped at the chocolate bar and had some "iced chocolates." We then returned to the Children's book department to get some books Tara had found earlier but not bought. We then left and headed back to the hotel.

Before going into the hotel, I tried to add some prepaid minutes to the phone. Unfortunately, I had to add £10.00 minimum, and could not get the ATM to do it for me. Fortunately, there was an O2 store right there, and they took care of it. When I got back to the hotel room, I tried to call American again, and still was on a very long hold. I had picked up another copy of the Standard, so I looked through it and found out that American was not listed among the airlines affected, so we started to breathe easier.

Tara and Derrick did not want to go back out, so I was sent to find dinner. After walking nearly to Kensington Palace (only a few blocks) I turned back and went into the second of the two "kabob" shops I'd passed. I got "chicken burgers" for Derrick and Tara and a chicken kabob for my self. This was a chicken version of a donder (sp?) kabob, which is not too different from the gyros that can be had all over the Chicago area. I returned and we ate and started packing for our return.

After breakfast on Saturday, we finished packing and took our bags downstairs. We then caught a cab to Paddington Station, but forgot to look for the statue of the fictional bear found at that station. We boarded the Heathrow Express, in coach because we didn't know it had a First Class section which our rail passes would have entitled us to sit in. We were able to get to Heathrow without incident. We got our bags checked in and got our boarding passes which left us with about 3 hours to kill.

We stopped at one shop that was only outside security, and then went through security. Airport security in the UK has different procedures than the US, and we did not have to dig out any of the electronics for separate scanning. Once inside security, we were in the large, but horribly crowded, central part of the terminal. Terminal 3 at Heathrow is different from every other airline terminal I've been in. Instead of having people wait at their gate, everyone waits in a large, crowded, central area dominated by shops. Here we were finally able to find a new backpack for Derrick, and were able to spend the last of our British money.

Less than an hour before the flight, about half an hour before the scheduled boarding, our gate assignment was finally posted. We got to our gate, and found a long line waiting to get into the departure lounge. Unlike any previous airport I've left from, they were checking our tickets before we went into the departure area. We sat for a few minutes, and then worked our way onto the plane that would take us home.

We took off a few minutes after our scheduled departure. I was able to follow our flight progress through the video screen in the seat in front of me. On the same screen we were able to watch some programming, although I kept having to change Derrick's back to one of the two channels he was allowed to watch.

Most of the trip we were flying above clouds, so I wasn't able to see much. However, the clouds broke at a couple of very opportune moments, except my camera was safely stowed in the overhead luggage bin, I hadn't thought about taking pictures from the air. The first opportune break in the clouds was when we were crossing the southern tip of Greenland. It took me a bit to realize that we had a cloud break, however, since the ice pack didn't look that different than the cloud deck above it. I don't think I could have gotten a very good picture of the coast where the island emerged from the ice pack because it was too far away, and there wasn't much contrast.

The other time the clouds broke was when we flew over the Northeastern coast of Canada. Here we got a long stretch of cloudless weather, and I was able to enjoy a coastline unlike any I'd ever seen. This area is a rugged expanse of mostly barren hills that descend into the sea creating hundreds of small inlets and islands. When the clouds first broke, the sea was entirely on the other side of the plane, so I thought that the first inlet I saw was a man made lake until it kept getting bigger and bigger.

After nearly eight hours, we landed at O'Hare a few minutes late. We got off the plane and headed towards immigration. This was where I made an observation about the international arrivals areas of nearly every airport I've had to go though immigration at. The international arrivals areas are almost universally gloomy corridors without windows and very little artwork or anything else to take your mind off the gloom. Off the top of my head, the only international arrivals area I can think of, for sure, that doesn't match this description was the one in Auckland, and we never left the actual gate area there. (For the record, I've been through immigration at Narita in Tokyo, Chicago O'Hare's old international terminal in the parking garage, Melbourne Australia, Los Angles, Toronto, Glasgow and Chicago O'Hare's new international terminal. I don't remember if Narita was gloomy or not. I was trying to make a tight connection with the help of a local who was probably a perk of flying first class on someone else upgrades).

After clearing immigration and customs -- the latter taking about 10 seconds -- we got our limo and came home to a large package containing the stuff we shipped from Glasgow and evidence of a recent, nasty, cat fight.

Overall, I enjoyed the trip. There are several things I'd have liked to have done, but didn't. I'd have liked to spend time at some of the Museums in London, and visited Westminster Abby. I'd have liked to hiked around the hill near Hollyrood Palace in Edinburgh (the one the "Radical Road" goes 'round -- as in "'round the Radical Road, the rabid rascal ran"), and spend some time in some other parts of England, including Cambridge or Oxford. Part of the reason we didn't do some of these was because of time, and some because Derrick would have been even more bored and disruptive than he got with what we did see. Tara and I have already decided that if we go back -- I'm guessing that the 2015 Worldcon may well be in the UK, or somewhere else in Europe -- we might skip London and spend some time instead in the Highlands of Scotland and the smaller parts of England.

At this point, I suspect that my next non-work related overseas trip will be a hoped for (and planed for) trip back to Australia in 2010 to attend Aussicon 4.

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