[23 March] 2001: A Motorway Odyssey

Today, I had to visit IBM Hursley to meet the conference director and my co-chair for the 2001 WebAhead conference (8-12 October in Hursley — IBMers only, sorry) and do some serious preliminary planning; phone calls and e-mail are wonderful tools, but somnetimes there’s no substitute for being in the same room, looking at the same whiteboard, and being able to interrupt in real time.

Chris and Simon had Real Work to do in the morning (or at least other meetings to attend), and I could be productive using the high-speed connection at the hotel, so we agreed that I’d plan to arrive in Hursley about noon, just in time for lunch. I left just before 11, and if I hadn’t turned the wrong way when I left the motorway, I would have been early — as it was, I could still claim to be “on time” by airline reporting standards.

The Hursley cafeteria is not terribly outstanding, so we gave it a miss and had lunch at a local pub (The Kings Head, which the 2001 Good Pub Guide rates as a “Lucky Dip”). Since I’m an American, I contented myself with a half-pint to accompany my food; Chris and Simon upheld the national honour with a pint each.

Then we went back to the lab, had a quick meeting with the Assistant Lab Director and an even quicker one with the new Lab Director, and spent a long afternoon making plans and drawing up schedules and rough agendas. At the end of the day, we had made great progress; I guess having done this conference three times already helps.

Then I got back onto the motorway to go back to the hotel, zipping right along. Until I got just past Junction 4, where traffic stopped. Completely. With no hope of escape. Every so often, I’d be able to creep ahead a few feet — and since I was driving a stick, that meant having to clutch and shift, then go back to neutral to wait again. And the car had a stiff clutch, too.

Radio traffic reports said that things weren’t going to get any better in the six or so miles before I reached the M25. Luckily, just before I left the hotel, I remembered I had brought a UK Road Atlas with me, and I went back to the room to get it, “just in case.” So I figured out an alternate route, eased over to the left lane (British drivers are far more cooperative than Israelis!), and, a mere twenty minutes and one mile later, I was off the motorway.

From there, it was relatively clear sailing, and I pulled in to the Hertz lot only an hour-and-a-half later than I should have (not so good for a one hour trip). In theory, I should have taken the Hertz bus to the terminal and then caught a Hotel Hoppa back to my hotel, but I was in a hurry, so I persuaded the Hertz driver to drop me at the exit from Heathrow to the A4 (Bath Road) and I walked the 0.8 miles back to the hotel.

Boy, is this place expensive!

The Marriott is a nice enough hotel, and their base rate isn’t insane (at least not at the IBM rate), but the incidentals here can kill you. My rate doesn’t include breakfast, but the hotel’s happy to supply the continental breakfast buffet for 12 pounds (plus tax and tip). Internet access is 12 pounds a night (again, plus tax) — that’s about double the going rate in the US (or Israel, for that matter), but it’s far cheaper than trying to connect by phone (about a buck a minute!). And laundry is obscenely expensive — it shouldn’t cost more to wash something than it cost to buy it!

Passing bad currency

The UK has this nasty habit of taking coins and bills out of circulation from time to time. When they do this, you have to bring your old money to a bank to exchange it for the new model — and that can be a real pain for an occasional visitor like me.

And apparently they’ve just taken some old 20-pound notes out of circulation — including the one I still had from last October. I tried to visit the bank branch at IBM to exchange it, but I was too late; fortunately, the cashier at Tesco’s was either nice or not too observant and accepted my bill. I’m sure Tesco’s will be able to exchange it for new money with no problem, too.

Tomorrow, it’s off to Paris. I intend to be sure not to bring any francs home with me, because I know they’ll be no good before my next trip!