A Three Walk Day

This morning, we had breakfast at the hotel, and then headed for the Tube to take another London Walk, this time through the British Museum. I nearly made the mistake of believing that the weather would improve, but Diane talked me into bringing umbrellas. We got to the Holborn tube station half-an-hour early, so we decided to take a little walk — it was dry when we left, and pouring down rain by the time we’d returned to the station. Chris (our guide) was waiting inside, gathering the troops — we left the station the usual five minutes late, and strolled through occasional raindrops to the Museum courtyard, where she gave us an introduction to the Museum and its history. Then we strolled through security and into the Museum proper.

Two hours is not long enough to see the British Museum; two days wouldn’t be, either. So she concentrated on showing us the unique items (as she said, “every museum in the world has mummies, so we’ll skip them”). We started with the Rosetta Stone — like the Mona Lisa, it’s nearly impossible to get close enough to take a decent picture, but I tried.

After the Rosetta Stone, the crowds diminished (or at least the areas containing them got bigger). We continued to the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, which are arranged around the perhiphery of a large room (I guess with the dimensions of the Parthenon itself). Then to the statue of Mausoleus, the Erectheum Caryatid,

the Portland Vase, and finally the Ship Burial at Sutton Hoo. The tour ended there, and if we had had nothing else to do, we could easily have spent the rest of the day in the Museum.

But we wanted to see more of London, so we left the Museum (noticing that the security lines had gotten far longer while we were inside) and walked to the Forum Cafe for lunch. It was nothing special, but I’d go back.

Then we returned to the Holborn Tube station for our second walk of the day, Legal and Illegal London, guided by Shaughan though the four Inns of Court.

This was our favorite walk of the day, though there was very little attention paid to the illegal side of things. One thing we learned was that the most important name on a list of those in Chambers is that of the senior clerk

even though it’s usually buried in the middle of the listing. The senior clerk controls the allocation of cases to the barristers in Chambers, and therefore has a considerable effect on their income. We also learned not to believe everything we saw.

The Inns of Court are private property, and the public is only allowed in at the discretion of the members. Good behavior is required.

Our tour ended at the Royal Courts of Justice, but since cameras are not permitted, we decided to enjoy it from the outside

and went to the home of Twinings Tea to buy tea towels instead. After that, we walked down to the river to pick up the Tube back to the hotel. And after a very brief stay, we left, en route to dinner at Sherlock Holmes Pub and Restaurant (the Pub was horribly smoky, so we went upstairs to the restaurant, which features a recreation of Holmes’s study, as well as pretty good food) and a fast walk to Embankment station to meet Graham (again) for our third walk of the day, Ghosts of the West End.

It turns out that many London theatres are haunted. So are some of the gentlemen’s clubs. But I’m afraid that the details, like many of the ghosts themselves, vanished rapidly. Some of the walkers continued on to a fine old Georgian pub, but since it didn’t have a license permitting under-16s, we chose to go back to the hotel and call it a night.

A long short day in London

We arrived at Heathrow a few minutes after 11; on the way to Immigration, I checked the tourist literature rack and grabbed two brochures. One gave this week’s theatre lineup; the other was from London Walks. I had taken a couple of tours from their sister operation, Paris Walks, and had been pleased, so I handed the brochure to Jeff and let him look for interesting walks.

He found plenty — more than we could do if we were spending this entire vacation in London. So we negotiated and decided to try the Old Westminster walk, which left at 2:45pm. But first, we had to get to our hotel and have lunch. And before that, we had to clear Immigration and Customs.

There was no Fast Pass line for Immigration, so we had to wait with the common people rest of the non-UK/non-EU passengers. It seemed to take forever, but I guess it wasn’t really all that long, because we were in a taxi by noon (our luggage was waiting for us as soon as we got to the belt, and UK Customs was, as usual, a non-stop affair), and at our hotel by 12:45.

The driveway was blocked off, but the bellman came out to the street and took our luggage for us. The revolving door was also closed, and everyone was being wanded with metal detectors before being allowed into the hotel. Our rooms wouldn’t be ready until check-in time at 2pm, so we left our luggage and headed off to explore.

We found a small Italian place, Mosco’s, just off Oxford Street and had a spot of lunch (I wouldn’t go back, but we could easily have done worse), then took the Tube to Westminster to meet the tour.

Graham was our guide — we met him (and the other dozen or so walkers) across the street from Big Ben (technically speaking, Big Ben is the bell in the clock tower, which is St. Stephen’s Tower). He led us through the Tube station to the embankment (and the 50p loos!) to introduce the area, finishing just as Big Ben struck 3. Then we went across to the grounds of St. Margaret’s Church and Westminster Abbey, over to Victoria Tower Gardens, and then into some quieter, less-visited areas including Smith Square (home of St. John’s Concert Hall) and the grounds of Westminster School. The tour ended just outside Westminster Abbey (which was closed to tourists for the day). The tour kept us moving nicely, which was just what the doctor ordered — and it was entertaining and educational, too. Recommended.

After the tour ended, we walked up Whitehall towards Charing Cross (Diane and I had stayed in the Charing Cross station hotel on our first trip to London in 1980, and that’s still the area I feel I know the best). We spent a few minutes in Trafalgar Square, and then walked along the Strand into Theatreland.

We had two goals: visit the tkts booth to see what was playing in general, and find out what the Reduced Shakespeare Company was offering in particular. I knew that the booth was in Leicester Square, but I wasn’t sure which theatre the RSC used.

I probably should have checked the map instead of blithely leading the way — we eventually did find the booth, but it was a long schlep via Bow Street and Covent Garden. The direct route would have taken us five minutes. Oh, well, we needed to keep moving anyway.

The tkts booth was closed, but there was an information window still open, where the attendant looked up the Reduced Shakespeare Company and told us to go to the Criterion Theatre, very near Picadilly Circus. We found the theatre with no problem, but discovered that there was some children’s musical booked there; I guess the RSC is on tour.

From Picadilly, we hopped on the Tube and went back to the hotel and finally got into our rooms. They’d given us connecting rooms, as we’d requested, but one room was a handicapped room, and the en-suite was odd, so we got them to move us. That all took quite a while, and we were quite ready for dinner.

We wanted Indian food for dinner (a not unusual situation for us on a Sunday evening); the concierge recommended Bombay Palace, a few minutes’ walk away. As we were walking to the restaurant, I suddenly recognized the neighborhood — I’d had dinner at the Duke of Holborn pub two years ago. But we continued on to the Bombay Palace, which was quite tasty, though significantly more expensive than our usual place at home.

And that was enough for our first day in London. Good night!

On BA 86

After we’d changed our routing to take BA, I decided it was time to research their service offerings, and I was pleased to find that they had installed flat beds in Business Class. This confirmed the wisdom of my decision to change — if we’d stayed with American, we’d have been in the usual reclining seats, and the flight time wouldn’t have been long enough for a good nap anyway.

Not all flat beds are created equal. Last year, I flew Virgin, and found the bed to be quite comfortable, if a bit narrow. Earlier this year, I flew to Beijing in the United First Suite, and again, the bed was comfortable but narrow. The bed in BA business class is narrow, but it’s also significantly harder than I would like (Virgin adds a mattress, which makes a big difference). Nonetheless, I slept for about five hours (intermittently, as always on an airplane), and I’m looking forward to our arrival at Heathrow in about an hour.

I suspect I will also be looking forward to a real bed tonight.

The rest of the flight has been quite pleasant — the food was good and the wine was quite drinkable (Chateau St. Michelle Syrah, which I bet I can find at Trader Joe’s). And we had metal knives to cut our food with, since the TSA has no authority over this flight. Yet another reason to take the Vancouver routing. :-)

Killing an afternoon at YVR

We’re on our way to the UK for a holiday, travelling as much as possible on points. When I booked the trip, it was already too late to get tickets for the obvious routing on American, San Jose-Chicago-Heathrow, or even the reasonable alternative, San Jose-Dallas-Gatwick. Instead, all they could offer us (after considerable work by the agent) was San Jose-Chicago-Glasgow-Heathrow, with longish layovers in Chicago and Glasgow. Since “free” was the right price, I took that routing, but this week, I called back to see if there was a chance of improving our lie.

The obvious routes were still unavailable, but a creative agent found us an interesting alternative: San Francisco-Vancouver on Alaska, then non-stop to Heathrow on BA. There were plenty of seats available on the transAtlantic flight, but it took a couple of tries before we were able to get seats from San Francisco (the last time I called, I was willing to settle for a flight to Seattle and driving the rest of the way, but that turned out not to be necessary). The only downsides were that we’d have to get up very early to make our flight from SFO, and that we’d have a six-hour layover in Vancouver — or, more accurately, at YVR. But the total trip time was shorter than our existing routing, and fewer stops is always good, so I took it.

That was Friday morning. I had planned to drop a note to Tim Bray and Lauren Wood to get their advice about what to do with our layover, but work was too busy, and I didn’t get around to it.

It turns out that six hours isn’t quite enough to do anything useful, especially if you’ve got carry-on luggage and don’t want to pay to have it stored. We nearly taxied to a local shopping center so I could buy a cable I’d forgotten to bring, but finally decided just to go outside for a few minutes (it turns out there’s a mini-park just outside the International Terminal — very pleasant, if noisy), and then check in and go to the lounge to await our flight.

As we were sitting, reading the paper, I looked up, and thought I saw Tim Bray entering the lounge. But I wasn’t sure, so I didn’t say anything. But when Lauren walked in a moment later, I was sure — they were on their way to Oxford (with their son, Sean).

I guess I really should have written!