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-- Kevin Killion
On a Business Trip to London
What does a solo American do with his free time on a business trip to London? The tourist things just aren't as fun without the family, but heck, I had to do something. After all, I was lucky enough to go to London for a business trip, and I so had to make use of that!
Here was my solution...
Sunday, March 19, 1995I arrived at O'Hare very early for my evening flight in hopes that I could replace my aisle seat with a window seat, and that worked out just fine. However, the window was of little advantage, as all of Ireland and most of Britain was clouded over.
While we were boarding, a nice-looking gentleman came up to me and asked, "Are you a clown?" I was perplexed -- I thought that somehow I had stepped on his foot or something or otherwise offended him. But then he asked if I was from Traverse City, and after I said no he explained that he thought I looked like someone he knew. He was a clown, and he was on his way to a clown convention. He stressed that thinking I was a clown should be taken as a compliment.
The couple in the row in front of me was well-prepared, with a drink shaker and a jar of olives. They had some good stories about travels, especially in remote northern Scotland.
Monday, March 20, 1995
- Arrive in London, Heathrow
- Get bearings in airport
- Airbus to hotel area: get first chance to see neighborhoods
- Find and check into Regent's Hotel on Marylebone
- Walk a couple of blocks to Baker Street station to get London Sightseeing tour bus: this was an excellent introduction to London! The tour gave a pleasant, fun, relatively fast overview of what and where everything was.
- Back to hotel, relax a bit
- Long walk: down Oxford, Oxford Circus, down to Piccadilly Circus, Leicester ("lester") Square. My word, what vibrant, lively street activity in the evening! Everybody was out and having fun. Bought a gyros from a storefront shop and headed back "home" to the Regent's.
Tuesday, March 21, 1995
- I bought an all-day transport (tube and bus) pass -- this would prove to be a fabulous deal!
- Bus and walk to the British Museum. Figure out where to go to get a "reader's pass" for the Reading Room, only to find that newspapers are stored at the Colinwood location.
- First tube adventure: get to nearest tube station, and take tube to Colinwood.
- Arrive there, but it's lunch time and I figure it would be a good idea to get something to east before digging into those newspapers. I asked a passerby about where to get something to eat. He gave me directions to McDonald's, Burger King, and a pub. I chose the pub.
- The pub, a couple of blocks east of the library, was decorated in shamrocks (for St. Patrick's). Had a good, if undistinguished, burger and a Guinness. One woman bartender must have heard my accent, and she asked me what the weather would be in Las Vegas right now. (As if I would know the weather in a place 2,000 miles from my home.) She went on holiday to the U.S. the year before. Her stops were New York, Las Vegas and Waikiki. Wow -- what a way to spend a lot of money and never get close to what America is really about.
- Back to the Colinwood library, a massive and extensive block reminiscent of one of those huge old Chicago high schools. Upon entry, I found that the reading room was "full" and that I would be assigned a number to wait until an opening occurred. So, this led to a 45 minute wait in the canteen/waiting room area designed just for this purpose. There was a mix-up in the calling of numbers which made my wait longer than it should have been, but when I pointed this out, the attendants were extremely helpful in rectifying matters. I had the sense that everything was run in a clockwork, precise matter -- if this routine was attempted in America, I'd give it about 10 minutes before riots broke out.
- The procedure at Colinwood is to use some big binders to determine the publications and dates available (there are a lot ), and then to fill out a request form. You take the form to a special desk. Then, some gentlemen with "trolleys" (carts) go into the bowels of the building and bring back the microfilms or the actual paper copies. (At this point, if in America, people would be filing class action suits.)
- Eventually, I got all the papers I could want, and it was great fun. I looked at a number of Roscommon and Leitrim papers from the mid-19th century. I can't say that I found anything particularly thrilling, but it was intriguing to get a feeling for the place and time. (Strangest entries: several different advertisements for Peruvian guano fertilizer. Also, an ad touting New Jersey as a sort of paradise on earth for prospective emigrant farmers.)
- I left Colinwood and headed back to the Colinwood tube stop, across the narrow street. The neat thing about the all-day pass is the way it allows you to simply explore. I used this to make several tube stops, poking my head out groundhog-like, and then continuing on.
- I got off at Hendon, to find a place called the "Claddagh Ring", an Irish pub. Cute place, but there was no music scheduled for that evening. It was a nice-looking pub in an attractive area, and it may be worth visiting some day again. Then, I retraced my way (this time using the bus to save my tiring feet) back to the tube.
- Next tube stop: Hampstead. The English lady at Ivory Isle suggested this as a nice visit, and Helen Katz mentioned Hampstead Heath as having a great view of London. Getting out of the tube, I discovered myself in the middle of what looked like a charming English country town, at least as I would imagine such. Several appealing looking restaurants were readily apparent, and the whole place looked like a great stop. I saw "Jack Straw's Castle" (a restaurant, I think), which the Ivory Isle lady had mentioned, and several of those fanciful-looking English pubs you always here about. I walked up a road towards the Heath. Unfortunately, this side of the Heath is not the one that presents the London view, but still it's pretty. I tried to take a bus back, but it went a different way. I'm glad I had my all-day pass so I could simply jump off and hop onto something headed the correct way.
- The Irish local newspapers had several ads for things in the area between Camden and Archway, so that was my next tube visit. Camden is a grittier, denser area -- it feels something like Lincoln-Belmont. I found a pub I had heard of called Liberties. Boy, this place made its orientation vivid: there was a huge neon Guinness and harp logo mounted on it. I walked in, but the place was busy (even then at about 6 pm) -- it looked like a lot of folks who stopped in after work. It felt too busy for to just sit down and start a chat, so I just moved on.
- I took a bus north from Camden for the two miles or so up to Archway. (On the way, I happened to notice a pleasant looking but otherwise nondescript pub named Quinn's on the way.) There was an ad for a place called Archway at the Archway tube stop. Interestingly, there are so many barriers and heavy traffic between the tube and the Archway, it was a challenge to plot a course to get across the street. I didn't walk in, as it looked kinda dumpy. I had the thought that it was the kind of place that Shane McGowan of the Pogues might go to. So, I started walking back towards Camden. I bought a carton of milk at a grocery.
- I didn't make any great discoveries, even after searching for a place that was highly recommended ("Fiddler's Elbow") but which I couldn't find.
- As I was about to just give up, and buy some grocery store sandwich and go "home", I happened by the Quinn's I saw earlier. There was a blackboard menu out front, that sounded like at least I could get something a bit more pleasant to eat.
- Ah, Quinn's! (See some other references to Quinn's here or here.) I ordered a Shepherd's Pie for dinner, and ate at the bar. Eventually, I started a conversation with Pat Quinn, the publican, about all manner of things. The place got busier, and I noticed that Pat was spending time chatting with some gents at the end of the bar. I found some pretext on which to head down that way and say hello. Thus, I met Olaf, an independent rep for St. Georgen's beer of Germany, and also Larry, who is with British petroleum. They met at Quinn's some long time ago, and now Olaf stays at Larry's place when he is in town. (Please note, they both happily discussed the ladies in Quinn's!) Well, we had a half-dozen rounds of Guinness and St. Georgen's. At one point, I received a high honor: one of the bartenders drew a Guinness for me (a ceremony in itself) and inscribed a perfect shamrock into its foamy head! Quinn's, like most London pubs, theoretically closes at 11pm, but little happened at that time other than no new customers were allowed in. By midnight, people were leaving. I was told by Olaf and Larry that I was again being honored by being allowed to stay. Later, Pat's wife Margaret appeared and chatted for a while. About 1:30, Pat called a cab for me to return to the Regent's. A wonderful evening, great craic, and some brand new dear old friends!
Wednesday, March 22, 1995Business meetings all day.
Thursday, March 23, 1995Business meetings all day. At night our business group had a big dinner at "Beach Blanket Babylon." Despite the name, this place has nothing in common with its San Francisco namesake. This is just a restaurant, although a great fun one. Lots of "secret" passages, walkways, ladders, and nifty-looking rooms. Our group had dinner in a long semi-circular table in a circular room.
Friday, March 24, 1995Business meetings all day, ending in late afternoon. Now I was on my own again, and it was time for more adventures!
- I thought it might be fun to return to Quinn's, but that turned out to be a different story on a weekend night. It was very busy, and Pat said (hoped) that it would be getting even busier. And Olaf and Larry weren't around. So I had another Shepherd's Pie (hey, it was good!) and I left. I happened upon a large supermarket on the way back, so I just had to explore that. I headed back to the hotel.
Saturday, March 25, 1995
- My big free-wheeling sight-seeing day!
- I was curious about a B&B advertised in one of the Irish papers, so that was my first stop. I guess it was my intention that if it looked great, I'd stay there for my last night, but mostly I was just curious and it sounded like an adventure. This was supposedly near the Kensal Green tube. It turned out to be a pretty dense neighborhood, interesting but not especially inviting. I did find the B&B (the owner was apparently saying goodbye to a couple by their car) but wasn't inspired to stop.
- This was a good walkabout, a chance to see real life. Eventually, I walked around and back to the tube.
- On the tube, I was intrigued by one stop labelled "Warwick Avenue (Little Venice)". Well that sounded interesting, so I jumped off the tube. This was an interesting, upscale neighborhood, with nice, large homes and canals! There were balloons affixed to posts and walls to point the way to "Adam's 5th Birthday Party", apparently on a charter boat in the canal.
- I headed south towards Paddington, and on through to Bayswater. I walked down a street called Leinster Gardens, which had some good-looking restaurants (e.g., "Zorba's"). The London Toy and Model Museum was having a reconstruction or something, but with walls down I got to see a large outdoor model railway.
- I passed Notting Hill Gate, an area Rick Steves recommended for B&Bs, but by and large it didn't seem like an area I'd want to stay in. Too congested for that, though interesting to visit.
- By accident, I found myself on Portobello Road, a very lively and packed street market that goes on for blocks and blocks. All kinds of crafts, foods, antiques, and general bric-a-brac.
- After buying a toy bobby's helmet, I got a bus to head south. I jumped off when I saw an interesting neighborhood, on Kensington Church Street, I think. I bought a cute "I love you, Mum" pastry for Debby (the next day was British Mother's Day).
- Next, Kensington. Rather inexplicably crowded: mostly, it seemed to be punk and head shops.
- Then a quick bus ride east to Knightsbridge, the home of Harrod's. People had mentioned the store Harvey Nichols, but that turned out to be a fancy fashion department store. Harrod's was great -- fabulous exterior, and a wonderfully lively design inside. It was every bit deserving of its reputation. The plush toy section alone was wonderful. I was hoping to find a bulldog puppy toy, but no such luck.
- Then back on the tube to Leicester Square, so I could explore the bookstores on Charing Cross and Cecil Court. This was a smidgen disappointing. There were a lot of stores, but they were mostly very small, with either eclectic or pricey books. (I guess I was hoping for something like Portland's Powell's.)
- Well, I was dead tired after all this touring, and it was already past 6pm. I had hoped to take an afternoon break to rest up, but if I did that earlier, I wouldn't be able to get to those bookstores before they closed. SO now it was getting late, and I was awfully tired. So, I decided to head back to the hotel, drop off my purchases and freshen up, rest very briefly and then head out again for dinner. But as I was making my way on the tube, I decided that was silly -- I was too beat. So, I resolved to just get dinner now, and then call it a night.
- So, I took the tube to Covent Garden, which was supposed to be another good street life neighborhood. And it was! This was an old street market building, quite large, converted to stores, restaurants, and lively happenings. I made my way back towards Leicester. I found one small informal Italian-looking place, and decided this was it. I even sat down, but the whole feeling was that of an anticlimax to a fun trip. So I walked out.
- Just a few doors away, I happened to notice a pub at which a couple was walking up a nondescript staircase by its entrance. A sign said that food was served upstairs. This sounded interesting. Sure enough, it was a pub, but with small tables and a reasonable small menu. I grabbed a table, just as a couple was sitting down at the next table. I ordered a Murphy's Stout and a lasagna, and started talking to this couple. They turned out to be a brother and sister, Steve and Jo-Anne Morris. Steve was in town to see a movie with Jo-Anne, and they had just popped in here for a beverage. Well, we wound up having a long conversation and several rounds. Two more brand new dear old friends! About a hour past the theoretical closing time, the place finally emptied out and I headed back to the Regent's for my last night in London.
Sunday, March 26, 1995
- I had planned for an early arrival at Heathrow to see if I could get a window seat again. But, as I was packing, I found an ever-so-discreet little card on my nightstand, along with the TV channel list, the dry cleaning instructions, the room service menu, a hotel notepad, and the other obligatory hotel ephemera. This quiet little card "reminded" me that the previous evening was the switch to daylight savings time, and that the room clock would not be reset until the next day. Yikes! I had just lost a whole hour.
- Nonetheless, I took the tube to Heathrow (about $5 versus $40 or so for a cab). That probably wasn't a smart move. It took a lot longer to get to Heathrow, stop by stop by stop, than I expected. I arrived at the airport only about 40 minutes before my flight, and I still had to get through customs and passport checks besides the usual check-in.
- I stopped the first American Airlines person I saw, and she worked a miracle. She whisked me through all of the steps, staying with me all the way. Check-in, security check, X-ray, passport check -- zip, zip, zip. And then, she got me on one of those airport golf carts, and they rushed me to my gate. I sat down with mere minutes to spare.
- The flight home was pleasant enough, with lunch, and afternoon snack, and the movie "Stargate". I sat next to a balloon wholesaler who was on his way to a party and Halloween goods expo in Chicago. And lo and behold, who should be sitting directly in front of me but that clown from Traverse City! He had also had a wonderful week in London at his clown convention.
- My family welcomed me home at the international terminal. As my Mom always says, it's great to go and it's great to go home. I was truly back to be back at home, after an exhausting but wonderful introduction to London.
Your comments are welcomed!
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Entire contents Copyright 1995, Kevin C. Killion, Arlington Heights, Illinois. All Rights Reserved.