After the horror of our flight from DC to NYC, you can imagine that we were a bit nervous about what might happen on our longer flight from NYC to London. The flight was a daytime flight, rather unusual for transatlantic crossings, on Virgin Atlantic, and left really early in the morning, so we had to be up and out of my mom’s place by around 5am to get to the airport in time to return our car, check in, go through security, etc. I had figured that the airport would probably be rather quiet at that hour of the morning, otherwise we might have left even earlier.
At check in for the flight, I asked if there was any chance of our moving from our rear-of-the-plane, middle-of-the-row seats to something better, and as it happened there were two exit row seats left that we could have, if we were willing to pay $100 each for the privilege. We leapt at the offer, but I made sure to advise the check-in person that, in the event of an actual emergency, I would require reimbursement of that $100 from the airline for opening the exit door (this was before MH17, so it was still funny then). What a great move this was, since our seats were very comfortable indeed, and we got to chat with the flight attendant who I guess became fond of us, judging by her bringing us glasses of champagne and offering us an additional meal during the flight.
Compared with the international flights that we have grown accustomed to living in NZ, this was ridiculously short and fast, and before we knew it we had landed at Heathrow. Being summer, it was still light out when we landed at 7pm or so. We were staying our first few days in Windsor with my cousin David and his wife Cathy, who live opposite Windsor Castle, which we could still see clearly when we arrived.
On Sunday, our first full day in the UK, after cousin David fixed my broken tooth (it helps to have a working dentist in the family!) we thought we might visit Windsor Castle with a possible eye toward gingerbreading it, but when we saw that the tickets were a whopping £37.50 each (that’s around NZ$75) we decided to pass. Luckily the gingerbread rules state that J2 must have been to the subject of the gingerbread, not that he actually visit it in depth. Phew. So instead we made arrangements to head into town to see friends of ours for a wander around Chelsea. The weather was stupendous, so we really enjoyed being able to amble around London with them, and just soak up the warmth and sun. In the evening we took David and Cathy to dinner at their local Chinese place, where we ordered from the Chinese-language menu (that has no translation), earning us envious looks from the neighbouring table, who kept asking us what dish that is since nothing looked like it came from the £14.50 all-you-can-stomach menu that they were given. This prompted us to take a copy of the Chinese menu back with us for me to translate, which I did while David watched the final of the World Cup.
After a few days of no meetings, we were back to the grindstone on Monday, leaving Windsor in the morning and joining the commuters on the train into London. This was going to be our single busiest day of the trip, with six meetings scheduled between 10am and 5:30pm. Miraculously, we were on time for all but one of them, and the only reason we were late there was that we were kept longer at our previous meeting, with Tourism NZ, since they were so intrigued by all the new stuff going on in Oamaru and the lodge and wanted to learn all about it!
Happily for us, our last meeting was to be held over drinks at the newly built tallest building in London, the aptly named “The Shard”. To get there we took the tube to Monument station and walked across London Bridge, and as we did this I realised suddenly that this was the path of my daily commute to work when I lived in London in 1989. But as we crossed London Bridge I realised that the building I used to work in was no longer there, having been replaced by…The Shard! Our meeting was at the 52nd floor bar of the Shangri-La hotel, so from up there we had a great view of London below. The drinks were not bad, but as expected, they were vastly overpriced at £10 each.
With our meetings of the day over (and incidentally they all went very well!) we had the evening off and had arranged to meet my college friend María and her husband Renaud for dinner at The Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe. To get there we took the new (to us) river transport that zigzags along the Thames, which affords a great way to see the city, especially on a lovely evening. When María suggested this as our venue for dinner, I was initially surprised, since it seemed like it would be the height of touristy, but María is a very sophisticated diner (she and I decided, way back in 1986, to forego the class graduation dinner at some nondescript restaurant in NYC, in favour of dining together at the infinitely better Four Seasons, a meal that I remember to this day) so I figured she must know what she’s doing. Sure enough, the meal was excellent on all counts, and the only nod to the neighbouring Globe Theatre was the intrusion of a troupe of actors from the evening’s performance, in full costume, barreling through the dining room in character (we think they might have been performing Julius Caesar). After dinner we walked along the Thames, passing by countless new things that have arisen since our last visit in 2011, to the station where we caught a rather late train (11pm) back to Windsor.
Tuesday morning we bade farewell to David and Cathy and headed out in our hire car for meetings in the provinces. Our first stop was in Surrey, south of London, and then in Hungerford, west of London. When these were over we decided to drive up toward where our Wednesday meetings would be, in the Cotswolds, and find a place to stay near there. I had not counted on the popularity of the Cotswolds as a holiday destination, though, so rooms were hard to come by, but we eventually found a comfortable place in a town called Shipton-under-Wychwood, located between Witney and Chipping Norton, where Wednesday’s meetings were to take place. The owner of the B&B we had chosen asked what brought us to the area, and when we said we were visiting two nearby travel agents she told us, somewhat shocked, that they are very posh agencies whose itineraries are beyond her budget. When she realised that our place in NZ is also rather posh, she immediately set to apologising for all the perceived failings of her B&B, which frankly was perfectly fine. Happily she eventually became comfortable and we had a lovely time with her. She even recommended a nearby place for dinner that we enjoyed so much we ate there both nights of our stay.
On Thursday we left the Cotswolds for the Peaks District, a further two hours or so north, stopping along the way at a couple of gingerbread candidates. These places were all ones that I had visited on my first visit to the UK as a teenager in 1979, and only one was still how I remembered it. The first stop, Warwick Castle, has been completely disneyfied, with recreations of medieval activities, costumed performers etc. That, combined with the £22 entry price, persuaded us not to enter the castle grounds. The next stop, Kenilworth Castle, was a ruin when I saw it 35 years ago, and it remains a ruin today. Unlike in 1979, today they charge £10 to get in, which we did not want to pay (gosh, I sure sound cheap on this leg of the journey!). But a gentleman at the ticket booth noted our lodge shirts with the “Oamaru NZ” embroidered under the logo, and told us that if we became members of English Heritage we would gain free entry to Heritage NZ properties (and vice versa). That’s definitely something we’ll have to look into when we get home. The last stop along the way was at Coventry Cathedral, famously bombed in 1940 and left as a ruin (with a new cathedral built next door).
We got to our destination, Buxton in Derbyshire, on one of the hottest days so far this summer. Of course, nowhere has aircon in this part of England so we were wilting (as was everyone else) and took refuge at a funky little craft brewery in town after walking around a bit. There, too, our meeting went very well, and it seems that the agency there wants to put us on their website, so the travel to this part of England was worthwhile. The next morning, Friday, we left Buxton in the early morning for Cheadle, near Manchester, for one more meeting in the north, before heading south to Flackwell Heath for the last meeting of our English visit. All of these also were very positive, so we have a good feeling at the end of this trip to the UK.
Flackwell Heath is just an hour from London so we headed into town to spend the weekend. This time, we were going to spend a few nights in town, with an old colleague and his wife. In the evening we went to a nice local place for dinner, downing three bottles of wine in the process (in the spirit of full disclosure, we only had about two glasses of that wine ourselves…) and then afterwards we returned to their place to watch the final episode of a quiz show that has my name written all over it. It’s called “Only Connect” and the object is to find the connections among apparently unconnected things. I hope they show this in NZ!
Saturday started off a bit thundery and rainy, but by the time we headed out of the house it had cleared and we had a mostly fine day once again. We met another former colleague of mine (from Moscow days) for lunch at one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s places (NOPI), which was excellent, and then we visited the Gallery of Russian Art & Design (GRAD) for their exhibit of Soviet-era household goods, which was a real trip down memory lane for us. From there J2 and I headed to the Borough Market, again near my old office, to do some shopping for a dinner that I’ll make on our last night for David and Cathy (we’ll spend our last night with them, since they live so close to Heathrow and our flight to Amsterdam leaves very early), and after that we met yet another friend for dinner in the East End.
The East End used to be a rather down-and-dirty neighbourhood, but it has been undergoing a steady process of gentrification lately and the place was hopping when we got there. Dinner was at a very funky place called Les Trois Garçons, with extremely quirky interior décor (heavy on taxidermy and somewhat kitsch animal sculptures) but very good food. After dinner we wandered around the area for a bit before finally returning to our friends’ place for the night.
This has been a very good return visit to the UK, so much so that it seems likely that we’ll have to include the UK on our European visits a bit more regularly. We’ll see how the bookings shape up before making any final determinations.