A November 2002 trip
to London by Jenn966
Quote: While spending Thanksgiving weekend in England seemed a bit unpatriotic, I’m sure the founding fathers would have approved of my work ethic (no time off for the weekend trip) and thrift ($350 R/T airfare from Newark and about $75 a night for a hotel). Now, how to spend those 3 days?
Since this was my fifth trip to London, I’d already seen many of the major "sights." But Samuel Johnson was right: a man (or woman) who tires of London is tired of life, and there is always plenty to do and see.
Great Walks: I’ve taken an Original London Walks tour on every London trip, and I’ve enjoyed them all. Exploring virtually every corner of London, with guides who are professional performers, experts in the walk subject or both, the tours are terrific.
Great Dames: The deservedly mixed reviews of David Hare’s script for The Breath of Life didn’t reduce my enjoyment at seeing Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in their first-ever joint theater performance. It was also my first-ever London theater visit, and I’m sorry I waited so long.
Great Books: Depending on your interests, the New British Library may not be a "must see" for your first London trip, but it is definitely worth a visit at some point. Its display of important and often beautiful documents includes one of four known copies of the Magna Carta, Nelson’s last letter to Emma Hamilton, found unfinished on his desk after the Battle of Trafalgar, and the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Off-Season?: I don’t think there’s a bad time of year to visit London. Some may shy away from winter visits, concerned about gray skies and frequent showers. But that's often the forecast in summer and, thanks to the Gulf Stream, winter is warmer in London than in many US cities. Other plusses: lines are shorter, restaurant bookings easier to come by, hotels cheaper, and airfare sales mean great deals from the US. Aren’t most of the things you want to see in London indoors anyway?
This Other Eden?: Visitors who remain in the central areas of London may wonder about Shakespeare’s comparison of England to a garden, although the city’s magnificent parks should be an indication. For those who need more convincing, a visit to Kenwood House in Hampstead on the northern outskirts gives a glimpse of the city's pastoral history. This mansion, now an English Heritage landmark, was the setting for the scene in Notting Hill where Anna (Julia Roberts) films a screen adaptation of a Henry James novel. Need more convincing? Try a trip to the Kentish countryside or the Cotswolds. Both are an easy day out from London, although a longer trip would be better.
Remember the Buses: London’s Underground system is so well-known that it’s easy to forget that the city offers above-ground transportation too. The tube ride between stops may be faster than the bus, but it can mean lots of stairs and a long walk to reach some destinations. Buses, while subject to the whims of London traffic, run frequently and will often drop you off right in front of the next stop on your itinerary.
Know Your A-Z: One of the best £10 investments I made was a full copy of the London A-Z street guide. It maps virtually every street in the city, with an alphabetical index to locate them. Tube stops are displayed on the maps and there’s a handy tube map on the back cover.
To Walk or Not to Walk: For those who walk a lot, your feet can be the best mode of transportation in London. However, if you don’t usually walk much, save your walking for the sights themselves. Buy a Travelcard and use it to get from one sight to the next by tube or bus. Your feet will thank you!
Face it: hotel rooms in London are expensive. Very expensive. If you want to find a room that costs less than $100 a night, you’re going to have to compromise on something. Reviews of inexpensive lodgings suggested they were inconveniently located, less than acceptably clean, frequented by a clientele given to partying in hallways at all hours of the night or with small, dated rooms and shared baths. Given these options, I decided I could live with a small room and shared bath over any of the others. That’s how I decided on the Edward Lear.
Location is the primary attraction of this small hotel, located two blocks from Marble Arch in two townhouses, one of which was briefly home to Edward Lear, 19th-century artist and author of nonsense poetry.
Another plus is the friendly hotel staff. They are uniformly pleasant and helpful; the women at the front desk especially so. I arrived hours before check-in time, but they found a room and invited me to take breakfast.
Rooms are spread over five floors, there is no elevator, the stairs grow increasingly narrow and winding as you go up, and you will likely porter your own bags.
Rooms on the top floors are very small. My first room, on the 4th-floor, measured about 48-square-feet, was smoky and faced the street, whose every noise I could hear. I stopped by the desk to see if I could move. Luckily, a room at the back was available beginning the next day. It was on the 1st (US 2nd) floor, was a bit larger, and not smoky.
The décor is strictly 1950s floral, the carpets are threadbare, and spotted in places. However, both rooms were quite clean, cigarette odor notwithstanding.
The hotel’s plumbing layout is rather odd. Each room had a sink; the toilet and shower were down the hall in separate rooms. Although I had some reservations about sharing a bath, I only once had to wait to use the facilities, which, like the rooms, were clean but dated.
The hotel’s clientele was a mixed bag of families and couples, with a few singles thrown in. Nationalities represented were American, French and German, in addition to English and Irish guests. By 11pm, most guests were settled in and a hush fell over the place, allowing for a good night’s rest after a busy day.
A full English breakfast is included, and the hotel’s website isn’t kidding when it says they aim to fill you up. Cooked to order items included eggs (2 fried or about 4 scrambled), wonderful English bacon, sausages, warmed plum tomatoes (not grilled, alas), beans, and toast. You could help yourself to cold breakfast cereals, apple, orange and grapefruit juice and really good coffee.
I’ve stayed in fancier hotels, but I’ve also stayed in worse. When it comes to value, I’d say the Edward Lear is near the top of my list.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on April 6, 2003
Edward Lear Hotel
28 30 SEYMOUR ST MARBLE ARCH
London, England W1H 7JA
44 20 7402 5401
I’ve always been a little leery of sushi served via conveyor belt. While I tell myself that I don’t like the lack of personal service, the truth is that I don’t eat sushi often enough to recognize what I’m choosing. With a menu, at least I’ll know I’m not eating something I don’t think I’ll like (such as sea cucumber, which was described by a friend as the "least delicious" thing he ever ate). But it was almost 7pm and I was headed for the theater with a 7:45 curtain time, and I felt my choices coming down to Kulu Kulu or pizza. Since I can eat pizza any night of the week at home, I decided to brave the conveyor belt.
Kulu Kulu is certainly not out to impress you with its décor. In fact, it most closely resembles a launderette, with the washers and dryers removed and tables installed in their place. Plain white walls, harsh overhead lighting and a linoleum tile floor await diners. Other than stools or chairs around the conveyor belt, the only seating option is one of several rickety-looking tables, and those weren’t an option for solo diners on a busy Friday night. Service is limited to bringing a beverage and bringing your plates to the cashier at the end of the meal so your bill can be totaled. So far, not so good. I took a seat at the counter and began watching plates roll by.
Two things I’ve learned by cooking a lot are that really fresh fish smells like clean water (salt or fresh, depending on the fish) and that even the strongest fish will have a pleasant taste if its journey from water to plate is short. Judging by the taste and smell, the fish used at Kulu Kulu was impeccably fresh. My first choice (OK, it was the first thing I recognized) was a salmon roll, and it was excellent. The rest of the meal was equally good. The salmon was followed with salmon sashimi, a bowl of soup that contained two pieces of fried tofu and what I’m pretty sure was a tuna roll (it was delicious, so I can at least assume it was not sea cucumber).
As I was digesting and deciding whether to eat more or move on to the theater, a shrimp tempura hand roll came by. I couldn’t resist. The seaweed wrapping seemed a bit tougher than I’m used to, but the shrimp was perfectly cooked to crunchiness outside and tenderness inside. Had there been time, I might have even ventured something I didn’t recognize, as I was fairly certain it would be good. Alas, time and the theatre curtain wait for no woman, so I brought my plates to the register. The total bill was a little less than £11, not bad for some of the best sushi I’ve eaten in a long time.
Kulu Kulu has several London locations. This one is near the Piccadilly Circus tube stop, convenient for the theater area.
Kulu Kulu Sushi
76 Brewer Street
London, England W1F 9TU
It was after the lunch "rush" when I walked into Joury on a Thursday afternoon in late November. While turkey might have been more appropriate (it was Thanksgiving, after all), my fondness for falafel was the key in deciding among several restaurants located on Duke Street.
Although I’ve never been to Provence, that was the word that entered my mind when I entered the dining room. The tile floor and brightly colored floral prints and wall hangings seemed to me more French than Lebanese. But the red-cushioned banquette added a Middle Eastern flair, and the overall effect was warm and pleasing.
The full menu ran to about 8 pages, fully three pages of which were devoted to descriptions of the mezza. Offerings were hot and cold, meat and vegetarian-–and I didn’t even look at the entrees. Overwhelmed, I took the coward’s way out and ordered a combination plate that included hummus, baba ganoush, a green salad, mousaka’a batinjan and, of course, falafel. In addition to the usual sodas, waters and teas, Joury offers a number of fresh fruit juices. I chose a combination of pineapple, orange and lemon. It was tart and cool, and turned out to be a perfect foil for the food.
My lunch arrived quickly, the plate filled to its rim with the selection of appetizers, which were accompanied by a warm fresh pita. The hummus was excellent; zesty from lemon and topped with a spoonful of olive oil. I usually don’t care much for baba ganoush; in grilling the eggplant, many restaurants seem to bring out its bitterness. Whether it was just properly cooked or better spiced than usual, it was delicious.
The mousaka’a batinjan was the best part of the meal. I’ve never had Greek moussaka, so I can’t compare the two. The dish at Joury was a cold blend of tomatoes, fava beans and onions that had been cooked to bring out all of the sweetness of the tomatoes and onion. The end result was like a cross between salsa and chutney. Whether it is authentically Lebanese, or a British creation (I saw it on several other menus in London, but have never seen it in New York), it was delicious.
The only disappointment was the falafel. Without the hot sauce I usually add, they didn’t seem to have much flavor. At least the mousaka’a made up for it!
A pot of hot mint tea topped off the meal, and the waiter let me linger with a book while I sipped it and tried to decide where to head next. The bill came to about £15, including service.
While Joury isn’t a place I’d go out of the way to eat at, it is worth a stop if you are in the neighborhood and looking for a quick meal in a comfortable place.
72 Duke Street
London, England W1K 6JY
As it seemed most people headed directly for the keep, I set out to see the Roman lighthouse and Saxon church located nearby, which allowed me a roughly chronological view of the premises. Built of local stone in the first-century CE, the Roman lighthouse is now hidden from the coast by St. Mary-in-Castro Church. During the Roman rule in Britain, however, the lighthouse stood twice its present height and guided ships across the Channel. I was told that the ghost of a Roman drummer boy can sometime be heard playing in the ruins, but I didn't hear him!
The church next door (for which the lighthouse served briefly as a bell tower) was originally built around 1000 CE, and served as the site of a wedding the day I was there. The inside was closed while wedding preparations were underway, but the outside shows the marks of extensive 19th-century renovation. The view of the castle’s keep from the hill just above the church is excellent for photos.
From the church and lighthouse, it’s a short walk to the fortress itself. Pass through the gates into the yard, and the massive walls of the keep, built by Henry II to replace the wooden one constructed on the spot by his great-grandfather William the Conqueror, rise in front of you, gray and forbidding. You can roam through the inside more or less freely. The stones used in the construction of the interior seem as large as those used to build the outer walls. The ceilings are tremendously high. But what surprised me most was how light it was inside, given the lack of windows. Some of this was undoubtedly due to the addition of electrical lighting, but I expected a dark and cramped space but found one that was remarkably bright and airy.
If you’re feeling spry, you can climb all the way through the keep and walk along the ramparts. They say you can see France on a clear day, and, although the sky was blue, haze obscured the view of the coastline. You can’t see the cliffs from the ramparts though. Instead, head for a viewing stand near the WWII gun. With luck, you’ll be rewarded with the amazing view of the Cliffs I saw that day.
Admission is £8; opening hours are 10am – 6pm (April – September), with closing at 5pm in October and 4pm from November through March.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 7, 2003
I've long suspected that Europeans are rather amused by Americans' fascination with the age of Europe's buildings. Growing up in a country where buildings more than 150 years old are usually considered landmarks and seldom used for their original purpose, entering any building that has been standing since the 1st-millennium CE amazes me. And having been raised in the Catholic faith, I am even more blown away when I go into cathedrals in Europe and think that a thousand years ago, people stood in that place, saying the same prayers that I say today. Wherever I go, I seek the churches out, responding to a cultural connection I've only recently realized I had. So, as much as I may wonder whether the riches used to build these magnificent structures couldn't have been better spent, I am selfishly glad they weren't.
Entry to the cathedral grounds is through a gate in the thick wall that separates them from the town itself (irreverently, I wondered how church-goers get in without paying the entry fee-–or if that’s how the church ensures the weekly donations of its congregration!). Stepping through from the busy street, you can clearly see the entire cathedral in its Gothic splendor. The choir section is in the French Gothic style, and was built in the late 1100s after a fire destroyed that part of the original Norman edifice. The nave was built in the Perpendicular Gothic style nearly 200 years later.
The stained glass windows are Canterbury’s glory. In fact, the windows are one of the largest displays of late 12th-century stained glass in the world. Even on a day that had turned gloomy, the windows shone with a brilliance that belies their age. Of course, not all of the windows date from that era. Time and man both have caused at least some of the glass to be replaced, but the variety of styles adds to the charm.
The beginning of a service cut my time inside the cathedral sadly short, as I missed much of the choir section. But it did leave me with an opportunity to explore the grounds, including the Romanesque cloisters and the Norman staircase that stands in past the Green Court on the far side of the cathedral precincts from the entrance.
The town of Canterbury itself is worth a longer visit than I gave it. Several blocks around the cathedral are closed to car traffic, making it an open-air mall. There are specialty shops (including the Canterbury Pottery), as well as branches of popular British and American stores. A truly brilliant scheme of cheap parking and frequent bus service encourages people to use the park and ride lots located just outside the town. The city is also easily available from London by rail, and coach tours are offered daily by all the major companies. Check the Canterbury Cathedral website for admission fees and opening hours. Note the extra fee to take photos inside.
11 The Precincts
Canterbury, England CT1 2EH
01227 762 862
The film Notting Hill didn’t bring Blenheim Crescent to my attention. The real-life Travel Bookshop is there, which might be enough to bring any red-blooded IgoUgo member to this small street off Portobello Road. But I was seeking another Mecca: Books for Cooks. Clarissa Dickson Wright ran the test kitchen in the self-described "best-smelling shop in the world" before becoming one of TV’s "Fat Ladies," whose delight at cooking with enough butter and cream to immediately induce clogged arteries is still a joy to watch. I love books, I love cooking, and I love traveling. Maybe "Nirvana" describes Blenheim Crescent better than "Mecca."
Getting there was half the fun. Sleepless for 36 hours and with only limited directions and a "visitors" A-Z street guide that didn’t reach into this area of Notting Hill to guide me, I wandered along nearby streets searching for my destination. Finally reaching Blenheim, my first stop was The Travel Bookshop.
Don’t expect the interior from the film. It’s smaller, less dusty and, sadly, Hugh Grant-less. However, the assortment of travel guides for every corner of the globe makes up for the last difference. In the children’s section, I found The Story of London for my just-turned 5-year-old niece. When I asked her what she wanted from my trip, she answered "a book about China." I explained that I was going to England, not China, to which she replied (with that "well, duh" look only a child can carry off) "then bring me a book about England." I think I see a future travel companion here!
I crossed the street to Books for Cooks, and at the door realized that there’s no false advertising here. It is the world’s best-smelling shop. The front room is lined with bookcases containing tomes on every cuisine, ingredient and technique imaginable. The back room contains the small café, with a few tables and one booklined wall with the Asian cooking overflow from the front of the shop. Sadly, breakfast left me too full to more than glance at the cakes and pastries available at 11am. Next time, I’ll try to book in for lunch.
My last stop was The Spice Shop. While the proprietor couldn’t recommend a substitute for the fresh galangal needed for authentic Thai Tom Kha Gai, another patron, who’d traveled in from the country in search of ancho chilies for a Mexican dinner, suggested I try Reading Market in Philadelphia. Turns out she lived in Philadelphia and commiserated with my difficulty finding exotic ingredients in the States.
Depending on your interest in cooking (I already know how much you like travel), Blenheim Crescent could be a destination on it own, or a stop on a visit to the Portobello Road market. There are several other shops, including one offering a large collection of pottery and another with a wide array of batik printed clothing.
Getting There: Ladbrook Grove and Westbourne Park are the nearest tube stops. Buses 7, 23 and 52 all stop nearby.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 6, 2003
Off Portobello Road in Notting Hill
Attraction | "The New British Library"
On my first visit to London, I just missed seeing the Magna Carta and other precious historical, literary, and religious works. They’d been removed from their home in a wing of the British Museum, but weren’t yet on display at the New British Library. With one thing and another, I missed the NBL on subsequent visits, but was determined to get there this time.
Although the architecture of the building is relatively modern, its brick-covered exterior blends well with the heavily-ornamented St. Pancras train station standing nearby. Tall iron gates funnel visitors off Euston Road into a large plaza that leads to a conference center and the library itself. Entering the library building, you step into an expansive marble lobby that rises six floors. In the center, some of the library’s stacks can be seen through glass walls. To your left is a bookshop, which offers a variety of books, videos and posters. Up a few steps from the shop is the entrance to the The John Ritblatt Gallery, where Treasures of the British Library is the permanent exhibition. The treasures on display here might more properly be termed "Treasures of World."
The Magna Carta is, after all, not just the document that brought a degree of democracy to Britain, but established a framework of shared government powers in use in many countries today. Religious works on display include not just the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels and copies of both the Guttenberg and St. James bibles, but the Golden Haggadah, a 15th-century Sephardic depiction of the Passover story, ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts, and fragments of Coptic and Ethiopian Christian manuscripts.
The worlds of literature and music are covered in the Ritblatt gallery, as well. Jane Austen’s writing desk, a handwritten draft of a Bronte novel, and the only document known to be in William Shakespeare’s hand can be seen. Hymn books from monasteries and two works related to Handel’s Messiah, a libretto from its premiere performance, and a score marked in the composer’s hand, are displayed. One of my favorites: a quartet laid out in "table" form. Each of the four parts is written in a different direction on a single sheet of paper. The sheet was laid on a table around which the musicians would sit, each able to read his own part easily.
From the gallery exit, you can go down a flight of stairs to see special exhibitions and a room containing early printing and bookbinding equipment.
A café and restaurant are located at the back of the lobby, behind the glass column. Over 1,000 cases containing stamps from all over the world are located in the walls in this area.
Access to the Ritblatt Gallery and most special exhibitions is free. Guided tours are available for a fee. Information on the tours, and on reaching the library via public transportation is here. Opening hours are: weekdays, 09:30 to 18:00, until 20:00 on Tuesday; Saturday, 09:30 to 17:00 and Sunday and British public holidays, 11:00 to 17:00.
96 Euston Road
London, England NW1 2DB
+44 20 7412 7000
Attraction | "The Original London Walks"
For more than 40 years, The Original London Walks has been offering visitors and locals alike the opportunity to see sights in London where tour buses can’t go. Tours range from the royal (Strictly Confidential) to the flamboyant (The London of Oscar Wilde) to the inebriated (nightly pubwalks in different neighborhoods) to the downright scary (Jack the Ripper’s Haunts, especially when led by Donald Rumbelow). You’ll not only see famous sights (or places that should be), you’ll likely learn a fair amount about the history of London and its workings.
On this trip, I took the Legal and Illegal London tour. Our tour guide Gillian met a group of about 40 people, mostly British and American ranging in age from 7 to senior citizen, efficiently collected our fees, and led us away from the busy Holborn tube stop to Lincoln’s Inn. We sat in the chapel and heard about the medieval origins of the British legal profession, the difference between barristers and solicitors and the practice of leaving babies in the undercroft to be raised by the members of the Inn. Continuing the walk, we got a glimpse of court (legal, not royal) attire in a shop window, found out why 18th-century aristocrats slept with silver mousetraps on their pillows and learned why you don’t want to find yourself in Carey Street (it’s the home of the Bankruptcy Court in London).
We made our way through Carey Street from Lincoln’s Inn to the Strand, where we stopped to look at the amazing Royal Courts of Justice. Its architect, George Edmund Street, designed a number of churches in the High Victorian Gothic style during the mid-19th-century. According to Gillian, Street never got his wish to design a cathedral. Instead, he lived out his dream on the home of Britain’s highest civil courts.
Crossing over the Strand, we entered the Inner Temple, another of the Inns of Court. Formerly the London headquarters of the Knights Templar, the Inner Temple houses a beautiful 12th-century round church, whose design is based on Middle Eastern churches the knights encountered while fighting in the Crusades. We walked through the Inn’s precincts (luckily, none of us had a dog, as signs were posted prohibiting non-residents from bringing them onto the grounds) and passed into the Middle Temple.
A £10 "tip" allowed our group into Middle Temple Hall, which was being decorated for Christmas. Built in the late 16th-century, the hall contains a table that seems to be about 50-feet long that was made from planks from a single tree. Turn around, though, to see the most incredible feature of the room. An elaborately carved wooden screen surrounds the entrance. Virtually destroyed during the Blitz in World War II, the restored work appears flawless.
I would highly recommend any of the London Walks tours. Check out their website for walk details and schedules. At £5 for a two-hour tour, it’s one of London’s best bargains.
Original London Walks
PO Box 1708
London, England NW6 4LW
+44 20 7624 3978
This was my fifth trip to England. On previous visits, I visited relatives, who seemed happy to drive me to see the sights outside London. When they were working, I’d either take a train or coach tour, but those options had trade-offs. The train didn’t always leave me near my destination; I’d often find myself on a circuitous bus route or taking an expensive cab for the last part of the journey. Coach tours enforce a routine that didn’t leave enough time to see what I wanted to see and included at least one stop that-–while usually interesting and important-–wasn’t high on my must-see list.
Although I had only three days in England over Thanksgiving weekend, I was determined to spend one day outside London. Canterbury and Dover were my choices. I knew they could be seen (albeit quickly) in a day trip from London, and I also figured the diversity of the locations would give me plenty of opportunity to put my new camera through its paces.
So, I pored over train schedules, contacted tour companies and asked guide Invicta (whose hometown is Dover) for some hints about traveling there. His recommendation made me finally decide to take the plunge and rent a car.
My first instinct was to rent the car at Gatwick, and avoid driving in London. Unfortunately, I saw a sign for a rental agency near my hotel and decided to check their rates, just to see what they were. They were, naturally, cheaper than what I’d been quoted for an airport rental.I started rationalizing: it will save money-–add £25 for the train to the airport rental fee-–not to mention all that time to get out there. "Why, by the time I’d be leaving the airport," I thought to myself, "I’ll probably be almost to Dover." I should have known better.
On my last morning in England, I walked the two blocks to the rental agent, signed some papers and was ready to take off in a brand-new Mercedes A140. The rental agent gave me directions to get to Dover, which seemed straightforward. With only one minor problem, I proceeded through Central and South London and connected with the M2. Open road at last!
I’d watched my uncle driving enough to know that the "fast" lane in Britain is the right lane. As I maneuvered the little car through the light Saturday morning traffic, I wondered what the speed limit was, anyway. With no signs to tell me, I implemented the "second-fastest car rule." As long as I’m the second-fastest car on the road, the police probably won’t stop me-–they’ll stop the fastest car. Lucky for me it worked; even when I realized I was going over 90 (miles, not kilometers, per hour), there was always at least one car going faster, and the police didn’t stop anyone.
It didn’t take long to get comfortable with the whole "driving on the wrong side" thing. Everyone asks if I found myself drifting into the right lane; I didn’t. Actually, in what I suspect was an attempt to prevent that from happening, I kept too far to the left, skimming curbs and, in a heart-wrenching moment, banging into a road sign. Luckily, damage to the car was limited to a couple of scrapes on the left front hubcap and a mark on the side mirror which I rubbed off easily. My ego was more damaged than the car, but hey, I was on the right, umm, correct side of the road.
Once I hit the M20, things progressed more or less without incident. I couldn’t find a decent radio station, but I can’t say if that’s because they don’t exist or because I wasn’t working the radio properly. I did cut off a man in a Jag at a roundabout, but it was totally accidental and I let him pass me to make him feel better. I saw Dover Castle and then got to Canterbury easily. Following advice in a guidebook, I pulled into a park and ride, took a bus into the city and saw what I wanted to see. I was feeling altogether pleased with myself as I buckled myself into the car for what I expected would be about an hour and a half ride to London. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon. I thought I might get back in time to try to get tickets to see another show that evening and tried to decide where to have dinner.
Night had fallen, as England’s farther-north-than-it-seems latitude brings short days in late November. Pulling out of the park and ride, I looked at the roundabout sign, trying to figure out how to get to the A2 toward London. The sign showed the A2 toward Dover, which I knew wasn’t right. I did know that I needed to head north and west, but the sign wasn’t marked with a direction either. I decided to try heading down the road opposite the A2 toward Dover. Fifteen minutes later, I hadn’t seen another sign for the A2, so I headed back to where I’d started. I took the road toward the A2 this time, but when I got there, the fork toward the A2 headed only to Dover. I followed the road in the other direction, down a very dark country road. It started to rain. I started to panic. I found a likely spot, turned around and backtracked again. A few more turns and I somehow ended up on the A2 toward London. It was now 5:15.
Things went fine for the next forty minutes. Then disaster struck again. The A2 was closed near Greenwich for road construction. I couldn’t see any signs directing me to London, or providing a diversion. I didn’t have a map that covered this area well. I just continued driving, figuring eventually I would find either a petrol station or a sign that would lead me in the right direction. I hoped I’d hit the petrol station first; I needed to stretch my legs and I wouldn’t mind a stop in the loo. After 15 minutes driving through Greenwich, I saw a sign that read "Central London." I looked at the clock again. It was 6:20pm.
Trying desperately to follow the signs for Central London, which were few and far between, I spent most of the next hour peering through the darkness, hoping I was headed in the right direction.
At about 7:10pm, I finally made it across the Thames into Central London. Somewhere. I still don’t know which bridge I took or how I got there, and I had no idea where I was. "OK, I’m in the homestretch," I thought to encourage myself. "Fifteen minutes from now, I’ll be pulling into the garage." I was looking forward to getting out of the car: I was hungry, and nature’s call had become an insistent knock. But the driving gods weren’t quite finished with me.
While I know my way around some of London fairly well, and generally have a good sense of direction, both skills had totally deserted me. I drove up and down Grosvenor Road along the Thames, trying to get back to Marble Arch, thinking I was going too far north or east (or something). At one point, I passed Victoria Coach Station, which I knew was near where I wanted to be. But then, I got lost again. "This must be what it’s like to get lost in the woods," I thought. "I’m going to drive around all night, and never find my way back to the hotel." Add tired and a neck-ache from the strain of being lost and using unfamiliar driving techniques to my litany of sorrows.
At 7:45, I saw an empty space on the street and decided to pull over and try to use the street map the rental agent had given me. As it lacked a street index, it took me a few minutes to find my location. Now I knew where I was and where I needed to be. The trick would be making my way through the one way streets and streets with no turns.
With the map light on, one eye on the map and the other on the road, I set out. I’d pull over every few blocks, doubling-checking my location. At the roundabout at the end of Park Lane, I turned off too early, and was headed for Knightsbridge (which I know only because I could see Harrods’ lights ahead of me). Deciding to let my fading sense of direction guide me, I somehow made the correct right turn, and got back to Park Lane. At 8:15pm, I pulled into the garage. The only blessing was that there was that I didn’t have to pay to park the car overnight.
The morals of the story: don’t drive in a strange place unless you have lots of maps. Bring snacks. And always make a last-minute stop in the loo; you never know when you'll find another.
Hamilton Square, New Jersey