England and Wales by Pete - 1998
Friday March 20, 1998 - Destination London.
Elaine had my suitcase all packed and ready to go after work. It was packed to the rim. My clothing plan was following the Apollo Moon Rocket Program principle. I planned to throw away all socks, underwear and the clothes on my back that I wore on the plane so that I would have room for souvenirs and so I would not have to carry a heavy suitcase around Europe. I was dressed very warm. I had to wear both a sportcoat and heavy London Fog coat because of the lack of room in my suitcase. I left home about 6:00 for the 9:40 flight to pick up Chris at the Dennys where we had agreed to meet. It was snowing very hard. I was getting worried about the flight - delays or crashes! Driving was very slow. We parked at the US park and waited for 15 minutes in the cold icy rain for the ride to the airport. The ice was getting thick on the cars and I was only thinking about the wings of the plane. I was glad Elaine had talked me into taking the big overcoat. On the bus to the terminal Chris predicted the plane would leave on time - I thought it would be 2 hours late. We checked in at the new international gate. Very fast and nice. We found the gate. It was the same one Elaine and I flew to France from. The information sign is already showing delayed. The plane could not get to the gate, it had not been cleaned, and the food service needed to be loaded. One hour predicted delay. Chris had forgotten his blindfold so we went searching the airport to buy one. No luck, but I worked up a sweat and I was no longer happy that I had the overcoat and sportcoat on. I noticed on the board a gate change. Things were moving.
The gate attendant thought we would be in the air by 10:10. We boarded the plane at 9:35. Shortly after we were on board, I was standing up in the galley trying to talk a stewardess out of a blindfold for Chris. An Englishman came up to the stewardess and he was very drunk. He asked her if he had brought a bag on board. She told him she had no idea and asked if he was drunk. He replied that he was indeed "inebriated" and if she required proof he would gladly provide a specimen in a cup. She threatened to throw him off the plane. There was a male flight attendant that took him off the plane and gave him a good lecture. They did find out that he had been passed out and they had to practically carry him on the plane. They had also loaded his luggage for him.
I had been up 6:00 without any caffeine. I was ready to take my sleeping pill. I decided to wait until we were de-iced - smart move. 11:30 - We have not even left the gate. There were many empty seats. Chris found a row with 3 empty and went to stretch out. Three times they opened the doors up for more people to get on - he was lucky each time. He had three seats pretty much to himself the whole trip. They kept waiting for more people who had delayed flights to arrive. We were luckier than the earlier flight to France. They had a nine-hour delay and had to change planes and flight crews. The moron running the de-icer had crashed into the tail of the plane and busted it up good. I watched the plane next to ours get de-iced. There were a couple of suitcases on a cart next to our plane. Whoever they belonged to will never have to worry about ice on their luggage either. The stewardess finally found a blindfold for Chris. Handels Water Music was on the playlist - I was so tired I never heard it. On the way back I did and it was pretty good. 12:30 - Finally de-icing the plane. I took my sleeping pill. We took off at 12:55.
Saturday 3/21 London England
I woke up 45 minutes before landing. Looking out the plane I saw many white dots on the fields which turned out to be sheep. After we landed we passed through customs very quickly. Breakfast was a quick chocolate milk and we were on our way. We caught the train to London then the subway within a 5-minute walk of the hotel. Only had to ask directions once.
We checked in. The hotel was very nice. It was no more than a 9 iron from the British Museum. As usual in the European Hotels it took me 5 minutes to get the lights turned on. The Hotel seemed very classy. I had a sixth floor room - no view at all. Nice heated towel rack that I burned my hand on. I did not turn it on. It must be automatic when you take a shower. Two single beds. I unpacked and found a little birthday card from Elaine and the kids. I threw out all of my clothes, took a shower, got dressed and headed downstairs. It seemed like a nice day so I wore a polo shirt and my windbreaker.
London - Started walking at 3:00 returned to hotel about 11:00. After about 10 minutes of walking I congratulated myself for not bringing the bulky overcoat. We walked down Kingsway to Aldwych to the Strand towards Trafalgar Square. Everything was going well except for Chris almost getting run over looking the wrong way before crossing the street. We then noticed that on the pavement at EVERY crosswalk it will say LOOK LEFT or LOOK RIGHT in big letters. They must have done that after enough foreigners had been sacrificed. Some of the London taxicabs now have advertising on them. One looked just like a Snickers bar. Ill bet those guys take some grief from the other cabbies. I had wanted to check out St. Martin in the Fields free concerts on our pass through Trafalgar, but we were so hungry I forgot. Big mistake. When we returned to Trafalgar at 8:00 we discovered the concert started at 7:30 and was sold out. Missed Mozart - Requiem selections, Symphony #40, Eine Klein Nachtmusik. Very disappointing. We walked down Whitehall towards Big Ben & Parliament. We stopped in 3 different pubs. Two too crowded. One no one would wait on us. When we did finally eat we found that the general rule is that you have to go up to the bar to order. We grabbed a pop and chips by Big Ben. It looked to be recently restored. We walked out on the Westminster Bridge for a good picture. I was now freezing and cursing myself for not wearing the overcoat. We went all of the way to Victorias tower and then back around to the front of Westminster Abbey. It was closed. We walked around back and looked at all of the graves. Some very old but some fairly new. We continued walking to the Royal Mews behind Buckingham Palace. We found a pub called the Bag O Nails and ate there. The food was very good. We met a older man who told me that I would not know a good beer from a bad one and that if we wanted to have some fun we should walk down Kings Road. Thats where we headed next. It was a nice walk, but not very interesting - actually right off the map we were following. We stopped in another pub for a bitters. They looked like Vanilla milk shakes until they settled - somehow still full. We walked all the way back to Buckingham Palace. When we passed the Bag O Nails the drunk was still there. I had a Cod,Prawn, Cheese casserole that was very good and very filling. The salad was awful. I would have one more salad and then give up for the rest of my time in England. The flag was flying so the Queen was home. She did not come out to see us. It was now dark so we walked down the Mall to Trafalgar Square. I had to make a pit shop in St. James Park. Hopefully the Queen was not looking out her window. We spent a while at Trafalgar and then walked up Regent Street to Soho. I did not remember much from my trip to London in 76. We ate dinner and had an ice cream cone and just walked around. Dinner would be my first Veal of the trip. Veal a la Holstein. It was very good. Chris and I sat down at a window table that was not yet cleaned. The waiter kicked us out and then took his sweet time cleaning it while we stood there. His service was extremely slow and poor also. We looked around and spotted several people drinking American Budweiser - obviously not Americans! It was a little like the left bank in Paris but much more wide open. Very crowded. The style is very high heels and very short dresses. Some of the girls had heels longer than their dresses. Nice restaurant called the Rain Forest. The kids would love it. Franchises opening all over. I took a pamphlet. Beanie Babies $16. We continued up Regent Street to Oxford Street and headed back to the Hotel to crash. We got lost for about ½ hour within 100 yards of the Hotel. The problem was that the British had two streets with the same name.
Sunday London -
We wanted to experience a mass at St. Pauls. Choral mass was at 10:00; communion mass was at 8:00. We decided on the 8:00 so we would have more time at the Tower of London. Chris had to twist my arm because we would have to be downstairs by 7:15. No Chris until 7:25. This would have to be a fast day. We took the subway to the St. Pauls exit. We asked for directions when we came out of the station. The guy told us to turn around. I felt pretty stupid. The church was closed for touring. We asked where the mass was and they handed us a book and sent us to a side chapel. Right when we decided to leave the Priest walked in. We were stuck. Mass was very similar to Catholic mass except for references to the Queen and no homily. In this huge church in a huge city there were a total of 49 people. Ill bet ½ of them were trapped tourists like us. The service was about 35 minutes with communion and wine. Every row had a collection bag passed around except ours. Maintenance for St. Pauls cost $20,000 per day. There were roads right up to the edge of the church on all sides. It was very out of place. London seems to have had to rebuild much more than Paris since the war. We walked to the Tower of London. It was farther than we thought. The drunk the day before had told us we could walk along the water. He was mistaken. We mostly walked through deserted streets. Chris took my picture with the Tower Bridge in the background from about the same spot as the family picture we have from 76.
One donut for breakfast at 10:00. We were there before the Tower opened. We were within the first couple of hundred people in. We followed one of the Beefeaters on a tour to start. He spent most of his time talking about people getting their heads chopped off. Very civilized country. He described one execution of a 76-year-old member of the Royal Family who would not go quietly. The executioner had to chase her around the square and hack her to death. Also one member of the Royal Family had his head cut off and they realized that his portrait had not yet been painted. They carried him back to the Tower, put him back together, and the artist did a fast portrait. He said the painting is very famous and now hangs in the Louvre. We could not find it. The English painting section was being renovated. We saw the Crown Jewels. The White Tower was being renovated. We did not get to see the instruments of torture. I wish they could have moved them somewhere to see. One interesting area was where they had carvings in the walls from prisoners. We went in the Medieval Palace. This are had just been opened up. It was pretty interesting but it was not very impressive. The King in those days lived in a pretty crummy place in my opinion. We did the wall walk and checked out the diamond room. That was very interesting. Time to head to speakers corner in Hyde Park. Lunch - Breaded Chicken Sandwich and Snapple - $9.00. Ate lunch walking to the Monument subway.
We walked through the subway station following the signs to Hyde Park. There was a guy playing several instruments at once. He had drums on his back, horns, and a guitar. He was singing too. He was very good. Chris said he reminded him of the Mary Poppins character. At speakers corner there was a lot of activity. Mostly religious speeches. There was one guy in a wheelchair walking around cussing everyone out. One religious guy was debating a black guy who was trying to be very scientific - he wanted proof of everything. Another young guy was talking about Clintons marijuana smoking. One man was simply walking around with a sign that said, "It Will Get Worse". There was a religious guy standing on a box with some signs. Chris and I both thought he was a dummy or statue. One person was standing 5 feet away from him taking his picture. He never moved. There were a couple of people on soapboxes giving speeches with nobody at all standing by listening. I took what I hope will be a great picture of some girl with blue hair, pierced rings all over her. I was careful to make sure she did not know I was taking the picture. I wish we had more time to stand and listen, but we needed to walk back down Oxford Street looking for Beanie Babies.
No luck on the way to the British Museum looking for Beanies. The museum was very crowded. It is in the process of being remodeled. The manuscript room was closed. We walked through the plunder the British have from the Egyptians and Greeks. I was looking for the Elgin Marbles because my Dad told me to be sure to see them. I was looking for some very fancy round marbles. I was guessing they must be marbles made of fine gems otherwise what could be so great about a bunch of marbles? I followed the directions the guide gave us and we came into a huge room with carved stones all around it. The stones came from the Parthenon in Greece. I finally asked the woman guide sitting on a chair where I could find the Elgin Marbles. She laughed and said that the carved stones around the room were the Elgin Marbles. I felt like a complete idiot. I then asked her if the Egyptians or Greeks ever got mad because they had stolen so many artifacts. She became very defensive and first told me that we (USA) have lots of stuff that we shouldnt. Besides "We have a receipt". They apparently bought them from the Greeks. She said a couple of times a year there had been near riots. She said the Greeks are much more violent in their protests than the Egyptians. She was in the room when there was a riot last year and they had to call the police. The clock room was very interesting. We were quite rushed. I will spend more time in the clock room if I ever go back.
We walked back to the hotel, checked out, and took a cab to the train station - 10 bucks, 5 minute ride. No problem buying tickets. We stopped in a shop and bought a candy bar and a couple of beers to drink on the train. We decided to save some money and buy a round trip ticket. This would turn out to be a mistake. We boarded the train with only about 2 minutes to spare. The trains in Europe seem to run on time - within a minute or two. The train ride was very uneventful. We saw some nice scenery. It was a very old train and not very fast.
Sunday Evening Birmingham to Uttoxoter
We arrived in the Birmingham Airport train station and took the free shuttle over to the car rental. My reservation was not in the computer. We spent at least ½ hour getting the car. I felt a little sorry for the one guy behind us in line. The girl was nice enough to give me a free upgrade for our trouble. She drew us a map and we got lost walking to the car lot. It was getting dark and I was starting to lose my temper. We still had not ate dinner. No free shuttle here. We finally found the lot and the car. It was Citroen Saxo. My upgrade was the size of a Yugo. I did not even want to know what the other car would have been. There was not enough room in the trunk(?) for both suitcases. Chris had to put his in the back seat. The transmission was awful. 5 speed manual. It was very hard to get into reverse. I never quite got used to it. I tried very hard to park everywhere so I could pull straight through. Every door had to be locked from the outside with the key. I could not find any other way. I guess I must have been stupid. I cant believe it was supposed to be like that. The radios in this car and the taxis we rode in all had displays that would show what type of station was tuned in - Classic, Rock, Talk, etc. I would imagine that will be coming to the US soon. The roads were very poorly lit and even more poorly marked. We got lost 3 times on the way to the hotel in Uttoxoter. The directions were in Kilometers; the car speedometer was in MILES. I was very surprised. I asked a couple of people and they said that all British cars were in Miles because they had invented that system and did not need the metric. They had deer crossing signs, cow crossing signs and old people crossing signs. The old people signs had an old man and woman with a cane bent over trying to cross the street. We worked hard to get a good picture of that on the last day there. I pulled over and made a U turn while Chris got out, ran over and took a picture. The roundabouts were quite an adventure at first. I was scared to go into one. I nearly got run over by a semi-truck that I thought was going to turn. That was my only close call. After a few roundabouts I decided they were great if there was not much traffic. You never had to stop. The second day I had the Saxo/Yugo up to 85-MPH trying to keep up with a vendor who we were following to Coventry. He was driving a big Peugeot. I had to work hard to keep up with him. He reminded me of Brydon Pennock driving in Italy. A couple of times I nearly said the hell with it and turned around. I kept well back because I was very nervous driving the little piece of junk. When someone would pull between us I would try to pass. The guy seemed to think that since I was in the passing lane I must want to go faster. He passed two trucks less than one mile from the exit and pulled right in front of them. I blew by him by accident and nearly missed the exit. In fact I got off ahead of him and I had to let him pass me on the off ramp. We had to re-pack & inspect some torque converters that had tipped over. It took about two hours. A 2-hour drive to our next destination turned out to be a 6-hour drive. Chris had to tell me which side to drive on several times after I turned corners. The signs were in English and who knows what in Wales. We forgot to take a picture. Both days we drove through Birmingham there were massive traffic jams. I guess I must have been impatient because after while Chris wondered out loud how my wife could stand riding with me. We finally got to our hotel, The White Hart, at about 9:10. It did not look great. We still had not ate dinner. I parked the car so I could pull straight out in the morning, and Chris ran into the hotel. He was convinced they would stop serving dinner at 9:00. Dinner was still being served so we sat down to eat. I had a very good meal. Fish again with potatoes. Chris tried the steak and kidney pie. I could hardly look at it. We were almost done and the warehouse vendors came in and sat down. I wanted to get a good desert; after all it was my birthday. I wanted the profiteroles but they were all out. I skipped desert, checked in, and headed to my room. Third floor - no elevator. My room made me think of a Motel 6. The bathroom was huge. Very long and Narrow. The window had a shear curtain that would have made a great honeymoon nightgown. The shower was facing the window and the curtain would not pull around far enough to block the window. I know if Elaine had been there I would have been hanging blankets up over the window. I will admit my shower was a bit quick in the morning. Two single beds again and not very comfortable. The Graduate, Seinfield, Coach, and ESPN Baseball - Giants/Marlins were all that was on. Cable must not exist in European hotels yet. I have never had more than about 4 channels. I continued throwing out clothing. First I used a T-shirt and socks to polish my shoes. Then I went to sleep.
Monday March 23.
Breakfast was not very good. Two poached eggs on dry toast. Poached = hard-boiled. The customer visit was not much fun. They tried to blow me off at first. The guard acted like they would not see me until after lunch at best. It was 9:00! I finally told him we had come from across the ocean and I was not leaving until I saw them. He finally caved in. They are a bunch of whiners. I was really wishing I could have given them a big price increase. I had lunch at the customers cafeteria. Very average but free! Quiche and potatoes with not very good chocolate milk for me. After this visit we had to drive all the way to Coventry to check out the parts. It was only a 4-hour diversion. We managed to get this vendor to take us out for dinner at Fridays. I had a great blackened tuna steak and only one beer - I still had 2.5 hours of driving in the dark to get to our next hotel. The big event here was that when we left Chris saw one of their briefcases sitting in front of the car next to ours. Someone had broken into his car and stolen both of their computers. Also 4 other cars were broken into in the lot. I was lucky to be driving the Saxo. A robber would take one look at that and believed that the best he could get would be a solar calculator. I wished my computer would have been stolen. I was sick of carrying it around. I did not have time to use it. Even if I had time, I could not find an adapter. We left the two of them standing in the parking lot scratching their heads wondering what to do.
Driving comments. I noticed that I was starting to do everything left-handed after I had shifted for a while. I never got used to the rear view mirror. I dont think I ever looked in it. It was a very strange feeling to be on the right side of the car and driving. Chris commented that it was even stranger for him. He was sitting in his usual seat without any mirrors, pedals, or steering wheel. One road had a lot of horse crap every so often. My car was so light it would skid whenever I hit some. The roads were very narrow in places. There were stone walls right up to the edge of the road. I had a tendency to drive on the left side of the lane. I think it was because I was used to having my body look down the left 1/3 of the lane. I hit the curb on the left a couple of times, and one time when I drifted over I nearly hit a stone wall with the mirror. Chris nearly jumped in my lap. If it hadnt scared me so much it would have been pretty funny.
The drive to Wales went pretty well. Only one wrong turn and I also drove right by the hotel, Frogg Manor, and had to go all the way around a roundabout. We pulled into the lot about 10:00. It was a gravel road around the back of the hotel. It was not well lit and when I passed a Frog Crossing sign Chris swore I hit one but there was no evidence in the morning. This was not looking good - the hotel looked pretty bad. We walked in and there was "Doc" from Back To The Future sitting at a desk. He had given up on us and had already written up a cancellation bill to send to our customer. He made a big ceremony ripping it up. He had a white shirt and white pants on with some nice yellow egg stains. I was getting worried. A very pretty woman was sitting near him in front of a fireplace. She turned out to be his companion of about 10 years. I never would have guessed that in 100 years. All of the rooms are different and priced different. The three most expensive are all vacant. I decided we would flip for the most expensive and the loser would take the 2nd most expensive. I figured if I was going to stay in a dump, I would stay in the nicest room in the dump. Wrong again, Chris won the best room - the "Wellington" and I settled for the "Churchill". We followed him through a door and up some stairs to our rooms. I noticed a big can of Raid and I was really getting worried. He opened up the door to my room. There was a little entryway and then he opened up the next door and I nearly passed out. It was the nicest hotel room I have ever stayed in. The doors were all 6 panel solid wood. I told Chris I would meet him downstairs in about ½ hour for a cold beer. When Doc left I asked for my key. He asked "what for". I was so surprised I couldnt answer. He then said, "if you manage to lock yourself out, I will let you back in". The room had a huge bed with paper on the bedspread. I guess that was a hint that I should not sit on the bedspread. The bathroom was huge. The showerhead came right out of the ceiling, was a very shiny brass, and was as big around as a large dinner plate. The bathroom had a tiled floor and walls. The tile on the walls had several female figures painted into the tile. They were evenly spaced throughout the room. There were 2 plush bathrobes provided that I did not use. The bathtub was deep, huge, and very loooong. The toilet seat had a frog sticker on it and there were frogs everywhere. The only problem was that the one window in the bathroom had one of those window shades that was built in. Of course it was not all the way down and I could not figure out a way to lower it the rest of the way. It must be an English way of treating the Americans! I put my suitcase and briefcase away and went downstairs to have a drink. The sitting room had a lot of nice old furniture. Doc brought me a bitters. While I waited for Chris I found a European Hotel book sitting on the coffee table. It turns out that this hotel is one of the top 10 recommended places to stay in England (two miles east of the Welsh boarder). "The eccentric John Sykes" is how the book refers to Doc. Eccentric is an understatement. He does everything. He owns the hotel, did all the decorating, takes care of the gardens and landscaping and is also a gourmet cook. It was our bad luck that we missed his dinner. Reservations are required. Good luck for BorgWarners wallet. The dinner started at $50 before drinks or side dishes. Chris came down and Johns lady friend sat with us and talked for a while. There were frogs everywhere made out of everything. John and his friend only get about one or two days off a couple of times a year. John will not leave if people are coming. If they are on the way out and the phone rings he will usually cancel the plans on the spot. There was a big cat that looked just like ours. It refused to let us take a picture. Chris room was even better than mine. Both rooms had very old large tube radios that were working. Chris room had a huge canopy bed in the middle of the room hooked to the ceiling. The book described the hotel as a White Georgian house. Georgian and Victorian Furniture.
Tuesday 3/24 England to Wales to England to Belgium
The breakfast in the morning was excellent. Eggs and a vegetable dish that was cooked in some kind of oil. I only tried it to be polite, but I ended up eating every bit. Chris tried to order a chilled glass of filtered water. John said he did not have any filtered water that was cold. Chris told him to put some ice in. John asked, "then whats the point?" Chris ended up with tap water on ice. When Chris sat down he put his camera on the table. As soon as John saw it he made a big production out of taking it off the table. The breakfast area overlooked some nice gardens and there were lots of birds at a couple of bird feeders. There was a pretty good life sized statue of a naked lady right behind Chris that I was forced to look at during the entire breakfast. There were vines all in the breakfast area. It was like a greenhouse. Of course there were frogs everywhere in the vines. After Breakfast the fun was over, time to visit a customer. On the way out I notice a nice red Jaguar parked in the front. It seemed appropriate.
We spent way too much time at the customer. I would have to complain to my boss about the work requirements of this trip! We left a little after noon for our next visit which was Turner Powertrain in Wolverhampton. It should be a couple hour drive. The nice folks at JCB had provided Chris with lunch, but I was out of luck. We stopped at a KFC for me. I drove the Saxo at 70mph while Chris held my nuggets. We got lost looking for this customer. Neither one of us had bothered to get a map. We only knew the city. We followed signs and had to stop in a pub to call our contact at the plant and ask for directions. The plant is near a racecourse. We found the general area and asked several people. None had ever heard of it. It turned out to be a fairly large plant. Everyone we asked must have been brain dead. One guy we asked had no idea and he was no more than a nine iron from the plant. We knew we would have to be quick or there would be trouble with our travel arrangements. This customer was very slow moving and they had several issues that were inconsequential that they insisted on dragging out. When we left I was very nervous we would miss our trains.
We got in a massive traffic jam on the way to the airport. The same one that we were in trying to get to Coventry yesterday. When we finally got off the freeway I had trouble locating the rental return area. I was getting honked at by several people who were more impatient than me. We had no time to get gas. 400 miles no fillup. It was running on fumes. We dropped off the car and headed for the shuttle bus for the ¾ mile ride to the train station on the dead run. As soon as we were dropped off I ran to the ticket counter to see if we had a chance to get to London in time to catch the train to Brussels. No way. We found a phone booth and I called the England emergency travel number that we had been provided with. It was too late to get any flight from London Gatwick or Heathrow. There is one British Midland flight out of Birmingham. It happens to go to Brussels. The only problem was that it was 6:15 and the plan was scheduled to leave at 6:35. It was too late for the travel agent to book us. We sprinted outside and the bus shuttle was not there. Chris and I jumped in a cab. He thinks were crazy and charges us 8 bucks for the ¾ mile ride back to the airport. We ran to the ticket agent. First good news all day. The flight is delayed about 15 minutes. She would not take my train ticket for a partial credit. I am all set if I ever need to get from Birmingham to London. It turns out that we did not save money on Sunday buying the roundtrip London/Birmingham ticket. She books us for a round trip with a return on Sunday. It is cheaper than a one way flight. She told us that British Midland is also a Northwest partner so we would earn frequent flyer miles this turned out to be B.S.! We hustled to the plane just in time for the last boarding call. There was lots of room on the plane. My luggage would not fit overhead so I just put it in the seat in front of us. This was a great flight. Less than an hour. I ended up happy that we did not have to take the train rides. The flight attendants worked the whole flight. Drinks then dinner. Good meal with 2 free beers, water, chocolate cake, chocolate candy, salmon, cheese and crackers. Chris took my pineapple and grapes. He will eat anything. Hot washcloths to clean up and we were on the ground before we would have been in London.