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Michael Aug 14th, 2007 12:20 PM

Trip Report: London, May 2007
 
<b>Trip Report</b>: <i>London and Scotland</i>, May 2007

This year we decided that our new area of exploration would be London and Scotland; London because of the Chelsea flower show. We left the States on May 17 and left Scotland on June 11.

<b>Let’s talk costs</b>. I am not hesitant about giving prices, and in this case, unless otherwise specified, prices are for two where applicable. A reader must keep in mind that these prices are for May 2007, where the pound hovered around $2 US. This was our most expensive trip yet, and it took a good deal of effort to get over sticker shock. Eventually we decided that the best thing would be to accept without question that the cost in pounds would be numerically the same as the cost in dollars, which essentially doubled the cost. In other words, what would cost $10 in the States, would cost &pound;10 in the U.K. This is an exaggeration, but it is not extreme. Example: to store luggage costs us &pound;6 per bag per day. Instead of storing three bags upon our arrival--the hotel would not store bags prior to room availability--we stored only two and took the basket with us to the Victoria and Albert for storage in their coat room. If one harped on the fact that the storage cost us $24, and multiplied this with all instances of outrageous costs, we would never have enjoyed out stay; but we are ready to go back to London. This is not just a London issue. Storage in Edinburgh would have cost &pound;5.50 per bag. B&amp;Bs seemed to be cheaper than hotels, and yet none were ever cheaper than &pound;50 for the two of us for an en-suite room, even in the one case where the bathroom was not en-suite although it was reserved exclusively for us. The pricing system was strange in that B&amp;Bs charged the room on a per person basis, and yet, since two people are using a common bathroom and bed, one would think that the cost of two is not the double of a single person in terms of upkeep and care. To compare: a two-star hotel in the French provinces cost us 43&euro; for a room that was larger than some of the B&amp;B rooms. Restaurants and pubs are similarly expensive, and our low point was an Indian restaurant in Galashiels that charged us &pound;1.60 for a serving of plain rice that was barely four spoonfuls.

The issue is not just one of exchange rate. We had a friend from the U.K drop by on her way to a conference . She has lived there for the last 12 years starting with her college education. Her parents live in France, so she is aware of pricing in both countries. She just started an academic appointment in an English university. One of the graduate students she was tutoring has obtained a fellowship at one of the top U.S. universities worth more than what she is paid as a full-time academic. An American colleague started at the same U.K. university and remarked that her salary was cut by almost half while cost of living has almost doubled compared to what she was paid in the U.S..

<b>easyHotel</b>: Aside from B&amp;Bs, we stayed at two hotels and rented an apartment in Edinburgh. Apartment rentals are fine but not necessarily cheaper. This one was, because we were 5 in a two bedroom apartment (one slept on the pullout bed in the living room). The London hotel needs some extensive commentary. It was cheap for London ($100 a night), but requires accepting some unusual conditions. We stayed at the easyHotel in the South Kensington area. We reserved a room with a window--most rooms do not have windows, which I find unacceptable. The room had centralized A/C, it was clean, and was pretty much what we expected. Its width was the length of the standard double bed placed against the sealed window. The room was perhaps ten feet long, maybe a little longer. It has a bathroom (one of those self-contained fiberglass units) which was 3‘X5’. The shower pan, a half inch depression, was 30” in diameter, and could not be doubled on the bathroom floor--in other words, the interior length of the bathroom was less than 60”. One had one foot in the shower pan while facing the sink. There was a soap dispenser over the sink, inconvenient for showering even though it was easily reachable. Besides, no wash cloths were provided (we brought our own being familiar with this European quirk), so we purchased our own bar of soap which came in handy elsewhere (we have never gotten use to liquid soap dispensers). There were a couple of hooks on the wall, but otherwise no storage space except the window sill. The suitcases were in the walking area between the outside door and the bed, and could not be left open. Getting up in the morning and using the bathroom required a ballet between the two of us unless one stayed on the bed while the other one got dressed. It was cozy, but since we regularly camp using a 5X7 tent and were on a self-drive barge trip ten years ago, we anticipated that this hotel room would bring us back memories. There was a flat screen TV in the room, available for viewing at &pound;5 per day. The room was not cleaned while we were there; that also would have cost &pound;5 per cleaning. But I would not recommend this room because of the noise. One of the A/C compressor was just outside the window, plus there was an unexplainable noise as if a metal garage door or an elevator were going up and down that kept us awake during the night. I say “unexplainable” because the back of the hotel, where the room was located, looked over the parking lot of a Sainsbury market and we could clearly see from that parking lot that no such garage doors were close to our room or visible anywhere. We tried to change our room, but were unsuccessful, and gave up after the 4th night. I suspect that the noise factor would not have existed in rooms facing the street. Since the location of the room cannot be guaranteed, anyone booking with this easyHotel may come across a similar problem.

<b>Arriving in and departing from London</b>: Our Intercontinental flights were from SFO to London and then Paris to SFO ($1611). We arrived in London on May 18 and left on May 24. We landed at Heathrow and found the ATMs out of cash. We were not too worried because we had some British pounds with us, and headed for the Underground. Just before the Underground station we found a Barclays ATM with no line and with cash (we never had any problems with our ATM or credit cards). The Underground has a information desk where we asked about the Oyster card and discovered that we could purchased it right there, avoiding the problem of dealing with unfamiliar automated dispensing systems on jet lag. The Oyster card cost &pound;3 for the card itself and can be filled for any amount at any Underground station. The &pound;3 will be refunded when you turn the card in at the end of your London sojourn. With the Oyster card, it cost us &pound;1.70 per person to central London. We used the card throughout our stay, refilling it as necessary. On our last day we had just enough on our card to get us to the train station. We took the Underground which let everybody off at High Street Kensington because of electrical problems on the line. Fortunately we had left early. And luckily there was a bus that passed by that Underground station and went directly to King’s Cross station, but the line had been too long to add to the card with the clerk and for some reason my credit card was not accepted at the automatic machines (no chip?). The driver let us on without having to pay. When turning in the Oyster card, anything that is left above the original &pound;3 will also be refunded. Had we assumed that, we would have avoided quite a bit of anxiety.

The main purpose of the London trip was the Chelsea Flower Show, so we joined the RHS in January to order tickets for an afternoon on Member’s Day, figuring that it would be a zoo when the general public is allowed in (in 2006, 157,000 people visited the show over what I assume were the same four days as this year). Going to the Chelsea Flower Show on this basis is an expensive proposition, as I believe that we paid $86 for membership, and the tickets cost us $76. Between the 18th and the 23rd, we had a few days to see London. It was a zoo even on Member’s Day, it is something to see but for what it cost, once is enough.

<b>Friday</b>: We arrived on a Friday, dropped off our luggage as described above, and walked to the Victoria &amp; Albert Museum. Had lunch at the museum--counters of a variety of foods in the hallway next to the dining rooms. The servers are mainly Polish, as are many in these types of jobs in the U.K., including some tourist offices in Scotland. The food was fine, the dining rooms very pleasant in the 19th century style. We wanted to see the 18th-19th century British furniture, but the 18th century halls were being renovated and what was there to be seen is better shown in N.Y.’s Met period rooms. The Craftsman and Art Nouveau collection was disappointing. One amusing element: in the 18th century collection there were cases with fake 18th century books giving slaves recommendations on how to, if not sabotage, slow down the work in a house--a very PC insertion aimed at educating the public.

We picked up our luggage, and went to the hotel. Took a nap and then walked to an Indian restaurant recommended by friends on separate occasions. It was OK but very expensive for the amount and disappointing in terms of quality ($80). Afterwards we strolled through the South Kensington residential area between the restaurant and our hotel.

<b>Saturday</b>: I am not a breakfast eater. We got up and grabbed a coffee and something to eat at the Starbucks located in the Sainsbury market behind the hotel on Cromwell Road. We subsequently found a coffee place on Cromwell Road that was not a chain and was more pleasant than Starbucks. But the pastries were less interesting, so we waited until we got to the Underground, across the street from which we could get a decent croissant. We took the Underground to Waterloo Station and walked to the London Eye. Got some information, purchased tickets ($57), and continued to Borough Market by bus.

The market is well worth a visit even if there is no intention of buying products for future consumption, i.e. cooking at home or picnicking, and we would have done the latter if more familiar with the London environment. At any rate, we ate our way through the market, slurping an oyster each at the fish stand, buying a skewer of what is called <i>The Devil on Horseback</i> (a prune wrapped in bacon and then grilled), venison hamburgers, cider from the cask, half a pound of cherry tomatoes to consume like candy. There is a branch of the Neal’s Yard cheese store next to the market, and in the market itself there is an excellent purveyor of French cheeses.

From the market we went to the Tate Modern, which has a great view over the Thames. The great hall which used to contain the turbines--the Tate Modern is located in a former power plant--was empty. I am not sure that I like the way the collection is organized--thematically--, but that may be because we had not yet gotten over jet lag and therefore could not concentrate on the reasons for some of the juxtapositions. From the Tate we walked along the Thames to the London Eye. The line to get on the Eye took maybe 20 minutes. I had to turn it my pocket knife, to be picked up at the end of the ride. I recommend the ride. It gives a nice view of London and helps in orienting oneself to the geography of the city.

We then went to the theater district as we had reserved tickets (&pound;99 or $196 for 3 for first balcony) for Edward Albee’s <i>The Lady from Dubuque</i>, which was the only play that interested us that was not sold out. Dame Maggie Smith was in the cast, and while waiting outside the theater for a friend to arrive, we saw Dame Judi Dench step out of a cab and go into the theater. It was a fine performance of a play that was completely unfamiliar to me; a mixture of parlor realism &agrave; la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with the surreal appearance of the lady from Dubuque who may or may not be one of the character’s mother. After the theater, our friend took us to a very nice bar/restaurant where we had a light dinner and then back to the hotel.

<b>Sunday</b>:

We strolled from Little Venice on the Regent’s Canal to Camden High Street. It included going up Primrose Hill for a view of London and late light lunch at the Queen’s ($34) at the base of the hill. Had we not been hungry, we could have waited until we reached the Camden Lock market which has an outdoor area with vendors selling various ethnic foods. Camden High Street appears to be punk/goth shopping heaven. From there we went to the British Museum to see at a minimum the Elgin marbles; but I found the Assyrian bas reliefs as impressive.

<b>Monday</b>:

We went to Greenwich using the light rail system through the Docklands. Luckily we had decided not to take a boat because we went the morning of the destruction of the Cutty Sark which closed the landing pier and also meant that we could not walk through the foot tunnel either because its electricity was on the same circuit as the Cutty Sark’s. We visited the Painted Hall, the Chapel where we heard part of a recital given as the student’s exam performance, the Queen’s House, the National Maritime Museum with interesting displays of model ships and a visual explanation of the tactics of the Battle of Trafalgar. We walked up to the Royal Observatory and walked through the various exhibits. There was a special exhibit on the chronometer of particular interest to readers of <i>Longitude</i>. The visit to Greenwich turned out to be an all day affair.

We took the bus back to London and then the Underground to the Clerkenwell/Smithfield area which we explored before dinner at the Fergus Henderson restaurant. I had a large serving of roasted bone marrow as a first course and chitterlings for the main dish. I do not recall what my wife had as a first dish, but the Spanish waiter misled her for the second; it was a Spanish style dish and simply did not have the tang and flavor of similar chorizo flavored dishes we had in Spain and Portugal. The meal was pricey for what it is ($160 for two including a bottle of wine). The food was very good but no better than an upscale restaurant or bistro in France specializing in meat and offal dishes (<i>La Tupina</i> in Bordeaux, <i>le Bistroquet</i> in Troyes and <i>L&eacute;on le Cochon</i> in Rennes come to mind, and were cheaper). Henderson may have revolutionized English cooking (back to its roots in high style), as claimed by Anthony Bourdain, but his cooking is no revolution within European cuisine as a whole.

<b>Tuesday</b>:

We went back to the Smithfield Market, took some pictures, thought about visiting St. Bartholomew-the-Great until we discovered that we would have to pay &pound;4 ($8) per person to see it. We declined and moved on walking to the Old Spitalfield market (the new architecture in that area is more interesting than the old) and then to Brick Lane. We had lunch in one of the Bangladeshi restaurants that seemed to have had good reviews. Lunch was OK, 3 courses for $35. We walked around the area and eventually found ourselves, via Petticoat Lane, by the Gherkin. The building is private, with no visiting allowed. We took the bus to the Courthauld Collection, concentrating on its Old Masters. We then met some friends at their hotel and walked to the theater district for dinner in a pub and a show: <i>The Letter</i> by Somerset Maugham which I found to be a real potboiler. I could not figure out if the acting was purposefully bad (particularly the lead) or due to bad actors; I finally decided that it was supposed to be purposefully bad, to indicate that the character is not good at lying or was na&iuml;ve.

<b>Wednesday</b>:

We went to the National Gallery, but should have gone to the Tate Britain since we were interested in British painting. The guidebook was slightly misleading as it mentioned a Turner in the National Gallery, which is how many Turners we saw there, and it was not his best. In the afternoon we went to the Chelsea Flower show: see the beginning of this narrative.

<b>Thursday</b>:

We took the Underground to King’s Cross Station (see beginning of this narrative for our problems and how to avoid part of them) and took the train to Glasgow ($84.77, the one relatively good deal aside from the free national museums). This ends the London section of our travels. Our Scottish travels will appear in another report.

Photographs can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/yuxfbt. I accidentally deleted the pictures taken between late Sunday to Tuesday morning: Camden lock, British Museum, Greenwich.

scotlib Aug 14th, 2007 12:48 PM

Hi Michael,

Great trip report. Thanks for the details and costs information.

Looking forward to your Scottish episode because I hope to head that way myself next year.

Cheers!

noe847 Aug 14th, 2007 06:28 PM

Thanks for posting your London trip report, Michael. I totally agree with you about the Tate Modern, and have commented here several times about the thematic arrangement. I also find the quality of the permanent collection - aside from the presentation - to be disappointing. I love the facility, however. As for Tate Britain, I have nothing but positive things to say! In fact I was pretty much bowled over by it when we visited last summer. It is a veritable Turner treasure trove, as he left the contents of his studio and all of his unsold work to the museum, where it is housed in its own building/wing. I thought that the National Gallery had several Turners - I know that <i>Rain, Steam and Speed</i> is there, which is one of my favorite Turners.

St. Bartholomew the Great is one of London's hidden gems, a very old Romanesque and Gothic building of which half was torn down centuries ago. At one point Ben Franklin worked for a printing press that was located in the chapel, and a blacksmith was also in the structure, iirc. This site has several pictures of the church for those who aren't familiar with it:
http://www.sacred-destinations.com/e...-the-great.htm

Enjoyed the pictures.

janisj Aug 14th, 2007 07:33 PM

Great, detailed report. You squeezed in a lot. Looking forward to the &quot;Scottish bit&quot;

Now a bit of a kvetch. I personally would NEVER spend $100 to stay in a goofy place like the easyHotel. All that orange, extra fees for everything, and a room/bath the size of a 2-person pup tent??

On a budget, for that same $100 you can get a 4 star hotel - WITH soap and housekeeping no less - using Priceline.

ElendilPickle Aug 14th, 2007 07:46 PM

Thanks for posting, Michael! I'm looking forward to viewing your pictures.

Lee Ann

Michael Aug 14th, 2007 08:03 PM

When I tried priceline, I could only find hotels for &pound;60 ($120) plus tax. But as I said, such a small room does not bother me, it was the news that made it less than acceptable.

Michael Aug 14th, 2007 08:09 PM

Correction: it was the <b>noise</b> that made it less than acceptable.

janisj Aug 14th, 2007 08:49 PM

&quot;<i>When I tried priceline, I could only find hotels for &pound;60 ($120) plus tax.</i>&quot;

I didn't mean a straight booking through Priceline where you see the price first - they are not much cheaper than any other booking engine. I meant <u>bidding</u> using the &quot;name your own price&quot; feature. In the last two weeks there have been many successful bids in the $85-$110 range. And back when you went in May/early June, there were lots of winners between $79 and $90.

nona1 Aug 14th, 2007 09:41 PM

I can't quite tell if you enjoyed your trip or not....

thereyet Aug 14th, 2007 10:29 PM

Hi Michael,

I agree with you about the assyrian lion hunt reliefs. I actually liked them better then the elgin marbles. Where the marbles were best preserved though you coulld actually see the veins on the faces of the horses. That was impressive carving.

thereyet

Michael Aug 14th, 2007 11:11 PM

nona1,

We plan to go back.

nona1 Aug 15th, 2007 09:20 AM

Oh good :-)

LCBoniti Aug 15th, 2007 09:34 AM

Good report, Michael. I also look forward to Scotland.

rickmav Aug 15th, 2007 09:50 AM

Thanks for posting Michael. A question about Greenwich. Was it a worthwhile way to spend a day? I know that's subjective, but based on your assessment of other things you did, I trust that you woun't oversell it.

I'll be in London on my own in October and thought I might go to Greenwich for the day. I don't know if I'm a maritime buff, I've never really been exposed to anything like that, so I don't know if there is enough appealing about the place to go. What do you think?

Michael Aug 15th, 2007 01:45 PM

rickmav,

I think that Greenwich was a day well spent. The complex is a nice 18th century ensemble (the general view is the one digital image that survived my deletion). We spent more time in the Maritime Museum than we expected. I do not consider Nelson's uniform to be one of the highlights. The model ships were very interesting. I was not interested in straddling the meridian, but the exhibits in the observatory were also worthwhile. We did not rush, but then the Cutty Sark was no longer on the agenda. The town itself is a nice contrast from London and taking the bus back to London will also take considerable time.

SandyBrit Aug 15th, 2007 04:21 PM

Michael,

eastHotel: What an odd place this seems to be. You made the best of it and didn't seem to expect much more than you got. Thanks for giving such a detailed report - it will help anyone else thinking of staying there.

Very nice that you gave the cost of items and agree it does take a bit to get over sticker shock. We will return to the UK once again in October (my home many years ago) and yey I still am taken back by the cost of everything. I just decide to accept that is the way it is and go on.

Your report is easy to read and well thought out. Looking forward to the Scotland bit.

Thanks.
Sandy

rickmav Aug 15th, 2007 05:28 PM

Hey SandyBrit - you'll be in England in October, as will I! Where will you be travelling? - I think I read somewhere else you'll be visiting your mother. I'm staying in London, then to Devon and Somerset.

ElendilPickle Aug 16th, 2007 06:58 PM

Rickmav, Greenwich was a must for me, as a Patrick O'Brian fan, but Mr. Pickle enjoyed it as well. We spent about half a day there - we took the city boat down (I'm drawing a blank on its name), went through part of the Maritime Museum, looked through some of the other buildings, went up to the observatory, then walked downhill and took the DLR and Tube back to London.

Lee Ann

rickmav Aug 19th, 2007 09:48 AM

Thanks Michael and Lee Ann for info. on Greenwich. It has been put into my 'itinerary'.

audere_est_facere Aug 19th, 2007 10:05 AM

Well I'm obviously biased - I work for Greenwich. But I think it is well worth a trip. Apart from the major buildings the Town is quite nice with lots of restaurants and so on.

There's lots of really nice parks and open spaces too.

And, as said above - it's a short trip from Bank Tube on the DLR. Don't go on the bus - it goes all around the houses before it gets there.


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