I was called to London last month to help my daughter, Caitlin, settle into her new environment. She bribed me with an offer of first class travel; she will never know whether it was my affection for her or greed that convinced me to make the trip.
There was a ton of unpacking and a number of household chores, but we did have a few adventures. As for apprehension about bombings, one has to accept the British attitude: Bombers are a nuisance.
Before I did anything, however, I had to find a shop for my morning coffee. There it was, two blocks away, and it had a “frequent coffee” card, offering a free coffee after every nine. So I had my first coffee and a Danish. It was 3 pounds and 40 pence. Only later did I find out what the exchange rate was.
The house the family had taken is one of those tall, narrow row houses (each floor about 25 feet by 40 feet) with a formal entrance eight steps up from the street, four and a half stories high, in the Notting Hill area of London. The location is ideal, 18-minute walk to Paddington Station, which has a direct line to Heathrow Airport and a 10-minute bus ride to central London. Although the house is but a block and a half from a central artery, it is separated by a wall from the business area, making it safe for our grandchild. The row of houses runs in a circle around a little fenced-in park.
Although we did some touring, part of every day was spent unpacking and homemaking. One interesting job was assembling a combined chest of drawers and closet shelf from one of those giant erector sets following “simple” instructions! As usual, a critical piece we ordered was not delivered; it took an hour to figure that out.
One of the first places we visited was the Diana, Princess of Wales, Playground. Located in the Kensington Gardens portion of Hyde Park, it is every mother and child’s dream. It has things to climb, crawl, swing and jump on, including a full-rigged wooden sloop, which on our visit had a crew of 30 or so tots. All this apparatus was anchored in deep sand surrounded by grass lawns, where mothers were parked in plain view. A food shack was located outside the gate — a beautiful park within walking distance for the family.
During our stay (my wife came later with our other grandchild), our daughter, Jem, who lives in Italy, also arrived en route to a wedding, so we celebrated her birthday at a pub called The Cow. The pub was crowded with the after-work crowd, but the upstairs dining room was empty. Here, contrary to the opinion of Monsieur Jacques Chirac, the president of France, who could not believe the Olympics were awarded to a country that served such awful food, the food was excellent, and we had a grand family get-together.
At The Crow we met a charming and attractive hostess, Sally Hemenway. She had an undergraduate degree in Italian but had spent the past 10 years managing a pub elsewhere in England. While working in London, she had been taking courses toward certification to teach. Her goal accomplished, she will be teaching English in primary school this fall.
One day during the unpacking, the doorbell rang, there was Jose Perera, who was delivering waste disposal instructions and wanted to know if we had any questions. He said he was in London on a student visa for a year to learn English. This was interesting as he is 38 years old. He is from Sao Paolo, Brazil, and was on a sabbatical from his job as a journalist.
Between the two visits to Tom’s, we went off for high tea at the Hotel Connaught on the theory that everyone should enjoy some luxury and gluttony once in his or her life. For a price less than lunch at Tom’s, we had a huge platter of sandwiches and scones and jam, and when that was finished, a large tray of cake and cookies arrived. Our server was outfitted like a French field marshal, maroon jacket with brass buttons and gold epaulets, cream-colored pants with a starched white shirt and ascot. (The doorman was dressed in a gold-colored tuxedo and top hat; the desk clerk wore a tailcoat. It all seemed pre-World War I.
After the tea was over I met our server, Mr. Kobby. He is from Ghana. He and his wife have lived in London many years. They are raising two high school-age children, who are doing well. He as been pouring tea at the Connaught for 14 years. His efforts to make the tea a ritual were impressive.
On the way home from tea we met Danny White, our cab driver. We asked him how he came to that job. He said that to qualify for a taxi driver’s license, one had to learn the streets of London by heart. To do that, he rode a bicycle around the city for four years, memorizing the streets. Then he was tested about this knowledge, given a driver’s test and a physical exam. He said that at this point he felt like he was ready to perform brain surgery.
Toward the end of our stay, we took a bus tour. Claire and I had visited London before but had never gotten our bearings, that is, where things we wanted to see were located in relation to one another and to us.
Among the many tours offered, we chose The Big Bus Co. (www.bigbustours.com). They offered several tours, among them the Big Red Bus, which covers the inner city, and the Big Blue Bus, which covers outer London. These two tours have several common stops and one ticket is good on both buses with the river tour. The blue bus provides earphones that plug into any one of six languages for patrons who do not speak English. The red bus provides guides.
We opted for the red bus and met a charming, petite, retired, inner-city school teacher (art), Marilyn Williams, who has fallen in love with London’s history.
We started off on Craven Street, which she told us was the route taken by carts hauling prisoners to the gallows. Along the street friends and relatives plied the doomed with whiskey, hoping to ease the pain of the hanging. According to Marilyn, this is where the expression “one for the road” originated.
We passed 221 Baker Street, the home of the fictional Sherlock Holmes. A small statue of Holmes decorates the street in front of the house. Many believe he truly existed.
Then we turned down Regent Street, which evidently belongs to the queen. The streetlights have small crowns atop their frames, indicating her ownership. She does receive a rent from the street.
We also went into the real City of London, a mile-square inner-city that is centered through formal gates, watched over by large gargoyles.
While passing through the financial district with all its rich, impressive banking houses, we learned that the area started out as a collection of coffeehouses in which traders conducted their business. From this neighborhood of trade, the great banking houses grew. (Do you suppose that will happen in Groton?) One thing that struck me as we were passing through Piccadilly Circus and by Parliament, Trafalgar Square and the British Museum, was how close they are to one another.
For most of the two weeks I thought we were not getting out much. But on reflection, it appears we did get around. Helping our offspring settle in was a rather pleasant chore. We look forward to Christmas, when the lamps will be functioning without my help (?).
Peter Macy writes an occasional column about his travels for this section of the paper. He has retired from a career in the military, having been the budget director at Hanscom Field. Home is Groton, where he lives with his wife, Claire.