Journeys without George: Big Ben and the Dreaded Daylight Savings Time

(Note: The following must be read using a British accent.)

Cheerio from London! I arrived in the UK on Saturday afternoon. My return trip on the Eurostar was much better than the leg to Brussels earlier in the week. There is definitely a difference between 1st class and 2nd class. In 2nd class, you’re seated next to a foul smelling 20-something, while in 1st class there were only five people in over 30 seats, with tables, power outlets and food. What a way to travel by rail!

Upon arrival at St. Pancras Station, I queued for the tube and went west to Paddington Station. There, I minded the gap and excited out on to the street and strode down a few short blocks to my accommodations for the four night trip to London: the Shafestbury Premiere Hyde Park. My room is the size of a dorm room, and rightfully so, since I paid so little for it.

Before leaving the hotel to secure theatre tickets at the local tkts booth, an employee stopped by to remind me that clocks would be shifting forward one hour that night. So, yet again, just a few weeks after going through it in the States, I would lose an hour of sleep. Exactly how is that fair?

I decided to take a longer way to the tkts booth by stopping by Traflagar Square first to witness a protest firsthand. It wasn’t for the G20, that was taking place in Hyde Park, but instead calling on the government to spend more money, time and attention on the issue of autism.

From there, I walked north to the tkts booth to randomly choose a show to see that evening. No big names are currently playing on the West End (ok, Dame Judi Dench is) so I pretty much closed my eyes and picked one. Of course, it wasn’t available. My second choice, The 39 Steps, based on the Hitchcock movie of the same name, which was based on the John Buchan novel also of the same name, was available. I quickly exchanged pounds for my half-price ticket and was on my way into the rain. It seems to never stop.

I passed perhaps every Italian restaurant in London – there were approximately ten on one street alone – on my way back south through the Square to Whitehall. If you take a right at the corner of Whitehall and Downing Street you run right into Number 10. Only problem is you can’t take a right at Downing Street because it’s blocked off. It was a bit of a change of pace since the last time I was at that spot back in June we were sent directly down to Number 10.

I took a few pictures through the fence and continued one block south to the Churchill War Cabinet Rooms. Years ago, Nancy Ranich, recommended I visit this site if I ever made it to London. I finally got my chance. The War Cabinet Rooms were used as a bunker for Churchill and his team during World War II. According to the information provided, the sheltering system they used was later found to not be adequate and more than likely would not have protected anyone from a direct hit. Ooops.

Along the underground tour, you see the War Cabinet meeting room, Churchill’s bedroom, a special room meant only for Churchill to make and receive calls from the President of the United States, and the Map Room. All the rooms have been preserved in the same way they looked the last time Churchill was down there in 1945. In addition, they created a museum to honor Churchill’s life that was dedicated by HRH Queen Elizabeth II in 2003. One of the tidbits they share is that Churchill, like many world leaders, helped plan the details of his own funeral which he dubbed Operation Hope Not.

From there I headed directly across the street to a press corps favorite – The Red Lion. It’s a pub just a block from Number 10 that served as a pool hold during our trip here. I didn’t get to go that time, so I wanted to make up for it on this trip. I headed upstairs to the dining room only to be told that, even though there were empty tables, they could not accommodate any more customers because one chef called in sick and the other could not handle all the orders alone. What a way to run a restaurant!

I walked down Whitehall to Big Ben, who was getting close to skipping ahead an hour himself (hopefully he was just as tired this morning!), for some pictures.

Then it rained. Notice a trend?

Once that subsided, I went back north to find food. It was 5pm already and I wanted fish and chips!

To my luck I found the perfect place, The Clarence. Only those from Lower Press will get the joke there, but it was surely meant to be. The Clarence was a nice pub, full of people with plentiful amounts of fish and chips. After sitting at my table for fifteen minutes realizing no one was going to come ask for my order, I went up to the bar and placed it, handed over my pounds and pence, and went back to wait. Shortly after, the glorious meal arrived. Hand-battered fish with chips…I mean frites…I mean freedom fries…along with a few pieces of garlic bread.

I took my time, making sure I dried off before heading back outside. Thankfully, the rain had ceased and it turned into a pleasant evening. I stopped by a few shops to see what souvenirs were for purchase. One place even accepted Euros – if only I had nto exchanged them already! I still get a good laugh out of all the London Underground t-shirts and other items.

I slowly made my way up to Piccadilly Circus where I regret to inform you I did not find a single animal. False advertising perhaps, but it was the location of the Criterion Theatre, so it served a purpose. The lights in Piccadilly are nearly blinding, much like Times Square in New York City, and made for nice night pictures. Being a Friday evening, the area was packed with people young and old out on the town for dinner, a show, or to get jiggy, or whatever it is young people do. I still had an hour before the show so I stopped at another souvenir shop that – wait for it – was selling tickets to Michael Jackson concerts. You are correct, sir – I purchased ten at 150 pounds a piece. If anyone is looking for tickets – mind you the price does not include airfare, accommodations, taxes, licensing or other fees – please let me know. (You know I’m joking, right?)

The Criterion Theatre is like those on Broadway in the sense that it is old. You can tell just by looking at it. It is different however because instead of walking up to go anywhere, you walk down. The entire theatre is underground. The Upper Dress Circle (second balcony) is one floor down, Dress Circle (balcony – where I was seated) is two floors down, and the Stalls (or Orchestra back home) is three flights of stairs down. I’m not sure when the Criterion was built but more than likely in the 1920s when people were 1/3 the size they are now and could easily fit in the seats. Today, no one has legs that short!

The show was fine, but I felt that most people did not find it funny. In these instances, audience members’ feed off each other. If someone next to you laughs, you are encouraged to do the same. Last night, no one laughed. There were funny bits, to be sure, but not enough to make me respond with audible laughter.

Four actors portray over 130 roles in the two hour show. But the best part – programs are only three pounds! So I have not a clue who the actors were.

After the show, I headed back to the hotel to lose an hour of sleep.

I planned today (Sunday) to be a bit of a slower day. I say “planned” as if I thought any of this through before arriving in London. I actually make up the list of what I will do day-of really. In fact, this morning, I had no idea what I was going to do after my first stop until I got on the tube headed back into the city. I find it much more fun this way.

I got on the tube at Paddington Station this morning and, just like in D.C., every train was delayed for this that or the other reason. I finally made it to the Southfields stop, the closest to Wimbledon where for a fortnight every summer the best in tennis are on display. The place where Pete Sampras won seven titles in eight years, Boris Becker claimed his first at the age of seventeen and John McEnroe nearly did not receive honorary membership in the All England Club because he is simply put, crazy (but spectacularly entertaining).

The tour comprised stops at Henman Hill – where spectators can sit and watch the matches on a big screen television, BBC Studio – which is not where Bob Costas sits so I was not entirely interested, Millennium Building – home to dressing rooms and other services for competitors including where they pick up their prize money, and No. 1 Court – the second more prestigious on the property. Due to construction, Centre Court, was inaccessible on our tour, but we were able to go inside No. 1 and sit in the seats.

Afterwards, I had lunch at the Café on the grounds and toured the Wimbledon Museum which is home to the trophies. It is rather neat to see them up close. The winners of each trophy are given a miniature version engraved with their name before they leave after their match. The version they hold up high above their heads is kept in the museum and is engraved with the name of each winner over the years.

Two of the neatest parts of the tour were a quick stop by the roof of the broadcasting center where they have sculpted a bush to look like a cameraman and camera filming the action and this little fact from our tour guide: according to All England Club rules, no player may refuse an interview request. Players that do refuse are fined accordingly. Therefore, any member o f the press wishing to interview a player has their request accepted. After each match, she said, a player can do anywhere between 15-20 interviews, with the winner of the Championships doing between 60-70 interviews following the final Centre Court match.

Back on the Tube I decided to stop by another British landmark that was forever mounted in the collective memories of music lovers everywhere when four lads from Liverpool – including a barefoot man named Paul – walked across the street. To be honest, I would not have thought about visiting Abbey Road had it not been for the suggestion of high school friend Katy Marcinek via Facebook. So, thanks, Katy.

I stopped by the Beatles Café on my way to make sure I was headed in the proper direction. The owner confirmed my path and explained, “You cannot miss it. You will see plenty of tourists taking photographs. I’ve never understood why cars don’t take another route to their destination, having to stop at that crosswalk all the time.”

She was right, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. After a short walk, I found myself on Abbey Road where fellow tourists were running across the street, slowing down just long enough for their touring companions on the other side the snap a picture, a la The Beatles. I opted to just take a few pictures of the empty crosswalk and remember it as it should be, from left: George, Paul, Ringo and John, walking away from the studios.

I crossed the street to get a picture of Abbey Road Studios and add my name to the growing patch of graffiti on the stone wall outside.

After that, it was back to the hotel to rest for a little while before dinner and to type up this delicious account of my first two days in London.

Until next time, the States…