The London Trip
This page was last edited 10/21/02
Roy and Carol left for London on time in Kansas City and we were immediately behind time two hours or so when we arrived in St Louis. It seems the bad weather was a factor and all flights were at least two hours behind schedule. The flight was an uneventful 9 hours to London from St Louis. One biggie for me... I left my pager, cellular phone, and laptop computer at home. We carried a Canon ES6000 8mm camcorder and that was about it for electronics. Our friends in London have a computer so we had email contact. They also had four digital cameras so there was no need for us to carry one over when we could simply use theirs. We would take pictures, write them to a CDRom and bring them home. Effortless and no extra baggage.
We arrived shortly before noon, London time (GMT), and LaJuana met us and took us to their home in Putney. After dropping off our luggage we went up to Bruce's office. One of the requests we had when we left home was to pick up a couple of Harley T-shirts if possible. As luck would have it the Warr's London Harley-Davidson dealership was just down the street from Bruce's office. We had that part of our obligation taken care of in a few minutes and even picked up a couple of T-shirts for ourselves also. We grabbed a bite to eat at a local pub. It would seem that pubs are one of the most popular items in London. And what was on the menu... why 'Texas chili' of course! Fish and chips were £4.95 as in 4 pounds 95 pence, or nearly $9. It was not cheap to eat in London, or to do much of anything else for that matter.
Bruce was off to the US for business so we spent the rest of the day and evening very casually with his wife, LaJuana, and we had a nice dinner at their home. Shopping is done on foot... and that means that a good set of feet is essential. With the population of London being so big, along with the age of the London city itself, the roads are narrow and the shopping areas seem to be continuous. Not everyone owns a car and you must walk to many of the shops that you will be shopping in. When one shopping area ends it seems like another begins. It is a continuous thing. One of the oddities of London is that there is a Marks and Spencer which has clothing in the front of the store and groceries in the rear of the store. That was truly unusual for us also.
Bruce and LaJuana's home seemed to be typical for the area. It was an 'attached' home and two story. The kitchen appliances were smaller than what we're used to. The kitchen had the washer and dryer in them along with what I would describe as an apartment size refrigerator. It seems that folks do a lot of daily shopping to get their food and prepare a fresh dinner rather than using prepared foods. There was a small back yard which actually had grass and shrubs in it. And Bruce had a BBQ grill. I thought that in itself was a biggie. We watched TV on their Sony w/Sky Vision satellite service.
TVs in London are licensed with a yearly license fee. It appears that the BBC provides free TV, as in no ads, and that the license fee also helps pay for the BBC services worldwide. The fee is minimal and really not a problem. Sky Satellite is the UK version of digital satellite. The UK has satellite TV just like we do in the US. The programming is similar and there is not quite the volume of channels that we are used to here in the US. There were a lot of pay-per-view channels available with current movies on them. Another popular item that appears to be ahead of the US offerings is the 'widescreen' TV. Standard TV screens are still available but the widescreen TV has taken on a much more significant presence in the UK. We also noted that the mini-disc is also very popular in the UK.
The second day (Wednesday) in London we went on a bus tour of London (The Original London Sightseeing Tour) With this open top double-decker bus tour you can get on and off the bus at various sites and wait for one of the buses that run every 30 minutes or so past the points of interest to go to the next site. Tours are supplemented by various language tapes available if you're not English. There are several London tour services available other than the one listed above. The bus seemed to be convenient and easy to use. You must get off the bus to see the sites or you'll just get a quickie view as they drive by and give a description of what you're seeing.
Day three (Thursday) we grabbed an all day pass (£4) on the 'tube' and went to Harrods, the posh London up-scale department store in London. This is the store that is owned by Mohammed al Fayed (remember Diana and Dodi al Fayed?) The store has many floors of top line offerings. It is said that you can buy anything there, and there is a story of one customer that wanted an elephant and put in the order. An elephant was delivered to his door three days later. Cars, clothes, magazines, etc. are all available. I personally was bored with Harrods. They were simply selling products I had seen at one place or another many times. I will say that the pricing that I saw was not out of line from what I would have expected to pay. The one place that I didn't like to be charged for was the restroom. It cost £1 to use if you hadn't purchased £90 of products. That essentially meant that you had to spend $150 to pee, or pay the price ($1.75).
After spending late morning and early afternoon shopping at Harrods and other downtown London sites, we had lunch at Montepeliano's, an Italian restaurant. Being from America it was always interesting to observe the 'foreign' folks and their habits. The owner (manager?) of this restaurant was wearing jeans and couldn't have been told from a good ol' USA type. <grin>
We then went to Kew Gardens, the Royal Botanic Gardens. These gardens have quite an offering and we enjoyed the current orchid display that was there. It was a nice place to walk and enjoy also.
A quiet evening at home again. We did that a lot while in London! And then Friday Bruce was back on town around 10:30. He had caught a cab and was home around 10:30. We decided it would be a nice day for a drive to Bath so off we went. We did a tour of Bath, England seeing the Roman Baths among other things. We also walked around Bath seeing the Royal Crescent, and Pulteney Bridge among other sites. Check out their web page for more complete info.
It might be noted that the ONLY rain we personally experienced was on the way home from Bath. As we got in the car we saw the rain starting and it rained all the way back to the Bruce's. Other than that there was absolutely beautiful weather for us in the United Kingdom.
Just as an aside, we listened to the radio on the way back from Bath. Bruce explained that the BMW radio was a lot different than what we were used to in the USA. The radio stations apparently have several towers because of the rough terrain. The radio station may be available across the country but will have several towers, unlike our stations that pretty much have a single tower. The radio will pick up the closest tower and play the signal. The radio constantly scans and tells you what stations are available. They each have a code. We could also select the type of station that we wanted. All stations within range were displayed.
We had decided that Saturday would be a good day to get on the train and go to Edinburgh, Scotland. The trip up the coast was beautiful. The trains in London are well equipped for our travels and they had nice seating, a restroom and a cafeteria car for eating. We passed nuclear power plants, historic buildings, farms, and modern buildings while on the train. The ocean had some large seagoing ships, seagulls, and lighthouses. It was neat!
We stayed in Edinburgh, Scotland at Mary's Place bed and breakfast. It was really a nice old fashioned place. On a little humorous quirk, I asked for bacon and eggs for breakfast. They laughed and said they didn't have any bacon. I just figured it was UK thing. Then I learned that my friend Bruce has signed us into a vegetarian bed and breakfast. None of us are vegetarian but their ad looked good and the place was comfortable. A good laugh was had by all. We toured the Edinburgh Castle, Scotch Whiskey Museum, and Palace of Holyroodhouse, all on the royal mile along with hitting some other highlights in Edinburgh. We went to stopped by the Hard Rock Cafe, several shopping stores, etc. Had to get the grandkids something and picked up a few items for ourselves also. Our feet were sore by the end of two days of walking in Edinburgh. We got on the train and headed back to London for some rest.
Monday we went to Warwick, UK to see Warwick Castle. This is one of the castles that is still maintained in a usable condition. It is quite a display. We spent most of the day there looking over the castle. Climbed 530 steps to see the top of the tower and the surrounding countryside from the tower. We also went down into the dungeon area. It is quite 'scary' to think of the things that these people did to their enemies back in the old days. Punishment was pretty severe and there was even a steel strapping that a prisoner was placed in and left to die. Even the stout of heart were reduced to begging when that fate was given. There was also a dungeon within a dungeon where a prisoner had just enough room to lie in the dark and literally be forgotten. Another feared death.
After a day at Warwick we drove back to London and went to a Tesco store to buy something for dinner rather than eat out. We actually only ate out once for an evening meal while we were on the trip. Tesco is one of the major stores in the London area and the thing we noted while shopping at the store was the lack of variety. In the US we would expect, for instance, for a significant area of the soup aisle to have selections of soup virtually unlimited. The same is what we would expect in the breakfast cereal aisle. What we found was a very limited selection in most all areas except the wine area and the fresh vegetables area. It seems that in London folks prepare foods from scratch quite a bit so the selections in areas that we would normally expect don't exist. The Tesco store we were in was pretty much brand new, in a new building also. We had a fantastic dinner and enjoyed the friendship of Bruce and LaJuana. The next morning we simply got up and went to the airport.
My wife hit me up for a Teapot in the airport duty free shopping area... and we're off to Kansas City. While on the plan you are asked to fill out a form that enumerates how many items were purchased while overseas and what their value was. US charges a duty on the amount of items brought back into the US. Each individual has a $400 exemption so for my wife and I it was $800 total. We had purchased enough items that our duty was $28. The ridiculous thing here was that of all the people on the airplane that had to have purchased items while overseas, we were the only ones that reported anything that was over our exemption. You've got to be kidding folks... is honesty a complete void these days? Home without further incident and we're getting back in the time of things.
Pictures will be put up when I get the opportunity...
Exchange Rate - The UK exchange rate when we were there was officially $1.64 per "£" (pound). Real life is that this is a basic starter figure but money exchange sites in and around London were charging from $1.73 to $1.80 per "£" along with a commission fee from $2 to $10 per transaction. It could get pretty expensive to trade money around. You will save some money by using your debit card since the banks give you a more favorable exchange rate usually. Your credit card will also give a better rate usually. There are still charges involved that you should be aware of. Have plenty of money? Have Citibank open a foreign account for you and you won't get hurt at all on the exchange rates. My understanding is that they will do this but you would have to open at least a $5,000 account to do it.
Purchase Prices - In the UK the price shown is the price with tax included. If it says £4.95 then the price is four pounds 95 pence total.
VAT - Value Added Tax is something that England has. As a guest in England you have the ability to request a refund of the VAT tax. To do that you must follow certain guidelines. You must get a receipt from each place you make a purchase and you must get a VAT refund form from them at the same time. Once you have these items you can fill out the VAT refund form and submit it to the VAT refund desk at the airport as you are leaving the country. They will certify it so that you can submit it. It is submitted to a private agency that handles it for you and they charge a fee. Real quick like you can see that requesting a refund is an absolute waste of time if you don't have a significant VAT to request. VAT is 17% so a purchase would have to be large to be worth the effort.
Driving/Buses/Taxis/Tube - In the UK you drive on the left side of the road. I bit disconcerting until you get used to it. The streets of London were designed for horse and feet. It is strongly advisable to have a 'navigator' reading a London street map is you plan to drive in London. Another problem is that the street signs weren't designed for auto travel and as such there is no 'standard' location for anything. A street sign might be on the side of a building, on a post, on a wall built in front of the building... you get the idea. It was a nightmare to navigate even with a good map. One freeway entrance ramp we took was little more than an alley and then you're on the M4. What a deal!
The hot deal here is to take the tube (subway/buses at £4 a day for a pass) or to pay a taxi. The 'tube' is the subway/train that runs all around London. Sometimes it is a subway and other times it is above ground. The pass is available on a daily basis or a weekly, monthly or yearly basis. Single trips on it are a waste of money unless you actually are going to only travel to one place and be done with it. The daily pass is the best deal for a tourist in my opinion. It also allows you to get on either the train or the associated bus line. All are considered the same for the pass. The bus will have a driver and a ticket seller/taker. The trains have a place to buy the pass and then you go through a turnstile showing the machine (through a reader) your pass as you enter.
The London Taxis are built by an ore company (London Taxis International is a division of Manganese Bronze Holdings PLC) and if you want a used one here's a link to them. (Taxi Exports). Taxi drivers are not required to know much of anything about where things are but we found that the taxis that we used had knowledgeable drivers and they quickly got us where we needed to go. Rates from the airport can be pretty expensive. As much as £60 to get to central London from Gatwick. Rates for local travel were much easier to deal with and £ 4-5 seemed to get us around to the short hops that we wanted. There were always four (4) of us in the cab and it was comfortable.