Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

London So Far

On a brief business trip to London (Sunday-Wednesday), these quick impressions after a Sunday walking around central London:

Arrived a few minutes behind schedule at Heathrow this morning after a miserable 7 hrs 45 mins from RDU in coach on American Airlines--truly one of the worst flights I’ve ever endured in 49 years of flying. I slept in fitful on again, off again 5-10 minute naps for several hours but could never really get rested. Too many people and too cramped. Two lavs were out of order, which added to the misery, and almost every seat was taken. The onboard AA crew was nice as could be, but there was nothing they could do to make the cramped and uncomfortable seating conditions any better.

A good reminder why I always spend miles to upgrade. I tried to upgrade on this flight, but AA took away its 3-class 777 last year and replaced it with a 2-class 767 on the RDU/LHR route. There simply are not enough Business Class seats to fill the demand on this route, so it's difficult to get upgraded.

Plane landed at 9:26 AM. After an interminable walk through the new BA terminal at Heathrow, I breezed through customs/immigration with no wait, then walked another several miles (felt like—not really) to get the Heathrow Express train into Paddington (a 3 minute wait once I finally reached the Heathrow Express platform underground), and was grabbing a cab to my hotel by 10:07 AM. Very quick to the city after getting off the plane (I never check luggage, so didn’t have to wait for it).

Despite promising me an early check-in, the hotel (Millennium London Mayfair in Grosvenor Square near the American Embassy) jerked me around by saying my room wasn’t ready unless I wanted to pay an extra $70/night (times 3 nights = $210) for a better room that was ready. I told them to stuff it, left my luggage with the porter, and walked around for 4 hours until the 2pm check-in time.

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I went on a grand tour of Spencer House (only open on Sundays ten months of the year—and saved £3 by being over 60), the finest 18th century townhouse still standing in Europe.

Weather typically English: partly sunny for a half hour, then cloudy, then rainy, then cloudy, then rainy, then partly sunny. Chilly for London (30s-40s Fahrenheit). Had to use my earmuffs and gloves until I walked enough to warm up.

Mayfair is one central London district that charges tolls to all vehicles except London Transport buses at certain times and days for traffic congestion. Mayfair has also installed a number of electric meters where electric cars can park and “refuel.” I saw one small electric car, which looked somewhat like a Smartcar, parked and plugged into one of the electric stands (and took several pictures) around Berkeley Square (between Grosvenor Square and Piccadilly).

Mayfair (and perhaps the rest of London) also now has a system (assuming you can find a parking place) to use your cell phone to call and pay for on-street parking—innovative, I thought.

Walked the length of Piccadilly Street from Regent to Hyde Park Corner, around and through most of Green Park, around part of Buckingham Palace, part of Birdcage Walk, St. James, much of Mayfair, Regent Street, Burlington Arcade, Swallow Street, and more.

Stopped at Hamley’s, Liberty’s, and Burberry’s, all jam-packed with shoppers. Nothing is discounted here. You’d never know we are in the midst of the worst recession in living memory. Prices are astronomically high for all goods. Food seems a bit more reasonable. Main London shopping drag, Regent Street, was wall-to-wall with people shopping. It was difficult to get into some stores or even to walk past them.

Bought two fuzzy animals at Hamley’s Toys for the kids (the store is celebrating its 250th anniversary).

Also bought a shockingly expensive black business overcoat at Burberry’s (don’t ask; don’t tell), but I had to have something presentable tomorrow to look prosperous and professional—and that fits. I am too fat to wear the Burberry coat I bought 30 years ago this month in the same Regent Street Burberry store.

I am very disappointed to find that London pub life has all but vanished. I went into 4 Mayfair pubs this afternoon/evening looking for a pint and supper (including the Connaught), and they’ve all gone upscale. Not one had English bitter on tap. They are all selling very expensive wines and liquors, and I found each one to have just a single draft beer, often Stella Artois. Prices for fine wines were predictably through the roof, but no English bitter or even draft beer? I take it to mean that there’s no market for traditional English beer, either.

Another sad trend: Even at the Connaught’s vaunted bar and restaurant, there was not one English server. All speak with heavy accents and are from the Continent. Out of curiosity I began asking where they are from, and got these responses: France, Italy, Macedonia, Philippines, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Lithuania, and Belgium. The French are particularly numerous and annoying. They seemed to have taken over Mayfair wait service.

Another phenomenon I somehow overlooked on previous trips: Pret A Manger outlets have sprung up everywhere. They are good but, again, no English person need apply. Every employee I met in the two I visited was from somewhere else and could hardly understand my order, nor I their thick accents in reply. (According to my cursory research, some years ago, of the company's London employees, 19% were from Britain, and 60% were from other European Union countries, mainly Eastern Europe. Pret A Manger employs 1 in every 14 applicants.)

So London is not the city I left 30 years ago (I lived and worked in the UK 1979-80). Of course I’ve been back many times since, but always with someone and usually on business with no spare time. Sunday was the first day in 30 years I’ve had to spend on my own (that is, alone) looking closely at things and comparing to my 1979-80 memories of living here.

I was quite surprised to see the levels of conspicuous consumption in the major shopping districts Sunday. A bartender told me that last Saturday (8 days ago) total UK retail sales topped £220 million, setting an all-time single day sales record. I don’t understand why they are not feeling the pinch of the recession as we are, but honestly you would never know there is a recession here.

Same with Mayfair hotels. I wandered into several upscale hostelries (well, of course they are all upscale in Mayfair) and asked for their rates and discounts (trying to plan ahead for better hotel rates if my business deal moves forward, since I know I’ll then be back with some regularity). All said this fall had been one of their busiest in years, with virtually no vacancies. I could find no hotel discounts in Mayfair, and I don't think it's simply because of the proximity to Christmas.

Who knows? These are but a few impressions with no quantitative analysis to back it up, but there’s a palpable sense that Christmas sales are way down in every Raleigh store, and that is not the case here in London.

Still and all, a surprisingly good day as a pedestrian in London that made me recall how much I loved London when I worked here in the UK and how much I enjoy walking around a European city. All my old haunts are still here, too, even venerable Fortnum and Mason.


Blogger Socialism Sucks said...

Those places you mention can't find English wait staff because welfare benefits are so generous. Most unskilled Brits prefer to sit at home and watch satellite TV on the state.

Where you were shopping, in the heart of London, you're right, nobody would think there is a recession.

However, just as the wait staff are all foreign, don't forget a lot of the shoppers are too - the recession hasn't affected the pocketbooks of the Russian oligarchy!

If you take a trip out of the center to somewhere like Croydon in the south or Hatfield in the north (wear a stab-proof vest!), you'd get a very different impression.

Boarded up shops, fried chicken outlets, charity shops, 'everything 1 pound' shops, etc. A very different Britain.

12/18/2009 10:42 AM  

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