Regrettably, my seventh and final day in London has arrived. I made good use of the time before my afternoon flight but taking the Tube back to the Portobello district so that I could walk around and visit the antique stores when they opened between 9 and 10 am. I then went to visit the Hays Building and then finished with the HMS Belfast. For a military history nut, it was the perfect ending to a perfect stay in London.
It was a great morning to walk around Portbello, which is easily accessible with the Oyster card. I loved riding the Tube, which is clean and exceptionally well run. At every stop is a helpful Tube worker who can immediately suggest routes and trains to expedite your trip. These workers were uniformly warm and helpful and often witty in dealing with lost tourists. The Tube is very easily to use and I never had to wait more than 5 minutes for a train. While it can be crowded at rush hour, it is one of the best run train systems that I have used in my travels.
The early arrival at Portobello paid a huge dividend. I walked around the cute neighborhoods off of Portobello road looking for a place for breakfast. I walked by a number of classic pubs and then spotted a busy restaurant on Westbourne Grove and not far from the Notting Hill Gate tube. It was Granger & Company. This is an Australian restaurant (Bill Granger lives in London and was at the restaurant when I arrived). There are also Granger & Company restaurants in different cities, including Honolulu. Let me put this simply: this was one of the best breakfasts that I have had anywhere in the world, including the United States where breakfasts are sacred meals for many of us. While I have seen reviews that are more mixed, my experience was terrific. It is not a “full monty” English breakfast but rather an Aussie breakfast. I had the “full Aussie” which had ham, sausage, mushrooms, and other wonderfully prepared and presented elements. Accompanied by a terrific English tea, it was a highlight of this trip to England. It is pricey but trust me, you need to have breakfast at Granger & Company if you are in London. The service was wonderful, the ambience fun, and the food incredible. If you are going to go antiquing, come earlier and have a “full Aussie” (and try the jam).
After buying some Roman coins and pre-1920s money from a collector, I returned to Central London to use my last hour or so on the HMS Belfast. This cruiser is operated by the Imperial War Museum, one of my favorite museums in the world. The HMS Belfast is a gem and the IWM showed its knack for presenting military history in an engaging and life-like way. The ship has been lovingly preserved and its history is a wonderful tale told by both a great (free) audio tour and many IWM staff throughout the ship. The HMS Belfast saw action in World War II, including the chase and sinking of the German battle cruiser (sometimes referred to as a battleship) Scharnhorst. (It was also in the strike force that destroyed the Bismarck-class battleship Tirpitz).
It also participated in the Normandy landing, taking out so many German targets and supporting infantry that it had to return to Portsmouth numerous times to reload shells. This is a picture of the Belfast firing some of the 1,996 rounds that she discharged from her six-inch guns. The ship is one of ten Town-class cruisers and was commissioned in early August 1939. As part of its participation in the British naval blockade against Germany in November 1939, the Belfast struck a German mine and spent more than two years undergoing repairs. It then saw action escorting Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union and was one of the key ships in the Battle of North Cape with the Scharnhorst. In June 1945 Belfast later joined the British Pacific Fleet and saw further combat action in 1950–52 during the Korean War.
You can go into the batteries and visit all of the decks. There is a separate Admiral’s Bridge deck and separate upper deck for the Captain. The Captain’s deck included telegraph units that made me think of my Dad, Jack Turley, who served as a telegraph officer in World War II (trained at the University of Chicago where I would later attend as a college student). Visiting the cramped quarters for eating and surgeries gives you an idea of the hardship faced by these brave men. There is also the rum barrel blessing the Queen. The guns on the bow are actually trained on a Tube stop some 12 miles away. The other guns point menacingly at the Tower of London. There are some excellent views from the ship, including a view of the Shard where I stayed and the Tower Bridge. Please visit the HMS Belfast if you pass through London. It is the embodiment of the IWM – allowing you to literally pass through history and experience it on your own terms.
The view from the HMS Belfast is unfortunately marred by a number of hideous modern buildings along the Thames. Years ago, Prince Charles received great criticism for denouncing these new additions are marring the city’s appearance and legacy. Amid the masterpieces of people like Sir Christopher Wren are truly dreadful, unimaginative new buildings. Prince Charles was right to some degree. While I tend to recoil at the idea of aesthetic regulations and boards, London is an example of how terrible designs and talentless architects can demean a great city. As someone with an academic interest in architectural theory, I found the egg-shaped appearance of buildings like 30 St Mary Axe (The Gherkin) to be a glaring intrusion on the skyline of London.
Finishing on the HMS Belfast was the perfect end to a perfect day. The only negative element came with the use of car service: Justairports. In fairness to the company, we used the service upon our arrival and when Leslie left and experienced no problems. It is more affordable and convenient than taking a taxi, though it is also easy to get to London by Tube. However, my departure was a nightmare. The company called to say that my card did not go through. I asked if I should rebooked on line or just pay in the taxi. The operator at Justairports told me to pay in the car with my card. I asked twice more whether I could use my Visa in the car and was told that it would be no problem. When I went back to my room, I emailed the company (with three hours to go) to ask if they would prefer me to rebook online. I never heard back. Running to the flight, however, the driver informed me that he could not take a credit card. When I called the operator, the same guy said that they would not accept a credit card and would only drive me somewhere to get cash. That is a big difference for some rushing for an international flight and I was very miffed. The driver took me back to the Shard as I tried to convince the operator to just take my card over the phone. The Shangri-La was wonderful as usual and could not understand why Justairports was making this so difficult. Indeed, the operator told me that it was “your problem” not the company – ignoring that fact that I did precisely what the company asked. When I sat in the lobby and rebooked, the system rejected my card. I was now missing my flight and asked to speak to a manager who initially said that the problem with the card was my doing not that of the company. However, I told him that I had just used the card half a dozen times in that day and, to his credit, he agreed to depart from policy and take the number. It worked of course. I do not blame the driver who was at a loss to help. Moreover, I appreciate the manager taking my card and getting me to the airport. Yet, I have read complaints about the company and this destroyed the good will from the prior trips. When dealing with international travelers, just glitches in their system can leave a passenger or an entire family stranded. It requires more than “it’s your problem” in a response. Nevertheless, I did get to the airport and tipped the driver who was friendly and informative. I am not going to condemn the company as I have seen others do on the Internet. One out of three trips was terrible but two were just fine. You can be the judge.
I made it through Heathrow in record time. As always, everyone from the security to the airline personnel was a huge help. This city is truly one of the friendliest, affable, and magnanimous in the world. I felt truly sad to leave. For any American, a trip to London is a trip back to our cultural and legal roots. Their history is our history and I take great pride in that association. I was deeply honored to speak at the Magna Carta 800th anniversary and to play a small role in the celebration. In meeting with the House of Commons legal staff yesterday, I was particularly stuck by our many similarities and the depth of knowledge and expertise in the HOC staff. Honestly, I think we modify many traditions and rules for the better. However, they do many other things better in my view, including their permissive view of taxpayer standing. The most humorous moment came after I was shown around the Parliament. I was pointed to the Milibank building down the street for my meeting the HOC staff and was told to look for a “modern building.” I walked by the Milibank building (which is an old brick and masonry building) three times before realizing that what constitutes “modern” in London is vastly different than in the United States. Anything short of 1000 years tends to be seen as urban renewal.
I will end this travel blog with this hopeful thought. Every American should visit London in their lifetime. I realize that it is a considerable expense. However, this is a city that is both mythical and magical in character. You literally walk through history . . . out history. It is hard to visit these magnificent buildings and museums and not be deeply moved by the contribution of Great Britain to our literature, philosophy, architecture, and law. Humanity has a debt to Great Britain that is impossible to repay. Of course, the Brits would never think of asking for any recognition of their contribution. They are like that . . . don’t you know. So leave it to an American to say “Cheers for the British” and the majesty that remains Londontown.