Back to Britain, Part 15
London’s Gatwick Airport and Home
June 10-25, 2003 (Updated Nov. 28, 2003)
By Lewis Nolan
Tuesday, June 24, 2003 – To London’s Gatwick Airport
We said our goodbyes to Glynis O’Shea and Ken Maidment at the Trewinnard Hotel and pulled out of St. Ives in our rented Vauxhall sedan at 9:15 a.m. Traffic was light and we quickly connected onto the northbound A-30 and then to the M-5 motorway to Bristol. Had we more time, we would have liked to spend a day in Bristol. It is an ancient port city on the western coast of England which gave the term “Bristol fashion” to boats maintained in the highest order of maintenance and order. Unfortunately, time constraints forced us to bypass Bristol as we swung east onto the M-4 to speed across Southern England..
|Lewis on path around The Island at St. Ives|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
The M-4 is a high-speed, four-lane, divided road most of the way to the outskirts of London. Either to one side of the roadway or in the strip of land between the westbound and eastbound lanes every 50 or so miles is a complex consisting of a petrol station, a restaurant or two, several fast food outlets, a convenience store and perhaps a motel.
Near London’s Heathrow Airport, the M-4 roadway widens to six or eight lanes. Overhead electronic signs that resemble theater markees advise of speed limits and road conditions ahead. At rush hours, the junction of M-4 and M-25 (the beltway that circles London) supposedly gels into the largest parking lot in London. We hammered through at mid-day so the bottleneck was considerably eased and considerably shortened.
After less than five miles of slow traffic, we were again lead-footing along at 80-to-90 mph on the M-25/M-23. Driving at this speed in a tight pack of cars and truck required my full concentration and a lot of trust in other drivers. We made it to Gatwick Airport – located 28 miles south of London – in good time, about six hours from St. Ives. But I wouldn’t want to make that stressful drive again anytime soon. Too much like driving in northern New Jersey or Los Angeles.
I was astonished that we saw only one police car during the entire, cross-country drive. There were lots of signs warning of hidden cameras filming speeders. Most drivers took no notice, so I went with the flow. Who knows, maybe I will receive a bill from Hertz or a nasty notice from the British constabulary at some future point if they trace the rental car’s license plate.
If you’ve not done it before, returning a rental car at Gatwick can be difficult. Unlike at other American, Irish and French airports I’ve driven to, the Gatwick North Terminal (where Delta flies to and from) has no explicit signage directing drivers to the rental return areas. The larger South Terminal is a maze of ramps and ambiguous signs. A policeman – one of many Bobbies armed with automatic rifles in and around the airport - could not tell us how to get to the Hertz rental area. We finally stumbled into the Hertz lot by following a sign to “New Rental Pickup.”
A helpful, young woman who was likely of Indian extraction allowed as how the airport-induced confusion among customers returning cars has been a persistent problem for several years due to very high security precautions. She said Hertz is not allowed to post its own signage. She patiently listened to my account of how our car was shorted almost a full tank of gas at the Hertz pickup point at Victoria Station. She graciously gave me a 25-pound credit on my American Express charge. The credit offset an extra day’s rental charge due to our check-in being several hours late. It made me feel better, but it was only about half the actual cost of the extra gas I had to purchase because of the screw-up of another third worlder who worked for Hertz in London.
I was not treated as fairly by the Holiday Inn at Gatwick. We were charged 3 pounds each for the short shuttle “courtesy bus” ride from the North Terminal to the hotel. Worse, we had to wait a long time for service since the bus only ran once an hour in the afternoon. The hotel was expensive and ultra modern; it was entirely too chrome and glitz for our taste. But the room was comfortable and was equipped with an enormous, gleaming bath tub. The staff was both friendly and efficient, not always universal qualities found in Britain.
At the hotel’s restaurant, we asked our waiter if he was familiar with the name Kemmons
Wilson. Maybe it was an unfair question to put to the eager-to-please, soft spoken, young man from Africa. But the name Kemmons Wilson is legend in our hometown of Memphis. He was the founder of Holiday Inns, which he built into the largest hotel chain in the world. I had been privileged to interview Kemmons several times during my years as a reporter and later the business editor of The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal in the 1970s and 1980s. Kemmons was the only Memphian I know of who has appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. His recent death was front page news in Memphis because of his great success and his local philanthropy. Kemmons left a tremendous legacy in the lodging industry and in his hometown.
A decade or so ago following Kemmons’ retirement, the old Holiday Inns chain was sold by new management to a British hospitality company. The Bass company, perhaps best known for its ales, later cut up the company and sold off its parts. The Six Continents chain of Britain owns or manages the Gatwick property.
I have not been impressed with Six Continents’ stewardship of the once great Holiday Inns chain. I had quite a run-in with Six Continents early in our trip planning that suggested to me the culture that had made the Holiday Inn trademark so popular has now totally disappeared. Learning this was both frustrating and saddening to me, a longtime customer and cheerleader of the once-great, Memphis company.
To be brief, I had seen some good rates advertised on the Holiday Inns website for its hotel near London’s Victoria Station. After being assured on the phone by a customer service rep that I could book on the internet and be liable for no more than one night’s lodging in the event of a travel delay, etc., and that I wouldn’t be charged until checkout, I booked a
|Betty by St. Ives' plantings|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
Irate, I called various Holiday Inns customer service reps several times before the company finally switched our reservations to the regular, refundable rate – which only cost about $10 a night more – and gave me a credit of nearly $2,000. I had to wonder how many innocent travelers pay huge rates months in advance and then have to eat them in case of flight delays, illness, etc. Kemmons and Holiday Inns made a lot of piratical money during the years the company was based in Memphis – but I cannot imagine the old Holiday Inns treating customers so shabbily. The lesson here is to be very careful when booking a room at a Holiday Inn on the Internet.
The Holiday Inn at Gatwick is far removed from the middle-of-the-road standard of American roadside lodging that once advertised “the best surprise is no surprise.” The restaurant has a pronounced, third world theme. Poster-sized photos of Africans, Asians and Arabs in native headgear adorn the walls. There were no identifiable Americans pictured. The only American influence I discerned was that 6 of the 37 wines on the menu were from California.
The fish I had at dinner was pretty good, reasonably priced but not memorable. At least in that respect, Holiday Inns has stayed true to its heritage.
The extra 6 pounds I paid for the Holiday Inn Gatwick’s breakfast was worth the price. The meal is served buffet style and includes excellent English bacon (the last I knew I would see in a while). We were up at 5:30 a.m. and paid our 3-pound fares on the “courtesy bus” at 8:15 a.m.
Security was predictably heavy at Gatwick Airport. Before exchanging the last of our British Pounds for dollars, I purchased a large bottle of Jameson Irish Whisky for about $17 in a duty free shop. That is roughly half the price charged in Memphis. We boarded the Delta flight to Cincinnati at 10:15 a.m. and settled into our cramped, window and aisle seats near the rear of the airplane. Boarding of the several hundred passengers went slowly and we didn’t take off until 11:40 a.m. That added nearly an hour and a half to our “flight time,” on top of the two hours spent waiting in the airport. This was going to be a very long day.
We visited with an outgoing woman named Connie. She is a recently minted Ph.D. in English who teaches writing skills to business majors at Miami (Ohio) University. Connie was returning home after teaching in a community college program in England for part of the summer. She was traveling with her three children and her mother, who had joined her for excursions to London and Paris.
Delta served us a decent lunch and later a sandwich. During the long flight, I jotted down some notes about our trip and tried to nap while Betty watched a movie and read. The flight finally arrived on time in Cincinnati at 2:30 p.m. (local time). We were in the air for 7 ˝ hours.
We cleared U.S. Customs without a hitch. We were well under the $800 per-person import allowance. We were not selected for questioning or baggage search – maybe because we look so honest (and are!). Maybe it was my gray hair. Or maybe it was the tired look in our eyes from the long flight on uncomfortable seats.
We were not pleased to learn that our 4:25 p.m. connecting flight to Memphis on Delta ComAir was scrubbed because of unspecified mechanical problems. The gate agent rebooked us on an 8:50 p.m. flight and at my request gave us each a $10 meal voucher. There wasn’t much to choose from in the Delta terminal other than fast food so our first meal to celebrate being back in America was McDonald’s burgers.
After eating the first truly American food we’d had in two weeks, we were somewhat refreshed but still tired and cranky. We talked to another ComAir agent who found us space on a 7:15 p.m. flight to Memphis on Northwest. A nice guy - a ComAir pilot walking the complex of terminals for his daily exercise - kindly escorted us through the maze of connecting tunnels and underground trams to the Northwest gate.
We were relieved to learn that our Northwest flight was one of the few that were not cancelled by storms in the upper Midwest. I don’t know what it is about air travel with us. But it seems we run into flight delays and cancellations most of the time.
But at least the final leg of our trip home was uneventful. The Northwest flight was on time. Better yet, our luggage arrived with us. This was something of a surprise because of the airline changes in Cincinnati. Thanks to a $21 cab ride, we were home at 9 p.m.
Since leaving the Holiday Inn at Gatwick, we had been traveling for 20 hours. Jet lagged, we had trouble sleeping and arose at 5 a.m. It took several days to fully recover from the exhausting journey. Nonetheless, we had a great time and learned a lot during our two weeks in England. I doubt we’ll return to busy and expensive London anytime soon. But if a great deal should appear and the timing is right, we just might “cross the pond.” If we do, our first choice would be to stay in the Dolphin Square Apartment Hotel.
A higher priority would be returning to St. Ives in Cornwall and staying at the Trewinnard Hotel. But first, I think we will have to figure out a quicker and easier way to get there other than through Gatwick. The tiring drive across southern England adds a day to each side of the trip. The Internet travel planning services I’ve checked suggest a flight routing through Atlanta-Paris then connections to Bristol or Plymouth. I suspect that getting to Cornwall by flying to Boston-Shannon and then connecting to Cornwall might result in less wear-and-tear.
- Lewis Nolan, July 5, 2003