Back to Britain, Part 3
London Eye, Shopping Near Piccadilly Circus
June 10-25, 2003 (Updated Dec. 2, 2003)
By Lewis Nolan
June 12, 2003, Thursday – In London
A complimentary copy of The Times was hanging on our door when we arose at 7 a.m. The Times (never, not ever referred to as The London Times in these stiff-lipped precincts) is an excellent and delightfully eccentric newspaper. It is an archly conservative publication in a country where news coverage does not even pretend to be non-partisan. The newspaper editorially fights the liberal, Labour government that has been in office for quite a few years.
Over breakfast of a half of a ham sandwich and a Diet Coke (labeled Coke Light here and canned in Essen, Germany) in our Dolphin Square flat, I enjoyed reading the newspaper’s witty and idiosynchcratic coverage of
|Lewis on Westminster Bridge near London Eye|
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The morning sky is bright and clear. With a predicted high of 70 degrees, we have outstanding weather ahead of us for our first full day in London. We caught the double decker, No. 24 bus around the corner from our hotel and rode on topside seats through London traffic to Parliament Square. We had a great view of many shops and expensive stores in one of the hearts of the central business district. Our destination bus stop was near three landmarks - Big Ben, the famous statue of Winston Churchill and Westminster Abbey, site of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation 51 years ago.
We walked across the Thames River on Westminster Bridge to what has recently become London’s most visited tourist attraction, the London Eye. At 450 feet in height, it is the world’s largest observation wheel. Normally, the thought of being herded into an amusement park ride is repellent to us; we’ve never visited Disney World. But on the recommendations of a Londoner whom we met on the Gatwick Express a day earlier, we decided to check out the London Eye. We liked the looks of it well enough to give it a whirl. I’m glad we did.
Operated by British Airways with style and grace, the London Eye is a study in design and engineering excellence. It looks like the giant ferris wheel it is, only much sleeker. The wheel is made of graceful, white painted steel and stretched cables. Each of a couple of dozen “cars” is the size of a large living room, complete with seating. The egg-shaped cars are totally encased in optical quality glass, specially made in Italy. The rounded glass presents amazingly few distortions so most photos taken from inside the car appear as though they were taken through an open window.
With the falloff in tourism, we didn’t have to wait in line but a minute or two to buy tickets (about $15 each). The British Airways-operated ticket office looks much like an airline counter. It is inside the historic and architecturally distinctive County Building. The neoclassical structure is also used as an art museum now
|Betty overlooks Central London from London Eye|
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A complete revolution of the London Eye’s giant wheel takes only 30 minutes, so the ride is short. The wheel moves so slowly that there is no sense of motion. Boarding and deboarding are accomplished with a leisurely step-off onto a platform. When empty, neatly uniformed attendants check each car for cleanliness and security. They use mirrors mounted on poles to examine the underside of seats. We speculated that a landmark and object of national pride like the London Eye might be a tempting target for terrorists. Indeed, we were screened with metal detectors and asked a few questions at boarding.
There were outstanding views from the London Eye on this sunny, clear day. Among them were the Parliament complex including Big Ben, nearby Waterloo station (origination point of the Chunnel trains to France) and Charing Cross Station. There was a distance running race underway when we walked a few hundred yards from the London Eye to cross a foot bridge over the Thames to the busy shopping and office district. It was a nice day to enjoy outdoor London so we walked a mile or so to Picadilly Circus. We passed Trafalgar Square, where Lord Nelson’s Column recalls his triumph over Napoleon’s Navy nearly 200 years ago.
There weren’t nearly as many pigeons polluting the memorial’s fountain, statutes and semi-circular amphitheater-like area this year as there were 17 years ago. That is mainly due, we were told later by a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, because of two reasons. No. 1, the city now forbids the sale of pigeon food by vendors in the area. And No. 2, the city introduced some hawks to Central London several years ago. The hawks don’t eat that many pigeons, but their circling flights make the pigeons nervous and not nearly so bold.
|Betty by tube entrance at Piccadilly Circus|
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It was fun walking through the hustle and bustle of Piccadilly Circus and nearby Bond Street shopping areas.
As best as we could tell, other than changes in the fashion of the clothing on display in the glitzy shops, Piccadilly Circus looked the same as it did 17 years ago. We had stayed at the Regent Hotel, a few steps away from the tube station. The hotel is still there and offers some of the cheapest and most conveniently located lodging in Central London. All the tiny rooms are now “ensuite” so guests no longer have to walk down the hall to the restrooms or bathtub. We have fond memories of our week at the Regent nearly two decades ago, despite the midnight walks to the loo. The hotel then had wonderful breakfasts, a great bar and a grizzled and gruff “hall porter” who was a fountain of knowledge about the sights of London.
I now wish we would have taken the time on this day to revisit the Regent’s small lobby. We were a young family then, traveling on a shoestring budget. (I will now confess to carrying out a bit of our complimentary breakfast ham and bread for lunchtime sandwiches). The Regent was a perfect fit for our pocket book. Its close proximity to Buckingham Palace and other top-drawer attractions allowed us to save tube/taxi costs by walking. But now, Betty and I require more comfort and space than what we were willing to accept when we were closer to 40 than to the 60 I now am.
While Piccadilly Circus as a whole seems largely unchanged, the heart of the Burberry store and its distinctive plaid pattern is delightfully stuck in time. I had purchased one of the famous Burberry trench coat-style, raincoats 17 years ago. It has held up remarkably well, despite years of wear and thousands of miles of being bunched up and stuffed into overhead baggage compartments in airlines around the world. The Burberry raincoat seems to be almost as indestructible as steel. Plus, it has been fashionable for decades and is a cornerstone of the wardrobe of a well-dressed executive, regardless of age or nationality.
Betty had wanted to buy a lamb’s wool scarf for Casey at Burberry’s mother store near Piccadilly Circus on Bond/Regent Street. There are now stylishly dressed, young females working as clerks in the store, which I remember as being a male citadel 17 years ago.
The store now includes some daring new colors flying under the Burberry label. But the interwoven patterns still suggest the trademarked plaid. I mentioned to one of the clerks how pleased I was with the raincoat I’d bought long ago and she invited me to bring it in on my next trip to London so they could clean and waterproof it for me. When I asked the charming young woman for some directions to Leicester Square, she produced an ingenious, pop-out map of the central city I marveled at and treasure as my favorite souvenir of London.
The map unfolds like an opening flower when its heavy-stock folder is opened. The folder is an understated, promotional piece and is decorated in Burberry colors. It includes a helpful map of the tube routes and stations in Central London. Best of all, when folded up, it fits perfectly into a hip pocket of a man’s trousers without getting wrinkled. I thought it was so neat that I asked for – and got without the slightest resistance – an extra copy to give to a real estate magnate back home who has a love for London and extensive interests in promoting tourism in downtown Memphis.
A short distance from Burberry’s is a Pringle’s store, part of a chain that sells woolen sweaters made in Scotland. Betty took advantage of a sale and bought a couple of cashmere sweaters. We joke that she is the Emelda Marcos of sweaters. She has dozens.
Later, we caught the tube for a short ride back to Pimlico via Victoria Station. We had a late takeout lunch from the Dolphin Square deli and I watched TV for a while. Soccer, soccer, soccer.
If there isn’t live coverage on London TV of a soccer game somewhere in the world, the commentators offer incessant reports and analysis about the game and its stars. The current two-ring circus is David Beckham, captain of the great Manchester United team and his wife, former Spice Girls singer Posh. Beckham’s team is willing to sell his services and star appeal to rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona for a reported $25-to-30 million. Posh, a slinky darling of the London and European media also known as Victoria Beckham, adds a lot of sex appeal to the looming transaction.
England is obsessed with soccer (or football, as they call it). The Beckhams are the subject of pages of coverage in the London newspapers every day. On a newsprint poundage basis, the stylish couple rates higher than Queen Elizabeth and her dysfunctional family. An American could best envision Beckham’s celebrity by imagining a single athlete endowed with the fame of Michael Jordan, Bret Favre, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, and Sammy Sosa all rolled into one.
Bored with Beckham and still groggy from our long flight yesterday, I turned off the telly in our hotel room after a while and took a nap. That evening, we had a so-so meal at one of the Dolphin Square’s two restaurants (a chicken Caesar salad for me and ham-and-cheese sandwich for Betty). We sat for a good while in the hotel’s beautiful garden and enjoyed the full moon and cool temperature. It is great being back in London.