In 2010 I was lucky enough to win a trip to London via the British High Commission. The competition involved designing a pie for the visiting British fans who’d be coming to South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It was a 5 day trip to work a few days at a Michelin Star restaurant but mostly to see London and what it was all about. I happened to write a diary about my experience. Some of my ramblings aren’t exactly food related…but then again, we chefs aren’t only about food…
This is the diary entry for day 1. (p.s. The “Anthony” I keep referring to is the big boss of Prue Leith Chef’s Academy. He joined me on the trip…well, coz he’s the boss *sigh*)
London, day 1.
Today we landed at Heathrow International Airport, London’s main airport. First time I’ve been in the United Kingdom and so far it’s been a rather interesting trip. It began with trying to adjust to the high pitched cabin attendants asking me at 10pm if I wanted ‘beef or vegetarian sir’. I couldn’t tell if that was a question or a statement…or a threat. Anyways, before I go on about the plane trip let me rewind a bit and explain the rather serious conversation I had with the security guard at the Virgin-Atlantic ticket kiosk. As soon as I told him I was going to London and that I had never been there he gave me the ‘ol’ once over’. He decided that I looked suspicious and asked how I would be paying for my stay and why I was going so far from home. I told him I wasn’t paying for my stay and that it was a mix of work but leaning more towards pleasure. This must have really irked him as he gave me the ‘ol’ once over’ TWICE. I proceeded to enquire if there was a problem. I decided to phone Anthony, who was saying his final goodbyes to his daughter and wife at an eatery nearby, just to double check the details. As soon as he saw me speaking to him on the phone and mentioning time delays and security guards and wasting and other such words the security guard happily let me through to the ticket booth. Hmmm, strange bunch those.
So I made it to the ticketing desk, the Virgin-Atlantic lady offered me a seat with more leg-room if I paid a measly $50, with a giggle I told her my legs were roomy as they were, thanks. She then proceeded to tell me about luggage she had spent 5 days looking for. The owner of said luggage had flown to be on a cruise somewhere in the Caribbean and she thought someone on a cruise needed nothing but a Speedo anyway. We proceeded to laugh about how real men don’t wear Speedos. Once again I giggled. Funny bunch these English.
Onward bound to Terminal 1, the furthest terminal I had ever walked to, God bless the man who invented the horizontal escalator things that make you walk fast like a Vampire in Twilight…but it still felt like days before I got to it. The weird part was that no one else was there besides some airport staff. Maybe I was just extra-early, I thought to myself. After reading a magazine I looked up to realise I was still the only person there. Hmmm. A better look at my ticket suggested I rather go to GATE 11. “We’ll keep this to our self” I whispered in my head as I briskly made my way to Gate 11. I discovered that the lovely horizontal escalator thingies only head in one direction. Argh.
Eventually after that lovely escapade I made it to the right terminal, Anthony was there waiting for me…or not. Either way I was going to follow him, getting lost in an airport isn’t fun these days. I smiled rather smugly at the security guard who had earlier treated me like a suspect but was now treating others like suspects. The First Class, Business Class and some weird category called Premium Economy class were called up sequentially and the Economy class, our class of cause, was called.
The deco of Virgin-Atlantic planes is rather interesting, who would have thought red, silver, grey and purple matched as a colour combination. Premium-Economy was proudly decked out in lovely dark purple seats. Our seats were silver and red…and rather ‘cosy’. I sat next to a rather polite English woman in the middle seat in the middle aisle. I had been told that I was effectively in the worst seat on the plane. Nice. After the usual explanation about safety with its customary flight attendant arm-action to imaginary exits and hearing what route the captain would take to get us to England I proceeded to figure out how the famed Virgin-Atlantic entertainment system worked. After pressing and prodding to my heart’s content I eventually figured it out. Before I could watch anything drinks and dinner were served. Some beef ‘thing’ was served with vegetables, a salad, a roll and the usual “what the hell is that” dessert. We were handed a ‘goodie bag’…or the officially termed ‘amenities bag’. It had socks, a toothbrush, an inflatable neck cushion and other little bits and bobs. I didn’t realise people who flew needed so much! The movies were as fresh as a daisy; I’d never seen such a new selection of movies on a flight before. I proceeded to watch Sherlock Holmes and settled in for what we were told was to be a 10 hour flight.
Back to the beginning…we landed at Heathrow. If I had thought the walk to Terminal 1 in Johannesburg was tough then Heathrow won the cup. I’m sure we were given the furthest terminal there is at Heathrow. The walk was lonnngggg. Very few horizontal escalators and a lot of people tired and gatvol from a long, cramped flight.
We did the usual Customs thing, had an English Customs (I’m sure they’re called something else there but I forget) official tell us how he loved to make stews after he heard why we were in London. Other than that it was pretty painless. I saw someone get detained though. Which was something interesting to slice through the boredom.
As the time was only 7:00 am or thereabouts we decided to catch the Heathrow Express (a larny version of the Gautrain basically) to Paddington to drop our luggage off at the hotel.
Anthony reassured me that he knew Paddington and how to get to the hotel. I reassured him that I trusted his judgement and that I would just follow him as I myself, knew 0% about London. To cut a long story short…we got lost. Dragging a 23kg suitcase and a laptop around a strange place during morning rush traffic is not recommended. After 3 or so enquiries from strangers and other hotels, we eventually found our way to what was to be our home for 4 days. The Hyde Park Premier London Paddington Hotel (Yes that is the name). After debating with the receptionist about our reservation and whether it existed or not we left our luggage and left to go fetch our tickets to the shows and attractions http://www.visitbritainshop.com had so generously awarded us. Little did we know what an adventure we were about to enjoy.
What I soon learned about London is that there are busses and trains to anywhere and everywhere…as long as you know where you are going. During my packing for the trip I discovered that my lovely camera didn’t have its’ lovely battery charger with it. I duly informed Anthony about this and we added it to the now substantial list of ‘things to do’.
We headed back to Paddington train station firstly to get water, the miniature play-play cups on the plane didn’t do a drink of water any justice, and to get Anthony his morning fix of caffeine. It was whilst there that I soon discovered doing currency sums in your head whilst overseas is not a good idea. Seeing a bottle of juice in a vending machine with a £2.50 price tag made my heart skip more than one beat. I couldn’t help but notice how busy the station was with business people and tourists with suitcases all mingling in one place. There was also quite a bit of renovating going on at the station, something I’d grown quite accustomed to in Jo’burg over the past 3 years.
We decided to head to the famed London Underground to catch my first London ‘tube’. The first thing that hit me about the Underground is the mass of people all heading in one direction but very few actually having conversations. Old, young, workers, tourists, children…all walking through tunnels underground. We eventually made it to our platform, where we caught the City Line to try and get to a place where we could find a camera charger for me.
On exiting the Underground you’re immediately hit by the hustle and bustle of London’s crowds. It was still rather early but Anthony and I noted to ourselves how late the stores in London seemed to open. Similar to the Underground, people seemed to be heading all over the place but very few were chatting or smiling. Hmmm. Then a fine London welcome…drizzle. Ah yes, we had arrived.
After much walking up and down we eventually gave up on the camera charger for the time being and sort food. The closest place that was open was a Marks and Spencer (M&S) store. We headed for the food section and things began looking oddly familiar. It was then I realised the South African Woolworths link to Marks and Spencer isn’t just a myth, they’re practically one and the same in terms of look and feel and the type of food sold bar certain fruits and fresh produce. After staring at a few shelves and packets sandwiches won. Now the odd bit that completely boggled our head, the tills in M&S are automatic. No cashier at all. No one to give you a fake smile. No one to chew gum as they scan your items. Being men we were just astonished by the technology…and the trust factor. Would a concept like this work in South Africa? I wonder. There were no security guards at the entrance or exits either. I, being me, went and broke the machine somehow and an M&S staff member had to come and sort it out. After a few more ‘Geez like’ comments we soon made our way out of M&S and headed to Piccadilly Circus to try and find the London Visitor Centre.
Along the way Anthony filled my head with tales of stores and restaurants in London and their histories. I noted how many of the stores on the high streets were also available in South Africa, this globalisation concept truly wasn’t a myth after all. We stopped at Hamleys toy shop along the route. Hamleys is known as the world’s oldest toy shop, opened in 1760 by William Hamley it is 6 storeys of kid heaven. Each level is aimed at a different age group and it just amazed me the amount of toys available. I think every kind of toy you could think of can be found in that building. Being someone who has always indulged my inner boyish tendencies I couldn’t help but marvel.
We soon found Piccadilly Circus but realised the term ‘circus’ meant a conjunction of many streets at one circular point…and each one going in different directions. Nope, not what we needed. We tried to work out street signs to no avail. We asked people but each one added to our confusion…then we found the Cool Britannia store, possibly the largest souvenir store I had ever seen. EVERYTHING sold there is dedicated to Britain and London. From mugs to toy cars, from maps to fake street signs of famous London streets, from miniature Big Ben’s to posters of Trafalgar square, name it and they probably have it there. I made a mental note to return later but at that moment our goal was to get directions! We found a rather helpful lady on the lower floor who told us the place we were looking for was literally round the corner.
So we duly went round the corner. A block away and joy of joys, The London Visitors Centre. We were soon to discover that our 2 hours of walking had been for naught, the vouchers we had received could only be redeemed on the day we were to use them. Many a sigh was shared between Anthony and I. Ok, onward bound to Trafalgar Square!
Luckily for us Trafalgar is just 2 blocks from where we were. I got giddy with excitement when I realised I was about to see my first big London landmark.
Trafalgar square is a strange type of place. The National Gallery is the main building that opens up to the huge row of steps that the public freely (and happily) utilise to enjoy the view. From the steps you can see the London Eye, Buckingham Palace (if you squint and look very carefully) and obviously the world famous statue of Lord Nelson. It’s a rather surreal experience when you first arrive and see it all. The famous Trafalgar Sq. pigeons are no more due to the introduction of 3 hawks which patrol the area. The busses and taxis fill the streets surrounding the square and tourist sit on the steps of the statues taking pictures. Kids climb the bronze lions whilst their parents go oohh and ahh at the art in the gallery. Of cause our mission wasn’t to see Lord Nelson, our mission was to find The Original London Tour Sightseeing offices. After getting lost once again we managed to find it hidden away just round the corner from Trafalgar Square. We got the same lovely news as earlier, we could only redeem our tickets on the day we were to use them. After walking for hours and a 10 hour flight doing some sightseeing was far from our list or priorities for the day. We decided it was time for lunch…and a beer.
We found a restaurant strangely named All Bar One, apparently a franchise of sorts it is famed for its extensive list of available wines and beers. Anthony was more than happy to inform me of his youthful days on London’s streets and his memories of the local brews. The menu was rather vast with quite a few options to satisfy a larger market. We ordered beers first (we had our priorities right of cause) and I ordered a falafel burger. One thing with a London spring is that the sun may be shining but it definitely isn’t warm! We moved 3 times before finding suitable warmth. We noticed how clean London was despite the huge number of people in it…and how smokers disregarded this fact and threw their ‘stompies’ everywhere. Smokers are the same worldwide it seems, hehe. Similar to South Africa, they aren’t allowed to smoke in restaurants or inside buildings.
After lunch we decided to give the search for a camera charger another go. We got on a London bus and headed towards Hyde Park and beyond. Along the way I had a chance to really eye the wonder that is London. The huge royal parks (the land belongs to the Queen but she has entrusted it to the city to be utilised by the public), the huge number of busses (there is a bus every 2 minutes someone told me) and the efficiency of the public transport system. The city is clean and unlike most large cities does not have huge skyscrapers.
We got off the bus and true to form got ourselves lost again. To cut a long story short we didn’t find the right camera charger and the one that we did find was being sold for £40…which was enough to get a giggle out of me. We found a camera shop owner willing to charge my battery for me for £5. (Note to self: NEVER forget your camera charger at home again)
We decided it was time to call it a day and walked to Euston Square to catch the tube back home.
Back at the hotel we parted ways, Anthony to his oddly number room 806 and me to room 14 (useless fact for the day: no hotel has a room 13 and no plane has a row 13 in it). I enjoyed the FREE broadband and skyped my friends and family back home and called it a night. Day one in London was now complete….
Ok, not quite, I did wake up to go buy some KFC, I had been told by Ruan back at school that I should try it. Knowing my rather sad weakness for fried chicken, I gave in. It was interesting to note how much cleaner our KFC’s are and how many options we have back home. The portions in London are much bigger than ours though and their chips are definitely better. There we go my culinary titbit for the day. Fried chicken, a warm bed and Sky News…good night London