Well, the knee ganged up on me. I’m back in London sorting out hotel cancellations, changing and canceling flights, etc.
Robert arranged for me to have a wheelchair in the Newcastle train station. Not totally necessary, but awfully nice, not least as the two helpers (one for the chair, one for the bags, tip refused) turned out to be a hoot to talk to: one York accent and one pure Geordie accent, and two good senses of humor. We passed a laugh-filled 10 minutes waiting for the train, and when it arrived, the wheelchair pusher managed to make it through the usual scrum to get on the train and find a free space in the baggage rack — something I can never do. Train baggage racks in the UK tend to seem like last-minute second thoughts and are almost always stuffed to overflowing. This results in bags being deposited in the wheelchair spot, which results in an irate guard asking you to move your luggage — but where? Generally to the far other end of the car, while the train is moving.
The Newcastle train station is one of those grand Victorian architectural and engineering achievements. Opened in 1850, it is a Grade I listed building, designed by John Dobson in cooperation with Robert Stephensen and TE Harrison, engineers. Engineering was needed: The station was built on a curve, approached via the High Level Bridge over the Tyne, itself an engineering feat crossing the river 120 feet above the surface of the water — 1,338 feet long — and opened in 1850.
The baggage helper (the York accent) gave me a Remembrance Day pin from his jacket, which was kind of him, as you get them by donating a pound or two to the soldiers’ relief fund. Remembrance Day is 11/11, marking the end of World War I. I mentioned that I’d been in York last year at the RAF’s 100th year ceremony, which was also the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain (s) and that I’d been very moved. He asked if Americans have such moving ceremonies, and I had to admit that the British have a way of doing such ceremonies that no one can equal. “Stiff ooper lip” said he, in his Yorkshire accent. The two were wonderful.
Now I’m in another of my favorite hotels, the Holborn Thistle, just steps from the British Museum (and the Museum Pub… ). Reading some Yelp reviews of another old British hotel, I was struck by the complaint from an American that it was old (well, yeah!) and a little crazy in its layout. This is because so many of these hotels have been added onto and “modernized” (i.e. adding bathrooms, electricity) over and over during the last hundred years or more, and if they ramble, I think it’s the rambling of a friendly older person with many a story to tell. Give me the old places with a bit of character every day — you can keep the glitzy “I’m-too-busy-to-relax” places. And the old hotels tend to be more helpful: I’m not sure when I can get a flight home, so reception has given me the room for three nights, with an option to extend if I need it, and I can check out any time before then with no charge.
Flash! the breakfast, AKA the Dreaded British Hotel Breakfast, was a cut above the usual! Edible sausages with actual taste and the sawdust content way down; round, rather than triangular potato nuggets, again with an actual flavor; a different kind of mushrooms, with – gasp! – more flavor!… An oasis!
I’ve stayed at the Thistle Holborn many times over the years, and always loved it: The sixth floor is library quiet and full of funny corners and oddly-shaped rooms under the mansard; the bathroom/toilet is a peculiar space, being two rooms behind a main door, with the shelves and soap in the toilet half — but three “city” stars and five “country stars.” I love the place.
I booked my rooms via Travelocity. I had booked a room at the Strand Palace for my return from Morocco and Spain, and they would not refund. A very nice girl at Travelocity called them on my behalf and lo! – a full refund! I am impressed with Travelocity’s customer support, and will not forget this!
Off in half an hour to the Spaghetti House, a very reliable Italian restaurant in Sicilian Ave, part of a small chain, but none the worse for that. I’m meeting with William Chapman and David Steindl for dinner; the latter has just been parachuted in by Boeing to deal with some supply problem. David was on the first part of this trip — the train ride from Seattle to New York — so this will be fun, as well as a happy bookend to the whole journey!
Sicilian Avenue is an odd little diagonal pedestrianized street just off Boomsbury Way and up from Holborn – one of those peculiar and unexpected corners you constantly discover when wandering around London.
Today, all morning was spent changing my ticket to come home tomorrow. Initially, British Airways wanted $14,000 to make the change. (You read that correctly: fourteen thousand, and change!) The very nice woman at Travelocity spent all morning on it, and got BA, out of the goodness of their beneficent hearts and in view of my disability, to charge me only $380 if I would accept a downgrade to tourist class. I have accepted this, though the thought of 10 hours in a cramped seat with my leg bent and unable to stretch out, would be pure torture: I’d be confessing to anything within an hour, just to get some legroom. Why a change in dates for the same flight in the same class should cost as much as six transatlantic passages on the Queen Mary, or seven business class round trips by air, defeats my understanding, but it is so. And as near as I can tell, this sort of piracy is the same throughout the industry.
Having done all this — that is, waited for return calls and wasted away on call-holding all morning, I am going out to look for a cashpoint and perhaps a visit to the British Museum, only a few hundred yards away. And perhaps a pub dinner and a last real ale until I can get back to the Church Key in Edmonds for a Machine House ale, which is anyway better than most of the beer one finds in the UK. There is nothing like real cask ale!
Well, home at last, if three weeks early. Time to start planning a trip to Germany in the spring, when I plan to visit my old Gymnasium friends from the Abitur (graduating) Class of ’67, and maybe make a quick visit down to Slovenia to see ski friends there.
A final note on managing the flight home, which was “interesting.” To whit: once at Heathrow with my $380 0n Tourist Class ticket, I was able to Upgrade back to Business Class for around $900 – so right back where I started from, and avoiding BA’s $14,000 extortion, and “saving” around $12,700. Being able to lie flat and take the prosthetic leg off made the difference between the dungeon treatment and mere flight endurance.
As a footnote, a friend in the airplane business wrote: “I expect most of the fluctuation in price had to do with timing. They tried the $14k route, but they managed to get a few hundred for an economy class seat that would have likely remained empty… Some fare being better than no fare… I think that was one of Einstein’s early contributions. Then, the same thing happened for the biz class upgrade…. The same seat they didn’t get anyone to buy for $14k, they got you to pay about $1k for.”
Hello Edmonds – glad to be back!
— By Nathaniel Brown
Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the U.S. Cross-Country team in 1989. He coached at three Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for nine years and Cross-Country Skier for two. He has written three books on skiing and training. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service, until retirement seven years ago.