Friday, June 26, 2009

My British Tour Diary

To be there, first you gotta get there.

In my line of work, seniority is everything. Or, more pertinent to my point of view, juniority is nothing. I'm not quite at the bottom of the barrel, but I can see it pretty clearly. Accordingly, I should consider myself lucky that what I got for June was not completely horrible.

Still, it was a bit dodgy. The best I could do to accommodate our Grand Tour was a reserve line (i.e., on call), the end of which was two days after I wanted to be in England. Because I was a hostage to fortune, I couldn't buy an airline ticket to travel with my wife and son, since I wasn't sure I could be there.

On this occasion, though, fortune smiled broadly upon us. Skeds tossed me a trip that left only a few reserve days at the end, two of which were off limits for crew rest. Since there was no way I could get used, I was able to travel on the same day as the other SWIPIAW and the man-child.

I got home at 1 am on the 8th. Sleep as fast as I can. Get up. Unpack. Repack. Next day, head for England.

One of the benefits of being a pilot is the ability to jumpseat just about anywhere for free. However, this particular excursion, being international, was going to be a bit dodgy. I could have waited and tried to leave in the afternoon with Sue and Eric, but if I couldn't get on with them, the day would be shot. So I headed to O'Hare the first thing in the morning, figuring that there would be enough flights to Heathrow that I would be bound to get on something, and get there before they did.

That last bit was kind of important. Vague travel plans combined with no comm capability -- think of life before cell phones -- made contingency planning tough. The fallback option was for them to press on regardless, and for me to do planes-trains-buses as required to intercept the lodging itinerary. Obviously, getting there before they did would make a lot of problems go away.

I got to O'Hare on schedule, then headed directly for the international terminal to catch a ride on British Airways. Memo for future reference: BA does not accept offline (i.e., non BA pilots) jumpseaters. BAstards.

Okay, Plan B. Back to the American Airlines gates. List for jumpseat. Learn that recession memo may not have gotten to everyone. Terminal is packed, and flight oversold. Memo for future reference: one of the knock-on effects of militant Islam, combined with, umm, obscure, government reasoning is that I can't get on a flight deck jumpseat for an international flight.

Plan C. Trudge to United gates. Recession not readily apparent there, either, as they are trying to buy off 20 people as I walk up to the gate.

Verging on 9 pm, twelve hours after leaving home, Plan D. Trudge back to American gates for the last flight that evening. Fortunately, it would arrive at Heathrow an hour before Sue and Eric. Note as I plod past commuter gates that the last flight to Memphis leaves in 10 minutes. Quick call to my company's jumpseat schedulers. There is a four am flight to Stansted (nearish to Cambridge), and a seat is available.

This presents a conundrum. American, IF I can get on, avoids all the contingency problems. Going on Company leaves those problems completely intact, but does offer the certainty of getting in country, albeit to a different airport five hours later than Sue & Eric. I pretty quickly concluded that this was a real life bird-in-the-hand problem, so I headed to Memphis.

Once there, with a couple hours to kill in flight ops, I worked the contact angle. National Rental Car was no help. However, I was able to send an email to the first nights lodging, a B&B in York, with my arrival info, and noting I planned on trains and a cab getting me to York

(It is worth noting at this point that by that point I would have crossed 17 time zones in four days, and gone three nights out of five with essentially no sleep.)

Cue the sequence denoting passage of time: plane taking off, cruising, landing, parking.

Fine, I'm in England. However, I have no idea how to get from Stansted to York. So, contradicting the conventional wisdom that men won't ask for directions, virtually the moment the airplane door cracks open, I ask the ramp agent how to get to the first night's destination.

"What is the best way to get to York?"

"Oh, no need to worry about that. Your wife is here."

As my jaw was plummeting to the floor, just before the loud, anvil-like clang, I wondered if my fatigue was so extreme as to render me delusional.

As it happened, Sue and Eric stuck to our comm-out plan. If not at arrivals, proceed to car rental agency. If not at agency, stick to itinerary until I showed up at wherever they were to be staying on the day I could get there. Since they hit the road just as the afternoon rush hours were, getting out of London was an M25 traffic nightmare. Glaciers routinely move faster, some of your more athletic trees can keep up. Cold remedy companies should consider using the visuals as a metaphor for painfully clogged sinuses. After a couple agonizing hours, it was intuitively clear to Sue -- and the rental GPS (aka Betty) confirmed -- that their arrival at the York B&B was going to be late. Sue decided it would be a Real Good Idea to get in touch with them, so she decided to just buy a cheap pay-as-you-go cellphone at a fortuitously placed roadside services area.

The B&B told her how to work the after-hours arrival, and mentioned that ohbytheway I had sent an email.

Sue told Eric to find out from Betty how far they were from Stansted.

They had 45 minutes to drive the 5.8 miles to the cargo ramp. That is just lottery winning kind of lucky.

You have a friend in England

Still bafflegarbed at this turn of events, we continued the march to York in a continuous driving rain. Even more bafflegarbing, we were cut loose to drive on the left side of the road. It's amazing no one died.

Our rental barge was a Skoda something or other, most notable (to me, anyway) by its motor: a turbo-charged diesel. If you care about cost-per-mile, probably nothing beats a diesel, including anything of the Prius ilk. Great torque, especially after the turbo kicks in. Have to re-calibrate my thinking a bit, though: shifting needs doing about 2000 rpm lower than a regular motor. That, and getting it off the line.

Despite having driven almost nothing other than manual transmissions my whole life, I stalled the thing every third try. I am only guessing here, but because of the high compression ratio diesels require, they have very little torque at tick over, despite being able to pull stumps once under way.

We finally got to York just before 11pm. Sue was practically quivering in anticipation of going to a pub, so we did that immediately after checking in at the B&B. On the way back, we relied on old-fashioned memory to re-find the B&B. I don't know whether to blame cognitive deficits, or darkness and heavy rain. In any event, we turned a street too soon.

Pulling away from the subsequent signal, I stalled the car. Instantly, the car behind me started flashing his brights and leaning on the horn with both hands and a foot.

Oh, for Pete's bloody sake.

After chewing up every bit of four seconds to get restarted, I turned left, stayed in the left lane, and proceeded at no great speed. Despite having another lane, the car behind me stayed right on my tail, still with the lights and the horn. Now we are wondering aloud whether he is trying to tell us something: flat tire? wrong side of the road? lights off? Not apparently. Moment of panic, but no. No. Still puzzled.

A couple hundred yards on, and another stop signal. The other car, now far quieter, pulls to a stop in the adjacent lane. Seconds later, my door is yanked open by this guy who looks like every imaginable justification for "three strikes and your out" sentencing legislation. "Get out of the car you [insert loud graphic obscenities here]".

It didn't take long to suss that getting out to defend my honor was probably not going to be a winning strategy. Nor was waiting for the light to turn green. Nor would stalling. Thankfully, I had a credible Grand Prix standing start available just when I needed it. Twenty feet of rubber closed my door firmly, and I chose enough side streets to frustrate whatever desire he might have had to continue our conversation.

All three of us more or less simultaneously said "What the heck was that about?"

My second thought was that he probably should investigate other cultures before he travels abroad. If he was to try that in, say, Texas, Arizona, or Alaska, like as not he'd get his head blown off.

Welcome to England.

Well, no, not actually. That bizarre incident aside -- I promise my hands never left the steering wheel -- during our whole stay we never had a chance to look even mildly confused for more than a few seconds before someone stepped up to offer assistance; everyone was always friendly and courteous, almost as if the entire country was trying to make up for the the York incident.

Driving in England is a challenge. Having to overcome ingrained habit to drive on the left is hard enough. Doing simple things like pulling out of a car park onto a lightly traveled road is the worst: looking the wrong way to pull into the wrong lane. If I sound like an expert here, I am.

Besides driving on the wrong* side, roads are narrow, twisty and dark. Roundabouts come in infinite variety, occasionally including traffic signals. For those who haven't driven there, this is applied mixed metaphor: think Yield sign and stop lights at the same time.

The Brits really do need to create some insignia for rental cars indicating the driver is a foreigner. They already have one for drivers on provisional (learner) licenses: A big white circle affixed to the aft end of the car, with a very prominent red "L" in it. Not only would it have encouraged other drivers to self-defensively give me a great deal more breathing room, it would also attenuate their irritation at my more than semi-occasional benign buffoonery.

The nagging non-trivial worry about having nevertheless declined the rental car insurance coverage aside, the trip went perfectly. Britain must be the prettiest country on the planet, and the Tourist Board apparently obsessively dedicated themselves to ensuring perfect weather when it mattered, while leaving the rainy and windy bits for when we were driving, sleeping, or in need of a rainbow.

Cut to the Chase already

Of all the forms of writing, travelogues are the hardest to get right. So, rather than a blow-by-blow, here are some observations in absolutely no particular order.
  • Betty the GPS was more than just convenient. No, Betty doesn't really do anything that can't be done with a map. However, her voice directions allowed us to keep both heads up, and not looking away from the road to find street signs which were noteworthy primarily in their absence, and secondarily in their promiscuous changability. Huge safety bonus. Also, gave the man-child something to mess with.

  • The critters could not get enough castles.

  • In a beautiful country, Bath could well be the prettiest city. Most of the buildings are made from a nearly buttery yellow sandstone. The entire place glows at sunset.

  • As I have said elsewhere, the Internet Cloaking Device reveals clearly the person underneath. Thanks to my peripatetic job, I have been able to meet a good half dozen of Post Judd Alliance. Not once have I been disappointed. Meeting Brit and Anna was a great addition to our trip. We just missed Ali Choudhury, but it looks like there will be a do-over near the end of July.

  • Whoever said the intertubes would lead to the complete atomization of human relationships was operating in a complete clue vacuum.

  • Managed to see Shakespeare's "As You Like It" at the Globe. Taking the time to read the play first was a great help. The no longer so little man knew he was going to hate it. I told him he was wrong. I couldn't have been more right.

  • We had a couple hours to kill before the play. Well, not "kill" exactly, London has no end of stuff to see. But we wanted to keep it close -- no point in buying tickets, only to show up two minutes late. So we went to the Tate Museum a few hundred yards along the Thames: modern art from top to bottom. With frighteningly few exceptions, modern art is pretentious, ugly, embodied faux-intellectual onanism. Resuming above ground nuclear testing within the building could scarcely create a worse mess.

  • Why can't American drivers be even half as good as British drivers?

  • If I was a car manufacturer -- Toyota, Porsche, BMW, Skoda, name it, I would subcontract Apple to design the software. Everything else aside, no one does look and feel like Apple does. The Skoda had an amazing amount of electronic wizardry on board. Unfortunately, it all gave the impression of being hurled through the passenger's side door in a wicker basket.

  • During time in London, we stayed in Hounslow. As Brit or gaw could quickly tell you, that is not the posh part of town. Our arrival the first night was a bit late, so I went to a takeaway around the corner from the decidedly threadbare hotel. On ordering, I couldn't help but notice all the references to halal this and halal that. Clearly, I was in a Muslim establishment. While waiting for my order, the proprietor insisted I have some (presumably halal) chicken wings on the house. I retaliated by shamelessly overtipping.

  • The more perceptive among you might have been able to hazard a guess that I am not particularly religious. That said, I cannot imagine how a hypothetical absence of all the Christian edifices from Britain's landscape would improve things in the least.

  • If you want reasonably priced lodging in London, it will take you an hour on the tube to get to London from your lodging.
Since I am getting tired of typing, and you have long since wished this pathetic imitation of Lileks would come to an end, I'll let pictures do the rest of the work.


Edinburgh Castle. It was the woman-child's idea for the More Guinns in More Places lineup.

More More Guinns in More Places, this time along the Scottish border.

We stopped at the ex-RAF Upper Heyford, near Oxford, to show the critters without where they would never have begun otherwise. The RAF Commander's building is still open to the public, and they have a pretty good history video they show on demand.

We could also get to the Officers' Club, where Sue & I met. It has been slowly crumbling since the base closure in 1994. I wouldn't be surprised if it is still standing in 2394. (One place I lived in back in the day had "1462" engraved in the arch over the doorway.)

The man-child learning to pilot a canal boat. He is a very quick study.
*Wrong as in non-standard, but not as in without reason. WayBackWhen, England was plagued with highwaymen. Most people are right handed, so the English drove their carriages on the left in order to leave the right arm free to handle a weapon. Or, so I was told with a very convincing delivery, anyway.


Blogger erp said...

Thanks for a very pleasant morning read with my coffee. Your family is lovely and the skipper very handsome. We did a similar trip about twenty years ago and enjoyed it very much too.

I found shifting with my left hand harder than staying on the left side of the road although we did go round and round many of the roundabouts before we were able to catapault into the road we wanted.

Glad you got home safely.

June 27, 2009 5:54 AM  
Blogger Gaw said...

Sorry about your Yorkshire experience but, as I think Brit posted a few months ago, urban centres become a bit hairy after about 10pm on a weekend night. Excellent getaway.

If you have any queries about where to stay or go next time you're over I'd love to help out.

June 27, 2009 8:16 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Great stuff, Skipper. Glad the bizarre road rage incident didn't ruin Blighty for you, that was terribly unlucky (especially outside London...). And also that the weather gods were relatively kind. Cohen is convinced that the stories about constant rain are a deliberate lie put about to prevent too many tourists coming here - it's always a glorious heatwave when he lands.

Why can't American drivers be even half as good as British drivers?

Of course we each think that we're a perfect driver and every other Briton useless. But perhaps if it is true, it's because the driving test is absurdly rigorous (not sure but I've heard it's the toughest in the world) and the learning curve is very steep. There's virtually nowhere in Britain which isn't either full of traffic, steep, twisty, narrow, roundabout-riddled or all of the above. Those lovely empty American freeways, neat city blocks and vast suburban drives just don't exist here.

And next time, skip Tate Modern and visit the National Gallery (on Trafalgar Square).

June 28, 2009 2:52 AM  
Blogger Eric Guinn said...


I found shifting with my left hand harder than staying on the left side of the road although we did go round and round many of the roundabouts before we were able to catapault into the road we wanted.

Betty would say things like "take the roundabout ahead, 3rd exit." Contemplating what the alternative to "taking the roundabout" might look like, there were two problem with that sort of direction. First, counting the exits is not always a trivial exercise. Second, Betty herself doesn't always count so good, either. We went hurtling off in the wrong direction a good dozen times. Thankfully, there was nearly always another roundabout close at hand for a redo.


If you have any queries about where to stay or go next time you're over I'd love to help out.

Will do. I manage to stop in a couple or three times a year. Unfortunately, my layovers are in Cambridge, not London, and my juniority prevents me getting anything longer than 24 hours on the ground.


Glad the bizarre road rage incident ...

It really was bizarre. Despite the real potential for a trip to the hospital, or worse -- the guy was about 6'1", 225 pounds, and looked like he only took breaks from pumping iron to get tattoos -- the greatest impression the whole thing left on me was wondering just what it was he perceived to create such rage.

Of course we each think that we're a perfect driver and every other Briton useless.

The driving test was famous among us Americans for how difficult it was. Of course, we were just going on what we heard, as they pretty much just cut us loose.

The difference between American and British (and German) drivers is most apparent on the motorways. In the US, there is a small-ish percentage of drivers who are irrational idiots, who took their driving lessons on pinball machines. But mostly, though, American drivers are just oblivious: plodding along in the fast lane, it is obvious that their rearview mirrors must be suffering punishing self esteem issues from the lack of attention. Rarely any attempt to plan ahead, or fit smoothly into the flow of things.

In contrast, I scarcely saw anything like that on the motorways. Astonishing difference.

June 28, 2009 1:33 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Years ago I had a friend, dead now, who though an American was militantly English. He detested the Irish.

For some reason, though, he took a vacation in Ireland and came back raving about how pretty it was -- "Castles everywhere!" he said.

I commented that that was because the English were unwelcome.

Happy is the country that doesn't have a lot of castles.

June 28, 2009 11:30 PM  
Blogger monix said...

I'm sorry you had such a bad experience in York. I hope you managed to see something of the city which is almost as lovely as Bath.

I don't think much of Tate Modern either, if only you had turned in the other direction you would have seen the beautiful St Paul's Cathedral.

Despite the two negative experiences and our difficult roads and roundabouts, it sounds as if you enjoyed your visit. I have heard your son is a delightful young man. I hope you thought the similarly of mine!

June 29, 2009 8:58 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Happy is the country that doesn't have a lot of castles.

Well, happy must be the country that hasn't had civilization until recently.

There are no countries in Europe without castles. China is behind a giant castle-like wall.

Not so many castles in Africa.


We spent a good part of a day in York, mostly walking. Loved it.

I am not much into art. However, when I go into a museum like the National Gallery, despite my cultural shortcomings, I leave deeply impressed by the talent on display.

In the Tate, we left deeply impressed by the drooling credulity of the curators. I kept looking hard, but in vain, for what I just wasn't getting.

I hope you thought similarly of mine!


June 29, 2009 4:06 PM  

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