The Journal of a Journey,
UK and Ireland 1999
Day 11Monday, October 10 continued
We arrived in Reading at about rush hour, the train station the most bustling and commercial looking station we had been in since London. There was a large roped off area on the floor set aside for people to leave floral memorials for the victims of the train wreck at Paddington. It's likely that at least one of the lines involved in the headon collision was one that served Reading, and there appeared to be hundreds of bouquets left. We found the bus station for busses to Heathrow and found out what we needed to know for the next morning's departure.
Then I set out, as I had in Bath, to find us a B&B or guesthouse. However, inasmuch as Reading isn't even mentioned in Let's Go Britain and Ireland (indicating it's not big on tourism) I didn't expect that quest to be as easy here. I walked around the downtown without seeing even an expensive hotel, much less a cheap one. I walked across the bridge out of downtown to the suburb, thinking people there would try to make a little money by renting rooms. Nothing. Walking back into downtown, I saw a Best Western inn, partly open and partly under construction, and getting desperate by now, inquired: £130 (nearly $200) per room. No way.
A few blocks farther on I found another very seasoned hotel, the George, just around the corner from a very modern shopping center/mall, the Oracle. It had a very English, Tudor-style, look and feel, and I had to walk several stories up to get to reception. It was £70 for two persons, en suite bath. I told reception I'd ask my brother what he thought and, if we decided on it, we'd return. The woman in reception assured me there were lots of rooms so I would have plenty of time to make up my mind. I was hoping, of course, that I'd find something less expensivethis price didn't even include breakfast and was more than we'd spent anywhereas I continued walking in an indirect route back to the train station. I found nothing, however, so by the time I got there £35 each didn't seem unreasonable. Tom agreed and we returned to the Hotel George
The room itself turned out to be better than the common areas of the hotel, a real first-class English hotel, complete with pants presser and towel heater in the bathroom. And though there was no breakfast, there was instant coffee and tea service, complete with shortbread; most of our B&B's hadn't had anything to eat with the tea.
After settling, I suggested we go next door to the Oracle Mall to find a restaurant for dinner. We settled on a brand new eatery on the outside of the mall, along the river, Ma Potter's, which styled itself as a Southern U.S. theme restaurant. There was a note at every table informing patrons that the place was new and service might be a little slow. It was, but not unbearably so, and the food was okay.
We walked along the outside of the mall and the river that flows through it back to the George, and while Tom wrote in his journal again, I went out with my camera to get night shots. I found the church pictured above, which is 1020 years old and, with its graveyard, seems to be the closest thing Reading has to a town square. Reading is a very nice, clean, modern town, however. We had seen a dozen or so buildings with the Oracle software insignia on the outskirts on our way through it by train, so I surmise it's something of a little "Silicon Valley" for England and geared to industry. Its businesslike orientation coupled with attractive architecture and modernity reminded me of Pittsburgh, where it's also impossible to find economy accommodations.
Besides the two pictures from the church above, also depicted are the mall, with lights reflecting in the river that separates the main store area from the multi-story carpark, and two views of the Hotel George. As I walked around I did discover a sign for a Salvation Army Hostel, but wasn't able to determine whether it accommodates tourists. At any rate, I'm sure we were both happier with the Hotel George, even though it did exceed our budget.
Day 12Tuesday, October 12
Heathrow and home
We began our last day in the UK, considering there was no breakfast with our room, by going back to the mall to a McDonald's on the river walk for breakfast. That McDonald's wasn't open for breakfast, however, so I told Tom I'd seen one on the way to the train station which we could look for as we made our way there. We found it and I had my usual McDonald's sausage egg McMuffin, Tom the big breakfast with sausage. We agreed that it was the best sausage we'd had on the trip (English breakfasts usually include sausage, but they're more like weiners than the patties used in sandwiches, and not nearly as tasty).
Our plane wasn't scheduled to leave until after 2 p.m. London time (which is also Greenwich Mean Time; yes, London is the center of the world!) but neither of us were inclined to spend any more time than it would take to go directly to the airport. We caught the bus at Reading Station (not even thinking to inquire whether our Britrail passes might cover that fare) and were on our way. The highway was a modern "dual carriageway," but very busy, so the travel was slow. Still, we had almost three hours to wait in the airport once we'd checked in.
Mostly we just sat in a smoker's waiting area because it had seats and no others did. I tried to spend my last couple of pounds and bought tea and a scone to kill some time (first picture above); browsed in Harrod's airport store and was amazed to find it not too outrageously expensive (actually competitive with other souvenir shops). Once we were on our plane the pilot told us there was a problem with the computer system that had better get fixed before we took off, so we were delayed another hour or more sitting on the tarmac. Once airborne (final photo), we managed to make up some of the time. I got back to Los Angeles only about an hour later than scheduled, and was in my Marina Del Rey apartment before my "normal" bedtime, counting all the added hours of flying across eight or nine time zones from east to west, of course. I had to catch a plane for San Jose and my son's college graduation the next day, but that belongs to another journal.
Thanks for coming along; hope you enjoyed the trip!
Journey by Britrail
Looking back: Our journey by Britrail worked better for me than the fly-drive package we had chosen in 1998. Though you can't beat the freedom of being able to drive anywhere you want any time, if you're the driver, for the most part you have to subtract the drive time from your vacation. Not only is driving on the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car a little more dangerous than driving normally, it's no vacation, no matter how you slice it. Riding along in a usually uncrowded train, however, is a real contrast with that experience. All your time is relaxation time, and you get views from the train windows that surpass even passenger views from the cars (Ireland and the UK are both famous for their hedge rows, which obscure the views from car windows more often than they do from train windows). So I'd be much more likely to recommend the train approach than the fly-drive approach. Both the UK and Ireland have extensive bus networks also, which can fill in for places the trains don't go. One thing I would definitely do next time is take along a dictation cassette recorder so I could dictate my journal while enjoying the scenery. I would travel at least as light as I did this time, with all carry-on luggage. That's even more important on trains than on airplanes.
This month I undoubtedly had more taxi rides than I'd had in my whole life before hand. Though most things in the UK and Ireland seem more expensive than in the United States, bed and breakfast lodging and taxis are exceptions. B&B's can be had for probably $20 per person per night on average; hostels (if you're traveling alone and don't mind sharing) are even cheaper (though not cheaper than in the United States, hostels are more widely available in the UK and Ireland).
Also on this trip, I finally broke down and used the telephone, and found it not nearly as intimidating as I feared. (The year before we paid the Tourist Bureaus an average of £3 per night to book rooms for us, partially out of desire to avoid using the phones. Even this time we did this on some occasions.) In Killarney I tried calling a cab from a pay phone and simply got no answer. My coin was returned, however. In Rosslare, the pay phone worked fine, and in Fishguard I was pleased to find I could call all the way to Nantyglo, probably 50 miles or more away, and on the other side of several cities, for 20 pence (35 cents).
Though I haven't added up all the expenses, we figure this entire trip cost us in the neighborhood of $2000, give or take $100 or $200. We didn't carry any travellers' checks, and I left with no more American money in my wallet than I'd have on a normal day at home, maybe $50. Instead, we depended entirely on automated teller machines everywhere, and on our Visa credit cards, both of which worked the same for me everywhere I went as in the states. Tom did have a little trouble with his ATM card at some banks (even though they claimed to honor cards with Cirrus and his had that logo, sometimes they didn't take his), but he was always able to find an alternate bank that would honor it. We avoided changing money at "Bureaus de Change," which usually charge a handling fee as well as the highest posted rate of exchange (ATM and Visa generally charge the lowest exchange rate, though ATM's of course do charge use fees if they're not your own bank's machines. I did see a branch of my bankCitibankin London, but didn't go out of my way to use it).
First station: Chicago to London
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