Wednesday, 16 May 2007

To London


Some time ago, an old American friend contacted me to say he'd be taking his European Tour in May, and could I meet him and his buddy in London? People from the States do tend to think that London is but a stone's throw for anyone within the British Isles - but I hadn't seen him in seven years, so how could I say no?

The last time I saw him, he was twelve. Now he's nineteen. What the hell, thought I, do I do with a 19 year old on his first trip to London?

Anyway, down I went. How do GNER get away with charging £100 for a ticket on one of their crappy trains? Still, I had the benefit of going on a Sunday, so I could at least fork out another £20 and get a seat in Weekend First, which makes it a bigger rip-off, but does at least give you some comfort. It was a looooong journey, as I'd unwittingly got myself on a slow train that takes 7 hours, rather than the usual 5, so I was utterly climbing the walls by the time I got off.

I'd booked myself a room at Durrant's Hotel on Sister's recommendation. It is a lovely hotel - but I was dismayed to be shown to a room literally big enough for a single bed and a TV. That was it. As for complimentary goodies - I got a free bottle of water, a showercap and some soap. Boooooo. The bed was one of those cheap jobbies that, when you try and sit up against the wall, rolls away because it's so light. Fun. They also provided only one pillow and a small, square cushion, which I used as my second pillow. Strange.

The first evening, I was perfectly willing to just sit in my room reading a good book (The Observations by Jane Harris) and waiting for Match of the Day. I hadn't been very hungry on the train (still suffering PT a little) but Fisher had provided a fantastic packed lunch for me, and I grazed on it. Interesting cheeses, crackers, Mini-Cheddars, grapes, and an organic orange crush to drink. She also gave me a square of tablet which I took to be a chunk of smoked cheese and promptly spread on a cracker. Niiiiice.

Anyhoo - once I'd settled in my room I realised I was pretty peckish, so I phoned down for some room service. A ham sandwich would hit the spot, I thought, imagining a hunky doorstop or baguette. Alas, no. It being a snooty hotel, they'd cut all the crusts off and sliced the bread very daintily. Pretty - but not exactly satisfying. So, once an hour or so had passed and the restaurant stopped serving food and all the potential snack-selling shops in Marylebone closed (not that there appear to be any), I was hungry again and too embarrassed to phone down for yet more room service.

Luckily, Match of the Day diverted my attention away from hunger, and Sister arrived at around midnight and ordered me yet more sandwiches and a G&T for herself. What a journey she had. She managed to get a lift from Oban to Glasgow Airport, where she caught the last plane to Luton - but it was a full 12 hours of travel. Still, it's what you expect when you live in the Hebrides.

The next day, Sister and I went for morning coffee - and pancakes for her - at Giraffe, before meeting Heartlander and his mate at Durrants. Despite not having seen him since he was 12, I'd have recognised him anywhere. He's a good looking guy with a really lovely smile, a slow way of speaking, and an easiness of manner that's very appealing. But that aside, he's still a 19 year old, and I've yet to discover any interests he may actually possess. This made for a difficult time making plans, as it became pretty clear they weren't really interested in looking round things, or going to museums, or galleries (although, to give them their due, they went round the Tate Modern the day before). They didn't mind the idea of just walking and looking at stuff though, so I decided to take them on the walk Sister recommended.

We strolled down Baker Street to Oxford Street, then on to St James' Palace, across the park and over to Buckingham Palace. We walked past the railings, then up Birdcage Walk and along to the Houses of Parliament, round past Brother's house and to Westminster Abbey. There we parted company. Heartlander invited Sister and me to Simpson's for supper, and Sister had suggested cocktails at the Savoy beforehand, so we agreed to meet there at 8.

I decided to visit Hatchard's, having finished The Observations the night before (good, but ultimately disappointing), and set off. I managed to go in entirely the wrong direction, and walked far too far west. Fed up and footsore, I hailed a cab. I then spent a happy hour or so wandering Hatchard's and selected 3 books to tide me over. I'm reading Sovereign by C.J Sanson - which I didn't realise is the 3rd in a series, but I don't think it matters. Another cab then took me back to Durrants to prepare for supper.

Sister sent a text at about 7, saying she was having drinks with friends in the Westbury and would I like to join them. I decided to be sociable for once and took her up on it. I only had time for a glass of champagne, but she was 3 1/2 glasses to the good before we left. At the Savoy we sat in the big lounge/bar area just down the steps as you go in, where a pianist was belting out the weirdest mix of music. Somewhere Over the Rainbow mixed in with Atomic Kitten or something ... And I do hate it when they put the lid up unneccessarily. He was less background music, and more beating you over the head with a bag of crotchets.

I ordered something called The Savoy. com, which had Absinthe, grenadine and something else dangerous in it. I think it was a mistake. I was pretty hammered half way through. We also spent far too long over the cocktails and were 20 minutes late for Simpsons - but they didn't seem to care. They weren't exactly full to the brim.

Simpsons' was great, and we returned to Durrants to show the boys what whisky is all about. Sister ordered 3 west coast malts, as they didn't have any Strathspeys - a Laphroaig, a Highland Park, an Oban - and she added a Jack Daniels for comparison. We tasted, we talked, and then we decided enough was enough. The boys had to get back across the river, and it was late, so bed called.

Unfortunately, bed called only until 4 in the morning, when I awoke feeling sick as a dog ... and spent the rest of the night being very miserable indeed. I thought it must be hangover, but I really don't think I drank that much. One glass of champagne, one cocktail, one glass of red wine and one whisky in the course of an entire evening shouldn't have knocked me on my back like that. Of course, it didn't help that my PMT became full blown MT. Struggling with water retention is not fun when feeling dog-sick.

I lay in bed for ages, and decided I really couldn't travel so booked the room for another day. It was going to set me back £145 quid - the most expensive food poisoning I've ever had. However, after a morning spent blearily watching morning TV and running to the loo, I had two rather more settled hours and decided I would risk the travel after all. I decided that instead of spending £145 on the room, I'd spend the money on a first class ticket instead. I could feel dreadful in my hotel room, or dreadful on a train and actually end up at home at the end of the day.

The trouble was, I'd recklessly suggested Heartlander and his mate come up to Scotland with me - and they'd enthusiastically agreed. That's the sort of attitude I love. Just spontaneously jumping on a train and going somewhere because you can. Good for them. Of course the food poisoning set the plans back originally, but then I told them I was going up after all, and they came too. They sat in economy, and I arranged for them to stay a night in Edinburgh with Blarney and Spartan. Bless their cotton socks. It was incredibly nice of them to agree, considering they were both occupied with other things, but never let it be said they aren't the most hospitable of folk.

The journey passed uneventfully. I felt more and more human as the day wore on, but made the mistake of eating a GNER granola bar, which tasted of chewy wallpaper paste and made me feel sick again. Once we got into Edinburgh and the boys got off (with the recommendation to spend an evening in the Jekyll & Hyde pub on Hanover Street) I felt a great lightness of mind. They were sorted for the evening and I could concentrate solely on my recovery, and sleeping in my own bed, with my own pooches, my own TV, and Fisher to keep me company. I have to say, that last hour was the longest I've ever known on a train, and the sight of Fisher's car drawing up at Leuchars station one of the most joyous ever.

At home, I curled up in an ecstasy of relief, watched telly and eventually managed to neck back a sandwich. Bed beckoned at about 10.30, and my sleep was that of the truly exhausted. I knew I had to go into Edinburgh the next day, but not until lunch time, so I had plenty of time. I was still a trifle delicate, but not enough to concern myself, so it was with renewed vigour that I made the trip to Auld Reekie.

The boys met me at the Wallace monument and we went to have lunch at Browns on George Street. I managed half a warm chicken salad (which wasn't particularly nice anyway) but the boys more than made up for my reticence. God, I envied them. They'd spent the entire evening in Jekyll & Hyde, loving it and ordering every drink under the sun. They returned to Spartan's after midnight, which is a good 4 hours of drinking, and awoke feeling pretty ropey. (According to Spartan, one of them pinched one of Blarney's corned beef sandwiches before going to bed ... which is very odd behaviour, but if they were pissed, I reckon things could have been much, much worse.) If that had been me, I wouldn't have been able to move for about a fortnight - but being young and resilient, all they needed was to walk up to the castle, get some fresh air, and then they were ready for lunch. I really miss those days.

Actually, I'm not sure I was ever like that.

Anyway, after lunch we drove back to Fife and I took them home for a bit of relaxation before we visited St Andrews. We walked through the town, and I pointed out places of 'interest' (although not, I'm thinking, to them) and we did the pier walk. I think Heartlander's mate was more into the sights than Heartlander himself. He did at least take some photos of the cathedral, and was quite keen to climb St Rule's Tower until he discovered it cost £4. I've got to say - £4 for the priveledge of walking up lots of stairs seems a bit steep ... no pun intended.

At tea time, we went to the North Point for coffee and cakes, and after that I had to do a little dull shopping so I left Fisher to guide them back to the car where I met them later. Back home we went for a little more relaxation - they were much enamoured of the number of PS2 games I have, and I don't think I ever heard them more animated than when they were playing Buzz, or Red Dead Revolver - and I managed to do a little work. I'd promised to take them to Anstruther Fish Bar, where the 'best fish and chips in Scotland' are served. Frankly, I'm going to stop taking people there, because they aren't the best fish and chips in Scotland any more. In fact, they're not even the best fish and chips in Anstruther. The batter is uninteresting, the fish overcooked. I remember how good they were before they changed hands and keep thinking they'll be like that again, but every time I'm disappointed. Ah me. How hard life is.

Lubentina and Silver Arrow joined us for supper, and then we went to St Michael's Inn for a brew or two. It was a very lovely evening, I thought, and the boys became far more garrulous in such easy company. When we went home, we had another drink, a bit of chat, then went to bed. I'm training them to be real old farts before their time.

The next day, the boys decided they'd like to "go to the mountains." I told them that going to the real mountains would probably prove too much of a drive, seeing as we had to get them on a train in the evening and Fisher and I had Koios's birthday dinner to attend in Edinburgh. However, Fisher struck on the genius idea of taking them up to Pitlochry, where the mountains rise, and there are two beautiful lochs in Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch. It's also where my mother's folk originated, so a good family connection. I suggested they rent some bikes and have an explore, while I shopped for some walking boots which I'd decided would be an ideal present for Koios. (I couldn't really imagine she'd take much delight in shopping for walking boots herself, and certainly not paying good money for them, so I felt it appropriate for me to take the pain away). We failed dismally to get Fisher to come with us (something I was quite cross about, seeing as Heartlander was obviously very keen for her company and I felt we owed him after his race to the rescue when we had our accident in Tennessee) but she spent the time very productively, so I suppose I can't begrudge her.

The drive to Pitlochry is about an hour, and you pass through some pretty countryside. I was sorry to take Fisher's car, as the boys are deeply enamoured of the Drover (Heartlander's Mate even offered to trade his Mercedes for it - an offer I declined) but it made for a more comfortable drive. The weather was, of course, abysmal - but the dreich didn't put them off. We rented bikes, they hopped on, and off I went to shop at House of Bruar.

House of Bruar didn't have any walking boots, although I couldn't resist buying her a red cashmere jumper and a copy of The Cook's Book, so I went back into Pitlochry where there's Munro's walking and camping shop , two Factory outlets for outdoor equipment, and a Hawkshead. Hawkshead proved most sensible, as there's a sister shop on Prince's Street so Koios can easily change the boots if she'd like to, or if she needs a different size.

My lord. Hold me down, I'm the most fascinating woman in the world ...

So - I finished my shopping and managed to run into the boys as they wandered through town having taken their bikes back. They hopped in, and I suggested we visit the nearby distillery of Edradour. They were amenable, so off we went.

Edradour is well worth a dekko. It's very picturesque, with its low, whitewashed buildings and the burn running through. There's a free, 40 minute tour (which we couldn't take) and the whisky itself is excellent. In the tasting room where we went first, mistaking it for reception, the fella behind the bar gave us a hard time for not taking the tour - but it was all banter, and I held my own. He talked us through the tastings, told us a bit about how it was all made, and despite being disappointed not to see round the smallest distillery in Scotland - and one that is still privately owned by a single individual - it was a great way to spend half an hour or so. I've marked it as a definite stop for when we do Silver Arrow's whisky tour.

The drive back home was without event, and we got there just in time to do a quick turnabout, with me and Fisher changing our clothes for the party in record time. Of course, I then realised I'd not bought any wrapping paper, or written Hils a birthday card - so I had to grab some old Christmas paper, some tissue paper, scissors, sellotape and a pen, and do it all in the car. Ah, the care I give my friends ...

We cut it fine, but we did get the boys to Waverly in time to catch the 7pm train (although we do have a sneaking suspicion they decided to go for the first morning train and went back to Jekyll & Hyde for the evening ... in which case, fair play to 'em), and then had time to give the dogs a brief wander before picking up Protagoras & Koios. (1)

We went to Wildfire restaurant on Rose Street, and it was a great night out - especially since it's a school night. The place itself is very small so we had to have two tables, one each side of the door, and Koios was a little concerned about it. However, I think it worked fine in the end. We all mingled, we all chatted, the food was good, the wine fine and the presents - as usual - numerous. Birthdays and Christmas are just the chance we repressed British people need to express our affection, and the Cheese Board do so with abundance. This is presumable because we spend the rest of the time insulting one another with the freedom of siblings.

Anyhoo - we had a triffic night, and returned home merry and exhausted. This morning, I slept until 11am, and Fisher managed not to open her eyes until 45 minutes later - then spent a good hour or so fretting, gnawing her nails, abluting ... and not getting down to any work. She's off and running now though, with her usual efficiency, vim and vigour, and I must stop writing this blog and help her out. Ergo:

Fin. (2)

(1) Fisher has given me a right royal bollocking for how pretentious these pseudonyms are, and I have to say, she's spot on. "My friends, Protagoras & Koios ..." By all that's Holy, if I didn't know me, I'd want to punch me on the nose. (Actually, I do know me and I do, frequently want to punch me on the nose).

(2) "Ergo: Fin"????

Right, that's it. I'm actually punching myself on the nose.