We made it to England! Thursday, our first day, set the bar awfully high for the rest of the trip. Even though there shouldn’t have been time to do very much, we ignored our jet lag and filled the time to overflowing.
It was raining in London when we landed and pouring when we emerged from the Underground at Earl’s Court. Our hotel was only a short, two block walk from the Tube station, but our hair was plenty wet by the time we’d dragged our suitcases and toted our backpacks to Henley House hotel.
|London Underground, aka The Tube|
The lobby was cozy, with just room enough for a loveseat and a couple of chairs. But there were shelves filled floor-to-ceiling with beautifully bound books that made you just want to curl up there for a rainy afternoon.
|Here I am on THE Zebra (pronounced Zebb-ra Stripes!|
We resisted that urge, unpacked the rain jackets we’d hoped we wouldn’t have to use quite so soon, dumped the heavy back packs in Room 3 and set out on our first adventure—to Abbey Road Studios and the famous zebra crossing from the jacket of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. I’m a huge Beatle fan, as everyone knows, but I’ve prided myself since adulthood on being reasonable and not fanatical. Uh, I may have to amend that. When we came upon Abbey Road it wasn’t like my heart pounded, but I was properly awestruck. This, I thought, is rock and roll holy ground. I’ve read all the accounts of how the Beatles’ Abbey Road cover came to be, and I could imagine John, Paul, George and Ringo trooping out of the studio to use a plain old street crossing as their setting.
|And Jan's turn.|
Jan and I definitely weren’t alone there. At least eight or ten intrepid fans were braving the driving rain to dodge traffic flowing across the intersection. They walked across while companions took their pictures. Others just stood and stared. One fellow took shots from every possible angle. There are a million zebra crossings in London, but this one looks different. It feels different. There’s an aura. As my jacket dripped rivers of water, I just had to stand there and stare, too, for as long as I could. It was silly, but it was a lovely way to start our visit.
|Me in front of Abbey Road studios.|
We got back on the tube at St. John’s Wood station after doing our first shopping (postcards) at “The Beatles Coffee Shop.” We had two hours until our reservations at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, so in our typical “we-can-fit-it-all-in way, we got off the tube at Hyde Park Corner figuring we could walk to the next Underground station within minutes. We wandered through Hyde Park and its phenomenally beautiful rose garden, and made our way into Kensington Garden. We followed “The Long Water” filled with curious, people-friendly geese, swans and ducks. We found the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain—a beautiful circular track of tumbling water. But what we suddenly couldn’t find was the next tube stop. In fact, we couldn’t find our way out of the park at all. Our fifteen minute walk had turned into nearly an hour. Now we were crunched for time.
With a little praying and a lot of hustling we finally found the Underground. All I can say is the supreme headache and hassle of taking three different Underground lines back to Earl’s Court, getting changed in mere minutes, finding a taxi, and getting to the restaurant in one hour was completely offset by what came after we arrived at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.
|Restaurant Gordon Ramsay|
If Abbey Road was a rock ‘n roll Destination, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay was like a blind date with Hugh Jackman (Elizabeth Hurley if you’re Jan) that couldn’t have gone more perfectly in a dream. I’ve made a vow never to divulge the cost of dinner, but here’s a hint: we might have been able to finance a small country for the amount. Definitely a major appliance. But truly, this was food pornography at its finest and most incredible. If you’re experienced with haute cuisine, you might have expected the precision-like service, the indescribable flavors, the intimacy. But we’re, for the most part, Applebee’s/Outback hicks.
For anyone who’s familiar with Gordon Ramsay (the Kitchen Nightmares, Hell’s Kitchen chef) you know he’s famous for being the Simon Cowell-on-steroids of the culinary world. This is his first restaurant, opened in 1998 when he was thirty-one years old. If it represents his standard, he has every right to lecture and rant at lazy restaurant owners. Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is to Applebee’s what a Bentley is to a Scooter made of box crates.
The dining room is small, about 30 feet square, and holds only fourteen tables of varying sizes. The décor is pristine: white walls, simple crystal wall sconces, and white blooms in vases. Picture windows look out onto Royal Hospital Road, which is a good way southwest of downtown London—it’s a place you have to want to find.
|A waiter with his tray awaiting his turn at a table.|
There wasn’t so much a wait staff as a well-choreographed dance troupe that enveloped us when we arrived (only six minutes late), black-and-white clad experts at service, as precise as soldiers but each as approachable as a favorite aunt. We didn’t have an “our” waiter. Every member of the staff was at our table at one time or another. Nobody ever stood idle, but nobody ever rushed either. There were waiters who held food-laden trays for the servers, each one coming from the kitchen just when needed and standing in legs-wide attention at the door until the server was at the table. Since we spent two and a half hours eating, we got to know them all well—a few by name.
|Our table at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay|
|My appetizer-Sea Scallops w/apples|
Jean Claude was the maitre’d/manager. He made us feel from the start as if we were the favorite customers he’d ever had. He took us back to the kitchen once we’d finished eating and introduced us to head chef Claire and sous chef Matt—and it was a definite treat to see the inner sanctum! We even had a sommelier, Sharon, to help us choose the perfect wine, which turned out to be a Pinot Noir from New Zealand.
|Jan's appetizer - lobster ravioli|
|Jan's main course -- Filet of Turbot|
|My filet of lamb|
|Here we are with Maitre'd Jean Claude - "You can just call me J.C."|
It did end, of course, and we were escorted out like royalty. We had pictures, we had invitations to return as soon as we could. We were sated, I was a little tipsy and we were soooo glad we’d indulged. We decided to walk the two miles or so back to the hotel (which may have contributed to no regrets even the next morning) allowing us to take night pictures of lighted bridges over the Thames.
|The Albert Bridge over the Thames|
Next was the train ride to St. Bees where we’ll start the Big Hike on Saturday. We’re tucked into Tomlin House with rain whipping the Irish Sea outside. There’s a fifty percent chance of sun for our hike start. We’re saying our prayers now before bed! More on the idyllic little seaside town of St. Bees in the next installment!