En Route to Oxford
Christina writes: In the years between my move to the U.S.A. in 1995 and the publication of our J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide in 2006, Wayne and I travelled to England at least once a year – more like three times in two years, until the death of my father early in 2002. During these visits, which lasted usually about two weeks including travel, we spent the greater part of our time doing research for a succession of books at various places, and when at the Bodleian Library at Oxford often worked late into the evening. (Though not into the night: academic and institutional libraries in the U.K., unlike many U.S. libraries, do not cater to students who like to burn the midnight oil.) The time we spent visiting my father, various friends (including Pauline Baynes), and exhibitions was fitted mainly into weekends, when libraries and archives are less likely to be open or have shorter hours. With all of our contracts fulfilled, our visit in 2007 was devoted for the most part to exhibitions and meeting friends and relations, though we still managed to do a little research.
Our holiday in England last month was the first there for five years. (We don’t count as a holiday the trip we made to England in late 2008, to prepare Pauline Baynes’s archive for shipping to Williams College, where Wayne works and to which Pauline was generous in her will. That was paid for by Williams and was entirely business except for a couple of days off.) In the intervening years, all of our holidays have been within the U.S.A., comparatively short (and comparatively inexpensive) road trips to New York, Boston, or the Midwest, so for our belated visit to England we decided that we could afford to travel in greater comfort than usual. I used to enjoy flying, but leaving aside the extra security one now faces, over the years coach (economy) class travellers have been squeezed into ever smaller seats and offered fewer services. Previously, we paid extra for World Traveller Plus on British Airways, which gave us a little extra leg room and a slightly wider seat, but had the same service and meals as the ordinary World Traveller (coach) cabin. British Airways unexpectedly upgraded us a couple of times to Club World (business class), which was a delight, and this time – especially as neither of us is getting younger – we decided to book the same and enjoy rather than endure our flights.
Although we always plan to have an early night before we leave on any trip, very rarely do we succeed. Something goes missing, or computer files need to be transferred from desktop to laptop, or packing takes longer than expected. For visits to England, we have usually taken two hard suitcases and a soft bag, and have packed another soft bag to provide room for purchases. We recently replaced a large Samsonite hard case with a lighter and more flexible one by Eagle Creek, and used both of these along with soft bags bought long ago from Eddie Bauer. As in the past, we both laid out the clothes and such we needed to take, but when Wayne came to do the packing it took him a while to work out the engineering problem of distributing the items to suit the dimensions of the new case, to keep our checked bags down to three, and to enable each to be carried without strain.
The next day was sunny as we drove south through Berkshire County and then east to Boston on the Massachusetts Turnpike. We had decided to eat in late afternoon at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant in the Prudential Center (see ‘Farewell to Borders’). This wasn’t as easy as we had expected. On our previous visit, we had not had to park in the Center’s garage, as we were staying at the hotel across the street. We had no difficulty in finding the garage entrance off the Turnpike, but once inside it seemed full, and as there were no signs directing cars to a less occupied area, it took some time to find a space. We had our usual Cheesecake Factory meal of orange chicken, finding it a little disappointing since it had little sauce and the chunks of chicken were fewer and larger. Afterward, we visited the nearby Barnes & Noble. Wayne had already discovered through MapQuest that getting back on the eastbound Turnpike would be complicated, but that was made more difficult because MapQuest directions don’t allow for where one leaves the garage, nor does heavy Boston traffic allow one leisure to think about alternate routes or make it easy to get into the correct lane to make a turn. Eventually we managed it, however, and after a twenty-minute drive in rush-hour traffic reached our hotel near the airport at about 6.00 p.m.
We checked in at the Courtyard Hotel where we had a ‘park and fly’ package. Our flight the next morning was at 8.15, and since we assumed that we needed to check in at the airport two hours early, we supposed that we would have to be in the hotel lobby for the shuttle bus by 5.45. The desk clerk, however, told us that it’s now recommended that one checks in three hours before an international flight, though he thought that two and a half hours would be all right, and that we should be in the lobby by 5.15. So we resigned ourselves to an even earlier start. Before retiring early to bed, we checked e-mail and the next day’s weather forecast, or rather tried to as wireless access in our room wasn’t working. We worried for a moment that something had gone wrong with our laptop, but Wayne took it down to the lobby and there the wireless worked fine.
We set three alarms for 4.00 a.m. – the hotel’s clock radio, a travel clock, and our PDA – excessive, maybe, but I am a bad sleeper anyway and if I worry about missing a call I tend to wake up almost every hour. In fact, we woke up just before the alarms went off, and left the room just after 5.00. We did not have to wait long for the hotel shuttle bus, and quickly arrived at the airport’s international terminal. Suggesting check-in three hours before departure is all well and good, if there may be long queues at security, but at that time of the morning the service desks were not yet open, and only one agent was on duty to check tickets and passports! By about 5.50 we were making our way to the British Airways business class lounge, a very comfortable place to wait for one’s flight, with free refreshments, newspapers, etc. (well, the cost is built into the fare). I had a cup of coffee and looked at a newspaper. A little later we had an early breakfast – not too much, as we would be fed on the plane.
In Boston (but not London), First Class and Club World passengers are boarded first, about half an hour before departure. In Club World there are eight seats across, for the most part alternately facing to the front and back of the plane and separated from each other by a barrier about shoulder high which can be raised to provide complete privacy. The exception is in the centre, where two seats both face backwards and are side by side with no barrier. As Wayne later said, we had our own little room, with plenty of space sideways and lengthwise; and if we had wanted, we could have adjusted the seats and footrests and stretched full out. Since our flight was not full, neither of the gangway seats adjoining us was occupied, so we had views across the aisle to the windows. While we were still on the ground, we were offered a choice of orange juice, water, or champagne. I remember that in the good old days British Airways used to give orange juice even to coach class passengers, but I think not any more, certainly not when we last flew economy. We were also offered our choice of British newspapers.
Soon after the flight took off, we were given a brochure containing the menu which also listed the many alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks available throughout the flight and the snacks available in the Club Kitchen. The stewardesses came round to note our choices. Once upon a time, menus were also given to World Traveller passengers, usually with three choices, if I remember rightly, though when the food trolleys came round one sometimes did not get one’s first choice. I clearly remember that on one of our 2008 flights as the food trolley reached each seat, passengers were asked ‘chicken or pasta’, with no further details. Wayne and I both chose the same meal for breakfast: this started with seasonal fruit, muesli with toasted coconut, orange juice, and a choice of breads and pastries; then macadamia and white chocolate pancakes with coconut vanilla sauce (rather than the traditional English breakfast, Tortilla Española, or salad with roast ham, which were also on offer). The meals were served in a civilized fashion, on trays covered with white napkins and with heavy cutlery and glassware.
On this plane, a newer 777, entertainment was accessed through a fold-out touch-screen monitor above a collapsible tray table. There was a long list of on-demand films and features from which to choose. Wayne watched one film (We Bought a Zoo) and most of a second (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) before we reached Heathrow. I watched ‘Arctic Spring’ from the BBC series Frozen Earth part of the time, and continued reading a book I had brought with me: Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt by Joyce Tyldesley. I had chosen this from the many unread volumes in our house because it’s a small thinnish trade paperback which fit nicely into my handbag. (While looking for a suitable book I realized that mass market paperbacks now seem to be restricted mainly to fiction.)
The flight was due to arrive at Heathrow at 7.35 pm British Summer Time (2.35 pm Boston time). About an hour before landing, we were offered a snack of small sandwiches and a (very dense and sweet) brownie. We were in landing mode and expecting to touch down at any minute – we could get only the odd glimpse through the windows three seats and an aisle away – when the captain told us that he had been asked to circle as Heathrow was busy. We were not pleased to hear this, as we had been reading news stories about long queues at Heathrow Immigration, of between two and three hours, especially for non-European Union passport holders. We thought of all those planes landing before us! We were on the ground by 7.55, though, and being in business class were among the first to leave. But then we found that we had landed at one of the more distant sections of Terminal 5, and had to take a shuttle train to the main part. We hurried along and reached Immigration – to find almost no queues at all. I was through in about two minutes, while Wayne with a non-EU passport was past the Immigration desks in five: the quickest entry to the U.K. we’ve ever experienced! We understand that after loud complaints about the long queues, staff from Customs control had been moved to Immigration, and indeed we saw no staff at all when we passed through the Customs channel; but we also may have been simply lucky in our timing.
One reason why we were so concerned about a long delay was that after landing we still had to journey from Heathrow to Oxford. There is a half-hourly coach service which we had taken on many previous visits, and experience suggested that with a 7.35 pm arrival we should be able to get the 8.30 coach, or at least the one leaving at 9.00; but if there were long queues in Immigration, it would be much later, perhaps as late as the last bus around midnight. We had warned our hotel that we might be very late arriving. But we were through Immigration and Customs quickly, and our luggage (tagged ‘priority’ for business class) arrived on the conveyor not long after we reached the baggage hall. We were at the coach stop outside Terminal 5 by 8.23. Although the journey to Oxford is scheduled to take up to 80 minutes, at that time of night there was little traffic on the motorways and roads, and our coach reached the High Street stop by 9.35, only a couple of minutes’ walk from the Old Bank Hotel where we were staying. As this was our third stay at the Old Bank, we quickly felt at home. We unpacked most of what we needed for our six-night stay in Oxford before getting into bed, exhausted after a very long day.