On July 3 upon arriving at Heathrow Airport, the first thing my 16-year-old daughter, Brianna, and I did was purchase a London pocket map of the Underground (the tube), streets and bus routes. In minutes, we were traveling on the Piccadilly Line to Wood Green to meet a friend from London.
In the next couple of days, we took the Underground all over town. That alone was an adventure for “country cousin” types like us. There are about a dozen different lines that crisscross England’s capital city at depths of up to hundreds of feet. We were impressed with how fast, efficient and regular the trains are, with mazes of interconnecting tunnels, and long escalators that sometimes go up several stories at a time making you feel like you are climbing a mountain.
One of the thrills of the Underground was, unlike traveling by road, you are “in the dark” about what is above ground until you emerge from the tunnel. One of the highlights of the trip was July 4 when we traveled on the Underground to the Westminster station, stepping out right across the street from the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
The look on my daughter’s face was priceless. She was awestruck.
On July 5 we rented a Smart car (at surprisingly cheap rates, and one of the only things that was cheap in Europe) for a trip to visit the ancient capital of England, Winchester, for a few days before we planned to return to London for the first two days a motorcoach tour across Europe.
Smart cars, which we saw everywhere we traveled in Europe, make a Mini Cooper look big. They are about the size of a golf cart, but are surprisingly roomy inside and easy to drive.
Within minutes, we were in trouble. I had driven in New Zealand on the “wrong” side of the road with no difficulty. But, I was very naïve about driving on the motorways of London, which has more than seven million people and a very different roadway system than in the U.S. They use roundabouts instead of traffic lights, and roads are numbered rather than listed by the name of the next big town. It wasn’t driving on the wrong side of the road that was a problem, but navigating the maze of roadways.
‘The Road to Hell’
Our route took us on the London Orbital, the M25. I later found out this has been nicknamed “The Road to Hell.” An official UK Web site says: “Frequently derided as nothing more than a very big car park, this is London’s outermost beltway, the world’s biggest ring road.”
I’ve never been honked at so much in my life, and at one point wondered if we would just keep traveling back and forth trying to find the right direction on the M25 for the entire vacation. Finally, Brianna managed to navigate us to Winchester. A journey that should have taken two hours took four. When I arrived in Winchester, I parked the Smart car, hoping it might break down so I wouldn’t have to take it back to London.
We loved medieval Winchester, particularly the Winchester Cathedral and the Great Hall containing the famous Round Table. But my dread of the trip back to London cast a pall over the vacation.
On July 7 we first heard news of the “dreadful incident” in London. It was quite amazing to witness the reaction of the British people around us. They weren’t surprised. They didn’t seem very upset. There was none of the shock and fear I would have expected to be a more normal reaction.
The Underground, above ground trains and buses in London were suspended that day, resulting in extra traffic on the M25 and other motorways. Authorities were advising people not to drive into London unless absolutely necessary. I had the choice of trying to drive back into London, or returning the Smart car to nearby Southampton and taking the train and Underground to our hotel in London.
At the point, driving was a greater threat than traveling on the above ground and then Underground trains in London the day after the terror attacks. Amazingly, we got right on a train after turning in the car, and found that everything was back running — and on schedule — the day after the bombings.
Business as usual
When we got on the Underground after arriving in London, it was surprisingly business as usual. People didn’t seem nervous or upset, even while they sat reading the tabloid stories about the bombings. Because the Underground has two or three tube lines running through a ring around Central London, it was still even possible to get about anywhere you wanted to go. Certain station stops were closed due to the damage. At those, the train conductor would refer to the “unfortunate events” of July 7 while calmly announcing the station was closed and suggesting alternatives.
Our hotel was located next to one of the bombing sites. It seemed surreal exiting up the escalator with odors of the bombing. There is no delicate way to say this, but the odors of charred flesh weren’t coming from restaurants in the station.
It was chilling. And yet the station was as busy as ever, people buying sodas and sandwiches from Underground employees asking each other, “Where were you when it happened?” and congratulating each other on surviving.
There were police everywhere, but they weren’t grim or tense. They were smiling and upbeat. Were we experiencing that famous British stoicism?
A column by Mary Wakefield in The Sunday Telegraph gave me some clues about what was going on. “In a way, it was a relief,” she said. “We knew it was coming.”
“…London isn’t showing the spirit of the blitz or bravely struggling against adversity,” she wrote. “It just wants to get to the pub for a pint.”
She also referred to the pride in the Underground system: “Traveling by the tube is what defines Londoners. It makes them different.”
Americans, less accustomed to mass transit, might think people would desert the Underground, especially now two weeks later when there has been a second wave of terror attacks. But for literally millions of people who live in and around London, there really isn’t an alternative. There is a congestion tax for driving into the city that makes it quite expensive. And then there is no where to park. Buses are much slower, and most people really have no option but the Underground.
Meanwhile, back home on the Coast…
After getting to our hotel safely, we got a phone call from back home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The area was being evacuated due to Hurricane Dennis. Well, at least we had already evacuated!
On July 9 we found out that Dennis had spared our home, and set out to enjoy London. Brianna and I took a bus tour on one of the famous double-decker buses and a scenic boat trip on the Thames, as well. London really is a fabulous city, and the busboat trip package is a great way to see it.
The evening before I had seen the president of the London Chamber of Commerce discussing whether the incidents would harm one of London’s biggest industries, tourism. But judging by the crowds we saw everywhere we went, tourists were following the lead of the Londoners in not bowing to terror.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.