UK Trip 2022 Diary, Part 03 …

The third and final week of my trip to the United Kingdom began with a return to London from the quaint small city of Bath, where I had spent the past three days …

To read parts one and two of my trip diary, click here (Part 01) and here (Part 02). As always, where photos are side-by-side, click on an image to see it larger on your screen and in slide show mode.

Day 15: Sunday, September 18

I woke up on my final day in Bath with a plan: Since I had a “Super Off-Peak” train ticket for my return to London (with a scheduled departure time of 12:43 PM), I figured I could actually get ANY train back that was considered Super Off-Peak, so after breakfast at the Doubletree and checkout, I grabbed the 11:13 AM one. And I’m glad that I did. The train was very crowded with people going to London to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II, whose funeral was the following day. Along my way to the train station, I grabbed a sandwich and some snacks in preparation for everything being shut down on Monday.

My plan was simple: Get back to London early enough to visit my two favorite comic shops that I had ignored while traveling with my friend Laurel. I wasn’t about to subject her to my slow and methodical plod through both shops. Since everything was supposed to be closed on Monday, I figured if I got back early enough, I could hop over to the city and visit Gosh Comics and Forbidden Planet, both of which were open on Sunday. I got into Paddington around 12:30 PM and made it back to my hotel, where I had to check my bags since my room wasn’t ready.

London was a teeming mass of people and unfortunately, as I’ve gotten older, I’m having more and more problems dealing with teeming masses of people, but I persevered and made it to both shops. Gosh, as always, was Heaven on Earth, one of the great comics shops I’ve ever been in, wonderfully laid out and with great stock that transcends just Marvel and DC. This time they had the added asset of taking in the collection of a recently departed comics artist, and I found a few things from this collection (including three early issues of my beloved British Marvel Comics reprint title from the late 1960s, Fantastic), which made my day. Forbidden Planet was a bit of a disappointment, though. A lot of their downstairs space is now taken over by shelf after shelf of manga, which I know the kids love, but it’s not my cup of tea. It was also almost prohibitively crowded, which is great for them … I’m always happy to see comic shops doing well.

Dealing with the massive crowds and the train ride pretty much ran me down for the day, so I headed back to the hotel where I checked in to my “home” for the next six nights, and took it easy for the rest of the day. Dinner was a freebie visit to the Executive Lounge.

Here are some shots of my London hotel, Hliton London Bankside, which I mention a lot in all three of my UK Trip 2022 Diary posts. I love this place (and no, I’m not being paid to post that), but this trip had a number of small hiccups, mainly caused by one desk clerk who, each time she worked with me, managed to screw up one small detail that caused me to have to talk to someone else later on. Newbie, maybe, but definitely a pain. Still, I’d totally stay here again.

Day 16: Monday, September 19

As mentioned above, Monday was the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and everything was supposed to be shut down for the day. Fortunately, my hotel served breakfast and the Lounge was open also, so I was covered meal-wise. I took a long walk along the south side of the Thames, through Bankside down to Westminster Bridge and then beyond to Lambert Bridge, an area which is opposite Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. The queue for the Queen was shut down at 6:30 AM on Monday, so the line was gone, but that area with its scenic overlook of the seat of British government was overwhelmed with reporters, cameras, and crews from all over the world. I walked past live shots with people speaking into the camera in Italian, Spanish, and Japanese. It was basically the textbook definition of a media circus.

Some of the teeming masses of reporters lining the Thames opposite Parliament on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. I didn’t see anyone I recognized from US television news.

Between Westminster and Lambert Bridges, however, something else popped up: A memorial for those lives lost during the pandemic, The National COVID Memorial Wall. It was very simply designed, just blank red hearts on a wall that stretched probably close to a mile along the river. A lot of the hearts had messages written on them, messages to loved ones who had passed away and how much they were missed. It was an incredibly emotional experience to stop and read some of these; it would have taken hours, if not days, to read all of them, and it really hit home of the toll the pandemic took on our lives.

London’s National COVID Memorial Wall stretched between Westminster and Lambert Bridges.

Everything was supposed to be closed during the funeral, but I found a number of places open on this two-hour walk, which included walking back to my hotel for lunch (the sandwich I bought in Bath the day before) along Southwark streets, which were comparatively empty. Foyles Bookstore in Southbank Centre was open, as were a number of restaurants. I got back to the hotel and ate and then read and rested (I was still dealing with that majorly painful blister I had developed on the bottom of my left foot) and went back out again around 5:00 PM to find most of the pubs open. Life went on, even after such a devastating loss.

Once again, I took advantage of the free food in the Hilton’s Executive Lounge for dinner, but my friend Maija was in town on a site check for her new job and she took the long Tube ride into visit. We had dinner at the Hilton’s OXBO restaurant and a very nice chat, which was interrupted at one point by one of those urban foxes strolling thought the alleyway beside the restaurant. Maija was always one of my favorite workmates at Comic-Con and it was nice but a bit surreal to see her in London. We made plans to get together later in the week when she was done with her work.

A stroll through Southwark (pronounced, believe it or not, Suthick), including the Tube station, (bottom tow) the London Eye, The Shard, and Borough Market.

Day 17: Tuesday, September 20

I had this urge to go Leeds, and my original plan for my trip was to stay a few extra days just so I could visit Yorkshire, including a day in Leeds, one in York, and one in Harrogate, since I loved all three of those towns. That failed to happen (financial considerations and being away for so long loomed large in my head, thankfully), so I settled for a quick one-day trip to Leeds.

I first visited Leeds in 2014 to visit Thought Bubble, the UK’s leading independent comics convention. I fell in love with the city’s old-school charm, its canal, and its city center dominated by a huge, mainly outdoor mall. It also had three comic book shops within a few blocks, which is more than London has. I went back in 2018, once again to visit Thought Bubble, and continued on to York, which I also loved. In 2019, I was back at TB, which had moved to the quaint spa town of Harrogate, which I also fell in love with … so visiting Yorkshire was high on my list, especially if this was going to be the last long trip to the UK I ever take, a thought which—as some friends of mine will tell you—is one I always voice every time I travel there. But this time was different; retirement means less—a lot less—money for travel, so this trip may very well have been my last hurrah. We’ll see.

A few photos from Leeds, including one of their many shopping arcades, the selection of vintage Penguin Books at the local Waterstones, and an outdoor vendor.

I roamed around (with a stop for lunch) until it was time to head for the nearby train station and catch my ride back to London at 5:15, which would have gotten me back to Kings Cross station around 7:30. And that’s when it all turned to shite.

Somewhere close to London at one of the smaller stations (Stevenage), overhead wires were down, which meant the trains couldn’t pass through that stop. After being coy about it for a while (the track number was listed as “TBC”—to be confirmed—on the departure board), someone finally (around a half-hour after departure time) came on the loudspeaker and said that this problem couldn’t be resolved immediately, so travelers to London should get either the train to Manchester or Sheffield. By this time a couple of trains to London had backed up, unable to travel, so there was a mad dash to the next trains to both those locations. I ended up getting on the train to Sheffield, which was about an hour and ten minutes south of Leeds, at least in the right direction. It was packed, but luckily I found a seat. (I wore a mask through all my mass transit trips during this entire UK trip: trains, Tubes, and planes … very few other people wore masks.) When we were about ten minutes outside of Sheffield, I asked the conductor what time was the next train to London, and he (a lad who looked to be about 18 if he was a day, and came across as a super train nerd) told me the next two trains to London from Sheffield had been cancelled, but he thought there was still a 9:01 PM to St. Pancras, but he’d have to get back to me to confirm.

He was right. We got to Sheffield station about 8:10 PM, and the ticket clerk in the station confirmed that the only direct train to London was the 9:01, which got in about 11:20 PM, about four hours after I was originally supposed to arrive. Pretty much everything in the Sheffield station was closed, so food wasn’t an option. The ticket clerk told me the train would arrive and depart on track 8, so I went there and sat and waited. Around 8:25, amid a larger-by-the-minute gathering crowd of people (who all were suffering from Stevenage’s downed power lines), the train arrived and we were told via loudspeaker that this was the train to St. Pancras station in London and it was okay to board. I got on one of the First Class coaches, even though I had a standard ticket … what were they going to do? Kick me off? Go ahead … make my day. The train departed right on time at 9:01 PM, and the conductor announced that all seats were “declassified,” so if you were standing in a full standard coach, it was okay to move into the three first class coaches and find a seat. My patented resting bitch face, augmented by my age and aching blister and just general disdain for my fellow man at this point, made sure the single seat opposite me stayed empty on the two and a quarter hour trip back to London. I had snagged a seat with a table, thankfully. My phone battery was running out, making music and/or a podcast out of the question, so I just put on my noise-cancelling headphones and rode into the night. I had to maintain what little battery power I had in case we got in too late for me to catch the Underground (which ends at midnight on weeknights) back to my hotel and had to call an Uber or taxi. Luckily, we got back in time for me to catch the Tube to London Bridge station and then from there to Southwark station, where I could easily walk back to my hotel. I got back around midnight, more tired than hungry and called it a very long day. Food was once again not an option; sleep was and I was just happy to be back.

The only two hiccups of my entire three-week trip involved trains (the other one being coming back from Hereford ten days earlier), and I made a mental note: No more one-day trips to Leeds. There was nothing there that I couldn’t have found in London. I loved the city, but sometimes it’s okay to say no.

Day 18: Wednesday, September 21

After the great train debacle of Tuesday, I was ready for a quieter day. I was still dealing with the blister on my left foot, but I ended up walking quite a bit this day. After breakfast I took the tube to Camden Town to visit yet another comic shop, Mega City Comics. While I was impressed with the selection, I didn’t buy anything. At this point in the trip, I was starting to worry about how much stuff I had conspicuously consumed and had to take home … if you haven’t figured it out by now, this—and every other UK trip I’ve ever taken—is all about comics and books for me, and I inherently knew that I was reaching my limit, space-wise. I know a lot of people adore the charming, grungy feeling of Camden Town, but I’m not one of them, so after I visited the comic shop there, I limped back on the Tube and got lost trying to make my way back to Charing Cross Road. Eventually I made it and took a quick walk through Foyles and then over to Gosh Comics to exchange a book I was told was a signed edition but wasn’t. Luckily they still had signed copies and very nicely exchanged it.

Pretty much every day starts with a Tube ride; (center) Shad Thames, near the Tower Bridge; and detail of some graffiti at a London skate park near Southbank Centre.

Even though my foot was bugging me like crazy, I (very foolishly) decided to get off the Tube at Waterloo Station and walk back to my hotel from there. I stopped at the British Film Institute, where I encountered still another small change since my last visit that bugged me like crazy, but that’s probably just me. The BFI has a beautiful facility in the Southbank Centre that houses theaters, a library, a cafe, and a shop. I’ve always enjoyed browsing there, but this time I found they changed the location of their shop to a smaller venue in the building and with a lot less merchandise (cafe seating replaced the old shop space). I didn’t buy anything here, either—in fact, I don’t think I bought anything at all on this day, no matter where I visited—but I did pick up copies of their printed schedule booklets for Sept/Oct and Oct/Nov. I’ve always enjoyed leafing through these, and I was very happy to see they still publish them and offer them free to the public. One other thing I noticed on this trip was that many theater chains—such as Curzon, Odeon, and Everyman—have stopped publishing their own monthly guides to new movies. I always picked these up in years past, even if I didn’t go to see a movie in one of their theaters. I guess that’s just another casualty of the pandemic, when all the theaters were closed there was no need for a guide to showcase new films. It was probably one of the first things to go.

The iconic Tower Bridge on two separate days, one more lovely than the other.

I walked back to the Hilton and dropped off my (empty, save for the replacement book from Gosh) backpack and then limped up past Tower Bridge to (you guessed it) Pizza Express and had my last British pizza of the trip. Once again, I encountered pretty much indifferent service with a waiter who seemed to actually resent the fact that I had the nerve to come in and order a pizza. I went back to the hotel and stopped in the Lounge for a snack and called it a very early evening. This day was the one that I walked the most for the week: 9.9 miles, sore foot and all. All in total for this trip, including my time in London, Hay-on-Wye, and Bath, I walked over 120 miles, bringing my walking up to just under 175 miles for the month of September (surprisingly not a record; that belongs to July 2019 at just over 175 miles, the last year I worked for Comic-Con before the pandemic).

Day 19: Thursday, September 22

I needed a bit more rest on this day, so I was pleased to see that they have Thursday matinees at some of the theaters in London. I went to see Back to the Future The Musical at the Adelphi Theatre in Covent Garden, and it was a real treat. I hadn’t been to a live play in forever (I think the last one I saw was The Front Page in New York City) and while I’m not a huge fans of musicals, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The actor playing Marty McFly (Ben Joyce) had a very physical stage presence and singing voice, but tried a little too hard when it came to capturing a teenager’s puberty-driven, squeaky voice. I thought the actor who played Doc Brown was amazing, and just now found out why he was so familiar: He’s American actor Roger Bart, who appeared in numerous TV series, including Desperate Housewives. He stole the show, except for the real star: The time-traveling DeLorean, which, while a bit static (the stage was kind of tiny), was used to great effect throughout the play. The staging and special effects were amazing and the songs, which helped advance the story, were good if a bit too “stage-musical” for me. Actors Amber Davies as Lorraine, Marty’s mom, and Harry Jobson as Biff Tannen were also very good, and Oliver Nicholas as George McFly, Marty’s dad was another standout, totally nailing the whole Crispen Glover oddness of that role, yet making it all his own. A couple words of warning though … don’t go see this if you’re sensitive to flashing lights, because there’s a lot of that going on, and the Adelphi has not-so-great seating. I lucked out and had no one sit in front of me, so I had a pretty good view of the stage, but if it’s packed, all you’re looking at is the back of someone’s head. The seats are not arranged very well, lying pretty much directly behind each other.

The Adelphi Theatre in Covent Garden where I saw Back to the Future The Musical.

I revisited some of my favorite Covent Garden places before the play (including Stanford’s Travel Store and London Graphics Centre) and after it I returned to the hotel on a very crowded Tube train (it was rush hour, but my foot was too sore to walk back). I treated myself to a big, juicy burger in the Hilton’s OXBO restaurant, but unfortunately, the service was pretty crappy, even though I was the only person in the restaurant for most of the time I was there.

Some Covent Garden sights, including the mural on the outside of Stanford’s Travel Store (right).

Day 20: Friday, September 23

Friday was my last full day in London so I wanted to go to Piccadilly Circus and pick up a couple more books (sigh … at this point, it’s an incurable disease and I’m terminal) and then visit Fortnum & Mason for some tea for my tea-loving friend back in San Diego, who not only watched over my place, but also took me to and picked me up from the airport. I stopped myself at one book from Waterstones’ megastore in Piccadilly, somehow sensing I was not going to be able to pack anymore than that (spoiler alert: I was spot-on). At F&M I picked up some my friend’s favorites and some additional items. And then I decided to walk back to the hotel via Green Park and St. James Park, which I wasn’t able to do earlier in the trip because of the Queen’s queue. Both parks are so beautiful and well-kept, that I always like to walk through them at least once, no matter what the weather is. They were also still both very crowded, with a lot of spontaneous flower displays in honor of the Queen’s passing. I continued my walk back via Westminster Bridge and the Queen’s Walk, dropping my purchases off at the hotel and then heading out to a pub behind the Tate Modern, called the Founders Arms, where I had a very good fish and chips lunch, albeit once again with crappy service (I had to don my coat and hat and lurk by the service counter to pay my bill). I went back to the hotel and started packing up all my stuff, and as predicted, I had just enough room to fit everything in and would have been royally screwed without the new backpack I bought. I checked in for my British Airways flight the next day and pre-checked a bag, my large suitcase.

Scenes from my last full day in London, including (top row) Green Park and St. James Park; (middle) I swear that goose is real and they walk right up to you; Churchill with a friend; (bottom) Big Ben from Westminster Bridge along with another tribute to the Queen, and the outdoor installation at the Tate Modern, behind my hotel.

My friend Maija texted that she had moved to a different hotel close to mine in Bankside and we got together at a restaurant called The Foundry where we had dinner. I had already eaten something at the Hilton’s Executive Lounge, but we sat and had a nice long chat before we—once again—had to hunt down our waitress and insist that we wanted to pay. Honestly, I know this is like beating a dead horse, but I have never had such lousy and indifferent service in any restaurants anywhere as I did on this trip, especially in London. We checked out an outdoor installation at Tate Modern and said our goodbyes; she was staying until Monday, but I was on the 2:00 PM flight to San Diego the next day.

Day 20: Saturday, September 24

Time to say goodbye to Old Blighty. I was not looking forward to two Tube trains and the Heathrow Express to the airport, especially with my trio of luggage, but I made it okay, even if it was a bit awkward and strenuous at times (I am usually one of those things at any given moment; can you guess which one?). I got there right around 11:00 AM, which was within the three-hour time limit that they requested departing passengers observe when flying out of Heathrow. I checked my bag and getting through security was a relative breeze, leaving me with just a 90-minute wait to board my plane, which was packed.

Take me home, big tin can.

A lot has been written (or Tweeted) about how bad Heathrow was over the summer, but to be honest, I found my entire experience there—coming and going—to be very pleasant. I had a sandwich at Starbucks and the plane boarded and left pretty much on time. It was totally full and the person who sat next to me—a Scotsman who was going to San Diego for a conference—seemed to be on his first long-haul plane ride. He inhaled his food like he’d been stranded on a desert island and at one point he performed the universal sign of “I’m so done with this flight:” Laying his weary head on the hard plastic tray table. The secret of long-haul daylight flights—for me at least—is to come prepared with stuff to do. I watched two movies (The Phantom of the Open and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent; I enjoyed both, but especially The Phantom with the great duo of Mark Rylance and Sally Hawkins), listened to two podcasts and a music playlist, and read two chapters of the book I was reading: Remainders of the Day by Shaun Bythell, his third day-by-day diary devoted to his bookstore in Wigtown, Scotland. All total, that was about 8.5 to 9 hours of my 11-hour flight. The food was once again lousy, a far cry from when I first started flying British Airways back in 2014. But I was grateful for the direct flight to San Diego (thank god I didn’t have to go through Phoenix once again), a 20-minute early arrival, and a relatively quick trip through customs (after a relatively long wait for my suitcase). My friend drove up and whisked me home, and that, as they say, was that. My three-week trip to the UK was over. Three years of planning, three years of dreaming, three weeks of being someplace else, all gone with the wind. To say I’ve been a bit down since I got back would be an understatement, but hey … better to have tripped and lost than not to have tripped at all.

(Left) wistful London and (right) home.

I don’t know what the future holds for me when it comes to travel. I’d like to go back to Portland and visit Powell’s and a couple of the really great comic book stores there, along with seeing my dear friend, Caryn. I’d like to go back to Seattle next spring and have some seafood chowder at Pike Place Chowder and visit Elliott Bay Bookstore and Pike Place Market once again. And I may even want to visit New York City next fall and roam around some of my favorite bookstores there. But all of that may be a collection of moot points. I feel that the future—for all of us—is very uncertain now, and these cities that I’ve loved are not what they used to be, less safe and less enjoyable. Maybe it’s better to stay put and be a homebody for a while. I certainly have plenty to read!

My line-up of UK trip book purchases, including (left to right), Remainders of the Day, Richard Booth’s My Kingdom of Books (both purchased in Hay-on-Wye), two Shire Press books (The London Bus and Piers and Other Seaside Architecture; I love these little Shire Press mini-guides to British life); the Persephone Books catalogue; The Truth About Lisa Jewell (a year with the author as she writes her latest book The Family Remains); Thunderbook (an allegedly-humorous look at James Bond movies), Ian Fleming’s James Bond (a kind of dual biography of the author and his fictional character, by spy history best-selling author Ben Mcintyre);a biography of Sir Sean Connery; 1965 (a cultural history of a turning point year in British history); a biography of The Queen (a really beautifully book; not sure why I was inspired to buy it, either by her death or The Crown); Murder by the Seaside, (a collection of short mystery stories on vacation with an amazing wraparound cover); Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations (a beautiful, full-color, profusely illustrated book on—you guessed it—British train stations); The Book Lovers Guide to London (a literary history of London with locations); and Suzanne: The Jazz Age Goddess of Tennis, a new graphic novel, signed and with a special bookplate.

Visit me on Instagram @gg92118 for lots more photos from my UK 2022 trip!

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