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Notes from London

Written By Scott Joseph On July 12, 2012

ON THE EUROSTAR — We’re on our way to Paris after six nights in London. We are a group of 26 — two leaders, 20 University of Central Florida students, and four “adults” who have come along for the tour. The students are participating in a program sponsored by the UCF STudy Abroad department to learn how to write about food and eating experiences in Britain and France. Because it’s food centric, I am along as one of the leaders. (I will not entertain laughing.)

I’ve been to the city many times. Several of the students have asked how many, but I honestly don’t know. I don’t mean to sound pretentious — I’ve just been lucky enough to have been to London more times than I can remember. I try thinking of the different hotels I’ve stayed in, also trying to remember how many times in each. It’s confusing. Right now, I’m setting the number at 11. Or maybe 12.

I love this city.

But one of the things that happens when you visit one city often is that you forget what it’s like to see it for the first time. Leading a group of young people on their first trip to London — indeed, the first trip outside the U.S. — is a wonderful reminder of the first time.

The weather cooperated for the most part. We had the usual London drizzle, but no downpours. We were prompted to pull out our umbrellas on one or two occasions, but most of the time the amount of precipitation in the air didn’t warrant the effort. 

Arriving early morning on the Fourth of July, or, as they refer to it in Britain, Wednesday, we were, of course, unable to check into our rooms at the Thistle Kensington Gardens. We knew that going in, so we arranged to drop our luggage and head for one of the many double-decker bus tours that ply the city’s streets.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of the more popular ones with frequent and easily visible stops. After an hour of searching the area around Marble Arch, we finally found the lone agent hopped on board. I like doing bus tours in a new place — they’re a terrific way to get a feel for city. Luckily, it was a beautiful summer day — a rarity, we would soon discover — and we all sat up top and enjoyed the sites.

After checking in, we all headed to Haymarket Street for a group meal at a distinctly British restaurant: Planet Hollywood.

I know, I know. But Robert Earl had graciously offered to treat the students, a gracious gesture that couldn’t be passed up, especially considering that the students had to pay for all of their meals, and many of them on this trip are scrimping to get by.

And the meal at Planet Hollywood was pretty good. We had a limited menu available to us, and most chose burgers or pasta. Service was efficient given that the two servers assigned to us were dealing with a 26-top while still attending to other tables.

I had eaten at this same Planet Hollywood about five years ago, when it had recently relocated to Haymarket (coincidentally, that was on July 4, too). It seems this PH has finally fallen into its rythym. It is what it is and it does what it does.

The next morning we had another treat. We toddled off to Westminster Abbey by way of Buckingham Palace and were taken on a private tour of Parliament by not one but two Members of Parliament, Viscount Janric Craigavon and Lord John Montagu. Montagu is the 11th Earl of Sandwich, which fit in nicely with our food theme. I’ve written about a past meeting I’ve had with Lord Montagu; here’s a link to that story.

The two met us in Westminster Hall, which Montagu said was the most important room in the empire. It’s the oldest existing structure in the Parliament complex. Craigavon is something of a House of Lords historian. He carried with him a massive binder filled with papers and pictures. As he spoke, he pulled a picture out of the binder — how he knew where the picture he wanted was within the disheveled stack is beyond me — to illustrate a point.

When we said goodbye, Craigavon gave us a handful of plastic pens with House of Lords printed on them. “Just something cheap and cheerful,” he told me.

We split off into two groups, and I took a few people to Gordon’s Wine Bar, which I’ve written about before. We had a rare experience: Gordon’s was virtually empty, and we were able to grab a choice table under the low brick ceiling in the wine cellar. Everyone loved it.

A few people had signed up to go with me to Rules, the oldest restaurant in London. And I’ll tell you about that later.

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