As I’m currently at 40,000 feet over Saskatchewan and about 2½ hours out from San Francisco, I reckon now is a good time to rabbit on a little a journey thus far. One thing I haven’t mentioned in my introduction is that this trip is “cashing-in” many years of Virgin Flying Club points, including a fair chunk amassed by my post-retirement round-the-world jaunt in 2013. Consequently the flight is Upper Class both ways. It is partly the reason for a relatively short stay in the US – I had to fit the availability of Reward Seats around the Red Sox schedule. The journey down to Heathrow was n First Class too, courtesy of a decent deal on an advance purchase ticket!
Anyway, the story of the day follows…
The ride down to London was completely uneventful and smooth. East Midlands Trains did a good job of looking after me with frequent offers of coffee – even if a little stingy in the actual delivery thanks to their use of spectacularly small cups. Free is good though, regardless of volume. Their bacon rolls looked tempting, but not, I regret, £4’s worth of temptation.
If the service provided by East Midlands Trains has one fault, it is that it deposits its passengers little more than just south of Bedfordshire. They are then left to trek the remaining miles to the King’s Cross St. Pancras Underground! Or so it all seems.
A brace of BTP officers were patrolling the concourse at St. Pancras. Now this isn’t a complaint, I completely understand their role and I for one am grateful for the protection and security they provide (that may sound sarcastic, I don’t mean it be!). Nevertheless, I couldn’t help that think that the weapons these guys were carrying weren’t so much guns as small artillery pieces?
Once off Network Rail (Boo! hiss!) property, the route-march continues but now it is Transport for London having a laugh at their passengers as they trudge a subterranean figure-of-eight following the signs to the Piccadilly line platforms. I’m sure it didn’t used to be this complicated. Once on the platform, the first two trains were for destinations other than Heathrow, which gave me an opportunity to wonder at the lemming-like antics of prospective passengers as they hurl themselves like bullets at closing train doors – regardless of the fact that the next train is rarely more than two minutes away. Such busy lives these people must lead?
Not too long after arriving on the outskirts of London, I was starting on the 23 station journey to Heathrow. All went well for a while, but as we approached Action Town (where the line goes left for Heathrow or right for Uxbridge), the train magically changed from a Heathrow service to an Uxbridge one. A barely audible message from the driver (sorry, “Train Operator”) said something to the effect that services to Heathrow were suspended due to a signal failure and we could all either come with him to Uxbridge and catch a “local bus” to Heathrow, or wait at Acton Town for an indeterminate period until trains started running to Heathrow again. I chose the latter, and on disembarking on to the increasingly rammed platform, it was very clear that this wasn’t the first train so affected.
There was little in the way of information being imparted, except by a large LED sign which declared “Good Service On All Lines” – somewhat incongruous above the heads of the befuddled masses. I headed up the platform away fro the worst of the throng and silently chuntered that this was eating into my Clubhouse time! After about ten minutes a train arrived with Heathrow on its destination, confirmed by the platform indicator. I boarded, dubious as to whether it would actually depart in the direction of the airport. Only about 10% of the crowd on the platform did the same; unsurprising really as the train’s arrival coincided with a PA message, now announcing that the Heathrow service was suspended
But off it set. For a bit. It waited a while at Northfields, an automated announcement on the train telling us it was “to even out the gaps in the service”, but after another ten minutes or so we ambled off toward Boston Manor. Evidently during this bit our driver was instructed to pass a couple of signals at Danger as, before he did, he came on the PA to tell everyone to “hang on” – as the train stop trip did its job and brought us to a brief but abrupt halt. Quite reassuring, really.
An hour & a half after boarding at Kings Cross St. Pancras, I arrived at Heathrow and trundled off along the tunnels to Terminal 3. Bag drop and all the formalities went as well as could be hoped for and I was airside within 15 minutes. Clubhouse time….
I’d toyed with the idea of getting a haircut in the “Cowshed” but chickened out for various reasons. Nick had texted me as I was walking through the door urging me to do it “as it’s free” but he’d also warned me that getting fitted-in can be a challenge. It all seemed like too much faff so I set up camp and ordered a burger instead! Nick had also reported that the word on V-Flyer was that the quality of this traditional offering had diminished, but I was more than satisfied by mine.
The couple of hours in there seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. In addition to the fine burger, I had a few other nibbles including some melt-in-the-mouth cookies and washed it all down with a London Pride. Though the Clubhouse was busy (it thinned out after VS11 to Boston boarded) I didn’t spot any famous faces. I thought I saw “Inspector Lestrade” from Sherlock, but in the end convinced myself it wasn’t him (Rupert Graves).
Boarding for VS41 was called at 14:45 and I set off for the gate. I did wonder if I was in the right place at one point as the long corridor which leads to the gates used by Virgin was completely deserted. Even when I reached the gate it was fairly quiet. I had done ‘on line check-in’ last night and had my boarding pass sent to my iPhone as a ‘Passbook’. This was something Carl had introduced me to with Qantas [thanks Nick!] when we flew from Canberra to Adelaide two years ago, so was pleased that Virgin have adopted it. Much better than bits of paper! They’ve not copied Quantas’s use of smart tags for the bags yet, completely doing away with paper labels.
The formalities at the gate were so smooth it didn’t register with me that there were two entrances to the plane in use, I just followed the signs for Upper Class. I know it is a well-worn cliche about “turning left” (and for most of us, if you get to do it at all it is a big thing – it is for me, anyway). So when I boarded and the crew member who greeted me directed me to the far side of the aircraft, I did indeed instinctively turn left – into the open cockpit door! D’oh, what a pillock. Before I was accused of a security breach I quickly back-tracked and found seat 5K.
The aircraft is an Airbus A340-600, but I didn’t see its name as I boarded. The Captain is Craig Mathieson, the flight time is 10hrs 23 minutes and — quite remarkably, I thought – the ‘souls on board’ is 13 crew, 131 passengers and two infants. That sounds like a very lightly loaded flight. There are at least a dozen empty seats in Upper. Push back was at 15:40 and wheels-up at16:00. Right, “afternoon tea” is being served…
Afternoon tea turned out to be dainty sandwiches, scones & jam and cup cakes – all presented on the tiered platter associated with this British dish. I have to say that such refinements are generally lost on me, but when in Upper… Earlier in the flight the evening meal had been a choice of starters, including pea & mint soup which I enjoyed. Mains were lemon & thyme chicken with sauteed spinach, seafood linguine, keralan curry or Thai beef salad. Thankfully for me there was an alternative of, yes, burger! Entertainment had been Birdman (very wierd, probably more comprehensible on a larger screen?) and, later, Whiplash – about a crazed drum instructor. I also caught up on a few BBC things on iPlay on my iPad. I tried to get a bit of shut-eye in between but didn’t really drop-off. Unlike several other passengers, I chose not to convert my seat into a bed and really get my head down. As it will be 02:20 body-time when we land, that may not have been the best choice.
The crew are starting to to ‘ready the cabin for landing’ so I’ll leave it there.
When we took off, as the wheels left the ground I set a countdown timer of 10hrs 24min. I didn’t need to as these days the in-flight entertainment has an ETA displayed on most screens as well as the inevitable ‘sky map’. Even so, I was hugely impressed when the timer went off almost at the very moment we touched-down. I know it is all computer controlled, but even so, it is a pretty clever trick to predict the flight time so perfectly. The approach from the north meant that those of us on the righthand side of the cabin got a view of the Pacific whereas those on the other side got apparently spectacular city views as we banked left over Silicone Valley and landed from the south. It was a fairly short taxi to the gate and of course those of us seated ‘up front’ were off the plane first. An immigration hall with no passengers and a dozen or so waiting agents was a sight for sore eyes. There was the briefest of waits for my bag to appear and I was land-side within 20 minutes of touching down.
I’d elected to pre-pay for a roundtrip ticket to Downtown on the BART on the assumption the SFO BART station would be a bit of a zoo. In the event, like most everywhere on the journey (apart from Acton Town) it was very quiet. Still, the voucher turned out to be not such a bad idea. A train came in as I entered the station but there was a slight wait before it departed back to the city. All-in-all, it was about 40 minutes later that I emerged from the Powell Street station to be reminded of the positive feeling the very first time I visited San Francisco.
I walked round the corner to the hotel and checked in. It’s a real cheap & cheerful place but what it lacks in facilities it more than makes up for on price and location (across the road from the Marriott Marquis – not sure what I’d be paying to stay there tonight?). Once I’d dropped my bag and freshened-up I went back out for a walk round the block in the twilight. Conscious of the fact it was about 4am by my bodyclock, I grabbed a sub from Walgreens and some beer from a liquor store. Not that I’ll need/have much before I turn in… San Francisco Speakeasy Ales Prohibition Ale; a ‘boldly hopped amber ale’ at a hefty 6.1%.
And that’s my day. I can barely believe I’m here. Let’s see what tomorrow brings – all being well baseball will figure in the day.