Michael’s Trip Diary – Thursday, May 6, 2010 — Part 01

Heathrow Airport to Bath, via Salisbury

So, picture this. Up until a day or so before we left, we weren’t even sure we would be able to fly to England. The Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced Aye-ya fyah-dla jow-kudl — try saying that ten times very fast), had erupted just a few weeks before, and the airspace over large parts of Europe, including the UK, was closed between April 15th and the 23rd. On the 4th and 5th of May there were further disruptions in Ireland and Scotland, but — by sheer luck — our scheduled flight left on time and arrived at Heathrow at 7:12 am, only about fifteen minutes late. We were finally there, Day Two of the trip, our first day in England. All we had to do was pick up our car and head for Bath, right?

No. We had to go to Passport Control first, then Baggage, then Customs …and then pick up the car. Here’s a link to Heathrow’s Airport Guide for arriving passengers.

Passport Control was fast, a few quick questions, a stamp, and we were through and heading to the Arrivals/Baggage Reclaim area. The signs were well-marked, and our luggage slid onto the carousel within ten or fifteen minutes. Then we had another walk to Customs. The line at Customs was extremely long, backed into the hallway, but it moved quickly. Less than an hour after the plane touched down we were heading to Hertz, and our car.

Each of the car rental (BrE – car hire) companies operate shuttle buses that will take you to their rental offices. They stop at all of the terminals. Just look for your company’s shuttle. We had arranged for a car at the same time we booked our flight, back in February 2010, and had asked for a small car (an automatic, a compact, like a Ford Focus, or as the reservation e-mail said, “something similar”). I used to drive a stick shift, but Minay never had. I planned to do the driving, but what if I got sick, or broke a leg, or something? So it needed to be an automatic, and needed to be small (for the small roads we would likely be on for parts of the trip).

The idea was to pick up the rental car, drive leisurely to Bath, and take our time getting used to the roads and driving on the left, etc. We got to the Hertz rental office at 8:30 am, only to discover they had no automatics available. The volcano had not only interrupted air travel, but people weren’t returning their rental cars to their original locations, and were keeping them longer. This meant the rental agency (especially since they were in Europe, which has fewer automatics to begin with) had none at the moment. We waited in their lobby for over two hours. Finally, they told us an automatic had arrived, but it was an estate car (AmE – station wagon). “Would that be all right?” We grabbed at it, and left in Flio a little after 11:00 am, two-and-a-half hours later than we had anticipated. We left in such a hurry that we were on the road before we discovered it had a diesel engine, not gas (BrE – petrol).

Here’s a scan of the bottom half of a page from the excellent AA Motorist’s Atlas of Britain to show you our marking methodology (and how lost we got right away).

AA Road Atlas section, Heathrow heading southwest

AA Road Atlas section, Heathrow heading southwest

We marked the map with highlighter as we drove, not before. Today was marked in orange. The blue and green highlights were done at the end of the trip.

We wanted to go south on the M25 to the M3, and take that southwest to Salisbury on our way to Bath (you can spot some of these roads on the map). We started out on M25 (I think), but soon we found ourselves on another road (probably the A308). It was windy and a bit rainy, so that might have thrown us off a little, but all we knew for certain was about fifteen minutes after we left, we were circling Windsor Castle, about three miles off course (notice the spiral arrow around Windsor on the map). Minay, excellent navigator that she is, somehow got us back on another southerly road. I think it was the A332, and then — briefly — the A322, where we finally picked up the M3. Another six miles down the road, around 11:30, nerves frazzled, after having driven on big roads and tiny streets, trying to remember to keep to the left, we saw a sign for a motorway service area. It looked like this.

Welcome Break sign at Fleet, UK, very grainy, a screen capture from Google Street View

Welcome Break sign at Fleet, UK, very grainy, a screen capture from Google Street View

Starbucks was easy to understand, and the Golden Arches were obvious, but what was Waitrose?

Obviously, we pulled in. It was time for a break. Since we were in an unfamiliar car, we took a moment to write down our licence plate (AmE – license plate). This was our first step towards calling the car Flio, because of the plate number, FL10 WDX.

We were at the Welcome Break Service Station at Fleet, a city of roughly 30,000 in Hampshire. Welcome Break and Moto are the two companies that operate most of the motorway service stations in the UK. This Welcome Break had a wide variety of eateries and other stores, and sold petrol and diesel fuel, of course. Waitrose was a general grocery and food take-away (AmE – food to-go) store, but they also had stores like W.H. Smith, which was a stationery/electronics/bookstore. This service station had a companion station on the other side of the M3. We ate at the Eat In Restaurant on the southbound side, but if we had desperately wanted a Krispy Kreme,  or some KFC or McDonald’s, we could have crossed the M3 on an overhead footbridge. Many of the service areas we saw were designed that way. Very handy.

Once we were inside the restaurant, we were faced with some unforeseen choices. Minay wanted tea, and I wanted some coffee. That was no problem. There was a range of food to choose from, and we just wanted something simple, but some of the names were unfamiliar. I settled on a cheese and bacon toastie, a cup of tomato soup, and a latte. I asked what a toastie was and discovered it’s basically a panini (a toasted sandwich). Minay also had soup and a toastie (I don’t remember what kind) and a pot of tea,. I do remember we thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a perfect break, and exactly what we needed to get our nerves under control before setting off again. The food was good, but a bit expensive, nearly £15 (almost $23) for two cups of soup, two sandwiches, a latte and some tea, but probably not any more costly than food in American rest stops or airport cafés.

I’ve run off at the mouth for too long, so I’m going to split this diary entry into two parts, but the second part will also be posted today.

Click here to go right to May 6 – Part 02. Next stop on the trip, Salisbury Cathedral.


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