April 21, 2016 – Today is Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday. Born in 1926, she is the U.K.’s longest-reigning monarch (since 6 February 1952, which is 64 years and counting) and the world’s oldest-reigning monarch as well.
Her great great grandmother, Queen Victoria (1819-1901), had previously held the record as the U.K.’s longest-reigning monarch (63 years 216 days) until 9 Sept 2015, when Queen Elizabeth surpassed that record.
On the serendipitous occasion of Her Majesty The Queen’s 90th birthday, what better way to pay homage than to write about the time I got horribly lost somewhere outside (or barely in) her glorious city of London.
Way back in the summer of 1985, when I was a college junior backpacking across parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, I had no strict daily itinerary. Every day started clean and fresh. I was only constrained by the demands of airline reservations, so I knew I had to be in London on May 19th, Paris May 26th, Belgrade June 7th, Istanbul June 15th, Jerusalem June 21st and so on.
To stretch my dollars and stay within a tight budget, I either stayed at a lot of youth hostels and divey hotels, or I was fortunate to be hosted by gracious Georgetown University alumni (whom I had never met) in their homes in various cities.
Relying on my “Let’s Go Europe” student travel guide, I left Heathrow Airport for the Holland Park Youth Hostel in Kensington, central London. At that time, the “Seven-Day, All Zones” travel card allowed unlimited travel via bus or the underground Tube for only £13.20. (Even back then, before the introduction of the Oyster Card, I knew £13.20 was a bargain.)
In 1985, for only £3.60- £5.00 per night, the Holland Park Youth Hostel offered dorm-like bunkbeds (some were triple high!) in a very convenient location. Situated in beautiful Holland Park in central London, the former Jacobean mansion is within easy walk of High Street Kensington and Holland Park tube stations. A 5-minute walk leads you to Kensington Palace, the Royal Albert Hall, Kensington High Street and the main museums.
The other bonus was the ability to chat with fellow like-minded young travelers and to compare tips and notes. You might be traveling alone, but you were rarely lonely.
The drawbacks of the youth hostel were limited privacy, the occasional snorer, and the not-always-clean conditions. If you’re young and on a budget, you put up with a lot. But the biggest drawback was the lack of a guaranteed space, which meant you had to wake up rather early, stand in a line or queue, and prepay for the next day (or 2-3 days in advance, if they allowed).
Regrettably, after 56 years’ operation, the Holland Park Youth Hostel closed in November, 2014. In past centuries, the historic Jacobean building was visited by Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Dickens among its visitors. Even in its final year, the hostel offered beds for only £17, and rooms for £30, in one of London’s richest boroughs. Sometimes referred to as Holland House, this historic structure has a fascinating history, beginning with its construction in 1605, which you can read about HERE.
I will not miss, however, memories of having to wake up earlier and earlier on successive days (7:00 AM, then 6:30 AM, then 6:15 AM, then 5:45 AM) just to be at the head of the line. If you arrived late, you risked not securing another day’s reservation. (Sample Journal entry: “Good morning?!? It’s 6:20 AM and already there is a queue of over 20 people. This is absurd. Be back with you in two hours.“)
The early-morning ritual of the queue, and the physical rigors of traveling (all that walking and exploring), led to sleep deprivation. And that is how I ended up getting lost somewhere in (or outside?) London.
The Double Decker Bus to I-Don’t-Know-Where
As this was my first-ever visit to London, it was a bit difficult getting oriented. Even with a good Underground map and an additional street map, I had to depend on the kindness of strangers to find my way around. Thankfully, every Londoner I encountered was unfailingly courteous and helpful.
Eventually, I grew tired of asking for directions. According to my Travel Journal, on May 21st, 1985, I threw caution to the wind:
“For the first time, I rode atop a red double-decker bus. Twice today. And twice I fell asleep! But no matter. I hopped on any one going in my general direction. Felt like the king of the world, siting way above the traffic and cars.
“On both my trips, I declined to get off the bus while it poured and rained outside. British men seem to be impeccably dressed, pin-striped suits and umbrellas.”
But that was just a warm-up: “Tooting Bec, here I come”
“After 7:00 PM, I caught another double-decker to Lord-knows-where-or-why. I fell asleep and got up in “Tooting Bec” (?), across the River Thames!
“I got off in a strange residential neighborhood only because it was dinnertime, and I found a Chinese ‘take away’ restaurant (more like a shoebox) the bus had passed. For £2.40 I chose the fried rice, mixed vegetables with meat, and some fried something or other.”
In my Travel Journal, I wrote:
“I must’ve walked three or more long blocks backwards to find a park to eat in. It was a hazy, fading light outside. I found a park and ate, watching two young men forever kicking an oversized football between them. (Rugby?)
“By 9:00 PM I found an Underground station and had a heck of a time trying to find my way back to High Street Kensington. It’s 10:30 PM now, and off to bed and hostel. I know people are already crashed out in La-La Land.”
Left unsaid in my Journal, but which I clearly remember, was the young black couple I had approached to ask for directions back to Kensington. Together, we looked at my maps and determined that I was somewhere off the printed edge of my 1985 map. (Note to Self: Next time, buy much bigger map.) The couple saved me from years of wandering in the Tooting Bec wilderness, and they pointed me back to central London.
The next day, May 22nd, my Journal says:
“5:41 AM. Need I say more? I’m twelfth in line. Just bought a 7-Up (30p) to make the wait more bearable.”
Later that day in East Ham:
“I boarded a double-decker for unknown destinations. When I woke up from my nap, I noticed the bus was traveling through a poorer section of Britain – lots of kids, immigrants, less splendid homes and more ‘proletariat’ types. This was Dunham or Eastham (sic) or something quaint.
“At the end of the line, I got off, took a photo of some elderly gentlemen playing lawn bowling, and sat down in a park circle to eat my banana and orange.”
“I sat facing a World War I memorial erected ‘in the honor of God’ and ‘in remembrance of the fallen sons of Eastham’ .”
I don’t recall what else I did in East Ham. Somehow, I managed to find another bus back to the youth hostel in Kensington and was fast asleep by 11:00 PM.
Postscript on Tooting Bec and the War Memorial in East Ham Central Park (2016)
In 1985, needless to say, there were no smartphones, iPads, or GPS devices. And certainly no Internet or Google maps. It was easy to get lost and to remain ignorant.
Three decades later, thanks to technology and some research, I can fill in the missing gaps in my 1985 Journal entries:
• Tooting Bec is a really cool name! Think of all the marketing and branding possibilities.
• Tooting Bec is in the London Borough of Wandsworth in south London. The Tooting Bec tube station is near the end of the Northern Line.
• Tooting Bec boasts the second largest open-air fresh water swimming pool, Tooting Bec Lido, in the U.K. It was built in 1906.
• East Ham is a suburban district of London. The East Ham railway station opened in 1859, though I have no idea when the Underground station opened.
• In 2010, East Ham had an unemployment rate of 16.5 percent, the fourth highest in Britain. East Ham is multi-cultural, with a majority of its residents from South Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and eastern Europe. The good news is that there are lots of ethnic restaurants from which to choose. The bad news is child poverty: Around 7 in 10 children in the area come from low-income families. (Source: Wikipedia)
• The Central Park War Memorial in East Ham is just one of over 68,000 war memorials in the U.K. While most memorials cover World Wars I and II, others commemorate the Roman conquest of Britain and more modern conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
• The inscription on the East Ham war memorial reads: “THIS MONUMENT IS ERECTED TO THE/ GLORY OF GOD AND IN MEMORY/ OF EAST HAM’S BRAVEST SONS/ WHO FELL IN THE GREAT WAR/ 1914 – 1918 32ND (S) EAST HAM BATTALION/ THE ROYAL FUSILIERS/ NOVEMBER 1915 MARCH 1918/ PLOEGSTRAETE PASSCHAENDALE/ SOMME VIERSTRAAT ITALY/ NIEUPORT MESSINES IN MEMORY OF THE OFFICERS/ NON COMMISSIONED OFFICERS AND/ MEN OF THE 32ND (S) EAST HAM/ BATTALION THE ROYAL FUSILIERS/ WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN/ THE GREAT WAR 1914 – 1918 THIS TABLET IS DEDICATED BY THE/ OFFICERS NON-COMMISSIONED/ OFFICERS AND MEN OF THE/ 141ST (EAST HAM) HEAVY BATTERY/ ROYAL GARRISON ARTILLERY/ TO THE MEMORY OF THEIR/ COMRADES WHO MADE THE/ SUPREME SACRIFICE DURING/ THE GREAT WAR” (Source: iwm.org.uk)
• 1,824 names of the deceased are inscribed on the East Ham war memorial, underscoring the tremendous number of lives lost during the First World War (1914-1918) from a small town like East Ham.
• Holland Park Youth Hostel taught me the necessity and discipline of arriving early in line. I used to think queuing up at 5:45 AM in London for a bed was crazy. But that’s nothing compared to a Star Wars Celebration line or for Star Wars Weekends in Orlando. (Midnight…1:00 AM… 2:00 AM…. all perfectly normal).
(1) Growing older certainly has its privileges, including the financial ability to reserve a nice, clean room in a decent hotel of your choice for however-long you like. There’s a reason why they call youth hostels, “youth” hostels.
(2) If you ever see a double decker bus and have no idea where it’s headed, don’t hesitate. Just jump aboard.
After all, “It’s all about the journey, not the destination“, isn’t it?