During the summer of 1995, my family and I traveled to France and the U.K. during a record-setting heat wave in Northern Europe. In Parts I and II of this post, I’ve described some of the challenges of our overheated stay in Paris and elsewhere in France.
After ten days in France, we departed for England on a posh air-conditioned ferry from Cherbourg, hoping to find cooler climes on the scepter’d isle. But the moment we disembarked in Portsmouth, our hearts sank. If anything, the air felt warmer and even more humid.
Our taxi driver dropped us and our bags unceremoniously at the train station (I don’t think he liked my remarks about the Royal Family). With no baggage carts anywhere, we dragged our bags to the ancient lift. We waited and waited and, finally fearing that we’d miss our train, we abandoned the idea of taking the lift and schlepped our bags up the flight of stairs to the track-level (it took two trips for each of us). At least the train itself was high-speed and air-conditioned.
At Waterloo Station we climbed into a black London cab and sped on our way to Gower Street in Bloomsbury. Our room was much like that in Paris–one large room with the same assortment of beds, and an enormous screenless window that was sure to be a beacon for the mosquitoes then plaguing London. (I actually read about them in The Times.)
But mosquitoes were not on our minds as we set out to see London on foot that afternoon. We’d sat for five hours on the ferry and another hour and a half on the train. We were raring to go, weren’t we?
The heat assaulted us as we walked hopefully up Gower Street toward Covent Garden and points east. Herb and I wanted Meredith and Leslie to see the Temple, home of their favorite TV lawyer, Horace Rumpole (of PBS’s Rumpole of the Bailey), and we set out in that direction, stopping at Covent Garden and other sites en route. But even at the Temple, on the Thames River embankment, the air felt like a heavy blanket.
A centuries-old Inn of Court, the Temple was in the midst of an ambitious renovation project. Forced to pick our way through the construction equipment and loose building materials strewn in our path, we found the Temple a massive disappointment, hardly worth the long walk in the sun. We crawled back to our hotel, stopping only for a high-carb spaghetti dinner before we collapsed in our beds on Gower Street.
The next day, we resolved to see as much of London as we could despite the oppressive heat. (That day turned out to be the hottest day of London’s summer–93 degrees.) We decided to take a city bus that meandered from Gower Street to Kensington. I’d be an unofficial tour-bus guide, telling our daughters about the sights of London with which Herb and I were already familiar. The bus was hot, and its seat cushions covered with itchy upholstery, but we’d set out fairly early so we didn’t yet mind terribly much.
The bus cut a wide swath through many of the city’s most interesting sights, and I proceeded to act as tour guide till we disembarked near Kensington Gardens, where we began walking back towards Piccadilly Square.
Things got sticky right away. As we passed Royal Albert Hall, we grabbed ice cream bars from a sidewalk vendor and kept going, in the shade wherever possible. Soon we hit the Knightsbridge shopping area and headed for Harrod’s. The massive department store was packed with people, and no wonder. It was air-conditioned. Hordes of women were lined up to use the restrooms. The “luxury ladies’ room” cost one pound per “lady” (then about $1.70) so we spent five minutes searching for one that didn’t cost anything. (It turned out to be adjacent to the book section, where huge stacks of signed copies of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography languished on a table.) We toured the impressive Food Hall and whizzed through some other departments, leaving without buying anything but grateful to have cooled off while we were there.
Across the street, at the non-air-conditioned Scotch House, we were nearly the only customers insane enough to even contemplate woolens on a 90-plus-degree-day. Meredith was hoping to get a warm woolen cap for winter, but surrounded by heaps of wooly wear for sale, we couldn’t find exactly what she wanted.
We kept walking past Knightsbridge towards Piccadilly. The grass in beautiful St. James’s Park was dry and brown, not the lush green lawn Herb and I had seen on previous trips. We stopped to rest on a shady park bench for a while, stunned to encounter Londoners who were deliberately sunning themselves. Some had even stretched out on portable lawn chairs, supplied by the park, in the sunniest spots available. Were they crazy, or what?
We forced ourselves to walk a few blocks more, heading for lunch at the Fountain Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason. En route, we peered into the elegant Ritz Hotel lobby. It was eerily deserted, no one lined up for “high tea” at the Palm Court tearoom. The uniformed doormen, wearing long heavy wool overcoats, looked absolutely miserable.
When we finally staggered into Fortnum & Mason and read the prices on the menu, we nearly swooned, but too hot and exhausted to go anywhere else, we decided to stay. We couldn’t face going elsewhere without some rest and sustenance, so we paid top dollar for skimpy salads and F&M’s famous milkshakes. At least the apricot milkshakes were worth it–almost.
After our overpriced lunch, we pushed on to Leicester Square and the half-price theatre-ticket booth. Scanning the board, we narrowed our choice down to a few offerings, then selected “Hot Mikado.” No, we hadn’t gone completely bonkers. The show was one of London’s musical hits that season. Plus, we all loved the original “Mikado,” and the idea of seeing a jazzed-up version in an air-conditioned theatre had great appeal. And so, after more sightseeing and freshening up at our hotel, we walked to the theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue, looking forward to an evening of air-conditioned comfort.
Shock! No air-conditioning! We pinched each other in disbelief. Back home, we’d never heard of a theatre without air-conditioning. Even the humblest movie theatre showing third-run flicks had some sort of air-conditioning. But not this swank theatre! A couple of fans moved the air around a bit, but they couldn’t keep us from sweating through “Hot Mikado.” We loved the show but pitied the performers, whose sweat ran dripping down their faces. After the opening scene, the male chorus even took off their colorful jackets and sang and danced in their shirtsleeves. I didn’t blame them one bit.
The next night we made our way to the Aldwych Theatre to see Tom Stoppard’s latest hit, “Indian Ink.” Again, we were dismayed to discover that this prestigious theatre, showcasing brilliant stars of the London stage, was stifling. The same itchy upholstery found on London buses covered the theatre seats. As the lead in “Indian Ink”–a poet who travels to India in the 1920s–talked about a poem she was writing called “Heat,” I squirmed in my seat, trying to escape the bristly fabric. I was wearing shorts that night–we hadn’t had time to change before arriving at the theatre. Although I’d never imagined that I’d go to a London theatre in shorts, I regretted wearing them only because the itchy seats attacked my bare thighs more ferociously that way.