11 July 2013

London With Friends (Book of Mormon, Harry Potter Studios, elBulli Exhibit)

Originally, I had planned this trip without consulting with any of my friends.  It was just an easy four -day weekend to set up, so it was booked about 6 months in advance.  As the months progressed, some friends had thought of some good reasons to visit London at around the same time so that we could do some things together.  So, a group trip was eventually born.

I was scheduled to fly to London on a Wednesday evening. Unfortunately, that week was when the BART employees decided to go on strike.  This messed up my planned easy trip to the airport, where I normally would be able to go home after work before heading to the airport.  Instead, I opted to leave from work directly and use SF Muni, Caltrain, and a temporary free shuttle to get to the airport (no issues -- it just took longer).

I was going to be the last of my friends to arrive in London (planned at around 2pm).  However, I had the key to our first activity -- tickets to see "The Book of Mormon" at 7:30 pm that evening.  My flight ended up landing on time (my non-stop would have been early, but they made us circle for a bit). I sped through immigration (thank you Fastrak) and found my bag already on the carousel when I reached baggage claim.  Normally, I take the Heathrow Connect train into the city, but I split my hotel time on this trip, and my first hotel was going to be the Waldorf Hilton near Covent Garden.  Since I had plenty of time, I decided to take the slower and cheaper Piccadilly Line Underground train since it would get me close to the hotel without having to change trains.  It only took about 45 minutes once we were underway.  I made it in time to have a little afternoon tea (scones, clotted cream, cakes and all) in the Executive Lounge before heading out to pick up the theatre tickets.  With tickets in hand, I met up with the rest of my party at Leicester Square, and we headed to Wardour St. to a pizza bar for a quick dinner not far from the theatre.

We were quite lucky to get tickets for the show, let alone be in the stalls (orchestra) and all sitting together.  For some reason, the July 4th date did not show up on a regular listing, but when you took advantage of American Express seating, a block of tickets showed up in row k that would suit us perfectly.  Unfortunately, when I had tried to book them a couple of months before, the website would not let me complete the purchase.  I ended up having to call the theatre directly to complete the transaction.  But once that was done, we were all set with some nice seats.  Upon arrival, we found out that the performance we were attending was a special event put on by The Times of London.  Every seat had a little goodie bag with buttons, a notebook and a program (normally you have to pay for programs in London).  Additionally, right after the show, there was going to be a question and Answer session with some of the performers, the director, and a local critic.  The performance was excellent and the post-performance session was very interesting.

The next day was the only full day we all were going to be in London together.  Our major activity for the day was to head out to the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studios tour.  We were able to all buy tickets for the 2pm time slot for that Friday afternoon.  To get out to the location, we would have to take a 20-minute train ride from Euston Station out to Watford Junction (Pay-as-you-go Oyster card works and give a slight discount).  We had a quick lunch at a pub right across from King's Cross-St. Pancras Station and then briskly walked to Euston Station.  I looked up the train schedule before leaving the U.S. and had times and platforms printed out.  While the times were correct, the platforms did not match.  Initially, we boarded one train, but discovered it was the slow train and would take 45 minutes to get to our destination.  That was not going to work with our time slot reservations.  So we got off, found someone and asked for the fast train to Watford Junction. We were directed to the correct platform and within minutes, we were on our way.

Upon arrival, we found the double-decker bus that leaves every 15 minutes for the studio site (it's too far to walk easily).  It costs GBP 2 per person round trip.  At the studios, you take your confirmation letter and scan it to receive your tickets at a kiosk.  When your time slot comes up, you get into a line to go in, where they let you in by groups of 40 or so.  Even though we had a 2pm slot, we did not enter the actual tour until after 2:30.  There is one thing to see while you wait to go in -- the under-the-staircase bedroom.

You can pay extra for a digital audio/video guide, which give you something to listen to while waiting.  I wasn't sure why the line was moving so slowly, and it turned out that they were having an equipment malfunction.  So, when we finally were let in, we did not experience one component of the tour (which was probably fine.  After a brief introductory session, we were finally let in through the doors of Hogwarts into the Great Hall.

From the two Great Hall shots, you can see that there really was no ceiling to the room.  They used computer graphics to add the ceiling and the special effects to complete the scenes.  There was a model ceiling built that was used to mimic the static ceiling, but it was built at a much smaller scale that the room itself (photo on the right).

After a few minutes in the great Hall with some narration by several guides, we were then allowed to exit the room and move on to the rest of the tour to do at our own pace.  The tour encompasses two large studio buildings and an outdoor court between them.  They say to allow three hours to do it all, and we took about that amount of time.

There are several movie props and whole sets to see as you walk through.  There are some video descriptions at some points, as well and placards and interactive screens to tell you about what you are seeing, as well as posted numbers to key into the audio/video guide for even more details.

 Above is the Tri-Wizards Cup.  And to the right is the Goblet of Fire, which was carved from a single tree trunk.  Below are some of the horcruxes.

Potions classroom

 The set for the Ministry of Magic is very interesting.  Originally, they wanted to do the tiles in fiberglass.  But that was turning out to be expensive.  So, they turned to wood and a very special painting process.  Even up close, they look like tiles.
Family tree tapestry

Diaganon Alley

Scale model of Hogwarts
This was a very creepy animatronic character!

Of course, there was a huge souvenir store!

Given it was late afternoon, there was a bit of a line to catch the bus back to the train station.  But even with that, we did not have to wait too long for the next bus.  We were also fortunate enough to catch the express train back to Euston Station.

Some friends were departing on Saturday.  But those of us who remained took a stroll around Carnaby Street, where there was a music festival going on for the day.  After a lunch at an American-style diner, I parted ways with the rest of my group to head towards Somerset House.  I wanted to see an exhibit on Chef Ferran Adria and the evolution of elBulli Restaurant.  I did not know of the exhibit before coming to London, so I was hoping I could fit it in before leaving on Sunday.  It was very interesting, as I learned more about how the chef's ideas developed over time and how he helped to shape and define the approach to food and cuisine that have been pursuing over the past few years.

This was all very enlightening to me, as it really brought to heart why I was having the experiences I was having when I've had really good meals.  The approach is one that says enjoying food is an experience that involves more than the five senses.  Feelings such as surprise and excitement come into play just as much.  This was also well-timed, as I had a nice dinner planned with a revisit to Kitchen Table later that evening.

 The big surprise was that Ferran Adria himself happened to stop by the restaurant that evening.  He had dines with a group at the front of the house restaurant Bubbledogs and came back to meet with the owner and chefs in our part of the place and pose for pictures with them (as well as leave hi mark below).  The full write-up of my restaurant visit can be found on the restaurant write-up site.
After a great dinner experience and a late return to the hotel, I was ready to close out a very nice trip that included some great weather over the duration of the stay.  As I was getting ready for bed, I received an email message that my flight the next afternoon back to SFO was cancelled.  I had heard briefly about the Asiana Airlines plane crash at SFO earlier in the evening, but did not think much about the potential impact on my flight plans.  As a Global Services member on United, I had a toll-free number to call (although the hotel still charged me a flat fee to make the call).  Even with a special number, I was on hold for a bit until an agent came on line.  Even though my afternoon flight was cancelled, it looked like the morning flight was going to still fly, and fortunately for me, there was still one available seat in First Class for me to take.  So I was eventually moved to that flight, with the only inconvenience being that I would be getting only a few hours sleep before getting up much earlier than I had planned to leave for the airport. I learned on this trip that the Heathrow Connect train does not always use Platform 12; my train this early Sunday morning left from Platform 4.

The early flight back wasn't too bad, as I managed to get some sleep and would have the benefit of getting home a few hours earlier than originally scheduled.  But I was surprised that they had already re-opened the long runway parallel to where the crash happened.  So we landed on that runway and at touchdown saw the burned-out fuselage from the crash.  It was kind of a surreal end to an otherwise fun weekend with friends.

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