Thursday 6 October 2022


A Surprise Party in London

Some months ago I helped a relative to arrange a "birthday bash," as she called it, which happened about a month ago. Celebrating a round-numbered birthday, she wanted to take a group of six female relatives and friends to London for the day, with lunch on a river boat and then a show at a West End theatre. I said I could book those things for her and if we could settle on definite travel times she could easily afford to take the group on LNER in First Class on Advance tickets. They were not seasoned rail travellers (which is why I was making the arrangements for them, I suppose!) and accustomed neither to advance booking nor first class travel. After a lot of online browsing, especially for lunch trips on the Thames, I was able to make all the bookings for them. It was to be a September Saturday and it was some time before evening tickets for the return leg of the train journey became available, which was slightly unnerving when everything else had been booked and paid-for. I was also very nervous about the river trip because it was booked through a third-party website which was not really up to the job. For example, you could only book up to six places and I needed seven, so I had to book three and four; then one bunch of tickets did not arrive (it was all emailed) so I had to telephone and they were resent ... and there were several other issues too boring to detail now, but it did mean I spent some time praying that the women would get their lunch.

The chosen show was "Six!", about the wives of King Henry VIII. This was at a theatre near Charing Cross, and the river boat departed from and arrived back at Tower Pier, so travelling between them on the District Line was easy, and likewise straightforward Underground journeys were available from and back to Kings Cross, and I advised them to take contactless credit or debit cards to travel by Underground. All was in place and I agreed to be available by telephone in case any advice were needed. It should have been OK, though, because my wife was one of the guests and knew London well, and when we were last there we had deliberately visited Tower Pier and checked on where the relevant riverboat should be docked on the day - Tower Pier is quite a complex pier with several moorings for many different boat services.

A few weeks before the trip one of the rail unions announced the date of the trip as a strike day which was bit of a pain but I advised the party-goers to wait to see what services would be run. It would not be impossible to continue the day, albeit with some adjustments and with less contingency time than I'd normally allow. In the event the death of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II led to the strike being cancelled but also the introduction of the possibility of London being jam-packed with people visiting her body lying in state. At that stage it could even have been the day of the funeral for all we knew. Theatres helpfully announced that they would continue their programmes but with a minute's silence, so that was OK, and none of the organisations involved had written to cancel anything, so the trip was back on, exactly as planned with slightly more nervousness about the arrangements because of the possibility of crowded transport and streets.

A couple of days before the trip we had a phone call. One of the invited friends had caught Covid and was unwell so she had to pull out. All was paid-for and so I was invited to take her place. I was cautious about accepting a place on what was essentially a girly day out, and yet it was (a) a pity to waste the seventh ticket and (b) probably not a bad idea in the circumstances to have me along for technical assistance. In any case I'd enjoy the train ride and the lunch, and the show was pretty good, too, although not something I'd have chosen, but as an unexpected gift it was great. I now know slightly more about Henry VIII and have resolved to study that period a bit more ... Three of the ladies were family anyway, including my wife, and the other three were friends whom I had not met before, and I had a great day and am very grateful for having been included.

The day began with us all meeting at Peterborough rail station by car: weekend car parking at the station is reasonably-priced and several of the party lived some way from the railway. I drove so that I could pick up the birthday girl on the way and I could easily forego intoxicating drinks for long enough to drive her and ourselves home afterwards.

Our LNER Azuma train from Peterborough to London was on time and our reserved seats gave us a table for four, a table for two and one seat behind that, which I took, being a "reserve" guest! On this train the simplest complimentary menu was being served which provided us with a good light breakfast to start our day. For most of the party this was their first experience of First Class train travel and I was so pleased that it all went well for them. 

We were soon at Kings Cross station in London and made our way to the Underground station. I don't know what local people consider the best way to the Tower from Kings Cross, but for this party I had recommended using the Circle Line: it is a long way round for a short journey but it is simple and requires no change of train nor a long walk. Arriving at Tower Hill Underground station we walked around two sides of the Tower to access the pier and with plenty of time in hand stopped for coffee at one of the many coffee shops nearby. I strolled down to the riverside to check things over while the ladies finished their coffee and was fortunate to see Tower Bridge open to allow a sailing vessel to pass through, and I just managed to take a photograph as the bascules began to fall ready to allow road traffic to cross - no time to take up a good position or to adjust the zoom, but I got the photograph - it is the one at the head of this post.

The time came to make our way to the pier: the company asks customers to arrive in plenty of time to get everyone aboard before departure. To my great relief there was a man with a clipboard inviting people with lunch booking to come to him and be directed to the right mooring for the trip, and when we reached the front of the queue there seemed to be some confusion about the size of the party, with the crew wondering if there should be three more of us. I am sure this had something to do with the glitch on the website and one bunch of electronic tickets failing to arrive and having to be reissued. Whatever, the birthday girl was invited aboard to choose tables for the seven of us and we were all duly seated and the boat trip was under way. I bought a bottle of sparkling wine to share, opened and poured in a bizarre, behind-the-back manner by our young waiter, presumably to entertain (or impress?) the ladies. It was a good start to the meal which was served efficiently but with a friendly, personal service which I think would be hard to beat, and for mass-catering (this was a large boat) was of an excellent standard.

The boat ride gave us some great views of the river and of London as far as Westminster and Limehouse  and we were soon back at the Tower ready for an afternoon's entertainment. One interesting feature of the ride was the comprehensive view we had of the long queue to see the Queen's coffin: we never lost sight of it all along the south bank of the river, past all the familiar landmarks far as Southwark Park.

We made our way back to Tower Hill station and caught the next District Line train to Embankment, walking up to Strand where our theatre was located, but there was still some time to pass before the show, and the idea was to visit a bar for a drink or two in the meantime. It actually took us some time to find a suitable place which would not become overcrowded with an additional seven people, but after searching all around Covent Garden we eventually settled on The Nell Gwynne, a traditional, small, London pub in a narrow alley just along from the theatre. The only spaces were at the bar and we really only just fitted in but it was so right to visit a place so redolent of old London!

And so to the the Vaudeville Theatre and the musical lesson in Tudor history. It is entirely a musical and has been very well reviewed and a great production for the ladies to enjoy together: a reminder that the only reason these six are famous is that they were at one point each married to King Henry VIII, but they were, of course, all real people with lives of their own. We could probably not name, unless we are historians, the names of any other queen consorts through history, but we know these six!

After the show we made our way via the Piccadilly Line back to Kings Cross for a drink at The Parcel Yard (as much hot chocolate ordered as ale!) and then some of us waited in the First Class Lounge while others scoured the shops at the station. We all gathered in the lounge in time to go together to the train for the journey home, enjoying LNER's usual hospitality with a final drink (soft now in my case because of the drive home) and a sandwich. At the station car park all I had to do was touch my credit card to the machine at the barrier as I drove out and my account was debited for the weekend daily charge - automatic numberplate recognition had clocked my arrival and ensured that I paid the correct amount, no ticket being necessary and no fuss. Brilliant.

Everyone seemed very happy with the day, and as well as feeling really grateful for having been included (while extremely sorry for the friend who had been too ill to go), I was also relieved that after all the uncertainty it all went very well indeed. The overcrowding did not materialise; indeed, Kings Cross felt less busy than usual (not that that prevented us having to take a big detour in a one-way system even more stringent than at the easing of lockdown!). A grand day out for the birthday girl.

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