Monday, May 7, 2018

London 2018: Earlscourt - Apartment & Neighbourhood

Courtesy of LoveHomeSwap, my husband Rich and I had a nice stay at the Plaza Premium Lounge prior to our red-eye flight to London.  The plan was to eat the food in the lounge, and then forgo the food on offer on the plane in exchange for trying to sleep through the night.  We always try to power through until 8 or 9pm on our first day in Europe after an overnight flight so that we can be over most of the jet-lag by the next day.  Any sleep that we can get on the flight will help towards this goal.  Rich purchased some Bose noise cancellation headphones for the trip and they actually seemed to help him get some sleep while I was only able to dose on and off throughout the night.  This is the first vacation that we’ve taken where we both have cell phones and we decided to try using mobile boarding passes (although for this first time, we still had paper backups just in case).  We took screenshots of the boarding pass that the airline sent us and saved to our photos, just in case the Internet was not working at the airport.  All went well so from now on, I think we can feel confident in going totally paperless.

We landed at London’s Heathrow Airport at 11:10am UK time and since we only had carry-on luggage with us (which has been our way of travel ever since Air Canada lost our bags back in 2013), we were off the plane, through customs, out of the airport and ready to head into downtown London by noon.  We borrowed our friends’ pay-as-you-go Oyster Cards, which are like the Presto cards that Toronto has recently implemented.  You can load up credit on the card at the airport or from any metro station and pay a discounted price per ride compared to the cash fare.  London’s transit system supports zoned fares so that you pay less when travelling around the heart of London and progressively more as you enter the suburbs.  It also allows for timed fares where you pay more during rush hours (6:30-9:30am and 4-7pm on weekdays) and daily caps for fares so that once you have paid up to the cap, all future rides for that day are free.  At every tube station, including the one at the airport, there are machines where you can scan your Oyster Card to check the balance, and if required, top it up using cash or credit.  Our friends’ Oyster Cards are from a special issuing commemorative of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.  We will look to see if they issue ones for Harry and Meghan’s upcoming wedding and pick one up if they do.

The Piccadilly metro line runs directly from Heathrow to Earl’s Court Station, which is about a 6 minutes walk from where our rental apartment is situated.  The train seems to come every 5 minutes and it takes about 45 minutes to traverse the 12 stops including walking time at either end.  Incredibly when we checked the fare at the end of the ride, the trip only seemed to cost £0.75 (!?!) on our Oyster card, which is cheaper than traveling within Central London where the fare ranges from £2.4£ to £2.9 for central London, and more if traveling outside of zones 1-3.  According to the London transit fare estimator, traveling non-rush hour, the trip was supposed to cost £1.5 and even that is much less expensive than the usual ride around the city.  I guess they want to encourage visitors flying into Heathrow to come enjoy London.  I wish our home city of Toronto had such foresight.

Earl’s Court is a small district is located south-west of Hyde Park, surrounded by the sub-districts of Kensington, West Brompton and Chelsea.  While there are shops and restaurants along main streets such as Cromwell Road and Old Brompton Road, this seems for the most part to be a quiet residential area with houses and apartments that range in architectural style and price point.  Right in front of the entrance of the Earl’s Court Tube Station is a blue police box, built in 1996 as a replica of the classic 1929 version designed by Gilbert Mackenzie Trench.  The police box was created as a special telephone call box that could be used by police or the public to contact the central police station.  It also acted as a miniature police station for officers to read and fill in reports, take meal breaks and even temporarily hold prisoners until transport arrived.  The boxes were made obsolete in the 1970s when the police started using two-way radios.  This particular style of blue police box was made famous by the Sci Fi Series Dr. Who, where the time machine TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) was disguised as such a box.  In preparation for our trip, we watched the first episode of Dr. Who, where the TARDIS was introduced.  Unfortunately the box is no longer functional so we couldn’t get into it.

Our first stops after arriving at Earl’s Court were to acquire data SIM cards for our cell phones, and then pick up the keys for our rental apartment.  For the SIM Cards, we went to Carphone Warehouse, which offers a variety of cell and data options for very reasonable prices.  We opted for a 30 day plan giving us 5GIG of data and 500 call minutes for 15 pounds.  As usual, we asked the salesman to install the SIM cards for us and tested our data access before we left.   The key pickup for the apartment was handled by a service called City Relay that also provides a 7/24 help line in case we run into any problems in the rental.  They will also hold onto luggage so that you can wander around unencumbered if your place was not ready yet.  This was a much easier process than past rentals where we had to wait for an owner or agent to show up at a designated time with the keys.  As it turned out, even though our check-in time was not until 3pm, our keys were ready when we arrived around 1:30.  However we had already planned to wander around a bit in the area, so we left our bags anyways and went to look for Alfred Hitchcock’s former home followed by a tour of several prosperous neighbourhoods.  The house at 153 Cromwell road was where the famous director lived for 13 years with his wife Alma, while making such classics as The Man Who Knew Too Much, 39 Steps, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes and Jamaica Inn.  A blue heritage plaque marks the location.

Earl’s Court is divided east-west by Earl’s Court Road.  The northern part of West Earl’s Court boasts white stucco fronted "boutique" hotels on Trebovir Road and Templeton Place, and the impressive late-Victorian mansion flats and town houses of Earl's Court Square, Nevern Square and Kensington Mansions.  The southern part features more modest hotels and apartment houses like the one that we are staying at.  East Earl’s Court is known for  multimillion-pound flats and houses surrounding private garden squares with grandious-sounding names such as “Collingham Gardens” and “The Boltons”.  In Collingham Gardens, we saw red and yellow bricked mansions that reminded us of ones we saw in Belgium, especially the one with the crow-stepped gable façade.  In Boltons Gardens, we saw the former house of Jenny Lind, the famous opera singer known as the “Swedish Nightingale” who P.T. Barnum took on a grand tour of America.  Coincidentally, we recently watched the movie “The Greatest Showman” about P.T.Barnum, where we learned about Jenny Lind.

The homes in each of these upscale neighbourhoods surround a fenced off and gated private garden/park  that is accessible only to the residents of the square.  Peeking through the bars of the fences, we could see walking paths, benches, flowers, plants and trees, and large green spaces for people to picnic, sunbath and socialize.  We saw several people use a key to enter their garden through the main gate, but it appears as if some of the homes in a few areas also have backyards with gates that lead directly into their park.

It was about a 10 minute walk from City Relay to our apartment and despite having to drag our luggage along, we still managed to spot some interesting sights.  At a local convenience store was a kiosk of “party masks” that were creepy in how realistically they depicted well-known faces including the members of the royal family, movie stars, pop stars and even Vladimir Putin and a minion.   I was perplexed when Rich made a beeline towards a store called “Designer Exchange” which prominently displayed designer handbags in their store window.  His goal became clear once I spotted the list of vintage watches (one of Rich’s passions) that were supposedly also bought and sold in that store.  Sadly, it was an old sign and there were no more watches for sale, just handbags.  Heading south on Earl’s Court Road, we spotted a house that featured a cool Don Quixote-like sculpture in its front courtyard.  I found it strange to see old, beat-up pay phone booths (soon becoming extinct?) with the offering of “Free WIFI” emblazoned on them.  And I’m not sure if it is just the Earl’s Court area or if things have changed since our last visit to London almost 20 years ago, but there are many more ethnic dining options available on top of the expected English pubs and Indian fare.  In our short walk to the apartment, we spotted Japanese, Thai, Korean, Chinese, Lebanese, Italian, French and American-styled eateries.  The sight that highlighted this was the juxtaposition of a very traditional looking old English Pub located beside the Chinese Restaurant “Dragon Palace”.

When we arrived at our rental apartment, we were delighted to learn that it was indeed the one shown in the photo of our booking website (which we thought might just be a sample of available units).  All the details were exactly as described and met many of the items on my personal checklist of what makes a good rental.  There was an elevator to take us up to our 3rd floor unit, a washer-dryer, an ironing board, a large bed with a firm mattress and firm pillows, and a little table and 2 chairs where we could eat meals and which I could use as my computer work space.  The WIFI connected immediately with no issues and is strong.  There are plenty of power outlets that are conveniently located and available for use.  There were even extra details that we were not expecting based on past experience, which pleasantly surprised us.  The rental provided small face cloths, complimentary soap/shampoo/body lotion, complimentary water, tea and coffee pods, salt and pepper and even a power adaptor to convert from UK standards to North American standards.  One of the best surprises that we found was the retractable clothes line in the shower that allows us to hang dry damp towels.  I want this feature added to our bathroom at home if we ever decide to renovate it.  The only (minor) downsides of the apartment are the lack of a microwave (do they use microwaves in Europe?) and the time it takes to get hot water from the shower.  But all in all, we love our apartment and neighbourhood.

There are two large grocery stores (Sainsbury and Tesco Superstore) within 5-10 minutes walk of the apartment as well as a Marks and Spencers Food Hall which we pass on way back from the Earl’s Court metro station, so we should be able to get groceries relatively easily.  Our plan is to eat most breakfasts and dinners at home while eating lunch wherever we happen to be during the day.  On our first day in London, we were too tired to make the trek to one of the bigger supermarkets and opted instead to just buy some salad mix and prepared meals from the Tesco Express mini-mart located directly under our building.  We were quite happy that we had this option as we dined on Chicken Tikka Marsala on rice and Morrocan Lamb Tagine on Couscous.

We are located right across the street from the Brompton Cemetery, which seems to be a lush green environment that the locals use as a walking path, much like we do in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.  We look forward to exploring it when we have some free time.  There are also several interesting restaurants and pubs that are just down the street from us that we want to try out.  These include the Troubadour, a restaurant café with live music in the evenings, Gojk which features Euro-fusion fare, and The Pembroke, an old English pub that has been turned into a gastropub.  In the first couple of days of our visit to London, the weather has been superb, with a high around 24 and bright sunshine.  In fact, I had a bit of a sunburn on our first day while heading to the apartment and before I had a chance to put on much sunscreen.  Imagine getting a sunburn in London!  I hope this weather lasts. 

No comments:

Post a Comment