The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Sunday, April 18, 2010

How to Kill a 6-Hour Heathrow Layover

Look, Heathrow's awful. Everybody knows that. Unfortunately it's also the only direct European destination from good ol' RDU, so the cheapest/easiest route to and from Lyon is often the American Airlines flight through LHR. Worse, the scheduling of these flights means that I usually have a layover of anywhere from 3 to 6 hours.

How to kill it off? Fortunately, Heathrow is well connected with London by public transit, so there's always the option of riding into town to take in one or two well-chosen sights. The Heathrow Express train can get you to Paddington Station in just 15 minutes (downside: it's a little pricey, but still far cheaper than a cab), and the non-express Heathrow Connect can do the same in about 40 minutes. So if my layover is 4 hours or more, I'll run into London to check out the British Museum, or the Tate Modern, or like I did this time, St. Paul's Cathedral.

One of the draws of St Paul's is that you can climb up to the tip-top and get some nice views over London, if you've got strong legs, a good head for heights, and a tolerance for claustrophobic passages within the dome structure.

First you climb 259 steps to the Whispering Gallery, which circles the inside of the dome far above the nave (no pictures allowed inside, unfortunately). The Whispering Gallery really does work, as the curvature of the dome will carry the sound of a whisper to someone standing diametrically opposite, over 100 feet away.

Then another 119 steps take you up a winding passage to the Stone Gallery on the exterior of the dome, which would have nice views if it weren't fenced in as a suicide-prevention measure. [You can manage a decent photo if you stick the camera lens through.]

To get the really good views, you have to climb 152 more creaky, narrow iron steps hanging terrifyingly from the inside of the dome's peak, duck your head, squeeze your shoulders and turn sideways, then there you are at the top of London.

There's a narrow 360-degree walkway with only an iron railing to block the sightlines, so you can see the London Eye, London Bridge, the Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre, and London's skyscrapers.

Back on terra firma, not too far away by the Monument to the Great Fire, is St. Dunstan-in-the-East, a former church that was partially destroyed in the Blitz. After the war, the city cleared away the rubble but left the walls standing, turning the site into a rather pleasant garden. It's a nice place to relax, take a load off, and maybe have a little lunch if it isn't raining. Which, being London, it is.

And what if you don't have enough time to get into the city and back, plus make it through security again? Well, the Bridge pub in Terminal 3 serves a decent Full English breakfast. It's not something I'd want to eat regularly, but given that the French don't really do breakfast, a load of fried eggs and sausage (plus, inexplicably, a tomato) make a nice way to ease back into American culture.