Starting in 2009 it has become a family tradition for Terri & Kay, my UK-resident sisters, and I to take our mother out for a birthday meal together. Over the years we've started meeting for all our birthdays and have tried various formats - lunch, early dinner, supper - but usually we go for afternoon tea at an 'interesting' setting in central London, a place we can all get to (& back from) fairly easily.
Our birthday meet-ups had been put on hold during the coronavirus lockdown but as the social restrictions were progressively eased it seemed like gathering in 2021 might be a possibility. As I began the process of agreeing a date that everyone could make and finding a venue that combined ease of access and a high enough level of 'quirky & interesting' we agreed that we'd only go ahead if everyone felt comfortable about attending
The plan that emerged was to have two separate events on consecutive weekends. Terri would arrange something with her kids and then I'd organise one of our more usual meals. At first I was a bit disappointed in not having everyone together but on reflection this seemed like a much better idea - smaller numbers meant fewer concerns about contagion prevention and would give everyone a chance to be heard - my family can get a bit loud in larger groups. And it would give Vi two days out, double the birthday celebration!
Bus under attack!
Terri's day was wonderfully creative - a 'mystery drive' with Vi that led to a day out at Kew Gardens where they were joined by two of Terri's kids plus partners. The whole group then returned to Vi's for takeaway feasting & games. It had been a great success in a challenging time - quite apart from the pandemic it's not easy to arrange an outdoor activity for mid-November - and it left me with the much simpler task of finding a nice place for the four of us (Vi, Kay & her partner Roger, plus myself) to share afternoon tea.
I'd started internet searching for a suitable venue when a friend suggested looking at Firmdale Hotels, a small group of boutique, er, hotels who offered plush & luxurious surroundings with a generous dash of style & fair. After perusing their websites I chose the Charlotte Street Hotel which had a 'Bloomsbury group theme' that looked rather jazzy and was conveniently close to a Central Line station. A booking for afternoon tea was made and we were all set up for the day.
Vi is a seasoned traveller but the challenge of finding each other at Tottenham Court Road Tube station (a convoluted transit hub even before its current rebuilding work) during the Black Friday shopping weekend was somewhat daunting. Instead I travelled over to her house the day before for a catch-up visit and overnight stay before we set off together towards central London. The travel plan was a bus ride to catch a Tube train so we looked at the timetables, worked out a schedule that would get us there well on time, then arranged to catch the previous bus to give us even more leeway. In the morning, after checking that Storm Arwen hadn't wrecked the transit system, we wrapped up warm and set out to the bus stop. Our bus arrived bang on time and we were away.
As we navigated towards the edge of the town I noticed something strange going on up by the driver - what sounded like a radio message with the words 'attack' and '999' being regularly repeated. My first thought was that had been a terrorist incident somewhere (what times we live in, eh?) but when the driver pulled over the message became clear - "This bus is under attack, please dial 999". The driver turned off the engine and, after seemingly searching for an off switch for the continually repeating message, informed us that there was 'a problem' before stepping out to phone for further instructions. In true British fashion we passengers made small talk and jokes about which of us looked more suspicious while the dire warning continued to blare out.
It was fascinating to observe the reaction of passers by. When I stepped out of the bus I found that the message was being played loudly outside with all the hazard lights flashing but despite these ominous signals the most common reaction was puzzled bemusement. A few concerned citizens came over to investigate (including one who flashed some sort of ID - a part time copper?) but to be fair to the rest of them it was clear that this wasn't a major security incident with three elderly folk sitting quietly inside with the driver mournfully recounting his predicament into his mobile. Eventually he came back in and announced that there would be a replacement bus but we'd be better off catching the next scheduled service, which was due in five minutes. When that arrived we climbed on and were soon back on our way.
From there on the journey went fairly smoothly. We caught the Tube from Epping which stands at the far East of the Circle Line, meaning we could easily find seats for ourselves. The carriage slowly filled as we made our way into London but despite it getting very crowded towards the end we had no changes to make and could just sit in our own little (and increasingly shrinking) space. As we reached Tottenham Court Road (our destination station) about half of our fellow passengers disembarked which made it easier to get out through the doors and we slowly pootled towards the exit as the frantic shoppers swept around and past us.
The hotel was about five minutes walk from the station and after emerging from an unexpected exit I found my bearings and began leading us towards it. Sadly my Londoner street sense is rooted in a twenty year old mental map but after a small detour I fired up the map app on my phone and we were soon on the right track. Within the predicted five minutes we arrived at the hotel, just about ten minutes before the reservation. Excellent preplanning or the divine benevolence of the gods? Somewhere between the two I'd say.
Coming in from the grey, cold, & drizzly day the hotel was warm & welcoming. Once we'd confirmed our booking we were divested of our hats, coats, & bags and led across the restaurant to the awaiting table. The room was wide, spacious & airy with bright murals on the walls, well separated tables, and nicely comfy seating. Within a few minutes Kay & Roger arrived and after establishing that there were just the four of us (I'd originally booked for five) we were presented with menus and given time to ponder our choices.
One of the nice things about afternoon tea, and one of the reasons we keep coming back to it, is that there are so few decisions to make when faced with a menu. In most cases it boils down to what type of tea you want and whether to take up the almost inevitable 'glass of champagne' option. This time around it was even simpler, rather than having different choices for vegetarian, gluten-free, etc. we were simply asked for our dietary requirements and the menu was adjusted appropriately. I suggested that the champagne might be a nice addition (there was very little resistance) and soon our table was loaded with champagne flutes, teapots, milk jugs, clotted cream & jam bowls, towers of sandwiches, scones, & cakes, and all the associated crockery & cutlery. And so the feasting began.
One of the downsides of afternoon tea is dealing with all this paraphernalia. So often it degenerates into a game of 'find the space' for whatever you've just picked up, a tesserection challenge to fit the plates within the barely sufficient tabletop area. Luckily our five-person table provided enough surplus to make things much easier - I must remember to level up again in future.
Once we'd performed the birthday toast with our glasses of bubbly we started on the meal. The 'finger food' aspect of afternoon tea makes it perfect for a chatty get together, there's always space for someone to talk while the others nibble their way through the goodies. I find myself trying to get through the sandwiches before the scones have a chance to cool down - complicated this time with warmed savouries alongside the sarnies - but the conversation normally flows freely enough for this to be easily achieved without any conscious attention. By the time everyone's been brought up to date with recent events we've all moved on to tea and cakes, which can be indulged in at leisure.
(Curiously this was the first time I remember us not finishing off all the cakes. There wasn't an extraordinarily ample selection provided, maybe we're growing less enamoured of sweet & sugary treats? Perhaps it'll be more tapas & meze in future.)
With just the four of us the conversation flowed differently, with less time needed for recent adventures & escapades we talked about future plans, wider interests, far flung branches of the family tree, and overall more generalised topics. Or maybe it was the effects of the lockdown stasis, with so little in the way of noteworthy incidents to dwell on we were free to cast our thoughts wider and (maybe) deeper. For whatever reason we talked our way through refills of the teapots and the dwindling (but not quite exhaustion) of the cakes stands. As the tables around us were emptied, relaid, and reoccupied we finally decided that we'd reached the end of our teatime and a glance at watches showed that three hours had passed since we'd sat down. An excellent way to pass an afternoon.
Another effect of the smaller group was that I, once again, was distracted from my (self-appointed) duties as Official Photographer & Record Keeper. Although I agree that it's better to be part of the event than an outside observer, even if only temporarily, I'm still disappointed in myself for not asking a waiter to take some inclusive group shots or to take some posed portraits. Oh well, maybe next time.
After a strange problem with the bill - dividing it by two seemed to present an impossibly Einsteinean calculation and was replaced with a very rough approximation - we collected our coats and (eventually) hats and made our way back towards the Tube station. By this point Oxford Street was thronged with bargain hunters and after a quick look up at the (sadly rather unimpressive) Christmas lights we struggled our way through to the nearest entrance. Kay & Roger waved us farewell and Vi & I descended towards the platforms, she heading eastbound back to Epping while I went westwards to Paddington and the train to Wiltshire. An unexplained break in eastward trains saw the platform packed tight but when one finally appeared Vi was immediately offered a seat and I was able to see her comfortably settled as it set off into the tunnels.
My own trip home was smooth and easy. I arrived at Paddington ten minutes before a Wiltshire train departed and despite a delayed running time I was just able to catch a connecting train home. A few minutes after stepping through my front door I called Vi and confirmed she was safely home too.
After a nearly two year break in our family birthday get togethers it was great to meet up again, even if it was only a subset of our usual collection. In theory there will be another opportunity in January for my birthday but with the continuing uncertainty over virus restrictions and the usually dreary January weather I'm seriously considering following the example of the royals and having an official birthday in the summertime.
(Click on pictures for larger versions)