“Guys, we have 7 hours at Heathrow. Is that enough time to get out? I’ve never been to London”. It started an easy enough question. Some of us in the group had never been to London. My best friend R was turning 40. To celebrate, we were doing a girls trip to Malta. But on the way, we were connecting through Heathrow. Could we do it? Was 7 hours enough time to get out, see some of London and get back into the airport in time? People told us it was too tight but we decided we were going to try!
After much debate and back and forth in group chats, the plan was decided. 4 of us were on the same flight from San Francisco. M, who was coming from the east coast with her baby, was flying into London, and then bought a round trip on the same Air Malta flight we were on. She landed much earlier in the morning. The plan was to meet up at Heathrow and get on the Tube together to London. We’d get off at Covent Gardens and walk through central London to the Mandarin Oriental where we had a 4pm reservation for afternoon (high) tea. Then we’d jump back on the tube by 5:30 and be back in plenty of time to get through security and be at the airport for our flight.
The plan started off well enough. The group flying from San Francisco decided to check our rolling suitcases all the way through so we didn’t have to deal with storing them or taking them to London. It was so nice to travel light. I just had a small backpack. Our flight landed at Heathrow early and we were able to get off the plane quickly. Immigration was fast thanks to a kind flight attendant who took pity on us and helped us secure immigration fast passes. As soon as we were out of immigration and customs, we went to a nearby restroom to change and freshen up as we tried to find our fifth friend who had already landed hours ago.
Here we ran into our first glitch. We had a slight miscommunication. We thought she was going to go check in her bags at Terminal 4 and then come back to Terminal 3 to meet us. She did have a baby with her, but she had gotten there hours before hand. Turns out she rented a hotel room in T4 to get some rest (she had been up for 22 hours), so she was still in T4. We decided to meet at the tube. We thought that the tube would go to T4 before it went into central London, we told her to wait at the platform and we would come to her.
We go down to the Tube and ask the attendant how to get to T4, he points us to a Tube to central London. We get on, and are surprised to find ourselves at Hatton Cross! We get off, and run across the platform to the train waiting there. I asked a person on the train “Does this go to T4?” “Yes, yes it does.” The doors close and it goes, announcing the next stop is…Terminals 1,2 & 3. Where we just came from!!! So we jump off again, back where we started. Hum…. We ask someone official looking who lets us know, we had gotten on the wrong train. We needed to go back to Hatton Cross, and then take a T4 train, we had taken at T5 train. Grrr…. So we do all this and get to our poor friend and baby 20 minutes later. Oh well, at least we got to stay on the same train which was headed back to central London.
Got to know Hatton Cross really well, but we finally found M and her baby!
The next small glitch was the Tube into London. It was supposed to take about 45 minutes. Except we managed to be on the sllloooowwwest Tube. As 45 minutes passed and were still nowhere near our stop, we decided to get off at Hyde Park and walk through the park to the Mandarin. We got off at Hyde Park and immediately take pictures of London type things. Double Decker Bus! Underground sign! Arch to Hyde Park! We take a few silly selfies, and then walk through the park enjoying the brisk London day.
We get to Knightsbridge and the beautiful Mandarin hotel just in time. We are all in awe of the décor. It’s still decked out for Christmas’s with its lights, trees, and traditional red butlers letting in guests. We go to the Rosebery, the tea house, and are shown to our seats.
Knightsbridge was so vibrant at night!
We inform the waiter that we had to be out by 5:30. They were a little nervous because apparently usually for a group our size they recommend 2.5 hours. You see afternoon tea is an event. It’s three courses. First it’s the sandwiches. Then it’s the scones. Then it’s the pastries. And of course, bottomless tea. And, since we were celebrating, everyone decided to do an alcoholic upgrade. Two of us did the sake upgrade (which comes with a different sake for each course). Two of us did the wine upgrade (which comes with a different wine for each course), and one did the champagne upgrade (which comes with one glass of champagne. She was the smart one). Apparently you are supposed to do this slowly and enjoy each round. But they suggested if we need to get out early, we should get our courses all at once. We could do that.
Soon our table was covered in wine and sake glasses, plates of sandwiches, hanging scone (yes I didn’t know that was a thing) and beautiful looking pastries. As we ate, we learned the most amazing thing about this tea…the food was unlimited as well as the tea. As soon as we figured that out (and we were all quite hungry), we started ordering more and more. We polished off several plates of sandwiches, several orders of scones, and two orders of pastries. We got a few different teas, and we finished off our glasses of wine, sake and champagne. By 5:15 we were all stuffed to the gills, and I think the wait staff was generally amazed at our ability to pack away so much food in such a short amount of time. It was time to head back, so we packed up our bags, got on our coats, and walked to the underground to take the tube back to the airport.
Absolutely everything was amazing at high tea. And we took full advantage of the “unlimited” claim and ate to overcapacity in an hour and a half
This time we lucked out, the tube was much quicker, and took the expected 45 minutes to get back to the airport. We got to the airport, retrieved M’s bags out of storage, and went to check her bags in. That took longer than expected (apparently there was a place to weigh and pay for luggage and a different place to check it in with Air Malta – who knew!). Thankfully we had the foresight to purchase security fast passes. This allowed us to get through security in about 20 minutes. Once through, we actually had time before the gate was announced. So we went to the bathroom, filled up the water bottles, and then, went to the pub! Because, it’s London. What else do you do? We got some half pints, toasted R for the thousandth time, and drank until it was time to go to our gate. We got there in plenty of time and had no problem boarding our on-time flight.
With the tube taking up 2 hours of your layover, and immigration and security potentially taking another 2 hours, I can see why people said that our trip into London would be tight. And it was. We didn’t see much and we didn’t see any of the really big sights. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to have an adventure. It was to celebrate friendships and family. It was to be together. And, it was to say we did it. Now I can check UK off my country list. With a flexible attitude, and friends who can keep your anxieties in check, it’s a fun adventure I get to tell my children about. Crazy adventures make the best stories.