At Home in the U.K.

London, England

Hit The Road, Jack

Terri Hardin hits a pothole on the trail of Jack the Ripper

Last summer, on a beautiful night in June that was my last in London, I decided to take a "Jack the Ripper" walking tour. Following the instructions on the brochure I picked up at the British Tourist Office across the street from my host hotel, the 186-room Sofitel St. James, I took the Underground to Tower Hill Station. The Tower itself stood across the Thames, alone and serene. As our "London Walks" guide identified herself to the gathering group and began to take our money, I glanced over to that grim prison-cum-palace, seemingly unchanged since its Tudor heyday—although it's now quite possible to hold events there (as well as at three other notable residences through Historic Royal Palaces).

But on my side of the Thames, it was a different story. Around me was a modern neighborhood, maybe a little untidy, but basically indistinguishable from any large city's central business district.

That would change. As we trotted at a lively pace through the concrete canyons, a building peeked out in the distance that looked like a giant cigar in its wrapper. "What is that?" I asked. "That's 30 St. Mary Axe," the guide yelled back, as she rushed us to the scene of a grisly murder. Having just opened the month before, the avant-garde exterior of 30 St. Mary Axe, headquarters for Swiss Re, the global reinsurance company, was still causing a furor. Some call it the Faberge egg, some call it the "Gherkin"—and those are the ones who are being polite. However, at 40 stories tall, the building commands, at its cigar-tip top, a restaurant with a ravishing view of London. Private parties "by permission of the landlord" can be done with dinner seating for 75 and reception space for 260.

Unfortunately, we had no time to gab about The Gherkin—daylight was burning and we had a date with a curb. Hey, I'm not kidding. "I want you all to use your imaginations," implored our guide for the first (but not the last) time. We all stared intently at the curb at Mitre Square as she began to describe atrocities committed there to Catherine Eddowes on September 30, 1888—the last of the Ripper's outdoor victims. The surroundings are now genteel, but hearing detail heaped on gory detail (slashing and ritual disemboweling), my imagination did indeed kick in. Addressing the singular anonymity of the site, the guide said that the crime scene was once commemorated by a plaque, but it was pried out and stolen within a matter of hours.

On we went. The murky, dangerous Whitechapel slums, where Jack the Ripper escaped detection while killing and mutilating his victims, have pretty much disappeared, reformed and made wholesome by time and the fierce determination of city planning. Some buildings, like Christ Church—which date from the period—and Spitalfields Markets (revamped in the '20s) are still around, and several area pubs, like the Ten Bells, one of the original pubs where hapless prostitutes plied their trade, capitalize on the notoriety. Even so, the guides really do have their work cut out for them. At one point, having been exhorted once again to "use my imagination" to envision Victorian London around me, I saw, instead, the spanking-modern Travelodge London City in front of me. It was then that my imagination took a back seat to my common sense, which told me, "This is your last night in London. Stop looking at things that aren't there!"

With that, the walking tour now became a brief but aerobic exploration of living London. Our group whisked through "Banglatown," filled with colorful shops, throbbing music, and intriguing Asian restaurants. We walked up back lanes, some of which still looked dicey, and some that were offering luxury condos with preserved historical facades.

I guess having been brought up on a diet of Masterpiece Theatre costume dramas, I expected London to be frozen in time. Certainly, there were many efforts to preserve the past; the Sofitel St. James, which had invited me on this inspection, was the former Cox's and King's Bank. Behind its historic exterior, each office had been converted in a deluxe room (with meeting and conference space for up to 170 on the lower level). A previous walk had taken me across the Millennium Bridge to the fabulous London Eye, the phenomenal Ferris wheel that can transport up to 25 passengers in one of its private capsules. Those developments were in what was always the hoity-toity part of town; but, in fact, even London's East End has been undergoing an astounding renaissance, particularly the docklands of Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs, where luxury properties and venues are springing up.

The Ripper tour concluded in what looked like a village, but what was, of all things, low-income "council" housing. As a Q&A period took place under a streetlight, I looked around in the gloaming, envying the people, their homes, and their well-kept community.

Lord knows what they thought of me. These Ripper tours, which have always been popular (after all, it's Jack the Ripper!), were the brief subject of unrest back in 2001, when anticipation of the film From Hell swelled the tour numbers into the hundreds around the clock. At the time, this had angered locals, who resented a gawking mob clogging the sidewalks. By last year, however, the tour I attended had subsided to a still-respectable 50, which was then divided in two.

As applause and people scattering marked the end of the tour, I wondered in hindsight: If I were planning a group's night out, I would certainly put this on the itinerary—but not on the last night of the trip, should anyone want to revisit some of the remaining historic sites. Some of those shops and restaurants had looked really tantalizing, and the crew at the Ten Bells was certainly lively. I wished I had time to regroup and do all those things, and go up in the Eye, too. But no, it was late, I had already lost my sense of direction, and still had to go back to the hotel and pack.

Looking on this experience, I will just have to use my imagination.


Two Takes on Scotland

Kilts and Kings

Culinary adventurer Sara J. Welch eats haggis and dishes on the royals

When I visited Scotland last year, I expected that I would be tasting some fine whisky. But I never imagined it'd be at nine o'clock in the morning.

It happened at Glengoyne Distillery, 15 miles outside Glasgow, where our still-sleepy group gathered for shots of eye-opening single highland malt. I managed only a sip, enough to notice Glengoyne's trademark trait: the absence of that smoky taste common to other Scotches.

Before I could say, "For 'peat's' sake!" we were, ahem, whisked off to nearby Stirling Castle for a private tour. Considered Scotland's grandest castle, Stirling looms over a battlefield where Robert the Bruce vanquished William Wallace in 1314; its 16th-century Great Hall seats up to 300.

We had lunch just outside the village of St. Andrews at the St. Andrews Bay Golf Resort & Spa (209 rooms; 6,100-sf ballroom), whose most famous member is Prince William; some meeting planners on a recent site inspection even caught a glimpse of his highness, working out. We weren't so lucky, but we got our own insight into royal relaxation when we toured the Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh. Now available exclusively for corporate events of up to 250, this surprisingly modest yacht—where Charles and Di honeymooned—still features its original 1950s decor, along with some great photos of dressed-down Windsors.

At dinner that night at Duck's at Le Marche Noir, I heeded the exhortations of my Scottish hosts and ordered the haggis. Who would have thought that this infamous mix of oatmeal and suet, boiled in a sheep's stomach, would be not just palatable but tasty? I even preferred it to Scotland's other claim to culinary fame—the batter-fried Mars bar, which I sampled at midnight in a fish and chips shop after several Deuchars ales. Just another example of how this country defies expectations.


Tradition Gets An Update

Tina Benitez laps up luxury while bucking tradition

Scotland remains as traditional as it gets. You wouldn't expect to walk through a glass house, or sleep in an old newspaper office; or try many dishes other than haggis.

There are, however, new surprises in the misty glens. In Edinburgh, the best of the new and old pleasantly collide. Venture down the Royal Mile, which is the cobblestone stretch of road linking the castle to the Palace of the Holyrood House, a royal residence since the 15th century, and up to Edinburgh Castle, former estate of James IV and a building that dates as early as the 12th century. At the end of the road, reward yourself at The Witchery by the Castle's Secret Garden restaurant. Originally built in 1595, the candlelit, Gothic escape has room to accommodate 110 comfortably for private events.

Just within castle view is the five-star Balmoral. Located conveniently on One Princes Street, the 188-room hotel has catered to everyone from international dignitaries to rock dignitary, Sir Mick Jagger. The Sir Walter Scott room can seat up to 400 for a formal dinner. There is also the Glasshouse Hotel, housed in the 150-year old Lady Glenorchy Church. The facade is old, but the inside is brand-new in all its modernity, giving it five-star/rock-star ambiance. The Glasshouse plays host with 65 bedrooms and boardrooms for up to 36 people, including a two-acre roof top garden (if Scottish weather permits). Then there is the Scotsman, the former home of the Scotsman newspaper. The 168-room Scotsman offers a screening room for up to 46 and a larger space for 200 patrons.

Meanwhile, in Glasgow, the Lighthouse, the city's architecture and design museum, is also a meeting venue, with room for up to 175. Its design is by Charles Rennie Macintosh, a guiding light of the Scottish Art Nouveau movement who is known for his elegant tea rooms. Macintosh's undulating style also sweeps you away at The House for an Art Lover, where the white, intimate Music Room lets guests dine in white high-back chairs with a garden view. The house can cater to up to 200 banquet, theater, or conference style in the Macintosh Suite.

Once a salmon-fishing village, the Victorian city of Glasgow has evolved into something more chic. Dine on tapas, or solomillo de ternera, or filet of beef with grilled vegetables at TaPaell'Ya restaurant at the 250-room Radisson SAS on Argyle Street, or simply sip a wee dram at the Atrium bar. The hotel has 14 meeting rooms and wireless Internet access throughout; the Central Station (the main line from Glasgow to London) is just across the road.

Speaking of stations, the Old Course Hotel, in St. Andrews, the Kingdom of Fife, was constructed on the original St. Andrews railway station, albeit in 1968. The 134-room hotel offers views of the Old Course, the first golf course in the world, dating from more than 600 years ago.

Tradition. In Scotland, you can't get away from it.


South Wales

The Dinner Party

On a journey in Wales, Elizabeth West takes a page from Jane Austen

It was darkening in the Vale of Glamorgan as the shadows chased our coach down the drive of Fonmon Castle. With its thick, ivy-swamped walls and a turreted rooftop clearly constructed to keep outsiders at bay, the castle was an enigma of elegance and wariness: part Georgian manor, part Norman stronghold, built in the days of conquest. Its surrounding gardens, whose untrammeled beauty could not be hidden by the cloak of night, beckoned our approach.

Suddenly, a frisson of anticipation overcame me as the castle door was flung wide. A hush fell over our group as we were ushered down a slightly drafty corridor and into the presence of our host, Sir Brooke Boothby. From his surroundings of ancestral portraits and objets d'art, it was clear that Sir Brooke's lineage was long and distinguished; in fact, Sir Brooke is the namesake of the celebrated Regency poet and acquaintance of Rousseau, Brooke Boothby of Derbyshire (1743-1824). The portrait of that baronet by Joseph Wright (1743-97) is a treasure of the Tate; and Sir Brooke's sonnet, "On Life" (1796), written on the death of his daughter, appears to contain the first instance of the phrase, "the dreamer and the dream."

The present Sir Brooke is a seasoned host; his broad smile and boisterous laughter, echoing through the maze of thick tapestries and Georgian decor as we arrived at the dining hall, put us at ease. Not so the formally laid table, which—adorned with sumptuous china, dramatic candelabras, and even family heirlooms that once graced the table of Sir Brooke's ancestors—was more accustomed to hosting the ladies and gentlemen of society. As a reassuring aroma wafted in from the kitchen, our party was soon regaled with a procession of succulent comestibles. Sitting down to our meal, the gentle timpani of silver on crystal soon commenced, interspersed with the tinkling of polite conversation. But as I brandished an ornate spoon to dispatch with the first course, I hesitated . . .

Does a lady just dive into her soup? Unaccustomed to the protocol, I determined to err on the side of caution. Loosening my viselike grip on the utensil, I gingerly retreated from my meal and concentrated, instead, on my dining companions.

Sir Brooke was surely the center of attention. He peppered the evening with his opinions about Wales' current developments, like the new Wales Millennium Centre, a $180-million performing arts center that dominates the city's massive Cardiff Bay development; the recently opened 160-room Holland House Hotel, and the 129-room Park Plaza Hotel—and did not neglect mentioning that Fonmon is frequently used as an event venue.

The group eagerly gobbled up Sir Brooke's family anecdotes, historical trivia, and the gregarious manner in which he opened a window onto a slice of Welsh history, along with dinner.

Suddenly, dropping my gaze to my plate, I realized to my dismay that, in my effort to seem "ladylike," I had forgotten to eat.

No wonder ladies used to faint so often.