Open Road

About a Boy (and Also, a Trip to Great Britain)

A father reminisces on years of traveling with his son.

By Scott Vogel March 25, 2019 Published in the April 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The Lygon Arms Hotel in the Cotswolds, where travelers have been renting rooms for 650 years

I’ve got to get ahold of myself. The sight of a grown man blubbering in seat 15K of a transatlantic Boeing 777 is unnerving. People pay British Airways big money to sit in business class, and they do that so they don’t have to hear blubbering, which they wouldn’t if the airline hadn’t put me in seat 15K—the one that lets you anchor a bassinet to the wall. They should have known that it was just yesterday that my son sat in bassinets, and today he is preparing to leave for college, time having passed at cruel speed, which is to say that nothing will ever be the same.

Okay, so a little context. Being the world traveler that I profess to be, people often ask me to name the single most important ingredient to a successful vacation. My answer, without hesitation, is to avoid IAH baggage carousels at all cost. The second most important ingredient, however, has nothing to do with modes of transport, itineraries, or destinations. Other than avoiding IAH baggage carousels, the only thing any vacationer needs is a perfect travel companion. I know, because I have had one. 

Within minutes of our arrival at the Hotel Sultania in Istanbul, on a cold, rainy February evening after a long flight that had left the rest of us exhausted, my son Spencer—then 13—was drinking apple tea and happily chatting with the proprietor in Turkish. The next year, when everyone else was appalled that Moscow had dared to allow hookers and street drunks to intrude on our holiday, Spencer was enthralled, and the year after that, when nobody-but-nobody would be caught dead taking Amtrak from Houston to LA, Spencer jumped at my offer. By the time he was 16, I’d stopped inviting anyone else on my trips. Everybody else was a hassle.

Some people only grudgingly accept the irruptions in routine that are a necessary part of travel. (Why don’t people like that just stay home? Spencer and I like to say, echoing an old Lily Tomlin line.) But perfect travel companions see opportunity in irruption. Spencer loved eating what he couldn’t get at home, loved sleeping in a dank Seoul airport hotel room illuminated by a single, dimly lit bulb, loved stumbling through a kung fu lesson in Beijing. He never said no to anything—person, place, or food—and since the lessons learned while traveling always seemed more valuable than the ones gained in school, I never felt the slightest guilt at pulling him out of class.

But that was yesterday, alas. Just a week after this final trip to England, childhood would end and he would fly off (alone!) to a place far from Texas for college. He would eat strange food (alone!) at some eastern university studying international relations (of course!). There would be no more last-minute jets to Nassau, no more aimless wandering through the Ladies’ Market in Hong Kong, or up and down the hills of Auckland. Now he would have a life of his own, and every trip would need to be scheduled. I was losing my travel companion, and I was sad.

British Airways' seating arrangement for Club World passengers

“Would you like … some wine?” The flight attendant’s concern seemed genuine. Her name was Jennifer Rhodes, her voice solicitous, British, very Mary Poppins. I explained that my son, owing to a scheduling conflict (already!), was on a separate flight and meeting me in London, that we would spend a few days in the Cotswolds—a part of the beautiful English countryside that I’d always wanted to see—before returning to London for a few days of sightseeing, whereupon I would say goodbye and send him off into the world forever, and did I mention that he was the most perfect travel companion? 

Rhodes looked at me. “So you do want the wine,” she said.

“Red. Enormous amounts,” I replied.

Accordingly, serenity soon descended upon business class, thanks to the combined efforts of Club World, British Airways’ business-class service—a.k.a. first-class on any other airline—and the Douro Valley in Portugal, birthplace of Cottas Reserva 2015. BA’s seating arrangement, complete with privacy screens, provides a measure of physical and emotional isolation more usually associated with an ashram. Indeed, from the moment we left the twinkling lights of IAH till dawn the next morning over the Atlantic, the silence was deafening. In my capsule I noticed a laptop-dedicated drawer, a lumbar support knob, a headrest control, a lounging-position button, a meal-position button, Z-position and lying-flat buttons.

A dollop of crab rillettes appeared over the transom, followed by a hearty filet of roast beef, a chocolate croissant covered in warm orange sauce, and of course glass after glass of Cottas Reserva. If ever I recover from my present melodramatic gloom, I promised myself, I will visit the Douro Valley and pledge everlasting fealty. And with that, I pushed a button rendering me supine, stretched out and dreamt of the first trip I ever took with Spencer, a flight from DC to Portland. He was three months old and 26 inches long, and wore a blue plaid onesie. 

Now he towered over most everyone else in the arrivals area at Heathrow, his flight having arrived earlier than mine. I saw him first, headphones around the neck, texting his friends and laughing, completely comfortable in an airport thousands of miles from home. He had neither fear of what’s to come nor sense of moment. This was neither the end nor the beginning of anything—just another trip. Or maybe he was just acting that way for my sake?

“Are you all right?” he asked, eyeing me up and down. He knew.

“I had such a great flight!” I said, overdoing it. For some minutes I chirped happily about the Z position and crab rillettes, but then Spencer ran through the day’s itinerary from memory, told me how we’d take the 1:27 Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station, locate the Great Western Railway kiosks and buy tickets for a two-plus-hour trip west to Evesham, where we’d grab a 20-buck taxi to ferry us to our final destination, the ancient town of Broadway—and suddenly I was suffused again with gloom.

Because that’s the other reason my son is the perfect travel companion: He always gets you there. There are people who will walk dazedly through the Zurich arrivals area gesturing wildly in hopes that someone will take pity and lead them to some shuttle, and then there are Spencers, people with internal GPSes that instantly find the sign in the guidebook, who never miss a turn-off or confuse the Shinkansen and the local train. If smartphones have made us dumber, my son has made me an idiot. Once, after losing Spencer on a crowded street in Tokyo, I panicked, wondering if I’d ever eat again.

“You’re just too embarrassed to make a mistake.” That was his explanation for my learned helplessness. It was offered somewhere around Oxford on the train west.

“Like you don’t get embarrassed?” I replied. “What about the time you crapped your pants in Home Depot?”

“I was two.”

Passengers boarding the Heathrow Express at London's  Paddington station

Ah, memories. I’d been carrying him through the store at the time of the blow-out. Ashamed, Spencer buried his head in my neck. Even as warm mud crept across my chest, however, I was the picture of composure. Nothing to be embarrassed about, I told him, as the DIY crowd parted and I strode from the store, nonchalant and shirtless. People crap themselves in Home Depot all the time.

A few laughs later we arrived at the quaintness of Evesham and taxied to the even more quaint village of Broadway, serenaded all the while by a talky driver who, like many of his ilk, had voted for Brexit but not for this. His only consolation, it seemed, was passengers like us, citizens of a country, he noted, that faced an even graver political predicament than his own. This did not seem like a thing worth arguing about as the road opened up and vistas of steeply sloped hills, lush valleys, and all-around spectacular-ness began to appear. Broadway is a serene hamlet in the Cotswolds, an officially sanctioned Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It dates back to the Norman Conquest, and High Street, its horse chestnut tree–lined main drag, remains dotted with impossibly ancient cottages constructed of sturdy Cotswold limestone, bringing a golden glow to each and every façade during the late afternoons.

That was when Spencer and I arrived, our cabbie dropping us off in front of one of the oldest structures in town, which, as it happens, would also be our home for the next two nights, the Lygon Arms Hotel, where travelers have been renting rooms for 650 years. During the English Civil War, the hotel proudly played host to both parliamentarians (Oliver Cromwell) and royalists (Charles II)—although sadly not at the same time.

Upon stepping through the archway entrance—Spencer had to duck his head—I was filled with both excitement and fear, the first because the Lygon’s 16th-century creature comforts seemed to have been carefully maintained, the second because 21st-century creature comforts weren’t immediately in evidence. I quickly learned that the disguise of such things is among the hotel’s most cunning achievements. Cool stone hallways dart in every direction, before opening onto, say, a wine bar, a sunny courtyard, a first-rate spa, or an enormous barrel-vaulted great hall housing the Lygon’s signature restaurant. There, portraits of long-dead dignitaries gaze stoically upon the morning waffles and, each evening, the stunningly good food turned out by the kitchen. Squint and you can almost see Liz Taylor and Richard Burton AWOL from the set of Cleopatra, flirting shamelessly over dinner.

There are 78 rooms of various configurations at the Lygon, none more beautiful than the seven newer suites, each with its own terrace abutting the hotel’s courtyard. And courtesy their handmade mattresses from Devon, Spencer and I awoke rested and ready to conquer. (What, one wonders, might Cromwell have accomplished if he’d had a walk-in shower and Nespresso machine?)

Gourmet food on Broadway's High St.

Our first stop: the Broadway Deli, purveyors of gourmet foodstuffs and handsome local produce. Following that, we spent hours combing through candle shops and boutiques and art galleries, until the streetlamps buzzed on and High Street began to empty. We wandered out of town past some of the cutest houses in Christendom, later spying a playground full of children riding teeter-totters in the gloaming.

And just like that, I was back in a blue mood.

Spencer led us back to town, navigating the back alleys of Broadway like a country vicar, as I struggled to keep up, barely able to make him out in the darkness. For a moment it seemed like he was dissolving into the world, as if both of us were dissolving. I thought of lazy days spent at Atlanta’s Coca-Cola museum and nights at the Cotton Exchange in Manchester. Gone forever, all of it.    

Just in time, we arrived back in town for a late reservation at the Lygon Bar & Grill. There’s no magic cure for melancholy, of course, although I’m pleased to report that a dinner of ribeye steak—and also fish and chips battered with Cotswold beer, creamed spinach, and sticky toffee pudding—comes pretty damn close.

Our departure from Broadway the next morning was bittersweet, but the train to Paddington proved painless, and soon we were back amid the frenzy of London, prowling the streets of Sloane Square. A paragon of chic on the edge of Chelsea, the area is known for its luxury boutiques, and also for giving the world Sloane Rangers, a.k.a. British preppies (they wore leather brogues and pleated skirts, we had penny loafers and shift dresses, both birthed tongue-in-cheek ’80s handbooks). For me, though, Sloane was just a place where young adults go to leave their families forever. Consider: Just before Princess Diana was plucked from a life of privileged obscurity, she worked as a kindergarten teacher’s aide and lived in a flat her parents bought for her on Coleherne Road, just a tube stop away from Sloane. The Middleton girls lived even closer to the square, sharing an apartment on Old Church St. before William wrested Kate away from Pippa and Sloane.

The Lygon Bar & Grill

It was with all this in mind that Spencer (no relation to Lady Di) and I meandered toward 11 Cadogan Gardens, a lavish and modern boutique hotel composed of four retrofitted Victorian townhouses a stone’s throw from Sloane Square. The houses, built by Lord Chelsea himself, date back to the late 19th century, when the area played host to penniless artists and writers rather than the choker-pearl set, but there’s something of the bohemian yet at 11CG, with its creaky old elevator and wobbly stairways. There is humble elegance too, its 56 rooms and suites cozy yet sumptuously appointed. Many overlook a private park to which only hotel guests and wealthy area residents are granted access.

London is a famously uncomfortable city for Americans—all posh sterility or dedicated seediness—but 11CG is neither, its four-poster beds and wool throws and houndstooth bedspreads creating a remarkably zen experience. A similar vibe is exuded by the hotel’s drawing room, although the signature restaurant, Hans’ Bar & Grill, braces with modernity, not unlike its stellar menu. It was there that Spencer and I spent our last night in London—i.e., last night ever—but I kept it together, mostly, buoyed by some fine Rock oysters and cauliflower croquettes. Then dessert came. A ramekin of warm chocolate and salted caramel. “One spoon or two?” asked the waiter, and I felt my eyes well up.

“Now what?” Spencer asked me.

“No, it’s just—time passes.”

“That’s the way life works,” my son said. “Life is change. But that doesn’t mean everything changes. We’ll still go on trips. We’ll just have to plan them now.”

“If you don’t stop being so mature about this, I’m gonna lose it altogether.”

Cue the waiter, who approached the table slowly and with alarm, certain that something was amiss with the pot de crème. I must have been a mess, because it took him some minutes to be convinced otherwise.

“Okay, this is embarrassing,” I said half to myself, wiping my eyes.

“Nothing to be embarrassed about,” said Spencer gently. “People crap themselves in Home Depot all the time.”

Sure, it was our last laugh, but it was a good one.

11 Cadogan Gardens' exterior

Getting There

British Airways offers several nonstop flights weekly from Houston’s IAH to London Heathrow. Roundtrip Club World seats currently start at $3,598, while seats in economy start at $1,026.

Where to Stay

Rooms at the Lygon Arms, in the town of Broadway in England’s Cotswolds, start at around $291 a night, while rooms at 11 Cadogan Gardens, in the Sloane Square section of London, start at about $325 a night.

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