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TRAVEL HORRORS: ENGLAND

In the Trenches at Burberrys

In his quest for a bargain, he shopped till he flopped

October 26, 1997|HELMUT KOENIG | Koenig is a freelance writer based in New York City

Like so many adventures, this one started over drinks.

The occasion: a cocktail reception in a fancy New York hotel. An editor on a leading women's magazine was explaining how whenever she visited London she made a detour to the Burberrys factory outlet to replenish her wardrobe. Over the years she had bought raincoats, skirts, blouses, blazers, umbrellas, the whole shebang, all at drastically discounted prices. The way she phrased it: "At a fraction of what you would pay in a regular Burberrys shop."

Did the lights in the room really brighten as the impact of what she said sank in? A Burberrys raincoat at a bargain price! I couldn't believe it. As a character in a 1930s Clifford Odets play said, "All my life I want a pair of black and white shoes and can't get them." So for years I had my heart set on a genuine 100% cotton Burberrys trench coat. Not a substitute or knockoff. The real thing.

Still, the particular model I had in mind, with wool liner and fancy double collar, came to a cool grand (including sales tax). One thousand dollars for a raincoat? Somehow it seemed a mite excessive for my modest budget.

When I inquired how much raincoats were selling for at the factory outlet, the answer came back, "Oh, about 150 pounds."

Which translated into roughly $250. I mean, wow! How could one resist? How could one go wrong?

The 5-1 martinis with a twist may have had something to do with turning on my fantasy mechanism. I already saw myself in the coat, belt pulled in tight, collar turned up, brim of my James Lock & Co. of St. James's Street hat slanted over one eye. A film noir hero if ever there was one. Humphrey Bogart, look out. Here I come!

"So, tell me. How does one get to this famous factory outlet?"

The lady gave me a smile. Lauren Bacall? Veronica Lake?

"It's rather complicated," she said. "The place is on the fringes of London. First you take the tube, then you get on a bus. Then you walk. Are you ready for that?"

"I'm in the market for a Burberrys coat at a realistic price. What else can I say?"

"So call me at the office, I'll fill you in on the details."

And so it came to pass that not long ago, by adroit juggling of airline schedules, I was in a position to spend several days on a London stopover. Of course, before leaving I called the editor.

She passed on the information, which read: Take tube to Bethnal Green, board Cambridge Heath Road bus to Hackney, walk on Morning Lane to Chatham Place, turn right to a big building with a Burberrys sign. "You can't miss it." And then words of warning: "It takes patience, and a little luck, to find what you want."

*

By the time I got to London some of the steam had gone out of what had seemed like such a brilliant concept in New York. With only two days at my disposal, was I ready to set off on the trek to Hackney?

Located off the Central London map, it seemed to portend a long haul to a distant point on the northeastern outskirts.

Were there maybe better things to do in London than go bargain-hunting? When I talked to two London acquaintances, neither had heard of a Burberrys factory outlet. One said, "If you find it, let me know."

Still, I vacillated. To go or not to go? That was the question. At last I gave in. What to lose? And off I went.

First to the Oxford Circus Underground station. Here I boarded the Central Line, direction Epping. For a time we sailed right along. Then, after a station or two, the train went into a sputtering, stuttering mobilis interruptus mode, all stop and start between stations. At last we rolled into St. Paul's. A voice over the speakers warned of transformer problems, mentioning the possibility of a system shutdown. Still, the voice assured us, the problem could probably be solved in a jiffy. Along with platitudes thanking passengers for their patience. At which point half the people in the car got up to leave.

No sooner had they left than power came back on. We crept along, a few feet at a time, before stopping again. At the next station, doors opened, more passengers got off, as though to desert a sinking ship. One more cryptic announcement.

We limped on like that to Bank. By now my spirits sagged. With time ticking away, only so many hours in London, to be trapped in a stalled Underground was hardly what I had in mind. Fraught with anxiety, I asked myself, is this trip necessary?

Then, with only a comparative handful of passengers aboard, we reached Liverpool Street. According to my map, we were now at the edge of the city. Call it a point of no return. If we started and the system shut down, there would be no way to get back to London, or so I thought.

*

To make a long story short, in time the train did indeed get to Bethnal Green.

I came up out of the depths to encounter a London I had never known existed. Not exactly the slums but a fairly grim scene. Low brick buildings and seedy shops light years removed from what most of us think of as Britain's capital--meaning Mayfair, Belgravia, Knightsbridge, Piccadilly and such.

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