Day Trip to London, With Children
Last week we decided to take the children on a day trip to London. After having acquired a free, two-month family railcard, I searched for a good rail offer, bought the tickets and we were all set to go.
Taking the children on a day trip to London was something we had been planning to do for a while. We kept putting it off because our youngest son was very small, and trekking around London with a toddler in tow seemed like hard work, to say the least. My oldest, however, has just turned 11 and had been asking to go for what seemed like forever. Besides, every child should see the Big Smoke at least once. The little one is still only three, hates sitting still and can have somewhat wild child tendencies in public, but we thought we'd take the chance anyway.
For us, the journey to London is around two hours, which makes the capital city a fairly accessible destination. After packing a picnic for lunch (which ended up getting mostly eaten on the train). pencils, paper, a book for the oldest and a Vtech Kidizoom Camera for the youngest, we were all set to go. The train journey went quite smoothly (until we gave up the little one's seat to a young girl studying for GCSEs and he ended up under the table secretly picking old chewing gum off the underside of the table) and we arrived at London Liverpool Street promptly at 10.55 am.
We thoroughly expected travelling on the London Underground to be considerably more difficult with a three year old, and it certainly could not be described as easy. It was, however, still fun - and another new experience to notch up for the children. (The main difficulty we had was carting our folded up Maclaren pushchair up and down the stairs and escalators at every station - I'm not sure how many tube stations actually have lifts, but my overall understanding is that travelling by tube if you have mobility restrictions or equipment such as pushchairs or wheelchairs is either difficult or impossible if you are unable to use the stairs. In our party, there were two adults - one carrying the child up and down the stairs, and one carrying the pushchair. This way, it works.)
When I first visited London, as a ten year old child in 1983, I remember thinking the London Underground was fun and exciting. An intricate puzzle of connected stations and little maps, plus the new experience of travelling through all the dark tunnels, was a novelty for my sister and I. My own children took to it quite well, after the initial tantrum from our youngest when he realised he wasn't going to be allowed to wander around the trains at free will. London tube trains are frequent, so there was no boredom from waiting around.
Travelling on the London Underground is cheap for children - in fact, for children under 10 it is completely free. We purchased two adult one day travelcards for zones 1 and 2, at a cost of about £12.
First Stop: Buckingham Palace
With a young child in tow, and only a single day, we knew that we wouldn't be able to visit as many London attractions as we would have liked to. We decided that, as long as we took in a few key sights and enjoyed ourselves, then the day could be considered a success. So, what to see?
My eldest son was keen on visiting the Natural History and Science Museums at South Kensington. Buckingham Palace, situated at St. James' Park, was on the way. The best thing about travelling around London on the Underground is that none of the main tourist attractions are very far away.
Having not toured the sights of London for 28 years (more recent trips had been dedicated to girlie shopping on Oxford Street) visiting Buckingham Palace with the kids was almost like visiting it for the first time. It did look very familiar, but that was mainly due to televised events like the recent BBC coverage of Prince William's wedding to Kate Middleton, rather than an amazing memory.
After we passed army barracks, where my son became obsessed with the gun a soldier was carrying, we turned the corner and approached the Palace. Music was playing and huge crowds were gathered around the gates. The guards were marching outside. Exciting, I thought, for the children's first visit - except that they couldn't really see through the crowds. Evidently something special was happening. The flag was flying over the Palace, meaning the Queen was in residence, and the lights were on in the window above the famous balcony.
The guards, clad in red and black and donning traditional busby hats, actually marched out of the opening Palace gates and proceeded down the Mall, escorted by police-mounted horses. It was a wonderful sight - and we never did find out actually why it was happening. It didn't matter anyway - it was the action and enthusiastic excitement from the tourists, waving cameras high above each other's heads to capture a shot that set the stage. As the guards and the horses left the Palace and marched along the Mall, the tourists moved away from the railings and we could see Buckingham Palace in all its glory.
So, did the kids appreciate this lovely building with all its royal and historical heritage? Well, the young have short attention spans and it's really only adults who appreciate the beauty of architecture. Don't, however, take that as an indication that children don't like visiting Buckingham Palace. Our three year old thought it was excellent fun because he discovered he could climb up the posh, iron gates as though he was at the local park. My oldest immersed himself in taking photgraphs of the Palace until he realised the most enjoyable area was the Victoria Memorial opposite, which was being climbed upon by several other children (probably not its intended use, but everyone else was doing it, even some of the teenagers). The little one copied, and then they ended up relieving us of all our loose change as they threw it into the surrounding water.
It was a warm, sunny day in June, so we sat on the circular steps of the momument to enjoy what was left of our picnic. The atmosphere was lively and positive. There were people everywhere, from all nationalities - my oldest son remarked that everyone was 'foreign', a fact which interested him as he had never visited such a multicultural place before. But then, London is multiculturalism personified - and for all its British history, this is one of the best things about it. Everybody comes here, and no one feels out of place. Somehow I had in my mind a memory of London as an overly busy, dirty and somewhat unfriendly place - our experience was that the opposite was true. Of course, in places it was a little bit like sardines squashed into a tin, but for the most part everyone was friendly, smiling and relaxed, the streets were clean and the buildings reigned majestically against the skyline. Other places in London will, of course, be different, but this was central London - the hub of hedonistic tourism - and it was jubilant and fun.
Natural History Museum, South Kensington
After Buckingham Palace we found ourselves back on the tube and heading a couple of short stops to South Kensington. Both the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum can be found here, and my eleven year old wanted to see both. On a day trip, exploring either museum in its entirety is not really feasible if you are hoping to fit other things into the day. They are both huge and it would take several hours out of your day. Besides, like anywhere, they both have their best bits - and at the Natural History Museum the main draw is the dinosaur exhibition. My son wanted to see the dinosaurs and didn't particularly care about anything else.
The Natural History Museum is a beautiful piece of architecture, as you can see from the photographs displayed on this page. Admittedly, these are not the best images - I took the photos quickly whilst trying to keep up with the family who were racing off to join the back of the queue. However, even here you can envisage the beauty of the building. It has a lovely little green in front of it, as well - when we were there it was full of families eating picnics and simply taking a rest in the sun. There was also a live butterfly garden (entrance charges apply) but we did not visit this.
We had to queue for the Natural History Musuem but it was only a short wait. Most museums in London are free of charge, and the two we visited were no exception. Right in the middle of the Whitsun half term holiday, this was a busy day and the museum was quite crowded. We looked at a few exhibits, such as a large mammoth's tusk and a wasp's nest, and the children started taking lots of photos through the glass cases (although I don't think their pics came out very well due to the lighting and the glass reflection).
The dinosaur exhibition was very crowded. It was not an interactive display, but simply relics and replicas to view and read about. The most exciting part of the exhibition was the replica of the Tyranosaurus Rex, accessed by following the top walkway. It is a fantastic, very life-like, moving model with authentic sound effects and atmospheric lighting. It was also quite a surprise - we turned a corner and there it was. All of us thought that the T-Rex was the best thing in the whole museum - although it took my smallest son a little while to find the courage to look at it. Little children might well find it scary, as they have trouble separating reality from fantasy. (Please note that the dinosaur exhibition is due to close for a period during June/July 2011 - please check prior to your visit if you are hoping to see the dinosaurs.)
Science Museum, South Kensington
After the T-Rex, we headed straight to the Science Museum as it was 3pm and time was ticking by. Why is it that there is never enough time in the day when you are having fun? The Science Museum is, quite literally, just around the corner from the Natural History Museum. We pottered about for a while looking at all things Space, although I spent most of my time keeping tabs on my exhuberant three year old, rather than actually learning anything. My oldest son and his dad paid to go on a simulator, and I ended up in the little children's area - an interactive section which was very popular and a great place to go for a rest whilst your child plays. (Actually, after we had left, we discovered there was another area called the 'Garden' which is brilliant for children, and which we will definitely make a point of visiting if we go again.) The children and their dad enjoyed the Science Museum, but again we did not explore even half of it due to the stresses of time. I'm not that much of a scientist myself, but I thought it was quite good and very big.
The London Eye
The London Eye is one of the city's most popular attractions. My oldest son really wanted to go on this, and it is one of those things that you really should do at least once (the rather hefty admission cost is probably enough to prevent most people doing it more than once). The London Eye is huge, and can be easily spotted from a distance, if you happen to be standing in the right place.
Our oldest, as I mentioned, really wanted to go on the Eye, but our little one decided he didn't fancy it. We took him on anyway - under fours are free of charge. A Tesco Clubcard Voucher paid for one adult, so we only had to pay for one adult and one child. This still set us back £28, but this is London and life is not cheap.
Once you've purchased your tickets you have to queue for the London Eye. The long length of the queue concerned me, especially when we were told we had to fold our buggy up whilst we waited. Surely these people realised that sometimes the only way to keep young children in check is by capturing them in a pushchair? I was assured that, despite the huge queue, the wait for the Eye was only about 20 minutes - still, 20 minutes with a loose toddler can seem like an hour. However, the wait was quite bearable, as my happy three year old amused himself by 'biting' other tourists with a dinosaur-head-complete-with-trigger-to-open-the-mouth that he had bought in the museum. Normally, I am not one to encourage such outlandish behaviour, but the couple in front who were his main targets did not seem to care.
For those who hate the heights of ferris wheels and chair lifts, the London Eye offers a much better feeling of security and safety. It is a very slow moving contraption, with the full ride lasting about forty minutes. In fact, it is so slow that it never stops at all, even to let people on and off. You ride in 'pods' with several others - I would estimate that there could have been around 20 in each pod, although at no point did I count them. The pods are enclosed, but fully transparent with the exception of the floor. As the Eye lifts you high over the Thames and South West London, the views are panoramic and quite something. You can purchase a guide book which points out the different points of interest, although you might not want one if you are already vaguely familiar. Close across the Thames is the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben; in the opposite direction you can see St. Paul's and the Gherkin. The Horse Guard's Palace can be seen, as can Buckingham Palace in the distance.
Most visitors to the London Eye seem to spend a lot of time taking photos. In the pods, you can walk about at will. This aspect makes it a good family attraction - there is nothing worse than restrained children complaining to get out. Our whole family took a lot of pictures, even the little one with his Kidizoom. Most of his photos are of feet or people we don't know, which makes for an interesting and quite surrreal album.
As a parent I would say that our trip on the London Eye was a great success, even with a little one in tow. Nobody was bored and somehow the stunning views across the Thames and beyond turn a simple trip on a wheel into something special. Of course, we did visit on a clear sunny day, which is a good recipe for a magical experience. Cloudy, overcast weather could well paint a different picture.
As we got off the Eye the children were complaining of hungry tummies. That was no surprise, since it was now past 6 o'clock and our lunch time picnic was a distant memory. Though we weren't keen on spending a lot of money eating out, we checked out the menu in the nearby Zen Cafe. Surprisingly, it turned out to be reasonably cheap. It's a fairly basic affair selling both cold and hot meals such as sandwiches, jacket potatoes and lasagne. Actually, I thought that the whole area around the London Eye was pleasant and atttractive. There was even a green with people sunbathing and kids letting off steam, although we didn't have time for that.
On to Downing Street and Trafalgar Square
Our return journey home was booked for 8pm. Somehow, when I booked it, I thought that it was a bit late (but a better deal moneywise) and that we would be hanging around for a while with a tired child and not much to do. That was a mistake - if anything, it was too early and in London there is never enough time to do everything. As we left Zen's Cafe the sun was still out, the sky was blue and, although it was already past 6pm as we headed away from the London Eye, it still felt like mid-afternoon. There were just as many people milling about as earlier in the day - but then, this was London.
We walked past the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben again, and I attempted to get a shot of the famous clock with the sun behind me. From there, we wandered along to Downing Street, to show our son the home of the Prime Minister. You cannot, of course, walk right up to the house (or indeed any of the houses), but you can still see it through the police-guarded gates. An officer with a gun protected the entrance and my son - a typical boy - became obsessed with the gun rather than No. 10. 'Can you ask him if I can hold it?' he wanted to know. As if!
Downing Street is next to the Horse Guard's Parade, outside which tourists were hanging around, trying to get a photo with the very motionless and patient guard on the pavement outside. Both the children were too shy to stand next to this strange man, so I went instead. It reminded me of the time I was in Marrakech, Morocco, where tourists are pestered to have a photo taken with the water bearers. The difference this time was that no money is demanded and no one is harrasssed.
We thought we might fit one more sight into our already long day, so we trundled off to Trafalgar Square, still on foot (and with our little one now running out of steam in his pushchair). In London, you absolutely do not always have to get on the tube or bus - often, places of interest are well within walking distance, if you know the general direction.
I visited Trafalgar Square some 20 years ago - in those days there were hundreds of pigeons, but now there are none. Pigeons used to be the very essence of Trafalagar Sqaure - think 'Feed the Birds' in Mary Poppins. However, they damaged property, so now they are but a distant memory.
Trafalgar Square, with its water fountains, Nelson's Column and famous Lions, is an attractive place with a rather cosmopolitan feel. It is set before the grand National Gallery, and is the sort of place people want to visit just for the sake of it. It is also a good place to sit and have a picnic or a break from walking. Children don't sit, though, and our two made a mad dash for the lions. Isn't that what all children do? My oldest climbed up and immediately demanded to have his photo taken. The little one had to be lifted up and extremely closely supervised - these lions are high and dangerous for young children to climb onto alone. My eldest is able to cling onto him with an iron grip, otherwise we would never have let him up there.
7.15 pm - and a mad dash across central London to catch the train home
Standing in the middle of the mob at Trafalgar Square, a glance at the time told us it was 7.15pm. It was later than we thought, and now we had to quickly depart for Liverpool Street for the 8pm train. Would we make it? We were at Charing Cross tube station, and chose to take the Bakerloo line and then the Central line to take us east across London.
That was certainly a big mistake. Having not visited London for quite some years, the deep Central line, with its vast walking distances and large flights of stairs was a forgotten memory somewhere in the back of our minds. Not to mention the packed trains - even at this time of night they were packed full. My son got squashed and the whole journey was hot, uncomfortable and far too long. Even when we got off the train, it was difficult to rush past everyone else. But then, it didn't much matter by then - we already knew we had missed the train home.
Perhaps this sort of thing happens a lot. After resigning ourselves to having to purchase new return tickets - an unwelcome, unforeseen expense - we told the ticket staff that we had been delayed on the tube (a bit of a white lie, we just hadn't allowed enough time). We were then directed to the Station Supervisor, who stamped our tickets for the next train, in just twenty minutes time. Sometimes things do go our way, after all.
The train journey home was a welcome rest (except that our little one, who had perked up, thought that crawling about under the seats was the order of the day). Our trip to London, with the children, had been enjoyable and a success. Already, we are thinking about taking them back in the school summer holidays. After all, we only touched on the sightseeing - there is so much more to see and do. The Tower of London is a place I would have liked to take my oldest - however, he is going with the school in a few weeks, as a fun trip after completing his 11+ Sats. The Aquarium, down by the London Eye, is popular, and we have a Tesco Clubcard Voucher for that. Wherever one goes, London is a city that cannot be explored in a day. It is, however, a city that is family friendly and fun to visit, so we will definitely be going back - and yes, we will take the children again.
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