From October 8-12 we went to London. Shannon had a conference in Warwick and I was looking for a reason to visit Oxford and Cambridge (which I did early the following week), so it seemed like a perfect time to have the kids see London for the first time. To get prepared, Jack read a kids book (Secret Agent Jack Stalwart) that took place in London and Daphne rehearsed a British accent (not bad, actually, although what do I know).
The Journey There
The excitement began with my screwing up the ticket purchases. I was on a separate itinerary (because I was returning later) and somehow bought a ticket for an earlier train—only 45 minutes earlier, which turned out to be a real blessing, but enough earlier that Shannon was stuck taking the kids. I tried to make up for my mistake, at least a little, by taking their suitcase with me, leaving her relatively unencumbered. And then I discovered that I had forgotten my passport. It was in the passport holder with the rest of them, so luckily Shannon had it with her when she went to pick up the kids from school. I explained my dilemma to the ticket agents and they put me on the same train with everyone else at no extra charge! I’m not sure I recommend this as a method of changing your ticket, but it worked out for us.
The line to get on the train at Gare du Nord had a bit of excitement itself, as there was a small group protesting something (I’ve lost the flyer they handed out that explains what), complete with loud drums and singing and chanting. None of us could really quite believe that they would allow the group to protest past the point where they check to see if you have tickets (it was before the point where they take your tickets, but still). It was kind of fun and didn’t seem to delay our progress significantly.
It was then time to board the Eurostar, the fast “Chunnel” train that goes under the English Channel, from Gare du Nord in the center of Paris to St. Pancras station in the center of London. Our train had no stops and in a brisk 2 hours and 30 minutes we were there. It’s really cool and very convenient—not having to make the trip to CDG and Heathrow is a big plus. It was a short cab ride (London cabs!) to the apartment we rented. Another stroke of luck here as the unit we originally rented was unavailable due to a problem with the water. We were upgraded to a nice place right on St. James park—a great location.
London is huge, so there is no place you can stay that is “close to everything” but this spot is an excellent choice. Right around the corner from the famous shopping areas of Regent Street and Saville Row (I restrained myself), the Ritz Hotel and Trafalger Square, and not far from Buckingham Palace, Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Most importantly, I think, the Green Park tube stop was close by. Green Park serves two lines which makes it easy to get almost anywhere.
Wednesday and Thursday: Tea, Parliament and Wesminster Abbey
That first afternoon we struck out for tea. We found a decent (ordinary really) place right down the street and Jack and Daphne were introduced to scones and clotted cream accompanied by tea and followed by pastries. Needless to say, Jack and Daphne would advocate for high tea everyday thereafter. And they say the British don’t know a thing about good food—don’t tell that to our kids. There wasn’t really time to do much more that day, so we walked around a bit, had dinner and called it a night.
On Thursday we decided to check out Parliament, Westminster Abbey and then head to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge (which many people think is London Bridge, but London Bridge is a relatively simple affair just to the east of Tower Bridge). After a brief stop to play on the lion statues at Trafalgar Square, we walked down to Parliament and Westminster Abbey. We couldn’t go into Parliament but were treated to a “history theatre” lesson on the lawn outside. Two actors in historical were discussing the slave trade in front of a group of students. Jack was particularly fascinated by the exchange while Daphne was in the midst of one of her (thankfully somewhat less frequent) shy spells.
We wandered over to Westminster Abbey. The line was long and the admission fee is non-trivial, so we decided not to go inside. Instead we visited the little chapel next door, which is sweet but nothing special. By the time we wandered out, though, the line had dissipated and we plunked down the admission fee—one silver lining of the financial crisis is the improved exchange rate. Thank goodness we did. Westminster Abbey is absolutely fantastic. We don’t have pictures to share because you’re not allowed to take them in any of the official royal quarters, but if you haven’t been there you should go. Some highlights:
- The carved stone ceiling in the XYZ chapel. Wow. Hurts your neck to look at it until you notice the mirrored table that gives you a chance to examine details without advanced yoga positions.
- The final resting places of kings, queens and various other prominent figures, many with intricate carved tombs.
- The poets corner, with memorials to many great writers, artists and musicians. Daphne’s favorite was Lewis Carroll (“the man who wrote Alice in Wonderland”).
- The coronation “stage” (there must be some official name) where the kinds and queens of England are crowned
- The final resting places of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Totally cool.
After a quick lunch it was onto the Tower of London. It was late, we were tired and the Tower of London is unbelievably expensive—I think it would have been 48 pounds (about 80 dollars at the time) for the family. So, much to the protest of the kids (especially Jack) we decided we’d skip the Tower and consider going another day when we had more energy. The kids were appeased when we told them we could have high tea instead. So we walked around the outside and took in the views for awhile before tubing back to Green Park and heading to Fortnum and Mason, a famous department store with fancy high tea service. We had the champagne tea and everything was fantastic—much better than the mediocre spot the day before. Given the price it should have been and I wouldn’t make a habit of it. But it was worth doing once.
Friday: The Tate and the Tower of London
Shannon was scheduled to head to Warwick on Friday around 1pm and we spent the morning at the Tate Modern before parting ways. To get there from the north side of the Thames you walk across the Millennium Bridge, which is a cool bridge affording nice views of the city, the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral and the Tate itself. The Tate is giant and waaay too much for an adult to absorb in a day, much less the kids. But the great thing about many of the national museums in London is that they are free. For everyone. All the time. It’s such a fantastic benefit—you can stop by for 30 minutes if you want to look at a particular painting or sculpture and not feel like you “wasted” an admission. This is an excellent use of public funds as far as I’m concerned and I hope our new socialist President will take it under advisement. In any case we had a great time at the Tate and ate an early lunch at the excellent restaurant in the museum (not free) before saying goodbye to Shannon.
After lunch the kids and I played with some interactive exhibits before heading to St. Paul’s (back across the bridge). To our chagrin, the cathedral had just closed for the day. Apparently they were doing some filming and had to close early. What to do? Well, we’re down one adult and that makes the Tower of London a fair bit less expensive. So we hop in a cab (there was a problem on the tube) and “zipped” (you don’t really zip in central London) to the Tower and paid the admission fee.
It was fantastic. A great place to bring the kids and actually worth the admission fee. After wandering around for a bit we stumbled on an educational performance about defending the castle. The actors, including the King, led us around the grounds showing us a variety of weapons and regaling us with stories of various weapons they used and what it was like to be under siege. Jack, especially, loved it (as you can see in one of the photos).
After the performance we headed to see the Crown Jewels, which are housed at the Tower of London. This was a second highlight. Both kids absolutely adored seeing the crowns and scepters and robes and swords and orbs. I was surprised that Jack was so interested, but then I remembered that the Crown Jewels figured prominently in his Jack Stalwart book and this may have had something to do with it. The whole setup and the jewels themselves are undeniably impressive.
The third highlight of the Tower of London is the White Tower. It contains several floors of displays of weaponry and armor, from swords to early firearms. Both kids loved the armor and medieval weapons as well as the interactive displays (simulating firing an arrow into a crowd of approaching soldiers!).
Let’s just say the Tower of London visit was a big success. If you go you should plan to spend 4 hours.
We hurried back to the apartment and I wanted to hit a pub for dinner. So we stumbled out onto the street figuring this would be easy to find. And it was, sort of. There were pubs but they were bursting with people—not a good environment for eating dinner with the kids. I was about to give up hope and order Pizza Hut (which we did the next night, I must admit) but then we found the right place. It was full and loud but they had a quiet downstairs. I had a delicious piece of salmon and the kids made due on pub snacks (sausages, salad and fries). The highlight, though, was Jack and Daphne chatting up a group of local women who asked them about their day. In the discussion of the Tower of London, one of the women asked the kids if it was scary. Jack replied with “The only thing scary about the Tower of London is the price of admission.” Jack, of course, had heard me read this from a guidebook earlier in the trip. But needless to say the women nearly hit the floor laughing—it was a moment to remember.
On Saturday Shannon was still in Warwick, so the kids and I headed to Hampton Court Palace, a 45 minute trip from London. It was reputed to have a great maze, which Jack has developed a bit of obsession about. So it seemed like a must-see.
It was great too, in a different way from the Tower of London. It functioned, I think, a lot like Versailles did in France. A country palace that sometimes was the real seat of power. It is much less elaborate and much older than Versailles, but it is beautiful and interesting. We toured the kitchens and the Kings chambers (no pictures allowed!) and walked through the gardens.
After a lousy lunch at the cafeteria we went to the maze. It lived up to its billing. You could truly get lost inside even though it is pretty well contained and there are only two exits. So I could let the kids run around to their heart’s content while I sat in the “center” on a bench reading about the history of the palace. And get lost they did. They couldn’t find me at all. I finally set out looking for them and found them with a nice young Canadian woman who was helping them find the center. We had a blast and it was all I could do to get them to leave.
But leave we did, finally, and headed back to London. The women we met the night before told us about Hamleys, a 5-storey toy store and London Institution. Wow. It was like the old FAO Shwarz stores that are hard to find in the US these days but it was bigger and more crowded. The kids had a blast and we left with these really cool magic markers (they really are magic) and some Star Wars figures. Not too much damage to the pocket book and the markers are providing lots of entertainment. Ask Daphne for a demo next time you see her.
We had to hurry out because I had arranged a babysitter and had planned to meet Shannon for dinner at Zaika, a fabulous, high-end Indian restaurant that we’d eaten at years before. It had (and maybe still has) a Michelin star, which is quite unusual for an Indian place. It was fantastic—as delicious and expensive as we remembered. There were six or seven courses all with wine pairings. The best dish, I think, was a mushroom risotto topped with a papadum cracker that held a scoop of tomato sorbet. It was hot and cold and soft and crunchy and rich and acidic and very, very delicious. The visit deserves its own blog entry so I’ll leave it at that.
We didn’t have time to do much on Sunday, so we decided to drop the bags at my hotel (I was staying a couple of days for work, if you remember) and head to Kensington Gardens. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm, and a walk in the park was really perfect. We stumbled upon the “Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Playground” which, I must say, is the best playground I’ve ever seen anywhere. Really. A giant pirate ship is at the center but the playground has lots of different areas designed for different ages and play styles. After 90 minutes we had to literally drag the kids away. I’ve run out of blogging steam so we’ll leave it at that for now.
In the end, it was a very fun long weekend. Although our planning could have been better I think we fit in a lot of fun into a relatively short trip. London has a lot to offer for adults and kids alike. I hope we have a chance to go back before our European stay is over.