I’ve dreamed of going to London. I blame it on the CATS t-shirt my parents gifted me from their trip when I was young. Thirty some-odd years later, I arrived at Heathrow with a backpack, a duffle bag, two small suitcases, and little-ish boys ready to conquer the city.
Longing for London
My parents went to England and Scotland when I was eight. It was their first major international trip together and they were doing it for three weeks – without their five kids.
Besides a half-hearted run away attempt that involved my little brother and our ski clothes in eighty degree weather (that was aimed at tormenting my cousin who was tending us and possibly punishing my parents for leaving me behind), the thing I remember most about my parents’ trip is what they brought home for me: a fitted black t-shirt with two blazing, yellow cat eyes on the front. It was from the theater production of Cats they saw in London and I thought it was the most perfect thing I’d ever owned. I wore it until it stunk and plucked it out of the laundry first thing when it was clean. And every time I wore it, I dreamed of visiting London.
DAY 1: June 14 - Clissold Park and Abney Park Cemetery
We arrived in London mid-morning after an overnight flight and were greeted by my husband, who had been traveling in Barcelona and arrived in London the night before. Not only was it fun to reunite our family, it was handy to have an advance man on the ground to get our Oyster cards and scout out the route to our rented flat. Our flat was in Finsbury Park, a suburb of London, and it took us about an hour to reach it on the Tube (Piccadilly Line). From there, it was a quick walk to the flat where our Kid & Coe hostess welcomed us with a freshly baked loaf of bread and some recommendations of nearby parks to stave off the jet-lag already creeping in.
The playground at Clissold Park was nothing short of amazing fun, as was the torrential downpour we got caught in about an hour into our play. Even with three umbrellas between the five of us, we were soaked from the knee down by the time we reached shelter in The Old Church nearby. While mapping out our surroundings from the hard, wood pews of the damp church, I noticed we were only about a half-mile away from one of London’s “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries.
I talked my crew into making the wet trek (although they grumbled slightly later as it took us further away from the flat and made a longer return trip) to check out the Victorian-era gem. The cemetery did not disappoint. Through the mud and overgrowth, we discovered all sorts of interesting headstones, some even partially sunken in the ground as if making way for the new, and interesting people like the co-founding couple of the Salvation Army, Mary Hayt, feminist activist and friend to Mary Wollstonecraft, and an ordinary woman named Rebekah Maria Morley, whose headstone said she died in her 70th year “satisfied.”
When we finally pulled ourselves away from the cemetery, our shoes were caked in mud but our minds were filled with all sorts of stories.
As we trudged back to the flat in a second round of rain, tired and hungry, my husband tasked our boys with finding interesting porch tile designs to pass the time. With that, and the promise that the family who’d be joining us on this trip had arrived at our shared flat, we made it back relatively well with only some mild complaining and one or two incidents of children sitting down on the sidewalk refusing to move.
Once home, we ate take out pizza with our friends and finally let ourselves fall into bed at 8 PM.
TRAVEL TIP: Oyster cards are reusable pre-paid cards you can use on the Underground, Overground and extensive network of double-decker buses. Buy it first thing upon arrival. They can be purchased at the airport and at any Underground station. There is a £5 refundable charge to get the Oyster but it is so handy to have. (You just have to remember to tap off every time you get off the Tube – some stations don’t have turn styles at the exits.) We traveled all around London for five days on countless public transit rides for about £20 per adult. London Tube Map
DAY 2: June 15 - Tower of London, Tower Bridge, The Monument, London Eye, Big Ben, The Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, Parliament Square, British Supreme Court, St. James Park, Buckingham Palace, and Trafalgar Square
We knew we wanted to cover a lot of ground our first full day in London. But had we known quite how much ground we were going to cover beforehand – over 10 miles on foot – the kids may have left the grown-ups in one of the torture devices in the Tower of London, which was our first stop. (My bet is on the “Scavenger’s Daughter” which crushes the body like a nut cracker. Think the exact opposite sensation of the “Rack” but equally excruciating.) The torture devices and the Crown Jewels were the group favorites at the Tower. The interactive medieval minting exhibit was pretty cool, too. We made a beeline for the Crown Jewels as soon as we got to the site and were rewarded with no lines and hardly any crowds viewing the jewels. As we left the Tower 90 minutes later, that was no longer the case. The line snaked around the courtyard and was several hundreds deep.
From the Tower of London, we hit London Bridge and then walked on the city side of the Thames to The Monument, a towering memorial to the great fire in London of 1666. We caught the Tube to Victoria at the Monument Station. From Victoria, we walked across a footbridge to the London Eye. The lines are usually long for this giant ferris wheel with giant views of the London cityscape so you may want to plan ahead and get there early or book ahead and save a little money. Or you can spend more money and get a Fast Track ticket for around £28/person.
We bypassed the London Dungeon attraction near the Eye in spite of passionate pleas from the children to go in and wallow in the macabre, and opted instead to walk back across the Thames to see Big Ben, The Palace of Westminster, and Westminster Abbey. The boys felt like Big Ben should have been bigger but I thought the Great Clock was impressive and lovely. (To be fair, several of the boys in our party have since asked for key chain replicas of Big Ben so they were more impressed with it than they wanted to admit.)
Just across Parliament Square (the east side of Westminster Abbey) is the British Supreme Court. Unlike the Supreme Court of the US, they let you just wander in (after going through a little security check), which is exactly what my attorney-husband did. And good thing he did because they have the best. toilets. ever. One boy even described them as “glorious.” Plus, if you have good timing, you can even watch a session of the court. We missed one by minutes.
Next up was a short (this is what we told the kids) walk to St. James Park and Buckingham Palace. With an ice cream stop first for some energy. And then some playtime at a children’s area at the southwest corner of the park to burn off said energy. The adults were a little disappointed we couldn’t swing a stop at the Winston Churchill War Museum, which was only blocks away from the British Supreme Court, but it was simply not in the cards.
Buckingham Palace was very much what you’d expect from a British palace: regal and tidy. We stood at the gates with dozens of other onlookers watching the two red-clad and black-hatted Royal Guards alternating between motionlessness and a regimented walking exercise a few paces in front of their “huts.”
The fountain in the center of the roundabout directly across from the Palace gates soon tempted my boys across the street and then headfirst into the fountain waters in hopes of scoring some British coins. Had she been home, the Queen certainly would not have been pleased. Neither was their mother.
A walk up The Mall’s picturesque flag-flanked path to Trafalgar Square helped work off some of the disapproving energy. So did the promise of sitting on one of the four lions of the square. But apparently the children’s book at our flat misled us about the lions – climbing and sitting on them is not actually allowed (and we heard the Bobby whistles to prove it) – although many people do it anyway. The Queen probably would have forgiven us on this one. It was a literature inspired mistake after all.
Fish and chips dominated the dinner vote; we found the nearest place off the next Tube stop, scarfed down the battered fare as quickly as we could and then took the Picadilly Line home for the night.
TRAVEL TIP: It’s best to visit the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London early in the day to avoid the lines. Even non-jewelry lovers will be fascinated by the massive and priceless collection.
DAY 3: June 16 - British Museum, Pigeon Ball, failed visit to the Natural History Museum, and Serpentine Lake
Full disclosure: we may have slightly overdone it on day one. (I blame the cat eyes t-shirt.) Everyone woke up a pretty tuckered out and puffy-eyed. After promising we’d keep it on the mellower side today, the under thirteen crew finally agreed to board a red double-decker bus for a ride into the city. Our first stop was the British Museum, which was amazing. We spent most of our time in the Egypt exhibit with the mummies and in the Japan exhibit with the Samurais. But we were also treated to a near private tutorial on early Roman tools by a docent with an interactive display. The kids loved being able to learn with their hands, especially after spending a few hours with their noses pressed up against the other exhibits. And the best part: it was totally free.
The sun was peaking through the clouds when we exited the museum, which compelled us to lunch in a nearby neighborhood park with takeout. While the parents sprawled out on the grass, the boys ran around the park chasing pigeons. They even developed a new game they called “Pigeon Ball.” Don’t worry, in spite of its name, no pigeons were actually harmed in the commission of the game although the intention may have been otherwise.
Somehow it was four o’clock before we knew it. Our next stop, the Natural History Museum, would be closing in an hour so we knew we had to hustle to make it. But in spite of a short walk and a quick ride on the Tube, we missed entrance to the museum by fifteen minutes. Apparently, 5 PM closing means everyone out, and not the time of the last admission. Oops.
Ice cream assuaged our disappointment about the museum, as did a walk to Serpentine Lake. There, four of the six boys became unofficial members of the Serpentine Swimming Club by jumping in the lake in their skivvies. One or two of them may have actually been in the buff.
Also seen along the way: Royal Albert Music Hall, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain.
TRAVEL TIP: Plan to arrive at any museum at least an hour before the listed closing time. The closing time is just that – the closing time – and not the last admission. We weren’t allowed in the Natural History Museum at 4:30 PM even though the museum closed at 5 PM. All patrons are expected out at closing.
DAY 4: June 15 - Day trip to Oxford and Gifford Circus
While planning this trip back in the States, I’d stumbled across a green, vintage circus that travels around Great Britain during the summer. It looked quaint and darling and I really wanted to go. When I realized this Gifford Circus would be playing at the Oxford University Parks the week we were in London, I thought it was the perfect reason to make a day trip out to Oxford.
Even though the circus wasn’t until 6 PM, we left after the morning commute window so we could have a full day to explore Oxford. The bus ride took two and a half hours, rather than the ninety minutes expected, because of some traffic incident involving loads of emergency vehicles. At one point, there were no less than five double-decker buses, some in opposing directions and one of which was ours, competing for very limited road space. Our bus cheered for our driver when she successfully navigated us around the congestion.
We arrived at Oxford and were immediately charmed. Black-robe-and-cap-clad students roamed the campuses, some with celebratory confetti in their hair, looking smart and dapper. I stopped one student in the street to ask about the gowns; he explained they we wearing them for final exams, and not for graduation, as I had suspected. He also recommended a great lunch spot, called Turf Tavern, where legend has it Bill Clinton famously “did not inhale” when he was an Oxford student.
In between lunch and the circus, we walked about the city and hiked the bell tower of University Church. We avoided the Bodleian Library, even though it was so tempting to explore one of the oldest libraries in Europe, because students were studying for finals and, let’s face it, we aren’t the quietest of groups.
The circus itself was pure delight. It was white tent, clear bulb lights, cotton candy, small stage magic – with rope twirling, pole climbing, bottle juggling, aerial hooping, vaudeville clowning and line dancing horses. We pre-booked dinner afterward at the circus’ sixty-seat white tent restaurant aptly named “Circus Sauce.” It was equally delightful.
TRAVEL TIP: Catch the Oxford Tube, which is actually a bus, outside and across the street from the Vitoria Station. It cost £20 pounds per adult and the children were free. That’s round trip. Just make sure to save your ticket for the return trip.
DAY 5: June 16 - Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, Covent Garden, Princess Diana Memorial Playground, Natural History Museum, Dennis Severs’ House tour
We arrived home from Oxford around midnight. That meant the kids needed a late morning to catch up on sleep. It also meant a chance for the two moms to check out the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and the shopping district, neither of which the boys had much interest in doing.
The signs around Buckingham Palace said the changing of the guard ceremony happens daily at 11:30 AM this time of year. My friend and I arrived at 11:15 AM in a throng of other tourists, just as the parade of guards was making its way up The Mall on horseback and fifteen minutes earlier than we’d expected! We pressed our way up as close as we could to the gates of the palace but never really got a good view of the ceremony until we crossed the street to the fountain (that same fountain my boys tried to pinch change out of earlier). It wasn’t even at the fountain where we got the good view, but rather from crossing and stopping briefly (until we got tweeted at by a Bobby and were told in no uncertain terms to move along) in the street.
We headed straight from the Palace to Covent Gardens to check out the shopping scene. We mostly wandered around watching the street performers and window shopping until we were lured into a darling toy store by its bright red and baby blue store front. In Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop we found toys, of course, but also a collection of beautifully illustrated children’s stories, like Alice in Wonderland.
The husbands messaged that the boys were up and ready for adventure so we left Covent Gardens and headed down to the Natural History Museum to meet them for a second attempt at visiting it. Thankfully, we were well within the hours of operation and allowed in. This museum has everything from butterflies and bugs to volcanoes and dinosaurs. It’s fantastic! And it’s another freebie.
We split most of our time there between the human biology and creepy crawlers galleries, but couldn’t leave without briefly checking in on the dinosaurs. And to make sure it was brief, we played a game of dino hunting in the gallery, wherein we pretended to shoot only the carnivores while walking briskly throughout. The other patrons must have thought we were slightly crazy.
Playing at the Princess Diana Memorial Playground was the perfect chaser to a late morning/early afternoon visit to the Natural History Museum. I’m not sure who designs all of these children’s playgrounds in London but they are absolutely amazing. Every one of them is well designed with shade and benches and incredible play structures that appeal to varying ages and risk tolerance. But this Princess Diana playground was something else, even considering the high London standards. My kids could have played there for hours. But, alas, we had other places to be.
My middle boy chose our next stop: a tour of the Dennis Severs’ House. By candlelight. At twilight. The house is an eighteenth century time capsule preserved in the Spitalfields neighborhood of East London. History buffs have known about it for years. My son wanted to tour the home because it inspired and was prominently featured in The Marvels by Brian Selznek, which is one of his favorite books. One might not think a party of ten, consisting of six boys and four adults, would do well on a silent tour through an old home, but there is something awe-inspiring (and quieting) about seeing history by candlelight. Especially if you have an eager nine year-old leading the way.
TRAVEL TIP: Arrive at least an hour early for the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. The best viewing might very well be from the fountain across the street or even along the wall of Green Park, unless you get there early enough to be right up at the palace gate.
DAY 6: June 17 - The Warner Brothers Studio Tour and Travel Day to York
This is the day many of the boys in my group were waiting for: The Warner Brothers Studio Tour of Harry Potter. Since we were already planning to drive to York, we figured it made sense to stop at Harry Potter on our way out of town. The attraction is about twenty miles northwest of London near the town of Watford. That translates into about 45 minutes by car if you are a pro at roundabouts and about 70 minutes if you aren’t. We definitely fell into the latter category. Even still, we made it to Harry Potter with only mild drama, mostly because we were assured by the box office that our tickets would still be honored even though we were going to be late and less so because of those darned roundabouts.
I can’t really describe what the tour was like except to say that we somehow spent five hours lost in the magic of it all. When I made our reservations, the ticket agent told me to plan on three. But we couldn’t help ourselves. We explored studio sets, took pictures at Platform 9 ¾, learned behind the scenes secrets about the making of the movies, hunted for Gold Snitches and drank Butterbeer. We even had a really tasty lunch there, including a veggie burger that was out of this world. But for a family like ours who loves Harry Potter (but generally isn’t into amusement parks), it was something more than all of that.
All three of my boys chose wands as their one souvenir for the entire trip. And I can’t say that I blame them. I was even tempted to get a wand. And if I had, I’d probably have chosen the wand of Bellatrix Lestrange. But I reveal too much.
We finally pulled ourselves away and headed off to York. Several more hours of driving and dozens more roundabouts awaited us – but it was still worth it.
TRAVEL TIP: The studio tour tickets get booked out well in advance. If, like me, you didn’t book early enough, don’t dismay. You can often still get tickets by calling six days prior to your desired date(s) and snag some of the tickets returned by trade groups who aren’t going to use their full lot.