Thursday, September 5, 2013

Making London work with Kids

I've traveled to London many times and even lived and worked in London two partial summers while in University, but I had never experienced the city with kids, until now, and for it to be an enjoyable experience for everyone, kids and parents alike, we eventually learned that we had to take a different approach. It took a few days for Vincent and I to figure this out but after enough whining and complaining from the peanut gallery, "the penny dropped" and we finally got the message. So I eventually had to put aside all the things I love to see and do in London and figure out what would make the kids happy. Because, if the kids weren't happy, the parents weren't going to be happy. The result was that I saw and did many things that I hadn't done before and found some new favorites. Oh, and there was so much we didn't cover so will just have to return again.

On August 20th, we landed at Heathrow, as scheduled (06:30am), and found out we'd need to wait about 5 hours before Molly would be processed at the Animal Reception Center. This waiting period was truly painful for the kids who had optimized all the entertainment in the 777 and, with the exception of Sarah sleeping about 90 minutes, no one had any rest. There are very few benches without arm rests at Heathrow so finding a place for each child to get horizontal took some time and maneuvering. Even when I did find each child a place to get prone, it took some convincing that it was a heck of a lot better than sitting up for 5 hours. (Yes, even when exhausted, some kids will refuse good advice.) As time does, these uncomfortable moments eventually passed and we hired a car to take us to pick up Molly and then to our first apartment (hire car fare £102).
This is one stressed out, relieved dog to be reunited with her family.
We rented our apartments via and this resource worked out well for us. London gives a whole new definition to "expensive" and so having the opportunity to prepare some meals in an apartment provided significant savings. The apartments included a washing machine, which is a critical item with a family of five. We had two apartments, one for one night and the second for the remaining twelve nights, both rented from Paulo Sacramento who has at least a couple apartments in the Angel area of London. I had never lived in this area before but it proved to be a good central base from which to explore the city. The closet tube station was Angel, in zone 1, on the Northern line.

After, arriving at our first apartment (170 Upper Street, which was great by the way) and getting a couple hours rest, we went out for a bite to eat. We happened upon a great French restaurant, La Petite Auberge, which had a particularly good deal (two courses for £8.50) if you order before 6pm. The change in menu was particularly appreciated after the perpetual blandness of my routine salads in Washington.
First meal in London at La Petite Auberge. Moules et frites et du vin pour moi.
On August 21st, we moved apartments. Our second flat was 114A Upper Street, #3. It was smaller than 170 Upper Street and not ideal for 5 people, but given that we'd be living in an RV for about a year, I didn't think we should be complaining. The biggest issue was that it was located a few floors above a tavern that hosted live music many nights. So if one is noise sensitive, like me, this apartment could be problematic. The kids however didn't even notice and I managed to fall asleep whenever the band took a break.

After the move, we decided to take a hop-on, hop-off bus tour to give the kids a feel for London. We went to Victoria Station and booked tickets with The Big Bus Tours. Vincent bought tickets for 48 hours but when the ticket agent outside of the bus stop exchanged our receipt for tickets, he gave us 24 hour passes. Be warned: When receipts/tickets are exchanged, ensure you verify that you receive what you paid for. We didn't realize the error until the next morning, when we had planned to take the Thames cruise all the way to Greenwich (which required the 48-hour pass).

On August 22nd, we woke up to rain and the realization that our planned mode of transportation (Big Bus Tour) would expire at 13:00. We were fortunate enough that we got as far as Tower Bridge and then had to set out on foot. We crossed the bridge, walked by the replica of the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, checking out performance and ticket options, and stopped in at the Tate Modern Museum. I didn't think the kids would find anything engaging at the Modern Museum but we came across some hands on displays that did capture their attention. 
Vince and the kids in front of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, a replica of the original Globe Theatre built in 1599 just a few hundred yards away.
At the Tate Modern Museum, Paul is fully frustrated that he completed the puzzle with one piece in the wrong position.
Problem solved. James placed a black sweater over the odd red puzzle piece. Perfect!

Afterwards, we walked over the Millennium Bridge towards St Paul's Cathedral. We arrived just in time to partake in Evensong. I would have thoroughly enjoyed it but during much of the service I was preoccupied by keeping Sarah, who had passed out from exhaustion (jetlag is tough), sitting upright; I didn't want her to come crashing down and disrupt the service.
Crossing the Millennium Bridge towards St Paul's Cathedral.
James and Paul in St Paul's courtyard.
Interior dome of St Paul's Cathedral. In June, 1715 James Thornhill was awarded the commission to decorate the dome of St Paul's Cathedral. Two of the reasons he was chosen were that he was a Protestant and was an Englishman. In May, 1720, Thornhill became the first artist to be knighted giving him the title of Sir James Thornhill. 
Beautiful interior of St Paul's Cathedral. During evensong, one sits up in the choir stands.
On August 23rd, we woke up to a beautiful, very warm day. James wasn’t feeling well and so he opted to stay at the apartment. We decided to take the tube to the north west corner of Kensington Gardens (Queensway stop) and walk eastward. Once we entered the park, we came across the Princess Diana Memorial Playground. There was quite a queue to get in but we stuck it out and it was worth it. 
Paul with his paper-thin £3.50(!) pizza standing in the queue for the Princess Diana Memorial Playground.
The Princess Diana Memorial Playground has a Peter Pan theme and is the nicest playground we had ever seen. We initially went to the playground for Sarah’s benefit but it wasn’t long before Paul was having a good time…though Paul did say several times that it would be so much more fun if James was there with him.
Paul wishing James was there to help him take over the entire ship.
Paul demonstrating how to balance on one leg on a lily pad.
After we left the playground, we walked by Kensington Palace.
Beautiful gardens outside of Kensington Palace.
I had to get a photo of both children in front of the Palace gardens.
We then headed to the Serpentine and the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, which I thought was great because it encouraged people, and especially kids, to interact with it.
Sarah loved walking around the Memorial Fountain, splashing in the water.
Upon leaving the fountain, we headed for the west edge of the Serpentine and stopped for refreshments. The kids had ice creams, Vince had a gin and tonic and I had a pinot grigio. 
What a great British concept, to have a combo gin bar and ice cream stand!
We then walked through Hyde Park to Buckingham Palace. 
Paul and Vincent by the Wellington Arch en route to Buckingham Palace.
The obligatory photo in front of Buckingham Palace. Can't believe I walked through those gates some 20 years ago to a Queen's Garden Party. Of course, my grooming at the time was much improved.
Afterwards, we headed towards the Green Park station and back to the apartment. 

On Saturday, August 25th, we had tickets to Wicked at the Apollo Theatre. It had been playing in the Bay Area but we didn't have our act together to see it there. Before going to the theater we stopped off at the British Museum for about an hour; the British Museum is enormous and so spending only an hour is hardly worth the effort of getting there but at least we made it through the front door, along with the several other thousands that had the same idea of going to a museum on a rainy day. From what we did see of the museum, it was pretty "old school" in terms of how information was presented: Artifacts behind glass cases with placards describing what you were seeing. If we didn't have Wicked to get to, I couldn't imagine my kids, particularly Sarah, lasting long here.
Sarah and Vincent in the Enlightenment-themed room at the British Museum. This room holds King George III's library collection.
None of us knew much about the Wicked storyline, prior to seeing the show, but we all really enjoyed it. It was fun for the kids to see such a big production.
Sarah, entering the Apollo Theatre, not knowing what to expect but excited because it was a musical. Unlike most 7-yr old girls, Sarah's favorite show isn't from Disney, but rather it's Brigadoon of all things.
Sunday, August 24th, was the day Vincent and I came to the realization that we would need to take a different approach to seeing London, if we all were going to actually enjoy most of it. 

Being in a city of great churches, Vincent and I set our minds on attending the Sung Eucharist at Westminster Abbey that morning. Paul was not happy about the first item on our agenda complaining, "Why did he have to go?" James and Sarah were initially generally on board with the plan but during the service, Sarah got bored and wanted to leave. Fortunately, Paul began finding the experience somewhat interesting (tolerable) so I just had one unhappy child to deal with. The music was phenomenal, as one would expect, and I was in awe just sitting in this magnificent place surrounded by so much history. I sat next to the pulpit where Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), was reported to have frequently given sermons. It was frustrating being with the kids who just didn't "get it" and apparently Vince nor I weren't doing a very good job of conveying why participating in this service and visiting these historical sites was exciting, meaningful or of particular value.
The view of Westminster from where I sat during the service. The tomb shown in the bottom left quadrant of the photo is that of Sir Isaac Newton.
Afterwards we went to St Stephen's Tavern at 10 Bridge Street for a pub lunch; I thought maybe, with a meal, the kids would rally, but we encountered another one of our issues traveling internationally with children; the food offerings are different, and we have 1.5 picky children, so the challenge becomes what "might" the kids eat? Because meals are expensive, one doesn't want to order food that goes uneaten. So my strategy tends to be to order little for myself because I likely will be eating someone else's meal. The food at St Stephen's was quite okay and the service friendly but the dark moods and sibling bickering continued. So how did I approach this conundrum? Why ignore it of course, and press on. 

Leaving Westminster Abbey en route to lunch. We all look happy enough.
Crossing Parliament Square towards St Stephen's Tavern. Parliament buildings are in the background.
After leaving the tavern, we walked along Parliament Street and Whitehall to Trafalgar Square and the National Portrait Gallery. (The ideal place to take kids who are already tired of their parents' compulsory AP history lessons.) I wanted Paul, James and Sarah to see the portrait of Laurence Edward Sterne, novelist and clergyman, who I believe is some very distant relative. Laurence was born in 1713 and I've traced our family as far back as the late 1700s so I have yet to fill in about a 60 year gap to confirm the connection.
James Edward and Paul Sterne standing in front of Laurence Edward Sterne, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Paul next to a bust of Laurence Edward Sterne.
After we saw Laurence in room 12, we had a minor mutiny from two of our crew. Sarah and Paul wanted out. Vince had no more reserves to keep the kids motivated and was waving the white flag. He offered to take anyone who wanted to leave out, and I suggested maybe Speakers' Corner might be interesting/entertaining for the kids to see. So that's to where they headed while James opted to stay with me and see more of the Portrait Gallery. James, a good reader with a keen interest in non-fiction, recognized some of the figures in the portraits without reading the placards; one of which was Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting movement (Boy Scouts ~1907; Girl Scouts ~ 1910). After spending about 2 hours in the Portrait Gallery, we went next door to the National Gallery, which holds one of the best collections of paintings in the world. I love that Gallery. We had about an hour here before it closed.
There's no shortage of creative performers at Trafalgar Square. Who are these people? What are they doing when they aren't busking? Students? Shop keepers? Bored accountants?
James in Trafalgar Square. Notice the latest addition to the Fourth Plinth: The brilliant blue cockerel created by Katarina Fritsch which will remain there for about 18 months.
On August 26th, Vince and I decided to employ more of a kid-friendly strategy; I looked up a list of museums and attractions, with high ratings for children, and asked the kids to choose one. (Interestingly, the British Museum was pretty high on the list which made me think we had missed the child-friendly aspects of it.) Sarah chose the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood and James agreed to see that one. Paul wasn't feeling well so opted to take a day of rest in the apartment so Vincent, James, Sarah and I headed for the V&A Museum of Childhood. This was a hit with Sarah and James was happy with it. The museum showcases toys from various periods, mostly behind glass cases, but there are some hands on things to play with. There are also occasional craft projects for kids to do. There was also an interesting special exhibit examining the different ways that war has influenced toys.
Sarah designing a t-shirt. She later joined in an art session and decorated a ladybird (British term for ladybug).
On the way home, we stopped for afternoon high tea at Browns (not the 5-star luxury hotel at £39.50/person, but the other Browns at 9 Islington Green at £14 for two). It was the first time the kids had been introduced to the concept and I thought the price was right when taking the very real risk that no one would end up appreciating it. Both James and Sarah did in fact enjoy the offerings. Paul didn't care for anything but the tea. The typical offerings of egg and cress, cucumber and salmon sandwiches, scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam and selection of desserts were all very good.
Afternoon tea at the "other Brown's" was a hit with 2 out of 3 kids.
On August 27th, we visited another kids' choice, the London Science Museum. Before going to the underground, we stopped by the Tesco grocery store to pick up lunch; this became a daily routine that helped to make London more affordable. Tesco, Sainsbury, Marks & Spencer Simply Food and the like all have ready-made sandwiches for purchase. (Traditional sandwiches on slices of bread: egg & watercress, smoked salmon and cream cheese, prawn & mayonnaise, BLT, cheddar, tomatoe and cucumber...all good stuff.) Tesco had a meal deal for £3 where one can pick a sandwich, a bag of crisps (chips) or fruit and a drink. The kids could each choose what they wanted and for Paul, who doesn't like sandwiches period, he could find something else in the store. We'd often then eat our lunch in a nearby park before heading to the tube. Establishing routines like this helped the kids cope a little better (particularly young Sarah) who were dealing with the new and unexpected most of the time.
The Angel tube station provides a "thought for the day"; I'd come to enjoy these.
Waiting for the tube at our home base.
The Science Museum has a hands-on section on the third floor which is one of the meatiest interactive segments I've ever been to at a science museum. Sarah loved it and, as a result I didn't see much else. However I did wander just enough to conclude that this is one of the best science museums out there and I look forward to a return visit. By the way, on the ground floor/entry level there is a very thorough exhibit about the history and advancement of the steam engine which will answer a lot of questions that other exhibits gloss over.
Sarah spent well over an hour at this one, hands-on station at the Science Museum.
Which lever is easier to pull and why?
That evening, Vince and I had a night out on our own and went to see The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre. The play was hilarious and we had fabulous seats in the 6th row from the stage. What a treat.
Vincent, very pleased to have secured tickets to The Book of Mormon.
On August 28th, we went to Greenwich and it was an absolutely beautiful day. I just loved Greenwich. Like so many other places that we had previously visited, we didn't see it all and I look forward to returning here again. We arrived by taking the tube to the Cutty Sark station and then made our way to the Greenwich Visitors' Centre, which outlines the story of the people who shaped the buildings and landscape of Greenwich through the centuries; it includes historical artifacts, scale models, film footage and hands-on displays. We then headed to the Old Royal Naval College where one can see the Painted Hall and Chapel. The Painted Hall is sometimes described as the "finest dining hall in Europe"; I noticed they were advertising a special dinner in October at £140/person which I could imagine would be most memorable in this spectacular hall. Afterwards, we went to the Chapel which was the last major part of the Royal Hospital for Seamen to be built.
The kids in front of the Cutty Sark. We chose not to buy tickets to go into it because there were so many other things to see that were free of charge.
The Greenwich Visitors' Center is worth a visit. Here, Sarah reconstructed a rope pattern used in the flooring of the Chapel.
Painted Hall, Greenwich Hospital: In 1707, Sir James Thornhill was given the commission to decorate the Painted Hall. It took him 19 years!

Notice the marble fireplace in the Painted Hall; the fireplace frame is real marble but the upper marble is merely a 3D painting. There were many examples in the Painted Hall, as well as in the Chapel, where objects were painted in a 3-dimensional way giving the impression that they were "real". This was a good way to reduce costs and to speed up the completion of projects. 
The Chapel at Greenwich was constructed by Thomas Ripley to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren. Following a disastrous fire in 1779, it was redecorated by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart in the Greek revival style, and today is a good example of a complete neoclassical interior.
Realizing we were running out of time, we skipped the Queen's House. (It was commissioned to be built by Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, in 1616 but Anne died in 1919; then when James's son, Charles I, gave Greenwich to his queen, Henrietta Maria (daughter of Henri IV of France), in 1629, building commenced. It was structurally completed in 1635.)

Instead, we headed to the National Maritime Museum to spend a few hours there before it closed. The Maritime Museum is well-done and engaging for all ages. For the young ones, it offers a "bridge" and "all hands" area for imaginative, sea-faring play. Once Sarah was introduced to these areas, I couldn't get her to go anywhere else.
While walking to the Museum, we spotted the bright red time ball on top of Flamsteed House; it was one of the world's earliest public time signals, distributing time to ships on the Thames and many Londoners. It was first used in 1833 and still operates today. Each day, at 12.55, the time ball rises half way up its mast. At 12.58 it rises all the way to the top. At 13:00 exactly, the ball falls and so provides a precise time signal to anyone who happens to be looking.
The Greenwich Maritime Museum was very good. Not too large that you can't see everything in one go. Definitely worth a visit.
James and Paul on either side of the Prime Meridian, 0 degrees longitude. James on the east longitude side and Paul on the west longitude side. If that orientation seems odd, you are looking southward at the boys.
On August 29th, we decided to spend more time figuring out the bus routes. We found out that we could get to many of the places we wanted to go on a single bus, whereas we often had to change tube lines, so the bus could be faster going from A to B. Another advantage is that the bus is less expensive than the tube (£1.40 vs ~£2.40) to go the same distance.

Today was the day to see the Imperial War Museum. This is also an excellent museum for kids (6+). It is currently undergoing a thorough renovation and the sections we did see were very engaging.
Once you get a handle on the bus routes, London buses are a great way to travel and see the city. We all enjoyed being on the top deck.
Even under construction and only half available to view, the Imperial War Museum was excellent.
Captain Bligh's home is across the street from the Imperial War Museum.
On Friday, August 30th, Vincent and the boys set out for the Globe Theatre matinee performance of Macbeth, hoping to get groundling tickets (£5/ticket, where one stands in the yard at the foot of the stage, much like the masses did back in the day. They actually got returned tickets, front row, center seats. Lucky guys!). I knew Shakespeare would probably be a non-starter for Sarah (even tho she loves theater more than any other child I've met), particularly as a "groundling", where she wouldn't be able to see much of anything. So I opted to spend the day with Sarah and search out something she'd like. I researched top playgrounds in London and, besides the Diana Memorial Playground, another top-rater was the Coram's Fields Playground. Sarah and I spent a solid 3 1/2 hrs here and it wasn't easy to convince Sarah to leave when we did. It may well have been London's best playground before the Diana Memorial Playground was built. The Coram's Field's Playground has several separate sub-playgrounds with different activities in each, a couple sandboxes, two zip-lines, two trampolines, a (minimal) splash area, and a few chickens, rabbits and parakeets to check out.
Sarah zipping by on the zip-line. Once she overcame the fear of the first jump (ya, I let go), she was hooked.
The trampolines were supervised by counselors who appeared to be gymnasts and who gave helpful tips to each child, based on their abilities.
After we left the playground, we walked to the British Museum because I had read that it contained two rooms that were popular with kids (rooms 62 and 63). I wanted to give the British Museum a second chance since it ranks so highly among the London museums. With much effort at getting to the second floor and finding these rooms, we discovered that it contained mummies and Egyptian burial artifacts, all behind glass cases with printed placards. Sarah had no interest in this and so we left. I think the British Museum would be great for people in their mid-teens and up. I did see enough to know that it contains many amazing artifacts and provides a huge learning opportunity; it's probably not the best choice for the under 10s or those without the patience or ability to focus, read and reflect.
Sarah working her way to the second floor in the British Museum. Notice the beautiful, naturally lit, foyer.
Loved the name of this neighborhood frozen yogurt shop, Snog. (Snog=kiss.)
On August 31st, we had matinee tickets to Top Hat at the Aldwych Theatre. We were in the stalls (main floor) in rows S and T so part of our visibility was blocked by the low balcony above us. But once the show started, everyone really enjoyed it. The dialogue was crisp, the singing strong and the dancing wonderful. Made me want to immediately book tap dancing lessons.
Very happy after attending Top Hat.
Afterward we had dinner at a little Italian restaurant, Cafe La Divina, in the Angel district on Upper Street. It was very good, particularly the pizza and pasta.

On September 1st, we started the day by going to the Sung Eucharist service at St Paul's Cathedral. When we arrived the cathedral bells were peeling. Truly peeling. I had never witnessed the harried ringing of church bells in person, just watching a royal wedding on television. The sound was magnificent. I very much enjoyed the Eucharist service and Sarah sat still for much of it...well, more than the Westminster Abbey service, so we're going in the right direction. Afterwards we headed towards Fleet Street to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese to be disappointed that it is closed on Sundays.
Alas, no dwelling in the haunts of Samuel Johnson or Charles Dickens for us.
We ended up having lunch across the street at The Tipperary, also with a history of a few hundred years. Okay meal; no need to go out of your way to eat there. Paul and I had Sunday roast with yorkshire pudding and it's the first time Paul had eaten everything on his plate in ages, including the carrots and broccoli.
Afterwards, while walking along the Victoria Embankment, we stumbled upon the HQS Wellington which was open for viewing during the weekend. The HQS Wellington is the last surviving example of a WWII escort ship in Britain. At the outbreak of WWII, the HMS Wellington was recalled from service patrolling in the Pacific, for which she had been built in 1934. (Note, her name changed from His Majesty’s Ship Wellington to Head Quarters Ship Wellington). On board, they showed a short film covering how these convoys worked, many ships often carrying merchant goods to England. The escorts were there to scout for U-boats and other enemy vessels, hopefully bombing them before the enemy took out the members of the convoy.
James sitting below decks in the HQS Wellington in the Court Room, which was once the engine room. The painting in the background depicts the meeting of the inaugural Court of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, who are the founding fathers of the livery company, responsible for the Wellington,  and all seafaring men. (Yes, I had to email the HQS Wellington to gather that information.) 
En route to the Royal Albert Hall, we were in the Natural History Museum (another kid-friendly place to which we must return) just long enough to purchase this lollipop. We liked the message.
At 4pm, we attended a family-oriented Proms Concert, The Big Bear Hunt. A story was told by poet and author, Michael Rosen, while illustrator, Tony Ross, drew pictures of the scenes described, which were projected on huge screens above the stage.  Music was by Mussorgsky, Stravinsky and Grieg performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and accompanied by 160 young singers and orchestral musicians from Liverpool.
The Royal Albert Hall is a fantastic venue for a concert. Here you see the orchestra and choir and the screens projecting the developing illustrations above.
There was a point in the concert where the orchestra started playing the Conga. The illustrator, Tony Ross, gave up at that point and just wrote, "Can't draw a conga!" It got a few laughs.
September 2nd, was the day to go to Southampton and pick up LandShark 2 and the Prius. We left our apartment, hiring a cab to take us to Waterloo station, where we took a very smooth-running train to Southampton. Once at the Southampton Central Station, we hired another car to take us to the Wallenius Wilhelmsen office at the Eastern docks of the Port. We paid £274.64 for Southampton port fees and received a receipt and directions where to pick up LandShark (across the street) and the Prius (10 berths away). It was very straightforward. We left the kids in the Wallenius Wilhelmsen office, as supposedly we'd only be about 10 minutes, and walked over to first pick up the RV. En route, we walked by the Queen Mary 2, which was moored nearby. Oh, to be sailing on her!

Before moving the vehicles one has to check that they are in the same state as we had left them (in case we were to have any insurance claims). That's when Vincent began discovering the many things that were not working in LandShark. Air conditioning not working, radio not working, fans not working, water pump not working, 3 of the 4 slides not working, generator not working. He thought many of the issues were connected. 

Meanwhile, I decided I should go get the Prius and make sure that car was okay. Fortunately it was, with only 1 pair of damaged sunglasses missing. (I'll do a separate post about the certainty of "stolen" items when shipping vehicles.) Anyway, when I returned to Vince and LandShark, he informed me that the RV was not operational enough to live in and so we would need to book a hotel. As we were booking a night at the Holiday Inn Express, Southampton, the Queen Mary 2 set sail with "Land of Hope and Glory" blaring on. It was fantastic! (I've got to add a cruise on her to my bucket list.) Needless to say, it was pretty anti-climatic checking into the Holiday Inn Express on our first day of "camping".
While Paul and Vincent are troubleshooting the non-functioning generator...
...the Queen Mary 2 sails by. Oh, how I'd rather be there!

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