Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Touring London with Kids

We love having visitors in London.  We had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of our friends Jason & Elizabeth, but we were a little concerned about whether their two young children -- Lauren (6) and Patrick (4) -- would enjoy the trip.  It's a long flight from Washington, DC, and a 5-hour time difference.  Add to that our lack of a car or any age-appropriate books or toys, and you have a recipe for a couple of miserable, jet-lagged kids.

I'm happy to say that it went infinitely better than any of us expected.  Apart from a few minor meltdowns, everyone had a great time.  The kids were troopers, and we managed to do a lot of things that everyone enjoyed.  Our wonderful neighbor, Anna, brought over some of her kids' toys, and was happy to have Lauren and Patrick come over to play in the back garden with her son Henry, who was also on Easter break.

As expected, everyone was pretty bleary-eyed when they arrived early Sunday morning after taking a red-eye from DC, so we fed them waffles and sent them upstairs to take a nap. Lauren declared that she was not sleepy, so Josh and I took her to a playground nearby that my neighbors had recommended.  Good call!  She loved it, and climbed all over everything until we were exhausted just from watching her.

In the afternoon, after everyone was awake and showered and dressed, we all walked to nearby South Park Gardens for our neighborhood Easter egg hunt.  There are lots of young children in this neighborhood, so the park was mobbed.  We were concerned that there might not be any eggs left for the kids to find, but clearly whoever organized this knew what they were doing.  Instead of eggs, they had hidden Popsicle sticks with chick, bunny, and egg stickers on them around the perimeter of the flower beds.  Each child was instructed to find two of each kind and bring them back to the ticket booth to collect a prize.  If you found a stick with 3 chicks or 3 bunnies, you got a special prize.  We noticed volunteers discreetly re-hiding the sticks that had already been turned in.  Very clever!  Lauren and Patrick found the requisite number of sticks -- with a little help from our neighbors' kids -- and each ended up with a bag full of Easter candy.  We saw a kid turn in a stick with 3 chicks, for which he was rewarded with a giant chocolate bunny!
Easter egg hunt in South Park Gardens
Patrick & Lauren collect their prizes
After a home-cooked spaghetti dinner, we sent everyone to bed early to try to fight off jet lag.

Monday Josh headed off to work and we managed to get everyone else up and out of the house by 10 am.  I wasn't sure how well the kids would hold up, so we didn't plan anything too ambitious.  We took the train to Waterloo and saw the Southbank Centre, past the London Eye, and across the bridge to Parliament.
You'd think they'd never seen a telephone booth before...
Maybe they haven't!
After lunch in St. James Park, we walked to Buckingham Palace, and then Jason took Lauren to Westminster Abbey.  After watching the Royal Wedding on TV nearly a year ago, she was excited to see the place where it took place.  She also wanted to meet "Princess Kate" while she was here, but we didn't make any promises...
London Eye from Buckingham Palace
While Jason and Lauren toured the church, Elizabeth and I took Patrick on his first double-decker bus ride.  Because we had to use our Oyster cards to ride the bus, Lauren and Patrick called them "oyster buses."  I'm sure other people were a bit puzzled to hear them shout, "Look!  An oyster bus!" every time one went by, but it was pretty cute.  When we regrouped, the kids were still doing fine and the weather was nice, so we hopped on a bus back to the south bank and got in line for the London Eye.  I've been wanting to ride on the Eye ever since we arrived in London a year ago, but since it's rather pricey, we figured we'd wait to do it when we had visitors.  Well, so far none of our visitors have wanted to do it, but Patrick kept asking to ride it.  Yes, a 4-year-old boy is much braver than rest of you!

The London Eye was amazing!  The half-hour ride took us up to a height of 443 feet -- taller than all but a handful of London's skyscrapers.  It was a little hazy to the west, but the views were still spectacular.  I hope future visitors wont be afraid of heights, because I'd love to do this again.
Thames and Hungerford Bridge
Southbank Centre
The City of London
At the very top
We met up with Josh for dinner at the Dog & Fox pub in Wimbledon Village.  The kids had done great all day, but it finally caught up to Patrick, who fell asleep before his dinner even arrived.
Patrick's first, and hopefully only, time passed out in a pub
Tuesday we started out in Trafalgar Square, where the kids begged to climb up to take a photo with one of the lions until their parents finally relented.
Jason and Elizabeth were surprised to see that St. Martin-in-the-Fields was not, in fact, in the fields, but right off of Trafalgar Square.  We took a peek inside and had a nice lunch in the Crypt cafe underneath.
St. Martin-in-the-Fields
After lunch, we walked to Covent Garden, where a delightful surprise awaited us -- all 200+ eggs from The Big Egg Hunt had been moved there.
They liked the dinosaur egg best
We admired the eggs until it started to rain, and we sought refuge at our next destination: the London Transport Museum.  I'd heard that it was popular with kids -- and these kids happen to love all forms of public transport.  They had a special scavenger hunt for kids, which made it all the more fun.
Transport Museum
Lauren & Patrick enjoy the view from the upper deck
A REALLY old bus
To avoid another dinnertime crash, we went back to my house and ordered pizza for dinner.  Wednesday we had crepes for lunch in Kensington and then got in line to see the dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum.  Lauren and Patrick are big fans of the show Dinosaur Train, so they know a lot more about dinosaurs than I do (and I worked at the Smithsonian AND the Discovery Channel!).  The line was long, but moved quickly, and the huge diplodocus skeleton and the gorgeous building kept us distracted while we waited.  The exhibit was crowded, but well done and very engaging.
Natural History Museum
Rare family portrait
Aagh!  A T. rex!
Dino videos!
We went through the mammal hall and saw the giant blue whale, and were on our way to the Darwin Centre when we spotted something intriguing outside. Raptors!  A local nature center had brought several types of hawks, falcons, and owls for the museum visitors to see.  They had a folding chair set up so you could sit next to one of the owls, and later they let some of us take turns holding the owl.  Very cool!
I've never been this close to an owl!
Lauren and the owl check each other out
Patrick holds the owl
Since we were already outside, we toured the wildlife garden, where the kids tried to rescue an injured frog, and then went across the street to the Victoria & Albert Museum for a spot of tea in the cafe.  Not only is it one of the most beautiful settings to have a meal, but on this particular occasion it was accompanied by live piano music.
In the V&A Cafe
We spent about an hour touring the museum before the kids ran out of steam.  They asked if we could take an oyster bus home instead of the Tube -- I think they found the District Line rather disappointing as it mostly runs above ground rather than in a tube-like tunnel -- so I plotted a route back on my iPhone that only involved one transfer.  It took a bit longer, but the kids enjoyed it and Jason & Elizabeth got to see some other parts of the city along the way.

Thursday was supposed to have the nicest weather, so we had reserved that day to take a trip out to see Windsor Castle.  The kids were excited to see a REAL castle -- Buckingham Palace was a bit disappointing as it looks like a fancy office building -- and Windsor is very easy to get to by train.  The weather turned out to be cold, windy, and overcast, but at least it didn't rain.  It took just a little over an hour to get to the Windsor train station from my house, and the entrance to the castle was just a few blocks away.
Windsor Castle
Not only did the castle have a special audio tour just for kids, but since it was a few days before Easter, they also had a special Easter egg hunt inside the State Apartments.  Fancy eggs were "hidden" in several of the rooms, and each child got a list of clues to help them find each one, such as a photo of a painting or object that it was near.  That was a big hit!  We weren't allowed to take any photos inside, but you can see some interior shots on their web site.  Queen Mary's doll house, with electricity, running water, and real miniature books, was one of the highlights.
Lauren & Patrick enjoyed the audio guide
This guard discreetly said "Hello" to Lauren as he marched back and forth
Even the lamps wear crowns
St. George's Chapel
Jason practices his guard skills
Josh had Friday off, so after breakfast he and Jason took the kids to the playground while Elizabeth and I ran some errands.  I needed to acquire a ham for Easter dinner, and discovered that people traditionally eat ham for Christmas dinner here, but are more likely to have roast beef or lamb for Easter.  There's no Honeybaked Ham store here, so I had to call around to find a store that had hams available in the off-season.  I ended up with one that was twice as big as what I needed, but desperate times call for desperate measures...  Meanwhile, the other parents at the playground thought Lauren and Patrick had two daddies.  Hee hee!

We all regrouped back at the house at lunchtime, and after grabbing something to eat, changed into our Sunday best to attend the Good Friday services at St. Mary's church in Clapham.  When we first moved to London, Jason introduced us to his friend Bethie, who he used to sing with.  Coincidentally, Bethie and her husband (also named Jason!) moved here from DC the same week, and we all hit it off pretty well.  When Bethie found out that Jason was going to be here for Easter, she invited him to sing at her church for her London directorial debut.  Since we didn't think the kids would last through the entire 2-hour service, we planned to arrive towards the end to hear the singing.  In the meantime, Elizabeth tried to get some photos of the kids in their nice clothes...

Oh, well.  I'm sure those pictures will come back to haunt Patrick someday...
Trainspotting on the Tube
We arrived right on time to hear Jason and Bethie singing and then we all went out for pizza afterwards so Jason and Elizabeth could catch up with Bethie and Jason and their daughter Charlotte.  Lauren and Patrick had fun playing with Charlotte, and at one point we even caught Patrick feeding her some of his ice cream.  Too cute!
Lauren, Patrick, and Charlotte
Saturday we all went to Kew Gardens.  They also had some special Easter activities for kids with a Mayan chocolate theme.  The kids made origami water lilies, learned about the history of chocolate, and decorated (and ate) special chocolate offerings to the Mayan god of chocolate.  It doesn't get much better than that!  Once again it was cool and cloudy, but didn't rain.
Real and origami water lilies
Water lily
Climbing a tree
Chocolate workshop
Lauren as Queen Isabella
Dancing trees
The sherpas take a rest
I wasn't surprised to see peacocks this time, but we were all startled to come across this beautiful bird strolling about in one of the far corners of the gardens.  It is a golden pheasant from China.  Apparently there is a small feral population in the UK, much like the wild parakeets from India.
Golden pheasant
Japanese garden
After the kids went to bed, we made up Easter baskets for each of them and Elizabeth hid Cadbury Creme Eggs in the living room, kitchen, and dining room.  (They don't have plastic eggs here!)  Sunday morning we could hear their excited shrieks as they found all the treasures the Easter bunny had left for them.  After a nice breakfast of homemade crepes, we had the kids assemble the Bunny Hut I'd picked up at the Country Living Spring Fair a few weeks ago. 
Assembling the Bunny Hut
What it is a Bunny Hut?  Well, it is similar to a gingerbread house, but smaller and with pastel-colored candies and flowers. 
Bunny Hut
Since we spent our first Easter here with Bethie and Jason, and our visiting friend Jason was the one who introduced us, we thought it only fitting that we invite them over for Easter dinner.  It was a bit comical having two Jasons and two Elizabeths in the house, but at least Bethie and Elizabeth were easy to sort out.  The kids played with Charlotte and we let them watch a few episodes of Dora the Explorer (thank goodness I hadn't canceled my Netflix subscription!) so we could eat our dinner in (relative) peace.
The kids watch Dora together
It was fun to sit down to Easter dinner with our old friends Jason and Elizabeth and our new friends Jason and Bethie.  The giant ham was delicious, and Jason brought over an amazing carrot cake and  hot cross buns that he had baked himself.  All in all, it was a wonderful evening!  I didn't take many photos because I was a little preoccupied hosting a dinner for 6 adults and 3 kids, but Bethie has some really cute ones on her blog

After Bethie, Jason, and Charlotte had left and we were cleaning up, Lauren and Patrick asked if they could come back to London next Easter.  I was so happy to hear that they enjoyed their visit that much!  It was sad to see them go the next morning.  Now we'll miss them even more!

We have more kids coming to visit this summer, and after a remarkably good week with Lauren and Patrick,  I feel much more confident that they will have a good time here, too. 


  1. Our one year and four years old grandchildren are coming this summer, and I'm also wondering how we shall entertain them, but you have given me fresh hope and ideas. You did a great job with your guests!

  2. Thank you! I'm sure your grandchildren will have a wonderful time visiting you this summer.


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