A March 2002 trip
to London by Idler
Quote: A whirlwind two-day stopover in London with our curious eleven-year-old son in tow. Our goal was to introduce London to our son, so his interests - ancient Egypt, London transportation, music, and amusements - were given priority. The bottom line: London's a great place for kids and the young-at-heart.
Taking a successful trip with a child requires some planning, but it's worth it. Take into consideration the child's interests. For example, our son had just done a school report on hieroglyphics, so he was ripe for a trip to the British Museum. He'd also just enjoyed performing in a school play, so we went to the theatre. Kids also get a big kick out of just taking different kinds of transportation around London.
To prepare for a trip, we recommend the Eyewitness Travel Guide to London. This guide is especially appealing to children as it's loaded with appealing photos and charts. Here at IgoUgo, guides Amanda and actonsteve give some great tips on seeing their home city. It's also well worth taking a virtual visit at the Explore London website.
Our triple room was quite pleasant, with comfortable beds, a spacious bathroom, coffee & tea maker, and more space than we had expected. The room appeared to have been recently refurbished, too. We found our room reasonably quiet, though there weren't many people staying on our floor and that might change during high season.
Getting to the hotel from Heathrow is a breeze as the Russell Street tube station is on the Picadilly Line which runs straight from Heathrow. Exiting the Russell Square tube station, turn left and then take the first street to the right and you'll see the hotel.
The hotel staff were helpful, for the most part, though they were stretched a bit thin in the breakfast room in the morning. A continental breakfast was included, but it was nothing special.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on April 6, 2002
Royal National Hotel
44 207 637 2488
Attraction | "Walk like an Egyptian in the British Museum"
The scope of the Egyptian collection at the British Museum is impressive – spanning over five thousand years, from the pre-dynastic period through the millennia of dynasties, then through the Roman and Coptic periods, and onward through the Ottoman conquest of Egypt. It includes monumental statues, sarcophagi, hieroglyphic tablets, jewelry, household objects, scarabs, shabti, and, of course, mummies. It’s hard to imagine, touring the Egyptian collection today (it contains more than 100,000 objects), that it all began with about 150 small and poorly-understood pieces collected by Sir Hans Sloane, one of the 18th century’s great English "gentlemen collectors." Sloane’s private library and diverse collection later became the foundation of the Museum’s collection when it was established in 1753.
None of these facts, however, impressed my son. The Rosetta stone was first on his "to see" list, and we soon found ourselves standing before it. What would have happened, I wondered, if Bonaparte hadn’t invaded Egypt in 1798, setting up an institute in Cairo to collect and study antiquities? It was the later seizure of this French horde in 1801 by the victorious British that ushered in the golden age of Egyptology.
Today, visitors can choose from free "Eyeopener" tours of the museum (check the daily tour schedule), audio tours, or simply take advantage of the information posted in the museum. Since the Museum is vast, I’d recommend focussing on a particular area of interest – as we did with the Egyptian collection.
The Museum caters to children, not only in providing special tours and events at the Museum, but also in a broader educational sense. We did a great deal of "cyber visiting" at the Museum’s wonderful Ancient Egypt interactive learning site. Exploring this site will give any child of elementary or middle school age a lively introduction to Egypt and enhance his or her trip to the Museum.
In fact, as we entered a room with funerary objects, I began to appreciate just how well prepared my son was. "Look, shabtis!" he exclaimed, pointing to the small statues that are buried in a tomb to serve as servants in the afterlife. Later, we stood before an elaborate sarcophagus, deciphering drawings and hieroglyphs: here was the symbol for Ma’at, goddess of justice; there was Anubis, weighing the heart of the deceased against Ma’at’s feather.
This, I reflected, was the best part of visiting a museum: kindling ancient enthusiasms in modern hearts.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 10, 2002
Great Russell Street
London, England WC1B 3DG
+44 (207) 7323 8299
"It’s my turn to pick!" I announced after my husband and son had each chosen a place to visit in London. Neither seemed particularly enthusiastic about seeing Soane’s Museum, which made their later unfeigned delight all the sweeter.
Soane, son of a bricklayer, rose to become one of England’s greatest architects and a professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, with connections to an astonishing number of the prominent people of his time. An avid collector, his museum houses the objects he assembled for his own pleasure and the edification of his students. It provides a fascinating look at one individual’s taste as well as a window into another era, for in 1833 by Act of Parliament, Soane’s house was established as a public museum, with the stipulation that as little as possible be changed.
You know that "Star Trek" episode in which the crew passes through a time portal? That’s the feeling you get when you step through the museum door and into a narrow passageway, where a green-coated staff member welcomes you and asks you to sign the guest book. Entry into the museum is free, though the museum pamphlet is well worth £1.
Soane set about in a deliberate manner to put together the museum, though it might seem to the casual visitor that there is little method to the labyrinth of rooms and passageways. I was struck on my first visit by what seemed like the haphazard arrangement of disparate objects; on this second tour, I began to grasp that in fact Soane had been aiming for pleasing contrasts, sympathetic placements, and, above all, an effect.
Must-see items in the museum include the Picture Gallery, with Hogarth’s famous "Rake’s Progress" series, the sarcophagus of Seti I (father of Ramses the Great) in the basement Crypt, and several fine Canalettos in the New Picture Room. But, in truth, this museum best lends itself to odd reveries and chance personal connections.
As we stood before Seti I’s sarcophagus, the attendant sidled over and regaled us with the story of how Soane had purchased the sarcophagus from the widow of Belzoni, a circus giant turned amateur archaeologist, and how at the time the British Museum, strapped from purchasing the Elgin Marbles, had let the sarcophagus slip through its fingers. Soane was so delighted with this coup that he held a three-day celebration upon its arrival, with London society flocking to see it. As the attendant spoke, I could almost sense ladies in rustling silk gowns and gentlemen in knee britches gliding by to peer, as I did, down into the sarcophagus, there to behold the image of Nut, protectress of the dead.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 8, 2002
Sir John Soane's Museum
13 Lincoln's Inn Fields
London, England WC2A 3BP
+44 20 7405 2107
Attraction | "From South Bank across Westminster Bridge"
The London Eye isn’t cheap (£9), but if you’re as enamored of panoramic views as I am, it’s worth it. One thing to mention, though, is that the afternoon sun is behind most of the buildings you want to see, such as the Houses of Parliament, providing quite a squint-inducing difficult-to-photograph background on sunny days, so you may want to bear that in mind and go in the morning. On a cloudy day it might not matter much.
Another thing to note is that the website and advertising for the London Eye indicate that it’s necessary to purchase advance tickets. However, we were able to walk up and get tickets at the counter for immediate boarding even though it seemed fairly busy. (We were there in late March 2002. Perhaps the situation changes during high season – best to check, probably.)
What we hadn’t expected, but which turned out to be the highlight of our South Bank visit, were the bungee trampolines set up in front of the London Aquarium, which is next to the Eye on the waterfront. We first spied them as our capsule came slowly around the top of the wheel, and from that vantage point the people on the trampolines looked like so many performing fleas. Coming closer to the ground, my son began a persistent wheedle…"Pleeease, Mom…pleeeaase!" I hated to admit it, but I was as intrigued by the bungee trampolines as he was, but knew that at my age and weight it would be sheer madness to try it. (Perhaps I might have tried it, folks, if the prospect of spending the duration of the trip in traction hadn’t loomed quite so large!) The next best thing was to experience it vicariously, and so I caved: "Well, all right. But only if it’s not too expensive."
It was £6 and an hour’s wait, but my son had an absolute blast, soaring up and down on his bungee cords, even attempting a few flips. My husband and I spent the time while waiting looking out across the river, lazily observing the form of various trampoliners, and generally chilling. Afterwards we strolled across Westminster Bridge, one of my favorite short walks in London. Right on cue as we reached the opposite side, Big Ben began to chime. Perfect.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on April 8, 2002
South Bank Across Westminster Bridge
Waterloo or Westminster Tube Station
Attraction | "On board the Number 24 bus to Hampstead Heath"
"I want to ride on top of one of those double decker buses!" This was my eleven-year-old son's announcement on his first morning in London. After briefly consulting a route map by a bus stop near our hotel, we decided to board a number 24 bus.
We had planned to take the bus south towards Westminster, but somehow boarded a northbound bus instead. However, as it turned out, we were glad we did, as the route took us through a nice variety of places, from bustling Tottenham Court Road, through picturesque Camden Town, and terminating in bucolic Hampstead Heath. Other than walking, taking a London bus is the definitely the best way to see London.
Several routes, going east-to-west (such as Routes 11 and 14) or north-to-south (such as Route 24) provide a good orientation for tourists. The number 24 bus starts at Hampstead Heath and travels through Camden Town, along Goodge Street and Tottenham Court Road to Charing Cross Road, then past Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square, and ultimately to Pimlico. By purchasing an all day Travel Card (good also for the Underground), you can easily get on and off the bus at several interesting places along the route.
By disembarking at Trafalgar Square, for example, you can take in the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. Get off at Whitehall for Downing Street and the Horse Guards, or at Westminster for the Abbey and the Cabinet War Rooms, and the Houses of Parliament.
However, if you have time, it's well worth getting off at some of the places along the northern parts of the route. A great place to stop is Camden Town, with its lively open-air and indoor markets and scenic views along Regent's Canal. The markets are great places for bargain hunters. Camden Town is also a great place to make a rock 'n roll pilgrimage, as bands such as Pink Floyd, Cream, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix all played at venues there during the sixties. More recently, artists such as Smashing Pumpkins, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Dire Straits, and REM have recorded or played in Camden. It's a place that seems to groove to its own laid-back, bohemian energy.
If you take the bus all the way out to Hampstead Heath, you can enjoy a tramp across the heath, perhaps visit Keats House or the opulent Kenwood House with its excellent art collection. The view from the heath of London is a sight well worth the walk. If you're on a tight budget, it's worth noting that the Youth Hostel at Golders Green is one of the nicer ones in London, with a lovely garden, mostly smaller rooms, and even a liquor license.
Information on routes, fares, and schedules, plus all the help you'd ever need to plan a London bus trip is easily obtained from the London Bus information page.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 6, 2002
Hampstead Lane/North End Lane/Heath Road
London, England NW3
+44 20 8348 9908
Attraction | "D'Oyly Carte Opera Company at the Savoy Theatre"
The opportunity came when we were able to get tickets for "Iolanthe" at the Leicester Square Half Price Ticket Booth. And what tickets! Our seats were third row from the stage, center. We paid what seemed like a pittance, $30. Better yet, we were able to see the performance in the Savoy Theatre, home to the D'Oyly Carte company since 1881.
It was a magical evening. Our eleven-year-old son had initially baulked at the idea of going to an "opera," but he soon found, as millions have before him, that Gilbert and Sullivan is the lightest of light opera. It's bubbly froth with a leavening caustic undertone, and the implausible plot (which, like all G&S operas, involved the eventual happy union of lovers) provides the pretext for musical romps and high Victorian silliness.
It helped, too, that the staging and choreography were so entertaining. The first act opens with a chorus of "fairies," all slim and beautiful in their gossamer fairy clothes. All except one, that is - a heavyset woman who was clearly relishing her role as the fairy who couldn't get things quite right. Later on, chaos ensues when the pompous Peers of the Realm (who enter decked in their robes of state singing "Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes/Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow ye masses..") are placed under enchantment and required to vote as the fairies' candidate wants. Silly? You bet. And delightful.
Margaret Thatcher was in the audience that evening, which made one of the lines about the sad state of affairs that resulted when "women meddled in politics"
especially apropros. I glanced back at that point, and sure enough she was laughing appreciately along with the rest of the audience.
D'Oyly Carte Opera Company
6 Sancroft Street
London, England SE11 5UD
+44 (0)20 7793 7100
Attraction | "Cecil Court: A bibliophile's wonderland"
Whereas the larger London bookstores such as the massive Foyles aim to provide something for everyone, the booksellers on Cecil Court are unrepentant specialists. For example, Nigel Williams sells 19th and 20th century first edition children's and illustrated books. It's also a good place to pick up a rare first-edition P.G. Wodehouse. Another shop with children's and illustrated books is Marchpane where you can find rare editions of Lewis Carroll's books, among other children's classics.
Not surprisingly, the nearby theatre district is well represented by several fine shops dealing in stage memorabilia and the performing arts. The Witch Ball as well as Stage Door Prints specialize in theater, dance, opera, and film. We found some real treasures in the "bargain basement" of Stage Door Prints. Travis and Emery sell musical books, scores, libretti, and prints.
For books on travel and exploration, as well as maps and atlases, try Reg and Philip Remington at 18 Cecil Court, as well as The Traveller's Bookshop at the end of the street at number 25.
Unfortunately, rising rents have forced several venerable booksellers to move from London in recent years, and so Dance Books, formerly of Cecil Court, is now located in Hampshire, while antiquarian map sellers Tooley Adams have also recently moved elsewhere. One hopes that the trend toward mega-chains and internet booksellers will not ultimately lead to the demise of these splendid antiquarian booksellers.
Between Charing Cross Road & St. Martin's Lane
It wasn't always this way. No, in fact, up until he was around eight I refused point-blank to take him on anything longer than a day trip or visit to nearby relatives. Even then, each time we'd return from a day in D.C. or a visit to my sister's in Virgina, I'd return dead tired and thoroughly fed up, and for good reason.
As an infant and toddler, my son virtually never slept in the car (oh, except once, coming back from an eight-hour drive to a family reunion, when he fell asleep during the last half hour and screamed bloody murder when we arrived and woke him). He wouldn't sit in strollers. He whined when he was tired, bored, not being paid attention to, or just generally to yank my chain. He was hyperkenetic, didn't take "no" for an answer, argumentative, and at times just plain impossible. He was what child rearing specialists, with typical understatement, refer to as "a difficult child."
Until he was nine, we took no family vacations. In fairness, this was as much a result of being financially strapped as it was his disposition. But from the outset, even though I love to travel, I declared that unless we could travel in reasonable comfort and sanity with him we'd stay home. I'd had plenty of opportunity to witness the Great American Family Vacation in action in nearby Washington, D.C. Nothing struck me as more miserable than the lot of such parents on a hot day in D.C. with whining children in tow, trudging endlessly through the Smithsonian, buying one treat after another to placate the little ones, trying to convince themselves they were having a good time. Or if not a good time, at least an educational one. Darn it, they'd been to D.C., and they had pictures to prove it.
Now, I'm not saying that all people with young children should stay home. Far from it. I've known people with tractable children - or endlessly patient dispositions themselves - that have traveled and genuinely enjoyed themselves. What I'm saying is that in our case the combination of my hyperactive son and my temperament were a bad mix for travelling. That is, until recently.
It didn't happen overnight. When my son was nine, he'd matured enough that we were finding day trips with him to be less of a strain. We decided the time had come for a family vacation. We started modestly, electing to drive to New England to a place we knew he'd enjoy, Wood's Hole, MA, to the Marine Institute where Robert Ballard is based. At that stage my son was captivated by tales of undersea exploration and was obsessed with the "Titanic." At Wood's Hole he was able to go into a replica of Ballard's undersea craft, tour the kid-oriented museum, and even had a chance to see one of the deep-sea robots from the original Titanic expedition. Standing before "Jason II" dockside at Wood's Hole, he reached out a tentative hand and touched the metal surface of the drone with a look of almost religious awe on his face. At that moment, I think, a traveler was born.
Raising a traveler is all about getting the child to connect an inner dream with an anticipated moment of fulfillment and - this is the tricky part - teaching him to enjoy the anticipation rather than being discontented with the waiting process. This happens in stages. Going up to New England, my son was in classic "Are We There Yet?" mode. He knew that we were going to make a pilgrimage to Titanic Land, but he simply couldn't see any benefit to the process of getting there. It was a bore. Why did it take so long?
One of the things that helped divert him was getting him to tell me about Ballard and the Titanic. How deep down was Titanic? When did it sink? What was the name of that robot, again? Being a kid who likes to be in charge, it helped that we gave him the sense that, as far as the Titanic was concerned, he was the expert. Of course, we'd brought lots of his Titanic books and various objects to entertain him. And this brings me to my next point: preparation is everything.
Our next family vacation, the following summer, was farther afield, to Washington State. I knew that there were some activities that would of special interest to him, like Mount St. Helen's, volcanoes being another obsession. The challenge was to keep his interest during the more adult-oriented portions of the trip. Frankly, we resorted to bribery. You can do this, we'd barter, if you'll cooperate when we do that. This worked fairly well, though we learned it was best to not expect him to be particularly cooperative if we'd done his activity before ours.
The next few trips were a hit. Although I'm not a beach person, I chose beach locations (St. Lucia and Kaua'i), as both my son and husband are avid beach goers. By this time, we were finding that even long airplane trips didn't pose a problem for him. I'd buy an inexpensive handheld video game, for example, and explain that it was especially for the trip, remaining stonehearted in the face of pleas to let him play with it beforehand. We'd also bought him his own small suitcase (letting him pick it out), a Walkman so that he could listen to his beloved Weird Al Jankovich CD's, and a fancy travel journal, with its own special pen. It was always important that we consult him when making plans. Which hotel did he like the looks of the best on the Internet? What sort of rental car? Of course, we weren't letting him dictate decisions; instead, he learned that taking a family vacation is a group venture, involving making compromises and taking others’ wishes into consideration.
By the time he'd turned ten, he had started to take a real interest in travelling. He'd watch "National Geographic Explorer" or some other program on TV, turn to us and ask, "Can we go there someday?" He would see something on TV, say, about coral reefs, and exclaim, "Hey, it's a humuhumunukunukuapua'a like we saw in Hawai'i!" He began, in short, to identify himself as a traveler.
This past Christmas, we went to southwestern Florida. On this trip, I found his middle school curriculum came to our aid, as they'd been studying various ecosystems in science. Playing that card, as well as getting books on shells, Florida birds, the Everglades, and other things we'd be seeing on the trip insured that by the time we got to Florida he had an entire agenda laid out: he wanted to see alligators, visit the Everglades, ride in a airboat, snorkel in the Keys, and go shelling. As a bonus, we'd finally gotten a videocam and he was the most adept at figuring out how it worked, so we put him in charge of making the vacation video.
After the success of the Florida trip, I broached the subject to my husband: was it time to try Europe with him? Sure, he'd done fine at the beach and out in Washington, where we'd done mostly kid-oriented things, but what about in London or Istanbul?
We let our son know we were considering a trip, but that this would be a different sort of trip. A more grown-up one. Was he ready for it? If the trip didn't work out, we let him know, then we probably wouldn't try another trip like this until he was much older. He'd already experienced being left behind the previous year when I went to London on my own, and he'd impatiently waited for his father to come back from several foreign conferences. His answer, of course, was that he promised to be on his best behavior.
I can honestly say that he was, too. We did similar planning for this trip, using his growing interest in ancient Egypt as a focus for the London portion of the trip and his interest in a computer game called "Byzantium" as a springboard for the Istanbul portion. In both cities, he demonstrated far more patience and enthusiasm than I’d ever hoped. Oh, he wasn't perfect - not by a long shot. But I genuinely enjoyed being with him, which is something I'd never expected back when I declared I wasn't going to travel with him until he was ready for it.
Now he's ready. I figure we have a few more good years before he develops a teenager's aversion to his parents, a few more years to share the world with him before he takes off to see it on his own.