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On the smell of an oily rag (or almost)

Anthea Rowen acts as our London Tour Guide and visits the best places to take your kids without breaking the bank.

Ever since I worked there, back in the big-hair, broad-shoulder­padded, heydays of the eighties, London has remained fast in my affections. Though its urban sprawl is barely contained by the – sometimes stagnant ­ circumnavigation of the M25 (not for nothing is it called Europe’s biggest carpark), its beating heart is a tightly packed centre bursting with colour and vibrancy and more historical buildings than you can shake a stick at.

But an abiding fondness for a place does not obscure the fact that London is amongst the top twenty most expensive cities in the world, just beneath Beijing and just above notoriously pricey Paris. It does not cushion the reality that to enjoy a day in the capital could necessitate taking out something akin to a mortgage and so it was with a modicum of alarm that I heard my youngest inform me that we, we, were spending a day, a whole day, in London with Beth.

Who is a Londoner and the progeny of London­living and London­earning parents who presumably have the wherewithal to ‘Do London’ on more than the scent of the oily rag I proposed doing it on. I am not, I gently reminded my daughter, a City earner anymore. She looked blank. We were going. That was that.

My conscience, as a then home-schooling parent, got the better of me, particularly as Beth, similarly educated, in the vagaries of the ether in an invisible classroom with my own daughter, was, Hattie professed my best friend in the whole class. That we were in England anyway was at least a head start.

We arrived in Covent Garden, our designated rendezvous, early on a bright, bright Indian summer’s morning, armed with our One Day travel cards and Hattie’s broad smile.

The land on which Covent Garden stands has been occupied for almost 2,000 years making it the oldest inhabited part of London. After the City of London was devastated in the great fire of 1666, trade moved westwards to Covent Garden where the seeds of the famous fruit, vegetable and flower market were sown and flourished for 300 years before relocating as New Covent Garden (in the south of the capital) during the 1970s.

Since then Covent Garden has developed a new character, one of cosmopolitan and sometimes unconventional entertainment: John Logie Baird broadcast the first television programme from here and a hoaxer used the place as a platform to parade the mermaid he’d apparently caught in China.

Whilst Hattie and I didn’t see any mermaids, we did enjoy the antics and the skills of a plethora of performers whilst we waited: musicians, comedians, magicians and a knife-juggling tight­rope walker. All, unless you felt compelled to toss a pound into a cap (and we did for such is my daughter’s altruism), for nothing.

Having never met Beth or her parent s before my anxiety sustained until I did; I had, in an email, indicated that as Londoners they ought to be in charge of the day and though I’d made small, polite reference to ‘not being terribly flush’ for all I knew they might have overlooked that entirely and booked lunch at Claridges.

I needn’t have worried. They arrived eminently practical and full of fun. We’ll walk, declared, Beth’s dad, ‘it’s a lovely day and on foot Hattie will see the best of London’. But first, Beth’s mum insisted, I need a coffee and a fag. We drank cappuccino inside and she smoked a quick cigarette outside, this being the new shiny smoke free London that had replaced the one I left: where an evening in the pub might have left you rank as an ashtray but your wallet less light than it would after a round of drinks now.

From Covent Garden we walked to Trafalgar Square where the stone lions basked warm in the sun whilst pigeons deposited droppings on their heads and Nelson stood tall upon his column. We climbed the steps to the National Gallery, admission free, and identified the paintings the girls wanted to see given prevailing history lessons on the French Revolution and the Civil War. Beth’s mother busied herself collecting leaflets, ‘these’, she told me, ‘are for when the London Education Authority come knocking on the door to ask nosy questions about whether our home-schooled daughter is actually learning anything, do they hassle you?’. I laughed and told her that my geography was so compromised it even arm-wrestled the long reach of the LEA into submission.

With fistfuls of brochures we sallied forth, down pink surfaced Pall Mall (which takes its name from the game ‘palle­maille’, a cross between croquet and golf, that was played here in the early­17th century) so that the girls could pose for a picture beneath Admiralty Arch which marks one end of the Mall and where Hattie could observe the route of dozens of monarchs over hundreds of years.

We walked alongside St James’ Park gilded green-gold in the late summer sunshine, families picnicked on the grass and couples sprawled. We walked all the way down to Buckingham Palace and Hattie enquired if we thought the Queen was in and whether we could nip up for tea; she wasn’t ,Beth’s dad told her: the wrong flag was flying.

From there we stole brief peace in the shaded still of Birdcage Walk and I marvelled at the serenity that could be found in a city mostly loud with the tread of a thousand feet, the rattle of black cabs’ diesel engines and the wheezing of red buses. Big Ben’s iconic face came into view watching over the imperious façade of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament.

The London Eye peered at us from over the tree tops; I had persuaded Hattie that my lack of finance and a bad case of vertigo put that, most definitely, off-limits.

Footsore we opted to take a river taxi east and with travel cards bought for the Tube we got generously discounted fares and clambered aboard a boat where we sat on the top deck situated to enjoy the sun and the abounding sights that present as you cruise from Parliament all the way to the Tower of London.

Free Museums in London for Kids

Natural History Museum a must, for the dinosaurs alone.

The Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood for the dolls, the dolls’ houses and the puppets

The Science Museum full of interactive stuff for kids, they won’t get bored even if you do

Horniman Museum 16 acres of gardens to stretch little legs plus an aquarium and a Nature Base with real live animals

National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, kids can simulate parking a vessel in port, loading cargo and even firing a cannon

A trip down the Thames is, indubitably, one of the best – not to say most restful and least expensive – ways to see the city. The boat we took on this occasion was devoid of commentary which didn’t matter for we had our own guides in the form of Beth’s parents and because I had done a similar trip once before when I learned, amongst other things, that there is a glass walled gym tucked beneath one of the bridges that span the river. Its members were told they were safe to enjoy the club in near­nudity, until the river taxis reminded them otherwise …

We sailed past Cleopatra’s Needle, the 186 ton, 60 feet tall granite obelisk which, having lain buried for centuries beneath the desert sands of Alexandria, was given as a gift to the British by the Turkish Viceroy of Egypt in 1819. The needle dates back to 1475BC and is inscribed with dedications to several gods and the names of Ramses and Cleopatra. She is guarded by two sphinxes which ought to have been installed to watch over her, but a miscommunication means they face out, their backs firmly, and rather rudely, to their charge.

With Shakespeare very much on the school curriculum at the time and the girls battling to comprehend the stage language of Midsummer Night’s Dream and the soliloquies of Othello, the National Theatre was an important landmark: it was formed in 1907 as the Shakespeare National Theatre Committee. Further up the bank, Beth pointed out the Globe Theatre which has been built to replicate as closely as possible the original. The first Globe Theatre, which opened in 1598, was a round, wooden theatre with no roof so it was only open in the summer. William Shakespeare was both an actor and a shareholder here. During a performance of his Henry VIII, in 1613, the thatch caught light when a cannon was fired and the theatre was destroyed. It was rebuilt and opened again the following year but was closed in 1642 by the Puritans.

London’s skyline punctuated the blue and the spires of famous old churches like that of St Dunstan’s and Southwark Cathedral pierced it. We passed beneath half a dozen bridges whose names are part of childhood everywhere, irrespective of where one grows up for they crop up in nursery rhymes and literature. Charles Dickens describes “Little Dorrit” crossing an “iron bridge” to get to and from Marshalsea Prison, that was the first Southwark Bridge which was opened by lamplight as St Paul’s struck midnight in 1819. The present bridge was completed in 1921.

Blackfriars Bridge was the third to span the river; it opened in 1769, it’s modern successor in 1869 and it was under the bridge’s first arch that Roberto Calvi, head of the Vatican Bank and nicknamed ‘God’s Banker’ was found hanged.

Waterloo Bridge was officially opened on the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and was described by Canova as ‘the noblest bridge in the world, worth a visit from the remotest corners of the earth.’ Its modern-day replacement was built by women during the World Wars.

But of all the bridges that link one side of the city with the other across the broad and tidal Thames, London Bridge is the oldest and the most iconic. It has existed here, being rebuilt and remodelled over the ages, since the time of the Romans. Wooden then, it was knocked down or fell over with alarming frequency: In 1014 King Ethelred and King Olaf burned it down to divide Danish invaders. In 1091 a gale felled another, in 1136, fire again robbed London of its crossing.

4 Cheap Places to Eat with Kids

Weather permitting, nothing beats a picnic in any one of London’s glorious parks: St James, Hyde Park, Green Park, Kensington Palace Gardens … London boasts more green space than any other capital city in the world.

Belgo Central in Covent Garden the Mini menu means kids aged 12 and under eat free providing an accompanying adult orders from the a la carte.

Café Rouge  offers a special kids menu and London’s best activity packs for kids so they’re busy whilst you indulge a little

Imli  cheap Indian style food, a three-course meal from the kids’ menu costs little more than a fiver.

The first stone bridge was begun in 1176. But that didn’t put an end to the bridge’s misfortunes: in 1213, a large number of people were trapped on the bridge when it caught fire at both ends. In the ensuing panic three thousand people died either by fire or drowning. Its morbid history was extended when it became fashionable to display the heads of traitors on pikes on the southern side. The heads were boiled and dipped in tar to preserve them, a vogue that sustained for centuries: Thomas More and Bishop Fisher both had their heads put on spikes after falling out with Henry VIII. In 1831, a new bridge was opened By William IV. It was sold to the States when the present bridge – which opened in 1972 ­ was built, and is now at Lake Havasu City, Arizona. The story goes that the Americans paid quarter of a million pounds for the bridge, thinking that they were buying the famous gateway to the Thames: Tower Bridge.

It was at the Tower of London, just before Tower Bridge with its opening arms, that we disembarked.

We didn’t go in, the queues were too long and admission too steep. But Hattie did recognize Traitor’s Gate and the girls giggled at the Beefeaters. What I learned later was that had we had the energy and had I employed two months foresight we could have witnessed the Ceremony of the Keys which is a nightly event that has persisted for 700 years. Every night, at 21.53 precisely, the Tower is locked up by the Chief Yeoman Warder. He locks up a series of gates, but it is not until his advance to the Bloody Tower that the famous and historical words are spoken:

A sentry challenges his approach: ‘Halt! Who comes there?’ ‘The keys’, comes the response.

‘Whose keys?’

‘Queen Elizabeth’s keys.

‘Advance, Queen Elizabeth’s keys. All’s well’.

With all the towers locked the ceremony, free to those who apply in writing and with weeks to spare, is over at 22.05

From the Tower we took the subway west and wandered across Millennium Bridge to eye up the art at the Tate Modern, on the way we enjoyed pavement art which abounds in many parts of the city – you can enjoy street art for nothing in lots of places, the 4th Plinth in Trafalgar Square and for modern art and graffiti aficionados popular guerrilla artist Banksy’s work can be witnessed right across London. The Tate Modern is perfect for teens and younger children alike – it’s super cool and super child friendly all at the same time; we admired a ceiling high sculpture made out of forks and the girls giggled at the sometimes silliness of contemporary art pitched against the serious exhibitions earlier that day at the National Gallery.

Must Do’s With The Kids

(apart from taking a river taxi of course …)

Buckingham Palace (because every little girl’s got a princess inside her somewhere and every little boy wants to know where they hide the cannons)

Watch the Changing of the Guards
Use your travel card and take a double-decker bus anywhere.

Getting there
Travel to London from Dubai is easy with over 16 direct flights per day

With twists of caramel popcorn brought from a street vendor it was time to wend our back over steely, streamlined Millennium Bridge which lies in the shadow of St Paul’s. Mark Ione was thought to be been built on the site of the Roman’s Temple of Diana and dedicated to St. Paul in 604. The present St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by the brilliant Christopher Wren, is the fifth to have been built on the same site. Construction began in 1675 and was finished in 1710. Wren’s original design included a steeple, but he decided that his masterpiece should have a dome instead.

It is said that while Wren was building St. Paul’s he stayed in a house on Cardinal’s Wharf, because it gave a clear view of the progress of his great work. That house is still there.

We walked to the tube station by the same name around the corner, trailing hands along the sun-warmed walls of this magnificent building, staring up into an azure sky at its domes bellied high and thought of the city it had watched grow and the monarchs it had seen come and go and I was struck at how easy it is to absorb our history when it is still here, so tangible.

So accessible. So instantly gratifying. So – and this was the best bit – affordable.

Hattie just thought what a great day out she’d had.

Images: Diliff, F&TA, iStock, Shutterstock.
Words by: Anthea Rowen

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