Josh and I arrived in the British capital after two weeks of travel in Ireland, and the crush of people at Heathrow was enough to send us running for cover in the peace and quiet of Hyde Park, near our hotel.
But, as it
was Sunday, the park was filled with rollerbladers, sunbathers, strollers
and orators! In all my years of travel to London, I had never seen Speaker's
Corner in full gear. On this sunny afternoon, however, it was raging!
Approximately 15 evangelists, socialists, and other idealists were standing
atop their stepladders, preaching loudly to onlookers gathered at their
We would spend many more afternoons in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens throughout our stay, taking short breaks to recuperate from the hustle and bustle of the city, feeding birds and squirrels, and rowing boats on the Serpentine, but none would be as educational as this first foray into British culture.
London Bridge Isn't Falling Down
It's hard not to get excited about crisscrossing over and under the bridges of the Thames. Each one is unique: each one has a story of it's own. In our five days of exploring London, we took a boat ride up and down the Thames beneath each bridge, and crossed each bridge at least once, with our favorites being the Tower Bridge and the new Millenium Footbridge.
The Tower Bridge is the one most people think of when they think of London Bridge: a drawbridge with two huge towers on either side, designed to match the architecture of the nearby Tower of London. It's great fun to walk across, staring up at the towers and going into the engine room to learn how the drawbridge works. From the bridge, you can see both sides of the Thames, with fantastic views of Big Ben, the Tower of London, St. Paul's, and the huge pillar that commemorates the great fire of London on Pudding Lane!
The Millenium Footbridge is the newest reach over the Thames. A spidery span open only to pedestrians, it's as spare and futuristic as the Tower Bridge is ornate and ancient. It makes an excellent pathway for getting to the new Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the Millenium Eye, and other attractions on the South Bank. But beware of crossing in the rain! There's no place to duck in for cover!
Prisoners and Jewels
If you want to give kids a good overview of British history (or brush up on it yourself), take them to the Tower of London. It's easy to occupy an entire day wandering the various buildings and chambers, museums and courtyards. Kids will marvel at the Crown Jewels on display and the rooms of arms and armaments, including King Henry the VIII's armour! In the dungeon rooms, kids and adults can read the inscriptions carved into the walls by prisoners, and learn about the man who tried once to steal the Crown Jewels: instead of being executed, he was handsomely rewarded because the king thought it was so funny!
We were treated to impromptu history lessons from costumed guides, and from one of the Beefeaters (the guards whose job it is to guard the Tower), who explained the story of the ravens who live inside the tower walls. The legend says that if the ravens ever leave, the British Empire will fall. Thus, the raven's wings are clipped so they are free to wander the grounds without flying away.
Elsewhere, we read the chronology of the Kings and Queens of England (how many Richards, Henrys, Williams and Elizabeths were there?), and by the end of the day, Josh had it down: he could even recite the first 15 or so in order, something I could never do!
After our official history lessons, we wandered across the Thames to visit the London Dungeon for a history lesson of another kind: the darker side of the great city and empire. The Dungeon is haunted house of sorts, with wax figures and dramatic (and gory) reenactments of the great fire, the plagues, Jack the Ripper, and other notorious horrors. It's a little cheesy, but older kids will love it! Josh was especially intrigued by the reenactment of the trials that sent hundreds of people to the dungeons of the Tower!
This being the year of the Queen's Jubilee, there were numerous opportunities to indulge in Pomp and Circumstance. Josh and I took a morning to watch the changing of the guards, arriving early to get a good spot by the fence outside of Buckingham Palace. The ceremony, which hasn't changed in hundreds of years, is impressive (if a little boring), but Josh was most attracted by the marching band, which in addition to playing the standard old-fashioned repertoire, has added a few new pieces including the theme from the James Bond films!
After watching, we wandered over to Westminster Abbey to pay our respects to the other kings, queens, poets and artists buried inside.
But perhaps the most important Queen we needed to remember was the infamous 1970's and 80's pop band led by the late Freddie Mercury. Josh and I are big fans of Queen, whose Bohemian Rhapsody is one of our favorite songs. Fortunately, a new musical, featuring the music of the legendary band, had just opened on the West End. "We Will Rock You" had been six years in the making, and we were determined to see it.
Attending a West End play is a must-do in London, and unlike Broadway, tickets for most shows are easy to get and relatively inexpensive. We purchased some discount seats and headed to the theatre.
The musical, which tells the story of a future time in which live music is banned only to be revived by a band of rebels, features over 30 Queen tunes sung by some of the top talent in London. The audience is encouraged to participate, giving the show the feel of a rock concert, not a stodgy West End play. And, by the final encore of Bohemian Rhapsody (performed live with a chorus of 40 voices), the audience was on their feet cheering and singing along! Long Live Queen!
The last time I was in London, the closest you could get to Shakespeare performed in a somewhat authentic manner was in Stratford-Upon-Avon. But, with the completion of the new Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on the South Bank, Shakespeare lives on in London.
The new Globe,
the brainchild of American actor Sam Wanamaker, is a living history for
theatre buffs - or for kids who need a little Shakespeare lesson. Reconstructed
to authentic accounts of the theatre in which Shakespeare's plays were
first performed, the open air, thatched roof theatre houses not only a
perfect Elizabethan stage, but also an
In the museum,
Josh learned about Elizabethan theatre, the music and instruments used,
and the controversy over Shakespeare's true identity. He also got a first
hand lesson in Elizabethan costume when I was selected to be "dressed"
as Hamlet in a little performance that explained both costume construction
techniques and history.
We grabbed a bag of nuts and raisins (authentic theatre snacks), and a seat cushion, and entered the theatre. What a fantastic space! While it can house several hundred people, it feels intimate and in spite of the lack of theatrical lighting, the stage is well lit by the night sky.
It was a
perfect Shakespeare experience. The performance was wonderful - funny,
bright and (important for kids) understandable, and the opportunity to
see the Bard's work performed in the Globe was memorable. As a college
theatre major, I was wowed. But more importantly, Josh was, too! Shakespeare
was more than a classroom text to him now.
No visit to London is complete without a little Rock and Roll. The city may not be the center of popular music right now, but for thirty years or so, it produced the most significant rock bands. From the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, Sir Elton John to Sir Mick Jagger, London's Rock and Roll history is, unlike Dublin's more recent and more obscure one, easy to discover.
Josh and I took a tour of Rock and Roll London, visiting such places and King's Road in Chelsea, where much of British music got it's start, Abbey Road, Paul McCartney's home, Notting Hill (reggae counts, too!), and other notable destinations around London. For a mother and child to whom music is so important, it was one of the highlights of the trip, and we couldn't resist having our picture taken crossing Abbey Road barefoot!
Five days isn't a lot of time anywhere, let alone in a world capital, but in the short time we had, we managed to see and do a wide variety of things. In addition to the highlights above, we visited the Sherlock Holmes Museum (actually quite fun for sleuth fans), shopped for picnics in Harrod's Food Halls, gawked at the mummies in The British Museum, bought toys at Hamley's (a Corgi Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-something I had been hunting for years!), saw a movie at one of the HUGE, luxurious theatres in Leicester Square, climbed the steps of St. Paul's to the Whisper Gallery, wandered the funky clothing shops of Camden Market, laughed at the showy gorillas in the London Zoo, and listened to CDs in the Virgin Records Mega Store! We ate fish and chips, curries, and Chinese food, and had tea!
A little history, a little theatre, a little rock and roll - punctuated with breathers in Hyde Park -- and London turned into a fantastic place for kids. I enjoyed it, too!
Next: GoNOMAD in Paris!
IF YOU GO
Hotel London, 13 Craven Terrace, website
· Woo Sang
· Italian Kitchen
and Sole Place
What to Do
If you are planning to be in London for any length of time, it is worth it to purchase a London Pass which offers free admission (and cuts in the queues) to the major sites, including the Tower of London and London Dungeon. Passes are available for specified time periods - up to one week. You can purchase a pass at Rail Europe
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre is absolutely worth a few hours to learn about the Bard and appreciate a performance. Open daily. If you are seeing a show, there is reduced admission to the museum. shakespeares-globe.org
Other options include the Big Bus Tour, which provides hop-on, hop-off bus tours with guided commentary and a special kids' pack. Also includes a free Thames Catamaran ride on the river. Tickets can be purchased in hotels or at Big Bus Tour Stops around town.
Rock and Roll London Tour is a 4 hour van tour of the significant sites of Rock and Roll history with an emphasis on the Beatles and Stones. Worth doing if you have limited time. Otherwise, you can purchase a guide to Rock and Roll London and hit your favorite sites on your own.
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