48 hours in London – with a 5 year-old

A whistle-stop tour of some of London’s tourist hotspots may not be everyone’s idea of fun, particularly with a 5 year-old in tow. But then again, my eldest son is no ordinairy 5 year-old. Yes, I am biassed.

I first took him to London last year, when he had started school nursery and so had primary school holidays, whereas his brother was still at private nursery. The Whit holidays for primary schools in our area last two weeks, whereas those for secondary schools last one week; hence his Dad (sixth-form Maths teacher and provider of school holiday childcare) was still teaching. Myself and my boy ended up at a loose end for three days, and decided to do something exciting – to go to London, stay with a good friend of mine (even if it was on a sofa and mattress in the lounge/dining room), and see the sights.

Growing up in the north-east (Hull, to be exact), I always thought of London as a mystical ‘far away land’ detached from everyday experience. I never visited as a child, and my contemporaries either viewed it with sentimental reverence or barbed distain. I don’t want either for my children; the museums, art galleries and architecture in London are amongst the finest in the country, and are part of their heritage. They should grow up knowing and loving them, regarding them with a light-hearted affection.

My son did very well on that first visit, although the travelling about took it out of him and he got very tired at times. This year, he had more stamina and was more interested in the detail of what I had to show him. We had a brilliant time and crammed an awful lot into just over 48 hours.

We got the train down, which takes about two hours from Manchester and works surprisingly well, providing you are armed with an activity book or two. I packed a large handbag for the daytime and managed to get the rest of our stuff into a 25l rucksack, which is small enough to be accepted into the cloakrooms at most museums and light enough to carry up and down the steps at Tube stations and not cause too much consernation in crowded carriages. Unfortunately, I left it too late to book into first class, which is a shame as we got free sausage sandwiches (i.e. breakfast) last time… plus, I got to savour the look of sheer horror on the faces of fellow grown-ups when I placed a small child in the expensive seats… and their relief when they realised he is actually a pretty well-behaved small child. Yes, I take full credit for that.

We arrived around lunchtime on Monday. I strapped on his ‘busy place wristband’ (carrying my mobile number), then we picked up some lunch at M&S at Euston Station, and walked to Gordon Square for a picnic. It was a beautiful sunny day, and many staff and students of nearby UCL were out in the garden too, sitting in small groups on benches, walls, lawns, and under trees. We were also joined by some over-friendly pigeons and squirrels, but if you’re 5, this is positively delightful. I was intrigued to discover that the Bloomsbury Group had picnicked there just over a century before; illustrious company indeed.

After that, it was on to the British Museum. I absolutely love the eclectic collection here, and the museum shop will happily provide (for a small fee) a children’s guidebook which lists 10 things to spot in various galleries, as well as collections of objects on particular themes. We did the 10 objects ‘treasure hunt’ last time, which went down well, and this time the boy selected animals to hunt for – which was going ok until the tortoise and the peacock turned out to be in the Islamic World gallery, which was closed. We were somewhat over-charged for a Diet Coke in the café and for icecream outside, but it was a hot day, and considering entrance to the museum itself is free – as is usual in the UK – I didn’t feel too aggrieved.

I charged up my Oyster Card at Russell Square and we descended the 175 steps to the Tube (there is a lift, but the spiral staircase is more fun) and made our way to Charing Cross and from there to St Martin in the Fields, which has a brilliant cafetiera-style cafe in the crypt. It’s fabulous value for money, with good quality eats and free iced water, and a relaxed and friendly atmosphere; the cool, subterranean air was also welcome after such a hot day. It’s not well-known, but I always eat there if I have a couple of hours to kill in the early evening in London, waiting for the more affordable trains. Strangely, it’s particularly welcoming if I’m on my own; it seems to attract single men and women who are content to sit and read through dinner, so I have never felt vulnerable or conspicuous becoming one of them – a rare thing indeed.

After that, we made our way to Wallington via Victoria, where I tucked a very tired boy up into his bed on the sofa before drinking wine and talking late into the night with my friend.

The next morning, we got the 9:48 into Victoria (to avoid the commuter rail fares) and on from there to Embankment. We strolled across London Bridge in the sunshine, pausing to take in views of Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast and The Shard. We walked on past Southwark Cathedral to The Golden Hinde, which my son instantly classified as a ‘pirate ship’ before spending a happy couple of hours exploring all four decks (particularly the one with cannon) and the captain’s quarters. He couldn’t quite decide whether he wanted to be the captain (particularly after trying out the ship’s wheel) or ‘the one who fires his cannon furthest and fastest’. It was surprisingly hands-on and accessible, and we were fortunate enough to get there and have it to ourselves before a school group arrived, at which point it was somewhat overrun – it is not a large ship, despite being designed to carry 60 crew!

We paused for lunch at Southwark Cathedral, which was excellent, decent value, and surrounded by a striking exhibition from the City Lights series by John Duffin. Afterwards we strolled down the south bank in the early afternoon sun, hand-in-hand, wearing our shades and summer clothes… it doesn’t get much better than that.

Our destination was HMS Belfast, which was vast by comparison to the Golden Hinde (not surprisingly, as it was designed for 1000 crew!) but similarly hands-on and accessible. We explored the decks, guns, shell room, and exhibitions describing the ship’s development and major battles, and what it was like to live on board. I felt a lot more comfortable talking about where people slept and what they ate, than the details of weaponry, sights, explosives and radar – warfare is something I really have no enthusiasm for. My eldest was in his element, though, so – mission accomplished.

After that, we had an hour or so left before it was time to travel back to Wallington again, so we jumped on a Thames Clipper to the London Eye, then back on the Underground to Queensway, for a quick play in what is possibly the best playground in the world: the Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens. Next time, if the weather is good, we will spend the whole afternoon there – if not the whole day. As it was, my son had time to explore the pirate ship very well indeed, which was fitting considering the boat-related theme of the day. I just-about dragged him away in time.

The next morning we only really had time for one thing, and if you are 5 you cannot come to London and not see the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum. Last time, we visited to find they were being cleaned, so I was very glad to see the exhibition was open again – and so was my eldest. We must have spent over an hour looking at all the skeletons and having a play with many of the interactive elements. After an expectedly expensive trip to the shop, and an unexpectedly expensive tea and cake stop in the café (in retrospect, not too bad… perhaps I’d just had enough of ‘London prices’ by this stage), we did a quick tour of the mammals gallery – complete with lifesize blue whale – and found some hidden gems in the old-fashioned wood and glass cases of the minerals gallery, shown in the photo above. There is an area to the rear of this gallery called The Vault housing precious stones, including the Aurora Collection of 296 diamonds in myriad colours and shapes and sizes; beautiful.

Obviously there was much more to explore, including a visiting exhibition entitled Animal Inside Out from the team behind Body Worlds (my son was moderately intrigued by the plastinated and dissected camel from the exhibition in the Central Hall, but didn’t particularly wish to see more). I also missed visiting the adjacent Science Museum, which is also fascinating and very well presented, but has a more contemporary feel – we visited last time, and my son particularly enjoyed the engines in the entrance hall and Launchpad, a large area designed to help kids get ‘hands on with science’.  The Natural History Museum and Science Museum are a day out in themselves, but there is also the Victoria and Albert Museum just around the corner, for older kids (and parents) interested in art, craft and design.

But we were out of time. It was back to Euston again, via M&S for a late lunch, just in time to catch our train. A lot of wonderful things in a short period, which we will be talking about for weeks and months and maybe years to come.

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