Our itinerary was built around the trinity of dinosaur fossils, a clock tower, and a big wheel. Everything else would be a bonus. So said my six-year-old son, Caelum, after I had revealed his Christmas gift — a two-night trip to London.
Yes, there were plenty of bones of extinct reptiles and views of every angle of Big Ben (except the bell itself), and the slow rise and fall over the city at night inside a glass bubble over the Thames.
Those were the big experiences. But it was the little things that we both remember most fondly from our trip: the billowing thrill of a train hurtling through a Tube station; self-decorated cakes in the hotel kitchen; carved lion heads lining the Thames viewed from the river; Henry VIII’s armour; tasty late-night pizza among dozens of dating couples; mayhem inside the oldest toyshop in the world.
Planning the trip began months earlier with a quick check online for school holidays in Britain. I had been to London before and remembered how packed the sites had been.
The Natural History Museum had been so thronged that I couldn’t get into the famed dinosaur collection and caught only glimpses of other exhibits past the heads of dozens of onlookers. With a six-year-old in tow I was determined to go when the crowds would be at a minimum. His teacher was notified. There would be lots of learning during the trip, I promised. I booked our flights — out on the Thursday and back on the Saturday.
After a swift flight into Gatwick we made for the desk to buy train tickets. With Southern trains into Victoria station every 10 minutes, you won’t be waiting too long so it’s best to purchase when you arrive. Half an hour later we walked the 200 metres to our hotel, which happens to be the closest accommodation to Buckingham Palace. You can’t get more central than that.
I’ve been to hotels that call themselves ‘family-friendly’. This could mean that they can supply a cot or that they serve Weetabix at breakfast. I was interested to find out why the Rubens at the Palace hotel calls itself “one of London’s leading hotels for families”. I got my first insight while I was checking in. One of the staff, Paula, whisked Caelum away to a check-in desk for children, where he filled out his own forms and received a hotel passport.
The Rubens is part of the Red Carnation Hotel group, which recently acquired Ashford Castle in Cong, Co Mayo. Our room was the right balance of comfortable and luxurious. From the windows we could see the comings and goings of the Queen’s guardsmen, though it was mostly via 4x4s. We abandoned our luggage and retraced our steps to catch a Tube to our first port of call — the museum.
Upon entering the world-famous NHM, with its equally famous diplodocus ‘Dippy’ in the entrance hall, I knew I had made the right decision in taking Caelum out of school for the trip. Compared with the last time I had been here — on a Saturday in May — the place was deserted. It was like having it to ourselves to explore. No queues awaited us outside the dinosaur section. No slow-moving mass of tourists clogging the gangways and twisting routes inside. We didn’t need to wait for someone to finish reading text or taking a picture before we could get up close and personal with fossils that were at least 65 million years old. Even when we paused to get something to eat we found a vacant table at which to enjoy it.We left the museum at closing time and took two Tube rides to the London Eye, getting there at 7.30pm when things were equally quiet. The cold but dry weather allowed unhindered views of the city sprawling north and south of the Thames, though it is hard not to be drawn to the nearby Big Ben and Houses of Parliament throughout the 30-minute revolution.
Caelum was more interested in the touch screen monitors inside the gondola which named a lot of the famous buildings and structures below us. Because we had arrived so late, we missed out on the ‘4D Experience’ available in the reception area. It’s a short 3D movie aided by wind machines and a sprayed foam telling the story of the London Eye.We should have watched it before getting on the big wheel, but enjoyed it all the same. After an eyeful of the city we flagged down one its famous black cabs and told the bemused driver to take us to a pizzeria. Minutes later we were seated in Fire and Stone, a vibrant restaurant in Covent Garden. Seconds later I noticed we were surrounded mostly by dating couples. Caelum was yawning before we polished off cinnamon-coated dough strips for dessert.
The next morning after breakfast, the Rubens revealed its expertise in making a stay at the hotel a fun experience for children. Caelum changed into a chef’s uniform and was taken to where the hotel staff work their magic.
In a small kitchen he met Danielle, a French pastry chef with whom he decorated cakes, dipped strawberries and generally had food-based fun. Paula explained that the Rubens usually — that is, not on a Friday when the schools were full — catered for three or four junior chefs. Caelum and I carried his sweet handiwork back to our room where all the intricacies of icing were horribly defaced by greedy fingers.
But the Rubens wasn’t finished with its young Irish guest. When we descended again, Caelum was taken on a ‘treasure hunt’ by Paula around the lobby, nearby rooms and outside to find the hotel’s ‘living wall’, and filling in a map as he went. While he was entertained, the hotel’s ‘Director of Fun’ — Tom, the concierge — helped me book a Duck Tour online.
Duck Tours are similar to Dublin’s Viking Splash Tours, but without the horned helmets and roaring. London’s version begins in the shadow of the Eye and weaves through streets filled with a millennium of history.
Our guide, Nick, set the educational and fun tone by quickly apologising to the Danish family on board for the Battle of Copenhagen (1807) and to his Irish charges for Oliver Cromwell (1649-50). All was forgiven when the WW2 amphibious vehicle ducked down a lane adjacent to the MI6 building and began sailing down the Thames, revealing many of London’s hidden treasures, some carved into the stone banks and only noticed from the water. To this day, Caelum still repeats the legend: “When the lions drink, the city will sink.”
By lunchtime we were across the city at the Tower, eyeing the ravens and marvelling at the crown jewels. Again, I can imagine how much less enjoyable it would have been to go there at peak tourism times. Even with the place practically emptied, there were choke points on stairs and in tight corners.
The view of Tower Bridge was spectacular in the sunlight, but we nixed our plans to experience its recently added glass walkway above the traffic. Caelum was showing signs of his age — his feet throbbed from the miles we had covered. So, it was back to the Rubens for cake and a bubble bath. Did I tell you that young guests are presented with a bathrobe and slippers? And Caelum had cookies and a glass of milk waiting for him as well.
Evening #2’s entertainment was a trip to the Apollo theatre, literally a two-minute walk from the hotel, to see the all-conquering Oz-prequel, Wicked. A lot of its twists, turns and themes went over Caelum’s head, but he enjoyed the energy of the show. During the interval, people forked out £5 for small buckets of popcorn.
On our final morning in the megacity, we took a trip to Hamley’s — the oldest and one of the largest toyshops in the world. Its five floors were packed with smiling kids and worried parents — worried because of the imminent damage to the wallets wrought by their offspring. Everything there is expensive. You could drop £30 easily and emerge only with a small toy car and a Hamleys bag to let everyone know where you got it. The place is also swarming with staff who fly drones, perform magic tricks and generally show you what’s in all those coloured boxes on the shelves. The Saturday crowd reminded me of what we had avoided during the previous two days. Before we knew it, our time in London ran out. We caught our train back to Gatwick, then our quick flight back to Cork, carrying with us bulging bags and fantastic memories. Caelum and I were both wrecked, though he was spared mental fatigue.
Minding a child in a big city is tough work. You have to keep them close. You also have to think two or three steps ahead, calculating safe routes and places to grab proper food. Having less dense crowds to navigate through and an increased probability of finding empty seats in most places you visit, was worth more than the crown jewels.
During the flight home, we talked about the highlights of the trip. Caelum never mentioned dinosaurs, or Big Ben, or the London Eye. He spoke about all the small experiences he had had in the big city.
Because even a six-year-old knows it’s the little things that make every journey special.
: Wide selection of flights on offer from Aer Lingus and Ryanair into all London airports, starting from €19.99.
Train from Gatwick- from £15 (€20.5) per adult, £8 per child.
: Two inter-connecting Superior King rooms at Rubens at the Palace hotel, (above), from £454.00 per room, per night. More at rubenshotel.com. (Courtesy of visitengland.com)
• Natural History Museum — free entry: www.nhm.ac.uk.
• London Eye — £29.99 a ticket, £119.80 for family of four: londoneye.com
• Duck Tour — £24 per adult, £16 per child, £70 per family: londonducktours.co.uk
• Tower of London — £24.50 per adult, £11 per child, £60 per family: hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon
• London Bridge — £9 per adult, £4 per child: www.towerbridge.org.uk
• Wicked at the Apollo — tickets from £17.50: wickedthemusical.co.uk/wicked-london
(You can purchase cheaper tickets for tourist sites online before you go, but you may be given a designated time slot.)