The slowest transport around London is arguably by bus. We reckon it’s also the most relaxing and enjoyable (assuming there’s no need by anyone, especially the kids, for an emergency toilet stop). Sitting in the front seats of the upper deck gave us a roving view of London as we twisted and turned our way through successive village neighbourhoods, revelling in the depth of cultural diversity, marvelling at the scale of green space and counting all the shops spruiking fish and chips or Caribbean jerk chicken.
Past trips to London comprised several days squeezed into an inner city hotel room, zooming around on the Tube, and popping up like moles at major landmarks like Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and the West End. This time was SO different. We found a terrific AirBnB apartment above a haberdashery shop on Portsmouth Road in Forest Hill, several miles south east of the centre. We stepped out the door literally straight into the buzz of London, our brains struggling to engage first gear in order to decode the web of nearby bus stops, then failing miserably, and so followed by a period of time standing around like, well, tourists trying to work out which way is north. We formed an obsessive relationship with the Transport for London website/app to help us navigate around. Squirt was ecstatic that we didn’t have to drive anywhere and reminded us daily of this being the reason for London becoming her favourite place so far. Everyday we walked a lot and the kids rarely complained.
Forest Hill train station was a two-minute walk down the road connecting us with super efficiency to the web of London transport options – overground, underground, water taxis, driverless light rail – each with its own coloured logo that the kids had decoded before we’d even registered. Lisa used the famed electronic Oyster Card and I had a go at using a contactless Visa card. Both systems are very simple to use. Both systems also cap the cost of travel on a daily or weekly basis which saves heaps. Kids travel free on London trains and buses and we calculated a total transport cost over AUD$200 for ten days. Not bad. The buses offer the best value at AUD$3 per adult per trip. Consider the public bus network over the very pricey Hop On Hop Off tours.
Their transport system is amazing (when compared with Adelaide’s!) but it’s a big, busy town and it takes a stonkingly long time to get around. The crowds did wear us down. We watched our kids like a hawk on those vertigo-inducing escalators and traipsed for what felt like hours through the maze of long white-tiled tunnels at each underground station which Bug likened to ‘the Millenium Falcon just before it enters hyperspace’.
When we arrived in London we were all bubbling with excitement, armed with a massive list of ‘must dos’. We left contentedly happy yet totally wrecked and exhausted having crossed a meagre fraction off our list. The great thing is there’s no such thing as a boring or wasted day in this incredible city. Their world class museums and galleries are a wonder to behold and many are free to enter. We got to see less than 10% of them and, of those, we were lucky to see roughly 10% of what each housed. Multiple lifetimes or a time machine are needed to see everything.
We were particularly blown away by Greenwich: the Royal Naval College, Queens House and National Maritime Museum. A whole day was just not enough and we had to bypass the famous Greenwich Observatory. Bug was stoked at seeing the exact riverside location where Thor battled evil forces in The Dark World! Squirt was entranced by a lunchtime guitar recital in Queens House. We were all hypnotised by a robotic rendition of Queen Elizabeth I’s disembodied face. Koala could not get enough of traversing solo in her toy boat across the vast world map painted on the floor of the National Maritime Museum. Loads of fun and gave the kids a great appreciation of how far they are from home.
I celebrated my Piscean birthday with a cupcake on the train, gourmet take away pizza slice in the West End, matinee performance of Aladdin (complete with gin and tonic) and dinner at a Turkish restaurant with our good friends Theresa and Richard. Aladdin was delightful and funny, enchanting both us mums and the kids. We are musical theatre tragics. It was the first time we’ve seen a major production as a whole family and it was lovely to mark the moment on my birthday.
We set aside one day as ‘kids can do whatever they want day’ which Bug calls ‘Boss Day’. So, where did they take us? Stop 1 was Hamleys, the world famous toy store, where we spent three hours over five floors trying every single new toy we could, from air footballs to fake snow to karaoke machines. It was insane and we eventually found the exit, stumbling into the light dazed and confused. Stop 2 was the mega Lego Store in Leicester Square where they all emerged triumphantly with bounty in hand to then drag us across the square to Stop 3 – M&M World – and the largest wall of chocolate on the globe (apparently). At this stage, we waved the white parental flag and gave them complete freedom to fill an enormous bag with every colour of the rainbow. Unicorn M&Ms anyone?
The sun peeked out on London’s warmest winter day on record and we grabbed the chance with gusto to find some green space. London has so much of it! Theresa guided us to the Horniman Museum and Gardens a short walk from our flat where we spent more time outside than in but not before the girls enjoyed a storytime session. We grabbed a bus to Crystal Palace Park and walked miles and miles through the most expansive gardens I’ve ever seen. Coffees, ice creams, playgrounds, a challenging maze, and being more than a little gobsmacked at bikinied sunbathers (in February people!) made for a fun day.
We caught as many forms of transport one day as we possibly could, starting with the overground (to Canada Water), then underground (to Westminster), water taxi (gazing at the sights before passing under Tower Bridge all the way to North Greenwich Pier), Emirates Air Line (to Canary Wharf) and, finally Docklands Light Rail (to London Museum Docklands). It was a gorgeous sunny, calm day and we were all in awe of the views from the cable car watching boats punt up the Thames and planes land at London City Airport. The Docklands Museum was fabulous, with the kids able to work the replica human hamster wheel once used for loading and unloading ship cargo, smell a dozen different exotic spices, walk a recreation of a Victorian-era dock, construct a tunnel and literally build a bridge.
There are so many markets in London and regrettably we could only choose one. Theresa and Richard’s weekly ritual is Saturday morning coffee, pastries and shopping at the iconic Borough Markets near the Thames. So we contentedly trundled along behind them like puppies, being introduced to their favourite friendly stall owners, tasting their wares, lining up for what is widely considered the best coffee in London, and being crushed by insecurity at the choices of mouth-watering street food. We then wandered along the Thames past buskers, the Golden Hinde and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre while one of our offspring succumbed to the meltdown to end all meltdowns almost the entire way to the Tate Modern art gallery. Needless to say, we saw mostly the outside of the Tate Modern.
We were so knackered after several days exploring and, with the weather returning to usual winter programming, we went to the DVD rental shop down the road (surely the last known one in the developed world), hired an armful and flaked on the couch all day.
Theresa works in the arts and organised tickets for the following day to a friend’s comedy theatre show for kids – Mole and Gecko – at the Canada Water Library Theatre. It was nice to retreat from the hum and bustle of the West End and be part of a local community arts scene with a bunch of young families like us.
On the last day we hauled ourselves out the flat to see the Natural History Museum where the kids were captivated by the chance to build a spider, play a dinosaur quiz, track brain neurons and experience an earthquake in a replica Japanese supermarket. The building is stunning (as any fan of the Paddington movie would know). The crowds were not. It was a weekday so there were lots of school groups in addition to the tourist throngs. We’d only covered a fraction of the museum after a couple of hours and naively thought we might get to the neighbouring Science Museum by later in the afternoon but couldn’t honestly face more crowds. If we could try again, we’d visit on a weekday between 3-6pm when the schools have left and the tourist numbers thin out.
Yeah, we know, we know. London is huge and filled to the brim with so much STUFF to do. We learnt our lesson and promise to temper our expectations next time. We’re glad we gave ourselves licence to sidestep some of the big ticket attractions and give time to experience even the smallest slice of London’s village life.