Letter from London June 2012: London for everyone
A trip to the UK’s capital can be overwhelming in its possibilities, but those with children face the additional challenge of keeping boredom at bay for them, without sacrificing the chance to sample the best that grown-up London has to offer. Jane Egginton and her discerning three old let us in on some of their favourite quintessential London experiences and share some of their city secrets
When my son’s otherwise gourmand grandfather suggested an overpriced, poor quality children’s theme restaurant as a venue for our London meet-up I was horrified. Rather than settle for one of those ‘child-friendly’ ghettos, where kids and adults are subjected to poor quality food and brash annoying staff, I took them both off to the exceptional Bingham, which sits right on the river in Richmond.
At The Bingham (www.thebingham.co.uk), the whole family can enjoy Michelin-starred food and service, and younger diners are treated with the utmost respect. My toddler was given the same amuse bouche as us (just without the nuts) and he and his toy horses were then served an exquisite menu with not a chicken nugget in sight. In central London, some of my favourite dining options for families include Boyd’s (www.boydsbrasserie.co.uk), practically on Trafalgar Square and newly refurbished, but as good as ever. For all day, superlative but relatively casual dining, I love The Wolseley (www.thewolseley.com), a classic London offering in the grand European style, where it is never a bad time to eat.
London’s luxury hotels needn’t be snooty; in fact many offer stand out facilities for families which more than justify their price tag. If you can’t afford to stay, consider a visit for a drink, spa treatment or afternoon tea for a long lasting memory of classic London.
I love escaping the tourist hoards and head to Brown’s (www.brownshotel.com) – reported to be the oldest hotel in London. Here, my son is treated to their innovative five-star kids programme. Little ones get a personalised copy of The Jungle Book (Kipling was a regular and finished the book while at the hotel). There’s a special children’s room service menu, and bedtime brings milk and cookies and a surprise teddy bear to share their pillow. Older children are catered for too with their very own teen spa menu.
No one who visits London should miss out on the ultimate English experience of afternoon tea, but I would suggest you avoid the usual suspects and go for one of the less touristy offerings. As well as Brown’s, I can highly recommend the Montcalm hotel (www.montcalm.co.uk), where ‘Teddy’s tea time’ means your son or daughter gets their own bear to take home.
Stepping into the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel (www.marriott.co.uk/st.pancras), I always feel like an excited school kid arriving at Hogwarts for the first time, and on my little boy’s first visit he shares my wonder. Scenes from Harry Potter were filmed at this extraordinary reinvention of a traditional English railway hotel, and there really is a magical feel to the place. I rate the superb subterranean spa, while husband and son hole up in the Booking Office bar and restaurant for classic British fare.
After decades of living in what to me is the most exciting and beautiful city in the world, I still thrill at the sight of the mighty Thames crossed by its historic bridges laid out before me. The London Eye (www.londoneye.com) is expensive and touristy but you can’t beat it for its bird’s eye view of the river and city. I always think it makes the perfect first stop in any London visit and children of all ages love to be in the glass pods of the largest big wheel in the world, as the city reveals itself beneath them.
While down by the river, take to water on one of the many vessels that stop at Festival Pier. The bright yellow, amphibious Duck Tours (www.londonducktours.co.uk) are great fun, and a piece of British history too –they were used to take troops to safety in the D-day landings. For something a bit more adrenaline-fuelled, how about a thrilling speedboat ride on the boats used by special-ops commandos? London RIB Voyages (www.londonribvoyages.com) zip along the river from Festival Pier to Canary Wharf and back while a tour guide points out London’s most iconic sights from the Tower of London to Big Ben.
A visit to London wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a show. If you’re bringing the family to London this August, don’t miss out on the
Kids Week promotion (www.kidsweek.co.uk). Designed to encourage under-16s to experience the unique thrill of live theatre, it allows one child to go free with each paying adult, with up to two more children at half price. This year, the promotion covers a record-breaking 38 shows, and runs through the whole of August (not just one week) as part of the London 2012 Festival. Tickets are on sale from June 12, so don’t miss out on this chance to see the best of London’s legendary theatre without breaking the bank.
Top of my son’s wish list is the stage adaption of The Tiger who Came to Tea, one of my favourite books when I was small and now my toddler’s too. The Olivier Award nominated family show is filled with magic, songs to sing along to and plenty of audience participation. Matilda The Musical (suitable for over-fives) won a record-breaking seven Olivier Awards and has been wowing audiences of all ages. Both these shows are big hits, so you’ll have to be quick to grab a Kids Week package. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical is at London’s Cambridge Theatre until February 2013, while The Tiger who Came to Tea is at the Lyric Theatre for a short run – July 4 to September 2, 2012.
London perhaps does pop-ups better than any other city in the world and in 2012 the scene is bigger and more appealing than ever. This summer, London’s Pleasure Gardens (www.londonpleasuregardens.com) has been created as a pop up playground to allow residents and visitors from all walks of life to experience the tradition of enjoying music and culture in a relaxed open space, just as Dickens did.
One pop up no visitor to the city should miss is the one thing that London really lacks: a beach. This summer, a huge expanse of fine white sand – the biggest man made beach in Europe – has appeared as if by magic on the banks of the Thames. Should the sun decide to shine this summer, you will find my son and me at The Beach London, relaxing with the sand between our toes and an ice cream in our hands, congratulating ourselves that we really do live in the best city in the world.