Posts tagged ‘london’


When I was a junior in college, I spent a year studying at Oxford University. I read (and read, and read), produced two twenty-page essays every week which I then read aloud to my tutors, attended lectures, drank pints of Pimms, ate quantities of curry, rowed on my college crew team, and spent hours around the kitchen table with my four housemates, taste-testing the various grocery store brands of wheatmeal biscuits and chocolate hazelnut spreads.

When we decided to meet Libby and her family during their first week of her summer teaching program in Oxford, I tried to think about what I knew of Oxford which might suit the kids. Biscuits and chocolate: yes. River (though not in a four-person scull): certainly. But the libraries and the lectures and the curry and the Pimms not so much. Googling “Oxford + kids” led me to a link for a multimedia show called the Oxford Experience, which sounded pretty awful. So Tony bought a map (a 3-D pop-up map that Ben popped up and down so often before we arrived that it was starting to get too creased to read) and I figured we’d have a nice, four-day country idyll, punting on the river and wandering the gardens with family before heading home.

Except it was so hot, we hardly wanted to leave our air conditioned apartment. And for the first time on our trip we had downstairs neighbors we needed to be mindful of and suddenly all the boys wanted to do is run, hard, up and down the hall. And wandering around lovely gardens is not really the boys’ cup of tea; for instance they chose to picnic here:

instead of here:

And were understandably more than a little put off by how many and how much of the gardens are just for looking:

Still, the boys loved Oxford because of the glittery linoleum floor in our bathroom (“Treasure!” said Eli); our apartment was equipped with a big kitchen (complete with china tea set!); some of the taxis illustrated the Periodic Table of the Elements (Ben’s new interest):

But most of all, they loved Oxford because they were reunited with their cousin Mariah, who lived with us through the winter and spring:
And despite the heat, an ice cream cone tragedy, the general whininess and travel-weariness, we enjoyed the river:

And a terrific playground:

And the amazing Pitt-Rivers Museum:

which is full of rocks and bones and other cool things, many of which the kids could touch:

And on the last night, I even got my Pimms.


Some people go to Windsor to visit the castle, but when you have a boy who loves Lego and knows how to use Google Maps, you might just find yourself promising a day at Legoland. And it’s a fine place to spend a day, although I have to wonder why, when every ride has a wait of at least fifteen minutes, and you can set out big long Lego tables so that the kids can play while waiting on one of the lines, you wouldn’t put them at all of the lines? Just wondering.

We still rode a lot of rides, and we played mini-golf (where I nearly expired of heat exhaustion), and then — fortified with slushies and lots of cold (but not ice; we were in England, remember) water — we wandered around Mini Land, and that was my favorite part.

Mini Land is definitely pretty random; London is well represented, of course, plus we found the Montmarte neighborhood of Paris (which is where we stayed), Sweden (where one of Ben’s friends is spending the summer), and (most random of all) the NASA shuttle launch pad and astronaut training center. We even got to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, Lego-style, complete with tinny recorded music, which is good because we were not going to wait in line to see it for real:

Tate Modern + London Transport Museum = A Day without Whining!

Maybe it was the Tube ride, the first since we arrived in London three days ago (why did we wait so long?!). Or maybe after almost two weeks away from home we’ve all finally figured out the rhythm of outing-downtime-outing. In many ways, our day didn’t seem any more or less ambitious, any more or less scheduled than any other day, but this is the one day that kept everybody happy all day long: no whining, no sniping, no dragging.

First stop, the Tate Modern, which offers kids’ activities on Sundays. We went straight to the Family Desk and loaded up on activity books and a big sheet of heavyweight paper for the boys to take into the gallery and draw what inspired them. Tony and I took turns, alternating supervising the kids and wandering the fabulous galleries. Ben was delighted to find a gallery in which he could identify every artist (Rothko, Monet, Picasso, Kandinsky, Pollock). The boys explored, drew, and folded their big paper into funny hats.

Next stop, lunch:

Why yes, we are feeling peckish, thank you, and the cafe did very well by us. Not having planned in advance to get reservations anywhere interesting (oh, River Cafe! we’ll see you another time), not to mention the fact that the boys are beyond restaurant-weary by now, this is the most delicious meal Tony and I eat in London (orecchiette with summer squash and broad bean pesto for him, grilled vegetables on ciabatta with a good, vinegary caponata for me). Meanwhile, the boys eat their most elegant monochromatic meal of the trip: plain penne, chips, olives (some color there), and a vanilla/honey smoothie. Tony and I drink a glass of wine, the boys color happily, we watch a big rainstorm blow past.

Next stop, the London Transport Museum, with its fabulous interactive collection of exhibits on all aspects of London bus, boat and tube travel. There are vehicles to board and drive, passports to stamp, light-up, interactive maps and displays. It’s the only London museum at which we paid an admission fee (one more reason to love London: free art!), and it’s worth every penny.

We walk home through Covent Garden, eating ice cream on the way, the boys looking forward to leftover rice for dinner, and feeling happy about our two-museum day.

Greenwich Mean (Whine and Complain) Time

You can get to know a place by climbing a tall thing (or riding one) and looking down, by visiting the grocery store, or by taking a boat ride. In Paris, we rode the Batobus; in London, we rode a boat down the river to Greenwich to visit the Royal Observatory. The boys sat a table drawing elaborate diagrams of imaginary subway systems, while Tony and I enjoyed the ride and took some pictures of sights we’ll visit another time:

There’s no way to capture how beautiful Greenwich was on this day — one camera isn’t big enough to embrace the wide, wide lawns sweeping up from the river to the Royal Observatory, the fragrant, blooming chestnut trees, the blue blue sky, the delicate gardens of lavender and roses winding around iron fences. Also, there’s no way to convey — in words or pictures — how distracted I was by the supreme whining of travel-weary Eli, who by this point is subsisting (not well, clearly) on peanuts and ice cream, and flagging whenever a walk exceeds one block. We jolly him along with scavenger hunts and games of I Spy, or take turns carrying him. I joke at one point that as soon as we start to walk anywhere, he seems to get out his complaint book and page through it, looking for the appropriate grievance. He tells me he has lost his happy book, and I’m dejected, second-guessing this entire ambitious journey, but then he continues that he has a happy book, a laughter book, a silly book, a crying book, a screaming book, a whimpering book… And as the list gets longer and sillier, we both start to laugh and the moment is redeemed.

The walk and the whining have made us miss Greenwich’s big daily event–the big red ball that drops down a short spire on the roof of the Royal Observatory to mark 1 PM–but we take a picture of it anyway:

We order lunch at a cafe at the top of the hill, and laugh about the most polite Keep Off the Grass sign we’ve ever seen:

Then we enter the observatory to look at the Prime Meridian of the World:

and take the obligatory picture of the boys straddling the meridian line:

The building is full of clocks and sextants and telescopes and other navigational equipment which is a little bit over the boys’ heads (it’s frankly over my head) but it’s cool to look at, and maybe we can come back in a few years and it will all make more sense to us.

We stop briefly in the Queen’s House, simply because I want to see the Tulip Stairs. I’m not allowed to take a picture, but others have:

Isn’t it pretty?

And then we go to the National Maritime Museum, which has just enough good, hands-on activities (like a ship’s radio and a boat simulator) to keep everybody happy for well over an hour.

Our walk to the train station is interrupted by a huge thunderstorm — the kind where the thunder is so close and loud it makes you jump; the kind my children have never encountered in San Francisco — and we take shelter in the lobby of a drugstore, buy a few packs of HobNobs, and pass the time, feeling grateful that we hadn’t planned to take the boat back to London. The shop owner eventually, apologetically, asks us to leave (it’s closing time) but not before giving us a cast-off umbrella from the back. We accept it gratefully and make our way to the train station.

Back in our hotel, the boys and I settle in for the evening while Tony scouts Gerrard Street’s dozens of Chinese restaurants to find us some take-out for dinner; it takes him a while to find one that doesn’t scatter pork bits in everything, and the boys don’t love it (we wind up rinsing all the sauce off the broccoli and green beans), but the meal comes with about five pounds of rice, so not even the pickiest child goes hungry at the end of our long day.


The London Eye may be a huge tourist trap, but when you visit an unfamiliar city, there are two ways to get to know it: visit the grocery store, and then get up as high as you can: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York. (In San Francisco you only need a good hill, though we walk our house guests over to the de Young museum’s tower). Here in London, we sail up high and back down again; the boys adore the ride. Our hotel room has a view of Big Ben, so the boys say good night and good morning to it every day, counting up the low-flying airplanes, jetting in and out of Heathrow, as they sit by the window.