Travel: Back in the Big Smoke

Heading to London with the kids in tow leads Carolyn Batt to see London in a whole new light.


Though we love the nostalgia of the various London icons – the double-decker buses, the Tower of London, the Changing of the Guard – it’s also exciting to witness that the city is full of change. Without losing the charm of its traditions and rich history, London manages to constantly add new layers to its identity, making it a wonderful city to explore, whether you’ve lived there before, have visited already or are yet to be subjected to the delights of Heathrow immigration hall.

A decade after our oldest child was born in London, we have returned to London as a family. Now with three youngsters in tow (aged six, eight and ten years old), we want to share with them the amazing and historic city we enjoyed as newlyweds.

Upon first arriving, jetlag in full force, we seek out the broad open spaces of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. With daffodils blooming and squirrels scurrying beneath the trees, these green havens are just as I remember, and a perfect environment for the kids to experience London.

But a new element has been added to these parks – everywhere I look, I see Londoners and tourists alike cruising on the instantly recognisable blue ‘Boris Bikes’. The subsidised bike scheme, introduced by charismatic London mayor Boris Johnson, has apparently been a costly drain on public resources, but there’s no doubting their popularity and usefulness.

More change is evident down by the Thames, which now appears to be a commuter belt in its own right. The Thames Clipper river taxis chug up and down the river combine commentary on the scenery with transport efficiency, are well-used and provide a different perspective on many well-known sights: the Globe Theatre, Big Ben and the London Eye. But the most thrilling ride we take is the Thames RIB Experience, a high-speed boat that cruises past landmarks like the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge before madly accelerating and tipping from side to side like a rollercoaster on water. Our kids’ shouts of glee drown out the background James Bond music, and I know the Thames will be etched in their memory in a way no tour guide could have achieved.

AFTERNOON TEA is a great English tradition, but these days you can forget the crust-less cucumber sandwiches of times gone by. A number of London hotels are going out of their way not just to be creative, but to appeal to families with children too.

Capitalising on its proximity to the Science Museum, the boutique Ampersand Hotel in South Kensington delights us with a science-themed spread, complete with mysterious drinks in beakers, planet-shaped cupcakes and edible dinosaurs, all shrouded in the smoke-like effect of dry ice. St Ermin’s near St James Park offers ‘InfiniTea and Beyond’ – a superhero afternoon tea featuring Batman cakes and ‘Kryptonite’ strips – while Prêt-à-Portea at the Berkeley Hotel is heaven for famished fashionistas.

Later, over at St Paul’s Cathedral, we climb the 259 time-worn steps to the Whispering Gallery like thousands before us, whisper some secrets to the walls, and then climb again to the Stone Gallery. It’s amazing to think that until the completion of the BT Tower in the 1960s, St Paul’s was the tallest building in London. Now, all around it, the skyline has changed, and there are dozens of soaring viewpoints.

If you have cash to splash then the latest place to go is western Europe’s tallest skyscraper, The Shard, which towers 244 metres above the city and offers views stretching 60 kilometres into the distance. The prices are high to match, though, and make the London Eye seem a bargain, particularly as the ferris wheel pods offer a sneaky peek into Buckingham Palace’s gardens. Then there’s the Emirates Air Line cable car, ‘Up at the O2’ (a climbing experience which gives 360-degree views from the top of the what was once known as the Millennium Dome), and the newly opened ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture and observation tower near the Olympic Stadium.

The most memorable view for me, though, comes from a suite on the 14th floor of the Lancaster London, where we spend our final night in the capital. Perched in a privileged position on the northern side of Hyde Park, the hotel offers a unique perspective on London, thanks to the expanse of green that precedes the icons beyond, including Big Ben, Royal Albert Hall and the London Eye. Without doubt, the bathroom affords the best loo view in town!

THERE ARE TWO newer attractions that our children insist must be a part of any visit to London. In fact, both are just outside the capital, but easily accessible by train. The Harry Potter exhibition at Warner Bros. Studios is a must-see for any Quidditch-loving master of unforgiveable curses, and offers access to such memorable sets as the Gryffindor common room, Diagon Alley and 4 Privet Drive. Be prepared to lose an extra few galleons on Butterbeer, photo mock-ups and merchandise!

The second, Legoland, proves an ideal place to end our holiday. Although easily visited as a day trip, the resort is not far from Heathrow airport, so we instead indulge the kids with a couple of nights at the Legoland Hotel. Our pirate-themed room comfortably sleeps five, and has the huge benefit of granting us early access to the theme park ahead of the crowds. By the time the first day-trippers enter the park, we are already onto our fourth ride, and we jump queues for the rest of the day using a nifty ‘Q-Bot’ device.

As well as the usual rollercoasters, boat rides and electric cars (all with a Lego twist, of course), the resort houses an impressive ‘Miniland’, with expertly crafted replicas of Paris, Copenhagen and London. It is a slightly surreal feeling to be surrounded in the morning by plastic brick versions of so much that we have seen, even including the guards outside Buckingham Palace, and then just a few hours later to be on a long-haul flight back home.

Getting there

<spanstyle=”font-style: italic;”=””>Singapore Airlines has four flights a day to London, with a flight time of around 13.5 hours. Many other airlines also offer a regular service, including British Airways.</spanstyle=”font-style:>