So I was in the UK for another visit with the Outlaws, and this time we decided not to rush across to Pembrokeshire straightaway. Instead, we spent 2 nights in the Greater London region – which meant that we had a WHOLE DAY to explore Central London.
We were all rather jet lagged from our long flight, so we decided to do a leisurely walking tour of London, skipping the museums and spending most of the time outdoors instead.
With that in mind, we set off in the early in the morning via the London Underground to Green Park Station. This station is at the junction of three subway lines – Piccadilly, Jubilee and Victoria – which makes it fairly easy to get to.
We were staying about 45 minutes outside of London, so we had to buy peak travelcards (for travel before 9:30am) which were quite pricey. Fortunately, children under 11 years old travel for free on all forms of transport in London when accompanied by a fare-paying adult, so that helped a lot!
Travel Tip: If you are planning to stay for more than 1 day in London, it’s worth getting a Visitor’s Oyster card before you arrive. This is a stored value card which works on all transportation within London and the cheapest way for tourists to get around! You can even use it to get discounts on the River Bus and Cable Cars.
At Green Park Station, it was quite easy to follow the signs through Green Park towards Buckingham Palace. As the Queen’s Birthday is traditionally held on a weekend in June, the Royal Standard was flying high and proud at the top of the building, to signify that the Queen was in residence. Indeed, there was an air of activity around the whole place and we could even hear the sound of bagpipes coming from the palace.
After peering through the barred gates at the Queen’s guards, we headed across the road for a leisurely stroll through St James’s Park. This is a beautifully landscaped park with a lake in the centre and is the oldest of the Royal Parks. It is home to a surprising number of wildlife – waterfowl (including pelicans, of all things), songbirds and squirrels.
The park also has a little children’s play area, and there are plenty of little kiosks selling all manner of refreshments. Restrooms are also easily accessible, and the paths are wide and pushchair-friendly.
At the other end of the park, we walked along The Mall (the Queen’s ceremonial route from Buckingham Palace) with its fluttering Union flags, to reach Admiralty Arch. This Arch was built in memory of Queen Victoria, and separates The Mall from Trafalgar Square, which was our next stop.
If the kids were a little bit older, we might have spent more time exploring Trafalgar Square, perhaps even staying to listen to a free recital at St. Martin In The Fields or have a peek at The National Gallery (admission is free). But, after briefly admiring Nelson’s Column and its lions, we turned down Whitehall and walked past Great Scotland Yard, in order to reach the Horse Guards.
Horse Guards on Whitehall is the headquarters of the Household Division, in which the Household Calvary reside. There is a Household Calvary Museum onsite which is a living museum where one can observe the troopers working with horses in stables dating back to the 18th Century, as well as find out more about HM the Queen’s Mounted Bodyguards. This is a particularly great museum for kids (and pony-mad little girlies).
We decided to stop here for a quick snack break, whilst waiting for the daily changing of the Horse Guards at the parade grounds which begins at around 10:45 am (on Monday to Saturday, 10am on Sunday), with the main part of the ceremony at 11:00am.
Little E and J were really fascinated by all the pomp and circumstance! It was not even as crowded as I anticipated, and there was plenty of room for everyone to have a look in.
We did not stay until the end of the ceremony as once the two groups of guards were all lined up, there seemed to be a great deal of waiting around. The Horse Guards eventually head down towards Buckingham Palace for the Guard Mounting ceremony at 11:30am. I think it would be possible to follow the calvary down to the palace, but we didn’t have the stamina for that!
Instead we continued down Whitehall, passing by the Cabinet Office and 10 Downing Street to reach Westminster Abbey.
By this time, Little E had sunk into a sleep so deep, she did not even hear the chiming of Big Ben!
Instead of stopping to visit Westminster Abbey and its crypts full of famous poets and kings, we headed for Westminster Pier on the River Thames, where we could see the London Eye.
At Westminster Pier, we bought tickets for the River Bus (operated by Thames Clippers), which is a really great way to see many of the landmarks of London. We purchased a single ticket from Westminster Pier to Tower Pier, then boarded the boat for a relaxing cruise down the River Thames.
I stayed with the sleeping Little E in the main cabin, watching through the windows at the sights, whilst The Barn Owl took J up to the deck, to enjoy the open air.
The Captain of the boat was kind enough to give us a running commentary during the entire duration of our trip, pointing out the various architectural wonders and telling us a little bit about their history and construction.
We alighted the River Bus at Tower Pier, in front of the Tower of London. From here, we walked across Tower Bridge and met up with some old friends at the local greasy spoon for a cheap and cheerful lunch.
Tower Bridge itself has several exhibition rooms, showcasing the Victorian engine rooms and the workings of the bridge, as well as access to the high level walkways which boast stunning panoramic views of the London skyline. Later on in the day, we were privileged to be present for the rare sight of the bascules being lifted to admit a large cruise liner!
After lunch, we headed back to the Tower of London. We prebooked our tickets to the Tower via their website, which not only meant that we skipped the ticket queues, but also saved us a bundle!
I stopped by the visitor’s centre and collected special activity trails for J and Little E. These activity trails are available free of charge, and are tailored to a range of different ages. The trails also came with an exclusive pencil and pin button set, for the Practicing Princess and Knight-in-Training! J and Little E were absolutely thrilled!
I have to say that the most exciting part of our visit to the Tower was standing at the Traitor’s Gate. J was enthralled with the idea of a special water door just for traitors and asked us a million questions about the sort of people who ended up as prisoners of the Tower.
Inside the Tower, we hoped to follow one of the Beefeaters for a free guided tour of the grounds, but we were distracted by the many activities available for kids.
J joined the knight school and learned all about medieval weaponry and had a chance to examine an enormous siege engine. Little E watched scribes use feather quills to write on parchment, and then busied herself with picking daisies in the field.
Much to our disappointment, there were tremendous snaking queues to the Tower’s torture chambers and the crown jewels, so after some deliberation, we decided to give those a miss.
By the time we finished exploring the Tower of London, it was nearly 5pm, and the kids were completely wilted from walking around all day, so we decided to hop back on the tube at Tower Hill and avoid the rush hour crowd. If the kids were a little bit older, we might have headed to Covent Garden for dinner, and perhaps attended a West End musical!
I guess this means that we’ll have to visit again on another day!