Family Travel in London – Why Now?
Part 1 of a 3 Part European Tour
The economy generally sucks, and the common wisdom is to keep one’s powder dry and plan a staycation. So why did I pack up my wife and two daughters for a three week vacation in Europe? Partly because we maintain a streak of contrarianism and partly because we had been sitting on a bunch of frequent mile and frequent sleeper awards.
In the case of our airline travel, we converted points into four round trip airline tickets. I was loathe to use traditional frequent flyer miles, partly because of the horror stories of searching for flights on popular routes but mostly because I did not want to miss out on the tumbling airfares. Converting points from our credit card program gave us a better feeling that we were leveraging the grim economics facing the airlines. So off we flew from LAX, destination Heathrow. Strategic use of melatonin and lots of glorious British sunshine (it is actually available more than folks think) had us avoiding the dreaded jetlag. We immediately set out for a long walk through Leicester Square and Covent Garden, reliving some prior days of my early journalism efforts. An outdoor trattoria was the perfect source for some Italian comfort food; pasta Bolognese has been proven in my family to restore energy, memory and muscle tone.
Big Ben – As Seen by Ellie from The London Eye (photo by Carly Auerbach)
The next morning, even brighter than the day before, started with our “flight” on the London Eye. This massive ferris wheel was erected in 1999 for the Jubilee Year, and towers over the edge of The Thames. The Eye understandably attracts over 3 million people a year. Each of the 32 capsules (one for each London borough) holds about a dozen people, and the ~$25 ticket entitles each person to one revolution, lasting about 30 minutes. At the apogee, the view is spectacular. Our view soared past Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, past Buckingham Palace and on to the green foliage in the miles beyond. Later on the trip, we enjoyed a walk on one of those green fields. Hampstead Heath to the north is a gorgeous and sprawling space, from which we could look back to the center of London. The river boat ride immediately after our London Eye flight offered a more prosaic overview of life along the muddy still-vibrant lifeblood of the city. The Old Globe and the Tate Modern became a target for us once back on shore.
Tower Bridge – Not London Bridge (photo by Carly Auerbach)
We crossed over the infamous “Wobbly Bridge” for a tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The footbridge officially known as the Millennium Bridge was reopened after pedestrians noticed a certain wobble, about which the architect disavowed responsibility. We were able to visit St. Paul’s and a bounty of other classic spots via The London Pass. Embedded with a computer chip, the credit card allows free and expedited entry to over 55 London venues, including Tower of London, Windsor Castle, HMS Belfast, etc. The cost is ~$63 per day for adults, and cheaper for kids and cheaper per day with multi-day options. By purchasing a separate London Transport TravelCard, one can scoot around on the Tube and the modernized double-decker buses, and easily exceed the value of the London Pass.
The Wobbly Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral (photo by Carly Auerbach)
The Haymarket Hotel represents the sixth London hotel launched by the intrepid Tim and Kit Kemp. The couple completely refurbished a stunning building designed by John Nash (most famous as the architect of Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and other places of considerable note). The result is both stunning and understated. The hotel, which opened two years ago, quietly boasts 50 individually designed bedrooms and suites, with plenty of bespoke fabrics and wallpapers. The seemingly incongruous blend of antique and modern furniture works very well. The bedrooms and suites are some of the largest to be found in London. Whereas other quality boutique hotels repeat their motif through every room, the Kemps’ touch is to keep the eye surprised at every turn. English grace was imbued by each member of the staff we encountered. Our daughters were in heaven swimming in the underground pool. Actually the pool is surrounded by a pewter bar and seating areas, all bathed in a constantly shifting colorful light installation. It was a swimming pool unlike any other. Each of the five senses was subtly satiated at the Haymarket Hotel; we fell asleep to the delicate scent of lavender on our plush beds.
The Haymarket Hotel – The Swimming Pool
The Haymarket Hotel – A Suite
The Haymarket Hotel – The Library
The one demand we allowed our children to make upon our London itinerary was Abbey Road. Rather than a simple pedestrian visit to the famous crosswalk to shoot our inevitable family Christmas picture card, we signed on for Richard Porter’s well-regarded Beatles Walking Tour. An affable native of London, Richard led us through his personally designed tour. With stops both obscure and requisite, he kept us enchanted with his obvious love and knowledge of the subject matter. Some say there is a fuzzy line between obsessive trainspotting and a healthy approach to a subject, but if you are a fan, you revel in the minutiae. Fortunately, all of us on the tour were happily exchanging stories and bits of Beatles trivia. The doorstep of the Beatles final concert was especially evocative; one imagines the opening chords of “Get Back” rolling down the streets from the roof above. Richard has organized a 40th anniversary walk across the famous Abbey Road zebra crosswalk for August 8, 2009, and hundreds of fans are expected to walk in the footsteps of the foursome and the millions of pilgrims who have already been there.
After our walking tour, we dashed any traces of peckishness at 51 Buckingham Gate, located in the heart of Westminster. We had a lovely meal in the appropriately named Courtyard, a sun-dappled open area tucked away from the bustle of the thoroughfare. We arrived a bit before our 1pm reservation, and Jonathon the host got us settled nicely.
51 Buckingham Gate – The Courtyard
Scott the chef had some fuel difficulty with his gas grill, but once sorted out he delivered a tasty ensemble of fish and chicken. The menu’s theme evolves daily and during our visit we had Quilon-inspired cuisine, informed by southern Indian coastal stylings. Fresh vegetables and aromatic accoutrements made the meal complete but not overly heavy. Being only a few blocks from Buckingham Palace, we were able to see the guards going through their paces outside the traditional 11.30am guard changing behavior.
For a superb British supper (once an oxymoron), an ideal restaurant is The Albemarle. Situated in the Browns Hotel, London’s oldest hotel, The Albemarle was part of a $40 million renovation completed four years ago. The menu revolves around carefully sourced local ingredients. We selected the set menu (~$40), and the three courses included char grilled courgettes with little wallop goat’s cheese (probably Harry Shearer’s favorite), Thornback ray with nut brown butter and stinking bishop with red onion chutney. Our daughters overcame their giggles when trying to decipher the menu, and soon joined in the sensory delight of the meal. British artists were displayed on the wood paneled walls, and the elegance of the room was understated but evident. The location of Rocco Forte’s Brown’s Hotel is in the heart of Mayfair, on a charming 18th century street. The ghosts of famous prior guests lingered: Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call from the hotel, and authors Kipling and Christie found refuge and inspiration there.
The Albemarle – at Brown’s Hotel
The pub life in England is going through a drastic shakeout. The number of pubs closing weekly is shocking. It seems that the brewers are favoring sales at retail, such that there is a drastic difference in the cheap price of beer at the high street shop compared to the pub’s prices. Coupled with growing improvements in home-based entertainment, the draw of the pub is waning. Although a pendulum always swings back, it is difficult to predict how or why or when the vaunted pub scene will improve.
Also showing signs of price escalation are theatre tickets. Still a bargain by Broadway standards, London theatre prices might be a shock for anyone accustomed to attractive prices in past decades. “Billy Elliot” was justly rewarded with a bevy of Tony Awards in New York, but London theatergoers have been able to see this magnificent musical for four years. We had a parenting moment in preparing our daughters for the salty language of the show, but they inevitably claimed they had heard it all before. While possibly true, I doubt it had been delivered in such a coarse and colorful manner. I had some trepidation as to whether the production would attain the high expectations set by prior attendees, but indeed it exceeded my expectations. The songs (music by Elton John with book and lyrics by Lee Hall, who wrote the film’s screenplay) drove the story forward, and rarely acted as a diversion to the plot.
Billy Elliot – played by Brad Wilson, right with Joe Caffrey as Dad (photo by Alistair Muir)
“When one tires of London, one tires of life, for London has all that life has to offer,” so said Samuel Johnson in 1777. We were far from tired of London, but the opportunity to visit St Ives on the southwestern coast of England was impossible to miss.
St Ives – Palm trees in England…who knew? (photo by Carly Auerbach)
St Ives – the aggressive seagulls are legally protected (photo by Ellie Auerbach)
St Ives – Artists of all ages come for the light (photo by Carly Auerbach)
Past Cornwall, via one of England’s most scenic train routes, St Ives is a haven for artists. David Hockney among others has raved about the near-perfect light. The seaside village has an ideal balance of unspoiled beaches, fine restaurants and intriguing galleries. Although the ‘ankle slapper’ waves were amusing for our surfing daughters, the broad beaches were host to an intriguing pattern of tides. At times, we could walk across the bay, past the beached fishing boats that soon again would be bobbing in the gentle surf.
St Ives – high tide (photo by Carly Auerbach)
St Ives – low tide (photo by Carly Auerbach)
The Tate has a gallery in St Ives, and local hero Barbara Hepworth’s eponymous gallery was once her studio. The latter gallery is delightful, especially the sculpture garden. The various seaside restaurants invariably offer a variety of local seafood. For those on a tighter budget, the bevy of Cornish pasty shops offer a viable alternative. Pasties are crisp baked pies with meats, veggies, cheese or sweets. Think a smaller calzone. In the old days, pasties were baked for miners, with one end the meal and the other end a sweet dessert. The prior references to pasties in ‘Billy Elliot’ eventually made more sense for we Yanks.
St Ives – The Hepworth Gallery (photo by Ellie Auerbach)
A car will let you get further afield than the charming town center in St Ives, but the local bus routes can get you there as well. Targets for excursions include the very end of England at Penzance or near the last bit of land for St Michael’s Mount (an island accessible by foot at low tide).
We found the best way to strike out from London to see the countryside is via BritRail. BritRail offers a variety of passes, based on distances contemplated and number of days riding the rails. Be sure to order before you depart for the UK. We picked up the four day FlexiPass ($379/adult) which allowed us four days of unlimited travel within a two month period. By the time we trekked across the country to St Ives, back through Bristol, Bath and then returning to London, we found very good value.
Samuel Johnson seemed to be the spiritual guide for our itinerary; we never tired of the sights and sounds from the English portion of our European trip.
The London Eye & Thames River Cruise
The London Pass
Beatles Walking Tour
51 Buckingham Gate
Tate St Ives & Hepworth Gallery