Europe – July 2017

Day 4 – London

Tuesday 1st August

As per the usual routine, it was another early start to the day. The irony is that we’re on holiday and don’t really have a need to get up early, so you’d think we’d all enjoy a sleep in, right? Ha! Anyway, Paul and Marie were off to work before we got up so I made breakfast. Well, when I say made breakfast, what I really mean is that I threw some ingredients into a frying pan and applied heat. The food was passably edible but I probably spent more time trying to clean the gunk off the frying pan afterwards than we did eating the food.

Notwithstanding the early start to the day, we deliberately made it a late start to getting out of the house. Today was our day to explore as much of London as we could with the kids. Rather than negotiate the train network, I decided we would take the car into town. This would mean having to pay the London Congestion Charge. However, even after factoring that in, along with the cost of parking, it would still be comparable to the cost of taking the train and we wouldn’t have to worry about replacement bus services or any other such complications.

Having researched this previously, I set the satnav to take us to Waterloo train station, where there was an all-day car park facility that would cost just £15 for 6+ hours of parking. It did get a bit tricky towards the end of the journey, as we were under bridges and between tall buildings, which made it difficult for the satnav to keep up with us. I didn’t help that the car park was extremely well hidden. Fortunately, we found where we needed to be…just.

The parking facility – and I call it that very loosely – was just walking distance from the London Eye attraction. Although not a heat wave, it was still quite warm in the full sun today with only a few clouds and no rain. We queued up to get our tickets, which was a welcome break from the sun. Inside, another tourist handed us what looked like a cut out piece of a cereal packet with a 50% discount for the London Eye, which we graciously accepted. In the event, our Victoria Carer’s cards afforded us a better deal with concessions for the kids, so we passed that 50% discount on to the next person. Something tells me it travelled from person to person multiple times throughout the morning. With little time to think, we caved in at the suggestion of adding the hop-on/hop-off open top double-decker bus tour to our ticket. It was an extra £26 so we just went with it.

Because of our concessions, we were directed to the fast track queue and were onto the London Eye within a matter of minutes. The views out of the pod are truly unrivalled but Jennifer was decidedly not happy inside. Despite her being the speed and adrenaline daemon among us, she seemed quite uncomfortable with the height. We think this was as much to do with tiredness or fatigue than anything else. We made sure to hold on and give her extra cuddles for the duration.

By the end of our cycle around the eye, we had snapped a good number of photos and had fun spotting all the different London landmarks. From within the attraction, the kids spotted a playground down below us and so we wandered over there after our cycle was complete to let the kids run around a bit, which they both enjoyed quite a bit for about half an hour.

It was a short walk from the park to Westminster Bridge, which is where we were told we could hop on to the tour bus. The idea was that we would take the bus to South Kensington, where we would spend the better part of the day at the Natural History & Science museums. The walk took a little longer than expected due to the huge numbers of people everywhere. The London Eye has become perhaps one of the most popular tourist attractions in London and it was standing room only in places along the embankment.

When we got as far as the bridge, we needed to be on the far side of the road, since that’s the direction of travel we needed. We couldn’t see any bus stops on the bridge itself, which is what we were told when we bought the tickets, so we thought we’d just walk across the bridge towards the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. There would surely be a bus stop around there…or so we thought. Perhaps because of the recent attacks in London, there were barriers between the kerb and the road all along the bridge so maybe this meant the usual bus stops were no longer in operation as well. Whatever the reason, we kept walking, past Westminster Abbey and in the direction of Buckingham Palace. By now, we had walked quite a distance and were all really quite puffed out and stressed. Still, we could see nowhere that the bus was going to stop. We did see several of the tour busses pass us by in both directions but couldn’t see them stop anywhere to let people on or off. This was now getting really rather frustrating so I poured over the tourist map we were given when I bought the tickets to try to find a phone number. Buried extremely well, I found it in the end and gave them a call. The woman on the phone was friendly and polite but not especially helpful, as she kept making references to things and places we couldn’t see. As such, we still couldn’t pinpoint exactly where we needed to be. She did mention one particular street which we could see from where we were outside of Westminster Abbey so we went down that street to see if we could see bus stop M that she directed us to. Now sweaty and all considerably irritable, we still couldn’t see the bloody bus stop. As luck would have it, one of the tour busses was stopped in traffic on the other side of the street. Although it was going in the wrong direction, I ran across to ask him where bus stop M was. Staggeringly, he didn’t know and suggested we continue walking all the way to Buckingham Palace. What? How can the frigging bus driver himself not know where the fekking bus stop is? We walked on in the direction of Buckingham Palace but we were by now dizzy with disorientation and with no idea how much further the Palace was from where we were. In final desperation, I hailed a taxi. The driver was really nice and took us past the Palace and on to South Kensington. He even gave us a nice running commentary on the various landmarks we were passing, which was extremely interesting. I gave him a nice tip at the end of the ride.

Being high season here, there are throngs of people everywhere. The entire place is just heaving. This was just as true with the Natural History Museum, which was to be my A choice for today. The queue to get in was so long, however, we decided to do the Science museum instead. By now, we were simply in no frame of mind to walk any further or to stay out in the sun and more. As luck would have it, there was no queue getting into the Science Museum. Once inside, we were all desperate for a drink and something to eat, so we found the museum café and parked ourselves. Now, I have resolved myself to the fact that being a tourist in London was always going to be an expensive proposition but even so, the sticker shock at the museum prices did slap me hard in the face. As we were all hot and bothered, tired, irritable and in desperate need of sustenance, I caved and we just all took something. It did deplete my ready cash reserves much more than I would have liked but what can you do?

After lunch, we were all starting to feel somewhat human again, although still tired from all the walking. My feet in particular were really doing a number on me, as were Sandy’s. We explored a couple of floors of the museum and even paid to enter one of the temporary exhibits, which was a hall full of really fun and interesting hands-on exhibits. I think I parted with £12 for the privilege. Entrance to the museum itself is free so it was a small price to pay at the end of the day.

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the museum after lunch. Joey, who had much earlier in the day latched on to the notion of visiting Hamleys, an enormous toyshop on Regent Street, was only really hanging on until we got there. He was so preoccupied with that idea that he really wasn’t getting much benefit from being at the museum, to be honest. Indeed it was really only the threat of we won’t be going to Hamleys at all if I hear you tell me once more how bored you are with being here that kept him somewhat quiet.

Eventually, and with diminishing returns from two very tired kids, we made our way to the exit. However, that wasn’t the end of today’s forced education for the kids. I still desperately wanted to see the new Blue Whale skeleton exhibit in the grand Hintz hall at the Natural History Museum. As we walked past that museum, we spoke to one of the staff that was manning the still very long queue out the front. I mentioned we’d like to get inside if we could but that we have special needs children. She immediately walked us right up to the door and sent us straight in. Bonus! It took us a bit of wandering around before we found it but when we did make it to the grand hall, it was everything I hoped for – an absolutely stunning exhibit. The complete Blue Whale skeleton dangled majestically from the ceiling – a truly magnificent sight for anyone with even just a passing interesting in the natural sciences. With a little bit of trickery – I.e., promising that we were actually looking for the right exit – we managed to convince the kids to spend a little more time in the Natural History Museum than they wanted to. For my part, I could have spent the entire week exploring both these magnificent museums myself.

When we finally made it outside, we didn’t bother with trying to find the tour bus stop, which had been the plan. Instead, I immediately hailed a taxi. Our next destination was Hamleys on Regent Street. Both kids, but Joey in particular, perked right up. Wouldn’t you know it, he was suddenly chatty, pleasant and enthusiastic. What a bloody coincidence!

Our taxi driver was less chatty this time but seemed to know every last nook and cranny of the London streets and weaved through the city to drop us right outside of Hamleys half way down Regent Street. I paid the taxi driver and we went in. Sandy and I agreed that I would trail Joey whilst Sandy kept and eye on Jennifer. Joey was in his element and the six-story shop was everything he had ever dreamed of. He was the quintessential kid in a toy shop, with a grin from ear to ear. I did my level best to keep up with his pace as he explored every last inch of the place. He took it all in. Once he had seen everything, he immediately doubled back and went right to where we wanted to be. He had £127 of his pocket money to play with, which he had amassed over the preceding weeks for various reasons. Despite me telling him everything was more expensive here and that his money would go further elsewhere, he was adamant of what he was going to spend his money on. In the event, he chose three things each of £40, which has left him with £7 to spare. I desperately wanted him to keep something back for Disneyland Paris but this still remains a surprise for the kids and I didn’t want to spoil that. Even if I had, I doubt it would have made much difference. Joey doesn’t yet fully grasp the concept of spending less today so that you can spend more tomorrow. He just isn’t there yet.

Jennifer was much more reserved and didn’t want to spend anything significant in Hamleys. That notwithstanding, she did enjoy getting one of her nails painted by one of the demonstration staff dotted around the place so I decided to spoil her by getting her the nail painting set for £28.

Hamleys was a lot of fun but absolutely heaving with people. We had a bit of a tense moment for a second when I realised I didn’t quite have enough ready cash for the kids’ purchases. Nor did I have enough UK money on my currency card to cover it. This meant having to juggle with the money I had in my bank account and transferring some to the currency card. Unfortunately, logging into my bank account via the phone didn’t allow me to convert my money into the UK currency. Try as I might, I just couldn’t figure out how to do that. I was now getting very worried we’d have to leave the store empty handed – that would have been an unmitigated disaster and absolutely devastating for the kids. As it turned out, there was another app I needed to install onto my phone to handle the currency movements. Crisis averted! I shifted the money around and we were able to pay for all the toys. We left the store with mixed feelings. By that I mean the kids had huge grins ear to ear but I was wondering just how we were going to eat next month. Oh well, you only live once and it doesn’t do to be the richest person in the graveyard.

After leaving Hamleys, we walked along Regent Street contemplating what we were going to do for dinner. I asked the guy at the front of the Hamleys store where I could find the nearest Maccas. After a few seconds of bemused looks, I eventually remembered they don’t call McDonalds Maccas over hear. He sent us down towards Piccadilly Circus. En route, we changed our minds and decided to head back to the car instead. I looked at the tour bus map I still had in my pocket and as luck would have it, there was a tour bus stop identified as right outside of Hamleys. An even bigger bonus was the fact that one of those tour busses just happened to be arriving so we decided we’d get on. I started rummaging for our tickets but the driver just said to get on as he trusted we had tickets. To be honest, it looked more like he just didn’t want the hassle of waiting for me to find the tickets.

We all piled on and found a seat upstairs in the open air. The weather was gorgeous. It was lovely watching the sights go by as the bus meandered lazily through the streets of London. If anything, it was all too brief. Before we knew it, we were at Westminster Bridge again, where it had all started for us earlier this morning. We all got off and were about to head back to the car when Jennifer suggested she wanted to buy a few souvenirs. Just along the embankment was a souvenir stand so we made our way over and nosed around for a few little things. Jennifer found a few trinkets for a few friends, which resulted in me parting with a few loose Pounds.

On the way to the car, we stopped in at a nearby convenience store to pick up a few snacks for the car trip home – a further £12 spent. We found the well-hidden car park – don’t ask me how – and set off out of London. We passed the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and a few other familiar landmarks on our way out of the city. The trip was otherwise uneventful and the traffic flowed freely.

Back in South Ockendon, we had arranged to stop off at the chip shop to cater for everyone. It was already too late to cook or go anywhere for dinner.

At this point, I need to make mention of the spud launcher. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Uncle Paul has co-opted Joey into…shall we say…a physics experiment? With a few drainpipes, an ignition mechanism, some hairspray and other accessories, he is building a potato launcher by way of spending some quality time with Joey. What could possibly go wrong? I shudder to think.