“So, what are your plans while you’re in London?” the Heathrow immigration agent genially asked my sister, my niece and me, while leafing through my passport.
“We’re going on a tour of the East End, where our Grandma lived as a child,” I replied, excitedly, gesturing at my sister. “And then, we’re going to see Jennifer Saunders speak. You know, from Absolutely Fabulous.”
The agent was not amused.
“And you, young lady,” she continued, zeroing in on my niece with a look that conveyed both kindness and pity. “What are you going to do in London that’s fun for you?”
Her pointed question had a point.
We reviewed our plans as we rode the Piccadilly line into London from Heathrow, enjoying a punchy giggle each time the destination of “Cockfosters” was announced. We decided to stop in London for a few days on the way to my younger sister’s wedding in Paris (read more about our Paris trip) in order to acclimate to the time change without immediately assaulting my niece with another language. The one thing my sister and I wanted to do was explore the neighborhood in which my grandmother spent the first 12 years of her life. And the one thing I wanted to do was see my comedy hero. Indeed, our brief, busy stay did not include much kid-friendly fun.
Luckily, the family history portion turned out to be interesting for everyone. We went into the last of the East End chicken shops. In Grandma’s time, people brought their home-cooped chickens into these places for slaughter for special meals. And what was once the best-attended synagogue in London is now an office building. The women working here knew about the history of the place and could not have been lovelier to us.
The good people of London—and one bloke, in particular—conspired to show us all a great time. Getting to Kingston-on-Thames to see Ms. Saunders required a 30-minute ride on the London Overground, the Tube’s less famous sibling, which afforded us a comfy place to take in the scenery after a morning of walking through family history. Once at the Rose Theatre, I prepped for the talk appropriately with tea, vodka and Bonkers.
As if meeting Ms. Saunders and dining at adorable Jamie Oliver’s adorable Kingston restaurant (which Ariel somewhat magically located on her phone!) weren’t enough, we also got a kid-friendly itinerary for the next day—one that would surely meet the border agent’s standards—compliments of Kevin, a ’70s-punk-cum-middle-aged-filmmaker we met after we got on the wrong train for our return to central London.
“There is no wrong train” became our mantra for the rest of the trip. Even now, I find it comes in handy on a nearly daily basis.
The ROAM Report : London
Travelers : The Sulkis Family – Karen, sister Paula and Paula’s 12-year-old daughter, Ariel
Date : April 2014
Itinerary : London (3 nights)
Budget : Under $1,000 for 3 nights accommodation in a lovely Hampstead apartment, meals, multiple rides on the London Underground, 3 return tickets on the London Overground, 3 tickets to see Jennifer Saunders and a private walking tour of the East End.
The Good Stuff
Unboring Historical Tours – I would have been satisfied simply walking the streets my grandmother knew as a child. But then my sister Googled “Jewish East End” and found Phil. Not only did we get to know more about Grandma’s past, but we got to know Phil, a warmhearted Tory with a real feeling for the neighborhood and a passion for history. He connected dots we didn’t even know to ask about, explained how so many Russian Jews wound up in London in the first place (many were tricked into thinking they were on boats to the United States; some were just happy to get out of Russia) and was cool with us taking as many breaks as my niece needed. Here we all are on Grandma’s old street.
Old Spitalfields Market – After our walking tour, I told Ariel to pick out whatever she wanted in this old-timey but upscale East End flea market. She went for a tank top with a red London phone box on the front, an iconic and ironic choice for someone who’s never used a landline, let alone a pay phone. She also chose a dress from another stall on the condition that I get one, too. I did. It’s been sitting in my closet since we got home, waiting for the right weather and/or my legs to shrink.
Hamleys – Kevin, our random train stranger, said we had to go to Hamleys toyshop, and he was right. This 250-year-old multistory shrine to fun will remind Americans of a certain age of FAO Schwarz in its heyday, only with personable magicians and spokespeople conducting a constant barrage of demos instead of robotic singing stuffed animals. Ariel loved it but was ready to leave when we were—about two hours later.
Carnaby Street – The street that practically invented street style in London’s Swinging ’60s is still fun and funky. We enjoyed window-shopping, especially at the shoe stores. Groovy, baby!
Buckingham Palace – We weren’t really hunting royals but wound up here anyway after an invigorating walk through assorted parks and lanes. I suspected Ariel would find the whole “stuffy guards” thing boring, but she didn’t. Instead, she made a game of trying to spot which guard would move next. I hope the Queen enjoyed her bubbly laughter.
The Not So Good
London Is Expensive! – Despite the longstanding jokes, food in London is pretty delicious, but many Americans will have sticker shock, especially if they’re used to feeding the family cheaply on fast food or farmers’ market fare. Transportation is unbelievably quick and convenient, but the pounds can add up there, too. For instance, the return train trip to Kingston-on-Thames from Waterloo Station was more than the cost of the event we went to Kingston to see. For the best values, steer clear of obvious tourist traps and areas. And shop in the supermarkets, when you can. The prices are cheaper, and the sheer variety and oddity of foods on offer will provide plenty of unexpected entertainment. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the lard shelf at the Waitrose downstairs from where we slept. Even “pure goose fat” looks like fun in London!
Good to Know
Allow Plenty of Time for Travel to the Continent – We purchased our London-Paris Eurostar tickets before we left the States and calculated the travel time from our nearest Tube stop to St. Pancras station. However, we did not count on having to go through passport control to get onto the train. After a bit of hysteria owing to the fact that my sister had wandered off to cash in the remainder of our Oyster cards, leaving my niece and me to deal with crossing an international border on our own, we got through the line, onto the train and into our seats with minutes to spare.
The Tube Works – At 10 p.m., we waited less than 3 minutes for a train to whisk us from Waterloo station back to our Hampstead home base. We never waited more than 4 minutes for transit in London. (Take that, BART!)
Restaurants Book Up – Unless you’re popping into a pub (which you probably don’t want to do with children) or opting for junk food (which you also probably don’t want to do with children), it’s a good idea to book even casual restaurants in advance. This holds true for areas off the tourist path, too. We got lucky at Jamie Oliver’s place in Kingston. When the hostess asked if we had a booking and we said no, she cheerfully gave us one of the last open tables in the place. That was early on a Monday evening. The organic kids menu at Jamie’s is a true bargain. Alas, Ariel did not order off it—but she had a marvelous, memory-making meal.
Good for Next Time
Ceremony of the Keys – My sister had tried to acquire free tickets to the Tower of London’s Ceremony of the Keys, then a maddeningly quaint process that involved two rounds of snail mail, the acquisition of British postage and an extremely polite rejection note just before our departure. The good news is that for a 1-pound service fee, you can now get Ceremony of the Keys tickets online. You just have to book months and months ahead.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum – Kevin, the punk, included this famous Baker Street address in his kid-friendly itinerary, and as Cumberbatch fans, we were on it. But we ran out of time.
Good Family Trip?
Absolutely! I just wish we had more time. While we thought our family heritage adventure would only be interesting to my sister and me, we were happy to see Ariel appreciated it, too, especially when rummaging through cool shops topped off the historical stops.
by Karen Sulkis, June 2015
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Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids