[This is the first in a series of travel posts from the Summer of 2017 (1/4)]
It’s been a while folks. I’m sorry to keep you waiting. Trust me I’ve really missed the thrill of a published post. I haven’t been procrastinating, just wrapped up in loads of work. Well not work exactly, a vacation was involved. So here you will get to hear all about that. June-July: Vacation planning and vacation. July-Aug: Post vacation stress disorder, summer school, prep for school and school itself. Now Eid is over and so begins full time school for the tot. I’m busy looking for freelance work online while he’s off at school and overall life is good.
So, yes, vacation talk. My favorite type of talk. For those of you who have gone through my previous travel posts, will be surprised at the destination this time around: London and parts of UK. Yeah it sounds like plain vanilla compared to our usually unusual previous holidays. Actually we had been planning this trip since a few years and it would keep getting delayed. We stayed with my husband’s friends, (this really amazing couple who are more family than friends), who have a charming little one year old. They opened their home and hearts to us and made each day truly memorable. And I have often thought about this and now more so after this trip: couples with kids should travel with couples with kids. The empathy and sheer understanding they have for all your toddler-related constraints is terrifically consoling. After putting the kids down each night, the four of us would sit down for endless rounds of dessert and gossip. Yeah the pounds were piling up, but so were the amazing memories.
Anything I have to say about the city would sound incredibly hackneyed because London truly IS the capital of the world. It is so vast, so cosmopolitan and so overwhelming that the less said the better. But I am itching to tell you my version of it… especially for parents of toddlers planning such a vacation. London does serve to satiate all tastes and palates. If you want those lovely narrow cobblestoned lanes with elaborate wrought iron lamp posts and baskets of overflowing petunias, you have that. If you want the bustle of the big city, rubbing shoulders with almost every race in the world, you have it. If you want good food, great shopping, intense museums, thronging parks, peaceful walks, history, culture, art- London has the answer! Yes London does overwhelm you and especially when travelling with a two-year old you need to be prepared with all types contingency measures. I’ll tell you what we did and that may help you pick and choose.
SOAS and LSE
My significant other did his Master’s from SOAS and having heard all these stories about the place, I was dying to visit his alma mater. The place certainly has a very special vibe. And especially since I have a deep sense of deprivation at never having studied outside the home town, it held a very special charm for me. The whole area is infused with a scholarly vibe. If you take a tour of SOAS, make sure you visit the viewing gallery for the library from up top- the sheer number of volumes that library possesses, WOW. Here’s a shot:
This was a highly-recommended tourist spot and it certainly came up to our lofty expectations. This is a covered marketplace, dotted with an extraordinary number of retailers, restaurants and even theatres. There’s something about this place that will make you look up and sigh, and where the shops all over UK and Europe are pretty, this place has a really special charm. Plus, the dining arrangement is such that though you are sitting in a covered area, the high ceiling with a view of the sky makes it feel open air. Add to that live performances and you have yourself a very European experience.
Close to King’s Cross/St. Pancras Station lies the British Library. It is grand like any other major library in any major city. What sets it apart is the massive glass tower that runs through the core of the library’s structure for six whole storeys! Beat that! Also known as the King’s Library, this is a collection of Latin and English volumes collected by King George III. Many of the books are on view to visitors behind UV-filter glass which, together with the environmental control system, helps maintain appropriate light, temperature and humidity levels. Wish we could spend more time here but the toddler started throwing a tantrum as he wasn’t allowed to go up and down the escalator as desired- approximately 64598 times.
Platform 9 ¾
Calling all Potter heads! This was SO awesome! At King’s Cross Station, at Platform 9 ¾ exactly, there exists a trolley with a birdcage and a rustic suitcase disappearing into the wall. Magical. There was a queue of about a 100 people in the middle of the day waiting to get a picture taken there. Also a souvenir shop and café there by the same name. Hats off Ms. Rowling.
Westminster Abbey/ Big Ben
We got off at Waterloo Station and went down the bridge to Westminster Abbey and beyond. This way we caught a good vantage view of Big Ben and the London Eye (read photo-op) as we approached it. Stop here for the iconic London picture. But attention all those with strollers- Waterloo station doesn’t have access so if you are alone with the tot, you have to wait with doleful puppy eyes till a kind stranger offers assistance up or down the daunting steps.
St. James’ Park/ Buckingham Palace
Had to see the Guards’ Changing but missed it by five minutes. This particular visit was completely mired with a terrible-two tantrum and sadly my memory has completely faded with respect to what we did there. It was a hot day and he wanted to dive into the fountain in front of the Palace. Hell hath no fury like a toddler scorned.
Sigh. There is something so incredibly soothing about taking an afternoon nap under those weeping willows. The sheerness spread of this iconic park in the middle of the city is mind-boggling. And no matter what time of day you visit, its chock full of people of all ages, shapes, sizes, race, religion, culture. It’s awesome. If you are there for a week or so, two trips at least are a must. And of course, toddlers are happiest when allowed to run free (psssttt… it tires them and they fall asleep super easily).
Marble Arch/ Oxford Street/ Regent Street
I last visited London 21 years ago in the same month and my memory of Oxford Street is so completely different. Much fewer shops back then, and wayyyy less smoke. We left Hyde Park and crossing Marble Arch walked down to Regent and Oxford Street. It was an incredibly hot day and the place was milling with people. It would have been an interesting walk but sans toddler. It’s a bit difficult to appreciate the diversity of the human race in the middle of one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world with a cranky toddler yelling to be let out of his stroller. But in retrospect I don’t regret this long walk.
We were here around the time of the Pride in London so most of the place was tented in. As a result, we went into The National Gallery located right there and boy, was that a mistake. The Terrible Two-ness struck like a lightning bolt, the toddler had to be Let Loose and of course we complied. We didn’t want to be deported from the country. So, guess what he did? He rolled around ON.THE.FLOOR. in front of those fine Victorian paintings singing his songs, in large echoing rooms with people who had come to ‘enjoy’ and ‘appreciate’ I don’t know, FINE ART? (What IS that?) What did we, the PARENTS, do? We parked the stroller at a distance and walked to a bench about twenty feet away from the two year old, planted our bums on a bench and sat there staring at a painting pretending the kid was not ours. We made annoyed faces at him and at the invisible imbecile parents who could have birthed such a specimen and then decided to bring him to a Fine Arts Museum. *scoff and scoff some more*
Fifteen minutes of this and we walked off with a wrestling child in arms who seemed to have grown an extra pair of limbs each, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a baby octopus being writhed away from the deep blue sea. Sigh. The purpose of this rant? Don’t visit The National Gallery with children under twelve years of age.
Piccadilly Circus & Leicester Square
Piccadilly Circus is lovely for people watching. Lined with shops big and small, street performances and live music always running, this is one of the busiest squares in London. We let the little one go free here and he had a great time.
From Piccadilly we walked to Leicester Square, a pedestrianized square in the heart of London. A nice touristy spot to while away the time and also to relax- the square has a small park in the middle originally called Lammas Land where you can kick your shoes off and loll on the grass. We grabbed a nice lunch here at a pizza chain.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
We didn’t go inside (because hello, a toddler and Cathedral echoes?) but we have heard it’s simply stunning. We did, however, hang out in the gardens around the Cathedral. It was super relaxing. We got there bang in the middle of a fantastically hot afternoon, kicked off our shoes and lay down on the grass, sipping cold water (thanks to the dude who froze the water bottles the night before) and ate blueberries and apples while the little one ran around freely on the grass. It’s a great spot to relax and just admire the beauty of the structure in front of you – especially the gorgeous, massive dome.
One of the iconic symbols of London, this bridge crosses the Thames near the Tower of London. A must-see if you are in the city, the walk along the river is lovely as the river bank is broad and lined with benches. Whether alone, with friends or family, this walk suits all moods and seasons.
This was the singular most disappointing experience in all our ten days in London. The London Zoo may be labelled average at best. The penguin pool is perhaps a saving grace and we were lucky to get there at feeding time but because it was peak summer and tourist season the spectators’ area was overcrowded and hardly a spot left. The zoo overall is quite small, especially as compared to zoos in some of the major cities. It was particularly sad to see the lion’s cramped enclosure, totally unworthy of a mammal of that stature. The only feature I really enjoyed was the Butterfly Garden with its wide spectrum of the species (though this too was actually flooded with visitors). All in all, I would say that this zoo is pretty overpriced at a staggering 30 quid per head.
A not very famous part of the city, this is a very happening, bustling, undulating marketplace. Very hippy and bohemian, the little stalls have almost everything on offer. The meandering alleys have food stalls with international cuisine which tastes perfectly authentic and with prices for every pocket. Breathe in the vibe and enjoy live performances, but most important, be comfortable in your own skin. In Camden Town, anything goes!
Close to Camden Town is Primrose Hill- a gorgeous park literally on a hill. The view from the summit is arguably one of the best in London. We were there on a Sunday and there were many families with their picnic spreads and kids running about but even then, the place has a serenity that was very palpable. It was especially lovely as it was a suddenly green grassy slope with spectacular views of the London skyline, which made you feel the urban-ness while being in the thick of nature. Amaaaazing photo-op!
We reserved this for the last day as there was a forecast for rain. It poured sporadically the whole day. The Museum itself is pretty awesome. Again, NOT a place you can/should/would visit with a toddler. Even though most of the halls are accessible, you cannot enjoy a work of art or a piece of history if you don’t get a straight twenty seconds to stay still. The displays are AMAZING but you need time and peace to drink it all in, imbibe the art and take a mental picture that will stay with you forever. If it’s not raining, I would suggest spending a bit of time outside the building to enjoy the stunning architecture. We walked out of the Museum all the way down and past Kensington Gardens and into a small Italian eatery. The walk was great as the entire precinct is just lovely, it was drizzling lightly so made the walk even more enjoyable and we also worked up an appetite.
Brick Lane/ Spitalfields
Though almost all the various precincts in this wondrously eclectic city have their distinct flavor and charm, there is hardly a nook that brings in a burst of art as bohemian and vibrant as the Spitalfields area. Old Spitalfields market is one of a few of the city’s surviving Victorian market halls, with stalls serving customers hungry for both food and fashion. Previously a Jewish settlement, the place now hosts most of the city’s Bangladeshi immigrants residing in a majority in Brick Lane which is also known as Banglatown at times. The culture and vibe of this place cannot be pinned down to a particular ‘type’ so wonderfully diverse is its essence. We literally went nuts trying out the wide range of food at the various stalls.
Across the street from the Brick Lane market, there is a chocolate shop called Dark Sugars which serves perhaps the most terrific hot chocolate known to man. I’m telling you it speaks to your soul. The rich chocolate mug is heaped with chocolate shavings (white, milk and dark) which u can barrel into your mouth by the spoonful as you sip your lovely beverage. That which is left over settles to the bottom of the mug and as you reach the end, you are again left with an awesome gooey amalgamation of the three chocolates. Jussssst imagine. It was pure bliss.
Before visiting this ‘capital of the world’ I had not expected anything extraordinary (it’s not exactly an out-of-the-box holiday destination). But I certainly hadn’t expected to be this blown away by the sheer diversity that resides there, how it really is such a brilliant melting pot of so very many different things. The sheer magnitude, the breadth and depth of all that it has to offer is just overwhelming. Since we were travelling with a tot and also wanted to spend a good bit of time with our friends, we took it slow and spent ten days here. I thought it would be sufficient time to get under the skin of what London essentially embodies. I was pretty dead wrong. London keeps you coming back for more as it peels away layer after layer with each visit. It may seem ordinary to many, but I don’t mind being repeatedly serenaded by this place. Love you London, you lovely cliché.