A summer day out on the South Bank, London

As the kids get older it’s harder to find days out that appeal to us all. When you’re fourteen you want action, adventure and preferably no parents!

Fortunately London is still cool, whatever your age. When South Bank invited us to sample some of their ideas for days out this summer I knew we’d be fine. Even if summer was looking decidedly grey and wet.

A boat trip along the Thames

Bankside Pier, London
Bankside Pier, London

Our day started with a boat trip along the Thames. It’s the best way to see the city and the one thing I’d recommend to every visitor. The Thames has shaped the history of London, indeed was responsible for its founding back in the Roman times, and there’s no better way to experience the juxtaposition of old and new than to see the sights unfold along the river bank.

There’s a wide selection of boat trips available; we travelled as guests of City Cruises who operate a hop-on, hop-off boat between five piers.

Tower Bridge from the River Thames
Tower Bridge from the River Thames

Our circular route took us past the Shard, the Monument, HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge, Millenium Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament. The boat has an open upstairs deck which is perfect for photography on a dry day. However we sheltered in the covered section below. You can always guarantee rain during an English summer!

Under the Tower bridge, London
Under the Tower bridge, London

One of the highlights was when our boat slowed and turned under Tower Bridge so visitors could take photos from all angles. For me, Tower Bridge holds a fantastic memory as my favourite part of the London marathon route.

No polar bears at the Tower of London today
No polar bears at the Tower of London today

The boat stopped for several minutes to let passengers off at Tower Pier. My son informed me that Henry VIII once kept a polar bear at the Tower of London which was taken out to fish in the Thames. Whilst some of my son’s facts are of dubious origin this one does appear to be correct. What a sight that would have been.

Cranes and a police boat, River Thames, London
Cranes and a police boat, River Thames, London

Leaving Tower Pier we headed back towards Westminster. It’s only when you see the cranes that you remember how much building work is constantly transforming London. Every time I visit there’s another high rise.

Houses of Parliament, from the Thames, London
Houses of Parliament, from the Thames, London

The sight of red London buses crossing Westminster bridge, with Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben in the background must bring out the inner tourist in everyone, however many times you’ve seen it. I certainly snapped away as we headed towards our disembarkation point at the London Eye.

Sea Life London aquarium

Back on the South Bank we wound our way through the throngs of tourists; it’s incredibly busy but for good reason. The South Bank is home to several major attractions, including the London Eye, London Dungeon and the National Theatre, but it’s also a great place to wander, with plenty of bars and restaurants to stop in.

We headed to Sea Life, where we donned lifejackets and took turns to go out onto a metal walkway to feed the rays. The rays are fed on a shallow platform, primarily to stop Boris and Phoenix, two Green Sea Turtles who share the same tank, joining the party.

Visitors can also swim with sharks, although the Health & Safety sign about how to treat a sharkbite worried me!

Feeding the rays (and turtle) at Sea Life London aquarium
Feeding the rays (and turtle) at Sea Life London aquarium

Afterwards we were given a short tour of the new jellyfish exhibit at Sea Life. The jellyfish are mesmerising to watch as they float around, highlighted by ever changing colours. If screensavers were still a thing (remember them?) these would be perfect.

We learnt about the complicated life cycle of a jellyfish. And found out plenty of interesting facts.

Jellyfish at the Sea Life London aquarium
Jellyfish at the Sea Life London aquarium

I discovered jellyfish have something in common with me, they’re not very good swimmers. You’d have thought an animal that lives in the ocean would be a strong swimmer but they rely on the ocean current to get around. At Sea Life this means they are kept in round tanks (called a kreisel) as they get stuck in the corners of square tanks!

Leake Street grafitti and street art

Regular readers will know I have a soft spot for street art. The route to our next destination, the House of Vans took us through Leake Street tunnel where several street artists were busy creating new pieces.

Leake Street, near Waterloo station
Leake Street, near Waterloo station

House of Vans skate park

Exiting Leake Street we found ourselves behind Waterloo Station. The old railway arches are now home to the House of Vans.

It may be an unpromising location from the outside but step inside and, wow, the transformation is incredible.

House of Vans, London
House of Vans, London

The phrase hidden gem is often overused. However I cannot think of a better way to describe this place. Whilst trains rumble overhead the tunnels have been converted into an exhibition space, cinema, music venue and skate park. And incredibly, it’s all free!

House of Vans, London
House of Vans, London

We were invited to take part in a skateboarding lesson. After donning helmets and protective knee and elbow pads the kids were ready. Me? Well someone had to take the photographs. OK, I wimped out. That concrete floor looked unforgiving.

House of Vans skating lesson, London
House of Vans skating lesson, London

Dave, the skating instructor, made everything look super easy. I was even tempted to try a couple of the tricks he demonstrated. But I’ve been on a skateboard before and think I’ll stick to feet rather than wheels.

The kids really enjoyed themselves. My daughter decided she’d come every weekend if she lived locally. Although probably more for the cool location than the skating. Oh, and the photo booth.

Cocktails at The Mondrian

Our last stop of the day was for cocktails at the boutique Mondrian Hotel. I felt rather a fraud as I sat sipping my cocktail in such a swanky hotel. Pretending I do this kind of thing all the time. When usually I’d be drinking coffee in a cafe. That said, it slipped down nicely. I could get used to this lifestyle. I checked the website after our visit and notice they do a botanical theme afternoon tea. Now that’s right up my street.

So, thank you South Bank. Our family had a great day out and you provided plenty of ideas for us to do this summer. Particularly on a typically wet summer day!

More info:

  • Head over to the South Bank website to find out more about visiting the area. There are lots of events and ideas, including free outdoor theatre.
  • We travelled with City Cruises. They offer a £10 (adults) hop on-hop off river pass plus combined tickets to many London attractions.
  • Sea Life London Aquarium is one of London’s premier attractions. It can be expensive but is free to Merlin Pass holders. Check out offers before you travel as it’s easy to find 2 for 1 tickets (particularly if travelling by train).
  • The House of Vans is open four days per week. Check the website for details of upcoming performances and exhibitions or to book on one of the free skating lessons.
  • The Mondrian Hotel is fabulously located in the Sea Containers building, overlooking the Thames. Ideal for a special night out.

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10 quirky ways to spend an hour in London

 

According to my oracle (Trip Advisor) there are over 1600 attractions in London. Enough to fill years of sightseeing. But what if you’ve only got an hour to spare? Maybe you’ve seen the major sights and are looking for something different. Well, look no further; here’s my top ten quirky ways to spend an hour in London:

1. Shop for silver at The London Silver Vaults, Chancery Lane

The place to buy silver in London. Housed in a large underground vault there are silver shops for all occasions and budgets. Access is via a security check and huge steel doors; all I could think about was the Hatton Garden robbery!

London silver vaults, Chancery Lane
London silver vaults, Chancery Lane

There are silver items galore in the shop windows, most leaning towards traditional rather than contemporary design. We didn’t buy anything but it’s definitely the place to come if you’re looking for a special gift.

And I’ve happily ticked this off my UK bucket list.

2. Visit a London film set

From Westbourne Park Road (Notting Hill) to Chalcot Crescent (Paddington) London is packed with film locations. A quick Internet search will help you find your favourite film locations.

Regency cafe, London
Regency cafe, London

My favourite? It has to be the Regency Cafe on Regency Street. A star of the film Layer Cake (and several other TV productions) I primarily love this cafe for its huge fried breakfasts!

3. Spot flamingos at The Roof Gardens, Kensington

Can you believe there are flamingos on a roof top in central London?

Flamingos at The Roof Gardens
Flamingos at The Roof Gardens

Head over to Kensington High St to find them, 100ft above the bustling road.

The charms of London roof gardens aren’t restricted to flamingos. Read my post about London’s roof gardens to find out more.

4. Admire the carvings at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Neasden Temple

Be transported to India in Neasden. This huge Hindu temple is made from intricately carved marble, granite and limestone. The story of its construction is incredible; more than 26,000 parts were carved in India,  shipped back to the UK and assembled by over 1000 volunteers.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

Neasden temple is open to visitors from Monday to Saturday 9am-6pm. As the temple is a place of worship do read the visitor guidelines beforehand. You can read about our visit here.

5. Play the games at Novelty Automation, Holborn

This strange mix of arcade machines would have been at home in Banksy’s Dismaland.

It’s a hugely imaginative, irreverent and entertaining place to spend an hour or so; our family loved it. There’s no entrance charge, simply pay for the machines you want to use (generally £1-3 per go).

Novelty Automation, Princeton St
Novelty Automation, Princeton St

My daughter braved the Autofrisk machine, whilst I tested my nerve in the dog’s cage. I don’t want to spoil your fun by revealing what happens!

6. Grant Museum of Zoology, Bloomsbury

This University zoological museum is stuffed (literally) full of preserved animal specimens and skeletons. Housed in a single room you’ll find dodo bones, dissected brains and a python skeleton. It’s most popular exhibit appears to be a jar of moles!

The Grant Museum of Zoology is open Monday to Saturday afternoons, admission is free.

7. Buy a neon sign from Gods Own Junkyard, Walthamstow

Tucked away on an industrial estate this is the place to go if you’ve ever wanted to buy a neon sign. Or just to look at someone else’s collection of them. Although housed in a relatively small unit it’s packed with neon lights and retro signs.

Gods Own Junkyard, Shernhall St
Gods Own Junkyard, Shernhall St

Out the back there’s a small cafe; grab a coffee and slice of cake to enjoy in the courtyard garden whilst you contemplate where to put a neon sign in your home.

8. Sir John Soane’s Museum, Lincoln’s Inn Fields

A museum worthy of a longer visit but doable in an hour. This architect’s house is packed full of antiquities, paintings, sculptures and a sarcophagus. It’s eclectic, cramped and definitely quirky.

Sir John Soane’s museum is open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday. Entrance is free, no photography allowed.

9. Ride the Emirates Air Line across the River Thames

A fun way to cross the River Thames. The cable car provides great views of London and it’s much cheaper than many other viewing experiences in the city.

Cable car across the Thames

We combined our visit with a trip on the DLR and a boat ride along the Thames, taking full advantage of our London travelcard.

10. Hunt out street art

We enjoyed searching for street art in the area around Brick Lane. It’s easy to find (sometimes with help from the Internet) but if you’d like to find out more about the artists and their work I’d recommend joining a street art tour.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my list of quirky things to do in London in an hour. What else would you add to the list?

Linking up with:

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Magical Lantern Festival 2017, Chiswick House, London

It’s the Chinese New Year this Saturday. And it was my birthday last weekend. What better way for us to celebrate both events than with a trip to the 2017 Magical Lantern Festival in London.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

This is the second year of the London festival. From my perspective it’s a much more relaxing way to celebrate the Chinese New Year than getting squished at the festivities in London’s Chinatown. Although a lot of other people have the same idea.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The 2017 festival theme is ‘Explore the Silk Road’. One of those exciting sounding places that I have always wanted to travel along. The marketing blurb promises a journey through Central Asia, India and China. Via Aladdin and the Houses of Parliament.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The trail, through the grounds of Chiswick House, took us about an hour to walk round. It’s flat and accessible for all but there were bottlenecks at some displays. Each lantern is accompanied by a couple of lines of explanatory text in Mandarin (I presume) and English.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

It sounds really obvious but remember to dress for the outdoors. It was freezing during our visit, although we’d probably not helped the situation by roaming the Richmond Park tundra until sunset. The upside of the weather was the frozen lake. I love how it blurred the reflections of the lanterns around it.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The lanterns are not the floating fire starters that you imagine. In fact, impressive though they are, I wouldn’t think of them as lanterns. More like giant illuminated sculptures. I’d love to know more about they how they were made.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

One of the surprising highlights for me was Chiswick House. I’ve never visited in the daylight but loved the glimpses of statues, architectural details and the villa itself. I’m not usually one for historical houses but I am inspired to return.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

The lanterns are very well displayed and make the most of their setting. It’s hard to pick out favourites but I enjoyed these pandas. They weren’t the biggest or most intricate, I just like pandas!

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

At the end of the trail there’s a group of food and drink stalls, including an ice bar. There’s also an ice rink which looked much smaller than the advertised 600 square metres. As I had no desire to celebrate my birthday with a broken leg we didn’t try it out.

Magical Lantern Festival, London
Magical Lantern Festival, London

Overall we were really impressed. If you’re looking for something a little different to do in London over the next few weekends I’d definitely suggest checking this festival out.

More info:

  • The Magical Lantern Festival runs in London until 26 February. It’s open Thursday-Sunday evenings, and throughout half-term. Buy your ticket and book a timed entry slot in advance on the festival website. An advance purchase weekend family ticket costs £56.
  • Chiswick House is a 10 minute walk from Turnham Green underground station.
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2016: a year in review – my top 10

It’s almost time to say goodbye to 2016. What can I say? It’s been a mixed year. Huge political shake ups, continuing civil wars, the Rio Olympics and Paralympics and Planet Earth II.

Personally, there have been sad times and happy times. I’ve had some great adventures and ticked off a couple of long held ambitions. Focussing on the positives, and in no particular order, here are my top 10 of 2016:

1. Running the London marathon

The first three months of 2016 were spent pounding roads and muddy footpaths in preparation for running the London marathon. My once in a lifetime challenge.

Finished!
Finished!

The day itself was incredible and by far the most physically demanding thing I’ve done. There were tough parts (the last six miles), amazing parts (spectator support and running over Tower Bridge) and emotional parts (finishing). Would I do it again? No way! But I’m very glad to have completed it.

2. Walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks

View from Pen-y-ghent descent
View from Pen-y-ghent descent

We spent a week in the Yorkshire Dales and were blessed with ideal walking weather. Perfect for tackling the Yorkshire Three Peaks – Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside. Often walked as a day long charity challenge, we chose the easy option and spread them over three separate days.

3. Family backpacking adventures

Rest break near the gallops, Lambourn
Rest break near the gallops, Lambourn

I’ve cheated here and combined two trips into one. At the start of the year we decided the kids were old enough for backpacking. We bought a couple of lightweight tents and chose a couple of weekend routes close to home.

Swinford Lock camp fire, Eynsham
Swinford Lock camp fire, Eynsham

It wasn’t all plain sailing. I oversetimated the mileage we could comfortably walk on our Lambourn Valley Way weekend. And the weather was just a tad too warm on our Thames Path walk. But both weekends were fun, we rewarded ourselves with lovely meals out and made some great memories.

4. Going underground at Zip World Caverns, Blaenau Ffestiniog

My scary but exciting birthday present. Zip lining in caves, crawling through tunnels and scaling the side of the caverns. Are you brave enough to tackle Zip World Caverns?

Zip World Caverns training
Zip World Caverns training

5. Watching a Midsummer’s Night Dream, Creation Theatre, Oxford

“Quick, follow me. Walk in zigzags and blink your eyes really fast. Get in the van, hurry”. Think of Shakespeare and you don’t generally think of being bundled into a van in a public car park. Or taking part in an audition. Or popping into the printers to pick up wedding invites.

Part immersive performance, part treasure trail around Oxford this was an incredibly imaginative version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Creation Theatre. It was simply the best production I have ever seen.

6. Descending into Gaping Gill

Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent
Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent

This was an unplanned, but welcome addition, to our Yorkshire Dales holiday. After spotting an advert in a local cafe we siezed the opportunity to descend 100m by winch into Gaping Gill, a large pothole. We had to contend with an early start and a couple of hours queuing but it was worth the wait!

7. Finally finding a bee orchid. And then another. And another.

Bee orchid, Warburg nature reserve
Bee orchid, Warburg nature reserve

You know the saying about waiting for buses? Well this year I could have substituted the words ‘bee orchid’. I was so happy to find my first bee orchid at Warburg Nature Reserve, closely followed by several more discoveries. I even found one on a roadside verge whilst out on my lunchtime walk. How could I possibly have missed them in previous years?

8. Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim

Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

I’ve wanted to visit Giant’s Causeway for many years. It has been on my bucket list forever. With expectations so high, thank god it lived up to them!

9. Watching coypu at our campsite in France

Coypu at Milin de Kerhe campsite, Brittany
Coypu at Milin de Kerhe campsite, Brittany

Whilst on holiday in Brittany my favourite activity was watching a family of coypu living near our campsite. I’d head down to the river every evening, about half an hour before dusk, and wait patiently for them to appear. I was childishly excited at the first glimpse of the coypu each night, and even more so whenever the young appeared.

10. Starlings and moon rise at Otmoor

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

Over recent years we’ve made an annual pilgrimage to watch the starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor. This year, in addition to 40,000 starlings, we were treated to the most amazing moon rise. Two spectacular natural sights in one day!

What are my plans for 2017? We’re keeping things flexible at the moment but I have a very long UK bucket list which I’m hoping to make a dent in. How about you?

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