Greenwich tall ships festival, London

I’ve always had a soft spot for tall ships, probably a legacy of my 1970s childhood when The Onedin Line was prime TV viewing. When I heard the Tall Ships Festival was coming to London for the first time in 25 years I knew we’d be there.

Not a sight you'll normally see on the Thames!
Not a sight you’ll normally see on the Thames!

The festival took place at the start of September and encompassed a long weekend of events and sailing activities. More than 50 ships took part; these were handily spread out across several sites along the Thames. We spent a day wandering around three of the locations enjoying the festivities and exploring parts of London we rarely visit.

We started at North Greenwich where was a small area selling food and drinks and performances by sea shanty singers. We didn’t linger as we’d already seen some tall ships sailing past and were eager to see more.

Tall ships sailing the Thames
Tall ships sailing the Thames

Instead we joined the other Sunday strollers for the 1.5 mile walk along the Thames path to maritime Greenwich. It’s quite an industrial stretch of the river but there was plenty of interest, ranging from old wharves to rusting ships cut in half. Closer to the Old Royal Naval College you pass modern housing but you’re also treated to a cobbled area with signs and buildings that remind you of Greenwich’s maritime history. Some of the larger tall ships moored here were open to visitors although we managed to coincide our arrival with the lunchtime closure.

A giant lobster at the tall ships festival, Greenwich
A giant lobster at the tall ships festival, Greenwich

The main festival village was in Greenwich. There was lots to see, from costumed characters to dancers and pull along lobsters. I’m still intrigued by the lobster and I’d love to know what it does the rest of the year! There was also rigging to climb, model ships to sail and demonstrations to watch. This area was incredibly busy with long queues for everything; I’m sure most of London had decided to visit the festival that afternoon.

Making musket balls
Making musket balls

Our favourite stand was the man making musket balls. After melting pewter in a small pan he poured it into moulds and, when cold, released the balls and filed them smooth. The resulting musket balls were for sale and he had quite a production line going for all of the kids (including ours) who wanted to buy them.

Viewing the tall ships at Greenwich
Viewing the tall ships at Greenwich

Of course the main attraction was watching the ships on the river. It was great to see them sail past and imagine how the Thames might have looked in years gone by.

Tall ships at Wood Wharf, London
Tall ships at Wood Wharf, London

Our last stop of the day was at Wood Wharf, near Canary Wharf. This housed some of the smaller ships and thankfully wasn’t as busy as Greenwich. It was surreal to see the tall ships moored against a modern skyscraper background. A great way to finish our day out!

More info:

  • The Tall Ships festival in London has finished but Greenwich could easily occupy a day of your time. I’d love to go back and walk through the Greenwich foot tunnel, which takes you under the Thames to the Isle of Dogs. More obvious tourist destinations are the Cutty Sark and the National Maritime Museum, further details of all attractions can be found here.
  • One of the next opportunities to see the tall ships will be in Belfast in July 2015 when they’ll be visiting as part of the Titanic Maritime Festival.
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Should children visit art galleries?

Jake Chapman, one half of the Chapman brothers, courted controversy this week by suggesting that children shouldn’t visit art galleries. In an interview with The Independent he stated “taking children to art galleries was a total waste of time”.

His comments are hardly surprising given the Chapman brothers have a certain reputation to uphold. Their art consists of delightful pieces such as mannequins of children with genitalia instead of faces and decaying corpses. Although he forgot to mention one of their previous shows; a macabre art exhibition for children and their families. Accompanied by a £5 colouring book.

I’m sure his aim was to provoke the middle classes and generate publicity. Yet when I read the comments associated with the various online articles he’s not alone in suggesting that children should stay out of art galleries.

Nobody would ever suggest children shouldn’t visit libraries because they’re too young to appreciate Shakespeare. Yet art galleries are generally the preserve of the more mature. Kids have their own spaces in libraries and shelves of books dedicated to them, but how many art galleries really go out of their way to attract children? And should they?

In Jake Chapman’s defence, I can see where he’s coming from. I don’t generally take my kids to art galleries yet we went to the Matisse exhibition at the Tate Museum last week. This wasn’t because I wanted to further their knowledge of art. It’s just because it had great reviews and I selfishly wanted to see it.

Chapman could have used my children to demonstrate his points perfectly. Within 5 minutes of entering the exhibition my youngest was bored, leaning up against one of the walls asking how much longer he had to be there.

Only one of the rooms grasped his attention, namely that of the Blue Nudes. Nothing to do with the art works of course; anything with the word ‘nude’ in it will have my 9 year old son sniggering.

So what do children gain from visiting art galleries?

I saw another family at the Matisse exhibition. A family whose kids who were carefully drawing some of the art works in their sketch pads. No doubt they would get the scissors out when they got home and start creating paper cut outs. Whereas mine would probably be outside having a water balloon fight. It bought home to me that every family is different. Some children will be inspired by visiting art galleries; they will become the artists and art lovers of the future. We cannot deny them this inspiration.

This brings me nicely on to another point that Chapman made. Namely that it would be insulting to stand a child in front of a Jackson Pollock artwork. He doesn’t think children understand the significance of it. Personally I don’t either, but I’m not sure that’s anything to do with my age.

The arts can be appreciated on many levels, there is no need to be over complicate. I love reading but hated Shakespeare at school. I couldn’t stand the in-depth analysis of each and every line in his plays. It took away my enjoyment. Yet I’d happily go and watch one of his plays nowadays. Similarly, is there anything wrong with just looking at an art work and enjoying it without knowing, for example, what a specific shade of blue indicates?

I’ll leave you with this. The item that has pride of place on my son’s bedroom wall is a Jackson Pollock inspired painting that he created for a school project.

art We looked at some of his paintings online (a visit to an American art gallery being outside of our budget) and watched a film for background information before he started his creation. Did this lead to his greater enjoyment of Pollock’s paintings? No, but he sure had fun dripping paint on his canvas!

So what do you think? Should kids visit art galleries?

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The great fire of London walk

Both of my kids enjoyed learning about the great fire of London at school. We visited some of the places below when the kids were younger but as they were both eager to revisit the Monument I devised a themed ‘Great fire of London’ day.

Museum of London

We started with a visit to the Museum of London to see their Plague and Fire gallery. The best place to begin is by watching the 6 minute video which gives an overview of the fire and a day by day account from some of the eye witnesses. You might also like to pick up the War, Plague and Fire family activity sheet from reception (or download in advance from their website).

Afterwards take a walk around the gallery and see some of the objects relating to the fire. Our favourites were smoke blackened tiles unearthed in a cellar in Pudding Lane back in the 1970s. You can also try on a fire fighters leather helmet and compare it with our modern day equivalent.

St Paul’s cathedral

St Paul's cathedral
St Paul’s cathedral

After leaving the museum we walked to the Monument past St Paul’s cathedral. The previous cathedral, known as Old St Paul’s, was one of the casualties of the fire. Many people had put their belongings into the crypt, believing they’d be safe from the fire but sadly it was not to be and the cathedral burnt. The current cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and rebuilt after the fire once attempts to restore Old St Paul’s were stopped.

We’ve visited St Paul’s Cathedral before so didn’t go in this time but if you’ve never been it’s worth it for the climb up to the Golden Gallery. It’s not cheap but you can get slightly reduced prices by buying tickets online.

Monument to the Great Fire of London

Monument to the Great Fire of London
Monument to the Great Fire of London

On to the Monument, which was designed by Wren and his colleague Dr Hooke, as a memorial to the Great Fire. This stone column is 61.5 metres high which is the exact distance from its location to the start of the fire.  It’s fun to climb the 311 steps to the top and take in the view over London although you may need to queue for a while to get in.

View from the Monument
View from the Monument

The view had changed significantly since I last climbed the Monument as the new Walkie Talkie skyscraper now dominates the area! You can always pretend it’s not there and look out to the Thames and Tower Bridge instead. There is wire fencing all around the viewing area which can make it a little tricky to take photographs (hence no photo of the Walkie Talkie) but at least you’re safe.

Once you’ve squeezed back down the stairs you can pick up  a free certificate to show you’ve climbed the Monument.

Certificates from the Monument
Certificates from the Monument

Pudding Lane

Just down the road from the Monument is Pudding Lane, the source of the great fire. The only reminder nowadays is a small plaque on one of the buildings. The road itself is nothing special, I think a new bakery would be a great addition!

Pudding Lane
Pudding Lane

All Hallows by the Tower

All Hallows by the Tower is the oldest church in London. It’s location next to the Tower of London means that it received plenty of beheaded bodies from the executions.

It’s also the church where Samuel Pepys climbed the tower to view the progress of the great fire. The church survived thanks to surrounding buildings being demolished to create firebreaks. It didn’t fare so well in the second world war though and in the crypt you can see lead which melted from the roof during the bombings. In the under croft you can also find an excavated Roman pavement, dating from the second century.

We finished our tour with a quick trip to Borough Market. This has a tenuous link of existing at the same time as the great fire, but we only really visited for its yummy food!

More info:

  • The Museum of London is free although a donation is appreciated. The museum is open daily from 10am-6pm. It’s a short walk from either Barbican or St Paul’s underground stations.
  • The Monument costs £4 for adults, £2 for children. The stairs are the only way to get up and the staircase is pretty narrow, as is the viewing platform. It can be a bit of a squeeze when trying to pass people. I wouldn’t personally recommend it if you have pre-school children but we did see a few being carried up.
  • All Hallows by the Tower is free to enter. It’s open 7 days a week except during services. The nearest tube station is Tower Hill.
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Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park was home to the unforgettable 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. We visited the Paralympics and had an amazing time watching athletics, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis; that day will stay with me forever!

The park has undergone major redevelopment since then. Some of the Olympic venues have gone and other areas are still being redeveloped. New attractions in the North Park, such as a large playground and cafe, welcomed visitors last summer whilst the South Park reopened in April 2014. I was intrigued to see what changes had been made so we spent a day exploring the Olympic park.

Olympic rings, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Olympic rings, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Our first stop was the information point to pick up a map and trail leaflets. There’s a great choice of trails covering London 2012, children and art in the park. I was impressed by the quality of the trails, even better that they were all free.

Our route into the park took us past the London Aquatics Centre. The pool is open for public swimming sessions now but it’s best to book in advance. All of the kids sessions were fully booked on the day of our visit so we had to content ourselves with a peep inside (no Tom Daley to be seen).

Aquatics Centre, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Aquatics Centre, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

The Orbit, or ArcelorMittal Orbit as it is now known, has also re-opened. Created by Sir Anish Kapoor for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games it’s the tallest sculpture in the UK. Visitors can take the lift up 80m to a viewing platform for a panoramic view across London. When you’re ready to leave there are 455 steps back down to the ground! We didn’t go up as I couldn’t justify the cost, but it’s an impressive sculpture to walk around.

Orbit, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Orbit, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

From the Orbit we followed the trails to the North Park. These took us past play fountains, a playground for younger children, climbing walls and lots of wooden deck chairs to relax on.

Climbing wall, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Climbing wall, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

We found a listening station and relived the cheers of Super Saturday when Team GB won three gold medals in the stadium.  We also attempted to jump as far as Greg Rutherford’s winning jump. Not surprisingly we couldn’t!

Can you jump as far as Greg Rutherford?
Can you jump as far as Greg Rutherford?

The only disappointment of the day was the Timber Lodge Cafe. We visited on a busy day and the cafe was having problems coping with the numbers. The tables were all dirty, the queues horrendous and the food not great. On a positive note the prices were reasonable for London and I’m sure that on a quieter day it’s probably a decent cafe. But our experience was pretty poor!

Tumbling Bay playground, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Tumbling Bay playground, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

The Tumbling Bay playground was a HUGE hit with the kids. They spent a while playing with water pumps, damming channels and running along a wobbly rope bridge. It was only when I went to leave that I realised there was another much larger section with wooden tree houses, rope nets and loads of climbing opportunities. This part was aimed at older children (I’d suggest 6+), and looked amazing. All of the kids were enjoying themselves, running around and scrambling up and down the tree structures.

Velodrome, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Velodrome, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

After I managed to drag the children away from the playground we walked on to the velodrome. It’s open to the public, and visitors can also book taster sessions on the BMX track and mountain bike route. We sat and watched some cyclists tackling the velodrome, the banks looked pretty scary close up.

Mirror bridge, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Mirror bridge, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Before leaving there was time for one last photo, my daughter couldn’t resist a Usain Bolt pose on the podium.

Podium, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Podium, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

We had a great day out at the park. I thought I might be disappointed returning to a place that held such great memories but there are different things to see and do now. We’ll certainly visit again to see the bits we missed and perhaps use some of the sporting facilities. Definitely recommended!

More info:

  • The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is free to enter. The nearest tube is Stratford, it’s about a 10 minute walk via Westfield Shopping Centre. The park is open 24 hours a day, whilst the information point is open from 10am-3pm. The website has loads of information and is worth a browse before you visit.
  • Standard swimming sessions at the Aquatics Centre cost £4.50 for adults, £2.50 for children. During the school holidays the pool runs Aqua Splash obstacle courses; these cost slightly more but sound great fun. Book your swimming session in advance here.
  • A family ticket to the Orbit is £40. Alternatively an adult ticket is £15, a child ticket is £7. Kids under 3 are free.  It’s open from 10am-6pm during the summer with slightly reduced hours the rest of the year. The Orbit is fully accessible to wheelchairs. More details can be found on the Orbit website.
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