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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Visiting the Old Bailey and Inns of Court, London

Have you ever watched a court case? I’ve wanted to visit the Old Bailey ever since I realised the general public were allowed to observe trials. When a recent child free day came along I jumped at the opportunity to see the Old Bailey and other law related places in the city.

The Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court)

The Old Bailey deals with major criminal cases, mainly from the Greater London area. There are eighteen courts covering serious cases such as murder, terrorism and drug related crimes.

Despite being on the right side of the law I was a little nervous walking towards the public gallery entrance. I rang the doorbell, hidden down Warwick Passage, and waited to be called up for the security check. After passing through security I asked one of the guards about the best trial to visit.

The Old Bailey, London
The Old Bailey, London

The courts were relatively quiet on the day of my visit and the only option was a terrorism trial. The case related to four defendants, accused of supporting the funding of terrorism. The case had already been ongoing for several days; I entered the public gallery as the prosecutor was giving his closing speech to the jury.

The court room was smaller than I expected but familiar from TV court dramas. Visitors sit in a small balcony area, opposite the jurors. To my right sat the four defendants, to the left the judge. In the middle sat the Court Clerk and barristers. Their wigs intrigued me. Made from horsehair, evidently the older and grubbier they look the better!

The Old Bailey, London
The Old Bailey, London

It was really interesting to listen in and watch the workings of the court. I’m not going to write about the trial itself as it impacts real lives. Suffice to say the evidence was compelling and the subsequent outcome wasn’t a surprise.

Once in the courtroom there is a 30 minute minimum stay. However time passed quickly and I stayed for a couple of hours. Leaving as quietly as possible I crept out of the galleries and headed to my next destination, Temple Church.

The Temple Church

It’s hard to imagine that the serene Temple Church is just a couple of minutes walk from Fleet Street. Founded in the 12th Century by the Knights Templar it’s modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In 1608 the Temple was granted to two societies of lawyers, the Inner and Middle Temple, who look after it to this day.

Knight effigies, Temple Church, London
Knight effigies, Temple Church, London

The most distinguishing feature of the church is its round nave. Certainly impressive but I enjoyed the interior stonework just as much. On the floor of the nave lies the effigies of nine knights, whilst all around are grotesque gargoyles.

The nave contains a lot of display boards detailing the history which I really should have read.  But I was more interested in climbing the winding staircase to the clerestory for views back across the church.

Inns of Court

The area around Temple Church is surrounded by two of the Inns of Court. These are the professional associations for barristers; every barrister needs to belong to one of them. There are four Inns in London; Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple and Inner Temple; I explored the lanes and gardens of the latter two.

Middle Temple Lane, London
Middle Temple Lane, London

Wandering down the lanes it was hard to believe I was in central London. Lined with barristers’ chambers and intercepted by gardens and courtyards it feels more like a film set. I half expected Sherlock Holmes to walk down the street. There are maps dotted around the area but it’s more fun just to stroll around.

View from Middle Temple Gardens
View from Middle Temple Gardens

The buildings themselves are off limits to casual wanderers. Fortunately I didn’t need to be a barrister to enjoy the gardens. The borders were in full bloom, perfectly demonstrating the beauty of high summer. If I ignored the background sound of car horns, I could almost imagine I was enjoying a town garden.

Temple gardens, London
Temple gardens, London

As I reached the front of one garden, bordering Victoria Embankment, I realised the last time I’d been near here was whilst running the London Marathon. I’d struggled the last few miles and this section didn’t hold particularly good memories! It was good to reminisce in less painful times.

Temple gardens, London
Temple gardens, London

Royal Courts of Justice

Close by is one of the other major legal buildings, the Royal Courts of Justice, and my last stop of the day. The Law Courts house the High Court and Court of Appeal and preside over civil, not criminal, trials. It’s a huge Victorian Gothic style building on the Strand, just opposite Temple Inn.

Royal Courts of Justice, London
Royal Courts of Justice, London

Although there was an airport style scanner to pass through once in you appear to be free to wander. I picked up a self-guided tour leaflet from the entrance desk; it’s also possible to book guided tours. I walked around the Main Hall, past a small costume display to the Painted Room and then along past court rooms.

In a similar way to the Old Bailey it’s possible to watch trials. Although personally I think criminal trials sound much more interesting! I’d definitely like to visit another Old Bailey trial at some point, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the workings of our legal system.

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More info

  • The Old Bailey is for those aged 14+ years only; you may be asked for photo identification. Court generally sits on weekdays from 10am-1pm and from 2-4.30pm but do check before you visit. Security is strict. Cameras, mobile phones, large bags and refreshments are not permitted. You can leave mobiles at the nearby Capable Travel Agent at a cost of £1 per device. Details of the cases are posted on the boards outside.
  • The Temple Church website details its varied opening times. It’s generally open on weekdays from 10am-4pm. Entry charge is £5 for adults, free for under 16s.
  • Middle and Inner Temple Gardens are open to the public from 12-3pm on weekdays during the summer. There is no entrance charge.
  • The Royal Courts of Justice is open on weekdays from 9am-4.30pm. Entry is free.
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Walking the Bath skyline with children, Somerset

Bath’s Georgian architecture, honey coloured stone buildings and famous Roman remains are a magnet for tourists. But hordes of summer visitors are not my cup of tea. Fortunately the National Trust have created an escape route, the Bath Skyline Walk.

Bath Skyline Walk

This six mile circular route skirts around the city, following trails through woods and across commons. We picked up a printed map from the tourist office; it’s also available on the National Trust website. The directions were straightforward and easy to follow once we eventually managed to find the start at Bathwick Fields.

Bath skyline trail
Bath Skyline trail

As we crossed the meadow of Bathwick Fields the city views opened up to our right. We stopped to try and work out the various buildings but as I’m not particularly familiar with the city we didn’t get far. As our walk continued I realised this was probably the best view of the Bath skyline so do savour it whilst you can.

Smallcombe Nuttery and Bathwick Fields, Bath
Smallcombe Nuttery and Bathwick Fields, Bath

We continued downhill, passing Smallcombe Nuttery. I cannot imagine there are many other cities with community nutteries! Visitors are welcome to wander around and view the cobnuts, walnuts, almond and sweet chestnut trees.

Bathwick Fields
Bathwick Fields

A steep uphill stretch followed. We were grateful for some tree cover as we sheltered from a short sharp shower. That hadn’t featured in the weather forecast. Not that I minded taking a quick rest on the way up.

If you’ve got time there are a couple of additional places to visit en route. We saw signs pointing to the NT Prior Park Landscape Gardens and I was very tempted by the cafe. But not by the steep walk back uphill to rejoin the route afterwards. Later on there’s also the option to detour to the American Museum.

Claverton Down

Whilst the Bath skyline walk is perfect for older children, those with younger kids may find some parts too hilly. However the National Trust have produced a separate Family Discovery Trail leaflet for a flat two mile stretch of the walk around Claverton Down. There are mini fairy doors in the trees of Long Wood, geocaches to find and an excellent woodland play area. I even joined the kids on a couple of the apparatus. It’s the perfect place to stop for a picnic. If I’d remembered to bring one.

Woodland Play area, Family Discovery Trail, Long Wood
Woodland Play area, Family Discovery Trail, Long Wood

Bath Cats and Dogs Home

The sound of barking signalled our approach to Bath Cats and Dogs Home. I knew from Trip Advisor that it had a small pet store which also sold drinks and snacks so we stopped for a short break.

After drinks my cat-mad son asked if we could pop in and see the cattery. The receptionist advised they do not usually allow casual visits but kindly allowed us in. Of course my son wanted to adopt every cat he saw. We emerged, thankfully cat-less, and continued our walk across Bushey Norwood to Bathampton.

Bathampton Wood

Bathampton Wood was a highlight for me. Despite the lack of recent rain parts were quite slippy and muddy making me wish I’d worn trainers. However the luxuriant greens of ferns and mosses and an entire tree trunk covered in small mushrooms made up for the slippiness underfoot.

Bathampton Wood, near Bath
Bathampton Wood, near Bath

As we walked through Bathampton Wood we crossed several small tracks heading off in various directions. Although the instructions stated we should maintain our height the path seemed to get narrower and less distinct. I worried that we’d gone the wrong way so it was a relief to pop out of the wood in the correct place. Rather ironically some lost walkers immediately approached me and asked for help.

Bath skyline trail
Bath skyline trail

We circled around Bath Golf Club, heading towards two radio transmitters, before a steep route downhill through more woodland. We emerged near a bench which was perfectly positioned to once again take in the Bath skyline view.

Sham castle

From the bench it’s well worth the five minute detour to visit Sham castle. This folly was commissioned by Ralph Allen in 1762 to improve the view from his townhouse. I don’t know where he lived but there’s a great view of Bath from the castle itself. Although there is nothing else to the castle apart from what you can see in the photo below!

Sham Castle, Bath
Sham Castle, Bath

From Sham Castle we walked downhill back into Bath. We found ourselves on a road of mansions so passed the time oohing and aahing at the houses, wondering how much they cost. Rightmove quickly provided the answer, and some impressive interior photos; what did we do before the Internet?!

Bath
Bath

Back in the centre of Bath we ate a very belated lunch and reminisced over the walk. If you’re visiting the city I highly recommend it, but do it for its countryside appeal rather than city views!

More info:

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