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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Backpacking the Thames Path trail, Oxfordshire

After our last backpack along the Lambourn Valley Way I was keen to attempt another overnight trip with the family. This time I was under strict instructions to make the walk shorter. Fortunately I had such a trip up my sleeve. A walk from Oxford along the Thames Path to a small campsite near Eynsham, returning by a different route the next day; a total of around 10 miles.

Port Meadow and River Thames, Oxford
Port Meadow and River Thames, Oxford

Day 1: Oxford to Eynsham along the Thames Path National Trail

The Thames Path National Trail runs for 184 miles from the Cotswolds until it meets the Thames Barrier in Greenwich. We joined it a few minutes walk from Oxford railway station; the traffic noise and fumes of Botley Road magically disappearing just a few feet along the path.

The first stretch from Oxford to Wolvercote was packed with families and groups enjoying the weather. Helped of course by two pubs conveniently located just off the trail. We watched as the cattle and ponies of Port Meadow paddled in the shallows, trying to escape the afternoon heat.

Mutiny on the Thames Path - too hot to walk!
Mutiny on the Thames Path – too hot to walk!

Once past Wolvercote the path was much quieter with only the occassional walker or cyclist. The local wildlife appreciated the peace; a heron and little egret perched photogenically on a dead tree trunk. Although of course they flew off just as I attempted a photograph.

At one point we came across an elderly couple swimming au naturel in the river. We were walking beside a stretch of overgrown bank so I’m assuming they couldn’t see us. Let’s just say their shouted conversations to each other made us all smile!

Whilst the walk was much shorter than our last trip I couldn’t do anything about the weather. Hot and sunny. Bliss. Unless you’re walking with a backpack in which case it means sweaty backs and complaints from the kids about how warm it is.

Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham
Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham

Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham

We reached Swinford Lock campsite late afternoon. The Environment Agency runs a number of basic campsites on lock islands along the Thames. A toilet, a water tap and a fire pit were the only facilities but for one night what else do you need?

After pitching the tent we walked into the nearby village of Eynsham. Despite living only a few miles away I’d never visited before. It’s definitely the kind of place I can imagine living; a large thriving village with lots of community spirit and good transport links.

Something we rustled up on the camp fire (or maybe The Bayleaf Restaurant, Eynsham)
Something we rustled up on the camp fire (or maybe The Bayleaf Restaurant, Eynsham)

Eynsham is also home to several eateries and inns. We don’t carry cooking equipment on our overnight backpacks as we like to treat ourselves and eat out. Hence we dined at The Bayleaf, a restaurant serving Bangladeshi and Indian food, before a slow walk back to our campsite collecting firewood on the way.

At the campsite we were still the only tent on the island. When I’d phoned earlier in the week the lock-keeper had advised there were seven others booked in. But nobody else arrived and we ended up with our own private camping island. How lucky we were!

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

Every campsite needs a campfire so we set about building one. It took a while to light but eventually some toilet paper and old receipts did the trick. Fortunately I’d managed to buy marshmallows in the local shop for the kids to toast; it’s lovely there are some family traditions they haven’t grown out of yet.

We went to bed shortly after sunset. Further along the riverside a wedding party was in full swing and we were woken by the music several times in the night.

Sunset from Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham
Sunset from Swinford Lock campsite, Eynsham

Day 2: Eynsham to Oxford

The morning dawned cloudy, ideal weather for walking. After a trip into Eynsham for breakfast provisions (fresh pain-au-chocolat and croissants) we packed our tents and continued our walk along the Thames Path. We passed the remnants of the wedding party camp, I’d imagine there were quite a few sore heads that morning.

Just before the next lock we turned away from the river. I thought I’d planned a scenic walk around Farmoor Reservoir but the path I’d chosen took us outside the boundary instead. Next to the sewage works. Whoops.

Hot chocolate at Farmoor reservoir
Hot chocolate at Farmoor reservoir

We eventually reached the main entrance to the Reservoir and made our way through the car park. I was delighted to see people drinking coffee outside the sailing club. How I’d missed my morning cuppa! For the grand sum of £2.30 we spent the next half-hour drinking two mugs of coffee and two of hot chocolate whilst watching sailing races on the reservoir.

Japanese knotweed footpath invasion!
Japanese knotweed footpath invasion!

After leaving Farmoor the next couple of miles took us through crop fields. We thought we’d lost the footpath at one stage but discovered it hidden under an invasion of Japanese Knotweed. Incredible just how overgrown the path was!

The last mile was through the outskirts of Oxford. Some lovely houses to look at but not exactly backpacking territory. It was tempting to stop at one of the bus stops and cover the final mile on wheels. But we resisted, and I’m glad we did. It was good to complete the trip under our own steam.

So that’s our second backpacking trip ticked off. I wonder if we’ll be able to squeeze another one in before the end of summer? And if so, where will we go?

More info

  • A list of Environment Agency and other commercial campsites close to the River Thames can be found here. The Environment Agency campsites are open to walkers, cyclists and river users only; there are no parking facilities close by. Our pitch (2 backpacking tents, 2 adults and 2 children) cost £14 for the night.
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