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:

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Exploring Bristol with older children

Bristol is only an hour from home but most of our previous visits have been to two of its outlying attractions, the airport and IKEA. Our recent two night trip allowed us to discover the city at leisure, without the distraction of missed flights or Swedish meatballs!

There’s plenty to keep younger children occupied in the city, from At-Bristol to SS Great Britain, but what’s there to do for older children in Bristol?

Ferry boat trip

Faced with a longish walk from Bristol Temple Meads railway station to our accommodation I thought a ferry trip into the centre might head off some of the grumbles.

Bristol ferry
Bristol ferry

It was the right decision. We were the only customers on board so the ticket lady treated us to a mini-tour of the river highlights. En route we passed another Bristol Ferry Boat full of litter pickers fishing rubbish out of the river. It may well be due to their efforts that we later spotted a kingfisher, watching us from the river bank.

Street art tour

Back in 2009 we visited the Banksy Bristol Museum takeover and in 2015 we enjoyed Dismaland in Weston-super-Mare so you’ll probably realise I’m a Banksy fan. Discovering Banksy art in Bristol is also on my 100 things to do in the UK bucket list so I was looking forward to ticking off another item.

Banksy art, Bristol
Banksy art, Bristol

But there’s a lot more to Bristol than Banksy as we found on a street art tour. Starting from City Hall and winding our way up through the city centre to Stokes Croft we learnt about the techniques used, artist backgrounds and the meaning behind some of the pieces.

One artist that stood out for me was JPS, who stencilled Spartacus (below, left). Previously homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol JPS was inspired to paint after visiting Banksy’s Bristol musum takeover. There’s a definite Banksy likeness to some of his creations but he’s now a well known street artist in his own right. Heck, he’s even appeared in the Guardian and has a street art trail in his home town of Weston-super-Mare.

Bristol street art
Bristol street art

Part way through our tour the guide managed to loose half of the group at a busy traffic crossing. We watched from afar as the rest of the group disappeared down an alley. Ten minutes later, with the help of Head Office, we were reunited, but not before we’d jokingly decided to run our own self-directed tour.

Depending on your point of view, our final destination, Stokes Croft, is either full of drug dens and brothels, bohemian and edgy or gentrified and expensive to live in. Whatever your thoughts there’s definitely lots of street art to see.

St Nicholas Market

Leaving our street art tour behind we headed back to the city centre via the indoor St Nicholas Market. The market has the usual clothing and knick-knack stalls but what sets it apart are the food outlets. With options from all over the world it wouldn’t look out of place in Borough Market. One particularly alluring stand, Aah Toots, was named after my childhood nickname and aptly full of cake.

Saint Nicholas Market, Bristol
Saint Nicholas Market, Bristol

Cabot tower

Whenever I visit somewhere new I always climb a tower for a bird’s eye view of the area. For someone with particularly bad spatial skills it’s my way of making sense of my surroundings. Cabot Tower, set in parkland on Brandon Hill, gave me the views I needed to decipher Bristol.

Cabot Tower, Bristol
Cabot Tower, Bristol

Built in the 1890s to commemorate the journey of John Cabot from Bristol to Canada the tower is free to visit. There’s a 360 degree panoramic view from the top although getting there may involve a squeeze. The spiral stairs are pretty narrow and things get interesting when you meet someone coming the opposite direction!

Bristol harbourside

Continuing our Bristol exploration we finished our day with a riverside walk. I’d originally planned a short stroll to see the SS Matthew, a replica of the ship that John Cabot used for his voyage to Newfoundland. Yet we arrived at its mooring point to discover a missing ship, along with a note stating it was in dry dock further along at Underfall Yard.

View from near Underfall Yard, Bristol
View from near Underfall Yard, Bristol

For some reason I thought it would be good to continue walking on to Underfall Yard, a historic boatyard. Twenty minutes later we found SS Matthew, closed to visitors. As was most of Underfall Yard. Despite trying its best to attract tourists it’s probably better to visit when the cafe and visitor centre are open.

Sunset over Bristol harbourside
Sunset over Bristol harbourside

The kids were wilting by this time. Not surprising really as I later discovered we’d walked about 10 miles. Fortunately our walk home was accompanied by a paddleboarding dog (OK, its owner was paddling, the dog just balancing) and a great sunset.

Clifton Observatory – The Giant’s Cave

Next morning we continued our walking theme with a stroll out to the affluent suburb of Clifton. Clifton is the polar opposite of Stokes Croft with expensive interior shops, lots of coffee shops and estate agents full of houses we could never afford. We were there to visit one of Bristol’s most iconic attractions, Clifton Suspension Bridge, but were side-tracked into visiting Clifton Observatory first.

Giant's cave, Clifton Observatory
Giant’s cave, Clifton Observatory

Clifton Observatory is home to two attractions, a Camera Obscura and Giant’s Cave. We took advice from the ticket lady and left the Camera Obscura for a sunny day. Instead we opted for the cave, once home to two giants, Goram and Ghyston. It would be wrong to suggest this is pure myth but I wonder how the giants negotiated the 200ft tunnel to the cave. I bent my head as I walked down the steps and I’m definitely no giant.

Even if there is a touch of make believe about the tale, the steps lead out onto a platform with an impressive view of the gorge and bridge. You can just make out the bright yellow platform jutting out in the picture above. It’s probably not for you if you’re nervous of heights!

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol
Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

I’ve seen Clifton Suspension Bridge from afar many times but its taken me 40+ years to walk over it. Was it worth the wait? Yes, of course. The bridge spans the Avon Gorge and is probably one of Brunel’s most famous designs (although some dispute the extent of his involvement).

Clifton suspension bridge, Bristol
Clifton suspension bridge, Bristol

On the far side there’s a small visitor centre. I enjoyed looking at the drawings submitted for the bridge design competitions. The kids played with a weighing machine that tells you how many of yourself can stand on the bridge without it collapsing. Quite a few fortunately!

I had a vague plan to walk beside the river back into the city but we decided it was probably a step too far after the previous day. Instead we explored Clifton further before returning to our hotel to pick up our luggage.

Eating out

One of the great treats on our city breaks is eating out. The family seem to think I’m a little fussy in my choice of venue. After I’ve checked the Trip Advisor reviews I’ll generally check their hygiene score and the menu. And did I mention I’m vegetarian? Anyway, the following met my standards:

For mice and men

Enjoying a cheese toastie, For mice and men
Enjoying a cheese toastie, For mice and men

Advertised as a travelling grilled cheese muncheonette we found this pop up stall at the Harbourside Market. My daughter and I highly recommend one of their bespoke toasted cheese sandwiches.

Under the stars

A floating tapas boat moored at the Harbourside. Lots of tasty veggie options, reasonable size portions and a quirky venue.

Urban Tandoor

An Indian restaurant with great service in a small (and dark) venue so book in advance. I probably chose the wrong item as it was a lot spicier than I expected but everyone else enjoyed their meals.

Swoon gelato

An ice cream treat for the kids with lots of different flavours to choose from. As it was a cold February day I stuck to coffee but quality checked both ice creams. Very tasty.

Accommodation

We stayed in a Premier Inn. Not quirky or characterful but a central location and very good value for a family room. And we love the breakfasts.

More info

  • Cabot Tower is free. Check opening times before you visit; it is currently closed on Friday afternoons.
  • Clifton Observatory is usually open daily. Entry to the cave costs £2.50 for adults, £1.50 for children (must be 4 or older).
  • Clifton Suspension Bridge is free to walk over (£1 for drivers). The visitor centre is open every day except Christmas Day and New Year from 10am-5pm.

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.

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.

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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.

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