A circular drive over the Hardknott and Wrynose passes, Cumbria

If you’ve already read my post about things to do in and around Coniston you’ll know we spent a day driving over the Hardknott and Wrynose passes. The mountain scenery, challenging road conditions and smidgeon of danger made this one of my favourite drives in the UK; justification enough for a longer post with added photos!

View across Wrynose Pass
View across Wrynose Pass

Our adventure started from our holiday cottage in Little Langdale with a drive via Coniston to our first stop in Broughton-in-Furness.

Broughton-in-Furness

The town of Broughton-in-Furness is a world away from busy Lakeland towns such as Ambleside and Keswick. It’s a quiet market town, devoid of walking gear shops, twee tea rooms and tourists. Indeed its main claim to fame is that it’s home to best selling author, Richard Parsons. Never heard of him? Neither had I but if you’ve a teen in the house you’ve probably got one of his CGP GCSE revision books!

Despite the low key atmosphere of Broughton I rather enjoyed our short wander around the town. There’s free parking, a tourist information centre (I have a thing about always visiting these) and most importantly, a great bakery. Yes, we visited for cake.

Duddon Iron Furnace

From Broughton we drove to Duddon Iron Furnace. Built in 1736, this charcoal fired furnace was used to make pig iron. Unbeknown to us the site was closed for safety reasons and appears to have been for some time. That said, we could still view it from the bridleway which runs alongside. A little disappointing but still worth stopping for.

Duddon Iron Furnace
Duddon Iron Furnace

After leaving the furnace we retraced our route slightly and drove up the Duddon Valley towards Ulpha and on to Birker Fell Road. Leaden clouds and torrential showers obscured our views making me glad, for once, that I was in a car and not out on the mountains.

View from Birker Fell road
View from Birker Fell road

Stanley Force Waterfall

The rain stopped temporarily as we approached Dalegarth. Having seen very few visitors on the route so far I was surprised to suddenly see so many wandering beside the road. We soon realised our arrival coincided with that of the tourist train service from Ravenglass.

River Esk, en route to Stanley Ghyll Force
River Esk, en route to Stanley Ghyll Force

We didn’t have time to ride on the train but took advantage of a break in the weather to walk to Stanley Ghyll Force. The round trip to the waterfall takes about 45 minutes from the car park at Trough House Bridge. The path runs beside the River Esk and as we walked sun glinted through the trees and water drops sparkled on the ferns and mosses. It’s amazing how quickly a sliver of yellow can brighten your day.

Bridge on walk to Stanley Force waterfall
Bridge on walk to Stanley Force waterfall

The route crosses a couple of bridges; at the third and final bridge before the waterfall there’s a sign warning visitors to take care. The remaining section of stone path is slippy and there’s a steep drop into the river but it’s worth walking these last few minutes to the viewpoint. You’ll be rewarded with a Timotei-esque waterfall which drops 60 ft into a deep pool. Spectacular!

Retracing our steps we spent time discovering oodles of fungi around Trough House Bridge before rain hurried our retreat to the car. Time for a reviving (non-alcoholic) drink at the Woolpack Inn before our drive over the Passes.

Stanley Ghyll Force, near Eskdale
Stanley Ghyll Force, near Eskdale

Hardknott Roman Fort

Even if you’re not keen on continuing over the Pass it’s worth driving as far as Hardknott Roman Fort. There’s a small parking spot a few minutes after the cattle grid; alternatively you could park at the cattle grid and walk up. The steep road will give you a flavour of what’s to come…..

Hardknott Roman Fort
Hardknott Roman Fort

Hardknott Fort lies exposed to the elements, bordered by the rugged mountain landscape and overlooking the Eskdale valley. It’s hard to imagine how tough life would have been for the 500 strong cavalry who were stationed here to protect the Pass. Particularly as they were thought to be from the rather more agreeable climate of the Dalmation coast!

Hardknott Roman Fort
Hardknott Roman Fort

The low walls of the fort were partially restored a few years back. Together with the information boards these help visitors interpret the site. It’s possible to identify the location of granaries, lookout towers and garrison headquarters. There’s even a bath house;  I just hope it had the famous Roman central heating.

One tip for future visitors. If there’s a stream running down the road when you arrive then change into walking boots. I didn’t and my feet soon discovered the bog surrounding the fort!

Hardknott and Wrynose Passes

View over Hardknott Pass
View over Hardknott Pass

The Trip Advisor reviews for Hardknott and Wrynose Pass are five star but mostly recount how terrifying the drive is. Split tyres, vertiginous drops and scary encounters with cars on steep bends. Indeed, our first experience of the Pass was talking to a breakdown truck driver who’d come to Langdale to recover a car whose tyres had burst. Was the Pass really so terrible?

View from Hardknott over Wrynose Pass
View from Hardknott over Wrynose Pass

Er, no. Whilst the warning signs are ominous – 1 in 3 gradient, sharp bends, steep drops and unsuitable for caravans – it’s still possible to enjoy the drive. And the five star reviews are justified.

Of course you’ll need to keep your wits about you and your eyes on the road. Don’t get distracted by the scenery. Watch out for the sheep. And for road users coming from the opposite direction. Make sure you give way to those coming uphill.

You’ll also need a decent car. I was relieved to be driving a nifty hire car rather than our 14 year old Ford. Otherwise I fear we’d have been calling out that breakdown truck.

Wrynose Pass
Wrynose Pass

Hardknott was, for me, the harder of the two Passes. The road felt steeper and the bends sharper. I was tempted to stop and photograph the ‘Well done’ sign painted on the road at the end of Hardknott Pass but for obvious reasons it wasn’t practical to stop in many places. And that’s why the Passes look like a doddle in most of my photographs; I could only take them where it was safe to pull over.

Once over Wrynose Pass the road drops down towards Langdale and there’s the opportunity to get out of second gear. Although we had an interesting moment when we met a car midway between passing points. I was relieved we weren’t on the exposed side of the road!

Descent from Wrynose Pass
Descent from Wrynose Pass 

Blea Tarn

Our last stop of the day was Blea Tarn, a National Trust jewel of a lake. Its views of the Langdale Pikes are classic photograph material and we couldn’t resist taking rather a lot. That said, our teens decided they’d had enough of scenery for the day and remained in the car. How could they miss this?

Blear Tarn
Blea Tarn

Our 40 mile driving tour ended back in Little Langdale. Our tyres and brakes were intact, our photos numerous and we’d even managed to stay mostly dry. A successful day out for all.

More info

  • We followed the Coniston-Duddon Valley-Eskdale drive outlined on the Lake District drives website. Highly recommended.
  • The Passes are closed in winter conditions. Don’t attempt them in snow or ice!

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A walk to and around Highgate Cemetery, London

Highgate Cemetery, one of my UK bucket list items, might appear a strange destination for a family day out but we loved it. We spent an afternoon visiting the cemetery after a morning walk across Hampstead Heath.

Hampstead Heath

We had a couple of hours spare before our cemetery tour so I’d planned a walking route from Hampstead Heath underground station to Highgate Cemetery.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hampstead Heath. My prior knowledge mostly came from lurid tabloid headlines about the after dark activities of gay men on the western heath. The daytime reality was a tranquil dog walking and running area, albeit one that was in need of a good dose of rain.

Hampstead Heath boating pond
Hampstead Heath boating pond

Our route took us up to the viewpoint on Parliament Hill. From here the Shard, Gherkin, St Paul’s Cathedral and BT Tower are all easy to see. Some of the other buildings shown on the orientation map were harder; I couldn’t see the London Eye however much I looked.

View from Primrose Hill, London
View from Parliament Hill, London

Highgate is also famous for its outdoor bathing ponds. These were much busier than I expected on a gloomy weekday. I’m not a water lover so couldn’t imagine wanting to swim in them, surrounded by ducks and pond debris. However plenty of swimmers looked like they were enjoying it, particularly the divers jumping off the board in the men’s bathing pond.

Before heading to the cemetery we popped into the Village Deli in Highgate village for a takeaway lunch. Despite the expensive sounding name, and location, our picnic lunch was incredible value and very tasty, highly recommended. There’s a square opposite to sit and eat your lunch in.

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate was one of seven new private London cemeteries, constructed in the Victorian era, to accommodate the increasing number of burials. Prior to this, burials were in local churchyards but these were literally overflowing due to the doubling of London’s population.

West Highgate cemetery, London
West Highgate cemetery, London

Many of London’s wealthiest were laid to rest in Highgate. However, the cemetery fell into decline after the second World War. Decaying and vandalised it was taken over in 1975 by a charity, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who work to restore and preserve the area.

We visited West Highgate on a guided tour before crossing Swain’s Lane to look around the East Cemetery independently.

West Highgate Cemetery

Forget your local graveyard. Imagine instead a jumbled area of crowded gravestones and gothic and Egyptian influenced monuments, some covered with ‘Dangerous’ tape. Nature is in charge; tree roots climb over gravestones, ivy and bramble tendrils encircle the monuments. This is West Highgate cemetery. Some visitors call it romantic, others creepy; I guess I’m somewhere in between.

Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, West Highgate cemtetery
Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, West Highgate cemtetery

We started our tour in the open space in front of The Colonnade; big enough, our guide explained, so that the horse drawn carriages delivering coffins could turn around.  From here we followed the path up through the graveyard to the Egyptian Avenue, flanked by columns and obelisks.

There are sixteen family vaults on either side of the avenue; each with room for twelve coffins. The vaults are also home to a large spider, the rare orb weaver. Discovered during a bat survey the London Wildlife Trust estimates the vaults could contain a hundred of these adult cave spiders. I’m not sure whether the bodies or the spiders unsettle me more!

Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery
Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery

The Egyptian Avenue leads out into the Circle of Lebabon; a huge 300 year old cedar tree surrounded by a circle of tombs. The Victorians certainly knew how to celebrate their interred relations, very different to today’s attitude to death.

Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery
Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery

Our eyes slowly accustomed to the dark inside our next stop, the above ground Terrace Catacombs. It takes a moment longer to realise that every recess on either side of the passageway houses a coffin. Room for 825 people in total! We heard how coffins were once prone to exploding due to a build up of gases inside them. The ingenious solution was to drill a small hole into the coffin, insert a pipe and burn the gases off.

Catacombs, West Highgate cemetery
Catacombs, West Highgate cemetery

Outside the catacombs stands the mausoleum of Julius Beer. This was built for his daughter Ada who died she was just eight years old. Although we couldn’t go inside our guide showed us photographs of its rich interior. The mausoleum cost £5000 to build in 1878; in today’s money that’s around £3 million!

Most residents of West Highgate cemetery may not be household names today but many were famous in their day. I loved hearing the stories of some of these. Our guide recounted the life of Tom Sayers, a bare knuckle fighter whose stone dog adorns his grave. And that of Jim Selby, a carriage driver who raced from London to Brighton and back in less than eight hours.

Tom Sayers grave, West Highgate cemetery
Tom Sayers grave, West Highgate cemetery

The grave of George Wombwell reflects his livelihood, a travelling menagerist. His tomb lies under a statue of his lion, Nero. George famously advertised a dead elephant as one of his exhibits in order to attract more visitors than a competitor, who only had a live elephant. Different times indeed.

One of the more recent graves is for Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector who was poisoned by polonium radiation. His grave is buried 12 foot deep and lined with lead to protect from visitors from accidental radioactive exposure.

Alexander Litvinenko gravestone, West Highgate cemetery, London
Alexander Litvinenko gravestone, West Highgate cemetery, London

Our guide also explained the symbolism used by the Victorians. I’ve never given it any thought before but urns, clasped hands and broken pillars all have specific meanings. For example, a broken column indicates a life cut off in its prime. I’d always assumed it was due to vandalism!

Nature taking over, Highgate cemetery
Nature taking over, Highgate cemetery

We finished our tour with a visit to the dissenters graveyard. This is an area of two acres set aside for non-Anglicans; not as extensive as the fifteen acres for Anglicans.

I’d hoped we might see some of the wildlife that Highgate is famous for. There were plenty of butterflies and a cheeky robin but no fox cubs lounging on gravestones that I’ve seen in some photographs. Fortunately we didn’t see the vampires or ghosts that Highgate is also known for!

West Highgate cemetery, London
West Highgate cemetery, London

East Highgate cemetery

East Highgate Cemetery is a tidier, more manicured resting place on the opposite side of Swain’s Lane. There’s less woodland and the graves are arranged in a more formal layout.

The entry booth provides maps with the graves of more notable residents marked; there are plenty of familiar names. There are all walks of life here; from historians, architects, zoologists and cabaret stars to political activists. Even the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery.

Gravestones in East Highgate cemetery
Gravestones in East Highgate cemetery

Over in West Highgate most of the gravestones we saw were of traditional design. Whereas in East Highgate Patrick Caulfield’s gravestone has the word DEAD cut out of the granite, and Malcolm McLaren has another statement headstone. Douglas Adams has a simple grey headstone but fans have adorned it with a pot full of pencils.

However the most famous grave belongs to that of Karl Marx, the German philosopher. Although originally buried in another part of the cemetery he was moved in the 1950s after the Communist Party funded a new memorial.

We didn’t stay long in East Highgate as we had a train to catch. Fortunately we left early as I took the roundabout route back to the underground station. Yes, we went the wrong way!

If you’re looking for other unusual things to do in and about London please pop over to my 10 quirky things to do in an hour in London post.

More info

  • You’ll need to book in weekday tours advance in the West Cemetery on the Highgate Cemetery website. Alternatively turn up early on a weekend and go on the next available tour. You can visit the East Cemetery without a tour, an entrance fee is payable.

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15 things to do with the family in Ghent, Belgium

After the success of our short break to Lille a while back I was keen to explore other destinations  accessible via Eurostar. Ghent fitted the bill perfectly; a Belgian city just a couple of hours from London.

What did we do in Ghent?

We travelled as a family of  four; two adults and two teenagers. With this in mind you’ll appreciate our sightseeing and food choices were attuned to pleasing the whole family. Or attempting to at least!

View from Kraanlei across the Leie, Ghent
View from Kraanlei across the Leie, Ghent

So, how did we spend our time?

1. Climb the Belfry

I always make a beeline for the highest viewpoint in any new city. In Ghent it’s the 91 metre belfry, the highest one in Belguim.

View from Ghent belfry
View from Ghent belfry

A lift can take you part of the way up but we climbed the steps (to offset the waffles later). At the top there’s a 360 degree viewing platform with excellent views over the town centre, churches and cathedral. You’ll also discover how much building work is happening in the city.

View from the Belfry, Ghent
View from the Belfry, Ghent

Aside from the views check out the Roeland Bell (which was chimed to warn of approaching enemies) and listen to the carillon which plays every 15 minutes.

2. Wander the streets around Graslei and Korenlei

In the Middle Ages this area was a busy port and the centre of the Flanders grain trade. Nowadays it’s tourism central but for good reason; cobbled streets, historical buildings and, in the summer at least, pavement cafes. It’s a good place to take a boat tour or simply wander.

Korenlei
Korenlei

After dark it’s a completely different view with the illuminated buildings reflected in the water. Visit it as part of the Ghent light tour (see below).

3. Visit Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts)

This medieval fortress has seen many changes of use in its lifetime. From the seat of the Council of Flanders to a prison to cotton mills; at one point it was even going to be demolished and the land sold for development. Fortunately saved by locals it was restored extensively and is now one of Ghent’s main attractions.

Gravensteen - Castle of the Counts
Gravensteen – Castle of the Counts

Don’t expect lavish decorations inside the castle. For me the appeal was very much around the physical architecture, the towers, turrets and staircases. Although, thanks to those restorations, it was rather weird to walk up a heated staircase; the last thing you expect in a castle.

One room that is decorated, in a macabre way, houses the torture equipment. A reminder of the castle’s gruesome history. I found this fascinating but you might want to avoid it if you have younger children.

4. Ghent by light

We missed the Ghent Light Festival by a few days. Held every three years this would have been a spectacular sight but sadly it didn’t correspond with half term.

Ghent belfry at night
Ghent belfry at night

Even though we’d missed the festival Ghent illuminates many of its key buildings and monuments after dark, making an evening stroll obligatory. We followed the route on the Ghent light plan which took us to parts of the city we hadn’t seen in daylight. I highly recommend the walk but wrap up warm in winter.

5. Eat frites with mayo

A Belgian classic. We got ours from De Frietketel, a student hangout famous for its fries and burgers. Oh my word, the portion size! We ordered two small portions with mayo between the four of us and couldn’t even finish one portion.

It’s not haute cuisine but is tasty and cheap. Veggies and vegans can have their fill of junk food too; there are loads of options for non meat eaters. Indeed Ghent is known as the veggie capital of Europe.

6. Discover the city history at Stadsmuseum Gent (STAM)

I really enjoyed STAM, a museum covering the history of Ghent. I’d suggest visiting as early as possible during your visit to get an overview of the city. I’ve chosen my highlights below.

City map, STAM, Ghent
City map, STAM, Ghent

The first room houses a huge map of Ghent printed on the floor. Once you’ve donned protective shoe covers visitors can walk across it. It gives a sense of scale and geography of the city, particularly outside of the main tourist area.

The museum also includes a room dedicated to the Ghent Altarpiece (evidently one of Europe’s premier art works) which is in St Bavo’s Cathedral. I discovered it’s the most frequently stolen artwork of all time; one of the panels is still missing from the 1934 theft. It was really interesting to read about the police investigation and conspiracy theories, even if, ahem, we didn’t visit the actual painting whilst in Ghent.

Lego building, STAM, Ghent
Lego building, STAM, Ghent

The family dived into the huge pile of white Lego bricks left out for visitors to enjoy. Experts can attempt to recreate Ghent’s towers. Mere mortals can build small block houses.

7. Enjoy some warmth at the Botanic garden

If, like me, you prefer warm weather then head for the greenhouses at the University botanical gardens. It’s a little way out of the city centre but you can combine it with a walk through Citadelpark.

Botanic garden, Ghent
Botanic garden, Ghent

The outside garden didn’t contain a huge amount of interest in February but there was plenty to see inside the tropical and sub-tropical greenhouses – and they were warm!

8. Eat waffles

Another Belgian speciality. I realised halfway through my chocolate and cream covered concoction that I’d never eaten waffles in Belguim. It bore no resemblance to any waffle I’ve ever eaten before. It was sweet, light and slightly chewy, delicious!

Waffles cost a couple of euros from most street vendors, more if you cover them in melted Nutella. Ignore the calories, you’re on holiday.

9. Saviour the view from St Michael’s Bridge

The three towers, Ghent
The three towers, Ghent

This is the quintessential Ghent view, described as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages. Or, in non-tourist talk, it’s the opportunity to see three towers in a row; those of the Belfry, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church. I think it’s the one picture all tourists attempt to take even if it does mean getting mown down by a bus whilst you’re standing in the road.

10. Wander the streets around Patershol

This trendy neighbourhood is a small area of cobbled streets and restored houses. A place to wander aimlessly.

Cobbled streets of Ghent
Cobbled streets of Ghent

We visited during the afternoon when it was very quiet. Lovely to look at but almost deserted. I assume the restaurants liven things up in the evenings.

11. See the vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey

We stopped here on our walk back from the botanical garden as I wanted to see another city centre garden.

Vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey, Ghent
Vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey, Ghent

This garden is unique as it contains a vineyard. In the middle of a city. Although only planted in the 1980s there are references to earlier vineyards onsite from the 9th Century. The monks must have loved their wine. I wonder what it tasted like?

12. Graffiti street, off Hoogpoort

This is a pedestrianised alleyway full of graffiti which gives you a break from the medieval-ness of Ghent. It is as its name says; full of tags rather than street art. The teens liked it.

Graffiti street, Ghent
Graffiti street, Ghent

13. Ride a tram

Ghent tram
Ghent tram

The centre of Ghent is easily walkable so there’s no great need to use the trams. However my son was desperate to ride one so we took a tram to the railway station on our final day. It would have been cheaper to use a taxi but nowhere near as novel.

14. Little noses (cuberdons)

Cuberdons, Ghent noses
Cuberdons, Ghent noses

These cone shaped sweets (like noses) are a Ghent speciality. You can buy them for around 3-5 euros from street vendors. Fruit flavoured, with a hard shell and soft filling, they were an acquired taste but my son insisted he liked them.

15. Visit the cathedrals and churches

I’m not religious but do appreciate the history and architecture of churches, particularly ones as huge and ornate as those in Ghent. That said, with teens in tow visiting the cathedrals and churches was never going to be top of the sightseeing list.

St Peter’s church, Ghent
St Peter’s church, Ghent

Despite this we visited St Bavo’s Cathedral, where we spotted a whale skeleton but missed out the Ghent Altarpiece.

We also popped into St Peter’s church (next to the Abbey) and admired several others from outside.

Ghent – the verdict

We loved Ghent and I’d highly recommend it as a short break destination. We easily filled two full days with sightseeing. Another day, or even two, would have been ideal so we could see more museums and perhaps take a boat tour.

View from St Michael’s Bridge, Ghent
View from St Michael’s Bridge, Ghent

Ghent isn’t as overtly pretty as Bruges but I preferred it. There are far fewer tourists (in February at least) but lots of students which gives it a different feel.

More info:

  • We travelled by Eurostar to Brussels. From Brussels we took a train to Gent-Sint-Pieters Station. The train takes about 30 minutes; we’d already bought a Eurostar ticket which was valid to any Belgium station so there was no need to purchase a separate ticket.
  • We stayed in a studio apartment which you can see on the Stay at Ghent website. The second floor duplex studio was perfect for us but had a mezzanine and is reached via a steep staircase so not suitable for those with mobility difficulties or young children.
  • Belguim has two official languages; Flemish and French. Whilst I can get by in French Ghent is in the Flemish speaking area. It pains me to say but you’re better off speaking English.
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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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Oregon Girl Around the World
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