A Big Day Out
How much of London can you see in a single day? Armed with a London Pass and the very best intentions to get out of bed early, the boy and I endeavoured to find out.
You might not have heard of the London Pass — I certainly hadn’t. But it’s a smart card that lets you in free without queuing to a bunch of London attractions — from big ticket stuff like the Tower of London and London Zoo through to cinemas, exhibitions and ice rinks.
So as in Singapore, I let my spawn take the lead and see how much of London we could see in one day.
9.50am: The Tower of London
Built originally by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century, used as a prison for many centuries, and home to royal bling including the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the Tower of London is one of those places that Londoners rarely visit because it’s, frankly, too darn expensive (over £30 for one adult and one child).
Having signally failed to get off to an early start, we arrive almost an hour later than planned and join a tour with a Beefeater, one of those curiously clad ex-soldiers who live in the Tower. Our guy, a former sergeant-major with vocal chords to match, takes us on a merry and extremely gory wander through the history of the Tower: beheaded queens, religious renegades tortured on the rack, little princes murdered, revolutionaries disembowelled and, of course, the duke who drowned in a vat of wine.
Tour complete, we admire some weaponry, whizz through the Crown Jewels, complete with Koh-i-Noor, inspect an exhibition on torture, and head towards London Bridge for our next stop.
12.30pm: The London Tombs (and London Bridge Experience)
“Ooh,” exclaims my son as we spy a car driven by a skeleton on Tooley Street, London Bridge. “Voted The UK’s Scariest Attraction!”
After a quick chat with the skeleton, we’re sold, and follow the footsteps round the corner to an attraction I’d never heard of. “Do you think it will be really scary?” asks my spawn with that salacious blend of excitement and anxiety that’s peculiar to the young. “Not too scary! I mean, I hope I won’t be TOO scared…”
As we enter the London Bridge Experience, a highly entertaining immersive romp where actors walk you through the story of the bridge from Roman times to the present, we witness a small child leaving the next section with his grandmother at some speed.
And, I have to say, in my capacity as a complete wuss, the London Tombs, part two of the tour, are terrifying. We eschew the offer of a “Guardian Angel”, available to people with anxious children, and embark on an underground adventure complete with insanely convincing live actors.
Ever forced your way between walls barely a foot apart from each other to be greeted by a zombie snapping at your neck? Stumbled through severed heads into a meat locker complete with chainsaw-wielding maniac? My heart-rate is at rollercoaster levels all the way through, although I can’t help but notice that more screams come from the adults in the party than the children…
“Well,” says Z, in a satisfied tone. “That’s DEFINITELY much scarier than the London Dungeon.”
2.00pm: Winston Churchill’s Britain At War Experience
Now, even if your only experience of British culture is watching Doctor Who, you will have noticed that we’re a little bit obsessed with Winston Churchill and the Blitz. And the Britain At War Experience was where we were actually headed when the skeleton distracted us.
Another attraction I’d never heard of until my son picked it out of the London Pass book, it is very charming in a sort of homespun, small museum way. I get rather teary at the film, with its homesick letters from a miserable teenage sailor to his mother (he never made it home), hearing Churchill’s “Fight Them On The Beaches” speech outside its traditional context of the pub before an England-Germany football match (and the Germans say we haven’t moved on from World War II!), and reading the wartime letters on display. I’m also amused to find, in a mockup of a wartime pub, that beer and tobacco were pretty much the only things in Britain that were never rationed during the war (and, yes, they even rationed tea!).
Z enjoys the movie, trying on gas masks and WWII uniforms, filling out a quiz, posing in an Anderson shelter, the mock-up of a bomb shelter in the Tube, and a walk through a devastated London.
4.10pm: The London Brass Rubbing Centre
I was chuffed that Z picked brass rubbing as something to do, given I had fond memories of brass rubbing as a child in this very same place — underneath St. Martin-in-the-Field church on Trafalgar Square.
I am also pleased to notice that techniques seem to have moved on a little, and that the crypt is noticeably posher than it was when I was a kid.
If you haven’t done it, brass rubbing is excellent fun. You rub coloured wax sticks on black paper over replica medieval brass engravings until the pattern emerges. No talent required. Just serious concentration.
We leave, happily, with brass rubbings complete: a dragon for me and a shield (with griffin) for Z.
4.55pm: National Portrait Gallery
“I want to go to NAMCO now,” says Z.
“I want to see the Lucian Freud exhibition,” I say. “He was our greatest living painter until last year. And he’s just across the road…”
Rather sulkily, Z proceeds across the road to the National Portrait Gallery. The gallery itself, like most London museums, is free, but the Lucian Freud exhibition would cost the two of us £26 without the London Pass.
I am, however, out of luck. Half of London seems to have had the same idea as us, and the exhibition is firmly sold out.
“Bugger!” I say.
“Can we go to NAMCO now?” asks my son.
6.15pm: NAMCO Station
NAMCO Station is not an attraction that will figure on most people’s London itineraries. Set in County Hall, behind the London Eye, it’s a blaring amusement arcade complete with dodgems, where I find myself comparing the prices and crowds most unfavourably to China.
On the other hand, it does have a bar, and, after criss-crossing London for over 8 hours, I could do with a drink.
“Actually, Mum,” says my son. “I’d like you to come and play with me.”
We spend our six quid of free tokens on a two-person zombie shooter. Z, at least, thinks it vaut le voyage from Trafalgar Square.
7.30pm: Queens Ice and Bowl
According to Z’s cunning plan, we were going to conclude our day with ice skating. According to my cunning plan, we were going to follow up ice skating with a trip to the cinema to see The Artist (notwithstanding the fact that Z, who watched Battleship Potemkin when he was far too young, now considers all silent films a byword for tedium).
Neither of our plans quite come off. We arrive at Queens Ice and Bowl, on Queensway, West London, in the gap between their daytime and evening skating sessions, having already eaten dinner.
“I don’t think we need to hang around Queensway for another half hour,” I say. “Let’s do bowling instead.”
Z rather sulkily agrees. And then bowls strike, after strike, after strike. It is most excellent fun.
“Well,” he says at the end of it, glowing with pride and exhilaration. “That’s one sport I’m not totally crap at.”
I decide not to push the cinema and we head back to base after, at least by our slothful standards, a phenomenally busy day.