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.

The Tower of London with London Assembly building in the background.

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.

Georgian gentleman in his study at the London Bridge Experience.

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.”

Trying on a gas mask at Winston Churchill's Britain At War Experience.

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.

Making a brass rubbing at the London Brass Rubbing Centre.

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.

Namco station amusement arcade, with crowds.

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.

Bowling at Queens Ice and Bowl.

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.

Looking for more things to do in London? You might enjoy 5 Things to Do with Kids in London or, for something completely different, why not discover Halloween in China.

Thanks to London Pass for the free passes. You can buy passes for 1, 2, 3 or 6 days, and save as much as £500 by using them: click here to find out more.

13 Responses

  1. Laurence says:

    Wow, that is a jam packed day. And you did loads of stuff that I never managed to get round to when I lived in London (always the way!)

    • Theodora says:

      The thing with London is that you can easily spend a week just doing the free museums and galleries — and, when you live in the city, you tend to barely stray from your local area. We did museums relatively often, but still spent most weekends local (cinemas, parks, pools): I think it’s part of the village culture we have going on.

  2. WHAT a fun day. wow!!! i could never do that scary one. i’d die and turn into a zombie myself…

    • Theodora says:

      I was actually quite eager to leave the scary bit. We had a little girl with us (her brother and sister wanted to go with a guardian angel, so I took her through with us) who went through the entire thing in the standing equivalent of the foetal position, with her eyes tight shut. The actors were very good about not snapping at her, but I was totally freaked. Because there’s just that little bit of your brain that keeps on saying, “What if he DOES bite me? What if he DOES?”

  3. joe w says:

    Everything looks awesome.some of the attractions I’ve never heard about.London looks more interesting by the minute

  4. Allegra says:

    Hi! My Mom read about your blog in the newspaper, and although you’re probably long-gone from London, we’re here now visiting friends.
    Your trip sounds amazing! Yes, you’ve probably got a lot of that, but it does… We’ve been to some of those places too, my parents bringing my brother and I around the world. We’ve been to New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, India, Uganda, Turkey, and then up through Europe to Great Britain and England.
    I hope the rest of your journey is thoroughly enjoyable. Ours ends in a week – a relief, after being away for eight months!
    Keep righting, it’s great. And your blogs are really long!
    Bye,
    Allegra, age 10

    • Theodora says:

      Hello Allegra!

      And thank you for your lovely long comment.

      Z only writes at that length on his blog (which is at http://kidventurer.com, if you like reading blogs) — you’ll probably prefer it to mine, as he writes very, very briefly, so a reader like you will be able to read the entire thing in under an hour.

      What a fascinating trip you’ve done! We’ve been to some of these places — Australia and Thailand, various parts of Europe (most of them before we left, because we’re British, so Europe is easy for us), and are going to Turkey quite soon, but neither of us have ever been to New Zealand, India, or Uganda, which must be amazing!

      That’s a lot of ground to cover in 8 months. Wow! I really do hope you’ve enjoyed it, and that you’ve learned lots of things, as well as having lots of fun…

      All the best to you and all your family!

      Theodora

  5. Lee says:

    It is great to see how much of London you can see in a day. You really did fit in alot of attractions into one day

  6. Marian says:

    that sure is a fun-packed day! but how did you not surpass the “purse value”?

    • Theodora says:

      I worked it out, rather tragically…. You get a booklet with the card, which explains the value of each activity, so that you don’t over-run the value.

  1. March 7, 2014

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