Friday, 8 January 2016

Family London on a budget

London.  Extraordinarily expensive for a family trip?  Not necessarily.  As a home-grown Londoner, I am fiercely proud of my hometown and want to share the secrets of how to explore this city in style, without straining the purse-strings.

London is a city with the commuter in mind.  Therefore, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em by saving on accommodation costs and staying outside of the city.  Depending on which part of the UK you're travelling from, stop as soon as you near a tube line.  Travelodges and Premier Inns have the monopoly on cheap rooms and, with kids breakfasting for free in these chains, you can fill up excited tummies with enough fried food and cereal to keep them going until mid-afternoon.  Next February half-term, there are Travelodge family rooms available in north London for only £35 a night.

If you don't fancy staying overnight, single-day return trains booked in advance can be reasonable, particularly if you split the journey if you're travelling from afar.  For example,when travelling from Shrewsbury, I never buy one ticket.  I break up the journey and buy two tickets:  Shrewsbury to Birmingham New Street and then another ticket from Brum to London Euston.  For a family of four, we've often saved in the region of £75 when buying tickets like this.  And, if you travel by train, be sure to keep hold of your ticket stubs; proof that you travelled by train can gain you 2-for-1 tickets at lots of attractions in the capital.  Take a look at National Rail's 2-for-1 website to find out more.

Once in London, tube fares are reasonably-priced, even more so if you have an Oyster Card.  It's worth investing in an Oyster Card so that it can be reused on future trips to The Big Smoke.  It's basically a reloadable travel card which is debitted every time you make a journey.  And, as a bonus, under 11s are free on the underground and bus network, making transport even less of a financial worry.

Once in London, there are hundreds of free and inexpensive sights and experiences to enjoy.  A personal favourite of mine is The Museum of London. This fascinating (and free) museum is located near The Barbican and can easily take up a full afternoon of exploration; there are 450,000 years of history covered!  From The Great Fire of London to The Blitz, no aspect of London's past is left unturned and free guided tours are available for families at various points through the day.  Even the building itself is interesting; 1960s architecture really wasn't pretty, was it?

A great spot whilst in this neck of the woods is The Monument.  Built to commemorate the very spot where The Great Fire of London started in 1666, this doric column was finished in 1677 and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren.  It's an easy walk up the stone steps to the public gallery, about 160 feet above the sprawling metropolis.  It's cheap too.  At only £2 for children, it's a fantastic way to see the city.  Another handy tip is that, at the weekend, this part of London is deserted.  Slap bang in the middle of the Square Mile, this area of town is abuzz in the week with financial experts but, come the weekend, it closes down, leaving restaurants empty. 

If you have time, there is a combination ticket which can be bought at The Monument.  For under a  fiver for children and ten pounds for adults, the family can visit both The Monument and Tower Bridge - the iconic source of many a nursery rhyme, built in the 19th century.  Your entry ticket allows access to the exhibition rooms of the bridge and a thrill-seeking walk across the glass floor of the walkways. 

Marvel at the Thames flowing below your feet and wonder at the history that this part of London has seen. It's worth checking the website to see whether your visit coincides with a day when there's a bridge lift (the majestic arms of the bridge rise to allow oversized vessel clearance) as this is a sight not seen be many people.

Another tourist attraction just a wave down the river, not to be missed, is the eleventh century Tower of London.  It is quite expensive to get in but, with a little forward planning, there are ways to easily shave money off the cost.  National Rail's 2for1 offer is applicable to tickets here, as is Tesco's Clubcard.  When we visited, we used Tesco vouchers.  For every £2.50 worth of points we cashed in, we received £10 off our entry to the historical palace.

The Tower is one of my faves.  The Beefeaters are friendly and I have personal proof that they will answer any question posed by an inquisitive (and rather cheeky) eight year old!  The Crown Jewels are also a must-see and, if your child has read  David Walliams' "Gangsta Granny", they'll want to see the exquisite jewellery that Granny attempted to steal. 

A little-known free activity in London can be found in Westminster.  Here, your trip can become even more educational, with politics mixed into the equation.  A guided tour of the House of Lords, House of Commons and Westminster Hall can be arranged through your MP and, booked in advance, this tour is free to UK residents.  This opportunity is an amazing eye-opener, which will surely illuminate (and inspire) young minds.

Whilst in Westminster, there is an even lesser known tour which is available for over-11s with a British passport.  Again organised through your MP, tours of the Elizabeth Tower, the home of Big Ben, are fascinating.  To see behind Ben's clockface is something very few have done.  Watching the chimes at New Year's Eve will never be the same again!

A brief walk towards Trafalgar Square will take you past Downing Street.  Here, you can marvel at the police officer's guns and wave at the famous glossy back door as you head towards Whitehall and the Horseguards.  All day, these motionless guards sit aback their splendid steads, avoiding embarrassing eye contact with the public.  At 11am and 4pm on weekdays, the guards come alive and become a feast for the spectator's eye.  In the morning, the guards change in a splendid and pomp-filled ceremony, complete with shouting and stamping.  The afternoon's activity is a much more sedate affair when the guards are inspected by their superiors.

Once you've reached Trafalgar Square, another cost-free activity to enjoy is the National Gallery.  Armed with a sharp pencil and a sketch pad, any artistic child will while away many an hour quite happily here.  There is also a specially designed trail for children which can be downloaded before arrival.  The National Gallery's website has a 'family' page which details all the many arty crafty events available to young (and older) members of the family.

Next door to the beacon of art is the National Portrait Gallery with its paintings and photographs of famous people, both historical and modern.  It's fun to try to spot the kings and queens learned about earlier on your London trip, when you visited the Tower of London or the Houses of Parliament.  The whole packgage makes history come alive and sparks the imagination of even the most difficult-to-please child. 

Other (amazingly) free museums to be enjoyed are the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.  The gothic splendour of these buildings will stun you, even before you've entered their hallowed halls.  Both fascinating for children, they are big on things to see and touch.  A handy tip though is to arrive early (or late) in the day to avoid the inevitable queues.  Another great building, just along from the Science Museum, is the Victoria and Albert Museum (the world's largest museum of arts and design) which will appeal to all budding fashion designers.

A little way from the tourist route, yet a worthy journey, is the Imperial War Museum.  Free to enter, it's recently had a complete refurbishment and the battles and squirmishes of recent years are brought to life sympathetically.  From here, the South Bank is just along the way and provides lots of restaurants, cafes and quirky bars.  The people-watching along the Thames is fantastic too; great for spotting celebrities!

A fair stretch of a walk along the river and you'll reach another cache of treasures in the shape of
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the Millennium Bridge, St Paul's Cathedral and Tate Modern.  Kids will love the funky art at the gallery and they'll burn off any surplus energy running across the steel suspension footbridge towards St Paul's Cathedral and trying to make it sway.  The Globe does have an entrance fee but, to be honest, seeing it from the outside is enough for young children.  If the little ones are desperate to go in, the access to the shop is free so you can see the 'inside' without paying extortionate ticket prices.  Tate Modern offers free entrance and the artworks are visually stimulating and a real feast for the eyes; I defy any visitor not to be captivated by the current work in the entrance hall. 

So, jam-packed with activities, sights and adventures, London can easily be a relatively cheap destination for a family trip.  As you can see, London is not expensive at all if you know how to find the 'free' things.  For up-to-date information, TimeOut's website has a section for families which is easy to navigate and details fabulous offers and events.  The freebies are out there - they just need to be found!

Enjoy my hometown.  It's an amazingly rewarding city with a photo opportunity around every single corner.

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