LONDON — Sturdy, stolid, elegant but grumpy old England, land of cold showers, warm beer, bad menus and declining GNP--my wife, Alden, and I knew it well from past travels.
But we had heard that England had grown hospitable to families on vacation. With our two daughters, Celia, 5, and Lydia, 7, we set out on our first trip overseas as a family to see if that was true.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 29, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Travel--The "Guidebook" that accompanies the article "For Kids, a Jolly Good Show" in today's Travel section incorrectly reports that Ville et Village can book cottages for travelers to England. It no longer does so. The error came to light after the Travel section was printed earlier in the week.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 6, 2001 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
England--The Guidebook that accompanied the article on London, "For Kids, a Jolly Good Show" in the April 29 Travel section incorrectly reported that Ville et Village can book cottages for travelers to England. It no longer does so.
To our delight (and moderate surprise), it was a terrific place for kids. Castles, parks, towers, ships--they've all adopted a kid-friendly approach that works.
Much to the delight of Lydia and Celia, a big part of this gearing up for children was the use of actors (actually reenactors) at many of the historic sites. Taking on the roles of figures from ancient times and places, they made the experience more real--and playful--for all of us.
Alden and I were determined not to "nanny" the girls out. We wanted them to encounter another world, so we were going to drag them everywhere.
We started with a visit to the Tower of London. This was exciting for the kids because they knew of castles from fairy tales and movies, but here was a real one. Even better was what's inside: the crown jewels.
This was a happy surprise. You no longer have to wait hours to see the collection, but glide through efficiently on moving walkways that you can retake if you want, allowing for many dazzling views of Queen Victoria's 1870 diamond crown, a favorite of our family.
When spirits flagged, Alden asked, "Want to see where queens were beheaded?" She got enthusiastic yeses. The execution block--on the tower grounds--was also a hit. You can overdo gore in London, but we kept things light with misbehaving royals.
The playful reenactments at some of our next stops made things even more colorful.
After leaving the tower, we went farther east to St. Katherine's Dock, there boarding the Grand Turk, the frigate used in TV series such as "Horatio Hornblower," a tale about a fictional member of the Royal Navy in the late 18th century that has been airing on A&E.
One sturdy reenactor dressed as a midshipman signed up our older child as a powder monkey in the navy, then threatened to shanghai "the lot of you colonials," as he called us--even though for him the year was 1797, well past the date of America's independence.
Falling into the spirit of things, my wife told the midshipman to look across the docks to a yacht that flew the Stars and Stripes, saying it proved our nationhood.
"Exactly, Ma'am," the midshipman said. "That's why I'm keeping a close eye on you." Joining in, I warned, "Someday you may need America as a friend," to which he responded with a groan, "That will be a sad day indeed, sir, for the British Empire."
The next day we set out for the Museum of Transport at Covent Garden, which is filled with hands-on exhibits about trains, buses and cars specifically geared for children. But we never got past Covent Garden itself. As Alden and I took turns touring the old outdoor market stalls, the children stood in the plaza watching street performers--skilled unicyclists, acrobats, magicians and others providing cheap entertainment. (You donate what you want.)
Even what one might think of as an adult experience, the "New" Globe Theatre, worked out. On a rehearsal mini-stage, student actors mesmerized our daughters with sword fights (from "The Importance of Being Earnest," in some inventive staging of Oscar Wilde's witty combats). Audio equipment allowed kids to try roles in various plays. Lydia read and recorded some lines in the lovers' quarrel from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and played them back. Again and again.
Between our thespian adventures we relied for play breaks on London's plentiful green spaces. (Tip for all parents visiting with children: To get from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey, cross St. James's Park. It has ducks.)
Hyde Park framed our days. Some mornings we took in a playground first, to exorcise restless energy. At the west end of the park, near Kensington Palace where she lived, we found the Princess Diana Memorial Playground, an enclosure with a Peter Pan theme (Indian village, sandy coast and a fair-size mock-up of a pirate ship, complete with rigging and crow's nest).
It was not just London we were after, but England--two different things.
Back in B.C. (before children), we visited rural Kent; this time we headed for more rural Wiltshire, southwest of the capital, familiar in bestsellers like Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth." It was easy to get there and get around--even to get safety seats with our rental car.
Although the recent foot-and-mouth disease scare led to cancellation of some events for the spring, summer events have been confirmed, and British officials emphasize that the south of England, at least, is open for tourism.