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Big Ben and small delights

A trip to London was turning into a disaster for one family until they freed themselves from the tourist grind and sought out simple pleasures.

September 09, 2007|Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Just days into our long-awaited dream vacation -- a trip to London to show my two children the city where I grew up -- my 6-year-old son was already bored.

We were dashing through the city's Science Museum, a place I had visited as a child on school trips, and Sam wasn't impressed.

"I hope we don't spend our whole day here," he moaned. My wife, Karen, and I exchanged worried looks.

Sightseeing in a major city is always daunting, and I felt a particular pressure to pack all of my childhood experiences into our first family trip "home." I wanted Sam and my 9-year-old daughter, Clare, to experience for themselves all the sights they had read about in books and seen in movies: Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London.

I desperately wanted them to love the city as much as I do. Armed with a list of must-see attractions, we took the underground into London. It was raining, so the museum, a quick walk from South Kensington Tube station, was an easy choice.

Entry to the museum was free, but there were flashy advertisements for a spy exhibit that promised hands-on fun for kids. The $50 exhibit fee for the four of us was sickening, but worth it if it made our kids like London. Clare managed to sustain mild interest, but our son was hopelessly bored. Not having learned our lesson, we threw more money at the problem ($8 on a flight simulator and $14 more for a dinosaur simulator ride) before admitting defeat and heading for the toy wing at Harrods.

As we took the kids across the city over the next few days, my wife and I peppered them with questions meant to reawaken the giddiness they had felt in the months they had waited for this trip.

Their flat responses made us wonder whether we should have waited a year:

"What do you think?"


"How is this different from California?"


This was their big chance to know what being "half English" meant beyond having a dad who talks obsessively about soccer and calls the toilet the "loo." Clare had told us she wanted to "learn about the English way of life." Weren't we living it?

Perhaps they needed more excitement, we thought. How about a bus tour? A river cruise?

We tried to keep their interest by promising treats along the way. So the next few days, we mixed snacks with sights.

Across the street from Big Ben, the kids ate soft-serve ice cream in a cone with a chocolate stick known in England as a "99" stuck in it -- a childhood favorite of mine. They drank freshly squeezed orange juice on a ferry up the Thames, but complained all the way about the sun in their eyes.

It was clear that more than one day at a time of concentrated sightseeing was becoming torture. Their brains would not soak up the architecture and ambience as we had hoped. ("Do you see that building?" "Yeah." "It's St. Paul's Cathedral. It was designed by Christopher Wren and it's been standing here for 300 years." Yawn.)

It was time for Buckingham Palace, which meant chocolate muffins from a kiosk across the street in St. James' Park.

And then a strange thing happened.

The kids appeared to be enjoying themselves.

Clare savored her muffin, watching late-afternoon commuters amble through the park. Sam ran between London plane trees. The trees cast shadows over the pathways and a breeze cooled us as we lolled in the shade. This seemed far more like the London that Londoners experience.

Karen and I agreed that we needed to allow more time to let the kids act like kids. So we retreated to my parents' house in a suburb of north London, the same home where I grew up.

The children and I scrambled up the stairs to find all of my old toys crammed into boxes and shelves, just where I had left them. We marched down triumphantly with cricket equipment and rugby and soccer balls. The kids were smiling.

The next day was mercifully sunny, so I took them for a familiar walk to a massive park where I had played as a child. I taught the kids how to hold a cricket bat and pass a rugby ball, just as my dad had done with me.

"You're pretty good, for an American," a boy told Sam as they kicked the soccer ball around during a pickup game. Ecstatic, Sam bounded over to tell me about his first cultural exchange.


English suburban dwellers have long held to the idea that their backyards are part of an idyllic countryside within striking distance of the city's hubbub. In fact, London's suburbs have plenty of urban problems, from crime to traffic. But there are still huge areas of beautiful park space where children can forget that they are playing in one of the world's most bustling cities.

With plenty of hotels, the suburbs also make a convenient base for travel, as long as you are close to a bus stop and underground station. The outskirts of London are an easy train ride to the city, but there's also a lot to do nearby.

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