Category Archives: Central London

Tower Bridge

A visit to Tower Bridge makes a perfect day out for a preschooler who is interested in machines. The south bank between London Bridge and Tower Bridge is great for exploring too, with big open traffic-free spaces for running around or scooting. The Hayes Galleria and the fountains, sculptures and mini stream near the City Hall building are great places to stop and play.

The paid visit to Tower Bridge includes the raised walkways and the Victorian engine rooms on the south bank of the river. The engine rooms still house the beautifully presented Victorian machinery that used to raise the bridge using coal-generated steam power, which was fascinating for a three-year-old who has recently discovered steam trains. There is even a section of mini railway inside and one of the carts that used to deliver the coal. The furnaces, pipes, huge spinning wheels, giant tools, taps, nuts and bolts are very impressive to little ones, and the engineering genius behind it all is equally impressive to geeky adults!

If you don’t want to pay to go inside, it’s still fun to just go see the bridge itself. And if you stand on the middle of the bridge with one foot on each side you can feel the two halves wobble when buses and trucks go over.

Best bits: using the power of hydraulics to lift a parent up – one person sits in a chair while someone else turns a handle which raises it up – a three year old can lift a grown-up.  And the giant spanners as big as a small child. Which are fixed to the wall, sadly. Children also get given a lovely set of stickers to collect as you go around the exhibition that end up making a passport to Tower Bridge.

Cost: £8.00 for adults, children under 5 free.

Travel: Tower Hill & Tower Gateway tubes are very close, London Bridge station is a nice 15 minute walk along the river.

Where to eat: there is a Strada next to the County Hall Building and lots more options along Shad Thames.

http://www.towerbridge.org.uk/TBE/EN/Exhibition

If you get organised you can check when the bridge is due to open and plan your visit around that: it happens a few times a week during summer and less often in the winter.

Bridge lift times:

www.towerbridge.org.uk/TBE/EN/BridgeLiftTimes/

During the summer there are often free events going on in the Scoop, a sunken amphiteatre outside City Hall.

http://www.morelondon.com/scoop.html

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Princess Diana Playground, Kensington Gardens

This wonderful wooden playground is in the far north east corner of Kensington Gardens. Lots of beautifully made and imaginative play areas are linked by a network of little paths and tall hedges.  At weekends and during school holidays it gets packed with older children, making it hard for toddlers to get a look-in. But it’s worth the effort to get there and on a sunny weekday during term time it makes a lovely day out with a group of friends. I probably wouldn’t go without at least one other adult: the logistics of food/ toilets/ keeping track of child and pushchair are tricky. Access is strictly limited to children and their accompanying adults, with a member of staff on duty at the gate at all times.

Best bits: there are lots of interesting little areas to explore. The play houses are great and the huge pirate ship has a big wheel that really turns.

Cost: free

Travel: Queensway tube is very close to the playground but it’s not step free. The nearest step-free tube is Green Park: a good half-hour walk away along the top of green Green Park and all the way through Hyde Park. For parking there is an NCP at the bottom of Queensway.

Where to eat: a kiosk sells pizza and sandwiches and there are lots of outside tables and chairs, but no covered areas. Whiteleys Shopping centre is a short walk up Queensway and has a Pizza Express and various foodcourt options if you need an emergency retreat from bad weather.

Note: a huge sandpit is the first thing you see: come prepared to get sandy!

http://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/kensington_gardens/diana_playground.cfm

Science Museum, South Kensington

This is not exactly a top secret spot, but is our favourite so far of the big London museums.

The interactive area in the basement is brilliant for toddlers, during the 10 or so minutes respite you get between rampaging school groups. If I remember, I’ll go again during the first week of the Autumn term, on the basis that hopefully no schools will have had a chance to organise their outings for that week.

The pattern exhibition on the ground floor is aimed at slightly older children but is really interesting and less hectic than the basement. The highlight for us is a little booth where you can jump and dance while watching your outline dancing on a screen in front of you, making all sorts of different patterns.

Our favourite secret bit is a mezzanine gallery that runs along the side of the ground floor Energy Hall. It has lots of model trains with buttons to press to make the wheels and pistons move. They are just the right height for toddlers, the buttons easy to press, and it always seems to be deserted, no matter how crowded the main gallery is below. And the long straight stretch of carpet makes it a great place to do a bit of wobbly running.

Cost: free, as long as you don’t mind walking past the people ready to take your £5 voluntary donation.

Travel: South Kensington tube is hopeless with a buggy. There is a campaign to improve it: http://www.exhibitionroad.com/step-free We either get a bus from Victoria or leave the buggy at home.

Where to eat: Lots of nice cafes in the museum and other options nearby.

http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/

Changing of the Guard and St James’s Park

Better known as Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace.

For mornings when we haven’t managed to get out of the house on time to make it to any playgroups but still want to go do something fun, this is one of my favorite trips. It requires very little planning or effort and is doable as long as it’s (currently) an odd day of the month and isn’t raining.

We get a train from Herne Hill to Victoria and walk to Birdcage Walk next to the Wellington Barracks for around 11:00. There are always huge crowds waiting outside Buckingham Palace and it would be impossible for a small child to see anything there, but the guards band plays for a while outside the barracks and there is plenty of space to get a pushchair right up to the railings so you can see everything. They then do some stamping and shouting and march across the road to the palace, accompanied by mounted police. The last time we went, the police horses were the highlight of the day.

After the soldiers disappear into the crowds you can then have a nice mooch about in St James’s Park. There is a small playground with a sandpit just across the road from the barracks, and pelicans, swans, interesting ducks and a fountain to admire on the lake.

Travel: Green Park tube has step-free access and is 5 minutes walk away.

Where to eat: The self-service Inn the Park cafe in St James’s park is expensive and not especially child friendly but is the closest option. You need to get there before 12:00 to avoid queuing and get a table.

For when you’ve had enough of the park and need a coffee, or you brought a picnic but it’s too cold or wet to sit outside, the huge first floor lobby of the office building at 80 Victoria Street is open to the public on weekdays and has loads of sofas and tables where you can eat a picnic in comfort and a cafe for coffee and snacks. It would work better for little ones who won’t stray too far from you, (I was asked very nicely by a security guard to round my little boy up when he went to the far end of the lobby to check out the building site across the road) but with a baby or a toddler who is barely mobile and has a few cars to play with on the nice shiny floor, you could be happy there for quite a while. You would never know it’s there when walking past, but there is a disabled entrance next door to Zara where they will let you in with a pushchair. I have the lovely Victoria to thank for this discovery too. If only the building site was on the side overlooked by the cafe, it would be our new perfect place.

Note: changing of the guard takes place every other day, except May – July when it happens every day. If you go to 80 Victoria Street, watch out for the gaps next to the pillar at the escalator end of the lobby.

http://www.royal.gov.uk/royaleventsandceremonies/changingtheguard/overview.aspx

Museum of London, City of London

The museum of London – brilliant discovery of my friend Mandy – is one of the most toddler-friendly museums in central London. It’s quite small, a bit hard to find and doesn’t make it on to the tourist must-see lists, so is wonderfully quiet. There are plenty of hands-on displays that toddlers can get involved in and play with, little doors to open and things to do.
They have children’s backpacks to borrow, stuffed full of goodies including a magnifying glass, torch, a puzzle and games involving things to find around the museum. Ask at the main desk and pay £5 deposit per bag. They will also check buggies into a secure storage room and bring them back for you when you’re finished.

Best bits: stirring pretend food over the fire in the Saxon hut, and playing with the mini trains, busses and tube trains in a street scene near the Victorian bit. They have even thoughtfully provided tables and chairs for grown ups here – perfect as you are likely to get stuck for a while.

Cost: free (Deposit for the backpack is returned when you give it back.)

Travel: Farringdon and Blackfriars tube stations both have step-free access and are 10 – 15 minutes walk away.

Where to eat: the cafe on the lower floor doesn’t do lunch food but is perfect for a break – plenty of space for little ones to run about or play with things from the backpack while you have a coffee. Food in the main museum cafe is nice but it’s a small space and is self-service so can be a bit stressful. There is a Pizza Express two minutes walk along London Wall, or a small park just below the museum or tables in the main lobby for picnics.

Note: the entrance from street level is via a lift at the north side of the Aldersgate Street roundabout. The museum doesn’t open till 10.30.

www.museumoflondon.org.uk