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.


The Horniman Museum, Forest Hill

I love the Horniman. I grew up living just a short bus ride away, and now my son is too. He’s been there umpteen times already but is showing no signs of getting bored of it. And we invariably head straight to the small aquarium and then our favourite two or three rooms and the cafe, so there is a lot more he has yet to discover.

The museum is just as good for babies as for toddlers – the aquarium is fascinating even for tiny babies, and on the lower ground floor there is a private feeding room with an armchair which feels like a gift from heaven when you have a wriggly, easily distractible baby who needs feeding.

Best bits: the small aquarium, perfect for toddlers, and the musical instrument room where you can press buttons to select and listen to recordings of different instruments. A small interactive room just off this one has some weird and wonderful instruments you can play with. (Only open when not in use by school groups.) There are also some giant musical instruments in the gardens you can play.

Cost: museum free, aquarium £3.00 per adult and £1.10 per child age 3+.

Travel: Forest Hill station (mainline and East London Line) has step free access and is 10-15 minutes walk away, but up a huge hill. Frequent busses go up the hill.

Where to eat: the food in the cafe is fine but not brilliant and it can be a bit hard to find a table at lunch time. But it’s the only option within easy walking distance unless you bring food with you – you can picnic in the gardens or the (unheated) glasshouse next to the museum. Otherwise walk or get a bus towards East Dulwich or Forest Hill for more options.

Note: some weekday mornings they run free and very popular story/craft sessions for toddlers – get there before 10.30 and queue up outside for a ticket. Or avoid those days altogether as the aquarium gets really busy. Check website for details.



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.