Over the summer of 2009 we visited far more London sites/sights than most native Londoners see in a lifetime. In one week we added The London Wetlands Centre, The Imperial War Museum, Covent Garden, The Millennium Bridge, Regent’s Park, Hamley’s and The Borough Market to our check list of “been there, seen that.” This level of activity would not have been possible without the arrival of our American friend and self described “child wrangler,” Jen. She spent a wonderful three weeks with us and her boundless energy and good spirits enabled us to cover many a happy mile.
The London Wetlands Centre is a bird refuge/sanctuary that is a combination zoo and safe haven for migratory birds whose normal stomping grounds have shrunk as London and its suburbs have stretched further and further into the hinterlands. We visited the 840-hectare site at an opportune moment. A massively high percentage of the resident population had been feeling a wee bit frisky. We saw more baby birds in one day than we have collectively seen over the course of our entire lives. There are few more adorable sights than group after group of little ducklings and goslings (sometimes as many as 17) lined up to swim behind Mum. I only have two offspring and I cannot get them to line up behind me without serious threat of bodily harm. Clearly I’m not nearly as good at parenting as the average duck. We learned that the really flashy duck varieties only mate for a season and the dull looking ducks mate for life. I found this news SO reassuring. Dull, dull, dull, that’s me. The male and female “mate for life” ducks also look a lot like each other. I think my husband is pretty fab, but if I sprout facial hair and my feet grow to size 15 I’m going to be quite put out. Though none of the Londoners we met had ever been to the Wetland Centre, we gave the place four thumbs up. The birds come from all over the world (we saw migrants from Africa and Iceland, just to name a few far flung spots that were well represented), and they are used to human visitors so they go about their bird business just two feet from you on the lovely walking paths. We rated it a total home run (or whatever you call it in Cricket just before you call time out for a smoke).
The Imperial War Museum is another one of the many London Museums that outshine 95% of the museums we have available at home. The ground floor is devoted, in part, to a massive exhibition of weaponry largely from World War I and II. This includes the immense V2 (the first real ballistic missile) that was launched against Britain by the Germans at the tail end of the war, and pieces of Rudolph Hess’s plane that he crashed into the English countryside when he came to the U.K. to attempt to reach a peace agreement with the Brits (completely unbeknownst to Hitler). There is a touching, smartly done exhibit on WWII from a child’s perspective. I had no idea how many children were evacuated from London in the months that led up to the War. Many of them were sent into the English and Scottish countryside, but an even larger number were sent out of the country to foster families abroad. One of the ships carrying children was hit and sunk by the Germans. Some of the evacuations were done so quickly that inadequate paperwork was completed and at the end of the war the children were lost. Parents had no idea where the children had been sent. A considerable number of these families were never reunited.
Regent’s Park is singularly worth a plane flight across the pond. We wandered there while studiously ignoring the looming rain clouds and threats from the wise folks at the Weather Channel of showers all day (nary a drop fell). The Queen’s Garden in the center of the park, all roses, had peaked but still shared with us the promise of what it must have looked like at its zenith. Newly addicted to the whole notion of a British Wetland, we trooped over to that part of the park and were rewarded with a visit from a large number of geese and duck families. We felt quite proud as we shouted out the species names we had learned just days before. And then we plotted a course through the rest of the park that would take us through the Informal British Garden and back into town so that we could take the boys to Hamley’s, the British version of New York’s FAO Schwartz. The Informal British Garden looks like the front yard of Versaille. I don’t quite get what is “informal” about it – though perhaps they were referring to us. We looked pretty scruffy that day. There was nothing at all scruffy about the garden. It was stupendous. The juxtaposition of colors, a band of red, then purple, then green, was breathtaking. We strolled out of the garden feeling as if we’d won the lottery. How often do you get to see such exquisite beauty?
Moment’s later our luck continued. We came round the corner, just across the street from the park exit, and there was Emma Thompson. Yes, the always elegant, well spoken, smashing Emma Thompson, all decked out as Nanny McPhee, (significant facial hair, gaping teeth, big boil) not the least bit beautiful, but fabulous all the same. We stood and gawked as Emma and her brood drove past Regent’s Park in their motorcycle with sidecar. There seemed to be far less concern about security on this British set than we’ve got in the US. They were quite happy to have us stand six feet from Emma to watch the proceedings. Chaps in natty British attire came and went. I thought we might see Colin Firth, ‘cause wasn’t he in the first Nanny McPhee movie? A quick imbd check once we got home clarified that this particular movie is Colin Firthless. Rather, it is Ralph Fiennes who might have been lurking in the shadows, though we did not see him. You cannot have everything. I had enough what with the glorious British garden and the 20 minutes in close proximity to Emma. In retrospect I should have called it a day and gone home.
But no, we were still on a mission to take the boys to Hamley’s. Hunger had set in, and we needed some nourishment right quick. I’d received restaurant recommendations just the day before via an American friend whose last name I won’t repeat on the grounds it might incriminate her – but it rhymes with CRANKLIN. Apparently some lunatics in an internet parent chat group associated with a sketchy Ivy League school located in New Jersey made mention of a Pizza chain in London that could be counted on for quick quality meals. NOT SO MUCH. We had the longest quick meal in history at Pizza Distress, oops Express. It was one of those special slow roasted pizzas that take seven hours to cook. Really the only hitch was that they didn’t start the seven-hour slow roasting process until the waiter saw the whites of our eyes.
For me, the apex of the day was the forty minutes of British garden bliss followed by a close encounter of the Emma kind. It was a screeching nosedive after that. From Pizza Regress we moved on to Hamley’s, which is located somewhere on the 6th circle of TOY HELL. Cluttered, chaotic, full to the brim with children chanting, “gimme that” in eleven different languages, it was enough to send me hurtling out into traffic for some peace and quiet. We escaped after buying both of my children and my husband remote-controlled helicopters that I knew were certain to destroy all of the frail antiques in our Chelsea flat right before they self-destructed, never to fly again.
I must admit, up until mid-summer, I thought Covent Garden was, well, a garden. Regent’s Park is a Park, the Imperial War Museum is a Museum that addresses the issue of War, the Millennium Bridge is a Bridge built for, you guessed it, the Millennium, and the London Wetland Centre is Wet, has quite a lot of Land associated with it and is located in, of all places, London. But Covent Garden – not actually a Garden. Maybe “Covent Crowded Shopping Mall” or “Covent Outdoor Performance Area with Magicians who Spend More Time Asking for Money than Performing,” but not so much as a blade of grass nor flower patch in sight. The performers we saw had the fine art of repetitive begging followed by brief flashes of inadequate entertainment down to a science. Didn’t need to stay long. Actually do prefer gardens to crowded shopping malls.
Though my children are extremely partial to British taxis – we completed another long forced march from Covent Not-Actually-A-Garden, along the Thames, across the Built-at-the-Millennium Bridge and into the Borough Market. We Sterns love food. It is hard to imagine a better place for my family to spend an afternoon than London’s Borough Market. Not only do they have all kinds of amazing foodstuffs, they are quite cheerful about offering free tastes of everything. A contagiously friendly family of Iranians selling Turkish Delights in every color and taste combination, as well as chocolate covered fruits and nuts, fell for my children’s superior wit and charm and were soon showering the boys with treats. After trying and buying the Iranian Turkish Delights, some truly savory pies, delectable fresh pasta, and several small containers of olives, we made our way to Neal’s Yard Dairy which sits just cattycorner to the covered market and according to my sister’s friend’s sister, will let you sample of every single one of its 300 cheeses. This may well be true, though unfortunately we do not have personal proof of this assertion. Try as we might, we hit complete cheese overload at about a 5th of that number of tastes. We let our youngest, the family cheese hound, try as many cheeses as he wished and we went home with six little packets of delicious dairyness. We liked the Borough Market so much that we chose to spend some of our increasingly precious London weekend time wandering through the fabulous foodstuffs a second time. For our second visit we arrived really, really hungry. We had a whole shopping list and a week’s worth of meal plans all heavily dependent on our purchases. We had found our true London home. If only they let you camp overnight amid the booths, we could have avoided putting out so much rent money in Chelsea.Print This Post