London for Families

“London must be walked to be appreciated for all that it is"¦”

With that statement the author had me. Having lived ourselves in London for two years, during which time we explored the city (and City for those who have read ahead) on foot each weekend with our oldest then in a baby stroller, there is no better advice for families headed to London. I'd buy the book just for that sentence, but the creaminess is not over—there are more tips to share.

London for Families was written by Larry Lain and his son Michael. A few things are apparent from even a quick skim of the book:

  • The Lains have obviously spent their share of time getting to know the city;
  • They did their touring as a family and offer info of use to other families besides the usual prepackaged nitrates added to preserve freshness in junky guidebooks and
  • They have organized things well enough that we can all benefit from their experience.

Where to Stay?

The book is in three and a half sections. Section one and a half begins the book, and is made up of general travel advice (which is what I'm calling the “half” part), followed by specific advice on planning a trip to London.

The most useful info here is “Where to Stay”. The Lains recommend strongly against big hotels and instead steer you to the London Tourist Board (address on p. 30), where you can book a flat, B&B or rent a short term apartment. You'll get the pleasure of more space, a kitchen and a bath, as well as the delight of living in your own neighborhood, with all it has to explore, and of returning “home” after a day of sites.

Approximate prices are listed to help you know if you're getting a good deal or not (the book is available in a revised, 2nd Edition with prices adjusted for this year, 2000).

They also include a list of terms and questions that will enable you to pick out the right place (many B&B's offer only a shared bath, which can also be physically in another room separate from the shared toilet).

The book offers capsule summaries of London's many neighborhoods to help you choose which one (nighttime fun, quiet streets, close to the sites, peacefully out of town a bit) is right for you. There's information on what it costs to do a load of laundry at a small Laundromat and some good directions on getting into town cheaply and painlessly from either Heathrow or Gatwick airports.

What to Do, Where to Go in London

The bulk of the book, say a good 70%, is devoted to the things to see and do in London. The Lains hit the high points like any other good guide book"€Tower of London, British Museum, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and the Temple.

Oops, “The Temple” and Cheese? Hah! There's obviously more here than one suspects, my good Dr. Watson. If you go to London you do indeed need to see the Tower, but to go and miss for want of a good guide strolling through the Inns of Court, or seeing the crypts of some of the Knights Templar a quick sprint away from some of the only structures left standing after the Great Fire back in 16-something is similar to being introduced to a third cousin at a wedding and making small talk about the weather without ever learning she shares your love of Little Richard.

This book is rich in detail: a toy store that carries a Royal Warrant (and thus helped spoil Prince William and his brother; you think your parents spoil the kids, imagine if one was the Queen!), the best places to watch cricket, a series of walking tours that can take you to Shakespeare's and Dickens' old haunts, the best place to watch the evening stars light up the city, and lots of things for the kids.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is a pub, and whether you enjoy a pint of beer or not, London's pubs are where peoples' social lives play out, and require some study before you can claim to know your way around. If you do have an interest in beer, then you are truly in line for some treats.

What things for kids you ask? How about the Royal Guards, The London Toy and Model museum, how to find the mummies straight away in the British Museum, which of the royal parks is best for letting the kids run off excess energy, a prescription for a sunny afternoon (a newspaper, a picnic lunch and a free band concert), street fairs, Roman walls.

For older kids, the Rock Circus (as in Rock and Roll”), Tower Records mega-store, Hard Rock Cafe and Dr. Who goodies and a small store you'll likely walk past anyway near the British Museum, full of underground comics, Tin Tin stuff and illustrated novels.

Another strong point of this book to mention: it was written by a parent. So, the Lains tell you all about the fun stuff at Camden Market, but also mention that the free-wheeling atmosphere there might not be for every family. He takes a real Dad-like point of view in summarizing that the wax museum and its sister the “London Dungeon” can appeal to a teenager while simultaneously appearing cheesy to an adult.

Family Planning

The final section of the book is a planner's hometown gal. The Lains lay out specific itineraries for a one, two and three week stay in London, with day-by-day suggestions on what to do (specific, such as “Day 8 "ہ" Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood” and then general, as in “Day 9 "ہ" Take a double decker red bus somewhere new and see what happens”).

The authors also supply a multi-page checklist of all the places they comment on in the book, with the idea that a family might photocopy the pages and then have each member check off his/her own “must see” and “would like to see” items as a springboard to a family discussion on what to do on the trip.

The book concludes with a series of checklists and suggested questions to use when gathering information on where to stay"€questions such as does the price quoted include the nasty Value Added Tax (VAT; an unfriendly 17.5%), and does the apartment/B&B have an elevator (older ones do not, a key thing to know when after a day on the road you have to wrap up by carrying a stroller with a sleeping kid up four flights).

There is even glossary of British English terms: you probably know “boot” means car trunk and “nappy” means diaper, but do you also know what a biro, a mac, a bum bag and sellotape are? The only favorite British-English word the authors missed is “dummy”, which is what most Americans would call a baby's pacifier. That always kills me.

I'm hard pressed to cook up any negatives here, but I'll try. The first few pages are semi-generic travel advice of use only to real first timers, and there could have been more photos and maps, especially of the more interesting but less well-known sites recommended.

Conclusion

The book is a pleasure to read, and would make a week or three in London easier, richer and more pleasurable for anyone with children visiting one of the world's most living cities.

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