Kara (left) and Ella with a guard at Westminster Castle
As a 20-year-old, I spent an engaging summer studying in London. Each morning, after an hour in the classroom, I would set out to explore this historic city. I ventured underground to the Churchill War Rooms, listened to fierce debates at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, and climbed the winding steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The experiential learning was all so agreeable (to use classic British understatement) that I wanted to share it with my family. So last summer, my girls were finally at an age where they could retrace my travels. After months of shopping and planning, we were finally parking our bags at a London hotel.
Discovering London’s Soul
My husband, Eric, expected to find a prim populace and bland cuisine. Pish posh! The real London quickly sheds its sensible shoes. You need only to gaze up at the arches of Westminster Abbey, or listen in at Speaker’s Corner, to find the vision and passion of the British soul. And with its 8 million residents reflecting a rainbow of cultures, delicious food is abundant.
Our hotel is located in the Westminster borough in the heart of London, not far from where the London Eye, an aerial observation wheel, spins high above historic gems. Setting out on a stroll, we cross a bridge that leads to the majestic Houses of Parliament. I imagine members of the House of Commons arguing the critical state of the budget at this very moment. Big Ben, the famous Clock Tower, pierces the sky before us. Passing through Parliament Square, we come to the 1,000-year-old Westminster Abbey. Here, we appreciate the sweeping Gothic architecture, before stepping inside to view precious monuments, stained glass, and textiles.
By now our daughters have posed beside an iconic red phone booth and tried on British accents. After munching on fish and chips, we board a double-decker bus for the Tower of London. This notorious fortress, built by William the Conqueror, is where doomed souls were imprisoned and executed. A Beefeater shares stories of the prison’s history. Political opponents of the king arrived here by boat through Traitors Gate. Officially known as Yeoman Warders, we learn that the Beefeater nickname dates actually to the days when guards were given beef as part of their salaries.
The Crown Jewels are exhibited here, but since the line is so long, we move on to the Royal Armories. The girls study the shields and helmets that belonged to King Henry VIII. Who would have guessed that battle apparel would hold their attention?
Following Their Passions
Before the trip, each of our girls planned an outing. Fifteen-year-old Kara picks an attending an evensong service at Westminster Abbey. In her journal, she writes, “The music echoed throughout and it sounded just like angels singing.” None of us will soon forget that moving experience. Eleven-year-old Ella leads us to Platform 9 ¾ bound for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, located at King’s Cross Station. Here, kids patiently wait in line to pose beside Harry Potter’s magical escape route.
The next day, I introduce the family to my favorite site, the Churchill War Rooms. During the Blitz, the wartime bunker sheltered Winston Churchill and his government, and its gloomy rooms and corridors are frozen in time. Maps posted on the wall still hold pins marking strategic routes. Churchill’s wartime speeches were broadcast to the nation here, and in the interactive museum, you’ll hear The Lion vow, “We shall fight to the beaches.”
Nearby is St. James’ Park, the city’s oldest Royal Park, a tranquil place to unwind and watch waterfowl. At Trafalgar Square, the country celebrates Admiral Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. But really the square is a great spot for people watching. With help from her dad, Kara clambers up the huge statue of a lion. Next, we visit the National Gallery, located near the square, where we work our way through a list of 30 must-see paintings by artists such as Vermeer and Cezanne.
Our shutterbug, Kara, loves snapping pictures of the city from atop St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s a taxing climb up winding steps but worthwhile for its stunning views. After scaling 500 steps, you can catch your breath in the Whispering Gallery. Face a wall and whisper — from the other side of the circular gallery, your kids will hear your secret.
A Brush with Royalty
Venture from Westminster borough and a hip city awaits. One night, we hop off the bus to explore stores, including the trendy Top Shop and Selfridges department store. At Abbey Road, we grab the chance to retrace the Beatles’ steps.
Citywide, banners proclaim the 60th Jubilee Year of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. On a day trip, we visit Windsor Castle, a 45-minute ride by train. Approaching the expansive castle, we see that the Royal Standard flag is raised, signaling that the Queen is in residence. Though Her Majesty wasn’t out gardening, a brush with royalty is within the realm of possibility. Such serendipity is what makes travel so appealing.
Since a queen is just a princess who grew up, it’s fitting that the castle tour starts at Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House. Designed in the 1920s, it’s a replica in miniature of an aristocratic home, with thousands of objects made on tiny scale of 1:12. This delightful house even has electricity and running water. In another exhibit, royal playtime goes chichi with two dolls that once belonged to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. A gift from the French government, the dolls have an extensive wardrobe created by Paris fashion houses.
Next, we enter lavishly appointed State Apartments, furnished with treasures from the Royal Collection. On the grounds, St. George’s Chapel is the burial place of 10 monarchs as well as the chapel of the Order of the Garter. Heraldic banners belonging to members of the order hang above choir stalls, and our kids enjoy learning about the symbols. An audiocassette provided excellent historical background.
Windsor Castle is a must-do for travelers. Before returning home, we want to see the Changing of the Guard, and this castle’s ceremony bests the one at Buckingham Palace. Finally, we stop for fish and chips (again) and stroll cobblestone streets on our way back to the train station.
Back home, trip memories often come up in family conversation. Having a chance to travel to London together was a real gift, one that I hope has opened the door to lifelong curiosity for our daughters.