London: Pubs, Pantos and Priceless Treasures

Our Epic European Christmas trip of 2015 was mainly focused on Germany, Austria and France, but on the way home I had the opportunity to add a 24 hour stopover in London and I thought, “why not?”. We had booked two of our tickets using British Airways Avios points, which allowed a free stopover and it didn’t cost much to add the stop to the two other tickets and it seemed like a good chance to add one more city to the itinerary.

We left Munich at about noon on the 30th of December, which put us into London a little after two pm. We were leaving the next afternoon so this basically gave us one evening and one morning in the city, which doesn’t seem like much, but we were determined to see as much as possible! Since we plan to visit London again in the next few years it made sense to purchase Oyster cards for the London underground system, which requires a five pound deposit but slashes tube fares by about half. From Heathrow it took about an hour in transit to arrive at King’s Cross station.

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Now King’s Cross station may not be Buckingham Palace or Trafalgar Square, but I have to say that it gave the kids a pretty good impression for their first taste of London. The massive, curving, modern brick facade in the background with the busy street packed with double decker buses and black cabs in the foreground and the waves of commuters of every type swirling all around you makes the forecourt of King’s Cross a pretty impressive sight. We had booked one of the cheapest of London’s chain hotels; the Travelodge King’s Cross Central and I was a bit worried that it would be a dump, but it turned out to be perfectly decent. It was basic but had everything we needed and the older building retained some nice touches like a wide curving staircase with heavy carved bannisters and a lovely bay window in the bright breakfast room. For 83 pounds plus three extra for wifi it seemed like a very good deal to me given it’s excellent location across from the train station.

But that first evening we didn’t have any time to linger at the hotel after we checked in. Even though Christmas was past, I had wanted to do something fun and festive while we where in London, and I decided a traditional pantomime would be a perfect way to end the trip. And as luck would have it, there was one playing at the Shaw Theatre, just a ten minute walk from our hotel. We grabbed a quick bite on our way to the theatre and arrived just in time for the 5:30 show.

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Now, I had never been to a real British panto before but I knew the basic concept. A fairy tale or other well known story would be presented interspersed with music and dance numbers, slapstick comedy, pop culture references and lots of audience participation. I really had no idea, though, how the kids would like it or whether it would hold their interest. Well, I shouldn’t have worried. From the minute the curtain went up on the first big song and dance number they were entranced. The production quality was actually surprisingly good, even if most of the jokes were more cheesy than funny, at least for the grownups in the audience. And once my kids found out that they were actually encouraged to boo, cheer and yell at the actors, there was no stopping them. And it was hilarious to watch an audience full of kids frantically screaming “She’s behind the tree!!!!” while Dorothy innocently wandered through the woods, wondering out loud if the witch was anywhere near. All in all it was a great experience, well worth the cost.

We woke up early the next morning, and after a quick breakfast at the hotel I dragged the family our early, determined to see as much of the city as possible before heading back to Heathrow. We started off with a return to King’s Cross to find Harry Potter’s famous Platform 9 3/4. The station officials obviously got tired of people looking early on and installed a luggage cart disappearing into a wall with a sign so tourists can take pictures without disturbing the commuters. When we arrived at eight there was only one other group there and we were able to take our pictures and move on quickly. I was glad we started there; by the time we returned at 2pm the queue was enormous.

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It was a cool but pleasant morning so we decided to head off exploring on foot. From King’s Cross it took about an hour to get to Trafalgar Square, passing lots of interesting looking streets along the way. We took some pictures by the lions, but they were already starting to put up the barricades for the New Year’s Eve celebrations that night so we kept on moving. We passed number ten Downing Street and the Horse guards before we went past Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. We stopped for coffee and hot chocolate, then continued through St James Park, finally ending up at Buckingham Palace. The kids enjoyed peering through the gates, even though they were a bit disappointed when I explained that the queen wasn’t at home at the moment.

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By this time it was a little after ten am and the crowds were growing quickly. Since we didn’t want to stick around for the changing of the guard at eleven we went against the waves of people heading out of the underground station and caught the Tube from Green Park to Russel Square and the British Museum.

We only had a couple of hours, but since the British Museum is free we decided to take a quick tour of the highlights in the time we had. We started with the Rosetta Stone before heading upstairs to check out the Egyptian mummies. From there we did a quick trip past the Sutton Hoo treasures and then back down to the Parthenon sculptures. In between we stopped and looked at anything that caught someone’s eye, but we purposely missed most of the treasures of the museum. We’ll definitely have to go back and see more, but I was very happy with how much we were able to see in a couple of hours. And two months later I’m impressed with how much the kids can remember from their brief visit.

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After the museum, we walked back towards the hotel, looking for a place to have lunch. We were getting worried that we’d be forced to settle for fast food or sandwiches when we came to the last street before our hotel and came across several restaurants and pubs. We chose a pub based mainly on looks and were able to settle in by a fireplace and enjoy a great meal of hot sandwiches and fish and chips. It was pretty much exactly what we were hoping to find for our one restaurant meal in London.

And then it was time to grab our bags from the hotel and head back to Heathrow for our flight home. We ended up having a 32 hour long New Year’s eve by leaving London at 5pm and landing in Vancouver ten hours later at 7pm, which was a tiring, but fun way to end the trip. We arrived back home well before midnight local time, but we didn’t even try to stay up for the New Year. And our New Year’s resolution was to return to London soon!

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