It was a while since I'd been to London with the kids, and I wasn't thinking straight. I promised them the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. We had two days out doing other things in the gorgeous spring sunshine and then, when the sun stopped shining, we headed to the museums.
I knew they'd be busy, but I wasn't ready for the two- or perhaps even three-hour queues that met us outside the Natural History Museum. Knowing that even if we got inside we'd face further standing in line to see the animatronic dinosaur and other popular exhibits, we fled.
Oversubscription is a problem in many museums today. Partly it's the inevitable result of our being lucky enough to have so many free world-class venues. And the problem is not restricted to London – on a recent half-term trip to the National Media Museum in Bradford, we saw many kids leaving disappointed because everything they wanted to do was booked up almost as soon as the doors opened. We've had similar experiences at the World Museum in Liverpool.
What to do? It is depressing to think I'm never going to be able to enjoy really popular institutions such as the Natural History Museum with my kids the way I did when they were toddlers and we could go outside the school holidays. But I don't see any solution to the problem – except perhaps saving such places for a blazing sunny day when everyone else is outside.
But perhaps once we as parents have accepted that oversubscription happens, we need to exercise our imaginations a little more. There are plenty of places that will never be too busy, rain or shine. One such is Surrey Docks Farm, a working farm on the banks of the Thames in Rotherhithe, where in the company of just a handful of other families we petted new lambs and chicks, fed goats and saw urban food production at its most inspiring (with ingredients going into the fare served up in the excellent on-site Piccalilli Caff).
We also happened on a deserted little river beach right by the farm, which the kids were keen to explore, roaming it for treasures with which to fill my camera bag, including a clay pipe that may date back all the way to the 16th century, fragments of pottery, bits of boats and some bones of an unidentified nature (ick).
Then we headed east, to Greenwich, where, in the not-too-crowded Discover Greenwich visitor centre, the boys saw on display similar clay pipes and historic relics to the ones they'd found, and by chance, got talking to another visitor, an elderly lady, who had actually been involved in the archaeology of the old palaces here. We also walked right into the spectacular National Maritime Museum without queuing, and though fairly busy and hosting lots of holiday family activities, it wasn't unpleasantly crowded.
The same went for our accommodation – the family-friendly Thameside Youth Hostel, offering basic accommodation in bunk-rooms plus convivial communal parts including a cosy bar with table football. A great bus route from right outside the door serves Greenwich in one direction and the fantastic family attractions of the South Bank on the other. The hostel is about a 10-minute brisk walk from Surrey Docks Farm and the urban beach, plus the Lavender Pond Nature park, a model of its kind.
The school holidays, it seems, mean going at least a little off-the-beaten track.
Read more about family breaks and days out in London, including places to stay and eat with kids.