The teepees in the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground.
The teepees in the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground.

A London Family City Break on a Budget

It started with a blue whale. How big are they exactly? Bigger than an elephant? Bigger than a bus? How big is 30 metres, though Mum? As big as a Boeing jet? Yeah, but what does that look like, in real life? Sometimes, only seeing is believing.

My eldest sons spent their earliest years in London, but despite having photos to prove it, they didn’t remember seeing the life-size model of the blue whale, or the actual whale skeleton, at the Natural History Museum. I kept promising to take them again, and when I saw a deal going on a family room at a Travelodge, I decided the time was ripe for a city break to revisit old haunts – and to introduce their baby brother Zac to London. But with a very limited budget, I was going to need to be creative – and careful.

Day 1. Blooming Lovely Bloomsbury

Coram’s Fields is a unique park and playground off-limits to any adult without a child in tow, meaning you can let your kids roam its seven acres knowing they can’t get out or fall prey to dubious characters. As wall as lawns for picnicking, it has play areas for different age groups, sandpits, sports pitches and a pets corner with, goats, ducks and more. Despite being a charity and not a public park, it’s completely free – and even the café is goog value. After playing happily for many hours, the kids had to be dragged away in the direction of the nearby Brunswick Centre, an iconic 1960s housing block with child-friendly chain restaurants such as Carluccio’s and Giraffe.

Day 2: Animal Crackers

Keeping within a central area easily navigated by bus, I was able to both avoid the hell that is the London Underground and travel relatively cheaply. Today we met up with friends in lovely St James’s Park and spent a couple of hours picnicking in the sun as its famous pelicans glided by (at 2.30pm every day you can watch them being fed, and take a guided tour of Duck Island). Then the boys let off some steam in what used to be one of their favourite end of the park, with giant wooden snails and other imaginative features. We had a look at Buckingham Palace, too, and talked about what the Queen could possibly do with so many rooms, before strolling over to Wellington Barracks, where the boys watched through the fence as some of the Foot Guards based there were put through their paces, complete with bearskins, drums and – the boys’ delight – swords. It was a great free spectacle – pure London tourist fodder; had we wanted to go inside and find out more, the Guards Museum is just £6, and free to under-16s.

But the heavens opened, and having promised the boys one trip in a London cab during our stay I decided that this was the moment. Ten minutes later we were inside the National History Museum and en route to the object of our quest – the Mammals gallery and that famous blue whale. It was worth it: the boys were awestruck by its size, as they were by many of the items there – another favourite this time was the weighing machine that told you how you measure up against a polar bear, a blue whale and more. Finding out his relative smallness made Ethan resolve to ‘eat more cakes’. Although the National History Museum charges for some temporary exhibitions, the bulk of its vast collection are free, and that includes the Sealife Gallery, which we’d never explored before, and the Dinosaur Gallery with its ‘super-sensing’ animatronic T Rex. The queues for the latter are always shocking – at least two hours in the school holidays – and we were resigned to not being able to see it this time. But just as we were about to leave around 5pm we noticed that the queues had vanished, and heading into the gallery were able to see the beastie after a wait of just 10 minutes.

Day 3: Feeling Free

Our last full day, and we kept up the hectic pace, bussing it first to glorious Somerset House, an 18th-century palace now home to four major art galleries but of more interest to kids for its beautiful courtyard filled with fountains that they are free to run through. We’d have come for these alone, but today happened to be the first day of its family festival, which lures kids from all over the capital for four days of themed activities. Unfortunately, the event has been the victim of its own success and gets wildly busy, which makes it stressful for those with tots. However, we found that if you go when it opens, you can enjoy a good hour or two’s frolics before having to beat a retreat.

By 2pm the sun was beating down and having stocked up on some picnic goodies we headed for Covent Garden and the London Transport Museum. Although the LTM isn’t cheap, at £17.50 for an adult, it is free to under-18s, so it works out reasonably if there’s just one adult. And that ticket can be used for multiple admissions over the course of a year.

Day 4: Park Life

The days had sped by, and we’d only skimmed the surface of London. But before catching our train home at 4pm, the kids were eager to return to the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens. This amazing park was designed around a Peter Pan theme in reference to the fact that a previous playground on the site was funded by JM Barrie, who walked in the gardens every day and set part of his most famous work there. Like Coram’s Fields, it’s open only to adults accompanying children and is free to enter. Kids could happily spend a whole day here, clambering over and into the pirate ship, hiding out the teepees, splashing through the beach cove and more. And because it was the holidays, we caught a free puppet show too (leaflets ‘What’s On in the Parks’ can be picked up throughout the parks). Only on leaving the playground did I have to put my hand in my pocket, when the boys spotted a traditional carousel.

Read more about things to do in London with kids, as well as our hand-picked recommendation for family-friendly places to stay.

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