London on a shoe-string with a child

"My main mission had been to take my little Ben to see his much bigger counterpart."

ben eglash 248.88 (photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
ben eglash 248.88
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
I am still sure that the rare sunshine on our recent visit to London was a mistake, especially after the extra cold winter there, but the blue skies and crisp air only helped to enhance my trip with my eight-year-old son, Ben, and allow us to enjoy some of the treasures the British capital has to offer. It was the first time in eight years that I was traveling to my former home town without a baby in tow and that, combined with the recent drop in the exchange rate between the shekel and sterling, also meant that the trip was to be far more relaxing and enjoyable than I could have imagined. Despite the lower prices (usually, just a round of drinks in a London pub would have set me back an entire month's salary), I was still determined to show London to my son with as little expense as possible - and besides, that would mean more money to enjoy the shopping. My son, however, did have a couple of requests. The first one, which was easy to fulfill, was to travel on a train or a bus. The second wish - to go to a football match - did not pan out and that was not for lack of trying. I had thought to take him on a tour of the new Wembley Football Stadium but in true Israeli mode, left it to the last minute to book the tour and could not find a place. Still, I could give Ben his other request, finding a train or a bus to go on in London is no problem at all. We started our journey in the North West London suburb of Stanmore, the last stop on the underground's Jubilee line. During past visits, traveling the underground with a stroller was quite a challenge, London's city center is not the most baby friendly of places and you certainly need to be in good shape to haul a baby, a stroller and all the accessories around on it. This time, however, arm in arm with just one, older child was to be much more fun than expected. Children under the age of 12 can travel for free on the London Underground and that already saved us the cost of a one-day travel card. We took the train from Stanmore the 15 stops to Green Park and walked from there the five minutes to our first port of call - a visit to Buckingham Palace to see the Queen. Luckily, the flag flying high above the palace told us that Her Majesty was indeed home but like the thousands of tourists who were peeking in through the wrought-iron bars we had to stay outside the grounds and be contented with just a glimpse of her humble abode. Ben didn't seem to mind though he was far more excited by the parade of royal court soldiers on horseback riding down The Mall, the main approach from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace. And he was quite determined to make one of the Queen's guards' talk or laugh. However, although we caught one moving his eyes, we couldn't get their attention and had to be contented with their periodical calls to attention. Visitors to London should note that every two days at 11:30 a.m. there is a big ceremony to change over the guards at Buckingham Palace and that is quite a treat. From "Buck-house" we walked through St. James' Park, where we had a classic English packed lunch of cheddar cheese sandwiches and crisps, and then walked through to Trafalgar Square. There have been some significant changes to Britain's main tourist attractions since I lived in the homeland, namely the removal of the famed pigeons from the square. To be honest, while they were once a fascination for visitors, the bird-free square was much more sanitary and there was no danger of droppings on ones' head. My young Israeli son had a great time joining the other tourists trying to climb up to the top of the four lions that guard Nelson's Column. With a little push from me he managed. Next we took the short route down to the Thames River and crossed the estuary on the Millennium Bridge, over to the South Bank. Being a North Londoner at heart, I have rarely ventured south of the river but the embankment is truly a delight. In the unusual London sunshine, young actors and actresses peddled their talents dressed as statues that could be "turned on" with the flip of a coin into their collection tins. Ben had a great time bringing these statues to life, and even had a sword fight with one young man dressed as Zorro (I liked him because he asked if I was Ben's sister). That came a close second to riding the train and watching the London Eye spin around. The London Eye is a fairly new attraction in the capital and is highly recommended for first time visitors because it affords a spectacular view of the entire city from all vantage points. Try to purchase tickets in advance because the waiting time to get on the ride is very lengthy. All along the Embankment are museums and other attractions that visitors with bigger budgets than us could choose to enjoy. Ben and I, however, were just content with the outside attractions. Our next viewing was, of course Big Ben. From the on-set, my main mission had been to take my little Ben to see his much bigger counterpart. As a typical eight-year-old, my Ben had lots of questions about the impressive clock but luckily I had read my tour guide book in advance and managed to feed his hungry mind. Then, right beside the clock at Westminster Station, we got back on the Jubilee line to complete our expense-free day out in London. Not bad on less than ten pounds lots left over for mummy to hit the shops the next day. There are many other attractions in London that can be seen with very little cost. Another day during our vacation we took the underground to the Imperial War Museum (Lambeth North Station), an incredible tribute to all of Britain's wars and highly recommended. Like many of the museums in London, entrance is free and the exhibits are well planned and child friendly. The Imperial War Museum also has a Holocaust section, which is not open to children under 14.