London in Winter
London wears many faces. She smiles, grins, leers, laughs, thinks and frowns in equal measures. No one London face is definitive and each is personal to the individual resident, visitor, business woman, artist, traveller and tourist. Our London is Christmas lights, outdoor ice rinks, winter sunshine brightening the silver Thames, snug buses, and sips of hot chocolate whilst absorbing the soul of London and Londoners through the steamy window of a favourite coffee shop. The city can be tricky to navigate, to get away from the usual tourist tube stops, but when you get to know her, she’s enticing, exciting, imaginative, informed, feisty and free – because in London, anything seems possible and all your hopes, fears, dreams, wishes and imaginings are waiting for you to walk on by.
There is an astonishing amount of things to do in London with kids, and it doesn’t have to break the bank. We’ll be there in the last days of December, escaping the rounds of relatives and finding something more original than turkey and chocolate to feast on – finding the soul food that is at the real heart of London. What follows is my personal London – I add to it every year, but these are the places to which I always return.
The Tower of London
The Tower of London, with its White Tower dating from William the Conqueror, is one of those soul-food places in London. I first went there in a December long ago, when snow was just falling through the waning, orange sunshine of late afternoon and the purity of the light, white snowflakes fell through the heavy shadows of history that this cobbled courtyard has seen. I love the Tower Museum, especially the Line of Kings, with its eerie row upon row of silent royalty, stiff in steel and frozen in time. I love the Crown Jewels and the conveyor-belt experience of sliding regally past the display cases. Kids are targeted directly with hands-on armoury activities but get to the Tower as it first opens to get your kids to absorb its soul, without battling through the amateur cinematic ambitions of everyone else – it’s well worth an early start. And as this is a winter trip, I’d go ice skating at the Tower of London Ice Rink – the Tower makes a stunning background for your family photos.
The South Bank
Opinions differ about just how much to cram into a day out with the kids, so I’m moving along the South Bank at my pace and I expect you’ll move along at yours. You can use the Tube, but I’d recommend the River Bus as an economical way to see London from the river. Or walk, it’s mostly a pedestrianised route and a great place for the kids to run off steam. I’ll be stopping off at Borough Market for some food – it’s always busy, so forget about sitting down and get some street food and a nook or cranny to hold up in whilst you soak up the sights, sounds and smells of this real, proper food market, with all the trimmings. Top tip – our family foodie favourite is charcoaled scallops with bacon, £7 per serving last time we were there. But take a wander: there are huge circular pans of Ethiopian stews outside Southwark Cathedral; frequent vats of French and Italian olives; European cheese and sausage tasting plates magically re-fill themselves every time you walk by; and another firm favourite, the Indian chai, the smell of which alone fills my soul for sure.
Shakespeare’s Globe, built as a replica of Shakespeare’s own Elizabethan Globe Theatre which once stood on the same site on the South Bank, is another London moment of historic awe. Take a tour or simply stand and stare and imagine the bustle, the beer and the beauty that this site has witnessed. Then – here’s our top tip – in the quiet of Southwark Cathedral, and for no cost at all, you can visit another monument to Shakespeare, which includes a stained glass window depicting many characters from his plays. Sit awhile and read a little bit from your favourite play to the kids – I’d go for Puck’s speech, “If we shadows have offended…” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V Scene I. Or play Top Trumps Shakespeare’s Plays in the Cathedral pews. And that’s a much quicker, cheaper, easier and more effective way of introducing your tweens to Shakey than taking them to the matinee.
Tate Modern is my next stop, still trawling down the South Bank, it’s so good down here that I have yet to leave the vicinity. There are various options, not all of them about art. There is, of course, a lot of art, and it’s fun to wander round the galleries with the whole What is Art conversation playing out with the kids. There are also places to sit down, take five, dole out a discreet picnic and absorb the enormity of the Turbine Hall. Our top tip here is an absolute must – go up to the 6th Floor cafe for a cup of coffee, sending the kids ahead to squirm their way to a space at the window counter facing directly onto St Paul’s Cathedral and the city skyline. This our version of tea at The Shard – it’s the same view with a very different price tag and a much more tween-friendly code of conduct. I took my friend Thelma here, for the first time, without children, and she was silent for some time which, for Thelma, is rare: a cup of tea and a slice of soul food, please. When we took our tweens, they found their own spot to gaze out of the window, underneath the window counter at our feet, where they quickly began a game of Top Trumps London, leaving Thelma and I time to quietly fill our souls up to satisfying levels of contentment.
This is where we like to hop on a river bus and go up to the Houses of Parliament – the view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament from the river is another one the family photo album.
There’s nowhere like London for showbiz. Over the last decade or so, my soul has been filled with joy and bashed about in equal measure by London show moments. Take last year’s experiences: the joy that was Matilda the Musical at The Cambridge Theatre in the West End; the unsettling disturbance that was Circolumbia, a Columbian acrobatic experience at the Underbelly Festival on the South Bank; and the beauty that was in Matthew Bourne’s wartime Cinderella ballet at Sadlers Wells. This winter, I’m going for the same eclecticism – my soul needs a diet of difference, similarity brings only slim pickings. I’m heading for suspense and surprise with Circus 1903 at the South Bank Centre; full hearts and fulsome design with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the Bridge Theatre; uncompromising drama for young people with The Canterville Ghost at The Unicorn; and The Nutcracker at the Lillian Bayliss Studio, Sadlers Wells, pared down in length and ticket price from the bigger ballet venues’ offerings.
And another thing
Bring the history books alive at The National Portrait Gallery.
Ride the Slide at the Olympic Park, our alternative to London Eye.
Get there early and head straight up to Wonderlab at the Science Museum, before everyone else’s children start to invade your space.
Engage with the street performers – opera, stunts, circus, mime and many more – at Covent Garden.
Spend a day under the chandeliers at the Royal Opera House for £10 – monthly Family Sundays offer workshops and extracts from the ROH’s current show.
Practicalities – the Nancy and NaomiWay
Get up early
Beat the cues, see the sights at their best, avoid the crowds.
Eat out differently
Go for brunch at 10ish and tea at 3ish and let everyone else fight it out for breakfast and lunchtime food.
Pick up a picnic at delis and grocery stores.
Use the loos in free museums or theatres.
Let off steam in the park – try Coram’s Fields, near Russell Square.
Use a street map
Don’t think of the tube map as the street map, often it’s quicker to walk than to take the tube, and much more fun.
Autumn in The Lakes
I love Autumn. I love the colours, the reds and golds in the trees, I love the same colours in the first firelight of the changing season. I love the damp green smell of wet undergrowth. I love the still-blue skies, when the sun makes dew-jewels in the wet grass on a clear autumn morning, and lake and tarn are still and clear and re-drawn with a second image of sun and sky and fell in a perfect reflection. I love the sounds, the fizz and pop of burning logs and the crackle of dry beech leaves underfoot, the squelch and splash of boots in mud and puddles and the rain, drumming an autumn beat on the window panes or, even better, on the roof of my camper van. And there is nowhere better to experience Autumn than in the Lake District, Cumbria.
The best moments in my family photo album have a Lakeland backdrop: my Nancy, aged two, wiping her muddy hands on Daddy’s red woolly hiking socks; aged five, losing her baby tooth in a chocolate bar on the summit of Helm Crag; aged seven, being her Nancy namesake and frowning in concentration over sailing knots on a windswept boat trip for Arthur Ransome fans on Coniston Water; and aged nine, being Nancy indeed in her canoe, heading out to Brown Island on Derwent Water in spring sunshine, the photo captures the reflection of Catbells in the clear water on a still May morning.
I draw the line at camping under canvas in October, but our camper van keeps us warm and dry and other accommodation options are wide and varied in the Lakes, to suit all tastes and budgets: camping pods, YHA hostels, self-catering cottages, boutique country-house hotels and even the odd boat house or two.
One thing to bear in mind about the Lakes is that it can be busy. But read on, fill your flask, pack a picnic and explore the quieter shores and summits with us as we give you the inside tips to this most beautiful corner of England. It will rain. Embrace it. Pick out the pirate diamonds and find the fairy frocks in the raindrops, caught in the hedgerows. You have to get cold and wet to really enjoy the snuggle buggle warmth of an open fire and the smell of woodsmoke. There is such bold beauty to be had, both in the landscape and in the family experiences it gifts, if you brave mountain weather and get stuck in. When it rains, you tramp; you stamp; your feet grow louder as the silence that descends with the cloud base puts your family unit in its own time and place, together but apart from anyone else and at one with the elements.
Walk – Langdale
This October half term, we’re exploring the Western Lakes, heading first to the Langdales, reached via a winding climb up the valley road from Ambleside. One of our favourite walks is from Chapel Stile, up and over Silver Howe to Grasmere and back again. This walk is a tranquil route to the busy village, and though you won’t see daffodils, you will see Wordsworth’s home, Dove Cottage. Grasmere is also home to the best gingerbread I have ever tasted, crunchy yet crumbly, both soft and hard, a hint of toffee in taste and texture alongside a punch of spice – most deservedly, Grasmere Gingerbread won the Cumbria Tourism Award for Makers and Producers 2019. At the other end of the village, you can find breath-taking images of the lakes and fells on misty winter mornings and calm summer sunset evenings in The Heaton Cooper Studio.
On another day, we’ll walk up to Blea Tarn for a quiet potter and a picnic, and carry on up Lingmoor Fell to the summit, as the mood takes us. Loughrigg Fell is a good introduction to Lakeland hiking and Loughrigg Tarn is known as a local spot for wild swimming and for a photo shoot of the Langdale Pikes. Older children will enjoy the walk up Dungeon Gyhll to Stickle Tarn, with waterfalls and a bit of scrambling; or avoid the scramble and reach Stake Pass via Mickleden, a longer walk but worth it for the pride of reaching the Langdale Pikes summits with nothing scarier than a steep incline to conquer. Off the beaten track, head along the Little Langdale valley onto Wrynose Pass and have a crack at the Crinkle Crags. Or stay low, for a perfect photo opportunity at Slater’s Bridge, then explore the rocks and caves of the old quarry, where the beautiful Cathedral Cavern is aptly named when sunlight pours in from a heavenly opening in the roof.
To explore the Western Lakes further, brave an exciting drive and keep going up Wrynose onto Hardknott Pass and over to the Eskdale Valley, always quiet and with the jaw-dropping drama of Wast Water, the deepest and darkest of all the lakes, at the head of the valley. This the beginning of the route up Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England, recommended for teens not tweens, alongside its neighbour, Great Gable, rising majestically above the lake. On a clear day, the lake is still and silent and the reflection it holds within its shores is truly stunning. On a rainy day, the narrow valley road next to the lake is in glooming mist, with the black sides of The Screes shining wetly on the opposite shore. The wet sheep in the middle of the road continue the film noir landscape before the warmth of the inn at the head of the valley changes the mood with an open fire and a pint of the best brown stuff, proper ale with a proper head on it, pulled by a proper Cumbrian who says little and talks less but nods and catches his breath in that inimitable Cumbrian way.
We’re changing base to Coniston mid-week, driving via Grizedale for some fun in the forest. A Forestry England site, Grizedale offers a challenging Go Ape course, forest segways, mountain bike trails, a fixed orienteering course and a site-specific sculpture trail. I’ll be doing the Yellow orienteering course, whilst Daddy and Daughter tank round an Orange together, and wait for me in the coffee shop, some hot chocolate time later. I love the sculpture trail, too, coming across wood and stone and glass, shape and contour and craft; forms and objects that sit in their landscape, to challenge our eye to re-evaluate the shape, form and fabric of the lakeland landscape.
Coniston is arguably the home to Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and Peel Island is the closest link to Wild Cat Island, the destination of many a pirate adventure, hidden from natives’ eyes out in the middle of the lake. We’ll be getting out our canoes in practically any autumn weather for a paddle on the water, on the basis that we get wet anyway and we can layer up and paddle harder to keep warm for a couple of hours. It’s always tempting to strike out for Peel Island – owned by the National Trust, it’s possible to land a canoe in one place on its shores – but the sensible option at this time of year is to hug the shoreline and enjoy the play of sun, rain or autumn mist on the water. It’s a telling thing in our family, who leads and who follows when paddling, and it takes proper teamwork to keep the canoe going in a straight line. We flotilla up our two boats for a shared flask of hot choc, and when we get too wet, we sing. There are boats for hire at Coniston landing stage, from where the beautiful Steam Yacht Gondola also runs, a beautiful Victorian vessel. The Coniston Launch also runs round-lake trips, with special interest Swallows and Amazons tours on Mondays and Wednesdays, a fantastic way to experience the books for real.
Even quieter than Coniston is Esthwaite Water, home to Mr Jeremy Fisher and a favourite location of Beatrix Potter, whose house, Hill Top, is close by. A National Trust property, Hill Top is a must for all friends of Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggy Winkle, the Flopsy Bunnies, Jemima Puddleduck and Pigling Bland; it’s magical to spot scenes from the books in the house. The Osprey Wildlife Tour, in a self-drive electric boat, is another way to get out on the water.
Shh! This one’s really quiet: forget Tarn Hows, it’s always busy, and head for the tarn at High Dam instead. Park at the church in Finsthwaite and walk up under the trees to the silent tarn nestled below Great Green Hows. It’s simple beauty makes you think about giving wild swimming a go – but remember your safety precautions if you decide to jump in. The Bobbin Mill at Stott Park (English Heritage / Gold Winner, Cumbria Tourism Awards) combines well with the High Dam walk for a full day out.
Walk – Coniston
It’s got to be The Old Man himself. He rises above the village, aged and wise and benevolent, the route via Goats Water is the easiest, as it’s not rocky, but it is steep. This is a serious mountain walk, save it for your final achievement on your last day and savour the mountain grandeur from the summit. Get the kids the rucksack badge as a reward for their endeavours and they will wear it with pride and be primed to conquer another Lakeland icon next year.
We’re camping at Great Langdale National Trust campsite, at the head of the valley, directly under the Langdale Pikes and down the lane from the iconic Old Dungeon Ghyll hotel. The campsite offers camping pod and cosy yurt accommodation, and the valley is home to a collection of authentic Cumbrian self -catering cottages owned by Wheelwrights, as well as the Langdale Estate Hotel and bed and breakfast at the hikers’ inns at Old Dungeon Gyhll, New Dungeon Ghyll and the more remote Three Shires Inn down the Little Langdale valley. For a real mountain experience, stay at YHA Coniston Coppermines, up on the slopes of Coniston Old Man. In Coniston, we’re at Pier Cottage, a tiny caravan site on the edge of the lake with the moored Steam Yacht Gondola for company and Arthur Ransome’s Holly Howe directly opposite on the far shore.
In recent years, Cumbria has become a haven for foodies, with Michelin fine dining, gastro pubs and artisan coffee shops all firmly on the Lakeland map. Our family favourites are Wainwrights Inn, Chapel Stile, for the Lamb Henry after a day on the fells; The Drunken Duck, Ambleside, for a long lunch – winner of The Westmorland Gazette Inn of the Year 2019; Chesters at Skelwith Bridge for coffee; The iconic Hikers’ Bar at Old Dungeon Ghyll, Great Langdale, for an early evening pint with a pack of cards; and the crazy array of lollies behind the counter at Hutchinson’s in Coniston, where the Cumberland sausage is mighty fine, too.
The Lake District is a mountain landscape, the weather changes quickly and temperatures can vary dramatically in a single day, especially if you are ascending the fells. The terrain on most walks requires hiking boots; never venture out in a boat without a buoyancy aide and appropriate clothing; wild swimming kit should always include footwear, a bright swim cap and preferably a swim float. Always check the local weather forecast, at the relevant altitudes, as you plan your day and don’t hike, swim or boat alone without leaving details of your route and proposed timings. The trip notes above aren’t route cards, use an OS 1;25 000 hiking map and a route guide, particularly for ascents. Our favourite route guides are still the Wainwright original collection, they are a joy to read and very accurate.
For further adventures, we love this travel website – https://www.macsadventure.com/walking-holidays/