Travel: London calling
London, just a short flight away for Irish travellers, is a favourite short-break destination with a range of attractions that particularly appeal to families. Claire Spreadbury and her daughters take to the city's museums, theatres and attractions and find it an ideal autumn post-lockdown destination
SEEING my 9-year-old silhouetted in the dark lights of the theatre, mouth agog, hand cupping her jaw and eyes bulging so wide the whites light up the aisle, reminds me why seeing a West End musical is worth every last penny. It feels more expensive than ever, but boy have we missed it.
London has been lonely. With no tourists to fill hotels, theatres only recently reopened and far fewer people feeling safe enough to ride the rails of the underground, the streets of England's capital city have had a rough time of late.
But as restrictions lifted and (some sort of) summer arrived, London has began to get her mojo back. And where better to take the kids to reignite their love of culture?
Rosie (12) and Poppy (9) are visibly giddy at the thought of going to London and staying in a smart hotel. We're staying at The Kensington - and after just a five-minute-walk from the tube station, we see the flags flying proudly in the breeze.
The girls gasp as we check into the recently refurbed family room, where giant beds are surrounded by daring floral wallpaper. Calming colours of green and pale blues cocoon the space, and the luxe gold, marble and mirrored bathroom comes with oodles of complimentary Malin+Goetz toiletries.
Stepping through the city, we lick ice-creams on the South Bank and jostle for a view of a street performer juggling with swords while riding a bicycle. More eye-popping sights await on board the London Eye, where we ogle Big Ben, The Shard and every inch of London's scintillating skyline. And at the Tower of London, I feel wonderfully smug as the kids get a one-to-one history lesson with chief yeoman warder Pete McGowran.
On the Secrets Tour, the girls' eyes glint as Pete rattles the Queen's giant set of keys, and shows us the lamp they light every night as they lock up the Tower. We sneak out the back to the royal entrance, through gates dating back over 500 years (although parts of the building were erected as early as the 11th century) and marvel at the pet cemetery and boules lawn.
One hundred and ten people live here, Pete tells us, as we pass through shards of daylight streaming through one of the two portcullis gates. There was once about 13 pubs in this "little village", as he calls it, but now there's just The Keys, where the warders can enjoy some downtime or celebration in the red leather chairs, walls adorned with photos of yeoman and celebrities.
Stories abound of all the past kings, queens, deaths, prisoners and "the greatest whodunnit in history" (the princes who went missing in the Tower). Later, Pete even tests the girls on dates to see what they can remember.
The council chamber where much of Guy Fawkes' interrogation was done is housed here, as well as a room and toilet prepared for Hitler - just in case he was ever caught.
The Crown Jewels are the star of the show, of course, and all our eyes widen as we squint at the 3,000 gems adorning The Jewelled Sword of Offering, and the giant glistening Cullinan diamond and Stuart sapphire proudly presented on the Imperial State Crown. And we snigger at the Prince of Wales Coronet, which contains an actual ping pong ball, which has been sprayed gold, so as not to make the crown too heavy.
After pounding pavements, nothing feels more necessary than a spot of afternoon tea, which we head back to the Kensington for, flopping our tired bodies down on the squishy velvet chairs in the drawing room.
Delicate tea is poured from heavy silver teapots, as we tuck into finger sandwiches and bite-sized treats depicting the skyline of London (the Big Ben lemon curd tart is undoubtedly my favourite) before unwrapping the cotton napkins keeping the freshly-baked scones warm, waiting to be slathered in jam and cream.
We sleep like queens before soaking up some more culture at the Victoria & Albert Museum, courtesy of the Alice In Wonderland exhibition. We wander over to the river scene, where Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) first told the tale to the real Alice – Alice Liddell, who begged him to write it down as a keepsake.
Tiny glass baubles hang from the ceiling, their swirling filaments lighting up intermittently above vintage games, photos and drawings bringing the history of the book to life. We follow white rabbits around as excerpts from the book bellow out of speakers, and tread a curiouser and curiouser world of doors, casting giant shadows as we peek through windows and stand beneath an animated rain shower.
Deckchairs await beneath a giant lit up mushroom for anyone needing a sit down, and screens showcase every version of the film, from Tim Burton's 2016 Alice Through The Looking Glass to the 1951 cartoon.
A tea party table for 13 is laid out with teapots, plates, jugs, teacups and cutlery, all lit up by projectors beaming ever-changing scenes on to the tablescape. And it all culminates in a virtual experience, where we sit beneath fabric flowers and swirling green vines, wearing headsets which take us on our very own journey into Wonderland.
As if our senses could take any more, the call of the Lion King becomes the cherry on the cake of our London escape. Every tottering stilt walk of giraffe, every stealthy stalk of the leopard, each and every actor embodies the characters like nothing I've ever seen before.
The choreography, casting, costumes and sets continue to blow our minds in a kaleidoscope of colour and emotion almost 25 years since the first performance.
"This is the best," whispers Rosie, as Poppy fist pumps the air in ecstasy.
London is bouncing back from tough times. And the West End? Hakuna Matata.
::How to plan your trip
The London With The Family offer at The Kensington (doylecollection.com/hotels/the-kensington-hotel) includes accommodation in two adjoining guestrooms with a 50 per cent saving on the second room, a la carte breakfast for all, complimentary evening meals for children up to 8 years when dining with an adult before 7pm and special guest amenities for little ones. Rates at the hotel start from £375.
For more information and to book tickets to The Lion King, visit thelionking.co.uk.
The Tower of London Secrets Tour costs £1,200 for up to 10 people. Visit hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/ for more details. Standard tickets are £29.90 for adults, £14.90 for children ages 5-15 years.
Tickets for The London Eye cost from £24.50. Book at londoneye.com for the best prices.
The Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum is £20 per person (free for under 12s). Visit vam.ac.uk for more information.