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Column: London’s Calling, and We Took the Family With Us



For the Valley News
Saturday, August 04, 2018

This year’s visit to London in May was wonderful.

Yes, showers can prevail, but they didn’t. And getting around by tube and bus can be challenging, but it’s incredibly convenient. We sometimes get tickets to only a mediocre play or concert, but this year, we were lucky. My husband and I loved the new Nine Night at the National Theater, with its focus on Jamaican immigrants, and managing last-minute seats for the London Symphony playing Sibelius was a coup.

Being in London as the latest royal wedding occurred in Windsor was an added pleasure.

With every trip to London, and to England in general, I enjoy looking back to earlier visits there. As an avowed Anglophile, I couldn’t wait to take my young daughters to England. Time constraints and limited budgets held us back until they were 9 and 13, but those ages were perfect for the plans my husband and I made.

After a few days in London, we set out by car with a pile of maps, a paperback tour book that covered England from south to north, and the invaluable AA Guide to Guest Houses and Farm Houses. A step below bed and breakfasts in formality, the places we chose as each day wound down were owned by families making a little extra money from renting out a spare bedroom or two. Being their guests gave us New Yorkers small glimpses into how other people lived — and into how much, it turned out, we seemed to have in common.

At one of the farmhouses we helped milk cows. At another we spent one of those long summer evenings touring the seventh-century Saxon church our hosts that night were members of.

Most memorably, we stayed several days as the sole residents of the formerly splendid Netley Hall in Shrewsbury, dating back, it was said, to Norman times. The owners marketed it as a guesthouse while they figured out what else they could possibly do with it. Their Welch pony, named Paddy, was ideal for one daughter who loved riding, and her pleasure turned that part of the trip into family lore still enjoyed today.

Another family trip to London happened just a few years ago and included our older daughter, her husband, and two of our grandchildren, ages 11 and 13.

I vividly recall the warm evening we exited the South Kensington tube station and walked out into the dusk of central London. The flower stall was just closing on the still-busy plaza.

Pulling our suitcases behind us, we consulted the A-Z street map in search of our “Vacation Rental by Owner” flat for the week. Our daughter and her husband were familiar with London, but for the kids, it would be a real change from the rural, outdoor life we shared back in Vermont.

Getting an Oyster Card for buses and the Underground and crossing the street by looking to the right first had already gotten their attention.

Once we found the flat, discovered which key opened the top lock and which the bottom, and got unpacked, though, we took on being city folks.

With London restaurants open late, we set out on foot to find dinner in the neighborhood. The Bella Italia chain looked good enough, and there would be wine for the adults and Fanta for the kids. After dinner, since we were still on U.S. time, we boarded a No. 14 bus to Piccadilly Circus. Passing our Oysters over the reader, we climbed the stairs to the second level for a great introduction to London.

Saturday began slowly, with someone eventually going across the street to the local Waitrose to buy food for breakfast. Soon we again got on the 14 bus and headed for Covent Garden, a happening scene for tourists. Magicians sawed women in half as stilt-walkers fought each other with swords, and vendors hawked the best and worst of craft items. From there we walked to Neal’s Yard Dairy to buy a loaf of bread and some farm-made cheeses — a wedge of Smart’s Single Gloucester and some Stinking Bishop — for a late lunch in a park.

Saturday afternoon — and Sunday and the days after that — found us at neighborhood places like the Natural History Museum (with Darwin’s research materials on display in the basement), the Victoria and Albert, and farther afield.

The kids loved the day in Greenwich with their dad and grandfather. It started with the boat trip out to the Thames Barrier (London’s unique approach to flood control) and ended as they put a toe on the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory.

The fish and chips, local ale and hard cider at a favorite pub in St. John’s Wood that night were the best ever.

At week’s end, after a matinee at the National Theater, we walked back across the Thames on the Hungerford Bridge to have dinner at an Indian restaurant in Knightsbridge.

Looking back over all we’d done in London, we realized that there was also a long list for another time. And I, as we rode the bus back to the flat, crossed my fingers that London would be a part of the future for all of us. In fact, with another grandson just turning 11, we could start making plans soon.

Mary K. Otto lives in Norwich.