Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Despite steep prices, London is a wonderful family playground



It's dripping buckets, though that is hardly surprising. It's London, after all, where it rains on average 10 days of every month.

There are three of us and only two umbrellas. Not perfect planning but the 18-year-old is spry and can move quickly between drops. It's a lucky break for him, though, because he won't have to carry it later.

The taxi drops us in front of the British Museum, and he sprints across the plaza toward the Greek Revival building. We are not the only ones who think this repository of 8 million historic artifacts is a good place to spend a dreary day. Students from grade school to college along with their animated tour guides, tourists from around the world and even locals converge on the museum in lousy weather. (There's a healthy crowd there on nice days, too.)

We will all spend a few cozy hours together inside. In our case, more than five, and it is hardly enough.

At least not for our tour guide, the 18-year-old without the umbrella and fresh from an art history class at Florida State University. He's got a checklist of must-sees, starting with the Parthenon Marbles, formerly the Elgin Marbles, and finishing with the Sutton Hoo exhibition, a fascinating display of the excavated treasures from an Anglo-Saxon burial ground, circa 600 A.D.

He carries the visitors guide, directing us this way and that. On so many trips before, that has been my job.

I sense the tables turning, and buckle up for the ride.

Walk with Jack the Ripper

Other than the frightful sticker shock, London is a wonderful place for a family vacation, with children of any age. I've been there several times, by myself and with my family, each time revisiting favorite places while discovering new delights.

It's a diverse city with a rich history but thoroughly modern vibe. Transportation is easy and affordable if you stick to the Underground — the Tube — and buses. State-run museums are free, and the food, which has gotten a lousy rap over the years, is much improved. West End theater is among the best in the world, with the usual slate of big-budget musicals playing alongside terrific plays with famous casts. Last year, nearly 38 million tourists visited the city.

The core of London is highly walkable, and a number of companies offer guided tours for reasonable prices. I am a fan of London Walks (walks.com), whose entertaining guides, many of them aspiring or retired actors, lead tourists all over the city from Beatles haunts to World War II sites, from royal stomping grounds to historic pubs. (Thelondonpubcrawlco.com reports there are 7,000 pubs in London. Drinking age: 18.) No reservations necessary, just meet at the appointed Tube stop and pony up 9 pounds (about $15) per person, for a two-hour or so walk. My favorite on the schedule is the retracing of Jack the Ripper's steps in the East End at dusk. Spooky.

Our personal tour guide has other ideas. And that's how we end up at Stonehenge.

Selfies at Stonehenge

There's so much to do in London that during other visits I have not wanted to leave the city. But that FSU art history teacher made such an impression about the ancient Druid burial ground and the nearby Gothic Salisbury Cathedral that we find ourselves on a tour bus very early one morning.

(I have to admit that I couldn't stop thinking about the scene in the mock rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap when the stage set designers goof and build a pint-sized megalith. The tour guide must have known what some of us were thinking when he quoted from the movie as we neared Stonehenge. "In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, an ancient race of people …," he intoned perfectly.)

Stonehenge is about a two-hour bus ride from London and it's surprising how close it sits to the busy A303 motorway. The traffic through the lushly green landscape, on this May day dotted with yellow flowers, slows as people gawk, some turning off to stop, others perhaps commuting to work. A new visitor center opened in December, and the elegant modern pavilion now provides the gateway to the ancient monument. (Get your "Stonehenge Rocks" T-shirts there.)

We take a tram from the center to the site, the winds whipping up the Salisbury Plain. Hair and skirts not secured are flying about. We walk the circle path around the stones, and now I wish we were on our own so that we could spend more time contemplating the people who lugged these stones and pushed them into position.

The modern smacks squarely into antiquity here. Everyone is taking selfies with the Druids' handiwork behind them.

A cathedral's charms

I have always loved Christopher Wren's masterpiece, St. Paul's Cathedral, maybe even more than Westminster Abbey, which still awes me every time I walk through. St. Paul's, where Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married in 1981, is the fourth church to sit on this site, with construction starting in 1675. It holds a special place in the hearts of Londoners, having escaped heavy damage during the bombings of World War II.

St. Paul's is a busy working church in the heart of the city, its dome visible from many parts of London. Tourists are asked to stop each hour and listen to the prayer given by one of the vast staff of clergy. We are there through two cycles.

We take our time walking around the church, then head downstairs to the Crypt to look for the tombs of famous people. Architect Wren is there (a rather spare headstone if you ask me) as is poet William Blake. In the Crypt, which is where the cafe is, there's a church musician wailing away on an organ, and it's not lost on us that on the floor around him are the tombs of former church organists.

After we tour the church, we grab a seat near the front. We watch a sound crew get ready for Communion. The vespers service will start within the hour.

The dome is 528 steps from the cathedral floor. Brave souls — the one of us with the fancy camera among them — trudge to the top. Mom and son stay below, contemplating. It's that kind of place. So beautiful and serene, but also an interesting spot to people-watch, especially when the priest begins his prayer and asks us to remember those who are suffering around the world, including those in war-ravaged countries.

Some visitors stop but others continue, walking in front of the man behind the lectern. We decide this is rude, but then realize that not everyone in the cathedral speaks English. Perhaps they don't know what's going on, my college tour guide says.

Travel a la carte

I relinquish a lot of control on this trip, mostly to get a different experience and to let a budding traveler flex his muscles. I don't want to squelch curiosity, and it's important that everyone on the trip gets to do something their heart desires. I do, however, put my foot down at eating at American chain restaurants, but somehow ended up having two meals at Garfunkel's, the British answer to Denny's. We also eat some marginal food in Chinatown and walk it off around bustling Piccadilly Circus. A hungry teenager makes some rash decisions.

We tour the National Gallery, Westminster Abbey and the Churchill War Rooms, the underground bunker where the prime minister and his cabinet rode out the Blitz that devastated so much of the city. Another of my favorite places in London is St. Martin-in-the-Fields, an Anglican church at Trafalgar Square. There are regular free afternoon classical concerts, which offer a lovely respite from the hectic city.

The week we are there, a quartet is performing a Mozart-by-candlelight concert at the 18th century church. I promptly buy three tickets (those old take-charge planning habits die hard), and everyone says they want to go. The night of the concert it goes down differently.

The 18-year-old would rather spend the evening at the hotel gym. Another reminder that he has got a mind of his own and is going to use it, even on the road.

I am momentarily sad that he won't see my beloved St. Martin-in-the-Fields awash in candlelight with Eine kleine Nachtmusik filling the sanctuary. His father and I go and are entranced, just as I hoped we would be.

In hindsight, the 18-year-old would have hated it. But as I said, everyone should get to do things their heart desires while traveling.

Sometimes, that's a few miles on a treadmill.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 894-8586. Follow @roadeats on Twitter.

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