LONDON: A long weekend to remember

Big Ben lrTravelodge room lr
L-R: Big Ben and a Travelodge room
Soldier street entertainer video 1, video 2
The London Eye video 1, video 2

By Tim Saunders

“Waterloo Bridge is the only bridge on the Thames to be built mainly by women,” explains the guide on the City Cruises trip we take during our long weekend in London. “It is also the only one to be finished on time and in budget.”

It quickly becomes clear that there is so much to learn about the capital and this river cruise is one of the best ways to learn the facts fast. During our 50 minute cruise trip from Westminster Pier to Greenwich we see “the MI5 Headquarters, Thames House which was described in 1930 as the finest office building in the British Empire”, Westminster Abbey, where all the monarchs have been crowned since 1066, Covent Garden, St Paul’s Cathedral and the London Eye.

In just a few years The London Eye has become one of the must see attractions and “on a good day makes £250,000”. Its 32 pods represent the London boroughs. We first visit the spectacular 4D show which is a clever video of what you can expect from the whole experience. This is the modern equivalent of the Eiffel Tower in Paris is certainly a feat of engineering and design. It is possible to escape most of the queues by purchasing a fast track ticket and before long passengers find themselves in the pods. My wife Caroline is not fond of heights and is a little daunted by the thought of going on the London Eye but to her surprise she finds the whole experience thoroughly enjoyable thanks to the space inside the pods with plenty of seating in the middle where you can relax. It is easy for disabled passengers and children to board. We all enjoy the views as the massive wheel slowly rotates and at the top we are 132m from the ground. Inside the pods are touch screens, which when Harriett’s fingers are not all over them, provide facts about the landmarks we see. We soon discover that the Eye is visible from many locations across London and it seems to have become a landmark itself that surprisingly blends in well with its more classical surroundings.

There’s an area near the London Eye favoured by street entertainers and there are a variety to enjoy from musicians to dancers, which keep the children mesmerised. We see some great male dancers (according to Caroline) and at one point Harriett joins in and continues to practice standing on her head.

Another excellent way of introducing visitors to London’s history is The Big Bus Tour hop on, hop off trip across the capital. It’s an open top double decker bus. Tourists can listen to the commentary through headphones provided on boarding. We learn that Bobbies on the beat get their name from Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the Metropolitan Police and that Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms. The Grosvenor family and its head the Duke of Westminster own much of the land in London and Allens is the oldest butcher in the city where many of the top chefs are customers. There are five Royal Parks in London.

We drive to London in a Toyota Prius Plug in under the misconception that this hybrid vehicle will actually escape the congestion charge. Apparently Transport for London needs to be contacted and paid £10 at least 10 days before travel with details of the car. It is only when they approve the application that the driver does not have to pay £11.50 a day for the privilege of driving in inner London. We park the car in Secure Parking’s car park at Bloomsbury Square and despite my checks, we later learn that our girls have left the interior lights on (the AA is called with the help of the Secure Parking attendant)….

Just round the corner is a Travelodge at Drury Lane where we stay in a family room. It’s ideal for a family on holiday. Travelodge is so confident that our Dreamer bed, designed by Sleepeezee (with 950 individual pocket springs within each mattress), is so comfortable that it offers its guests the opportunity of purchasing one with home delivery straight away. They have hit the nail on the head because it is surprising how many uncomfortable beds there are in even the most expensive of hotels. This is actually part of a £57m hotel modernisation programme. To our surprise even though we are sharing the room with our little girls who have their own beds (we take a travel cot for Heidi) we all have a good night’s sleep. The room has a television and bedside lights that Heidi enjoys turning on and off. The breakfast consists of continental and full English and sets us up for the day. The room is surprisingly quiet; we cannot hear other guests even on a Saturday night.

We meet my brother at Vapiano in Great Portland Street, the night before he leaves the city for Ireland. Vapiano operates Italian restaurants throughout the world and provides a fresh different approach to dining whereby guests charge their Vapiano cards with whatever meal and drinks they choose and then pay for their bill when they leave. It’s all about a different level of self service that is extremely popular among 20 and 30 year olds it would seem from the buzzing atmosphere around us. Unlike any other self service restaurant the diner interacts with the chef who cooks their meal right in front of them. Not only is this a great experience it also reassures the diner that the ingredients are fresh. Fresh herbs can be seen and smelt around the restaurant. The restaurant at Great Portland Street has been trading for the past seven years and clearly has a loyal following. My only criticism is that the waiter is too keen to clear the tables and walks off with my glass when I still haven’t finished my beer. It is the place to treat a date, to dress up and socialise; a restaurant to visit prior to hitting the clubs. The concept has proved so popular that Vapiano, which is undergoing an expansion drive has just invested significant sums in opening another restaurant in Wardour Street, Soho. As you might expect this is an extremely slick operation with stylish décor and it amazes me how efficient the whole operation is. There is no yelling or shrieking from the kitchens as might be expected if you have ever watched a reality cooking show. I opt for filetto di manzo e rucola and request it in my best Italian, which seems to be understood by my chef. Under 10 minutes later I am sat at the table enjoying the beef fillet, mushrooms with fresh vegetables, white wine, rocket and linguine with a pint of Peroni.

If traditional dining is more appealing then Browns in St Martins Lane – close to Trafalgar Square with its striking blue chicken - and near St Martin-in-the-Fields Church opposite the National Portrait Gallery, comes highly recommended. We had booked our table for 12.30pm and arrived at 2.50pm. Not like us at all but unfortunately Caroline was not well and we got lost navigating London’s sodden streets. Plus on checking out of the Travelodge I discovered that the Toyota Prius had a flat battery so had to faff about trying to access it with a key rather than the electronic keyfob. When we finally arrive outside this grand establishment (a former courthouse) we feel somewhat underdressed and expect to be turned away in no uncertain terms. But the manager couldn’t be more understanding. He takes our wet pushchair and parks it at the rear of the restaurant. We marvel at the décor, rich with plants and dark wood. This is very much an occasion to be savoured. We are attended by one of the best waiters we have had the privilege of knowing. It is clear that being a good waiter is not just about being attentive and understanding the needs of guests but injecting some lighthearted humour does wonders. He is great with our little daughters and even introduces Harriett to cleaning her sticky fingers in a lemon bowl.

This is probably the only point during the weekend where we feel we can take our eye off the ball and relax for a few minutes, although our needy daughters do not allow too much of this. Fish and chips quieten them down for a short while and they do even eat some of the fish. My steak and Guinness pie is enjoyable with succulent pieces of beef and this is accompanied by a pint of ice cold Guinness. We haven’t finished long when Caroline’s Uncle Harry pops in for a chat. “The cabby recommended Browns,” he says. “Apparently it provides good quality, good value food.”

This trip has opened our eyes to all that London offers but we will have to return because so much to do and so little time.

City Cruises
London Eye
Big Bus Tours – Harriett (3) enjoys plugging in the headphones and listening to the story of London. It is also a great point in the day for Heidi to have her routine snooze – there’s an area on the ground floor of the bus for a pushchair or wheelchair
Secure Parking
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