Museums, Harrods, all that jazz


Trying to look at things from a different perspective at the Natural History Museum
 
[Hyde Park]
Just as I’m trying to take a picture of L and Jeremy strolling through Hyde Park, Isaac comes into view…
 

Anybody for a Cuppaccino Expresso?

 

With L’s plans to see Lyle Lovett in concert on this day up the creek due to the trifling matter of the performer’s father dying, we had the full day free to explore London at will. And explore we did. We started off catching the train/tube into the museum sector of South Kensington.

Armed with discount Connex vouchers, we went into the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum), to look around their collection of various artefacts – historical clothing, pottery, photos, that kind of thing. The kids hated it, and made their opinions clear in no uncertain terms, until the adults of the party eventually succumbed to their demands.

Just across the street from the V&A is the Natural History Museum. I knew from visiting the previous year that this was, particularly for kids, everything the V&A wasn’t – full of interactive displays, interesting models of animals extinct and alive, and lots of other kids running around like maniacs. Not to mention the escalator that goes through the centre of a model planet Earth. And the Kobe earthquake simulator. Very cool.

We ate lunch in the museum, then continued exhausting ourselves trying to see all (well okay not all, but the most interesting ones) of the exhibits. This time round, the Creepy Crawlies exhibit was open, and was quite good.

Afterwards we walked onwards and outwards towards Knightsbridge, and took a look inside Harrods, where the security guard bloke asked me to take my daypack off and carry it by hand. Presumably that’s for security. If a revolutionary terrorist comes in with a portable rocket launcher strapped to his back, they probably make him carry that by hand too.

We continued to do battle with the Knightsbridge crowds while looking in more shop windows, before deciding to seek some peace and quiet. A quick look at the map revealed that peace and quiet in the form of Hyde Park was not too far away, so we headed over there. Jeremy had fallen asleep, but Isaac revelled in the open space.

Then we took a double-decker bus through Piccadilly Circus to Tottenham Court Road, and tramped up and down there for a bit, looking in Borders and Virgin and a few other places, and having a chuckle at a misspelt "Cappuccino" sign before availing ourselves of some dinner at a tiny but friendly Italian place.

After that we took a walk down Oxford Street. It was well after dark by now, but the streets were still packed with people. Before making the trek back to Hew’s place, we went into HMV and took a look around the discount and not-so-discount videos, where I found a copy of Quadrophrenia for UKP 5.99 and the Red Nose spoof "Doctor Who: The Curse Of Fatal Death" for UKP 12.99. Both things I wanted to see, and in the latter case, it was for a good cause, so why the hell not!

Back at Victoria station on the way to Hew’s house, yet another beggar approached with his patter being of the pathetic genre, specifically by saying in a worn out voice "I’m sorry to bother you sir…" He didn’t get any dosh from me, as (a) I generally prefer to give to charities instead of beggars, and (b) my change was going into the Web access terminal.

Fare dodging in Chichester

It was almost time to head back to London, but not before dropping in on my Uncle Kevin’s family again. We somehow managed to cram all our stuff into the backpack (the other one was back in London) and Gran and Grandad drove us to Bognor station. We said our goodbyes and boarded the train, then got off five minutes later in Barnham, to change to the next train to Chichester.

The screen said that the next train would go to Chichester, and when it arrived we boarded. L carrying Jeremy and a shopping bag full of miscellaneous stuff we’d probably need on our travels that day – stuff like snacks and spare nappies and so on. A fellow passenger decided to be a do-gooder and help L with her shopping bag, but instead managed to break the handle, which was probably not the intended outcome, but annoying nonetheless.

There weren’t any seats available on the tiny South West Trains service, so we stood, but thankfully it was only a ten minute journey. We got off at Chichester, and gave Uncle Kevin a ring and he came in his tiny car to collect us. It dawned on me later while reading the small-print on our Britrail SouthEast passes that they aren’t actually valid on South West Trains. Lucky for us the conductor had been nowhere to be seen on that train.


A short drive around the tangled mess of one-way streets of Chichester got us to Uncle Kevin’s house, where he and Liz (and Luke of course, though being a toddler he probably hadn’t helped a lot) had prepared a mass of food for our consumption. We munched, drank, sat, swapped toddler stories and let the kids play and watch Wallace & Gromit.

Kevin showed his sense of humour by asking young, impressionable Isaac if he liked McDonalds. And had he ever had a McHamster burger? According to Kevin, who kept a straight face throughout, they get a hamster, and a large mallet, and BANG! – flatten the hamster, and put it in a bun. Presto, McHamster burger.

When it was finally time to go, we said more goodbyes, and Uncle Kevin dropped us back at Chichester station, where we boarded a Connex train (and theydo honour Britrail Southeast passes) back to London. Well, East Croydon to be precise, as we were going to inflict ourselves upon Uncle Hew for a few more days.

After dinner I gave my old mate Merlin a call. He’d been in London on and off for a couple of years, and I’d dropped in on him the previous year when I was there. He said to come on over, and gave me instructions on how to get to his place in Lewisham. Thankfully I had an A to Z with me, and found the place okay, which just as he had told me, was a block of flats which had a car park that included a line marking where the Prime Meridian was. Very cool. Well, for a car park, anyway.

He showed me all the weird and wonderful music gadgets he had in his flat, which was a big change from the place he’d been living in the year before in Willesden Green. Back in Willesden, he’d only had one room, about 90% of which was filled with a double bed. In Lewisham he had two rooms plus kitchen and so on to himself, which was a vast improvement in terms of space.

We sauntered down the street for a quick ale at the local, and over a pint caught up on the latest news. After that it was getting late, so we walked back to Lewisham station and I made my way back to East Croydon, making the connection at London Bridge by mere seconds, and by the time I got back, thoroughly worn out after what had been a very full day.

Welcome to the English seaside

Today we explored various towns along the south coast of England. First my grandparents dropped us in Arundel, most famous for either its very impressive castle, or for being the headquarters of the Body Shop – depending on who you ask. Or is that Littlehampton?

We didn’t go into the castle (little kids and the interior of historic homes don’t, as a rule, mix), but we did wander around the town for a little while, judging the picturesque rating to be around about 8 and a half, despite the drizzle. We found the station, picturesque rating 2, and caught a train west along the coast, to the end of the line at Portsmouth Harbour.

HMS Victory, Portsmouth, England
Ancient, but armed to the teeth: HMS Victory at Portsmouth Harbour.

There is a maritime museum at the Harbour, but you can walk around most of it at no charge – only the exhibits cost money*. But you do have to go through a Royal Navy checkpoint first, where they make sure you’re not a terrorist. Portsmouth is also a military base, and it’s probably not a good idea to go wandering out of the area open to visitors.

*I wasn’t trying to be cheap, but I try wherever possible not to spend money to get into museums or other attractions that the kids are going to be completely mindnumblingly bored in.

One of Her Maj’s older ships, HMS Victory is on display on one of the docks. It looks most impressive, armed to the teeth with three levels cannons on each side. You get the feeling looking at it that if every cannon went off at once the whole boat would keel over.

Outside the harbour we found a pub that looked like it had a thoroughly decent lunch menu – and it did. So we stuffed ourselves full of food and ale (well okay, not so much ale for the kids) before staggering back to the station, and caught a train back into Portsmouth proper, the town centre, for more wandering around and in and out of shops, of which there were many.

Back on the train, which by this point was like most public transport is at around 4pm the world over: crowded with noisy schoolkids heading home. We got off at Barnham to change to the Bognor Regis train, but had a quick look at the town first. A quick look was all that was needed – there was hardly anything there. A convenience store and that was about it, apart from the station. So after buying some snacks we headed to Bognor, this time not too late to look around the shops there.

My notes of this day are a bit vague, so I don’t even recall what we had for dinner. Not that you probably care. Suffice to say that after a bus ride (for which I bought the tickets with no problems this time) we ended up at my grandparents’ house again.

Just after dark we took a quick walk onto the beach. The tide was out, and on the sands it was dark, it was very cold, and it was windy. Welcome to the English seaside. But by golly, for some reason it was very atmospheric. It’s times like that when the senses are shocked enough to make sure you’re paying attention to your surroundings, that you fully appreciate where you are.

A long way from home

It was time to introduce L and the kids to my most legendary relative ever: the sublime UK in the UK: Uncle Kevin. Grandad and Gran drove us over to Chichester, where Kevin and his wife Liz and son Luke live.

Getting over there was a good chance for Isaac and Jeremy to have a good play – one of few good plays on the holiday. Kids need that sort of thing, otherwise they gradually go crazy. And adults need to prevent their kids going crazy to stop themselves going crazy. They revelled in Luke’s toys, both indoors and out, while we adults chatted and drank numerous cups of tea.

Uncle Kevin
The legendary Uncle Kevin
Gran and Grandad
Gran and Grandad enjoy a cuppa

Then Kevin was due to go to work, so we wandered off into the town centre of Chichester, got some lunch and explored the streets, poked around the very impressive cathedral, touched the Roman wall, nosed around the shops, and dodged a small army of charity collectors (no, we can’t make regular contributions to your charity, we don’t have a UK bank account).

Chichester is thankfully home to a very decent Internet Cafe by the railway station, and I spent a few minutes in there catching up on the news and e-mail from home. The machines and connection were fast; heaps better than the dingy place in Croydon that I’d used a couple of days earlier.

Nearby we found the bus station, and we caught a bus back to Bognor Regis. It was single-deck bus which was a shame – I love the idea of riding a double-decker bus through the countryside, but it didn’t seem worth waiting another 15 minutes for that one. Once in Bognor, we proceeded to wander around the shops there, at least those that were open, which wasn’t very many. There wasn’t much choice for dinner either, and we eventually settled on a Kebab place.

It was after 6pm and getting dark, but thankfully Safeway was still open, which meant we avoided the ugly scene of me on my knees, hammering on the door with tears running down my cheeks, pleading for the love of God to be let in to buy some nappies. We trotted in and stocked up on a handful of supplies, then joined the express line – which turned out to be anything but – they should have called it the Snailspace line. But we did eventually get to pay for and wrap up our groceries, and wandered up to the bus stop.

The bus to my grandparents’ house arrived and we got on, with me, the official fare-payer, fumbling with the currency, and failing to notice where to rip the ticket from the dispenser. But the bus driver was sympathetic, and seemed to understand when I told him I was a long way from home.

Bognor-bound

Today after much wrestling with my PhoneAway card, I finally managed to get it working (Telstra had provided the wrong local number to dial) and checked our voicemail at home. 14 messages no less, the most immediately significant of which was that the ticket for L that I’d booked through the Ticketmaster UK
web site for a concert with Lyle Lovett that Friday at the Royal Albert Hall had been cancelled – it turns out due to the death of his father. What a bummer. Tell you what though, full credit to Ticketmaster. In the following days and weeks we would discover that apart from the phone message, they also e-mailed several times AND sent a registered letter about it which was waiting at home in Melbourne. Plus a refund of course. Shame about the concert though, L would have enjoyed that.

Peeking over the gate to the sea at my grandparents house
Letting the kids peek over the fence to look at the sea at my grandparents’ house.

We packed up some of our stuff for a few days on the south coast of England with my grandparents. We took the bus to East Croydon station, and after a quick stop at Safeway and Boots for supplies, got on the train, with me assuring L all the while that we’d be able to buy sandwiches on board. Nup. No trolley service. D’oh! Thank goodness for L’s hastily bought emergency chocolate supply.

We rolled into Bognor Regis about an hour and a half later, and while waiting for my grandparents, availed ourselves of the very excellent (if a little slow on the service) Whistle Stop cafe in the station. Why do all cafes in railway stations invariably get named the Whistle Stop? Aren’t there any better names that could be used?

Grandpa and Gran arrived a few minutes later, and we piled into their Fiat for the drive to their house by the sea, with no close calls at roundabouts this time. After unpacking, we attempted to take a walk along the sea, but it was far too rainy and windy. Ah well. Eventually the rain let up, and after playing with the kids in the garden, we took a walk to the local village shops and got in some supplies – a newspaper, snacks, and some toys to keep the kids at least mildly amused and stop them destroying the house.

After dinner we settled down to a quiet evening of chatting, watching telly, drinking sherry, that kind of thing.