Travel: England – Greater London and Portsmouth

We don’t just camp in the summer, we like to adventure and explore internationally! My husband is originally from England and every couple of years we try to get “across the pond” to visit family. Each trip we try to incorporate English culture and heritage, as well Hey look kids, it's Big Ben and the Parliamentas fun, into our visits to give our son a taste of what his daddy grew up with and also to learn about his heritage.

We spent just over 2 weeks in Europe in 2014: 10 days in England and a week in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Our last trip to England was 2 years ago and at that time I wrote about Legoland Windsor, Sea Life Aquarium and The Science Museum of London, the RAF Museum, and Warwick Castle which you can read about here. Our guy was 4 turning 5 on that trip, so those activities are going to be ideal for the younger kids. This time he was 6 turning 7 and we were also spending time with his older cousins experiencing things that are great for kids who are a bit older (the adults had a great time too!).

In London

One of our many train stops on the tripMy husband’s family lives just outside London making it a short 30-minute train ride to get to the heart of the action: museums, shops, castles, historic sites, and all of our special sight-seeing quests. Public transport is amazing and we never take a car into London for a couple of reasons: 1) Parking is a nightmare, 2) there is a tax charged to each car that goes in and out of the city, making the day that much more expensive, and 3) there is a certain relaxation that happens as the train clickety-clacks along the tracks. We have been caught catching cat naps after a full day of adventuring! It just makes everything so easy!

The Natural History Museum of London

Off to the lovely Natural History museumThis trip our guy had a chance to go to the Natural History Museum with his Nan and Grand-dad, while dad and I checked out another museum (see the next paragraph!). This is an amazing Museum for so many different reasons. First, as an American walking up, I was struck not only by the size of the building but by the architecture which is absolutely stunning and not what a US west coaster is used to seeing. When when you walk in and see the many exhibits available, you realize you could spend a week here and not see everything. There is something for everyone, including the littlest people!

IMG_4062One thing our son really loved on previous trips was a walk through the hall with the animals that had been stuffed. As a little person, getting to be so near big animals and not have them move allows them to get a good look and not be scared off. Things were right at his level too which was fantastic for him to get that closer look! They have animals of all types to look at.

uk-swiss-2013The museum also houses a dinosaur exhibit  featuring an animatronic T-Rex as well as many fossils and models of what the large animals looked like back when they roamed the earth. The museum boasts many more exhibits, birds, mammals, minerals, “creepy crawlies”, human evolution, and so much more. This is one of our favorite museums in London and you can spend an entire day exploring. You might download their free visitor app to help you plan your visit and get you around. While the museum admission is free, there is a small fee to enter the special exhibits. We highly recommend this museum for kids of all ages. Heads up that queues were long when the school children are out. This is a common thing all over England when there is a holiday though. Try to go while the children are in school if possible for shorter queues.

The Churchill War Rooms and Museum

IMG_0466While our son and his grandparents were at the Natural History Museum, my husband and I checked out the Churchill War Rooms and the Winston Churchill Museum. This was one sight I really wanted to see on this trip. We decided we would take our son on future trips when he was a bit older and knew a bit more about the wars. The War Rooms were used during WWII during the Blitz of London and were the shelters the government used to protect the Prime Minister and all of the people high up in the government. This is where the big decisions were made during the attacks and all through the war. PropogandaIt is said the day the war ended, they turned out the lights, closed the door, and walked away. The doors were only reopened to the public in 1984, after being off-limits and restricted for nearly 40 years. Very little was touched during that time, including the dust that built up on all of the paraphernalia. In fact one of Churchill’s actual cigars is still in an ashtray where he left it and the pins representing troop positions are still on the maps, standing at attention as they did on the last day of the war.

IMG_0497As a life long student of history, this completely blew my mind. You really feel like you are right there waiting for the bombs to drop. It is a very humbling and somber place. Within the War Rooms Museum is the Churchill Museum which pays tribute to Great Britain’s leader. My husband was particularly impressed with the exhibits and said he learned so much more about the man. We highly recommend this museum to learn more about war-time London and the more modern history of the city. Adult tickets run £17.50, and kids under 16 are free. There are handheld self guided tour devices that each person gets upon entry to explain what you are seeing. Kids over the age of 9 will get more out of the exhibit than the younger ones as they will be better able to understand the concepts.

Hamley’s Toy Store

Mama, the crown is made of Legos? Really?Hamley’s Toy Store is a legend in London. I had never been before and my husband remembered it from his youth, so we took our guy over to check it out. It is a feast for the eyes and will not disappoint kids or parents! It is a 6-floor toy store with every toy imaginable. The best part is the live presentations of how various toys work and kids getting to try them before buying. Staff is lively and friendly, and make the whole experience really fun. We found the toys to be higher priced than other stores (noticed this especially with the Lego product), but going in and having a bit of fun costs nothing but time. They also have candy and ice cream in case you have spent a long day walking the streets of London and need to refuel with a lot of sugar!

The Tower of LondonDSC_6376
The Tower of London
was something we held off on with our son until this trip. Last time we did Warwick Castle, which gave the Lad a taste of castle life set in a fun way (and not too heavy). The Tower is different. Used as a jail and a place of torture, as well as where Ann Boleyn and other royals were beheaded, we thought he should be slightly older to see it which paid off because he thought it was quite interesting.

Before heading into the tower stop in at the visitor’s center. They offer special workbooks called “Trails” that kids can work on while visiting the castle to learn a little more. It is kind of like our Jr. Ranger Packets and they are free with your admission. Books are available for different age groups so just let them know how old your child is and they will give you the right book. We found this was a great way for the kids to get involved and excited about what they were seeing!

Yes, we saw them. No, they are not made of Lego.Get there early and go straight to the Crown Jewels. As the day goes on the crowd gets bigger and it makes it harder for smaller people to see the treasures as adults tend to block the view.

 After seeing the Crown Jewels, head straight over to the line to walk the ramparts. The line was incredibly long by the time we got there and heading straight over would have allowed us up quicker. We also skipped the torture exhibit this time.

One special thing we saw while we were there was the commemoration that marked the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. An artist was commissioned with creating a ceramic poppy that memorialized each soldier from the Commonwealth lost during the IMG_5162war. 888,246 were placed in the moat and were spilling out of windows and around the draw bridge engulfing the Tower of London in a sea of red. Each of the poppies was sold and sent to the buyer for them to have this keepsake forever. The money earned on the sales went to 6 different charities benefiting soldiers and veterans. The display was removed on 11 November 2014. We watched as the poppies were placed and the sea of red was truly humbling.

Entrance to the Tower is £22 per adult and £11 for kids older than 4IMG_0560.

While we were at the Tower, we took a short walk across one of London’s most iconic landmarks, the Tower Bridge. We didn’t have time this trip, but learned they have tours of the steam rooms, and will show you how the bridge, a former marvel of technology, raises and lowers. You can also go to the top of the towers and have a look at the city and the Thames from above.

 St. Paul’s Cathedral

IMG_4328St. Paul’s Cathedral is another of London’s most famous landmarks. Many Americans who are old enough to remember the 80s will recognize this as the church where Prince Charles and Princess Diana got married. The original St. Paul’s Cathedral was built in 604AD. Due to constant fires and rebuilds the current St. Paul’s was designed by Christopher Wren and was finally completed in 1711. It took 35 years to construct the cathedral we see today. Since then the church has survived many tragedies – and has been seen as a symbol of wartime resistance and strength, a place of great celebration in weddings and Jubilees, and serves as the final resting place of some of Britain’s most famous people.

Inside the outer dome, and up the rickety steps to the topRings are down already and the games ended on a couple of days before.Prepare to spend a couple of hours exploring here. Entry for adults is £17.00,  children 6-17 are £7.50, and there are discounted tickets for students and seniors. The entry gives you a hand-held self-guided tour. The Cathedral is absolutely stunning, and if you are brave enough to tackle the rickety stairs to the very top of the dome, you will get some of the best panoramic views of the city of London.


Outside London

Chessington World of Adventure

IMG_6430We thoroughly enjoyed a day at Chessington World of Adventure with the cousins. We had kids ages 6 through 12, and there was something for everyone. Chessington is an amusement park with various rides, a zoo, and resort all set on a former estate. This is the next step up from Legoland Windsor, but a step below Alton Towers from a ride stand-point (great for kids 5-12). There is 1 upside down ride (Ramses Revenge, which was having mechanical issues while we were there), several really fun roller-coasters, giant swings that spin, play spaces for kids, shows featuring animals, and lots of ice cream and treats. We found it very busy, and decided to buy fast-track tickets for a few rides, which made the day slightly better by not having to wait in line for everything. It was loads of fun and I have a feeling we will be going back on future visits.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

We took the train to Portsmouth for a fun day out at the Historic Dockyard. The dockyards will take you through 800 years of British Naval History. This might sound like something you might take a pass on, but don’t! It is really quite good! A family Pass (online you save 25%) is £58.80 and is good for a full year and for all main attractions. Here are some of the things we did at the Dockyard.

Action Stations
He thought this was awesomeYour ticket will gain you access to the entire Dockyard and nearly all of the activities (special activities will cost a small fee). We IMG_0702started off at Action Stations. This was a building which housed dozens of interactive adventures. Britain’s tallest indoor climbing tower was an absolute favorite of ours. The routes have varying degrees of difficulty allowing each person to test their abilities! They also had a neat moving climbing wall which allowed the kids to do continuous climbing until their arms were too tired to go on. It was a great intro into what the Royal Forces have to do IMG_0709for their training.

Outside of the climbing there were simulators for shooting down enemy aircraft and to give you a feeling of what it is like being in a plane or helicopter doing search and rescue. They had obstacle courses for kids up to a certain height and also a hand to hand combat tutorial. They also taught a bit of science in regards to weather and physics.

HMS Victory

The HMS Victory is the IMG_6735world’s oldest commissioned warship and is in dry dock at the Dockyard. HMS Victory still has a
full-time Royal Navy crew and hosts special meetings and dinners. Amazingly IMG_0725this entire ship is built of wood and has been lovingly restored to its former glory. This is the ship where Nelson died during the Battle of Trafalgar, which was also the last battle the Victory fought in. Walking her decks you’ll get a sense of the life the men endured and what their accommodations looked like. You might be surprised at what they were up against and how they overcame it. The ship itself is gorgeous and the history inside is amazing.

IMG_0733From her upper decks, you get a nice view of the Dockyards and the ships that are in port. Many are still in use by the Royal Armed Forces which means there are areas that will be restricted, however several of the ships are available to view from the dock. While we were there the HMS Illustrious was in port and for sale! We couldn’t go inside but marveled at her from the dock.Last up, a boat tour around the harbor

Time was tight for us, so we decided not to tour the HMS Warrior or explore the Mary Rose Museum. Both are amazing exhibits from what we were told and we will make sure to go in on another trip. Our guy might have enjoyed the HMS Warrior, but it was suggested we wait until he was a little older for the Mary Rose museum.

We got to see lots of Her Magesty's destroyersWe enjoyed the guided harbor tour quite a lot. The guide made the tour a lot of fun and had a wicked sense of humor. The boat takes you around the harbor showing you different ships in port, they tell you the history of the area, and point out other points of interest.

Before boarding our train home we had a look around the fancy Portsmouth shopping area. We headed to a great pub for lunch IMG_5271and after had a lovely walk along the water. My son was curious about these strange balls with people inside – they looked like giant hamsters! So we loaded him up in a floating ball and pushed him out into the river! They area is cordoned off so he wouldn’t float away, but he absolutely loved it and highly recommends it if you are in the area!

The trip was fantastic and it was so much fun trying out so many new things. Have you been to England and done any of these things? Are there things you have done that we should check out? Let us know in the comments!

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