I've just returned from a holiday in England with my thirteen and fourteen-year-old sons. My husband couldn’t join us because of work so it was up to me to lead the troops. We embarked on our adventure with loose plans and an open agenda, hoping to find our groove based on the weather and the call of London. Thanks to the generosity of very good friends, we had a beautiful place to stay in Windsor, an easy one-hour train ride from the city.
With expert travel advice from my friend Ruth, and map in hand, we set out every morning for a day of exploring. The boys had never been overseas before and although I’ve been abroad many times, I was a little apprehensive as to how the three of us would fare with our divergent interests. I love museums, Matthew loves music, and Ryan loves interactive entertainment (think laser quest, amusement parks, and video games).
The first day in London, we met up with an old high school friend (whom I hadn’t seen in about fourteen years) and his lovely wife and daughter. Since he’s lived in England for over two decades, I expected a slight accent and a touch of British reserve. Not so. He was the very same Bruce of thirty years past. There’s something reassuring about reconnecting with old friends whose good humour and affable personality shine in the same light as when you knew them so long ago. A lunch at the Crypt by Trafalgar Square and a walk through Convent Garden gave us a chance to catch up and for our families to get acquainted.
From that day forward the boys and I made our way around London using the best method of transportation—our feet. We walked for miles and miles and even burning blisters didn’t stop us from zigzagging our way through the animated streets. (Note to reader: Always carry band-aids when you travel...thank you Ruth for the supply!)
Getting around was an adventure. My map reading skills are not the most proficient, sometimes leading us away from our destination rather than towards it. Unlike New York with its grid system of streets and avenues, London tends to be more like a muddle of dead ends, streets that change names for no apparent reason, and circular loops that bring you back to where you started. And with eyes that struggle with small print, I often had to follow my nose rather than diagrams, which repeatedly led us astray. But none of this mattered because every wrong turn granted us a new perspective and more sights to see!
Unlike a man who would rather walk a hundred miles than ask for directions, I was quick to realize that the easiest approach was to ask for help. People on the tube, in the street, at restaurants, or working in stores went above and beyond to point me in the right direction. In fact, the Brits were so helpful and so forthcoming that I was tempted to throw my map away. I’ve never been in a country where people seem to care so much about a foreigner’s navigational welfare.
After a couple of days, I was finally acclimated to the North and South Banks of the Thames, and familiarized with the focal points of Trafalgar Square and the London Eye. We became tourists on a mission. There was ground to cover, sights to see, museums to investigate, and theatre to attend.
Highlights included the following:
- The Tower of London (you can see the exact spot where Anne Boleyn was beheaded.
- Shakespeare’s Globe and Rose theatres (and a wonderful Shakespeare museum and tour).
- The Tate Modern museum (winner of the prestigious prize for international architecture, the Pritzker). It is the world's most popular contemporary art gallery. We loved it.
- St. Paul’s Cathedral (masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren. It was completed in 1710 and miraculously survived unscathed over the years, even through the London Blitz.)
- The National Portrait Gallery
- The National Gallery (we ran out of time and didn’t make it inside—my one regret).
- Theatre—there are over 45 shows to choose from. We bought tickets for half price at Leicester Square and the box office, the day of. Our picks: Stomp, Billy Elliot, and Les Miserables. Sensational!
- High Tea at The Dorchester—extravagant but worth it.
- Buckingham Palace-outside only
- The Imperial War Museum—fantastic exhibits of the First and Second World Wars as well as a deeply disturbing Holocaust exhibit.
- Windsor Castle (the Queen's weekend residence) and Windsor area. An electrical fire in 1992 burned through many of the state rooms, but they have since been restored to resplendent perfection.
On this trip, we also had the opportunity to visit another old friend whom I met at the University of Geneva in 1982. Now living in Oxford with her family, Jane invited us to come and stay. After determining that we hadn’t seen each other for seventeen years, we launched right into our friendship as if we had barely been apart. Jane’s generous spirit, kind heart, and enrapturing warmth charmed us all, making us feel like cherished old friends. The boys took to her like a favourite aunt and her family welcomed us as long lost Canadian cousins. We were spoiled with delicious meals, great conversation, and comfy beds.
Thanks to Jane, our visit to Oxford and outlying areas included the following:
- A double-decker bus tour of Oxford (England’s first university town, dating back to the early 12th century).
- Punting along the Cherwell River, which was like riding a Gondola in Venice. Not such an easy endeavour, so we switched to a peddle gondola instead!
- A delightful picnic lunch along the river bank and more local sightseeing on the bus.
- A walk through the historic covered market, where the boys enjoyed a Skittles milkshake (from a choice of about 100 flavours) and Jane had her first real milkshake.
- A visit to Abingdon, one of England’s oldest towns.
- The Cotswolds—charming countryside villages with rolling hills, intriguing shops, and very old churches (the one we visited was founded in 1160).
Matthew, our music buff, was thrilled to hear a first-hand account of the "Reading Festival" that Jane’s eighteen-year-old son John had been to on the weekend. About 250,000 people attended the sprawling outdoor event with thousands camping out for three days in a massive field, not far from the stages. The event is the UK's premier music festival and it just about killed Matt to miss it.
I needn’t have worried about finding things to do that would appeal to all. When I asked the boys what they enjoyed the most about this trip, they said, “Everything!” (Although our friends’ cat, rabbits, and dog did get special mention.)
A visit to the UK is a great journey through history, heritage, and culture. But what will remain among the most precious memories for me are the friends we saw, the hospitality we received, and the gracious nature of all the people who helped us find our way.