Tag Archives: London

The big big bones

The Natural History Museum in South Kensington (U.K) is quite a treat for children. They have exhibits of everything from spiders and snakes to whales and dinosaurs. The big guy in the central hall of the museum, is a ‘vegiesaur’.

As an aside, the concept of herbivore is quite lost on children when talking about dinosaurs because, let’s face it, they’re pretty grim looking creatures for the most part and are on a scale that is particularly intimidating for humans under one meter tall.

In order for my eldest boy to pose for a photograph with the ‘vegiesaur’, a Diplodocus (that’s him in the picture), I had to convince him that he was in no immediate danger. First and foremost, I said, the dinosaur is not in fact alive and has not been for quite some time. In point of fact the skeleton on display is a man made replica and not an actual fossil. Second, real fossils chipped out of the rock are also not dinosaur bones, they are in fact rock created in a process called permineralisation where minerals in the skeleton of the creature being fossilized are replaced with minerals from the surrounding sediment and are then, you know, compressed for sixty five million years or so…I’m pretty sure he switched his ears off somewhere around ‘First’…

You see, it’s all only marginally interesting to a child staring up at a reconstructed dinosaur that is eleventy one times his own height while he teeters on the fence between terror and fascination.

My boys were four and two at the time and the little guy spent the first half of the visit crying in the stroller because he was tired and then spent the second half sleeping like a professional for the same reason. Actually he slept during many of the outings we went on, always being fatigued on the journey to an attraction (not used to all the walking and hopping on and off the underground) and then promptly falling asleep when we arrived at the attraction. Effectively he only saw half of everything the rest of us saw while we were there but he had some really good power naps.

Back to the museum; my eldest eventually submitted to a touristy snapshot under the exhibit and throughout the rest of the visit became more and more fascinated by all the big bones and menacing smiles. By the time we got to the animatronic T-Rex, complete with moving jaws and growls, he had decided that he wanted to work with dinosaurs when he was ‘all growed up’.

Actually I think he might have started out wanting to be a dinosaur.

I had to break it to him that there simply weren’t any dinosaurs around anymore, all of them having had the house lights switched off abruptly on them quite some time ago. I remember him being somewhat deflated by this bit of news before asking me if there was ‘a kind of job where people could work with dinosaur bones’ and he beamed like a lighthouse when I told him that yes, there was a job like that and that those scientists actually got to spend all their time doing that very thing. What a happy coincidence.

Since then he’s told anyone that will listen about his plans to become a paleontologist, a word by the way that he has only recently started to get his tongue around properly.

Now I know the guy with the whip and the hat is not a paleontologist, but can you imagine how enamoured my boy will be when I introduce him to Indiana Jones…I dig it.


The legoland paradox

Legoland in Windsor in the United Kingdom is the very definition of a paradox. On the one hand it is a vast spectacle of entertainment for children with more attractions than one can visit in a single day which means it is the perfect place to take children. However on the other hand it is one of those places you’ll probably wish never existed once you get there.

It’s all about scale, the place is simply too vast.

That said, there are many places where you take your children to be entertained that are simply not big enough. The play areas at McDonalds or Spur or Panarottis are good examples of these. The children are often bored within the amount of time it takes for your food to arrive. Then you’re stuck with grumpy children straight out of a cartoon that have already eaten the three bytes of their meal quota are are no longer interested in food, the play room or sitting on the seat while you wolf down your plate of food (which let’s face it, isn’t gourmet quality).

Then there are places that are just right in terms of scale; for instance an open air park with trees and swings and slides and see-saws and the like all around where you can see for half a kilometer in any direction. These places are large enough for children to run about in, burning off that seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy they seem to be able to dip into on demand all day long, yet are still small enough to allow parents to sit down and monitor the safety of their offspring from just about any vantage point. These places are good. Even better if a picnic is on the cards and it’s a warm summers day.

Then there are places like Legoland that, quite frankly, fall into the colossal category in terms of size. There are more nooks and crannies in the park than there are moves required to solve a Rubik’s Cube – assuming you don’t know how to solve it that is. For me, the place was a minefield of places to loose a child. I found myself tempted to renege on a promise I made to myself when I had children which was never to put them in one of those child walking reins which turn your toddler or child into a pet being taken for a walk.

Less than an hour into the visit at Legoland and I was ready to gather up my boys and their two cousins and run for the hills. Running after four little guys in that maze of a park was probably all the exercise I’ll need for the balance of the year (ok so not really but it definitely felt that way at the time). My sister and I were literally herding cats all day long. We persevered though and tried to contain the little guys in the playground area where all manner of wooden climbing apparatus was housed. Everything from fire engines and castles to pirate ships and monkey bars were on offer in this semi-enclosed space. One would think this was the perfect place then, but no, all four children immediately split up and disappeared into the woodwork…literally. Then as if by two way radio, they co-ordinated their efforts to stay hidden and keep us guessing at their whereabouts by continuously hopping from one wooden apparatus to another. Effectively playing an incredibly frustrating game of hide and seek that started afresh every ten seconds or so. It was like trying to watch an ant farm and then keep your eye on four specific ants that looked like all the others darting in and out of view.

That aside, the place is probably the single most enjoyable place my children have ever been. They could not believe their good fortune when we stepped onto the Lego train at the park entrance and trundled down into the park. Suffice to say, my sister and I were the best parents in all of creation that day.

Next time though I think I’ll take my kids for a long walk…on a leash.

The Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace was the stomping ground of King Henry VIII. This was the charming fellow with the penchant for beheading his wives. I am fairly confidant that he was a serial killer who, in this odd version of the universe, found himself on the throne and acted out his bloodlust with all the impunity that his office afforded him. I’m not British, so I think I can say that without finding myself in shackles for dissing a king, but I suspect my next visa application might get turned down if the British High commission ever happens across this blog.

Hampton Court is, by definition, a palace and as such was one of the first places we visited when we arrived in London because really the only thing that boys my sons ages are interested in are knights, dragons and cars and all that goes with those things. So a visit to a castle was a foregone conclusion. It matters not a whit that there were no dragons in residence on the day we were there, the fact is that there was a castle (palace vs. castle is a difficult distinction to make to a child) and that means there was a chance, however slight, of seeing a knight or dragon or indeed a king. If I’m honest, I may have planted a seed or two about the possibility of seeing one of the aforementioned draw cards. So a little bit of a parenting fail there if we’re keeping score.

The palace grounds were enormous and stretched out in all directions with manicured lawns and sculpted trees and bushes along meandering pathways. There were however plenty of no-go areas, specifically no stomping around in the flower beds or walking on the grass except for the ‘front garden’. There were also plenty of areas cordoned off by the impenetrable and ubiquitous rope. A device which only works on people old enough to understand it means no entry as opposed to the far more obvious purpose which is to gauge your skill at the limbo or to grab hold of and swing about wildly. My boys paid the formal use of these impenetrable barriers no mind whatsoever. My afternoon was spent running after the little guys in many of the no-go areas and at the same time constantly telling them to use ‘inside voices’, also not a very successful undertaking.

Later that day, the temperature dropped by half and it began to rain and, at one point, sleet. My boys having just come from a Southern Hemisphere summer climate were all at once blue lipped and chattered teeth. Their acclimatized cousins, who were old hands at the Palace, seemed a little bemused by the hardy Africans quivering in the biting cold.

One day I’ll be able to show my boys pictures of themselves sitting in grand fireplaces, lying in their backs in the main courtyard and running wild down an ivy covered tunnel, not to mention standing in a four-hundred odd year old doorway in the freezing cold and rain completely oblivious to the history and opulence of their surroundings.

Perhaps the pictures I took will encourage them to make the journey again under their own steam and soak up a bit of the story behind the palace (sans knights and dragons) and possibly even take their old fart parents with them.

The four by four

Getting out and about in London with four cousins aged six, four, three and two is a difficult proposition. They’re all boys too which adds an element of unpredictability and energy sapping micro management to the mix.

Herewith the detail.

We had a double stroller to get around with, not a side by side contraption mind you but one of those fancy upper and lower ones which was really quite compact for the job it did. We also had a single stroller, which was a problem in that two adults with four children and enough strollers for three of them is just bad math. Especially if all of them decided they wanted to ‘walk’ at the same time (picture what that scene would look like). So for the most part we just used the double buggy. This however was not really the most equitable little people carrier since at any given time there were at least three children that wanted to, or indeed needed to, ride in the stroller. Sometimes all four. Juggling the boys in and out of the stroller became something akin to a circus act.

The youngest of the four boys was the only one that really needed the seat, but he was the least inclined to ride in it. It took as much dexterity and will to get him into the seat as one would imagine it would take to nail a handful of custard to a tree. Then, keeping him in the seat required one to turn the volume down on the internal hearing aid for a time. Tears, wails of woe and pity, loud complaint and so on would erupt from the buggy for anywhere between five and twenty five minutes. You see, once he was in place, a battle of wills would begin where he tried to sway the argument his way to get out and I tried to sway it my way for him to stay put.

I think in the end we broke even over the course of the two and a half weeks however, it felt feel like he won more often than I did. Much, much more often.

Then there were the times where two, sometimes three, of the boys wanted to get into the one available seat in the stroller at the same time. It was like watching a prolonged game of musical chairs played out on the tubes and streets of London. If the occupant lifted his bottom out of the chair, the vacuum left behind him would immediately draw another boy into the space faster than the speed of sound. I say that because whoever happened to be displaced by this maneuver would begin to wail a nanosecond after the new bottom made contact with the seat. Almost like the sound was catching up with the event. It really was a Sophie’s choice for the boy in the hot seat though. Sitting there meant the view of things going on around them was limited, but even so much as lifting a cheek off the chair to get a better view of the sights would result in the coronation of a new king of the chair.

There were countless debates and negotiations for the crown to be passed willingly among the princes. I often caught myself looking in on those confrontations like a spectator and really, an adult stooping down to a child in a stroller to negotiate him out while his successor waited eagerly on the sidelines hopping on tired little feet like he needed to pee, looked like a scene from any one of a dozen Hollywood movies about a family with umpteen children.

In the end though we managed. But what I guess I’m saying is that we probably needed something along the lines of the buggy below. Everyone strapped in upon leaving the house with no parole for anyone at any time. That said however, getting up and down stairs at some of the tube stations without lifts would have shaved years off my life. As it is, I need a new pair of shoes.

The Big Ben

To paraphrase The Cousin a little, the reason that the levels of gun crime in the United Kingdom are so low compared to other countries in the West is because it is quite difficult to hold and fire a gun when you’re wearing mittens. By that I mean, of course, that England is cold.

In point of fact a sunny day there would be reason enough to wear winter garb in just about any country in the Southern Hemisphere. I was fortunate enough to spend some time there recently and with the boys in tow, I wore an inch off my shoes pushing strollers around the city and surrounds and running after the little guys. For the most part the weather was cool and overcast but not apocalyptically wet with rain and storms. I was quite fortunate to be spared that given that the weeks leading up to my arrival had been somewhat Noah and the Ark-ish.

That said, the boys and I were also treated to one of the finest days, weather wise, that anyone could hope for on Saturday March 29th 2014. The British Sky was a deep, clear blue. A strange object appeared in the East that day that had most of the nation in a panic for two reasons. The first was what exactly is that? It was the sun. The second was where are my summer clothes? In a chest in the roof feeding fat moths.

That day, I stepped out into what can only be described as a country full of creatures that were breaking out of their cocoons in desperate need of vitamin D. Every single Londoner was outside, walking in the parks, in the streets, along the banks of the river Thames and basking in the glorious sunshine they had not seen since some time in the last quarter of 2013.

In Africa, the day probably would have gone uncelebrated because virtually every day is like that one was. The Londoners were all quite giddy about it though and that rubbed off a little on us too. I herded the little guys down through the warren of tubes full of loud chatter and excited Brits not quite ready to shed their winter coats, but wearing strappy-tops and t-shirts just the same. Stepping out into the sunshine at the London Eye and seeing thousands of people milling about, sitting on the lawns and elbowing their way through themselves was really quite exciting.

The boys were taken by the Big Wheel but the star of the show was Ben. Ben the bell. It was all very confusing for them at first given that Big Ben is just the bell inside the Clock Tower in the city of Westminster. So instead of trying to explain, I picked a spot on Westminster Bridge and waited for Ben to identify himself. At Ten AM (sharp) Ben the bell played out a short ditty that anyone who hears it will immediately recognize as the quintessential bell ditty, followed by ten loud, clear and measured rings. London and all of its denizens seemed to take a breath. My boys won’t remember the day but I have pictures and I’ll be able to play them the sound Ben made as we posed in front of him and perhaps when they’re older they’ll be able to go back and make longer lasting memories they can carry with them (hopefully it’s when they’re old enough to pay their own way). For me though, it was a perfect moment.

After that, the excitement of Ben was almost immediately supplanted by the excitement of an ice cream in a cone. Ice cream eaten on the green grass in St. James park amongst the bare trees on a warm sunny day in London.