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Big Ben and small delights

Times Staff Writer

Just days into our long-awaited dream vacation -- a trip to London to show my two children the city where I grew up -- my 6-year-old son was already bored.

We were dashing through the city’s Science Museum, a place I had visited as a child on school trips, and Sam wasn’t impressed.

“I hope we don’t spend our whole day here,” he moaned. My wife, Karen, and I exchanged worried looks.

Sightseeing in a major city is always daunting, and I felt a particular pressure to pack all of my childhood experiences into our first family trip “home.” I wanted Sam and my 9-year-old daughter, Clare, to experience for themselves all the sights they had read about in books and seen in movies: Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London.

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I desperately wanted them to love the city as much as I do. Armed with a list of must-see attractions, we took the underground into London. It was raining, so the museum, a quick walk from South Kensington Tube station, was an easy choice.

Entry to the museum was free, but there were flashy advertisements for a spy exhibit that promised hands-on fun for kids. The $50 exhibit fee for the four of us was sickening, but worth it if it made our kids like London. Clare managed to sustain mild interest, but our son was hopelessly bored. Not having learned our lesson, we threw more money at the problem ($8 on a flight simulator and $14 more for a dinosaur simulator ride) before admitting defeat and heading for the toy wing at Harrods.

As we took the kids across the city over the next few days, my wife and I peppered them with questions meant to reawaken the giddiness they had felt in the months they had waited for this trip.

Their flat responses made us wonder whether we should have waited a year:

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“What do you think?”

“Cool.”

“How is this different from California?”

Shrug.

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This was their big chance to know what being “half English” meant beyond having a dad who talks obsessively about soccer and calls the toilet the “loo.” Clare had told us she wanted to “learn about the English way of life.” Weren’t we living it?

Perhaps they needed more excitement, we thought. How about a bus tour? A river cruise?

We tried to keep their interest by promising treats along the way. So the next few days, we mixed snacks with sights.

Across the street from Big Ben, the kids ate soft-serve ice cream in a cone with a chocolate stick known in England as a “99" stuck in it -- a childhood favorite of mine. They drank freshly squeezed orange juice on a ferry up the Thames, but complained all the way about the sun in their eyes.

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It was clear that more than one day at a time of concentrated sightseeing was becoming torture. Their brains would not soak up the architecture and ambience as we had hoped. (“Do you see that building?” “Yeah.” “It’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was designed by Christopher Wren and it’s been standing here for 300 years.” Yawn.)

It was time for Buckingham Palace, which meant chocolate muffins from a kiosk across the street in St. James’ Park.

And then a strange thing happened.

The kids appeared to be enjoying themselves.

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Clare savored her muffin, watching late-afternoon commuters amble through the park. Sam ran between London plane trees. The trees cast shadows over the pathways and a breeze cooled us as we lolled in the shade. This seemed far more like the London that Londoners experience.

Karen and I agreed that we needed to allow more time to let the kids act like kids. So we retreated to my parents’ house in a suburb of north London, the same home where I grew up.

The children and I scrambled up the stairs to find all of my old toys crammed into boxes and shelves, just where I had left them. We marched down triumphantly with cricket equipment and rugby and soccer balls. The kids were smiling.

The next day was mercifully sunny, so I took them for a familiar walk to a massive park where I had played as a child. I taught the kids how to hold a cricket bat and pass a rugby ball, just as my dad had done with me.

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“You’re pretty good, for an American,” a boy told Sam as they kicked the soccer ball around during a pickup game. Ecstatic, Sam bounded over to tell me about his first cultural exchange.

ROOM TO SPRAWL

English suburban dwellers have long held to the idea that their backyards are part of an idyllic countryside within striking distance of the city’s hubbub. In fact, London’s suburbs have plenty of urban problems, from crime to traffic. But there are still huge areas of beautiful park space where children can forget that they are playing in one of the world’s most bustling cities.

With plenty of hotels, the suburbs also make a convenient base for travel, as long as you are close to a bus stop and underground station. The outskirts of London are an easy train ride to the city, but there’s also a lot to do nearby.

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Waterlow Park, a short bus ride from Archway station, was bequeathed to the public in 1889 as “a garden for the gardenless.” It includes a stately house that overlooks ponds, a young children’s playground and tree-lined walkways dotted with colorful flower beds.

Nearby Hampstead Heath, a short but steep walk from Hampstead Tube station, offers nearly 800 acres of wildflowers, ponds and ancient woodland. Its southern section, Parliament Hill, has a playground, tennis courts, an open-air swimming pool and a sprawling, grassy area for ball games.

One glorious late-spring afternoon, we climbed Parliament Hill. At the top was a dazzling view of the city’s skyline. Clare gazed down the other side toward a slope covered in buttercups. “Oh, Mama, I love it!” she said before she galloped down, arms outstretched like Julie Andrews singing “The hills are alive. . . . “

The four of us investigated some picturesque ponds at the base of the valley, and Clare and Karen decided to trek further. I stayed behind with Sam, watching him roll down the hill again and again until he felt sick.

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Our daughter was inspired to walk more than a mile to the other side of the heath where Kenwood House, an 18th century mansion turned art gallery, sits on manicured grounds with a cafe, kitchen garden, gift shop and more panoramic views of London. The directions weren’t clearly marked, but folks pushing strollers through meadows and forests or jogging alongside muddy, excited dogs were happy to point the way.

Kenwood was definitely worth more than one trip. During one of our visits, we spotted bunnies hopping on a lawn surrounded by blooming rhododendrons, and Sam pointed out green parrots flying between the trees.

At one of the park’s ponds, Clare and Sam tiptoed close to cygnets with adult swans behind a fence. “They’re adorable,” Clare cooed. At the Kenwood gift shop, Sam bought a toy chain-mail vest and spent the rest of the vacation running around as a medieval knight.

Suddenly, London was the magical place I so badly wanted my children to see.

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THE TOWER AND THE CLINK

On a rainy day, the kids and I headed on a 10-minute walk to East Finchley to visit the historic Phoenix Cinema, a movie theater built in 1910. The cinema puts on a children’s matinee at noon every Saturday. We arrived in time to see “Chicken Little.”

As the days rolled by, we ventured back into the city but kept our visits short. The kids were thrilled with the street performers in Covent Garden juggling balls on 8-foot-high unicycles. Sam was even part of the act when a Charlie Chaplin impersonator plucked him from the crowd.

The Clink Museum, on the south bank of the Thames near London Bridge Tube station, inspired some of the kids’ most animated stories, and a few nightmares. The museum sits on the site of the original Clink Prison, home to debtors, prostitutes, priests and political prisoners during the Middle Ages and beyond. Clare and Sam posed with a torture chair and practiced lopping off my head with the museum’s foam ax and wooden block.

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Of course, the kids wouldn’t have missed the Tower of London, the city’s medieval fortress and royal home, conveniently located near an ice cream stand. Inside the stone walls, a Beefeater regaled them with tales of murder and executions.

“If we stay here much longer, I think I’m going to throw up,” Clare said after one story about a beheading gone awry.

“Can we see the ax?” Sam asked.

But in the late afternoons, the kids invariably asked when they were going “home.” By now, they didn’t mean L.A.

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As our departure drew closer, the children were so upset about leaving they couldn’t sleep. My wife tried to staunch the tears by reminding them of their friends and beloved beds waiting for them at home. But they couldn’t be consoled. They said they wanted to stay. They already felt at home.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Planning this trip

THE BEST WAY

From LAX, Air New Zealand, American, British, United and Virgin Atlantic offer nonstop flights to Heathrow. Continental, American, United and Delta offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $664. Heathrow is an hour’s drive to central London. Taxis are $90 to $100 to central London. Underground trains take about an hour to central London and cost $8.

TELEPHONES

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To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code) and 44 (country code for Britain).

GETTING AROUND

Children under 11 travel free on the Underground, or Tube, if accompanied by an adult; children under 16 travel free on buses. See www.tfl.gov.uk for fares and rules. Adult one-day Travelcards allow easy travel on the same ticket for the Tube and buses and start at about $10; Travelcards for children (ages 11 to 15) start at $6.60.

WHERE TO STAY

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County Hall Premier Travel Inn, Belvedere Road, London SE1; 870-238-3300, www.premiertravelinn .com. Great location on the Thames opposite Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Rooms start at $200.

La Gaffe, 107-111 Heath St., Hampstead, London NW3; 207-435-8965, www.lagaffe.co.uk. A family-run hotel with a well-priced Italian restaurant. Rooms are small and families of four will need a triple for about $250 a night.

The Langorf Hotel & Apartments, 20 Frognal, Hampstead, London NW3, 207-794-4483, www.langorfhotel.com. Triple rooms, $240, are best for families; negotiable for longer stays. A 10-minute walk to Hampstead Heath and five minutes to Finchley Road Tube station.

WHERE TO EAT

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Garfunkels, 19 Irving St., London WC2H; 207-930-8087, www.garfunkels .co.uk. A chain of family-friendly eateries with more than a dozen locations in London. Entrees $12 to $30. Kid’s meals $10.

Spaghetti House, 30 St. Martin’s Lane, London WC2N; 207-836-1626, www.spaghetti-house.co.uk. A chain of family-owned Italian restaurants with locations around London. Entrees $12 to $30. Kid’s meal $10; it comes with a children’s activity pack including puzzles and coloring pictures.

ATTRACTIONS

Kenwood House & Gardens, Hampstead Lane, NW3; 208-348-1286, www.english-heritage.org.uk. Children will probably be bored by the house, which includes a collection of paintings by Gainsborough, Rembrandt and Reynolds but will enjoy running and rolling around the sloping, manicured lawns. Entrance to the house and grounds is free.

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Covent Garden, a popular district for tourists and locals in London’s West End; www.covent-garden.co.uk. Children love the street performers, who expect a generous tip. Open daily.

TO LEARN MORE

Seasonal events and other attractions for children can be found at kids.visitlondon.com.


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