Christmas in London? Jolly good

London's Natural History Museum in London has a dinosaur exhibit that the writer's youngsters enjoyed.
(David Iliff)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

For years, my husband and I had wanted to take our children to London before the magic of “Peter Pan” and “Mary Poppins” wore off, before the older two became too jaded for the Changing of the Guard and double-decker buses, before they would rather hang out with their friends than go anywhere with their family. But the pound, at $2 a pop, was just too strong.

Then last year the pound fell, our frequent-flier miles covered three of our five tickets, and we could proudly announce to our kids that we were going to London for Christmas. We had been assured by friends who lived here that the holidays were celebrated with carnivals, choirs and general public splendor.

“Great,” said the older two. “But no museums.”

I paused — look at any list of the top 10 places to visit in London, and seven of them are museums — but did not founder.

“Define ‘museum,’” I asked.

After much conversation, it boiled down to paintings. Danny, 11, and Fiona, 9, didn’t want to spend their Christmas vacation staring at pictures of flowers, angels, half-naked women and old dead guys. (Darby, 3, had no opinion on the matter.) Fine, I said. I needed to see only the Impressionists at the National Gallery and the Pre-Raphaelites at the Tate Britain, take one quick tour of the Tate Modern, and we could leave the rest of the paintings to their father and his sister Kay, who was going with us.


So how hilarious was it that our first official stop on our first day was a museum? We were on our way to the Winter Wonderland carnival in Hyde Park, which I hoped would keep the kids awake and moving long enough to approximate local time. We had landed at Heathrow at 2 p.m., arrived at our fabulous and spacious three-bedroom flat at the Mansions in South Kensington at 3, unpacked and done a little grocery shopping and were headed out into the wintery dusk by 4:30. December evenings fall fast and early in London, and by the time we hit the Natural History Museum, it was dark. A carousel and ice skating rink bloomed in its front courtyard, but the museum was open for 45 more minutes and my SoCal kids were cold, so in we went to visit what may be the most fabulous dinosaur exhibit “ever in the whole wide world.” (Direct quote attributable to Danny, and if you can move an 11-year-old boy to such rapture after 18 hours of travel, you’re doing something right.) Not only did it include moving, roaring dinos, but we also viewed them from above, on a catwalk that was thrilling in and of itself.

Did I mention it was free? London is not cheap, but staying in an apartment, which we found through, not only means more room for less money, but it also saves on restaurant bills. An Oyster card makes public transit a bargain (kids younger than 11 ride gratis), and most of the museums are free. If the kids get bored and hungry or hot and tired, you don’t have to hiss threats or bribes because you just spent $100 to get the whole family into this place. You can just leave and come back another time.

As it turned out, the kids usually didn’t want to leave; they loved all the museums, especially the Victoria and Albert, the Science Museum, the Military Museum (right across the street from Oscar Wilde’s house), the Tower of London and Hampton Court. (The two last are not free.) We visited the Imperial War Museum, housed in what was once Bedlam, three times.

But it was London itself that made this the kids’ Favorite Trip Ever. From the fragrant tree in the lobby of the Mansions to the fabulous windows of Selfridges, Harrods and Fortnum & Mason, if there is a more Christmasy place in the world, it must be at the North Pole.

Besides the Natural History Museum and the Winter Wonderland, ice-skating rinks beckoned in front of the Tower of London, Hampton Court and at Somerset House, where we skated amid trees and decorations provided by Tiffany & Co. early one Monday morning, because on Mondays, the jewel box of a museum is free. Carousels and mini-carnivals lighted up the already illuminated Leicester Square and the area around the London Eye; when night fell, Oxford Street, Bond Street, Sloan Square and King’s Road were haloed and looped with lights, from fairy lights twinkling in the miniature fir trees that “grew” atop the street lamps to snowflake-shaped globes hung from the bare limbs of trees growing in the many small parks.

Everywhere we looked, the city seemed determined to embody hustle and bustle. Were the Harrods food halls crowded? Yes, but how fun to shoulder our way through to the ice cream fountain or to buy shepherd’s pie. Or to hang over the rail at Covent Garden and watch the string quartet play carols. For Angelenos, accustomed to the isolation of the freeway and the parking lot, human contact, especially the holiday shopping kind, was exhilarating. And the crowds weren’t ubiquitous — strolls through Mayfair, Soho, the City and along the Queen’s Walk could be taken on empty sidewalks.

Especially on Christmas Day. We had been worried about Christmas proper; everyone we talked with told us that everything, as in Every Single Thing, shuts down in London on the 25th, including the transit systems, and that a cab, should you find one, could cost double or triple the normal rate. The one thing advertised as a Christmas activity was a Dickens’ walk that started in Trafalgar Square. So after presents, chocolate and a big breakfast (our friends found that the two-hour wait for the Christmas Eve service at St. Paul’s was very much worth it, but we were daunted and chose a lovely local children’s service instead), we bundled up and started out.

The streets were indeed silent and shuttered and rather wonderful. Taking side streets, I managed to get us lost, which turned out to be a boon because we wound up near Victoria station and possibly the only open Pret A Manger in town. We loaded up on sandwiches and chips — oops, sorry, crisps — consulted the map, and got back on track. By the time we passed Buckingham Palace and St. James’ Park, we were part of a small crowd, the tourists of London. In Trafalgar Square, it was clear the popular Dickens’ tour was not for us — the kids were more interested in feeding the ducks at the park. After eating our picnic lunch alongside the iconic lions at the base of Nelson’s Column, dawdling through St. James and feeding an alarming variety of waterfowl, we made our way to the Wellington Arch, where we found a taxi almost at once. And the driver charged only 2 pounds extra for a Christmas fare.

The next day was Boxing Day, when some stores remained closed and others had huge sales. We headed for the amazing Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground, where all three kids played for hours, then we walked through Kensington Gardens, gone gray, green and golden in the slanting winter sunlight, feeling the city all around us, rousing itself from its holiday and preparing to hustle and bustle once more.