Usually you’ll find me gleefully immersed in a landscape of swooping meadowy wolds, rapt by the soaring song of a skylark, or longing for salty sand beneath my feet. But every so often I am pulled back to the clatter and scream of the underground, the hard edges of shiny skyscrapers, and the pacy throb of a city street. London calls, and when my children, who share this city romance, petitioned me to take them there during Half Term, I needed no power-point presentations or shoulder-massage bribery. My husband on the other hand, having reached his tolerance level for the capital years ago, is, like a true Yorkshireman, repelled by the surly underground staff, the exorbitant prices and the ‘foreigners’, so he happily opted to stay at home and keep the dog company.
Trying to conceal our relief at being spared Danny’s inevitable hyper vigilant body-guard behaviour on the tube, and the exaggerated eyebrow raises at the bill for every small repast, we fondly waved goodbye to him and Badger from the departing 08:46 Hull Train from Howden Station; a glittering world of metropolitan adventure ahead of us.
Yorkshire seems worlds away from the Capital, but with a Friends & Family Rail Card, affording us bargain fares, (£98.30 return; the only down side is you have to bring a child) and a comfortable, reliable two hour connection, London has never felt so close. The fact that these days, my two are content to plug in earbuds and zone out for most of the journey also allows for the much sought after, and rarely found in motherhood, luxury of gazing at the passing scenery and reading a good book. (Although Rose still likes to prevail upon me for a few rounds of hangman and some noughts & crosses for old times sake, which I secretly cherish)
I had booked us one night in our usual ‘Sleepy Moon’ hotel on St Mary at Hill, in a quiet district just behind the old Billingsgate Fish Market, and a stones-throw from Monument Tube Station. Premier Inn has been our budget accommodation of choice since the children were born, and little details, like being allowed to eat their body weight in chocolate chip muffins and mini jars of honey for breakfast, for free, has them filled with breathless anticipation. At this particular hotel we enjoy the curious London contrast between a brutal concrete facade on one side, and sumptuous Georgian architecture, in this case the Worshipful Company Of Watermen and Lightermen, embellished with writhing stone sea creatures, on the other. These peculiar architectural juxtapositions come courtesy of the Luftwaffe.
But before checking in we made our way first to The Shard for our pre-booked 12.30pm visit to the top of it’s dizzying pinnacle. (We each carried a small one-night city survival kit rucksack on our backs making it easy to commence our exploration without need of a left luggage queue. Cunning eh?) Fortified by a quick detour to a subterranean Itsu near London Bridge, where we enjoyed delicious bento boxes of fresh sushi, dreaming of our fantasy visit to the ultimate metropolis; Tokyo, we joined a snaking but fast-paced queue at ‘ground zero’. Taking after my dear anxious mother, I took a moment to internally suppress creeping thoughts of imminent jihadi activity. It felt like a first class departure lounge inside, we passed through stringent security and were ushered through sliding doors into an illuminated steel box which propelled us at warp speed to the 33rd floor. Our fellow passengers were subdued, perhaps with regret at the folly of spending £30 on a ride in a lift, but having swapped metal boxes to take the final ascent to the 72nd floor we emerged to our first astonishing glimpse of the 360 degree aerial view. From there we muscled our way past the Moët quaffers, marriage proposals and hilarious screaming women on the VR slide simulator, to climb a further two flights of stairs to the toppermost viewing deck where the wind whistles through the glass ‘shards’ on each side, (the only things preventing me from attempting a euphoric Peter Pan-esque flight across the London skyline). It was literally breathtaking, not for the faint hearted, and even I felt a quiver in my legs as I photographed the teeny red bus in the street far below. You can supposedly see for 40 miles from here, and having cleverly chosen a crystal clear day to test that theory we spent plenty of time just gazing.
To top it off, I got extra value for money when I decided to spend a penny. I hesitated for a moment, feeling rather self conscious on account of the floor to ceiling window in my cubicle, but I took the plunge, dropping my trousers brazenly, and muttering that the glass reflections would protect my modesty. As I turned to flush, there, discreetly positioned was the little button controlling the blind.
Having exposed my arse to the whole of London, I felt a jaunty sense of liberation as we exited the Shard, and stepped out across London Bridge towards our hotel. Without Captain Whelan with us to keep marching time, we were free to luxuriate for a little while in our immaculate room, use our tiny kettle to make a cup of tea, and generally flop about on the beds posting ‘insta’ pics. This sort of activity is frowned upon by Father, especially when I do it. But pretty soon it was the lure of those bustling streets that carried us out in search of adventure.
I had planned to head south and drag the children to The Dulwich Picture House, a place I have never visited before, but in the sunshine it seemed like a shame to board another train, and we elected instead to head for Arthur’s top choice, Tate Modern. We grabbed a giant pretzel at Borough Market and strolled along one of our favourite riverside walks in the city, taking in Southwark Cathedral, the narrow streets of the Old Clink, the Golden Hind and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre before funnelling through another bag-check into the belly of the Bankside behemoth.
Every gallery seethed with bodies, but Arthur begged to be allowed to explore on his own, so we arranged an RV point and lost him to the crowd. Rose and I toured a few interesting collections of sculpture and photography, but mostly this Tate leaves me cold, or at least it would, if it wasn’t always so stiflingly hot. For me, visiting Tate Modern is mostly about the vastness of the Turbine Hall which, on this visit was filled with a kinetic installation by Danish art collective Superflex. Rose and I found a spot on the sloping striped carpet directly beneath a giant mirrored steel globe pendulum and lay down to watch our reflection swing past over and over. Arthur brought us round from our trance and next we waited ages for a go on the tallest three-seater swing, which was swiped each time by people smaller, faster, and neckier than us, so eventually we found it’s equal outside, in the courtyard to the south of the building, in the shadow of the impressive new red brick edifice designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Arthur showed us a jittery Youtube film of some crazy vlogger free-climbing it at night.
As twilight took hold, we promenaded past the giant bubble-maker, and sand sculptures and gazed across at the glittering Thames. We stopped for a quick snifter on the deck of The Founders Arms, ( I was ready for a drink) and the three of us just soaked it all up. In the evening gloom, the skate park, lit up like a psychedelic spray painted fairground, drew us in, but Arthur insisted that it was not cool to stand and watch, so we moved on.
Eventually we drifted into Rose’s favourite, Covent Garden, just in time for a mooch round the antique stalls. We left Arthur briefly catching Pokemon while the two of us slipped into the cosmetic wonderland of KIKO and filled our little baskets with beauty bargains. Then, sauntering along the night-filled back streets and alleyways seeking out an interesting place to have dinner, we eventually settled for the reassuringly straightforward Joe’s Southern & Table Bar where we enjoyed delicious root beer and burgers in a jumping atmosphere of noisy office parties competing for decibels with the juke box. We looked at each other happily, and said, “Daddy would have hated this.” For pudding we ate a tub of Snog from the fragrant frozen yoghurt bar round the corner, and eventually, broken and exhausted, but buzzing, we staggered back to our hotel.
The next day, after the aforementioned obligatory hotel breakfast blow out, we headed for the museum district to see the marvellous Giffords Circus performing a mini pop-up show celebrating 250 years of ‘circus’. But before that we had to negotiate our own human en masse performance, as ten trillion people funnelled into South Kensington tube station. The volume of passengers arriving outweighed the rate of people passing out through the turnstiles, and so, as we neared the top of the escalator there was a comical pile-up of bodies which reminded me of the elephants on parade bumping into each other in The Jungle Book. There was nothing for it but to grab hold of the person in front and say “Sorry! SORRY…Sorry” until we all eventually shuffled out into the underground passageway squeezing like toothpaste. Checking that Rose and Arthur hadn’t been trampled in the stampede, I gathered us up to go in search of breathing space, which we found at last in the serene marble halls and tiled stairwells of the great Victoria and Albert Museum.
Glorious Gifford’s Circus, as ever, resplendent in ostrich feathers, red velvet and fishnets, did not fail to make me feel like an excited little girl again. Rose looked adoringly at the glamourous show-girls, but shyly dropped her gaze when they invited audience participation. Arthur, being a 14 year old boy, was not so much enamoured, but I think deep down, while he glared stubbornly into the screen of his iphone, he enjoyed a sneaky peek at the magnificent Cuban strong man dressed as a Cavalier lifting four children on his shoulders.
Outside once again we looked on as an aching two mile queue of families zig-zagged up and down Exhibition Road. Something exceedingly interesting must have been unveiled at the Science Museum, but we were very grateful to know nothing about it. Instead we were stopped in our tracks by the chilling sight of hundreds of deep fragmentation marks in the stone and brick facade of the V&A; another stark reminder of the Blitz which rather impressed the children having recently been steeped in WW2 history at school.
Next we headed for Bloomsbury in search of The Forbidden Planet. A mecca for hardcore geeks and collectors, this store held the promise of endless ranks of Pop Figures, Batman comics and Harry Potter Ephemera and Arthur’s pace quickened as we closed in on it, but we were momentarily distracted by the sight of a Spaghetti House on Sicilian Avenue. All at once it was lunchtime. Again, we took full advantage of our Dad-free laissez faire and dined unhurriedly on heavenly pasta and fresh green salad. To string out the holiday vibe even further we shared a decadent pudding of ‘Nutella Pizza’; crisp baked pizza dough sliced into strips, laced with honey and sprinkled with toasted pistachios, with a generous pot of Nutella on the side. In our fantasy world Nutella would be free on prescription.
After suffering the geek equivalent of a hypoglaecemic episode in the fabled Forbidden Planet store, Arthur was able to come to his senses just long enough to make a purchase, and we continued our saunter down Neal Street, dipping in and out of boho shops, and admiring mouthwatering merchandising displays safe in the knowledge that we had already blown the modest budget, and there really wasn’t anything else we needed or wanted to buy.
Living as we do in a remote parochial quarter of the land that time forgot, it takes a visit to a big city to open our eyes to the kaleidoscopic multitudinousness of the human race. All the men of Pocklington sport checked shirts, mucky jeans and khaki fleece gilets, (although we do have a couple of disappointingly conservative trannies, for colour) and Pocklington females discreetly dress in White Company, Joules or Barbour with the ubiquitous wooly hat topped with a giant fur pom-pom. But here, the children, wide eyed with wonder, nudge me to observe the lady wearing green yoga Toe Shoes and leg warmers IN PUBLIC, or the young man in a multicoloured fur jacket, cropped jeans and FISHNETS. On the tube, impressive black women on their way to work expertly apply lashings of winged eyeliner, staff at the ticket office have long acrylic nails WITH PIERCINGS, and every possible permutation of bespoke Nike trainer passes under your eyes as you assume the heads-down anonymous stance on the platform. You could walk to work with a flowerpot on your head in London, and no one would bat a Space NK glittered eyelid, and I love that so much.
We sat forlornly under the spectacular fanned matrix ceiling of Kings Cross station and ate Patisserie Valerie macaroons, waiting for our platform to be announced. Arthur asked if we could afford to send him to boarding school in London, Rose still giggled about the boy in fishnets, and at last we boarded our train home to reality, normality and conformity. Until the next time…
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