Forget Buckingham Palace, Oxford Street and the Tower of London. If you want to begin to get under the skin of one of the world’s most diverse and enigmatic cities, these are the things to do. Hello secret London. They may not be as well-known as the usual tourist hotspots but they are unmissable in their own right. This collection of alternative trips takes in contemporary and ancient London, urban grit and rural bliss, and covers the far fringes of the south to the realms of the north, with a good nosy into the east and west too.
Set in 200 acres of peaceful ancient woodland, Toy’s Hill is a idyllic place to come for a short walk. The area forms part of the Lower Greensand Ridge and is the highest point of the Kent Downs, meaning glorious, rewarding views can be found across the Weald of Kent.
There are a few different options walk wise ranging from a half a mile pushchair-friendly option to 6 miles of tramping through Chartwell country. The pushchair route is a nice half hour amble. There is a good viewpoint at the site of the old Weardale Manor plus a couple of dens for the kids to explore.
The 145 room Weadale Manor site is fascinating. All that is left now is the line of one wall but you can imagine how stately it would have been in its time. It was built in 1906 by Lord Weardale, a former MP and opposer of war and suffrage. After his death in 1923 his wife rarely visited, preferring to stay up in London. After her death in 1934 it fell into a state of disrepair and was demolished in 1939. Just 33 years of use.
The natural landscape has also been influenced by history. The old economy at Toy’s Hill was based upon charcoal burning, churtstone quarrying and livestock, and its mark can still be seen on walks here. Charcoal pits and quarries can be found and many of the ancient trees have been pollarded, which was done for grazing purposes.
Toy’s Hill contains plenty of nature for little ones to spot including bats, dormice, grass snakes, woodpeckers, bluebells, stag beetles and marigolds.
So long summer! You left so soon, like an affronted guest forced to sit next to boring uncle Albert at the wedding party.
But while you partied, we joined in. Though we nearly forgot. This trip down to the beach, and our first and only, took place a couple of weeks ago, just as we realised your swan song was near.
Littlehampton appears to be one of the nearest sandy beaches to where I live, hence the visit there. Freddie has not been to a sandy beach before. He took a while to warm up, unsure of what on earth seaweed was, and what this strange yellowy squishy stuff was beneath his feet. But then he loved it. He became more adventurous in the water too, going deeper into the waves then rushing back as the water came in – lovely to watch.
Unfortunately Littlehampton doesn’t have much else going for it other than it’s beautiful beach. An air of provincial despair seems to hang around the town, and even blows down to the seafront at times.
A small motor railway trundles up and down the seafront carrying miserable-looking grandparents and toddlers. I was probably that miserable-looking mother that they talked about when they got home and bitched about their day.
I lie. One other saviour of Littlehampton is the East Beach Cafe, a piece of architectural delight. Freddie and I sat outside with a plate of chips fending off seagulls and watching the sea. East Beach Cafe was designed and built locally. All the food is local. However it feels like a beached whale here – it should be happier somewhere like Cape Cod or Newquay. Sorry Littlehampton.
Summers are for the beach, but next year we’ll be partying at some other seaside.
Greenwich is a town that doesn’t like to think it’s in London. It is a place in its own right. It has a university, the river, a park, the navel college, the observatory, shops, the arena, the maritime museum, a ship, and even a foot tunnel and fan museum. It’s the centre of the world! Literally.
There is too much to fit everything into one day. If you have children, the park is obviously going to be a hit. Greenwich Park, one of the capital’s eight Royal Parks, dates back to Roman times but will be encapsulated in younger people’s hearts as that view from the behind of a horse’s rump as he jumps through a moon towards the Canary Wharf during the 2012 Olympics.
Even on a non Olympic day the views are outstanding. From the mighty HSBC tower over to St Paul’s with the Queen’s House and the Thames holding fort, it’s one for all to enjoy.
Other than the view, the Park has lots to offer. There’s the observatory of course, but also it’s home to both red and fallow deer plus there are lots of different “types” of parkland to explore – including a fruit and vegetable section, formal gardens, more wild areas and acres of pure grassland for the kids to run around in. Greenwich Park is 180 acres so there is plenty of space but not so much that you couldn’t explore all of it. The borough also kindly puts on family friendly activities like minibeast hunts or a Sunday afternoon jazz concert.
We chose to go to the National Maritime Museum as well. Maybe we went on a bad day twice, but I wouldn’t recommend the cafe there. It is so busy and crowded. Be savvy and go somewhere Greenwich central instead, or take a picnic to the park before you visit the museum.
After our miserable lunch we mooched around the museum showing Freddie lots of things he found interesting, though at 10 months old anything is pretty interesting really. I love this age. Not mobile usually, and pretty content to be taken to most places, with not so much effort to put in with naps and milk and what not. Freddie loved the open plan first floor most of all, which has a huge world map pasted onto the floor. Also this fab children’s gallery is now open, which looks great fun, and it markets it for 0-7 year olds so babies should have a good time too.
Greenwich is really easy to get to. It’s on the tube (Jubilee to North Greenwich then a bus), DLR (Cutty Sark) and overground from London Bridge. We drove from our house and parked in a car park in the centre (easy early am but does get busy later on). Parking is also available in the park.
Though we didn’t have time, other family-friendly things to do in Greenwich include under 5s activities on the Cutty Sark (free for littlys too), a planeterium show for children at the observatory, Mudchute city farm (a bit of a walk under the foot tunnel mind) and a trip on the cable car
Who needs the rest of London when Greenwich has all this. It really is the centre of everything.
Who needs soft play?
Box Hill isn’t all bikes and lycra you know. It has an amazing natural play trail that follows two mile’s worth of wooded path. At the beginning there’s a natural play area with carved out trees to run through and wooden boulders to climb. Further on, there are dens made out of branches to explore and build up further, and a wooden bridge to clamber across. Finish up with a play and a picnic in the meadow that overlooks the view of the surrounding countryside.
Even without all the magic wooded play stuff created by the National Trust, woods are ace for kids (and even babies) to play in and explore. Freddie was as absorbed in stacked stones as he ever is in lego, and as happy collecting and sorting sticks as he would be in plastic stacking cups.
And Box Hill also has loads of meadow space to have a picnic and let kids run wild a bit. There’s a handy car park at the top of zig zag road (love that name) with a cafe, shop and toilets.
Freddie and I have visited Box Hill a lot since we moved out to the Surrey Hills. I like the buzz around it. I don’t know if it was so popular before the 2012 Olympics but it’s always busy now, and there are always lots of MAMILs (middle aged men in lycra) about as well as the usual National Trust suspects (read many families and larger percentage of grey-haired folk) so it’s a lively mix of people. I like going as it reminds me a bit of being in London. That sounds silly but it’s the vibe about the place. It’s full of promise, and feels like a place where things happen, even though it’s deep in the countryside. If I’m feeling a bit lonely I like coming here as you always end up having a chat with a friendly dog walker or mother. Nothing being than a walk in the woods, admiring the view and settling down for a cup of tea and a bit of cake to raise the soul.
Richmond Park is pretty much up there as one of my favourite places of all time. I used to come here in my young, free and single days to do loops of the park (I’m an avid runner). Over the years I’ve spotted a celeb or two here too – Nell McAndrew, Andrew Marr, Ben Shepherd plus many gazelle-like Kenyan athletes effortlessly bounding past me. I’ve got so many lovely memories of the park – all linked to running – so when I was first able to come back here with Freddie I was in my element.I wasn’t in a very good place when Freddie was young. I missed London. I missed my freedom and I missed running. We moved out of London just before Freddie was born. In hindsight that was a mistake. I found having a baby almost too overwhelming at times. I felt like I had been hit by a truck but had to carry on as normal as there was no alternative. I don’t think I was suffering from post natal depression but I wasn’t far off it. Some people find the newborn months an absolute breeze. I hated them. I loved Freddie. I just felt completely out of my depth and panicked. That combined with living in a strange, unknown place made for a horrible time, when I happily thought a few months before, it was going to be the best of my life. Just goes to show things are never what you seem. Anyway, getting out of the house on a daily basis was essential for me to maintain any level of sanity on maternity leave. Even better if it was to one of my all time favourite places.
We bought a running buggy when Freddie was four months old. Richmond Park is an ideal spot to go running with a buggy as there is offroad gravelly trail all the way around the edge of the park. Plus there are toilets and cafes en route so it’s a lovely way to spend a few hours with a baby out in the greenery but with facilities to hand. It’s really easy to park there on a weekday, and it’s free too! I felt so free again being able to go running in Richmond Park, but with Freddie. I guess one of the hardest things I found about the newborn stage is that you are a little like a prisoner. You are tied to this vulnerable person 24/7. They need you on call day and night. I think I went for a very short jog around six weeks after Freddie arrived, but didn’t really manage much till he was around four months old. You are tired, your pelvic floor muscles aren’t what they were, you have no time to go to the loo or drink a cup of tea, let alone go for a run! Which made this trip all the more exciting as I felt like the old me again, just with my new best friend and sidekick tagging along!
The Science Museum is BRILLIANT!! Come on – you all remember it as a kid. Yes, it’s still great. Even when you are 14 months old. Freddie told me so. There is so much to do, and there is even stuff for younger mini mes to do – not that they need it. Freddie found everything mega exciting. I’ve never seen him so en rapt.
Best to get there early doors. It does get busy (though if you go on a weekday even better, we went on a Saturday). We had no plan other than to let Fredide wander about on his new-found feet, and to hunt down the areas which he might find more interesting.
The Science Museum, like most museums in London, is so well geared up for families. There are baby changing facilities on every floor, family rooms if you want to breastfeed in private and spacious cafes to park buggies in. It’s so so good to have somewhere like this to go to when it’s raining!
Freddie enjoyed charging around most of all, but other areas he particularly enjoyed included the garden in the basement, and the pattern pod on the ground floor. The pattern pod contains all sorts of cool things to look at and touch including sensory light shows and water ripples and fish on the floor that move when you sit on them.
The other area which caters well for younger visitors is the Launchpad which explores physics (shhh don’t tell them!) in a fun hands on way. Even I enjoyed it.
When you’ve had enough, wander over to Hyde Park for a cup of tea and sit by the Serpentine.
Staffhurst Woods, near Oxted Surrey, is managed by the Woodland Trust. The best time of year to visit is April/May as the ground is transformed into a carpet of bluebells. However it’s good any time of year (bar mid winter) as the paths are wide and accessible enough for a buggy.
I’m always trying to find places to go and walk around that are doable with a pushchair. It’s not straightforward as there is no one place to go for reference. A lot of footpaths are accessible but you don’t know till you get there.Generally cycle paths, byways and bridle ways are ok but they often traverse roads too. Doing a search for disused railway paths often brings up other ideas of places to stroll safely. I’ve also found these websites helpful when browsing for accessible places to walk.
Anyway, I take the little guy for a walk in Staffhurst Woods on a regular basis. In the early days it was for me – I needed to get out of the house during mat leave otherwise I would have gone mad. And there is something about woodland (and heathland and the coast!) that really settles my soul and makes me feel more at ease and content.
As my son gets older it’s more to give him a change of scene. He loves woodland. He likes looking at all the leaves. And now he’s walking there is a whole new dimension. I can put him on the ground and let him explore for himself.