In the kids’ minds London is a mythical place where the Queen drives a double decker bus (thanks, Peppa Pig) and Big Ben isn’t shrouded in scaffolding (thanks, people in charge of Big Ben). In my mind it’s a hellhole of potential catastrophe for my Dubai-raised kids who cross roads as frequently as they wear shoes (basically never) and don’t get me started on managing a buggy on the Tube. How? I can barely manage myself on the Tube.
I’ve taken Leo to the UK capital - I’ve got the Hamleys receipts to prove it - a couple of times by herself to watch Matilda and, this summer, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (entirely selfishly motivated, I confess - the theatre, not the Hamleys part). But the boys? Letting four-year-old Fox and two-year-old Kit loose on the capital gives me the fear. I am happiest in a rural setting where the worst they can do is scare the local sheep. However, I wasn’t going to get away with keeping them away from London this year so I tried to plan the most low-stress yet high-impact day possible.
Knowing that kids are incredibly underwhelmed by sight-seeing, yet also wanting them to see some sights (which is kind of the point, no?), I fell into a deep Google hole of researching various bus and boat tours before stumbling on Thames Rockets and its family-friendly Captain Kidd’s Canary Wharf Voyage. These are rides in a 12-seat RIB (rigid-hulled inflatable boat) starting from the London Eye Pier at Waterloo and going down to Canary Wharf and back. It’s a 50-minute boat ride which takes in the Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge and HMS Belfast (plus loads of other stuff that the amazing guide makes sound way more interesting than I ever could). At £44.95 for adults and £29.95 for children it’s not cheap but I figured it’s a one-hit wonder ticking off all the main sights in an incredibly fun experience (bouncing around on a speedboat to the James Bond theme appeals waaaaay more than trundling round in the London Eye). You get to skip merrily past the hordes of people at the foot of the Eye and walk straight on to the boat (the benefit of this becomes apparent when you see the massive queues for the wheel) and lifejackets are provided (plus wet weather gear in winter). There are no seatbelts on the boats and the crew were chilled about four-year-old Fox asserting his independence by insisting on sitting by himself (they even accommodate babies, which is pretty punchy given how high octane the ride is). This is despite the boat hurtling down the Thames and taking turns at what feels like 90 degree tilts (I asked them, and no one has gone over yet - something about the boat being so low to the water that it feels faster than it actually is and you basically can’t fall out, although there’s always a first and I was mildly concerned it was going to be Fox).
The first half of the ride is a leisurely cruise down the river with your guide making wisecracks along the way, while still managing to impart the odd fact (thanks Bill, you were great). The second half is where it really gets fun and the captain cranks the throttle (thanks Howard, please can I have your job?). To a soundtrack of cheesy tunes and the Bond guitar riff you speed down the Thames, making perilous twists and turns along the way. It’s really, really, really fun and I say that as a fully fledged adrenaline junkie. If we had more time I’d have gone again - the company also operates an adult-only evening experience, which sounds all kinds of awesome (there are cocktails).
As we’d booked a cheap train to London from the South coast, getting in at 10am and leaving at 3.45pm, I decided to head straight to Kensington Gardens in the morning so the kids could play at the Princess Diana Memorial Playground before crossing over The Serpentine to Hyde Park to splash in the Diana Memorial Fountain. There’s a cafe serving kid-friendly pizza at the Playground, where we got lunch (you can also check out the - slightly freaky if you ask me - Elfin Oak). Bear in mind the walk from the Playground to the Fountain is 16 minutes for adults and twice that for dawdling kids (we stopped for pics at the Peter Pan Statue en route). With hindsight I should have factored in more time at the Fountain, which is powered by a not-insignificant current, making it super-fun. We had a tight 45 minutes at the Fountain before legging it to Waterloo for the boat ride; I wish we’d allowed longer.
Verdict: I have all the love for the Diana Memorial Fountain and the Thames Rockets ride. The kids had fun, got to play outside in a big city, saw Big Ben (what’s visible behind the scaffolding anyway) and had the ride of their lives. Plus we avoided Hamleys. Result.