It’s cold. It’s dark. And your idea of a little Christmas spin around Hamley’s was hampered by hordes of marauding other-people and other-people’s-children. So how best to rekindle that flicker of festive spirit, to ensure you’re more of a Cratchitt to your offspring than a Scrooge? Head straight to one of London’s incredible, seasonal outdoor ice rinks (and the wonders that surround them), and you’ll find your Yuletide cheer returned, as magically as Marley’s knocker.
1. Natural History Museum (Cromwell Rd, London; closest tube station: South Kensington)
From now until January 5th, whiz around a rink beneath the looming Victorian towers of one of London’s most treasured child-friendly institutions, the Natural History Museum. Daily skating begins at 9am or 10am depending on the day of the week, and continues to 9 or 10pm, with rentable “Penguin” skate-aids for little ones. Book in advance online: skating sessions last 50 minutes and begin on the hour – just long enough to wear out your budding figure-skater, before heading over to ride the horses of the Carousel, and on into the Museum itself, which stays open on weekdays until 5.50pm. Tickets cost £13.50 for adults, and £9 for under-12s (off-peak and family tickets are also on offer, and skate rental is included); the Museum itself, staggeringly, is free.
At the Museum: You don’t have to wait for night (or Ben Stiller) for things to be happening at this museum. Weekends see dozens of family activities taking place, while the dinosaurs, earthquake simulator, and old-fashioned taxidermy galleries await at any time of the week. If your little ones crave the nocturnal experience, check for upcoming DinoSnores, overnight indoor ‘camp-outs’ that include a torchlit tour past the moonlit mammoths.
A jaunt out of the capital – but an easy (by train) and worthwhile one – brings you to the Chinoiserie fantasy that is Brighton’s Royal Pavillion, built first as a royal seaside pleasure palace for the Prince Regent, and expanded to all its elaborate glory by George IV. Until January 19th you can glide about beneath its onion domes from 10am to 10.15pm; skate sessions last an hour and cost £10 for adults, £7 for under-12s. There’s a rink-side kitchen (and bar, for parents needing a more thorough warming) for when toes get cold, and the splendid insides of the pavilion to explore during daytime opening hours.
At the Pavilion: Younger visitors might enjoy envisaging their next birthday party in the incredible Pavilion Dining Room – where George IV pulled out all the stops to impress his guests and courtiers – and then having a look around the kitchens that once created seventy-dish dinners to feed them. Family activities are frequent throughout the year; check here for the latest schedules.
3. Somerset House (Victoria Embankment/The Strand, London; closest tube station: Temple)
In the courtyard of this Neoclassical masterpiece, tucked between the Thames and the Strand, you’ll find stellar skating until January 5th. Sessions run for an hour; tickets cost from $7.50, and there’s a clutch of extras, a Skate School and Penguin Club for little legs to learn at, and Glad Tiding Tuesdays, with festive music, mince pies and mulled wine. For those with elusive New Year’s Eve babysitters, New Year’s Eve skates include champagne at midnight.
At Somerset House: Little artists will find inspiration in the incredible Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection at the Courtauld Gallery, at Somerset House. Monet, Manet, Gauguin…they’re all here, as is Seurat, for petit pointilists. Under 18s enjoy free entry; for adults, it’s a worthwhile £5.
4. Tower of London (closest tube station: Tower Hill; follow the signs from there)
It’s not often you get to ice-skate in a 1000-year-old moat, but until January 5th you can do just that at the similarly 1000-year-old Tower of London, where once traitors’ heads waved gaily on poles and Anne Boleyn lost hers, permanently. Sessions run all day and on into the evening, and cost between 11.50 and 13.50 for adults, 9.50 for children (family tickets run to £38 at peak hours); more information and a link to book tickets online can be found here.
At the Tower of London: Instruments of torture; Crown Jewels; Suits of Armour and real live ravens…what more could any self-respecting small person want? Family-friendly activities, and historical context are provided here; suggested itineraries if you’re short on time after all that skating can be found here. There’s also fun online tool, “Palace Kids,” for child-friendly exploring of the Tower, Hampton Court Palace (see below), and several other London palaces.
5. Hampton Court (35 minutes by train from Waterloo Station)
Oh, what lucky Londoners, to be able to take their pick of palaces to skate at…Hampton Court, made marvelous by Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII, is a Tudor masterpiece in whose grounds, until January 12th, you can hit the rink, with the backdrop of the Palace’s Tudor West Front. Skate prices are similar to those at the Tower of London (see above), and sessions can be booked online. Elsewhere at the Palace, over Christmas, experience live Tudor cookery in the kitchens, head out on a Family Ghost Tour, and listen to a bit of courtyard carolling.
At Hampton Court Palace: No one of any age should miss history’s most famous maze, originally commissioned by King William III in about 1700. and open daily for the fun of getting lost in. Family audio guides are available for the over 5s; for those under that age, there’s a convenient Family Room, with lego, soft blocks, books and dress-up clothes, for when all that history just gets a bit much. Still more child-oriented activities are listed here.