James Leech is a journalist living in Peckham, in burgeoning southeast London, where he moved just before the birth of his second child, from buzzier, noisier Camden Town. He loves the family-feel of the new area, which still has enough bars and cafés to keep grown-up going out locally fun.
Says James, “I moved to London around 2000, expecting to stay for a couple of years and, as they say, never left. I’m the father of two children under three – one who voices regularly his strong and frank opinions about the world, and another who wisely so far has kept her own counsel, though this might all change when she learns how to talk.”
We ask James about his favourite spots in London with his little ones, Cormac and Eliza.
What do you love most about London as a place to spend time with children?
I think it’s the feeling that London isn’t deliberately set up as a place to hang out with kids that makes it so appealing. Of course, it isn’t a child-unfriendly place at all; it is crammed with parks and pedestrian spaces, playgrounds and museums. You just never get the feeling it has compromised anything to accommodate anyone in particular. So when you all go out together as a family, it feels as though the city is there for everyone. It just somehow all really works.
Can you give us a run-down of your favourite things to do in London with little ones?
- There’s so much to, and the whole place is packed with families. Of course, there are all of the usual museums and venues. Perhaps the most famous of these, and rightly so, would be the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum (both free of charge), located next door to one another on Exhibition Rd, just south of Hyde Park. I always feel a slight flicker of historical enchantment when we walk through the doors (combined perhaps also with a sigh of more recent relief) and let our little boy run off ahead into the lands of Victorian wonder. Ah, dinosaurs and rockets. Both museums have plenty of things to see and interact with, and they go on for miles.
- Speaking of dinosaurs (life is mainly about dinosaurs at the moment), one of the most peculiar and charming of the parks to visit, and not necessarily on everyone’s radar because it is so far south of the city centre, would be Crystal Palace. The wider area (also known as Crystal Palace and located along the crest of a hill with great views back northwards of the city) is named after a cast iron and glass structure that was originally built for the 1851 Great Exhibition and then moved here from Hyde Park, though a fire in the 1930s has left the whole place eerily Crystal Palace free. The park that once formed the palace grounds is pleasant enough, but the real appeal for anyone with children, is Dinosaur Court, an exhibit of life-sized Victorian dinosaur models (of varying accuracy) predating Darwin’s Origin of Species and attempting to show what the extinct creatures might have looked like. Think of it as a bizarre 19th Century Jurassic Park, with the stone sculptures clustered around a series of small lakes and streams. If you’ve got an iphone with you, you can listen to an audio tour as you go.
- In the summer time, London is an unexpectedly easy place to swim outdoors, with quite a few grand 1930s lidos still open. Architecturally impressive and increasingly popular once again with the local communities, these open-air unheated (for the most part) pools are buzzy and fun, and a great place to spend a sunny afternoon. Perhaps the most famous, with its brightly-coloured changing room doors opening out onto the pool itself, is Tooting Bec lido, though it may also be becoming a bit of a victim of its own success, with queues often out into the park. But there are also great outdoor pools at Parliament Hill Fields in the north, Brockwell Park in the south, London Fields in the east and Hampton in the west. They all open all year round, for the hardy ice swimmers, though London Fields is also heated in the winter. For the more adventurous (and probably realistically for older children only) try Hampstead Heath ponds too: small tree-lined lakes with old concrete diving jetties and people fishing from the sides. There are three of them: one for men only, one for women (said to be the most magical of the ponds…though of course I wouldn’t know) and a smaller one that is mixed. Lifeguards may ask children to demonstrate that they can swim before letting them off into the main bit of the pond, since the water is too deep to stand in. It is also possible to swim in among the swans of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park.
- Keeping with the aquatic, London is dominated by the Thames river that cuts it in half, and it is always wonderful to be by it, or over it, or on it. There are plenty of riverboat options offering cruise trips up or down, but perhaps more efficient and satisfying than any of these – and probably cheaper too – are the regular Transport For London river services, operating half a dozen circular and linear routes like buses along different stretches. You can get on at Waterloo (the London EyePier), and travel down to the Tower of London or London Bridge or Greenwich Pier. Downstream of Tower Bridge, the Thames Clippers also speed up a bit, for a thrilling splash down the final few stops towards the dramatic river flood barrier, if you fancy the journey. If you get off at North Greenwich Pier, you can even take your river experience to the skies by taking the newly-installed cable car (the Emirates Air Line) river crossing over to the Royal Victoria Dock (or the ‘Emirates Royal Docks,’ as it now seems to be called). Although there isn’t all that much to do yet on the north side, the trip is fantastic, offering great panoramic views of the city to the west, and the industrial landscape to the east out of town.
Can you let us in on any hidden gems that visitors to London would usually miss?
- The Pergola at Hampstead Heath. A gorgeous Edwardian garden folly that was once part of the London estate of soap baron Lord Leverhulme, but is now owned by the City of London Corporation and is part of the huge Hampstead Heath park. Shhh, it’s secret and it’s hidden (note that it’s also tucked in snugly tight against one of the Heath’s premiere cruising grounds). A bit too far north and tricky to find for most tourists, but well worth the wander up onto the hill.
- My favourite wild London spot for kids is Richmond Park, also a bit further from the centre, out to the west. An enormous National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, this park was set up in the 17th Century as a deer park by King Charles I, and it still has herds of several hundred red and fallow deer wandering about, doing their deer thing. And it very quickly doesn’t feel like you are anywhere near a city at all.
What are your favourite places to eat with kids in London?
- I love, have always loved, and always will love Marine Ices in Chalk Farm, just north of Camden Town. A no-nonsense ice-cream parlour and Italian restaurant, whose walls are covered in napkins signed by its more famous north London clientele. And the pizzas are absolutely fantastic.
- Otherwise, there are often loads of food stalls around the Embankment on the South Bank of the river between Waterloo and London Bridge (see the next question, below), including the Real Food Market held every weekend on Southbank Centre Square beside the Royal Festival Hall, and also Borough food market at London Bridge itself.
What are your favourite spots in the city for a walk in the park or a play in the playground?
- In the summertime, also, the Embankment along the South Bank of the Thames is a wonderful place to wander, particularly between Westminster Bridge and London Bridge. Most of it is pedestrianised, and for the past couple of years, a long stretch around Waterloo Bridge has been given over to a large multi-coloured sandpit running along the pathway. The route also takes in quite a few galleries as well as performance spaces, interactive fountains (in the summer only), a skate park and a fair number of bars and restaurants.
What would you recommend families not do when they visit?
I’d probably steer clear of Madame Tussauds (the queues often stretch out along the street and it’s expensive), anything to do with Sherlock Holmes and Oxford Street (with children certainly, since it’s all crowds and chaos and shopping panic).
What’s the best way to get around London with children?
- Aside from riverboats, the Tube (London Underground) is quick and efficient, so long as you avoid rush hour (though if you do have to travel between about 8 and 10 on a weekday morning, expect it to be a bit of a struggle). However, many of the Tube stops will include some steps, which can be a pain with a stroller. There is a bit of an art to working out journeys that will give you step-free travel, though more and more tube stations have lifts, particularly in the city centre.
- London Buses are fine, but can take more time, and you have to have an idea about where you are going unless your destination is one of the bigger key attractions. But driving can be a stress (most of the centre of the city is covered by a congestion charging zone on weekdays until 6pm that costs around £10 to drive through) and the roads are generally quite busy.
You need a quick and easy escape from the city. Where do you head?
For the seaside, it is quick and easy to get the train down to Brighton (from various stations) in Sussex or else to Whitstable in Kent, both of which are lovely for a day out. Otherwise, the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge are both also close by. But with a car, London is well situated to visit most of southern England relatively easily: The Cotswolds, Suffolk, Dorset, and Oxfordshire, for example.
And finally, you have a babysitter, who’ll stay as late as you like. What does your perfect grown-up night out consist of?