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Wouldn’t It be Loverly, Whirling Around London Budget-Style with Three Teens

How could we possibly afford a trip to London, England, home to the $400 hotel room and the $100 taxi ride in from the airport? More importantly, how could we bring our three teenagers who, once isolated from their friends, their music and the refrigerator, would want to sing along with every West End musical and devour whole plates of fish and chips? Well, I’m happy to report that last winter we enjoyed a whirlwind tour around this marvellous, bustling city without breaking the bank. By taking the “tube” in from the airport, staying at a budget hotel right in the heart of London, riding around on the double-decker buses, shopping at flea markets, purchasing family passes to museums and attractions before we left Canada and eating at student-style cafés, we were able to enjoy the city to its fullest and still have pennies left over for a splurge at the Tower of London and a rock ‘n roll musical.

Show Biz: Every day before noon, you’ll see line-ups forming at the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square. Here, you can buy same-day tickets, cash only, for shows not already sold out.

On the Buses: At the end of four days, we almost felt as though we were experts on double-decker buses, so adept were we at hopping on and off at a moment’s notice. The best thing about our winter visit was the lack of tourists—the kids could clamber up top and ride up front for a great view of the city. A three-day Visitor Travelcard purchased in Canada from British Rail gave us complete freedom to travel on the buses and the Underground (eliminating the expensive taxi ride in from the airport) the Docklands Light Railway and most British Rail trains in the London area. Total transportation costs: $34 for adults and $14 for children up to 15; kids under five ride free. London’s most scenic bus route? Bus #53 which passed Regent’s Park Zoo before circling around Picadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square.

Museum Crawl: For $80, you can purchase a three-day London White Card, offering admission for two parents and four children into 15 museums and galleries including the new Natural History Museum with its dinosaur galleries and world’s tallest escalators and the Museum of the Moving Image where you can meet Frankenstein, audition for a Hollywood movie role and see film treasures from the past. A seven-day pass costs $125. The British Museum is always free as well as the Tate Gallery, National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. We splurged for a visit to the Tower of London as my daughter was on a Henry Vlll kick at school with a family pass for Write for free tickets to the nightly 700-year-old Ceremony of the Keys when the chief yeoman warder locks up the Tower and shouts “God preserve Queen Elizabeth!” Apply two months ahead and include an International Reply Coupon from Canada Post when you apply to Waterloo Block, HM Tower of London, London EC 3N 4AB. Some museums such as the Museum of London where a model of the city “burns down” every 15 minutes or the Victoria and Albert, with its marvellous costume collection, offer free admission during the last hour or so of the day.

Flea Market Finds: My children loved the British hawkers at the flea markets: “Come on lads. If you don’t take this ‘ome, you’ll kick yourself in the heads later.” We discovered some great finds such as vintage Led Zeppelin posters, colorful mittens and glasses imprinted with toasts from around the world. Best shopping days—Saturday for Portobello Market’s antiques and collectibles, Sunday for the Caledonia flower market, the Brick Lane market in East London and Petticoat Lane’s fashions and weekends for trendy deigner clothing at Camden Markets. The new Covent Garden market is still the biggest wholesale fruit, vegetable and flower market in the country; Mondays and Tuesdays are best for antique jewelry, postcards and old lace.

Take a Walk: London is a great city for walking so bring comfy shoes. The Original England Walks company offers over 100 walks year round depending on the day of the week—everything from ghost walks to the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour to historical tours of literary Bloomsbury. Prices start at under $10. It’s fun even to walk around London and read the plaques and signs on the buildings. My kids were fascinated with signs such as one they roared over in a tube station: “Notice: Children under five and dogs must be carried over the turnstiles” or the plaque on a building by our bus stop which indicated that this was the place where anaesthetics were used for the first time. Many people don’t know that there is also a hiking trail along the Thames with unique views of the city.

Other Freebies: On Sundays, visit Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park for free lectures; anyone can get up on a soapbox to champion his cause. On weekdays, visit the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court (over 14 only) to watch a wigged barrister or judge in action. The colorful Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place every day (every second day in winter) at 11:30 a.m. in front of Buckingham Palace or on Whitehall at Horseguards Arch at 11 a.m. (10 a.m. Sundays) where the crowd is half the size. Visit the London Silver Vaults, the world’s largest collection of silver under one roof or the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood containing the V & A’s collection of puppets, children’s costumes and toy theatres. Attend an 8 a.m. service at Westminster Abbey to view this amazing cathedral without paying the hefty admission charge. Soccer fans can apply ahead by letter to take a tour of the Chelsea Football Stadium and trophy rooms in Fulham.

Good Eats: In a city where a Chicken McNuggets meal (curry sauce included) can set you back about $6.50, eating out in London can be daunting. By staying near the University of London, we were able to find student cafés such as the Manhattan Coffee Co. where a hot toasted sausage bagel and tea breakfast cost only $2.50. Other good bets: Café in the Crypt at the St. Martin-in the-Fields Church where the kids can do a brass rubbing for $5 (less for those under 12) or the Bean and Olive chain where healthy salads or pasta specials start at just over $10. There’s also great take-away food from Boots pharmacies and from the food halls at Marks & Spencer An inexpensive high tea is served daily on the top floor in the Fortnum and Mason department store. Don't miss the cuckoo clock out front which chimes and rotates on the hour. The Pizza Express near the British Museum is housed in an old-fashioned dairy.

Cheap Sleeps: We stayed at the Tavistock Hotel on Russell Square, a hotel in its prime just after the Second World War, but you can’t beat the location. The rooms, small but clean and equipped with a private bath, telephone and colored TV, have been so popular with tourists from around the world that another floor has just been added to the hotel. Ask for one of the rooms in the front looking out onto the square. Other good bets are the Bed and Breakfasts along Gower Road or, if you are really on a budget, the International Youth Hostel near St. Paul’s Cathedral. Family suites there start under $100 and you can cook some of your meals in the communal kitchen.

More Information: Contact the British Tourist Authority for other free attractions, brochures and information on discount cards, etc. Be sure to purchase a copy of Time Out magazine, published each Wednesday which lists dozens of free activities (we could have attended a talk on Fung Shui at Canary Wharf or weekly try-outs at the Comedy Café) or Kids Out if you are traveling with children. The verdict from my own children after their first taste of London— my oldest son was actually thinking about not coming back to Canada, my middle child was caught up with current Beatles influences (a Beatles for Sale shop just opened in Covent Garden), and my daughter was planning future shopping trips—when budget was not an issue. In the meantime, we enjoyed every minute of our whirlwind trip, worth every Canadian penny.





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