Yes, we decided to plan and book a ten day holiday in the UK in 48 hours.
And it actually turned out fantastically well. This is almost entirely due to the brilliant advice of Olivia’s sister Katie who is the family UK expert, having lived there for several years. Do not attempt this at home, unless you have a Katie too.
We arrived in London at six in the morning and picked up our rental car (follow Katie’s advice and use Enterprise in England) and set off for Stonehenge. (Please note that Cletus strongly disapproved of this blatant breaking of Rule #3. Even my own children now use my site against me. But I do want to point out that we did have a backup plan in case of Catastrophic Failure, and were prepared to shift Stonehenge to Monday if needed.) Stonehenge has recently changed their policies and visits need to be booked online beforehand, and we arrived in plenty of time for our 9:30 appointment.
Because the trip was so rushed, my plans for a week of preparation for the kids, learning about British history, culture and literature were out the window. Instead we crammed in mini lessons while running last minute errands, packing bags and even on the airport shuttle. So the hour drive from the airport to Stonehenge was used to review their knowledge of the ancient site. Luckily, like many things we would see on this trip, the boys were already familiar with it through the magic of Doctor Who.
(Starting a trip with an outdoor day is also a really good way to get a head start on overcoming your jet lag.)
After finishing at Stonehenge, we were back in the car and on the road to Salisbury. This beautiful Medieval town is home to the UKs tallest Cathedral, with its “impossible” spire reaching 404 feet into the sky.
With his help we climbed floor by floor through the tower, viewing the giant roof beams (hundreds of years old), the various architectural changes as the tower went from a short squatty one to a towering, astonishing spire, watching the church bells in action (hands on ears!) and eventually climbing out the top of the tower to view the city below.
The boys were in heaven, and even acrophobic Leafy Isaac ventured out onto the balcony to look down.
After our tour, we visited the cathedral’s other main attraction, one of four original copies of the Magna Carta! The kids were less thrilled by this than their parents (we told them to file it in their “someday you’ll be glad you saw this” file) but the beautiful chapter house where it’s housed is attraction enough, and the oldest had learned about this crucial moment in history during school last year, so at least he was excited to see it in person.
Salisbury is often missed by American tourists, but has always been one of my favorite churches in England, and it makes a perfect half-day to complement a visit to Stonehenge, only a 20 minute drive away. (And the restaurant in the refectory is fantastic–gorgeous views and affordable, enormous, delicious meals.)
After an excellent and looooooooong night’s sleep (at the Holiday Inn Express in Bath) we walked a short 20 minutes to the beautiful Bath Abbey. This wonderful church is right next door to the famous Roman Baths, and is a little masterpiece. Crammed with monuments on the walls and floors, the Abbey has a fun quiz-hunt for kids to keep their interest. If you turn it in to one of the volunteers to be checked afterwards you will often get some added bonus tidbits, including secret faces hidden in the walls and the fairly gruesome (and child pleasing) story of Saint Alphege.
After we finished with the Abbey, we walked across the square (literally just feet away) to the main reason for our visit, the Roman Baths. These amazing ruins have been excavated and restored, and the museum housing them is much more comprehensive than it was when I last visited in college. It’s a very well-done, captivating site.
Nearly a dozen different chambers show the many purposes of a Roman bathhouse, and the engineering is really amazing. The museums also house the remains of an ancient temple complex, pleas to the Gods for vengance on enemies tossed into the pools and hundreds of fascinating artifacts found at the site. There are free, excellent audio guides with narrations for children or adults, which we highly recommend. We spent many hours here with nobody complaining, and the added fun of period reenactors and special crafts for kids made it a fantastic day.
After a very full day, we were on the lookout for somewhere for the kids to blow off steam, so we aimed for a large green section on our map–the Royal Victoria Gardens. We hoped that the “children’s play area” marked there would keep the kids busy until dinner so we could stave off the last vestiges of jet lag.
As we wandered through the beautiful gardens, we were losing hope of finding a playground. Was this soccer field the “children’s play area”?
No. No it was not. And sorry, National Gardens in Athens, you have been supplanted. This is officially the Best Playground In The World. (And possibly the biggest.) They even had a swingey-flyey thing!
So that took care of our afternoon. And our evening.
Day Three took us on the four-hour drive to Wales for three days at the beach! But, since it was Lemmy’s birthday, we made a special surprise stop. In a move that has won us the Parents of the Year award for eternity, we took the boys to the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff.
Next door to the studios where the iconic show is filmed, this is nirvana for fans. A specially filmed sequence lets you share in a new adventure, with Matt Smith leading participants on a mission to rescue him from the Pandorica 2, in which you get to fly the Tardis, get threatened by Daleks, sneak through creepy tunnels away from . . . something, and emerge victorious at the end.
Afterwards, you can spend hours (trust us) viewing the actual sets, masks and costumes of decades of Doctor Who villains and heroes. It’s fan-kid bliss, and was totally worth the price. Allons-y!
After geeking out at the DWE, we finally made it to the seaside. We had only a few hours before sunset, so we headed to the closest beach which was (I think) in Milford Haven. It was fairly cold and windy (it’s the UK after all) but the boys had a marvelous time anyway.
Day 4 we made our way to a beach I’ve wanted to see for years–Manorbier. My great great grandmother “Feisty” Fannie Gibbs was from Manorbier, and this was “her” beach, so there were lots of great ancestral-memory vibes going for me there.
And there’s the fact that it’s also just a really gorgeous beach. The sun even came out for us after a few cloudy hours, and it ended up being warm enough to swim.
After spending most of the day at the beach, we took the short walk up the hillside to a Norman church built above Manorbier Castle (also visible from the beach). Though the church itself is fairly dull inside, the cemetery surrounding it is fascinating and evocative, especially as you sit overlooking the ancient castle walls.
We had originally planned to rent a beachside cottage in Manorbier or Pembroke, but because the trip was last-last-last-minute, everything was gone. Twelve hours before our arrival in Wales, Matthew finally found us a mediocre but acceptable motel to stay in in Haverfordwest, which town had the added bonus of being the birthplace of great great grandma. I can’t recommend the motel, which was fairly uncomfortable and not very clean, but I CAN recommend a wonderful place to get your required English (Welsh) fish and chips. JeNko’s.
We stopped in after our long day at the beach and ordered five fish and chips — and when it was cooked, realized they couldn’t take a credit card. (Should have asked. My fault.) So I ran off to find a cash machine . . . and not one cash machine within three miles would take my card. Now what? I went back to explain, and they were kind enough to take pity on some poor hungry Americans and agreed to take an IOU! From strangers. Foreign strangers. Amazing.
And the fish? Delicious. Totally worth a stop even if they weren’t the nicest people on the earth, which they are. If you find yourself in Wales, please get dinner at JeNko’s Fish and Chips in Haverfordwest. And tell them 80 Diapers sent you!
(And don’t worry, we paid them back a few hours later. Which brings up a good point about travel in the UK–if you have an American credit or debit card without a chip, it may not always work in cash machines or even shops. UK cards have a chip system and cards without a chip will usually only work at ATMs in banks, not shops or post offices. So be aware and get your cash when you can.)
Today we found our way to a “local secret” beach called Barafundle. Gorgeous and remote, you have to hike a mile or so through fields and hills to find this secluded beach surrounded by craggy Welsh cliffs.
It was gorgeous and nearly unpopulated, which may have been partially because of the weather — cool and windy again. Us grown ups spent most of our time in jackets and out of the water, but the kids were unfazed and quickly made friends with some Welsh kids to collaborate on especially elaborate sand castles.
When we ate through our supply of biscuits and fruit by early afternoon, we trekked back to The Boat House, the restaurant at the visitors center (Barafundle is part of a national nature preserve) for tea and a bathroom break, then back to the beach. The Boat House is highly recommended–the food was local and tasty. They also sell the necessary ice cream (though for once, we passed. It was too cold.)
The evening, like most evenings on this trip, was spent relaxing in the hotel playing Gloom and watching British game shows, especially our new favorite show, Pointless. Why has nobody imported this show to America yet? Delightful.
In the morning we packed up and drove back over the border (and an amazing three-mile-long suspension bridge over a river/ocean inlet) to Stratford-on-Avon to visit the home of Shakespeare. Thanks to the brilliant Horrible Histories Guide to Stratford, the kids knew all about Stratford (and thanks to their mother’s current efforts on a Shakespeare picture book they know all about Shakespeare) so they really enjoyed the visit to the home of the bard.
Especially fun was the chance to perform in a spontaneous scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (subject of said picture book) with a real Shakespearean actor in the garden. Leafy Isaac made an especially convincing Wall.
After we had our fill of the birthplace, we visited Mary Arden’s Farm, the former home of Shakespeare’s mother, now made into a kid-friendly living history farm to show what a Tudor-era farm would be like.
Though it was fairly small and pretty quiet since we got there so late in the day, it’s a pretty good option for small children who may be tired of all the Will-oriented attractions of Stratford and ready to pet some sheep. And if you have time, it’s a pretty good value with the five-house ticket package offered by the Shakespeare trust. Older kids may prefer to spend the time shopping on Stratford’s fantastic “high street”, but younger ones will be delighted.
Lemmy’s favorite moment was getting called from the crowd to become an apprentice falconer.
When we had had enough of the farm we raced back in time to do some shopping at the great stores on the high street (Doctor Who! Harry Potter! Peter Rabbit! Shaun the Sheep!) and have a Proper English Tea (peppermint, actually) across the street from the Birthplace.
Then off to our hotel (the Premier Inn in Warwick, spotless, comfy and recommended) to rest up for our big day at Warwick Castle. (Highlight of the trip for all three boys.)
Warwick Castle is a fantastic way to let your kids live out all their knights-in-armor dreams. A huge, beautiful castle over a thousand years old, it’s also home to real live knights and ladies, wizards and villains, with jousting, swordfighting, King Arthur and everything an American kid could want.
Though the price tag may seem steep, you can get significant discounts by buying tickets online and getting a “family discount” price. And it’s worth every penny.
An added bonus this summer was the Horrible Histories Fayre which gave the kids the chance to learn about the many different periods of history that Warwick Castle has experienced. They loved learning about sewage disposal in the Middle Ages, overeating and decadence during King George, the horrific medical theories of the Elizabethans and warfare under the Stuarts.
But the best part, according to the kids, was The Castle Dungeon, a combination haunted house and educational lecture — a combination that sounds like it wouldn’t work at all but does, brilliantly. Probably too scary for very little kids, but perfect for my boys, the dungeon was a wonderful spooky treat.
The next morning we said goodbye to our car and took the train to London. Because you don’t ever ever want to drive in London. Ever.
Our train landed us right in the heart of London, and after dropping our luggage off at our hotel we took the Underground to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Kings Cross, which was spotlessly clean, very convenient (on several good bus lines and a five pound taxi ride from the station) and very nice about early and late checkins. And the room service menu was delicious too. If you stay here, there is a fantastic cafe a five minute walk up the street (and across from a useful bus stop) called Cafe Maya. Great fast service, delicious sandwiches and huge kids’ breakfast choices, we ate here several times during our stay in London. Highly, highly recommended. (Cash only)
(Side note about Kings Cross–which is, of course, the home of Platform 9 3/4. You can indeed visit the sign marking the platform, but be prepared for ridiculously long lines to get a picture taken. It’s not a secret any more.)
National Gallery–After an hour or so perusing the most famous paintings in this museum full of famous paintings, we watched the street performers on the square, took the required photos with the Nelson’s Column lions and walked down to see Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and on to the Tate Gallery.
This was the only real disappointment of the trip for me, because the PreRaphaelite gallery at the Tate is one of my favorite places in the world. And it was closed. Sob. Okay, not closed, but blocked off so I could only see my favorite paintings from the doorway. Tragic. But we spent a few hours in the rest of the museum and had a lovely time.
Then back to the underground and off to Baker Street to visit the home of Sherlock Holmes. Last time I was there, it was a quiet museum with a handful of ultra-fans wandering the rooms of his recreated flat.
Yeah. Things have changed, apparently. It seems that the popularity of Sherlock has rekindled the interest in 221B Baker Street a bit. And by a bit, I mean . . . this.
The next morning was what I’d been looking forward to all week–The Tower of London! I’ve been semi obsessed with the Tower since age 10 (again–so, so nerdy) and was excited to take the boys there. They, after listening to several hours of me talking about it, were also very excited, but I was apparently not clear enough on what the Tower actually WAS. Cletus was very disappointed to find out that it’s actually “just a castle” and not really a huge tower full of dungeons and torture chambers. Sorry kid.
But they rallied quickly, and despite the insane crowds and ridiculously long lines to see the Crown Jewels (we accidentally came on a bank holiday, so the lines were so, so long) they loved the macabre and fascinating history that soaks the very stones of the Tower. Beheaded queens, tortured monks, grand escapes, history-making alliances, it all happened here.
Lemmy was enthralled with the huge exhibition of armor and weapons in the White Tower. And the boys all loved seeing the famous Tower Ravens, the Tower Green and the spot where the Princes skeletons were found. All this made for a very successful day.
Our last morning in England was spent at the British Museum in sheer bliss exploring the Greek, Egyptian, Mayan and Assyrian exhibits and creating a perfect last day. The standout for us at the museum is the natural mummy of Gebelein Man. This perfectly preserved body is over 5000 years old, and you can see the organs and muscles on the CT scan in the multimedia exhibit. Completely fascinating.
After squeezing in as many hours as we safely could, we hurried back to our hotel to pick up our luggage and then take the 5 minute taxi ride, 1 hour train ride, 10 hour flights, two hour layover and 5 hour drive that would bring us home again. (We really need to live closer to an airport.)
So there you have it. It can be done, but of course it would still be wiser to take more than 48 hours to plan, should you have the chance.
The UK makes a great first overseas adventure for Americans, what with the same (similar?) language, kid-friendly food and instantly recognizable landmarks. If you’re trying to decide where to start your family travel experiences, the UK has the 80 Diapers stamp of approval.
Need to Know Before You Go
|Visas needed? (US Passport holders)||no|
|Best time to visit||June-Sept, December|