We started out by taking a bus to the Natural History Museum. They've now opened their outdoor ice rink (only there during the winter), and I noticed a few children using penguin skate aids; I didn't try ice skating until I was at university, so I fell over a lot while I was learning, and I can see the benefits of the penguin approach. I've kept intending to try an outdoor ice rink in London for the past few years, but I haven't been able to arrange a suitable date with friends, so I think that this year I'll just go on my own.
There are two entrances to the museum, and the visitor's guide recommends Cromwell Road if you want to see the dinosaurs. However, a member of staff outside the museum redirected us to Exhibition Road because the queue was shorter there; this was true, but it also meant that we had to go through the rest of the museum first. What I did notice is that the dinosaur section is the most crowded part. In particular, you have to walk around it in a particular order, which involves going up some stairs and along a walkway. Everyone shuffled along slowly, and this turned out to be because of the animatronic T-Rex at the far end of the walkway. It's quite impressive, but lots of people stopped next to it (e.g. for photos) which caused big tailbacks. Once we got past that, it was much easier to walk around the ground floor section: wider spaces and fewer people. So, it may be better to visit mid-week (if possible), if it's less crowded then.
After that, we took a tube to Blackfriars to watch the Lord Mayor's Show. Just to clarify, this is the Lord Mayor (a ceremonial role) rather than the elected Mayor (Boris). Their website is quite useful, although I don't think they got the iPad/iPhone app out this year. There were a lot of good groups there, including the Christ's Hospital marching band (my old boarding school). Last year the Lord Mayor's coach broke an axle just before it reached Blackfriars, so he had to go the rest of the way standing up in a jeep; this year it all went more smoothly, although I did feel a bit sorry for the people who had to walk behind the (non-toilet trained) horses.
Next, we took a Thames Clipper to North Greenwich. There's a pier at Blackfriars, but the commuter ferry doesn't stop there at weekends. The nearest piers are Bankside (to the east) and Embankment (to the west); however, Bankside is on the opposite side of the river, so we took a tube to Embankment and caught the boat there. This isn't covered by a travelcard, so you need to buy a separate ticket. You can use an Oyster card ... sort of. You can't simply swipe it like you do in other forms of transport, but you can hand it over to the ticket office and then they'll use it to pay for your paper ticket. This route (RB1) has a boat every 20 minutes, and I recommend arriving at least 5 minutes before departure so that you have time to board. There's only one gangplank, so it's more like a bus than a tram or train. The boat had seating inside and outside, so you're not exposed to the weather unless you want to be. Once we got past Canary Wharf, the boat went significantly faster, which was quite fun.
At North Greenwich, we had a short walk to the Emirates Air Line cable car. You can pre-book tickets through their website, at half-hourly intervals through the day. However, we just turned up and we were able to get on fine. There are ticket machines and desks; you may need to use the desks if you need a travelcard discount. Alternately, you can just swipe your Oyster card at the barrier. Contrary to what the online booking implied, there's actually a continuous flow of cable cars (which makes sense), and you just queue up to get into one. That queue was very short when we arrived (at about 16:30), so we only had to wait a few minutes and they weren't trying to pack out each capsule. If you've gone skiing (or in my case snowboarding) then you'll be familiar with the concept. If you haven't, it's pretty similar to the rides at theme parks. It then takes about 10 minutes to go across the river. If you have a single or return ticket then you have to get off; if you have a "360" ticket then you can just stay put until you get back where you started.
Comparing this to the London Eye:
- The queue was far shorter for the cable car.
- The cable car is a lot cheaper: full price for an adult is £4.30 (single) or £8.60 (return) rather than £19.20.
- The London Eye is a bit higher: 135m rather than 90m.
- The London Eye ride lasts longer: 30 minutes rather than 10 minutes (single) or 20 minutes (return).
- The cable car has smaller capsules: they fit 10 people rather than 25, and we only had 6 people in ours. Also, there's enough room for everyone to sit down in the cable car, whereas some people have to stand on the London Eye.
We just went one way (to the Royal Docks), then took the Docklands Light Railway from Royal Victoria to Tower Gateway. This has the key benefit that there's no driver, so children can sit right at the front.
After that, another tube to Victoria, then my plan was to go to the Giraffe restaurant for dinner. This is about 5 minutes walk from the station, on the same road as the Apollo Theatre (the one that shows Wicked). Unfortunately, it was completely packed out when we arrived, and they said that we'd have to wait 30-40 minutes for a table. Apparently it's always like that at weekends, partly because people want to eat on their way to the theatre. So, if you want to go there then you really need to reserve a table. The snag is that they don't accept reservations between 11:45 and 17:00 at weekends; also, it ties you down to a specific schedule, which can be tricky when small children are involved.
Plan B was to go to the Kensington branch instead, via another tube train. I've been there before, and I highly recommend it. They do a decent aubergine veggie burger (similar to the ones that Gourmet Burger Kitchen used to do) and they're very child-friendly. I phoned ahead to reserve a table, but they didn't have a queue when we arrived; it's far less crowded than the Victoria branch. They put out activity sheets and crayons on the table (e.g. for colouring in and solving a maze), and they have a separate kids menu which includes a little plastic giraffe and a helium balloon. As a tree-hugging hippie, I'm a bit concerned that we (collectively) are wasting helium on things like this instead of saving it for MRI machines. However, as an uncle I know that the boys liked the balloons, and it did amuse me to see them walking along the street afterwards with the balloons tied to their rucksacks so that they were bobbing around.
So, all in all a successful day out.
A note on costs: the museum and parade were both free, although the museum encourages donations. Children under 5 go free on buses, tubes, DLR trains, river boats, and the cable car. Children aged 5-10 go free on buses, tubes, and DLR trains, as long as they're accompanied by an adult or have a Zip Oyster photocard (which costs £10). It's best to use the wide luggage gates at stations, so that you and the child can walk through together using the same ticket or Oyster card. They also get a child rate (half-price) on the Thames Clipper and the cable car. If the adult is using a travelcard then they get a discount on both tickets (adult and child), so that's £2.15 for the boat (on the route we used) or £1.60 for the cable car.