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Thursday, June 6, 2013

The beginning of an epic adventure.

Greetings! I'm Lisa and my family of three are currently living as 'expats' in England, UK. We were here scarcely three months when the illustrious 'powers that be' decided to furlough my husband's position within his stationed company. Never mind my political ranting or feeling on contractual obligation or why not trim the obvious fat of admin positions - that is not my intention for writing. My intentions are to educate and amuse on the subject of 'how to enjoy England on the cheap'. Believe me, if there is one this this family can do, we can have tons o' fun on little funds. It can be done. There will be many adventures and the information I provide is (sometimes random but) valid or 'spot on' as they say here in merry old England. I cannot and will not make comprehensive lists or plan your vacation/stay/deployment for you, but what I can do is relay my experiences as they unfold. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have - especially the 'stupid' ones! They are usually the ones everyone wants to know, but are afraid to ask!!

We'll start with this past weekend. The recently mentioned furlough status dictate we cancel our week long holiday to Scotland. Well, funds (the conservation thereof) and the fact that Aunt Cathie was feeling poorly lead to our decision to postpone our visit until further notice. Yes, my Mother in Law is Scottish, and her sister still resides in a suburb of Glasgow - so we would have had the added bonus of free accommodations. However, since the Brit Rail System follows suit and jacks their ticket prices to crack prices during school half terms, we decided to drive the five to five and a half-ish hours to get there. Taking the train would have been closer to seven hours. Current gas prices (petrol) are exorbitant, too, so in our American car getting a rough 18-19 mpg. We could fill up on base for $4.11/gallon but we would have needed to refuel for the trip home 'on the econnomy'. Petrol is currently 6.11 pounds per gallon. Presently the exchange rate for USD to GBP (Great British Pound) is one British Pound Sterling to $1.52 USD. But the point is our trip was cancelled. So what do we do? Yes, we improvise!

I would like to mention that we do not live in London. That would be mad expensive and quite a way a way from the husband's place of employment. We live in a charming village just east of London. So, Saturday, we jumped in the car and drove to the nearest train station and purchased two cheap day return tickets at 22 pounds each and the Bean rides for free because he's under 5 years old. Oh, and we spent 1.50 on parking (said as 'one pound fifty').

The train ride is roughly 40 minutes through beautiful, farming and industrial countryside. My four year old is enamored with farm machinery and cranes, so BINGO! The cheap day return tickets also allow you to jump on and off any bus or tube for the day at pretty much any stop. This is why you must have a plan. Buy a book, watch some Rick Steves, or buy a map- but plan ahead and be reasonable. The first time we went to London we had no plan and ended up wandering around dolts in the big city. We were also the only people without a GPS/phone for directions. We have since remedied this with a compatible UK phone. It's worth mentioning if you're coming on Holiday to check with your provider to see what your phone will do and what charges will apply.

This Saturday we had a plan. Realizing that a four year old male child has the attention span of a fruit fly, we kept it simple. First we hit the Science Museum. Packed with  lots of big machinery, space, Spaceman Spiff stuff, and most importantly: a water table. There was a bubble show just about to start when we found the water table, but the Bean had zero interest in bubbles when there was a water table vacant and at the ready. The entry fee is a 'suggested' 5 pounds per person, so do with that what you like.

His love of George, from Peppa Pig, with his 'dinosaur - grrrrrrr' lead us to the Natural History Museum which just happens to be on the other side of the block from the Science Museum. The entry is a 'suggested' 5 pounds per person, so, again, do with that what you like. The map will be a pound, honor system, but it makes a great souvenir. My child was happy to see the large Brontosaurus and the Triceratops outside of the main entry to the exhibit and so we did not have to wait in the line to see the 'real' exhibit with the rest of the crowd.

We  probably spent a total of three hours so so visiting both museums, so when we finished exploring  it was time for lunch. I would suggest looking for a small pub or cafe off the beaten path. Less touristy traffic means  cheaper food and pints. Plus, if you're going for an authentic experience this will always be your best best. Word to the wise, stick with the more traditional pub fare: fish and chips, steak and ale pie, chicken gougons (chicken tenders) and meat pasty. Just trust me on this one. we had lunch at the Gloucester Arms.

After lunch we walked to the Diana Memorial Playground and stopped along the way to have a carousel ride.

If your child likes sand, pirate ships, sand, swings, sand, climbing, sand or sand, you will have a fun time! We went on Saturday during a term break, so custodians were monitoring how many families were in in the park at one time. Oh, one good thing to mention, in order for an adult(s) to get into the fenced park,  you must have a child with you. So there are no creepy old men or weirdos allowed near your child. Plus there is only one way in or out and the cameras are always rolling.

We lured our child away from the park with the promise of and ice cream cone. We took the tube to Covent Gardens. In the tube station, we witnessed a group of 'Furries' as they went to their destination. If you are not familiar with the phenomenon of 'furries or plushies' you need to do a little research. I was lucky enough to know about this fetish craze from the book Obsession, Deceit and Really Dark Chocolate - by Kyra Davis. My day was pretty much complete when I heard a few of them 'yip'. Look it up and you'll understand. 

The one item on my 'list of things to do' was to get some rude postcards to send to my family and friends back in the states. If you are paying more than 10 pence per card, you're getting ripped off. The husband haggled with the store owner about receiving the correct amount of change back (they will try you since you're foreign and 'don't know the currency')and she ended up giving us a stack of old postcards for free. They may have been ones left out in the rain, but the postal service isn't going to handle them with kid gloves, so I was ecstatic. The moral of that story is don't be afraid to speak up, but don't be a shitty American. All the hubs wanted was the correct change back- he was not haggling over price, but that may work, too.

When we arrived at Covent Gardens courtyard, along with the furries, we notice there was a street festival going on. We had the Bean pose with a silver painted gladiator who really hammed it up and provided priceless pictures. It was truly awesome. There was a Charlie Chaplin impersonator, Yoda and several others. We mingled through the courtyard and shops until we found a Gelato shop to get the Bean a promised and well deserved ice cream cone. 

Then it was time for a Mommy and Daddy treat- a refreshing pint. We found a pub called the White Swan. Here in Britain, some pubs won't allow children in the bar area. It's always best to ask, and it's against the law for a child to sit at or approach the bar. So we scored a table near a window where we could people watch and let the Bean play with his new double-decker bus (for ants, I was informed). 

My advice from earlier still stands, don't pick the first pub you come to because chances are that every other tourist out there will be in there, too. If you see people wearing football jerseys or college students in matching outfits you're probably not going to want to bust up in there. Trust me on this one.

At this point we were pretty much toast, so we decided to head back. We hopped on the tube and hopped on the train and we were home by  6:45. Not bad.

Just a few tips to help you on your way:

Have a plan. London is a big city. Even with public transport, I would concentrate your efforts in one quadrant at a time. It will still take time to get anywhere. Research what attractions are open and what hours.
Take cash.  When you're out of cash - you're done. This helps you from overspending.
Take coins.  The public restrooms and restrooms in the train stations are pay toilets.

Look fancy, but you still have to pay to pee. An alternative is to plan your fluids. They frown on tourists coming in just to use the loo, and more than likely the facilities will be up at least one flight of stairs. 
Kids don't care about history.  It's true. So if you want to enjoy your visit, keep this in mind. And there are tons of kid-friendly, super cool things to do.
Wear decent shoes. Unless you're used to walking miles in strappy sandals or 6 inch heels - then go for it.
'Train' for your adventure. It's hard to go from walking zero miles a day to walking five or more. Also, plan on carrying your child as even the most energetic child will hit the wall after a day of fun The Bean will not ride in a stroller, no matter how tired he is, but if your child will and you want to drag/push a stroller all over London....kudos to you!

So for a rough hundred pounds, we had a fabulous fun filled day in London! We had so much fun that Bean fell asleep as soon as the train left the station. Now I am off to write some postcards and plan this weekend's get away.



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