Eleven Things to spot on the Houses of Parliament Tour

Eleven Things to Spot on the Houses of Parliament TourWhat could be more thrilling than standing in the steps of the Prime Minister, the Queen and Braveheart? A tour of the Houses of Parliament is a fantastic opportunity for children to see inside one of the world’s most iconic buildings. You’ll find out about Guy Fawkes, the man who tried to blow up the building; Charles I, the king who had his head cut off for abusing his power; and secret doors leading to even more secret toilets.

The Palace of Westminster has been a royal palace for over 1,000 years. Originally King Canute’s hunting lodge, it was the main residence for the kings of England from 1042 until 1512 when King Henry VIII moved out after a fire. The Houses of Parliament were built on the site of the medieval palace in the 19th century after another large fire. Although most of the buildings look really old they are in fact all, apart from Westminster Hall, only 150 years old.

These are the things you should look out for.

Stand on the spot where Charles I was condemned to death in Westminster Hall

Westminster Hall is the oldest part of the Houses of Parliament. It was completed by William the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus, in 1098 and it’s where the law courts used to sit. It is a real thrill to walk around here. So many of the most exciting moments of British history have happened within these walls.

For my boys and I, the biggest thrill was standing on the exact spot where King Charles I  was sentenced to death in 1649. It is also here where the Scottish ‘Braveheart’, William Walace was sentenced to death for treason in 1305 and where Sir Thomas More was condemned to death in 1535.

In more recent times, this is where Nelson Mandela addressed Parliament and where the bodies of people like Winston Churchill and King George VI were laid in state before their funerals.

We enjoyed looking at all the statues of animals and admiring the 600-year-old roof. Our guide told us that when they did some repair work up there recently they found lots of medieval tennis balls up in the rafters left over from people indulging in a spot of royal tennis after work!

Follow the processional route taken by the Queen

The Queen opens Parliament every year and the tour follows the ‘Line of Route’, the route the Queen takes for the State Opening of Parliament. She arrives in a horse drawn coach at the Sovereign’s Entrance and makes her way from there to the Robing Room, through the Royal Gallery and Tudor Room to the Lords Chamber.

We were fascinated to discover that before the State Opening, the cellars of the Palace of Westminster are searched by the Beefeaters, the Yeoman of the Guard from the Tower of London, in order to prevent another Gunpowder Plot. The Yeoman Warders search the cellars with their lanterns. This is the cellar where, in 1605, Guy Fawkes was found guarding a pile of gunpowder with which he and a group of Catholic plotters were planning to blow up the Houses of Parliament in an attempt to kill the protestant King James I.

Find the secret door in the Robing Rome

The Robing Rome, with its highly ornate ceilings and copious amounts of gold leaf, is probably the grandest dressing room you’ll ever see. There’s even a throne in here, a ‘Chair of State’, built for Queen Victoria. This is where the Queen comes to put on her state robes and the Imperial State Crown. A copy of Charles I’s death warrant is displayed in here as a stark reminder of what can happen to a monarch who attempts to interfere with Parliament.

The most thrilling thing for my boys was the discovery of a secret panel which leads to the Royal Apartments or, in other words, a toilet which only the Queen is allowed to use.

Admire the glitz of the Lords Chamber


The Queen addresses Parliament in the most lavishly decorated room of the whole palace. The Royal Throne is based on the early 14th century Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey. In front of the throne there’s a big cushion like a giant beanbag where the Lord Speaker sits. It’s called a Woolsack because it’s stuffed with wool. All the benches are red here, which is the colour of the Lords as opposed to the Commons which is green. There are lots of microphones dangling down from the ceiling which my boys thought looked like the candles hanging down from the Great Hall at Hogwarts.

See if you can work out where Churchill damaged the table

A bomb fell on the House of Commons during the Second World War so the government had to move into the Lords Chamber. Winston Churchill was prime minister at the time and he used to pound on the desk during his speeches to the Commons. The table in the middle of the Lords Chamber is that same table and if you look closely you can see the mark where Churchill’s signet ring scratched the table from Churchill banging on it so much.

Look at the statues of the prime ministers in the Members’ Lobby

IMG_1428-Commons-from-Members-Lobby-with-ChurchillYou can find more bomb damage in what is now called the Churchill Arch in the Members’ Lobby outside the entrance to the Commons Chamber. There are statues here of various prominent prime ministers including Winston Churchill, Clement Atlee and Margaret Thatcher.

There’s a marked difference between the size of Churchill’s statue and that of Lloyd George. Our guide told us that Churchill deliberately commissioned his statue to tower over that of his predecessor. Apparently Lloyd George’s widow complained that he looked ridiculous so they put him on a plinth to make him look taller.







Stand in the Commons Chamber


We would have loved to have sat down on one of the famous green benches but unfortunately it’s not allowed. The Commons Chamber is the room we really wanted to see for ourselves, the room we’ve seen countless times on the television. The first thing that struck us was how much smaller it looks in real life. There are 650 members of parliament but there is only space in the chamber for 450 people on the benches.

Another interesting thing we learned was that the Queen is not allowed in this room. No British monarch has been allowed in since King Charles I stormed into the Commons – and we all know what happened to him.

Find out where the Speaker used to go to the toilet

Oh, the joys of toilet humour! The grand Speaker’s Chair is raised up so that the Speaker can see what’s going on and control the proceedings. It looks all the grander for having a canopy over the top of the chair. This is because they used to hang drapes around the chair whenever the Speaker needed to use the toilet.

There is a rule that the Speaker has to be present for the parliamentary session to carry on. Nobody wanted to interrupt the session if the Speaker needed the loo so for 600 years the poor Speaker had to draw the curtains and use a chamber pot behind the canopy whenever he had to relieve himself. This went on for centuries until it was decided that a Deputy Speaker could stand in if the Speaker had to leave the room.

See where the Suffragettes used to chain themselves in St Stephens Hall

Suffragettes regularly used to chain themselves to the statue of Lord Falkland when they were protesting about the women’s right to vote at the beginning of the 20th century. The women caused such a disturbance that they banned women from the Central Lobby for ten years from 1908 to 1918.

See who you can spot…

IMG_3672The thing about the Houses of Parliament is that you never know who you’re going to bump into. As we walked outside, a Rolls Royce pulled up and there was the King of Ghana and his entourage…

Don’t miss the Jewel Tower

Your tour ticket gives you free entry to the Jewel Tower opposite Westminster Palace. It was built in 1365 to store King Edward III’s personal treasure and was originally surrounded by a moat to make it harder to attack.

The official records of the House of Lords were kept here from 1580 to 1864 so this is the place to see copies of thrilling documents like the death warrant of King Charles I and the act of parliament that abolished slavery.

How to book a tour of the Houses of Parliament

Tours are available on Saturdays thought the year and on most weekdays during parliamentary recesses including the summer, Christmas and Easter.

There are several ways of booking a tour. You can either book a tour online or from the ticket office at the front of Portcullis House. A self-guided audio tour costs £18.50 for adults. One child is free with each paying adult, £7.50 for each additional child. There is a family version of the audio tour. The 90-minute guided tours cost £25.50, adults; £11, children. It’s best to book in advance but some tickets may be available on the day from the ticket office.

UK residents can do a guided tour free of charge by contacting their MP. All you need to do is contact your MP or a Member of the House of Lords. You can find your MP and a list of Members of the House of Lords on the UK Parliament website.

There are regular Family Guided Tours of the Houses of Parliament. Check the website for details.

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A Tour of Buckingham Palace

The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace are open to the public over the summer and it’s a wonderful opportunity to be shown around the Queen’s London home. The tour takes you round all the grandest rooms of the palace including the Throne Room, the Ballroom where State Banquets are held, and the lavishly decorated official drawing rooms.

This year’s tour includes entrance to an exhibition on 90 Years of Style from the Queen’s Wardrobe. It’s particularly exciting as the Queen’s wedding dress and Coronation dress will be on display together for the first time ever.

The tour takes you to nineteen of the State Rooms which the Queen uses for ceremonial occasions and entertains official visitors. You’ll see paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt and some of the finest English and French furniture in the world.

We visited Buckingham Palace last summer and we are still talking about it. Harry, my 9-year-old, kept going back to the start of the tour so that he could keep climbing up the Grand Staircase, pretending he was the Queen. The visit really fired up the boys’ imaginations and they have been holding coronations for their toys ever since. I have given up telling them that it’s “crowning”, not “coronating” – apparently coronating sound far grander.

Here’s what they thought about it. You’ll find my tips for families at the end.

EdwardBy Edward, age 11

Buckingham Palace is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Great Britain. It’s horribly busy but it’s completely worth it to visit the State Rooms. It is one of the oldest working palaces in the world and the State Rooms are so beautiful and grand.

Buckingham Palace actually started out as Buckingham House owned by the Duke of Buckingham. King George III bought the house for his wife as a private retreat. When George IV became king he began turning the house into a palace. He appointed the architect John Nash, who was later dismissed by Parliament for spending too much. The architect, Edward Blore was later employed to finish the palace for the new Queen Victoria.

The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The tour of the State Rooms begins at the Grand Entrance. This entrance is reserved for foreign ambassadors and diplomats. You’ll see the Quadrangle, the courtyard in the middle of the palace, where processions form for special occasions. On a state visit, the mounted band of the Household Division also plays here to welcome the visiting Head of State and their entourage.

At the end of the Quadrangle looms the magnificence of the Grand Entrance, with its many columns and facades. Inside, it is even more magnificent with its red carpet and fireplace made from a single block of marble. Upstairs the Grand Staircase invites you up with its elegant curls. Through the Guard Chamber, which looks like the inside of a giant jewel box, you’ll find the Green Drawing Room with its green walls, green sofas and green curtains.


Continued by Harry, age 9

Buckingham Palace is an outstanding place to visit. It is so historical, whether you’re in the Ballroom or walking up the beautiful Grand Staircase. But before you go exploring let me tell you one thing. You will see loads and loads of gold! And if you’re thinking about gold doors, gold chairs and gold tables you should see the Ballroom.

When you have finished going around the beautiful Green Drawing Room you walk into the Throne Room. All the other rooms you have walked through prepare you for this moment. When you walk through the grand archway you will almost definitely be looking not at the magnificent walls but at the velvet canopy and beneath that, Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh’s official thrones.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Did you know Queen Victoria was the first monarch to make use of the Throne Room and that nearly all the official Royal Family wedding photos are taken in there?

One of my highlights was the Ballroom because when we went it was all set up for a state banquet. It was so majestic! There were hundreds of glasses and gold plates everywhere!

As you walk around you will find out lots of interesting facts about the Royal Family. For example, the Queen’s three eldest children and her grandson, Prince William, were baptised in the Music Room by the Archbishop of Canterbury with water brought from the River Jordan. And in the exquisite White Drawing Room there’s even a secret entrance behind a mirror so that the Royal Family can enter the State Rooms from their private apartments.

In the famous gardens you’ll find the Family Pavilion. This is a great place for children to play as they can dress up in clothes from the Dressing Up Box and pose in front of cardboard thrones. You can also work out the place settings for a Royal Banquet using cardboard cut-outs of cutlery, plates and glasses.


Be prepared to queue: We went on the first day of the Summer Opening and the queues were horrendous. We had a timed entrance slot on our ticket but had to queue for at least an hour before we got in. The queues might be slightly better if you go in September.

No pushchairs are allowed in the State Rooms: You will need to leave your pushchair at the security area before you start the tour. You can pick up a baby carrier or hip seat for a toddler instead.

Going to the toilet is an event in itself: There are no public toilets at the start of the tour which can be something of a problem if you’ve been queueing for an hour to get into the Palace in the first place. The public toilets are in the garden, at the end of the tour. But if you say you’re desperate, helpful staff will lift up all sorts of barriers and give you a VIP escort to some toilets halfway around the tour. Sadly, they didn’t look like the ones the Queen uses which would have been even more thrilling.

The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace are open daily from 23rd July until 2nd October. Adults, £21.50; children, £12.30; under 5s, free; family ticket, £55.30.

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Family Fun on the Cutty Sark

©National Maritime Museum, London

Imagine you’re the captain in charge of an historic sailing ship, trying to beat the record for the fastest time back to London from Australia. You’ve got to dodge the icebergs around Cape Horn and use the compass to follow the trade winds to steer the fastest course.

Children can do all this on the Cutty Sark in Greenwich where they can have a go navigating the ship, taking the helm of the ship’s wheel and even climbing into one of the bunkbeds to try it for size.

The Cutty Sark is one of the most famous ships in the world. The Victorian tea clipper was built in 1869 as a cargo ship to bring tea back from China. It was the fastest ship of its time thanks to its long, narrow hull and large sail area.

We visited with our eldest son last weekend. Just seeing the ship from the outside is impressive enough – it has three masts and eleven miles of rigging – but we were blown away by the brilliant family-friendly activities on board and fascinated by its colourful history. This is a ship that has survived mutiny, storms and a captain who jumped overboard (the last sight of him was the sharks circling around the area where he was last seen.)

The tour starts under the ship, where you can touch the copper hull and see the world’s largest collection of figureheads. Cutty Sark’s own figurehead is Nannie, a scantily clad witch from a poem by Robert Burns about a farmer called Tam who is chased by this witch, dressed only in a ‘cutty sark’, an old Scottish name for a short nightdress.

You then take the elevator to the main deck where you’ll gaze in wonder at the masts and rigging. Its here that you can take the helm of the ship’s wheel and step into some of the cabins. There’s a real difference between the luxury of the captain’s cabin and the bunk beds used by other members of the crew. You can even climb into the beds to try it for yourself.

But if you were sailing on the Cutty Sark you were lucky if you had a bed at all. Most of the crew lived and slept on deck and worked four-hourly watches. If you fell asleep on the watch you had to sit on top of the mast – and it’s a long way up, believe me. Life would have been like this for a long time – it took eight months to sail from London to China and back again and some of the apprentices were only 14.

You can look in the galley too where all the food would have been prepared. Pea soup and salt pork was a typical weekday dinner, with potato pie as a treat at weekends. You can even see the carpenter’s workshop with all the tools laid out on the benches and try on a sailor’s hat and boots for size.

Now make your way down the stairs to the Tween Deck, a vast space which was used for storing cargo. It had to be large – 10,000 tea chests were loaded on its arrival in China, enough for 200 million cups of tea. In its time as a cargo ship, Cutty Sark carried wool, shark bones, tobacco, pianos, cocoa beans, coal and shoes as well as tea. From 1883 the ship sailed from Sydney to London with wool and this was when it sailed its fastest speeds under Captain Woodget, Cutty Sark’s longest serving captain.

Woodget was a fearless navigator. In order to go faster to Australia and catch the trade winds he travelled further south than any previous commander. This was highly dangerous as the ship frequently came into contact with icebergs. His record time for the voyage from Sydney to London was 70 days.

This space is now filled with interactive games and activities so that you can really imagine what life was like for sailors on the ship. There are so many different things to do whether you’ve got toddlers or teenagers. You can play with models of the Cutty Sark, load tea chests, learn how to tie knots or sit down on a moving bench to see what it’s like to be on a ship that’s rocking all the time.

Edward got really into the wonderful navigation game where you have to use maps and a compass to see if you can follow the trade winds from Sydney to London, using the wheel to steer faster than Captain Woodget. There’s also an amazing ship simulator which is based on the software used to train real captains. There are five interactive screens and you have to read navigational equipment, electronic charts and radars to navigate buoys in New York’s harbour or steer a P&O ferry into port in Dover.

Family Fun on the Cutty SarkBut there’s loads of other things to do as well. You can smell and touch samples of some of the ship’s cargo: tea, cocoa beans and pickles; ring the ship’s bell and unfurl the sails on the model ship.

Finally, make your way to the Lower Hold which is full of tea chests. Here we watched a short film about the Cutty Sark’s history.

The Family Explorer Trails are full of things for children to find and do as they make their way round the ship. Under 5s can borrow a backpack filled with toys and stories. There are regular family events at weekends and holidays, with stories from people dressed up as characters from the ship’s history such as the captain, the cook and even the figurehead, as well as games, activities and crafts. On Wednesday mornings, toddlers can enjoy songs, stories and playtime on board.

If you’re in central London, make the trip even more fun by getting the boat from Westminster Pier to Greenwich. It’s a 40-minute trip down the Thames.

The Cutty Sark is open daily from 10am. Tickets cost from £12.15, adults; £6.30, children; under 5s, free.

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The Top 10 Museums in London for Children

The best museums are so much fun that your children won’t want to leave at the end of the day. They’re the sort of places where playing is encouraged and where there are lots of interactive exhibits that children can touch and enjoy.

In this list of London’s top ten, there really is something for everyone, whether you fancy shooting down a pirate ship, repairing a mini Tube train or playing in a giant sandpit. Even better, most of the museums on this list are free.

The British Museum

The Best Museums in London for ChildrenMy kids love going to the British Museum. The mummies in the Ancient Egypt section are a particular favourite. There’s so much to explore whether you’re into the Aztecs and the Incas, the Vikings or Ancient Greece. It’s best to pick just one area to visit each time you go or it’s just too much to take in.

On our last trip we went round the Roman Britain rooms with an activity backpack filled with artefacts, dressing up clothes and things to do. It made our visit even more enjoyable than usual. You can pick up backpacks, art materials and activity worksheets for specific areas from the Families Desk. Children can also take part in object handling sessions, digital and film-making workshops.

The British Museum is open daily; admission is free.

London Transport Museum

A visit to the London Transport Museum became even more fun this year with the opening of the All Aboard family play zone. Children up to 7 can repair a mini Tube train, fly a cable car and sit in the driver’s seat of a bus. There are lots of activities for older children too as there’s lots of real buses and trains to play on, historical outfits to dress up in and the chance to drive Tube train simulators.

The museum tells the history of London and its transport and you’ll see everything from rowing boats and paddle steamers to double decker buses, horse-drawn carriages and electric trams. There are activities in the Family Station at weekends and holidays.

London Transport Museum is open daily. Adults, £16; children, free.

The Clink Prison Museum

Children can handle real torture devices at the world’s most notorious medieval prison at this museum in Southwark, on the original site of The Clink Prison, which dates back to 1144. You’ll find out about a day in the life of a medieval prisoner and hear tales of some of the gruesome prisoners. If you’re feeling brave, it’s a great place to spot ghosts: the prison is reputed to be one of the UK’s most haunted locations and is renowned for its ghostly sightings…

The Clink Prison Museum is open daily. Adults, £7.50; children, £5.50.

V & A Museum of Childhood

This museum is every child’s dream whether they’re into dolls’ houses, Star Wars figures, Lego or electric train sets. Here in Bethnal Green, you’ll find one of the world’s best collections of toys both old and new so you’ll see everything from robots and rocking horses to computer games, puppet theatres and chemistry sets.

There are hundreds of toys on display but also plenty of toys to play with and things to do. There are lots of interactive areas with touch screen games and activity stations with Lego, board games, Punch and Judy stalls and a giant sandpit. There’s also a brilliant Sensory Pod and daily art and craft sessions.

The V & A Museum of Childhood is open daily; admission is free.

The Science Museum

This is the place to come if you want to see the Apollo 10 command module and Stephenson’s Rocket. There is so much for children to do here, from morphing your face to see what it will look like when you’re older to investigating climate change and dressing up as a WWII fighter pilot.

The Launchpad Gallery is one of the world’s leading hands-on science centres and kids can learn all about physics with interactive exhibits, demonstrations and shows like the Science of Explosion. Staff are on hand to answer questions and share their enthusiasm. Younger children will love the Pattern Pod, a multi-sensory area for 5 to 8 year olds. The regular Sleepovers are a big draw: children stay all night at the museum and take part in science shows and hands-on workshops.

The Science Museum is open daily; admission is free.

National Maritime Museum

You can fire a cannon, shoot down a pirate ship and steer a ship into port in the fantastic All Hands children’s gallery at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. There are regular family events at the museum and a Great Map, a multi sensory giant world atlas where children and their parents can play a magical interactive game and set sail for themselves.

There’s plenty to occupy the under 7s too. In Ahoy! they can stoke the boiler of a steamship, catch a fish for dinner and work together in the interactive boatyard. Christmas events at the museum include activities to show how Christmas was celebrated through the ages.

National Maritime Museum is open daily; admission is free.

Bank of England Museum

Don’t miss the chance to hold a genuine bar of gold at the Bank of England Museum – it’s heavier than you’d think! Children can board the aptly named ‘Monetary Policy Boat’ and do the interactive game to discover what the Bank does to keep the economy on a steady course.

You can also take a virtual tour of the Bank of England’s vaults, look at bank notes dating back from the 17th century and hear the tales of the Bank’s ghostly nun. There are activity sheets for families.

Bank of England Museum is open on weekdays; admission is free.

Royal Air Force Museum

Can you imagine what it’s like to take part in a WW1 dogfight or ride in a tornado jet? At the RAF Museum in Hendon you can do just that on one of their amazing flight simulators. In the children’s interactive science gallery you can take the controls of a helicopter and test your reaction times and vision to see if you could become a pilot.

The museum is a must-see for any child who dreams of flying as it houses over 100 historic aircraft including Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters as well as the English Electric Lightning, the first British plane to reach twice the speed of sound, and the incredible Eurofighter Typhoon.

Royal Air Force Museum is open daily. Admission is free; simulators cost £3 each.

Natural History Museum

There is so much to thrill children here whether they’re into dinosaurs and furry frogs or cursed amethysts and duck-billed platypuses. You can feel the earth move in the Earthquake Machine, play detective games around the museum and visit the growing fox cubs in the Wildlife Garden. The hands-on Science Centre is a great place for children to examine specimens from the natural world for themselves, using microscopes and other scientific tools.

The museum hosts regular Sleepovers for children too. Over Christmas and New Year, don’t miss the ice rink which is open until January 3rd.

Natural History Museum is open daily; admission is free.

Horniman Museum and Gardens

There are costumes to try on, musical instruments to play and stuffed animals to investigate at this treasure trove of a museum in Forest Hill. The collections of objects from all over the world include a torture chair, African and Mexican masks and over 1,300 musical instruments. There are activity packs and trails for most of the rooms and interactive sound tables for you to listen to music and try making some of your own. There’s also an aquarium and a Nature Base with real harvest mice and a bee hive.

Children will love following the oldest nature trail in London around the 16-acre gardens and the Animal Walk where they can get up close with alpacas, chickens and guinea pigs.

Horniman Museum is open daily; admission is free. Entrance to the Aquarium costs £3.50 for adults, £1.50 for children.

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Ghosts, Unicorns and Feasts Fit for a King: Finding out about the Tudors at Hampton Court

© Historic Royal Palaces

© Historic Royal Palaces

My two children are really into history so we often try and explore historical sites when we’re travelling. We’ve found out about the Ancient Romans in Provence, learnt about King George IV’s huge appetite in Brighton and wandered around the home of the Minotaur in Knossos.

They’re particularly keen on the Tudors and King Henry VIII has always been a favourite. It’s no surprise why: the six wives, the beheadings, the jousting, the jewels and the hordes of servants including the wonderfully named Groom of the Stool whose job it was to wipe the Royal bottom after he’d been to the toilet. The stories are endlessly entertaining. One of the best places to find out more about the original Horrid Henry is Hampton Court Palace in Richmond-upon-Thames, just outside London.

Hampton Court was King Henry VIII’s favourite palace. This was the place he brought his royal court to hunt, feast and party. He spent more time here than anywhere else and this year they’ve been celebrating its 500 year anniversary.

IMG_1572As soon as you walk towards the Great Gatehouse you’ll find the King’s Beasts – ten statues of animals standing on the bridge over the moat. We’re big fans of magical creatures and loved the dragons, panthers, unicorns and lions. As you wander around the palace you can find more amazing animals in the tapestries, stained glass, paintings and ceilings. Look really close and you’ll see griffins and phoenixes as well as lions and dragons.

Our first stop was the Information Centre where we all chose a velvet cloak to wear as we wandered around. It’ll keep you warm if you’re coming in the winter and there’s nothing quite like a colourful velvet cloak to make you feel more royal and worthy of being in such a splendid palace. The Information Centre is also the place to pick up one of the excellent family trails and audio guides for adults and children.

© Historic Royal Palaces

© Historic Royal Palaces

The best place to start your Tudor trail is in the Great Hall which really gives you an idea of the grandeur of the palace. It took five years to build – Henry VIII was so impatient for it to be finished that he insisted that the carpenters be given candles so that they could work into the night on the new ceiling.

It really is splendid. The walls are hung with Henry’s most sumptuous tapestries, The Story of Abraham. They cost him about £2,000 which was the same price as a fully-equipped warship and they were made with real gold and silver thread. Definitely bling, Tudor style.

The Great Hall was used as a dining room and a theatre – William Shakespeare performed here for King James I over the Christmas of 1603.

Now walk through into the Great Watching Chamber. This is where the most important people sat to eat and where people waited to speak to the king. The ceiling is covered in real gold leaf and the walls hung with another gorgeous tapestry. Henry VIII loved tapestries so much that by the time he died he owned over 2,000. You’re more than likely to find characters dressed up as Tudors as you walk round, acting out little plays so you can almost believe you’re there at the time of Henry himself.

© Historic Royal Palaces

© Historic Royal Palaces

From here, make your way to the Processional Corridor and the Haunted Gallery, so called because so many people believe it to be haunted by the ghost of Queen Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of King Henry VIII.

The story goes that when Henry ordered her arrest for cheating on him with another man, Catherine dodged her guards and ran screaming down the corridor to beg the king for mercy. Henry didn’t listen and had her beheaded in the Tower of London. Her ghost, a figure dressed in white with long flowing hair, is still said to visit the gallery. Staff and visitors have reported hearing screams and feeling cold as they walk through.

The Chapel Royal at Hampton Court has been used for 450 years and you can still go to services here. Kings and queens used the private pew which looks down into the chapel. Here you’ll find the recreation of the stunning crown that Henry VIII always wore on the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th when he would process to the chapel to offer gold, frankincense and myrrh in celebration of the visit of the three kings to baby Jesus.

The crown was decorated with over 300 precious stones: diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and pearls and it was used in the coronations of all three of his children: Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth.

Along the corridors leading to the chapel, my two loved seeing the portraits of the royals particularly the one of Henry VIII with Jane Seymour, his favourite wife, and all three of his children. Even his favourite jester is in the painting with his pet monkey.

Richard Lea-Hair/Historic Royal Palaces/newsteam.co.uk

Richard Lea-Hair/Historic Royal Palaces/newsteam.co.uk

If you make your way back to Base Court you can visit Henry VIII’s Kitchens. These were the biggest kitchens in Tudor England. They needed to be. When the royal court came to Hampton Court, 600 people would need feeding. Here you can see where the fresh food arrived and you can walk down the alleyways and peer through the doorways where the food was stored.

Hampton Court PalaceIn the Boiling House you’ll find a giant cooking pot where meat was boiled for pies and stews. People loved their meat in Tudor times. In one year at Hampton Court they ate their way through 8,200 sheep, 2,300 deer and 1,870 pigs. For special feasts they ate roasted peacock, swans and herons.

In the Great Kitchen the massive log fire is lit and the walls are blackened with hundreds of years of use. You can see where the meat would have been roasted on a giant spit. It’s still used to prepare Tudor meals today. Further along is the Serving Place where the food was arranged on the best pewter dishes and taken up to the Great Hall.

© Historic Royal Palaces

© Historic Royal Palaces

Don’t leave Hampton Court without visiting the most famous maze in the world and one you can really risk getting lost in. The 60-acre formal gardens are beautiful throughout the year and the perfect place for letting off  steam and playing hide-and-seek.

There are lots of family activities going on at Hampton Court over Christmas and into the New Year. From December 27th until January 3rd you can join a team of cooks as they prepare a lavish Tudor-style banquet for ‘Henry’s Feast’. Children can take part in workshops to make Tudor decorations on December 19th and there’s an ice-skating rink at the palace until January 4th.

Hampton Court Palace is open daily (closed December 24, 25 and 26). A family ticket costs from £43.50.



From Tigers to Tarantulas: A Day Out at Longleat Safari Park

HarryBy Harry, age 9.

I went on a deadly safari with my Grandpa last weekend. I love animals so Longleat is the perfect day out for me. You can see all sorts of animals like hippos, lions, wolves, flamingos and meerkats.

The first thing we did was the drive through safari. The tigers were absolutely huge. There were quite a lot lying around and one walked right past our car. The lions came really close to us too. There are two prides of lions at Longleat. They have to be kept apart so they don’t fight each other. There were lions everywhere we looked: cubs, lionesses and the big males.

Longleat Safari ParkLongleatWe also saw lots of rhinos but one of the best bits was the camels because they came right up to the car and put their head in the window! It was really funny.

I loved the monkey drive-thru. You should be warned though – the monkeys will eat parts of your car. You can see lots of bits of window wipers on the floor all around as you drive through. My Grandpa wanted to miss this bit out because he didn’t want the monkeys to climb on his car but I convinced him to do it.

Grandpa tried to avoid the monkeys by weaving in and out of the other cars but then he nearly ran a monkey over so he had to stop. The monkeys soon took their chance and they jumped onto our car. We could hear thudding coming from the roof. I think there were at least 20 monkeys up there!

At the end of the safari we even saw a pack of wolves. They’re very hard to spot but I saw lots of them.

Once you have been to the drive through, you can park your car and walk around all the other attractions. We went into the Bat Cave where Egyptian bats are flying around and eating oranges. One of the bats brushed past my ear and another one sat on my hand.

I really liked Penguin Island. The penguins swim all around you and beneath you and you can feed them with fish. My best bit was the area where you can actually walk with the penguins because they are so sweet. Penguins like legs so they actually get quite close to you.

Longleat Safari ParkIn Jungle Kingdom you can see animals from all round the globe like meerkats, pythons and otters. I really liked the meerkats and the otters were all curled up together. A bit further on, in Animal Adventure, you can see parrot shows. The parrots go on skateboards which is really funny.

We also went into the Butterfly House where butterflies flew all around us and there’s a special area where you can hold creatures like tortoises, pythons and tarantulas. I thought it would be scary holding a python but it was actually quite relaxing because the python felt all slippery and warm. I didn’t want to hold a tarantula though because I don’t like spiders. Grandpa said it wasn’t as bad as an ordinary spider because it feels all furry – I wasn’t prepared to risk it!

Longleat Safari ParkThe last thing we did was go on a boat around the lake. There are sea lions and hippos in the lake and you can feed the sea lions with fish. On the island you can even see Nico, the very old and grumpy gorilla. He’s got his own television and he especially likes TV programmes with lots of yellow in them like The Simpsons and SpongeBob. The keepers give him warm Ribena every morning and evening.

I think Longleat is a brilliant day out. You should definitely go.

Longleat is open all year round. Adults, from £28; children, from £20.35.

We’re going on a Dragon Hunt at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton

Brighton Royal PavilionIt was my 12-year-old who begged to go to the Royal Pavilion. He said it looked like it had been beamed down from another planet and he just had to see it. We were so glad he did. The Royal Pavilion is as extravagant and eccentric on the inside as it looks on the outside and we just loved it. What’s more, it is decorated with loads and loads of dragons so it’s the perfect place for a family dragon hunt.

Royal Pavilion BrightonThe Royal Pavilion was built as a seaside retreat for George, Prince of Wales, in 1787. He wanted somewhere to escape from the confines of London and a discreet place to spend time with his mistress. George became Prince Regent in 1811 and continued to spend a lot of time in Brighton where he was known for his lavish entertaining and expensive tastes. The current appearance of the Pavilion with its Indian-style domes and minarets is the work of the architect, John Nash, who also designed Buckingham Palace.

As you walk into the Pavilion you are instantly struck by the bright colours on the walls and furnishings. There is nothing muted here, it’s all pinks, golds, greens, yellows and reds. Even the Entrance Hall is decorated with panels and banners of snakes and dragons. The whole theme is Oriental so while the exterior is Indian, all the interiors are influenced by the Chinese styles which were so fashionable in the Late Georgian era.

The whole effect is extravagant and exotic and we loved it. My two especially enjoyed spotting all the dragons, serpents and other fantastical creatures.

Our favourite room was the Banqueting Room which dwarves even the Ballroom at Buckingham Palace with its opulence and splendour. There are huge chandeliers and frescoes with mythological creatures (half phoenix and half peacock). There are literally dragons everywhere: gilded dragons, bronze dragons and a huge dragon holding the central chandelier.

The magnificence of the Banqueting Room reflects King George IV’s love of food. He enjoyed holding elaborate banquets, with as many as 100 dishes for a grand dinner. You can see a menu for the banquet held in honour of the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia’s visit in 1817. Some of the dishes served included thrush tart, stuffed partridges, haunch of boar and the head of a great sturgeon in Champagne. There were no less than 32 desserts, some of them elaborate centrepieces that were 1.2 metres high.

Brighton Royal PavilionGeorge IV’s lavish dining caught up with him in the end: he suffered morbid obesity and died of “fat on the heart”.

As a great lover of food, George was proud of his kitchen which was very advanced for his day. He used to love showing his visitors around the kitchen which boasted the latest steam heating technology and ventilation system. It too has an Oriental theme, with cast-iron columns ornamented with painted copper palm leaves supporting the ceiling. King George even dined here once with his servants.

Music was another of George IV’s great passions and the Music Room at the Pavilion is every bit as opulent as the Banqueting Room with its red and gold frescoes and nine lotus-shaped chandeliers.

Royal Pavilion in BrightonThe king often entertained his guests with concerts after dinner and the setting had to be magnificent so there are Chinese scenes depicted on the walls, carved flying dragons and serpents above the curtain drapes and a splendid gilded domed ceiling.

The next room we visited was the king’s bedroom. It had to be moved to the ground floor in his later life because he was afflicted with gout and so overweight that he could barely walk upstairs. There is a hidden door which leads up to his mistress’s bedroom and the bed is the bed that he died in, transported from Windsor Castle. It even has a tipping mechanism so that the overweight king could get out of bed more easily.

I loved the green and gold colour scheme and the adjoining library is so perfect I wanted to take it home.

Brighton Royal PavilionUpstairs, you’ll find the gorgeous Yellow Bow Rooms with their vivid yellow wallpaper hand-painted with designs of dragons, phoenixes and birds of paradise.

Queen Victoria’s Apartments are upstairs too. You can see the hand-painted Chinese wallpaper and mahogany four-poster bed furnished with six mattresses of straw, hair and feathers. There’s even a tiny Maid’s Room.

Queen Victoria’s bedroom is more muted in style than the other rooms, in keeping with a woman who was not amused by Brighton and the Royal Pavilion. She never much liked Brighton and the extravagant Pavilion was not to her taste. She told people that “the Pavilion is a strange, odd Chinese looking place.” She eventually sold the Pavilion to the town of Brighton in 1850.

While you’re upstairs you should visit the wonderfully eccentric Tea Room. We can definitely recommend the delicious cakes and the setting is a delight.

The Royal Pavilion is right in the centre of Brighton so after your visit take the time to wander down to the beach, walk along the Pier and have fish and chips. It’s the British seaside: it’s compulsory.

The Royal Pavilion is open daily. Adults, £11.50; children, £6.20.

Pin It!We're going on a Dragon Hunt at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton