The Family Travel Show

Family Travel ShowDo you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice there is when you’re planning a family holiday? The whole world is out there to explore but how do you decide where to go and what to do?

Do you go skiing, on a safari, a cruise or a city break? And how do you decide where to stay once you’re there? Is it better to pick a large hotel with kids’ clubs and activities on tap, a campsite or a self-catering villa?

We’re hoping to find the answers to these questions and lots more at the Family Travel Show in London on October 1st and 2nd. It’s the only UK event dedicated to family holiday inspiration so it will be packed with family travel experts and holiday companies all keen to answer your questions and inspire you with lots of ideas for your next holiday.

Family Travel ShowWith exhibitors ranging from ski and safari companies to cruises and adventure travel, it’s a great opportunity to find out about lots of different kinds of holidays. There’s a big fun element at the show too, with competitions to win holidays and lots of activities to keep the children entertained.

You can dress up and have your photo taken in front of famous landmarks, try on scuba diving equipment, go on a climbing wall or find out how to build a fire without matches with London Bushcraft.

Lonely Planet Kids is offering discounts on its children’s travel books, an activity sheet competition and the chance to explore different environments using a virtual reality headset.

Children can take part in a 45-minute photography workshop too, learning the basics of how a camera works and how to take pictures of moving wildlife and landscapes.

Family Travel ShowThe Family Travel Show is taking place at Olympia in London from 1st to the 2nd October. Tickets for adults cost £10 on the door or £8 in advance. Children under 16, free. If you’d like tickets for only £6 use the code, SUITCASES. The photography workshops cost £10 per child and should be booked in advance to secure a place.

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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

IMG_1326-Peers-lobby-to-Lords-FINAL

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

IMG_1268-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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Why you should see the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy

Why you should see The Summer Exhibition at the RAThe Summer Exhibition  at the Royal Academy of Arts is one of the must-see events of a London summer. Held every year since 1769, it’s the largest and most popular open exhibition in the UK. Any living artist can submit works to be considered so you could find a piece by a complete unknown hung next to a Hockney.

Most of the works are for sale so it’s a great chance to pick up a first piece of art. Prices start at £50 and run into the tens of thousands for the most well-known artists. Over £50,000 prize money is awarded each year and past winners have included Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons, David Hockney and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

I love the history of the exhibition. Artists like Gainsborough, Turner and Constable showed their works in these same galleries in the Summer Exhibitions of the past. I love the contrast between the contemporary art on the walls and the grand surroundings of 17th-century Burlington House.

Why you should see the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy

© Stephen White

There are lots of traditions associated with the Summer Exhibition. ‘Varnishing Day’ used to be the artists’ last chance to put finishing touches to their paintings. In 1832, Turner upset Constable by adding an eye-catching red buoy to his seascape, thereby upstaging his rival’s work. Nowadays the artists do a procession down the street from Burlington House to St. James’ Church, walking to the sounds of a steel band.

Another bizarre tradition is the secret Beef Tea that the Academicians are given to drink while they’re hanging the exhibition. It’s believed to be a mixture of Bovril and sherry!

The show is always curated by artists and this year is the turn of the British sculptor, Richard Wilson. He’s chosen to highlight the work of two artists working as a pair so you’ll find work by artists like Eva & Adele, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Gilbert and George.

But the most fantastic thing about the Summer Exhibition is the sheer diversity of the exhibits. It’s a celebration of contemporary art in all of its forms so there are sculptures, architectural models, paintings, videos, photos and prints. This makes it a unique place to come and see a wide variety of art.

Perhaps this is why there is such an eclectic mix of visitors to the exhibition every year. On the Sunday afternoon I went I was struck by the sheer variety of the people looking at the art. Hip 20-something couples stood next to old men in cream linen suits, children gazed at sculptures alongside middle-aged women out for the day with their friends.

It’s a great exhibition for kids because there’s so much variety that you’re always going to find something to interest, entertain and fascinate them. My 16-year-old goddaughter loved it. “The art here is so much fun!” she exclaimed as she walked around. For her, it was a far cry from the staid atmosphere of some of the art exhibitions and museums she’d visited in the past.

The fun starts in the stunning courtyard of 17th-century Burlington House. In this space, the designer and architect, Ron Arad, has set up ‘Spyre’, a 16-metre high steel oval cone which twirls like a snake above visitors’ heads. It moves constantly, its elegant acrobatic postures recording live footage of what it sees from the camera in the eye at its tip.

Why You Should See the Summer Exhibition at the RA“Normally we are looking at sculpture,” says Arad. “Now it is looking at us.”

The idea of being looked at is carried through into some of the other exhibits too. In some rooms it feels as if there are eyes everywhere, some looking at us from portraits, others gazing down from the ceiling.

Why You Should See the Summer Exhibition at the RAIn ‘The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci’, Kutlug Ataman has created a shimmering blue carpet hanging in the air – it’s made up of 10,000 LCD panels like passport photos, each with the photo of someone who the Turkish philanthropist encountered before his death.

Then there’s the sinister new sculpture by the Chapman Brothers in which the eyeless mannequins are holding their eyes in their hands.

You need to look up, down and all around you or you’ll miss something, like the figure of the girl cowering being one of the entrances. She’s hiding her face in her hands so that we can’t see her properly. Even the sculptures of dogs are positioned to look up at the art on the walls.

At the Summer Exhibition you’ll find a bit of everything. Some things appear designed to shock; others to amuse, inspire or make us think about the world in which we’re living. There’s a video of a cat licking cream, a huge tyre made out of cardboard and an iridescent tapestry woven out of beaten bottle tops.

Why You Should See the Summer Exhibition at the RAAono Fumiaki’s sculptures explore the theme of rebirth and healing after the devastating earthquake in Japan in 2011. He has gathered up household objects like books and sake bottles found at the scene and transformed them into sculptures.

The Royal Academy is running a series of creative family workshops over the school holidays inspired by the Summer Exhibition. The workshops last for two hours. Adults, £15; RA Friends, £5; children, £3. Booking is required.

The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts is on until 21st August. The Royal Academy is open every day from 10am until 6pm, until 10pm on Friday and Saturday nights. Adults, from £12; 16 to 18-year-olds, £10; under 16s, free.

For more ideas of art activities to do with children in London, take a look at The Ten Best Art Experiences for Kids in London

You’ll probably also enjoy Lego, Bicycles and Prison Cells: Why children should see Ai Weiwei

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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.

Harry

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.

TIPS FOR FAMILIES

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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Searching for the Royals at Kensington Palace

Searching for the Royals at Kensington Palace

© Historic Royal Palaces

My ten year old is obsessed with the Royal Family. It started when he was three and asked for a royal birthday party with a cake in the shape of a king’s head. He wore a purple cloak and a crown for the whole day – and for most of the next two years. Nowadays he reads everything he can get his hands on about the royals past and present. His favourite are the Queen (obviously) and Prince Harry but he loves reading all the stories about the famous kings and queens of the past, particularly Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria.

We’ve visited Buckingham PalaceHampton Court and Windsor Castle so it was only a matter of time before we made it to Kensington Palace, the current London home of William and Kate and former home of Princess Diana and Queen Victoria.

The first thing you see are the iconic Gold Gates, so well remembered for being the focus of public grief in the summer of 1997 after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, when they were covered with flowers which stretched all the way into Kensington Gardens.

Once inside the palace there are several trails which take you around the rooms, concentrating on the particular kings and queens that have lived here.

The Queen’s State Apartments are the oldest part of the palace. These are the rooms that were created for William III and Mary II when they were crowned as joint monarchs in 1689.

The Queen’s Gallery was built in 1693 as a large, airy room where Mary could play with her pet dogs and do her embroidery. Further along you’ll find the wood-panelled Queen’s Dining Room. This was where the King and Queen would eat together in private – they had a surprisingly simple diet, often just eating fish washed down with beer.

Harry and I loved finding out the stories of some of the monarchs that have lived here. There are plenty of family tragedies: poor Mary II died of smallpox aged 32 – she only ruled for four years. Her sister, Princess Anne, who eventually succeeded her as Queen Anne in 1702, had 17 pregnancies but only one child survived past infancy. His name was William and he also died of smallpox – at the age of 11.

Anne was often ill herself. She suffered from gout and became so lame and overweight in later years that she had to be carried around court in a sedan chair.

The grand rooms that make up the King’s State Apartments are those that were used by King George II and his wife, Queen Caroline, when they made the palace their home from 1727 until the King’s death in 1760. You enter the apartments by walking up the marvellous King’s Staircase. The walls were painted to recall life in the court of King George I. All the characters of the court are here, including the King’s Turkish servants and Peter ‘the wild boy’, a naked and silent boy who had been found living alone in the woods in Germany and was brought to London as a curiosity.

King George II and Queen Caroline held their court in these rooms and you get a real feeling for what life was like in Georgian London as you wander around. George II was raised in Hanover in Germany but unlike his father, George I, who only spoke German, George II embraced Britishness and insisted that only English be spoken at court. In a quote that endeared him to his British subjects he declared the British to be:

“The handsomest, the best shaped, the best natured, and the lovingest people in the world, and that if anybody would make their court to him, it must be by telling him he was like an Englishman.”

He’s won me over already.

We rather liked the striking red walls in the Presence Chamber where the King received courtiers and foreign ambassadors and we loved the grand tapestries hung on the walls of the Privy Chamber but we were most impressed by the Cupola Room, the most splendidly decorated room in the palace. This was where the composer, Handel, brought his troupe of Italian opera singers to entertain the court. It’s also where Queen Victoria was christened.

Next door, the King’s Drawing Room was only for the most privileged guests. The room was opened up to “suitably dressed visitors” at 10pm several times a week. It was here that the Queen loved to gamble at cards. Courtiers would risk their fortunes playing games like whist and quadrille here.

Searching for the Royals at Kensington Palace

© Historic Royal Palaces

The King’s Gallery is the largest of the state apartments and still looks as it did when it was decorated for George I in 1727. The dial over the fireplace was created for William III and is still connected to a wind vane on the roof. The King could use it to see which way the wind was blowing, where his navy was heading and when the post was likely to arrive. The map shows Great Britain as the same size as France. An optimistic error given that France is twice as big.

Queen Victoria was born at Kensington Palace in 1819 and Victoria Revealed takes you around the rooms in which she grew up and includes some fascinating objects from her personal life, from her childhood toys to extracts from her diaries and sketchbooks.

You enter via the staircase, where in 1836, Victoria met Prince Albert for the first time, declaring him “extremely handsome.” You then go into the Red Saloon where Victoria held her very first privy council meeting on her first day as queen. In the next room you’ll find a drawing room and the piano where Victoria and Albert played duets together. Some of the young Queen’s dresses are in here. We couldn’t believe how tiny they were – Victoria was obviously very short and slender when she was younger.

We then went into the room where she was born. Victoria’s father died when she was still a baby so she grew up alone with her mother, the Duchess of Kent. The young princess was brought up very strictly. She slept in her mother’s room until she became queen and she was never allowed out of the sight of an adult. She was hardly ever permitted to meet other children so she was very lonely, describing her childhood as “very unhappy.”

You can see her doll’s house and some of the 132 tiny wooden dolls that she played with. She gave them all names and made clothes for them with the help of her governess. Like our own Queen, Victoria was a keen animal lover. She loved riding her pony in Kensington Gardens and adored Dash, her King Charles spaniel, dressing him up in a red jacket and trousers. Dash was her constant companion and the first thing she did after her coronation in 1838 was to rush home and give him a bath.

The later rooms highlight Victoria’s long reign and the grief she experienced when her beloved Albert died in 1861. On display is the heart-shaped crystal locket she wore after his death which contains a lock of the prince’s hair, and one of the black mourning dresses that she insisted on wearing for the rest of her life. There is even some fascinating footage from a video of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

We really enjoyed the Fashion Rules Restyled exhibition which showcases some of the dresses designed for Princess Margaret in the 1950s, the Queen in the 1960s and 1970s and Princess Diana in the 1990s.

This is an amazing opportunity to see some of the iconic dresses worn by Princess Diana including the Catherine Walker green velvet evening dress she wore for her Vanity Fair shoot with Mario Testino. I particularly loved the full skirts and nipped-in waists of Princess Margaret’s look in the 1950s. You can even see some of the exquisite drawings created by designers like Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies while they were working on a dress for the Queen.

You must see the gardens after your visit around the palace. Take the Wiggly Walk, a long sloping path in between clipped hedges, up to the Sunken Garden, an 18th-century style garden with flower beds and an ornamental pond with fountains. If you’ve got time, wander around the wonderful Kensington Gardens. See if you can find the Peter Pan statue, go boating on the lake or play on the pirate ship in the brilliant Diana Memorial Playground.

Kensington Palace is open from 10am until 6pm. Adults, from £16.90; children, free. On Wednesdays and Saturdays in term time, under 5s can take part in ‘Tiny Explorers’, creative play sessions involving music, messy play and stories.

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The Ten Best Free Things to do in London

There is so much for children to see and do in London but a day in the city can work out really expensive by the time you’ve paid for entrance tickets, public transport, meals and treats like ice-creams. But not everything has to cost a fortune. We love going to London and sometimes the things we’ve enjoyed most haven’t cost us a penny. Here’s my guide to the ten best things to do in London that are completely free.

Watch the Changing of the Guard

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Most people have seen the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at Buckingham Palace but we prefer the Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard at Horse Guards Parade.  It’s much less crowded and there are no railings so you can see everything better. What’s more, it’s the Household Cavalry so the soldiers are on horseback with swords drawn and plumed helmets on their head.

The ceremony takes place every day at 11am (10am on Sundays). Click here for more information about changing the guard ceremonies.

Visit the Dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum

Top 10 Museums for Children in London

© Natural History Museum

The Dinosaur Gallery is rightly one of the biggest draws of the Natural History Museum but there is so much more for children to see and do 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.

Do an Activity Trail in 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 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.

Have a Picnic in a Park

Ten Best Free Things to do in LondonWhen we’re in the centre of London we often have a picnic in St. James’s Park where we can feed the ducks and watch the pelicans being fed. But if you want to make more of an outing of it, head for Kensington Gardens where there are some great picnic spots, the Peter Pan statue and the wonderful Diana Memorial Playground with its huge wooden pirate ship, giant sandpit and teepees. There’s even a tree house encampment with walkways, ladders and slides. For added fun, cross over the road into nearby Hyde Park for a splash around in the Diana Memorial Fountain.

Follow in the Footsteps of Harry Potter

Ten Best Free Things to Do in LondonEven Muggles can now visit Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station where Harry Potter boarded the train to Hogwarts. You can queue up to have your photo taken under the sign, complete with trolley, scarf and wand. There’s no charge for taking your own photos. Platforms 4 and 5 at the station were used for filming and the neo gothic exterior of nearby St Pancras International was used in the films to stand in for King’s Cross.

Now head down to Leadenhall Market, a covered market in the City used as Diagon Alley in the film of the Philosopher’s Stone. The blue door of the optician’s in Bull’s Head Passage was used as the entrance to The Leaky Cauldron.

Do a Workshop at the National Gallery

The Ten Best Art Experiences for Kids in London

© The National Gallery

The National Gallery is a great place to visit with children but did you know that they run free art workshops over the school holidays? The workshops are led by artists and inspired by paintings in the gallery. We’ve made flowers and drawn portraits but the workshop my two most enjoyed was making a sound picture with musical instruments of Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano, a 15th-century painting of knights on white chargers. All the children sat in front of the painting making the noises of horses’ hooves clopping, swords clashing and drums beating. Utterly brilliant!

The workshops are aimed at 5 to 11 year olds and take place on Sundays at 11am and 2pm and over the holidays. Children under 5 can do the Magic Carpet Storytelling on Sunday mornings.

Watch the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London

The traditional locking up of the Tower of London has taken place every night for over 700 years. At 9.52pm exactly, the Chief Yeoman Warder comes out carrying a candle lantern in one hand and the Queen’s keys in the other. He walks to Traitor’s Gate to meet the Foot Guards and the ceremony takes place. Forty to 50 visitors are admitted into the Tower to watch it every day from 9.30pm. Book online here.

Dress up as an Astronaut at the Science Museum

Top 10 Museums in London for Children

Science Museum, London

There is so much for children to do at the Science Museum 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. This is also the place to come if you want to see the Apollo 10 command module and Stephenson’s Rocket.

The Launchpad Gallery here is one of the world’s leading hands-on science centres where kids can learn all about maths and physics with interactive exhibits, demonstrations and shows. The gallery is closed until autumn while they create an even bigger area which will feature live chemistry experiments and a friction slide. In the meantime, visit the Pattern Pod, a multi-sensory area for 5 to 8 year olds, or the interactive Garden Gallery for pre-schoolers. There are also drop in experiments for all ages throughout the day at the Science Stations.

Meet chickens and goats at Coram’s Fields

Children can get up close with rabbits, goats and chickens at this city farm in Bloomsbury, right in the centre of London. Coram’s Fields also has some fantastic play areas – a large adventure playground with an aerial slide for older children and two large sandpits and a paddling pool for the little ones.

Free sports activities over the summer holidays range from tennis and cricket to egg and spoon races, rounders and an Olympic Games. In the youth centre, teenagers can record music and make videos in the music studio as well as take part in photography, sculpture and fashion and design classes in the art studio.

See an Open-Air Show at The Scoop

The Ten Best Free Things to do in LondonDon’t miss the Summer Festival at The Scoop, an outdoor amphitheatre near Tower Bridge. All you do is turn up. You can even bring your own picnic. The London Bridge City Summer Festival is on from June until the end of October, with live music, theatre performances, film screenings and pop-up food and drink. The festival programme should be out on the website soon. Last year’s events included a production of ‘Captain Showoff!’, a slapstick comedy set in Ancient Rome with sing-a-longs and audience participation.

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Seven Things you must do at the Tower of London

The Tower of London is one of the most iconic sites in the capital and an absolute must-see for anyone planning a visit to London. It’s great for kids who relish the more horrible parts of history as it’s packed with stories of torture, deaths, imprisonments, hauntings and murder. You’ll find everything from suits of armour to some of the most famous jewels in the world.

There’s so much to see and do here that it can seem a bit overwhelming. Here’s my guide to some of the best bits.

Go on a Yeoman Warder Tour

Seven Things You Must Do at the Tower of London

Picture: Frantzesco Kangaris/newsteam.co.uk

The Yeoman Warder Tours are a fantastic way to start your visit to the Tower. The Yeoman Warders (or Beefeaters as they’re more commonly known) live at the Tower and have guarded it for 500 years. They need to have served honourably in the armed forces for at least 22 years before they can even be considered for the job.

The tours take place every 30 minutes and take about an hour. The Yeoman Warders are full of stories and often very amusing. They’ll tease, disgust and entertain your kids in equal measure. We loved finding out that the reason why the grass is so green in the moat is because it used to be filled with carcasses, plague victims, rats and poo. Or that the Tower’s first prisoner managed to escape from the White Tower by sliding down a rope that had been smuggled into his cell in a wine casket. We found out that wild animals like elephants, bears and tigers were kept in the Tower as part of the Royal Menagerie, including a polar bear who used to catch fish from the River Thames and a zebra who liked to drink beer from the soldiers’ canteen!

Spot the ravens

Seven Things You Must Do at the Tower of London

© Historic Royal Palaces

There are seven ravens living in the Tower and it’s fun to spot them as you walk around. According to legend, the kingdom will fall if the ravens ever leave the Tower so the birds have been protected here since the time of King Charles II.

They have to be replaced if they’re not up to the job though: one raven was ‘sacked’ for eating TV aerials. One of the beefeaters is in charge of looking after them and they are fed with raw meat and bird biscuits soaked in blood.

Gaze in wonder at the Crown Jewels

The Crown Jewels are the most powerful symbols of the British Monarchy and still regularly used by the Queen. They’re every bit as impressive as you’d imagine. You can see everything that’s been used in the coronation ceremony since 1661 including the extremely heavy St Edward’s Crown which is used to crown the monarch. The original Crown Jewels were destroyed in the Tower on Oliver Cromwell’s orders after the execution of King Charles I but they were remade for the coronation of his son, King Charles II.

Some of the most famous diamonds in the world are part of the collection, like the 530.2 carat ‘Great Star of Africa’ which is in the Sovereign’s Sceptre, and the Koh-i-Nûr, the ‘Mountain of Light’ which is set in the crown that belonged to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother – along with 2,800 other diamonds.

The jewels are under armed guard in the Tower. Even the vault doors going into the Jewel House weigh 2,000 kgs each. It’s hard to believe that visitors used to be able to touch the Crown Jewels. That all stopped in 1815 after a woman grabbed the Imperial State Crown and tried to pull it apart.

The Jewel House is usually very busy so keep an eye on the queue while you’re walking around and try and nip in when the queue’s not too long.

Look at the Execution Site

Seven Things You Must Do at the Tower of London

© Historic Royal Palaces

On Tower Green, you’ll find a memorial to all those who were killed at this execution site, including the three Queens of England – Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey – who were all beheaded here.

Despite its reputation as a place of execution, only 22 people have actually been executed within the Tower of London. Most people were killed at nearby Tower Hill. It was considered a privilege to be executed within the Tower, away from the jeering crowds.

The remains of many of the people who were beheaded at the Tower are buried in the nearby Chapel Royal, including some of the most famous Tudors like Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. Their headless bodies were all found buried under the nave here during the 19th century.

See the armour in the White Tower

Seven Things You Must Do at the Tower of LondonThe White Tower is the oldest part of the Tower of London. It was built under the orders of William the Conqueror. It’s in here that you can see the suits of armour that were made for kings like Henry VIII and Charles I. It’s really interesting seeing the difference in size of the armour made for the young Henry VIII and the one made when he was older – he had clearly put on a lot of weight!

The ‘Line of Kings’, the armour arranged on life-sized wooden horses, has been on display to visitors for centuries. My children were particularly fascinated by the suits of armour made for young princes.

Go up the Bloody Tower

Seven Things You Must Do at the Tower of London

© Historic Royal Palaces

This is the tower where the two princes are said to have been murdered. The 12-year-old King Edward V and his little brother, Richard, were sent to the Tower by their uncle. They were then declared illegitimate and he was crowned King Richard III in 1483. They were never seen again. The Bloody Tower is said to be haunted by the ghosts of two boys in their nightshirts.

The upper chamber of the Bloody Tower has a display about the princes’ disappearance but you should also visit the lower chamber, where Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned. The rooms have been furnished as they might have looked during his time here.

Watch the Ceremony of the Keys

© Historic Royal Palaces

The traditional locking up of the Tower of London has taken place every night for over 700 years. At 9.52pm exactly, the Chief Yeoman Warder comes out carrying a candle lantern in one hand and the Queen’s keys in the other. He walks to Traitor’s Gate to meet the Foot Guards and the ceremony takes place. Forty to 50 visitors are admitted into the Tower to watch it from 9.30pm. Admission is free but you need to book online.

The Tower of London is open every day. Tickets cost from £23.10, adults; £10.50, children; under 5s, free. If you’re travelling by train, print out a 2 for 1 offer. You can pick up family trails and worksheets from the information desk. There are often special activities for families during the school holidays.

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