London: Through the lens of our favourite books and movies
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Pól Ó Conghaile takes his kids on a whirlwind tour of the city, as featured in their favourite books and films.
My five-year-old son is blasting through the air on a broomstick.
A Nimbus 2001, to be precise. Or maybe it's a Firebolt. I can't tell for sure, because he's so swift and jiggy. His hair billows back as London whooshes by, as double-deckers are dodged and his tiny form soars out over the terrific turrets of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Where does this fantastic voyage take place?
Inside Warner Brothers Studios (wbstudiotour.co.uk; £101/€137 family ticket) in Leavesden, of course. Set just outside London, The Making of Harry Potter experience here is a most magical day out, and one of the highlights is a chance to play Harry himself. A green screen and Gryffindor cloak are all it takes to send my son into the stratosphere.
The 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts at Warner Bros Studios
This it our first trip to London with the kids. Like all boys and girls of their age, Rosa (9) and Sam (5) are big into their books and movies, so we decided to theme our city break around some of their favourites.
As a first stop, the Harry Potter studios were a no-brainer.
"All aboard the Harry Potter special!" shouted the attendant at London Euston, setting the scene from the get-go. A 16-minute train ride later, we were passing through Watford Junction (or 'Wexford Function' as Sam re-christened it) and en route to the movie sets.
We stepped into the Great Hall. We marvelled at Hagrid's actual hut and Dumbledore's actual office. We walked down the real Diagon Alley. We boarded the triple-decker Knight Bus. We spotted snitches, burped after butter beer (kind of like Lucozade, with a scoop of ice-cream on top), and were blown away by the 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts.
Naturally, the gift shop threatened to bankrupt us (Gryffindor capes for £75/€102, anyone?). But the experience as a whole was produced with such delicious, Disney-esque detail, that we were completely won over. It felt like a lifetime memory, forming right in front of our faces.
Of course, you don't have to hotfoot it to Hogwarts (or even Wexford Function) to experience the magic of London. The beauty of bringing kids to big cities is the sheer naivety and wonder of it all. Sure, you move slowly. Sure, Soho gets the skip. But it's brilliantly liberating to see London for the first time all over again.
Buckingham Palace at Dusk
Roald Dahl's The BFG prompts us to walk past Buckingham Palace (above) at night, for example, trying to spot the Queen's bedroom window. Having seen Night at the Museum 3 at the cinema, we check out the Egyptian mummies at the British Museum (britishmuseum.org; free). Sadly, there are no dinosaur skeletons like the thrashing triceratops in the movie here (for those, make haste to the Natural History Museum), but there are all kinds of other surprises along the way.
"You know daddies can be mummies too," as Sam confidently informs us.
We stop into Hamley's, with five floors of bubble-blowing, boomerang-throwing staff and every toy under the sun. We take a black cab. And a red bus. And the Tube (topping up two Oyster cards by £25/€34 each takes care of travel for 48 hours). We walk the West End. We pause at the psychadelic heart of Piccadilly Circus.
I usually put the head down here and forge on. But tonight, we drink Piccadilly in. The flashing billboards. The teeming traffic. The life-size statue of Robert Pershing Wadlow (the world's tallest ever man, at 8ft 11in) standing outside Ripley's Believe It Or Not!
Our base for this rollercoaster tour?
The Rubens at the Palace, a Red Carnation Hotel priding itself on the lengths it goes to for families. Set just down the road from Buckingham Palace, extras here include a separate check-in for kids and a fun pastry lesson with the chef.
As Roald Dahl fans, we're delighted to pop across to Red Carnation's Chesterfield Mayfair hotel too, where a Charlie at the Chesterfield afternoon tea (chesterfieldmayfair.com; £31.50/€42.80pp) mashes up Willy Wonka and old-school London opulence with everlasting gobstoppers, fizzy lifting drinks and more… delivered by a costumed Mr Wonka himself.
Charlie at the Chesterfield Afternoon Tea
Our final adventure is the Tower of London (hrp.org.uk; £57.40/€78 family ticket), where another of our favourite books, David Walliams' Gangsta Granny, sees a boy and his grandmother swim across the Thames before attempting to rob the Crown Jewels.
The queue is long, the tickets are expensive, but the chance to whip out our book, and once again read the chapter in which the unlikely thieves approach the treasure, is snapped up. Along the way, we watch archival footage of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation.
"Finally they turned a corner, into the main room where all the jewels were kept," Walliams writes. "Like the sun bursting through the clouds on a grey day, the jewels illuminated Ben and Granny's faces."
They do the same to ours.
The Crown Jewels (file photo: Getty)
Outside, we chat with costumed actors, spot the Yeoman guards, and wonder why ravens aren't called crows. The White Tower stands over our shoulders. In the distance, The Shard soars above London Bridge. Us Muggles may not be able to fly above it all on broomsticks, but our visit has lifted London right off the page.
Book the best value packages to London on travel.independent.ie.
What to pack
The usual advice about comfy walking shoes applies (it's amazing how quickly the kilometres rack up, even taking the Tube), but the best thing we brought were books related to the city - in our case, Gangsta Granny and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
We flew with CityJet (cityjet.com), which offers nine flights a day from Dublin to London City Airport - the only airport actually within the city. One-way fares start from €35pp, with first checked bags and in-flight snacks and beverages included.
Kids under 11 go free on the Tube (tfl.gov.uk), so get those Oyster cards, adults! London City Airport is within Zone 3 of the network, too - with Docklands Light Railway (DLR) connections every 8-15 minutes. For more on what to see and do in London, see visitengland.com.
Where to stay
We stayed at The Rubens at the Palace, a Red Carnation hotel just a short walk from Buckingham Palace (rubenshotel.com). Rates for a classic double start from £233/€316 per room per night, inc tax and breakfast. See also visitlondon.com.