Easy to fill generation gap in lavish London
From teens to septuagenarians, balancing the thrilling with some chilling is simple in the Big Smoke, says John Chambers, especially if you head east too
Three generations, two nights, one city. It was a challenging equation -- could one destination satisfy travellers ranging in age from 70-something to 15?
It helped that the city was London -- its selection of urban villages allowing us to switch from culture to commerce and back again. And the change could take place so quickly that no one had the chance to feel their desires weren't going to be met.
We started out at the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Expecting huge howls of protest from the children, we were surprised at how often it was we were the ones waiting for our daughter to exit the rooms. Mind you, it helped there was everyone from VS Naipaul to Damon Albarn on display.
We were lucky enough to catch the exhibition of work by Camille Silvy, one of the 19th-Century pioneers of photography, who captured daily life in his native France and in London. It was his work which caused my daughter to linger longest, but we all thought the most striking image was one of Isabella Blow: stuffed animals and feathers were arranged so the shadow they cast looked like the famous muse of Philip Treacy.
All that culture can make a body hungry, and St Martin in the Fields provided food for body and soul. The crypt cafe downstairs seemed wildly popular and offered hot food and sandwiches. Upstairs, musicians were rehearsing Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. Sitting in the pews, listening to some Ludwig interspersed with the conductor's comments to the orchestra was one of those fantastic bonus interludes one can stumble across in a large city.
Or perhaps, in this case, two cities. "East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet," said Kipling. That had always been true of London for me. You could draw a line on the Tube map from King's Cross to Elephant and Castle, and to the east you might as well have written Here Be Dragons for all I knew of what lay beyond.
All that was to change -- as I suspect it will for thousands of Irish people who head over to London for the Olympics in 2012. So, yes, there was time spent in our comfort zone, shopping in Covent Garden, but there were new delights, too -- Old Spitalfields Market, for instance, which was just as trendy and maybe a bit more avant garde. Spitalfields also has the advantage of being home to Fire and Stone, a pizza restaurant so good that my son says he may never eat pizza anywhere else again.
And if all that hip-market frenzy gets too much, there is another quiet interlude just a few minutes' walk away in Folgate Street. In Dennis Severs' house, visitors are encouraged to wander silently through rooms decorated with period features from the 1720s to Victorian times. The premise is that the inhabitants have "stepped out" for a moment and you observe the details of their daily lives. Beds are unmade, washed clothes are left hanging to dry, bread is half sliced. Perhaps it's best to regard it as a piece of theatre, which envelopes you in its atmosphere while outside London rushes by.
It wasn't our only brush with the theatrical. Our daughter, 18, wanted to see a musical. Her brother, 15, wanted a comedy. Their parents just wanted a good night out. When in doubt, do what nearly three million others have done during the past 21 years: see The Woman in Black, which offered high-class Gothic thrills. It kept my son engrossed, while my wife and I jumped in our seats on a few occasions. The perfect show for a Hallowe'en break.
The following morning, we climbed the 17th-Century Monument, designed by Sir Christopher Wren to mark the Great Fire of London. Everyone who climbs the 311 steps gets a certificate, but the real reward is the 360-degree vista.
The secret of any good city-break is to mix the moments of tranquillity with ones of drama, so that night we set out from Tower Bridge for a London Walks tour in the steps of Jack the Ripper. It's hard not to feel a frisson as you leave, say, Mitre Square, a scene of one of his murders, down the very same alley he used.
Time for another quiet interlude, and our four-star hotel, the Radisson Edwardian Grafton, always seemed to provide it. Okay, the name was quite long, so I just called it the no-problem hotel. The one smoker in our party wanted her room changed to be nearer to us? No problem. Our daughter wanted a breakfast to take with her for her early-morning flight? No problem. We wanted to print out our airline boarding passes? There's a business suite. No problem. A trip to the theatres near Leicester Square? As the hotel is beside Warren Street station, it's three stops on the Tube. No problem.
On our final morning, we headed east again, to Greenwich and the British Music Experience at the 02, an extraordinary collection of interactive displays telling the story of British pop. So while a virtual Dizzee Rascal let me in on a few secrets about urban music, my son kept saying: "Who is this Cliff Richard guy?" You can learn to twist or disco dance. And the most mind-blowing thing is you can download information to your ticket, to access at home.
I couldn't get my head around it all, and needed a pint at the Old Brewery in the Old Royal Naval College, one ferry stop upriver. It brews its own beer and offers food -- including what my son called "perfect" fish and chips. Another quiet interlude.
Finally, we had to return west. As we zipped up the river on a Thames Clipper boat (40 minutes from Greenwich to the Embankment) sipping coffee bought on board, London unfolded before us. "This is the biz," said the 15-year-old. He wasn't wrong.