Spring break in the UK

Frequent blog readers may recall that, at some point this winter, I suffered a bout of planning fatigue. Having figured out summer vacations, camp schedules, activity schedules and so forth, I had no desire to tackle spring break. So my husband took on that task.

He did a great job! Five out of six of us just spent a week in the UK (the 3-year-old stayed stateside and had the time of his life going to places like Diggerland in New Jersey). We spent a few days in London, then rented a car and drove north to York before ending the trip with a stay at the Cliveden House on the Thames.

There were some challenges. For instance, most UK hotels have strict limits on how many people can be in each room, so we always needed to have two rooms. In London, they weren’t adjoining, which created some logistical issues. Also, they drive on the left in the UK! My husband drove and I was on navigation duty, and the roundabouts about drove me nuts. And just to add one more wrinkle: due to the snow school cancelations, they announced on Friday that school was in session Monday and Tuesday. I forgot to call the attendance hotline, so my cell phone rang on Monday with the news that my children had not shown up to school. Fortunately, I could report that I knew exactly where the little truants were. Oh well — it was worth the absences. Some trip highlights (if you follow me on Instagram you’ve already seen several photos!):

Running in new places. In London, I ran in Hyde Park and Green Park/St. James Park. In York, I ran through the narrow old streets (trying not to trip on the cobblestones!). I also experienced a few hotel gyms, but hey. The running streak survives (my husband also ran three times).

Seeing Mamma Mia in London. We wanted to see a musical, and Abba music is always fun. My husband and I really enjoyed the show, but we forgot how adult-themed the whole plot is. Like why, exactly, does the mother not know which of three men might be her daughter’s father? Fun discussion points! But the kids have been singing “Mamma Mia” and “Money Money Money” all week.

Listening to the Abbey Choir in Westminster Abbey. We went to Palm Sunday services in the abbey, and wow. Not only was the space gorgeous, the choir sang the whole passion story from the gospel of Matthew, which I enjoyed, though perhaps others did not (my jet-lagged daughter fell asleep). During communion, the choir sang a Thomas Tallis piece, which in a space like that sounds exactly how Renaissance polyphony is supposed to sound. I did have to laugh at the number of people who snuck out during the service (and hence possibly came to the service to avoid paying the entrance fee to the abbey — though I suppose judge not lest I be judged!)

Having dinner at some friends’ house. My husband has done a lot of work in the UK over the years, and works with many people from there, so we scored an invite to dinner, and it was great to get into a residential neighborhood, and have our kids play with new playmates. The kids played hide and seek for a while, then decided to stop, though it turned out they hadn’t found my daughter yet. She stayed hidden for quite a while before my husband realized she wasn’t in the movie room and went looking for her. Then she was just mad. I don’t really blame her. I guess having older brothers toughens you up.

Seeing a sudden parade of the guards. There was some event going on at Buckingham Palace, with streets blocked off. We had tickets to the Royal Mews (stables) and the Queen’s Gallery, and as we were coming out, all of a sudden, we saw a whole group of guards with the classic hats parading by. This was fun, as it was pretty hard to see much of the official changing of the guards, due to crowds.

Eating at Italian restaurants. I got quite frustrated with my kids’ pickiness at certain points during the trip, though they definitely improved in terms of trying stuff by the end (it turns out you can eat a ham and cheese sandwich even if your choice of condiments isn’t on it!) But we also hit upon the solution of eating at Italian restaurants a lot. The kids ate pizza or pasta and my husband and I could order non-burger food and wine. I would suggest this as a general Travel With Kids hack.

Queen Mary’s Dollhouse at Windsor Castle. Windsor Castle was cool in general. The flag was flying — meaning the Queen was there! But I especially liked the doll house, complete with little working sinks, little bottles of wine, a miniature garden, etc. When my youngest child doesn’t destroy everything in sight, I’m going to build my own doll house and take this back up as a hobby (I built one growing up and collected furniture for it).

Walking around York. Such a quaint little town, with the narrow streets looking just like medieval England does in the pictures. At the 8-year-old’s request, we stopped by the York Army Museum, which had various memorabilia from the York regiment’s history. I enjoyed the fabric scrap from Napoleon’s tent, which had a coffee stain on it. Napoleon’s coffee stain! The Minster (the church) was breathtaking inside. My husband took our two boys up to the top of the tower while our daughter stayed entertained with the little activity backpack the church had for kids. We hunted for various things with the included binoculars. It’s something to think of a building having stood there for 1000 years (and then Roman walls prior).

Stonehenge. Speaking of old stones… The weather was raining and freezing, but it was still cool to see this giant and mysterious monument. And it was surprisingly camera friendly, in that you can get close, but not so close that anyone else is in the shot, and the highway is far enough in the distance that you don’t really see it. Probably half my photos of the UK wound up being of Stonehenge. I took photos of all three kids and sent them to their teachers in pursuit of excused absences. I warmed up at the cafe with carrot and coriander soup after.

Having afternoon tea at Cliveden House. My husband had gone to a retreat at this manor house that was half an hour from Heathrow, and enjoyed it. So he booked us there for our last night. It was lovely. There were suits of armor in the lobby. And a painting by John Singer Sargent. We had tea (and the kids had hot chocolate) and scones and little sandwiches. Then we managed to work up an appetite for dinner by swimming in the hotel pool and walking around the grounds. We had a very nice dinner to cap off our trip: Beef Wellington and splitting a bottle of wine since we didn’t have to drive anywhere. The kids were even reasonably well-behaved in the dining room! Humorously, they forced us to set our reservation at 6:30 so we’d be out of the dining room by 8, for patrons who prefer to dine without being reminded that children exist, but then all was relaxed and we were still sitting there with the kids having dessert at 8:30. No one complained.

Spending time with the big kids. I missed the 3-year-old a lot. We Face Timed every day. It was still hard. However, I know this would have been a completely different (and a lot less fun or relaxing) trip with him, and he would have been very stressed about the different environments as well. I want my kids to experience international travel, and we probably would not have taken this trip if we were taking the little guy too. The upside is that I hung out with the big kids and had a lot of meal time conversations with them, and got to broaden their worlds. I know the UK isn’t that different from the US, but even learning little tidbits — like that when you ask for “lemonade” you will get Sprite — can show that the world isn’t just our town in Pennsylvania.

I am not sure that we’ll take any more trips without the little guy, since he’s getting to the stage where he’ll remember that we didn’t take him. So it was good we took this excursion, and maybe by next spring break he’ll be old enough to deal with jet lag and foreign food. We can hope!

21 thoughts on “Spring break in the UK

  1. I am Australian, and our culture is essentially part British, part American so I know exactly what you mean. I was quite surprised when we travelled to the US just how different it actually was! I think this is probably a very gentle way to expose kids to a different culture – there’s no language barrier but it’s still out of the ordinary.

    1. Yep – agree. I thought the US would be just like Australia but on a bigger scale. Um no, it is very different.

      1. We do have the lemon sweet drink in the uk, but generally only in supermarkets not in restaurants – we call it ‘traditional lemonade’ Normally always fizzy though…

  2. Sounds a great trip! Which flag was flying at Windsor? I recently went as a parent helper on my daughter’s school trip – we learned there are 2 flags, and the wrong one was flying that day 🙁

  3. What a fun trip! My husband grew up just outside of London, and his three sisters and his aunt live there (my sister-in-law got married at Cliveden!), but we haven’t been in 10 years. We’d planned to go this summer and take the boys, but his work just got complicated and now we’ll be moving instead 🙁 Maybe next summer!

  4. My kids keep asking us to take them to global destinations (I think whenever they learn about them in school)… maybe someday, but the thought of paying for that many plane tickets makes me cringe!

    1. @Sarah K – this is the one upside of my husband’s constant travel. We paid very little cash for the trip. We used miles for the round trip plane tickets (and since my husband had a meeting before meeting us, his was a business expense). We used Starwood points to stay right on Green Park at the Sheraton in downtown London. We may have even used Hertz points for the car rental! So it was basically just meals, entrance fees, and the few non-point hotels (like Cliveden).

  5. This is fun to read because I was also in the UK last weekend and also went to the 1030 service at Westminster Abbey. It was lovely!
    We stayed at the Hilton Docklands Riverside hotel which let us have 5 people in one room. It was a fun place to stay but was a solid subway/ferry ride away from the main attractions.
    We took our 4-year-old with us but he would probably have been just as happy at home. Our bigger kids loved it though.

  6. England might have been a gentler way to expose us to different cultures, than, say, South India ;).

    So jealous of the relatively shorter flight! It’s at least 10 from the West Coast to Western Europe.

    Any tips for not being exhausted upon an AM/Mid Morning arrival to England or the like? I’m sure it’s different with children vs not, but any ideas (or a former post!!) would be great 🙂

    1. As someone who made 4+ family trips to South India before graduating from high school, I totally agree. I think it drove the desire to travel right out of me. I didn’t realize until well into adulthood and business travel that foreign travel didn’t need to be that “hard”. 🙂

      We took a 2yo to Ireland from the West Coast and that same kid as a 6yo to Norway and both times arrived around noon-ish. I would definitely NOT recommend the red-eye if you can avoid it – we tried that for SEA-LHR on the Ireland trip thinking she might sleep most of the way and she certainly DID NOT. We flew to Norway via Iceland and left Seattle around 4pm so she was pretty tired when we got to Iceland but managed to hold it together and took a nap on the short flight to Oslo. My goal was to collect our bags and make it to the hotel. We grabbed some quick falafel next door to our hotel and slept until 3 or 4am. I don’t try to make her stay awake or get on a regular schedule right away that first day – we just sort of assumed it would take several days, and had to adjust our sightseeing/activity expectations accordingly.

    2. @DVStudent – I have been to India, and yes, I will not be bringing my children on a trip like that anytime soon 🙂

      As for the traveling to Europe issue – I don’t think there’s any way not to be exhausted after an overnight flight – even if you sleep the whole way it’s a short flight (6 hours) from the east coast, and it’s not usually practically possible to sleep the whole way. Since we were meeting my husband there, we wound up booking our hotel rooms starting the night before. So we could go straight to the hotel from the airport and take a 2 hour nap before starting our day of sight-seeing. Also, we planned something that would keep us occupied and awake slightly later that first night (going to Mamma Mia) so we wouldn’t be tempted to fall asleep at like 8 p.m. and ruin the whole night.

      The first night you tend to sleep as you’re tired. It’s the second when you have trouble falling asleep or wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble going back to sleep (and then oversleep in the morning). Melatonin might help (that’s what I use). Or a prescription sleeping pill if you get a scrip before you leave.

      1. I find that residency has dramatically improved the jet lag situation. I normally get up at 5 am here, which is 11am in Europe. Then I only have to shift my schedule by 2 hours or so. The last time we went we flew direct, and landed at 8am Italy time, 2am philly time, which… that’s earlier than I go to bed when I’m on call, so…. then we drove to the house, ate an early lunch and took s nap. Bedtime was at midnight or so the first night, which since I usually go to bed around 8 wasn’t a big deal. Jet lag used to really freak me out, but…. it hasn’t been as bad as I thought. Having my in laws to watch the kiddo didn’t hurt either. Ha.

        1. @omdg-a silver lining for residency, perhaps?

          @lauravanderkam-that’s exactly what happened when I was overseas for a conference this summer! I slept too early on day 1, and my mentor took one look at me the next day and told me that it was going to be a rough night…and it was …yikes

  7. Your Spring Break trip sounds awesome!! I am jealous of your shorter flights to Europe from the East Coast. Next year we are going to try a “big trip” with everyone. Our younger one is definitely STILL rough to travel with but I’m hoping by 6.5 will be able to suck it up a little more without making the rest of us miserable in the process 😀

  8. Loved reading about your visit. I’ve lived in England for a bit and took my 3 kids back for visits twice. Both times the littlest one was small enough to keep confined to a stroller or baby carrier. If you decide to go again, try visiting Brighton – have a picnic on the grounds of the Pavilion, have tea inside, and visit the various art museums there. From Brighton take a short road trip to Arundel Castle in Sussex, which is an absolutely gorgeous and really family-friendly castle – they have people dressed up in character and doing demonstrations. And of course, hit the beach. In the evening go to Brighton Pier where the kids can play arcades and go on rides while you smell the sea air.

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