London's culture and sites seen more clearly through the eyes of a child


February 28, 1993|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Contributing Writer

Across the road from Windsor Castle in London, Matt had his choice for an afternoon snack: a traditional English tea, McDonald's or Pizza Hut.

Forget tea. He chose McDonald's -- along with a group of boys from nearby Eton College, Britain's famous public school that dates from 1440.

The boys, young teen-agers who were decked out in American sports team caps and sweat shirts, and my 8-year-old son exchanged shy smiles between bites of burgers and fries. "They look just like American kids," Matt said.

Later, we walked down the narrow cobbled road to Eton's famous buildings. "Kids were going to school here before Columbus came to America," Matt mused.

He had the same reaction earlier, as we toured the sprawling Windsor Castle (this was before the Nov. 20 fire), the largest castle in the world where royalty still lives and just a short train ride from London.

"This is a lot bigger than the White House. Do you think the queen gets lost here with all of these rooms?" he asked. "Where does she sleep?"

We speculated on how hard it must have been for the knights to walk around in all of that heavy armor that was on display. And he decided it would be a lot of fun to play with Queen Mary's spectacular doll house, in which everything -- from books for the library to wine bottles to Rolls Royces -- were made meticulously one-twelfth of life size.

Wherever we went during our week in London, Matt brought a fresh perspective that I hadn't before considered, despite many visits here. We saw less (kids can't take too much sightseeing at once), but we had more fun doing it.

And even the most unlikely places turned out to be learning experiences. Take Madame Tussaud's, one of the best-known wax exhibitions in the world that goes back more than 200 years. As Matt walked among the famous world leaders and historical figures, he asked -- and got -- a brief history lesson. (He couldn't wait to show his friends his picture next to the Beatles.)

And as was the case in Windsor, Matt struck up conversations with British kids at every turn. From these interactions at the theater, the National Science Museum and in Hamley's, London's famous toy store, he learned as much about the differences, and similarities, in our cultures as he did from all of the sightseeing we did.

There was the school group we met from the London suburbs at the Tower of London, first on any child's list of to-dos in the city. With its winding tower and turrets and grisly stories of beheadings and skulduggery, it makes for a wonderful afternoon's outing for all children, no matter where they're from.

All of the kids were fascinated by the story of the two young princes who were put in the tower by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, following their father's death in 1483. The boys disappeared and Richard was crowned king. Their bones were found buried under some stairs nearly 200 years later. (Later, we saw where the remains of the unfortunate princes were buried in Westminster Abbey.)

Even more impressive to the kids were the crown jewels. "Do they really wear them?" Matt asked. "They seem awfully heavy." The Yeoman Warders, in their colorful red uniforms, good-naturedly answered every child's question as they gave tours around the tower grounds.

The noisy school group from Surrey made just as lasting an impression. Matt couldn't believe they had to wear blazers, ties and -- worst of all -- short pants every day.

No matter where we were, I tried to let Matt take the lead. I figured if he was interested, he'd learn. We spent hours at the Imperial War Museum, which has tanks and Spitfires and other planes. (Don't miss the Blitz experience, where you walk through a reconstruction of an air raid shelter and a bombed 1940 London street.) Matt was very impressed.

Not so at Westminster Abbey. We took a quick tour but spent most of our time making a brass rubbing. (For a few dollars, just outside the main chapel, you can buy black paper and borrow a crayon. You have your choice of memorial brasses to copy.) Matt chose a knight, and while he rubbed, we talked about all of the famous people buried in the Abbey and the coronations that had taken place there.

I confess that we didn't make it to all of the top tourist attractions. (Cut your itinerary in half if you're touring with kids.) We left midway through the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace because Matt couldn't see over the crowd. (It's held at 11:30 a.m. every other day in winter: Get there at least a half-hour early to get a good viewing spot.)

On the other hand, we stumbled on the changing of the horse guards parade at Whitehall (held daily at 11 a.m.) and had a great time. There was as much pomp and circumstance, and far fewer people. An added bonus as far as Matt was concerned: the horses. He shot almost a roll of film.

Speaking of pictures, he carried his own small inexpensive camera and took his own photos. I could tell his interest level, in fact, by the numbers of shots he took: none at Westminster Abbey, lots of the pigeons in Kensington Gardens. He also kept a journal of the trip, writing a paragraph each night about what we'd done that day.

His favorite memory? Chasing -- and catching -- a pigeon in Kensington Gardens on a rainy Saturday morning. Forget force-feeding culture. Just being there is enough.

Questions, comments or stories should be addressed to Taking the Kids, c/o The Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 119, 2859 Central St., Evanston, Ill. 60201-1234.

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