London Weekend Break on the Cheap(ish)

The original goal for this entire weekend was completely Harry Potter affiliated.  Yes, I’m a fan. No, the entire post will not be about Harry. I will #keepthesecrets.  The books are the best; my sister got me hooked way back when they weren’t even all out yet.  I was resistant at first, but Bethany is a librarian and convincing. Now that my daughter Zoe has read them all, it’s quite fun to geek out with her and go full Potterhead.  We are a read-before-you-watch family, so the movies were motivation for her to finish books and now the play has been another motivator and goal.

This past summer we made the pilgrimage to Universal Studios Orlando, and it was…. well…. crowded.  Zoe loved it. But for a true fan, seeing the characters from the books come alive is much more enriching.  She and I read the new Harry Potter and the Cursed Child over the summer and I was quick to get online searching for tickets to the play.  It is, however, insanely sold out for the foreseeable future except for the “Friday Forty” tickets they release each Friday at 1pm (UK) for tickets at the following weekend shows to an online queue of hopeful fans.  I’ve been in that queue and never had luck. You must be local enough to go last minute.  I consider Spain local enough, what with EasyJet and Ryan offering reasonable airfares.

Well, two weeks ago I happened to check the website on a random Thursday just to get my hopes dashed again, but they weren’t!  All of a sudden there were GREEN boxes for the following weeks’ shows.  Further prodding found that they were all singles but one. Quickly I popped them into my basket, briefly informed Bryan (I can’t lie and say I asked), and booked.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is really 2 plays; on a Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday showing you can see both parts in one day.  But, our tickets were for a Thursday – Friday showing.  So, one week hence, on Thursday and Friday evening at 7:30 Zoe and I would be in our robes at the Palace Theatre in London.

From there a weekend break shaped up.  Bryan wasn’t working, so he and Avi decided to come along.  Flights weren’t cheap, but not pricey either.  I found a decent EasyJet fare into Luton, which is a quick train ride into St. Pancras station.  I also found a reasonable (for London) B & B across the street from the British Museum for $140/ nightly.   The Ruskin Hotel was perfect for us, and included a full English breakfast daily which packed enough calories to get us through a whole day with only a snack and then dinner.  Money well saved.

Our flight from Alicante to Luton was uneventful; we ate our packed lunch and slept. EasyJet had much less of the infomercial feel that RyanAir has. Each of us carried a small backpack with our necessities for the weekend; having no checked bags is essential for cost savings here. Luton airport is getting a much needed overhaul, so my goals of impressing Bryan  with the scenery were not so met.  And we got on a local train instead of the direct, so we putzed out the time we saved in a short immigration line stopping at all the stations en route to London. Oh well.

Immediately on arrival to St. Pancras we figured out our return tickets and then walked across the street to The British Library.  Now this is where London shines; there is so much history packed into free (or donation) museums that its really nonsensical to spend money on tourist sights.  Unless you are so obsessed that you must see the Tower or Westminster or inside Buckingham Palace, then they really save you gobs of cash and wasted line time to just see from the outside.

The British Library, however, holds some of the real treasures of the empire.  We saw ancient Chinese printing, the first Bibles ever written, the Lindisfarne gospels, the Gutenberg bible, writings from Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, Handel’s Messiah, Leonardo DaVinci’s notebooks, an original Alice in Wonderland, and even Bronte sisters and the Beatles.  It’s incredible.  Here, take a “Highlights Tour of the British Library” from their website.  So worth it. The Magna Carta was, sadly, off limits. And no pictures.

We walked back past scenic St. Pancras station to the adjacent Kings Cross station to visit legendary platform 9 & 3/4.  It’s really just a prop plastered into the wall near the 9 3/4 gift shop, but makes a great photo op.  For Zoe it was worth the half-hour long line to get a good shot heading to the secret platform and the Hogwarts Express.

As it was getting dark at 4:00 in the afternoon, we began our walk south to our hotel.  I love the area surrounding the British Museum.  We popped into a falafal place for some quick dinner and on through Russell square to the Ruskin hotel.  Check in was quick and we all got dressed up for our night at the theatre!

Not to be left out, Avi and Bryan were also seeing a special performance this evening.  Matilda the Musical! You can’t beat seeing an award winning musical at the original theatre with the London cast.  Best ever.  Beats Broadway hands down.    Prior to the trip I borrowed the Roahld Dahl book Matilda and read it aloud for both the kids last weekend.  This way, Avi was again familiar with the story and ready to recognize the show.  He has been singing “when I grow up” and “Revolting” ever since!  Bryan loved it as well, said it was one of the best funniest things he had ever seen!!

Zoe and I went to our showing of Part 1 of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  That’s it.  Thats all you get.  But, NO, its really really good.  Made me absolutely love Scorpius after liking him from the book.  Zoe loved Delphi and was just so taken with how alive the whole story felt; it’s a wonder to see her feel the magic of the stage.   We made a night of it with a drink at intermission, and met Bryan and Avi after the performances for a walk back to hotel. Got a bit lost on the way back, sorry.

Friday we were up in time for breakfast and wandered out and about.  I had planned differently, but the weather was gorgeous so things got jostled.  Zoe suddenly expressed interest in seeing Buckingham Palace and Kensington Gardens which she had read about at school, and Avi wanted to see Big Ben.  So, we were off to the west side.

We took the tube out for speed, but stuck to buses afterward.  If there is one thing that is fun and cheap and useful in London its the city buses.  Get an Oyster card at the subway and snatch a bus map; they may take a tinge longer, but the sights can’t be beat and its cheaper than the tube. Kids free.

At Buckingham Palace there was an insane crowd.  I had really not prepped much for Changing of the Guard short of knowing it’s a ‘must see’ attraction.  It’s not.  Its insanely crowded.  Avi and Zoe sat on our shoulders and orated the goings-on for Bryan and I.  I saw backs of heads and heard some music.  We gave up on that after a half hour and saw our own parade of guard horses on the walk to Kensington Gardens.

We walked a long long way through Hyde park and along the lake, feeding leftover falafel and pita to the ducks and swans.  The day was so pleasantly sunny and warmish, there were no walking complaints from kids.  Across Kensington gardens there is the wonderful Princess Diana Memorial Playground, which was quite worth the jaunt.  The walk itself was also quite worth it; we saw lots of dogs and people and statuary and a helicopter land at Kensington Palace….and Prince Harry got out and protected his girlfriend from paparazzi…. well, not really, but could’ve been.  It was behind some trees quite close.

At 2pm it felt like late afternoon.  We boarded a bus at the parks edge and enjoyed a front top ride to the Parliament buildings and Westminster Cathedral. The area was jam packed with people.  Being Remembrance Day weekend (Nov 11) was a special time to visit, we found, as the cathedral had a poppies display on the front lawn showing the units or people who died in service.  It was quite a special thing to happen upon, as was finding a toilet in the tube station (Avi seemed to always need a toilet when there wasn’t one).

Across the street is the Parliament building which looked lovely in the sunsetting light of 3pm!  We took a bunch of pictures and got a take away sandwhich dinner from the grocery.  Out on Westminster bridge we watched a cormorant catch and eat a fish while we waited 5 minutes for Big Ben to chime.  Avi was so excited to hear this!  Its fun to see what the kids become interested in on trips, and he was so into Big Ben for the day.

Another bus ride, via Trafalgar Square where a hoard of Scots in kilts were causing a football-match-inspired ruckus and through Picadilly Circus onto our local bus stop near the British Museum.

Friday evening Zoe and I were a bit tired as we showered and readied for Part 2 of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Avi and Bryan were raring to go, however, as it was late night at the British Museum and they were in the mood for antiquities.

The British Museum really is incredible and contains some of the worlds treasures.  They have it all!  The Rosetta Stone, Egyptian artifacts, Greek marbles, Roman hoards, Asian relics, Assyrian gates, Ashurbanipals library, Africa rock art, and more.  It’s huge and free (donations).  Here, take a “Virtual Visit at the British Museum via Google“.  I suggest going in and heading left to Egypt first.

Avi and Bryan wandered for the evening; seeing things at the whim of a 6 year old was really quite fun.

Zoe and I left the hotel to walk to the play and had time to spare, so as we passed the museum she suggested we go in.  What a great idea!  Robes and all, we spent about a half hour blitzing through the highlights at the museum.  She wanted to see the rosetta stone, the mummies, the winged lions from Mesopotamia, and the Ashurbanipal library.

A 20 minute walk later and we were in our seats waiting for the second half of our play.  It was so incredible; for a Harry Potter fan the play is a wonderful continuation.  There are new young people to love and a grown up Harry who is a dad trying his hardest.  After the performance Zoe and I went round back to get autographs at the stage door.  I’ve never done this, but its so exciting.  Not all the actors came out to sign and after a bit the door guards said it was over and took down the rope, but later we were standing on the corner waiting for our bus and could see other folks emerge.  Nice and respectful of people to not crowd round for those actors not in the mood.  I wish they had been, though!   Wish I could’ve seen Scorpius and Hermione and Draco up close.  Our seats were fine, but not close enough for facial detail…expressions, yes, details, no.  Anyway, they were the cast on the web!

Tired and emotionally charged, we boarded a bus for a few stops to the hotel and crashed into bed.

Saturday was to be a rainy day, so we planned on museums.  It was also to be the day of the Lord Mayors Show, which would be exciting and free but raining on my parade isn’t a good time.  So, we splashed off to the Museum of London for the morning.  Again, free and wonderful.  The focus is the London area through time, which turns out to be a great history lesson of England.  It begins prehistorically, then rolls through the stone age, Roman occupation, Middle Ages, Elizabethan times, Victorian times, and into the modern era of world wars and pop art.  It is a wonderfully done museum and quite a bit bigger than I expected.  We were there for hours, with the kids interested in all the interactives, the kid-specific displays, and the well done dioramas.  You can tour a bit of the Museum of London here .

At the end of the museum is a display supposed to house the Lord Mayors carriage, which was missing, and out in the drizzle on parade.  We could see a lot of the parade folks lined up around the museum and it got me excited to see it.  Avi as well.  Zoe and Bryan, however, wanted to return for a thorough visit through time at the British Museum.

So, we split up.  Avi and I braved the drizzle, which let up enough that we didn’t use our umbrella to walk a couple blocks south (just past St. Pauls Cathedral which was ringing bells) to watch the second half of the parade.  I’m so glad we did.  It was a blast watching all the bands and ‘worshipful company of something rather’ groups walk by in their garb.  There were floats and lots of military and then the coaches came along, and we got to see this big red and gold coach with the Lord Mayor hanging out and waving.  Avi loved it all!

On the way back to the tube stop the two of us took a couple pictures at the front of the still-bells-a-rings St. Pauls Cathedral and I notice a sign saying it was free today! Another Remembrance Day special surprise.  Well, it’s worth a visit at that cost!!  So, we wandered in and enjoyed the beautiful warm interior; you don’t realize you are cold until the inside of stone churches and subways feel toasty.  There was an evensong performance 40 minutes later, but we both voted to return to the British Museum to rejoin Zoe and Bryan.  We got to hear the organ practice and warm up at least!

Back to the British Museum in no time only to find it packed with people; it makes sense on a rainy Saturday.  We got a drink at the cafe and hopped the wifi to find Bryan and Zoe. They had done a thorough tour and we were all ready for a bit of a glance at the shop and walk round the corner to the hotel.

In the evening, we ventured back out to find a pub for dinner.  There were quite a few around us which all had the same menu; literally the identical menu logo and all.  A bit further out and we were pleasantly surprised by The Old Crown for some fish and chips and a meat pie.  Great final meal in London.

Sunday was simply a travel day.  All was quiet when we woke, had breakfast and then stood out on the corner for a quick bus trip back up to St. Pancras where we got our Oyster Card refunds, snagged some food for the flight, and hopped aboard the proper direct train to Luton Airport.  Easy Peasy.  Luton was pleasant to walk around and spent our last pounds.  It came down to .29 pence  which we simply couldn’t spend and donated in a bin.

London could be a cheap weekend break if planned a bit ahead.  Our flights were pricey, but buying a couple months in advance could’ve made them dirt cheap. Transport into London, though, gets expensive; given the choice I’d go into Stanstead for the cheap buses to St. Pancras (Luton also had cheap buses, but to Victoria station which was not our goal). Our hotel was a great deal.  Highly recommend the Ruskin Hotel.  Surface transportation adds up quickly as well; save money and see some of the city with the bus over the tube or walk.  Everything we visited would’ve been perfectly walkable if it were just Bryan and I adding up the km’s.  With the kids, taking the bus for return trips or longer journeys made sense.  After flights, transport, and lodging, the rest of London can be nearly free with museums and sights without entrance fees. Food is found cheaply as ‘bundles’ at sandwich shops and corner markets.  We all had a fine sandwich dinner with a side of crisps and drink for 12 pounds total; that and a big breakfast at our hotel made food inexpensive.  The shows were our splurge!!  But both Matilda and Harry Potter were well worth the cost to us and our little theatre-goers.






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