Saturday, 12 February 2011


OK, it's a bit late, but there you go. So the first part of our story is 'us as tourists' - by us I mean, me, the Guru and the youngster and by tourists I mean just that, tourists, as the first week of our christmas holiday was spent in London doing all the touristy things one would expect.

The trip almost got off to a disastrous start for two reasons, work and the weather, but both bothersome banes were skillfully avoided by, well, being avoided. We were to fly on the last Friday of term but I, as HR personage, had a particularly difficult situation to deal with concerning a departing member of staff who had not, it must be said, personally chosen to leave. Our plan was that as soon as I got home we were to go to the in-laws in Chiba who live close to the airport, this was to make the Friday less stressful and to repack as we were borrowing a suitcase. But the surly staffer was proving annoyingly reticent to meet me on Thursday afternoon - I had to see her to explain stuff and collect paperwork from her - and as the clock ticked closer to my leaving time I still hadn't met her. So in the end, finally getting her on the phone, gave her the cunning option of popping into the office on Friday to meet one of my staff. Being lazy and useless (also the main reasons for her departure) she took this and I was off the hook. Right, home we go.

So, home, final preparations, set the alarm (the Guru had been trying to work it out for weeks) and we're off - "oh, by the way, you did the online check-in at work today, like you said you would, right...?" Er, shit, wait - 15 mins of fully justified stern looks later... "yes dear, of course I have, how could you ever doubt me?"

Station, trains, taxi, parents-in-law. Hello, quick beer, repack and it's now 10pm. Right, arrange taxi to station for tomorrow morning and then bed. Next morning, breakfast, taxi, train and Narita. I love Narita airport - lots of people hate it because, they say, it's so far out of town, but with a train that takes 36minutes to get to the centre of Tokyo, I say they're talking crap. It's big, wide, open, uncrowded, clean, cheap, well designed, helpful, friendly, works when it's snowing and, essentially, everything that Heathrow isn't.

Everything navigated nice and easily and onto the plane - this was the youngster's first real flight, he'd been to the UK before but only when he was 8 months old so obviously he couldn't remember. We were worried that he would get bored and/or hyperactive, but actually it was all one big adventure. He watched a couple of movies, read some books, did some sticking of stickers and then slept. He even ate all the food. For us more seasoned travellers it was much the same, I am glad to report, though without the stickers.

Whilst we had been flying, however, mother nature had been dropping a prodigious (for the UK) amount of snow on the south, so much so that traffic was at a standstill and the arrival committee were in serious danger of not getting to the airport on time to carry out their duties. Luckily good old Heathrow came to their aid as, even thought we landed on time, the baggage reclaim was in meltdown (or rather freeze-up) so that all but first-class luggage was delayed coming off the plane by an hour (amazing how they could only open the doors to the rich person's compartments...) Anyway this bought enough time for the family to arrive so as we wandered through the exit the welcomers walked into the arrivals hall. Cue much back-slappage and 'welcome home's. The snow flurry almost but didn't quite derail the air transport system, however the following day the snow shut everything down for about 5 days, so our leave-on-Friday plan was perfect, not only cheaper but we actually arrived on time :)

So for the next week, from Saturday to Friday (Christmas eve) we stayed in a London apartment hotel (Castletown House in West Kensington - thoroughly recommended) and went to see stuff...

Saturday - Natural History Museum - mainly for the dinosaurs but also for everything else. Excellent basement area where staff were on hand to amaze small children with experiments, microscopes and stuff like that. Well done to Marcus for stumping one of the assistants; 'what animal do you like that you want to know more about?' 'Er, maybe the Pronghorn'. 'Hmm, what's that...?' Of course it's a type of African antelope sort of thing, as everyone knows, but not, sadly the assistant that Marcus spoke to. Anyway the NHM is great, interesting and really quite cold.

Sunday - not really touristy but went to have lunch with friends south of the river. Again crappy weather but a warm welcome from very hungover hosts.

Monday - was meant to be a family get together for some photo portraitage, but the weather stumped us all so getting down to Hampshire would have been akin to a polar expedition (so we were told). So instead we went to the Tower of London. This was great but get this, the price, in big letters on the ticket office wall, was something like 17.50 per adult. This, I felt, was quite a lot, but then, in very small print underneath it said 'This includes a voluntary donation of 2 quid.' Well excuse me, but I do feel a voluntary donation is, in essence, me offering, not the ToL automatically deducting! So naturally I refused to pay, I mean really. I was happy, though, as even though the youngster was 5 and the price list said '5 and over: 12 quid' (a blummen rip off as well), the nice lady let him in for free. The Tower was great, lots to see, hardly anyone there due to christmas and bad weather, Henry VIII's suit of armour with enormous cod-piece, crown jewels and loads of stuff. Great but very expensive.

After that we walked across Tower Bridge and went to HMS Belfast. Marcus was really excited about this but, whilst going around, he became unnerved by the mannequins set up to show what life was like on-board ship. So much so that he had to be carried out in something of a state.

Tuesday - British Museum and the National Gallery with Uncle Julian and Cousin Charlie. So, you send someone a message saying, 'we're in Covent Garden, in a coffee shop near the Crusting Pipe, come and meet us here'. Now a normal person, on arriving at Covent Garden, would then look inside the various coffee shops near the Crusting Pipe until he had located said person to meet. Not my brother, oh no, he walks close to the Crusting Pipe and then, not seeing anyone, sits down and has a doughnut. Only when I go out to look for them as they should have arrived by now, do I find him sitting behind a coffee stall not 10m from where we were. And for some reason I get the blame for this!

Anyway the British Museum is ace, lots to do, especially the trails for the kids to follow. Marcus and Charlie had a great time together finding stuff out, though Charlie had done the trails before so helped Marcus instead. Lunch at Wagamama's (they say it's Japanese...) and then a wander to the National Gallery to look at pictures. Great day and big thanks to Uncle Julian for showing us all around.

Wednesday - Westminster Abbey (and the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben). Never been to Westminster Abbey and I must say that it was fascinating. Again expensive, about 15 quid a head to get in, but Marcus got a trail to follow and we got the audio-guide things and it was, well, really interesting. I know it's obvious but blimey it's old, there is an awful lot of history in those stones - I don't know why but it felt much, much older than the Tower of London, though they are contemporaries. Again loads to see, lots of tombs and graves and again not too full of the tourist hordes. After that a fine pub lunch we took a double-decker to Oxford Street, mainly so we could ride on the top deck and also to see the christmas lights. OK, the bus ride was fun but boy did we find where all the tourists had been hiding. Oxford St was heaving, more than heaving and basically not very nice. Night was falling so we headed home.

Thursday - Science Museum. For our last full day we headed to the Science Museum, just up the road near the NHM. Again it was excellent, interesting and informative and, most importantly, free. Also they had on workshops for kids, one about space and another about bubbles, both of which the youngster very much enjoyed. I think museums have come a long way since I was a kid and the people that run them realise now that kids are important so they have to do something to make it a worthwhile experience for them. Jolly good, I say.

Friday - we were heading to Gosport for Christmas and, after various rearrangements, we were travelling down by National Express coach from Victoria to Portsmouth. This necessitated going to Victoria, of course, and as the coach wasn't until 2pm and we had to be out at 10am, we had a bit of time to kill. Marcus was quite happy, he said, to sit in Victoria Coach Station for 4 hours, but we weren't and, as Buckingham Palace was only a shortish walk away, off we went (much to the unhappiness of small child). The guidebook said that the changing of the guard would not happen on that day as it was an odd-numbered day in December and was cold, but lo-and-behold, when we arrived they were just starting up. Now I think it's probably quite interesting to watch, certainly plenty of the Oxford St tourists had turned up, but with a whiny kid and a cold, biting wind, spirits soon sank。So we watched a bit and then departed back to the safety and warmth of a shopping centre. A spot of lunch (our one and only trip to a UK McDonald's) and then the usual scramble and confusion trying to find the right coach going to the right place, made more confusing by the fact that so many people wanted to go to Portsmouth that they laid on an extra coach which said Southampton on it. Also Guru most surprised that, though we had tickets, seats were a free-for-all as there was not seat numbering allocation ('very third world' I'm sure she muttered - I know I did).

So the journey down was slow but uneventful - the coach's purported wifi cut out about 50m from the station so our slow progress and delay could not be forwarded to family members waiting in the freezing evening at Portsmouth Hard. But arrive we eventually did, and then it was Christmas...