“When was the last time I was in London….” I was asked this question recently and it prompted a furrowing of the brow as I tried to remember.
Even though I’d passed through the British capital to make various connection flights over the years it had been quite a while since I’d fully stepped foot on its historic streets. Now, with a nine-year-old budding history buff in the family angling for a trip to the Imperial War Museum, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to reacquaint myself with the city.
And what a pleasure it was to once again set out to explore what is one of the best cities in the world, a mere one-hour flight away from Dublin. It also helped that it was an absolutely cracking autumn day when we arrived, quite early one Sunday morning, as the weather brought a burst of stunning sunshine to light up the day.
Sunset on the Thames
And the great weather certainly brought the tourists out in droves as we were forced to side step around hordes of camera-toting visitors as we marched our way from Victoria Station and over Westminster Bridge towards the Elephant and Castle.
As the city has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently the are signs of the increased security, not only at the train stations and the airports, but also out on the streets where heavily armed police carefully watch the crowds.
There were also the anti-terrorist barriers now placed on Westminster Bridge following the terrorist attack in March when four people were killed and dozens injured in a car ramming incident.
Despite these signs of the city’s recent trauma, there remains a defiant pride in the air. Hundreds of Union flags sprouted from buildings along our route while tourists happily chatted to policemen while they posed for pictures.
The Imperial War Museum, located in the leafy surrounds of Lambeth, proved to be as impressive today for my son Sam as it was for me when I first turned the corner as a young lad all those years ago and saw for the first time the massive naval guns that guard the entrance.
The massive naval guns at the Imperial War Museum
Sam was as flabbergasted when he caught his first glimpse of these 15-inch monsters. And as we stepped inside the cavernous interior all those excited memories came flooding back even though the museum has been utterly transformed since my last visit all those years ago.
The floor space is now more imaginatively fitted out with exhibits ranging from the famous Spitfire and Harrier hanging from the roof like oversized Airfix models to the 26-ton Russian T34 battle tank on the ground floor.
There appeared to be fewer exhibits on show than I recalled from my previous visits but it is simply a case of thinning out the herd to allow for a better understanding of vehicles and guns through the user friendly touch-screen information boards.
The First World War Gallery on the first floor is moving and dramatic while the Second World War exhibits upstairs feature a Sherman tank and a truck rescued from the wastes of the Western Desert after the battle of El Alamain.
One highlight of the visit was getting up close to the front section of the majestic Lancaster bomber while the gallery on the fifth floor told the glory tales of the winners of Britain’s Victoria Cross, the highest military award for gallantry.
Sam, with his favourite plane..the Spitfire
After a solid three hours making our way around the museum we were glad that it was just a brief stroll around the corner to the modest but friendly Bridge Hotel, where we finally got to put our feet up and relax before we headed back out into the evening.
We enjoyed an entertaining black cab ride back to Westminster Quay courtesy of a real life Cockney driver who regaled us with stories of the people he met as a younger man who he was actually reading about in a book by the famed London gangster ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser
An impromptu decision to jump on board one of the Thames ferry boats proved to be a good one as the thrilling 40 minute cruise brought us under the enormous London Eye and up towards the iconic Tower Bridge.
It was a stunning view as by this time the sun was setting and the blazing autumnal colours lit up the river in a golden glow.
We enjoyed dinner in the Pommelers Rest bar a few streets away on the south side of the bridge and while it had the potential to be a pricey tourist trap due to its location it proved instead to be a real find with reasonable prices for a typical British nosh up of sausages and mash and pie.
Sam on Tower Bridge
We were back on the streets early the following morning to catch a bus tour across the city. While the Original Bus Tour takes in all the major sights including Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace the on-board commentary could be updated to include more recent additions to the city’s streetscape. For example, I had to use Google to find out about the statue of the builder near the Tower of London, of which there was no mention whatsoever even though it is located beside one of the tours major stops.
It is fairly pricey at 47 pounds for one adult and one child ticket but that did include a “free” ferry ride similar to the one that we had already taken the night before.
At the Pommelers Rest
We stopped off for lunch at the Walrus and Carpenter, another no-nonsense pub that serves up massive piles of chips alongside bacon and chicken sandwiches in the shadows of the Sir Christopher Wren-designed monument to the Great Fire of London.
It was near here in 1666, when a fire that started in a butcher’s shop eventually devastated most of the city.
We left the tour at the Victoria Station stop from where we jumped on the Gatwick Express that whisked us out to the airport in just 30 minutes.
As we left the platform behind the young lad asked when we could be back and I had the feeling that it wouldn’t be so long until the next time.