Most people would agree that children should visit their capital city. But what if the very thought of a trip to London stresses you out? This week, we boarded the National Express with the aim of taking the stress out of a London city break. But did we succeed?
Getting to London with National Express
At 8.45 on a Monday morning, two of my sisters, the girls and I boarded a National Express coach from Cheltenham to London. This direct journey was due to take just under three hours but let’s face it, public transport never runs on time. Or so I thought.
National Express offers coach travel to London from anywhere for as little as £6 per adult. Children are half price. On top of that, travelling by National Express allows you to take advantage of 2 for 1 offers at several top attractions including Madame Tussauds and Shrek’s Adventure. Full details of prices and offers are available on the National Express website.
On board, I noticed a sign for the National Express WiFi and Vuer app. This gives basic WiFi access and the app provides entertainment. True to form, I’d forgotten to bring anything to amuse the girls on the coach. So, I downloaded the app and they watched a few children’s programmes during the journey.
The coach rolled away at bang on 9am, exactly on schedule. We were expecting to arrive at 11.50 but by 11.30, we were in the bus station unloading our bags. Arriving early gave us a bit longer to explore the city before checking into our accommodation, so we headed straight for the Science Museum for the afternoon.
London Science Museum
Did you know that virtually all the museums in London are free to enter? The Science Museum suggests a donation of £5 which I paid, but if we’d been unable to afford it we still could have accessed the attraction.
On the way to London, my sisters and I were trying to decide which museum would be best for visiting with children. The coach driver told us that he’d taken his four year old son to the science museum and he’d loved it. A lady sat next to me on the coach chipped in to say that she’d taken her four year old granddaughter to the Natural History Museum and she had been utterly captivated. That made our minds up, we’d do both.
London Science Museum is a vast building with exhibits covering all different aspects of science. As soon as we arrived, the girls dragged us into the Space zone, where we looked at a projection of the earth spinning on its axis and saw space shuttle parts, astronaut suits and a recreation of a man on the moon.
From there, we headed to some of the interactive areas that appeal to children including the Garden and the Pattern Pod. The girls were enthralled by the free bubble show taking place in the basement. We spent the whole afternoon at the Science Museum, yet felt like we’d only scratched the surface of the attraction. It would definitely be worth dedicating a full day if you had the opportunity.
Staying at YHA London Central
Years ago, I used to regularly stay at YHA hostels both in the UK and abroad. They were a great place to meet people when travelling alone and always offered reasonably priced accommodation.
Since having children, I haven’t stayed in a YHA at all. I now realise this was a mistake. In YHA London Central, we had a private, en-suite room that slept four with two sets of bunks. We also booked one room in a dorm for one of my sisters.
The hostel was literally in the centre of London. Around the corner from Regent Street, walking distance from Madame Tussauds and giving easy access to all the sights. The cost of the room varies depending when you go, but I looked on the website and for August, rooms seemed to start at £95 per night. That’s less than £25 per person during school holidays which is such a bargain. Additionally, if you are a YHA member you get 10% off standard and fully flexible National Express fares.
The hostel reception doubles as a bar and 24 hour cafe / restaurant. We ate breakfast in there on one day and dinner another. They also offer a packed lunch to take with you for a day out, saving a fortune on London prices. All food we tried was great quality and reasonably priced. Being able to stay somewhere in Central London so cheaply was a revelation for all of us.
On Tuesday, we headed to Madame Tussauds to hobnob with the A-listers for a day. I was slightly concerned that my celebrity knowledge is somewhat lacking and the girls don’t know many big names at all. I needn’t have worried though, because we all recognised loads of familiar faces and got some great photo opportunities with our favourites.
I’d never been to Madame Tussauds before and was so impressed with the waxworks. They also show you the process they go through to make them, which is fascinating.
Madame Tussauds was incredibly busy, making it quite difficult to get photos with some of the statues. Sensibly though, they enforce a queue system for the most popular characters so each person gets a few moments alone with them for some photos.
A classic moment for us was when the girls posed with the Royal Family and the member of staff let them try on some hats. Libby’s wouldn’t stay on her head whatever she did, resulting in much hilarity for everyone watching and this brilliant photo.
There were a few additional exhibits that you had to pay extra for, which we didn’t bother with because the girls were too little anyway. One of the highlights for the girls though was the 4D Marvel film. It was only 10 minutes long but it has given them a real taste for the characters and Lia in particular has been asking when they can watch it at home.
Natural History Museum
After a couple of hours in Madame Tussaud’s, it was time to head to the next museum on our tour. I’ve always wanted to take the girls to the Natural History Museum because they are both fascinated by dinosaurs and it’s safe to say we weren’t disappointed.
I was amazed at the size and grandeur of the building itself. I had literally no idea of the scale of it or that it was such a beautiful piece of architecture. Like the Science Museum, entry to the Natural History Museum is free. With only an afternoon to spend there, this was a relief because we didn’t feel we had to see everything immediately. We’ll definitely be making a return visit.
On entry, we headed straight for the dinosaur exhibits. Despite the fact that Dippy is currently on tour in Birmingham, the amount of exhibits and information in this area is astounding. The girls loved the moving dinosaur recreations which gave them a real sense of what these fascinating creatures would have been like.
After the dinosaur area, we looked at mammals which the girls really related to. They were amazed at the size of the whale skeleton hanging above them and fascinated by the horses.
From there, we headed to the wildlife garden. It was incredible to step outside the museum into a small area packed with wildlife. Dragonflies, moorhens, bees and butterflies had made the garden their own. The girls were happy to have some space to run around and we all sat down on a bench for a drink, and decided to save the rest of the museum for another day. It was time to head back towards the hostel to let the girls play in Regent’s park and burn off some energy for a couple of hours.
Wednesday was our last day in London and the day the girls had been looking forward to the most. It had been a few years since they’d watched Shrek, so they watched it at the weekend to make sure they’d know what was going on at Shrek’s Adventure. I’d highly recommend doing this because it definitely made the visit more enjoyable.
Shrek’s adventure is an interactive, walk-through attraction. From the moment you enter, the staff are all in character. It’s not all about Shrek – there are cameo appearances from Cinderella and Kung Fu Panda among other favourites.
Close to the beginning of the attraction, you board a bus driven by Donkey to take you on a tour. The bus is a cross between a 4D cinema and a ride. It feels like you’re on a roller coaster, flying through the sky and encountering various characters including Rumpelstiltskin’s witches.
Unfortunately, the bus hits and kills his favourite witch and the ride takes a sinister turn. When you get off, the witches are after you. The rest of the walk-through is all about your attempt to escape. Fortunately, actors and animations help you on your way. The attraction has a happy ending with everyone safely back in the land of Far, Far Away.
Our tour of the attraction only lasted for an hour and 15 minutes. It was an intense, exciting experience and the girls’ favourite part of the whole break.
Seeing the sights
Shrek’s Adventure is ideally located for seeing the sights of London when you leave. It’s right next to the London Dungeon and close to the London Eye and Big Ben. From there, we walked to Horseguard’s Parade and Buckingham Palace, which conveniently were on the way back to Victoria Coach Station.
The girls were getting quite tired by this point, but were desperate to see the London landmarks. It was great to know that after such a busy few days, we’d have a few hours on the coach where they could just kick back and relax.
Can National Express remove the stress? The verdict
It goes without saying that being in London is stressful. It’s vast and crowded, getting anywhere always seems like a bit of a mission. But when you’ve travelled there directly, had a smooth journey and arrived in good time, it gets you off to a great start. It doesn’t do any harm to know that you’ve saved money on both getting there and buying attraction tickets either.
Staying right in Central London was a revelation too. I’d always stayed a bit further out and ended up starting my days by battling with rush hour tubes. This time, we managed to totally avoid travelling at rush hour. Many of the attractions were within walking distance anyway and where possible, we walked through parks rather than via roads. Avoiding crowds and getting the necessary fix of trees and greenery that refreshes you in London.
Getting the National Express home was just as convenient as the journey there. The coaches are all new, comfortable and well equipped with toilets towards the back. Of course, this is essential when you’re travelling with children.
I can’t say that travelling around London with young children has miraculously become a breeze. But honestly, it was so much easier when the journey there and back was stress-free and we were staying in such a central location.