Babes in the city

2014-05-09 00:00

OFF we went, Granny and Grandpa with two little girls aged 12 and 10, fulfilling a long-standing dream to take granddaughters to London. Oh, the delights we would share with them. Westminster Abbey. The changing of the guard. Piccadilly. Harrods. Palaces. History.

The first setback: the girls had not heard of these places. They were stunned with delight when we told them of the adventure — but London, for all they knew, might have been in Austria or Egypt or Uzbekistan. They had no visual images. They had not read A.A. Milne, or heard “They’re changing guard at Buckingham, Palace”. They had barely heard of a queen. All they knew was that fortunate friends who had been to London said they should not, on any account, miss the London Dungeon.

Granny and Grandpa had no plans to take them to the London Dungeon. The girls were going to be exposed to history! They were going to be blown away by soaring Gothic cathedrals. They were going to thrill at marching Grenadier Guards. They were going to see where Anne Boleyn lived at Hampton Court. They were going to get their first taste of fine art at the National Gallery and the Sainsbury Wing, which Granny loves so much. And perhaps try roasted chestnuts and fish and chips.

We hired a small flatlet. We could cook for ourselves and save on eating out. The girls could come shopping with us and be amazed at the incredible array at Sainsbury’s. The next setback: the girls had no interest in supermarkets or in trying new and exotic food. They liked macaroni cheese and Oros. They didn’t much approve of the amount of wine which the grandparents needed from Sainsbury’s.

The weather was springlike, brisk and mostly sunny, but for Durban girls it felt like winter in Vladivostok. We hired bicycles in Kensington Gardens to explore Hyde Park. But it rained, sleeted, and the cold wind blew, not the best weather for cycling — and Granny has not been on a bicycle for many years so that was not an unmixed delight. Also, we had promised squirrels; there was not a squirrel to be seen. We could have taken them on the London Eye — but what was the point when they don’t know the Gherkin or the Shard? Besides, the London Eye costs R350 each. We wangled a free family ticket for Westminster Abbey (courtesy for clergy), but they were not much interested in the Unknown Warrior, and the royal tombs confused them — too many Marys, with Bloody Mary and Mary Queen of Scots, too many Elizabeths when one is still alive, and certainly too many Henrys.

We took them to a famous London church for the early communion service. They quite liked that — but the four of us doubled the congregation! We took them to the National Gallery, which held their interest momentarily, and to the National History Museum, which didn’t. We took them to see the changing of the guard, but that was a mistake — little girls have no interest in marching soldiers. We took them to Hampton Court where they solved the maze in eight minutes but had not heard of Anne Boleyn. We took them to Harrods but that was too overwhelming, and a designer dress in the children’s section selling for R18 000 was beyond their pocket money.

But despite it all they had a wonderful time. What did they like? They loved their special going-out-to-dinner meal — they chose hamburgers. They loved the West End show (we took them to the Lion King). They loved evensong at Westminster Abbey where they got to sit in the front row of the quire and could eye the choirboys. They loved Madame Tussauds where they took selfies next to Justin Bieber. They absolutely loved being squashed in the crowded tube trains, which seemed to them a great adventure. They loved shopping for “onesies” in Marks and Spencer. Apparently onesies are just the thing for sleepover parties and to have a onesie from London is a major status symbol. We hope they loved spending time and having adventures with Granny and Grandpa.

But most of all they loved the little post-office shop just around the corner. We visited every day. As well as postage stamps and lottery tickets, the shop sold little models of Big Ben, salt-and-pepper pots in the shape of a Beefeater, and T-shirts saying “I Love London”. Here they could buy curios for Mum and Dad, for school friends, a jersey for the boy friend. Much time and cogitation was invested in each decision. Nothing was bought in haste. Each purchase required two or three visits before finality was reached. This was their London Mecca.

In two years, the next generation of granddaughters will be ready for their adventure. Next time, we might choose Legoland rather than Hampton Court. • Ron Nicolson is a retired Anglican priest and academic.

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