If you’re thinking your little ones have lost their sense of wonder for real-world marvels in favour of the super-hero kind, or to a one-dimensional world of screens, big and small, it might be time to turn the tables on them. What could be better than an educational holiday? Don’t groan, it can be fun – promise! And while it might seem overly indulgent to plan a trip around the kids, it is possible to do it in a way the whole family enjoys. Thanks to some innovative thinking in the travel industry, you can forget the notion of being stuck on a bus for hours as a tour guide spouts the same dry facts he has been repeating daily since he took the job. These new-age tours draw on the world of books and films to make landmarks jump off the page or screen and come to life, trumpeting their proud history.
We’ve put together some suggestions, all tied to books or films, that can be done while based in London. By the end of the tour your children would have seen a quaint English village, bustling London city life and its most iconic buildings, vast green spaces and a grand palace, the oldest university in the English-speaking world, and a West End show. And if you stay in one of the hotels suggested, they’ll have learnt a bit about royalty and nobility too – now and back to 1066. Not a bad overview of England in as few as three days.
Imagine: one minute you’re watching The Minions’ evil Queen Scarlet Overkill exploding into a huge mushroom cloud above Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, and the next, you look up and see the dust has settled and you’re on the real-life set. This is the magic Brit Movie Tours brings to the family-sightseeing scene. Seated in a black taxi or minivan, you watch clips of popular kids’ movies while the professional driver whizzes you around the City of Westminster and the City of London to find all the famous landmarks featured. It’s like a movie treasure hunt and fun for the whole family, whether you’ve seen the films or not.
The guide on the Kids’ Movies Tour shares juicy titbits and insider info on movie-making in London, but is also brimming with historical facts about each of the landmarks. The private tour (£360 [around Dh1,750] for one to five people for three hours) takes you to locations from Minions, The Muppets, Paddington, The BFG, 101 Dalmatians, Nanny Mcphee, The Mummy Returns, St Trinians, Fantastic Four, Harry Potter and many more.
There are also public and private tours aimed at kids and families that you can take by foot or by bus, including the Official Paddington Bear tour of London, a public bus tour (£27 per adult and £20 per child), and the Harry Potter walking tour (£12 per adult and £10 per child). For details see Britmovietours.com.
Idyllic village life
Rating high on lists of Britain’s best villages to live in, Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, an hour outside London, also happens to have been home to Roald Dahl for 36 years. The beloved children’s author weaved many of the local features of the picturesque village into his tales. But if you really want to get inside the writer’s head – a most-compelling place! – visit The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre (a family ticket costs £21).
Aimed at six to 12-year-olds and their families, the museum has three fun and interactive galleries, alongside George’s Crafty Kitchen, Miss Honey’s Classroom, Café Twit and the Museum shop. The most fascinating to fans and would-be writers must be Dahl’s actual writing hut, which was moved piece by piece from his garden and rebuilt here. It’s also well worth doing one or both of the two trails the museum has put together (you can download them from the website). The first is around the village, while the second lets you explore the countryside in this Area of Outstanding Beauty. For details see www.roalddahl.com/museum.
Reward yourself for your hard work with a meal in the country garden at Dahl’s local, the nearby 15th-century The Nag’s Head (see ‘Historic Hotels’).
Greener than Shrek
Just an hour and a half from London by road, Sir Winston Churchill’s birthplace, Blenheim Palace, is renowned for its extraordinary gardens, which stretch on for as far as the eye can see. Kids will love the miniature train that takes you to the Pleasure Gardens, which include a giant hedge maze and a butterfly house. But aside from its impressive Capability Brown landscaping, formal gardens and carefully curated historical displays, the palace is a movie star and movie set in its own right. Its immaculate Italian Garden was featured in the BFG, but it’s hosted the cast and crew of everything from Harry Potter and Cinderella to Spectre and Mission Impossible. You can download the film location tour named Lights, Camera, Action! from the website before you go (www.blenheimpalace.com). A general family ticket is £59.90.
The University of Oxford (an hour and a half from London) is the oldest in the English-speaking world and has had some impressive alumni and lecturers including 27 British prime ministers, at least 30 international leaders and 50 Nobel Prize winners. Your children will probably know it better as a film set for several Harry Potter movies (particularly the Great Hall in Christ Church College) and Alice in Wonderland (Alice Liddle, who inspired the character, was the daughter of the dean of Christ Church, where the author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka CS Lewis, was a mathematics lecturer).
You can take a film- or book-based walking tour through the colleges and surrounds, while taking in the stunning architecture, with colleges such as Balliol and Merton dating back to the 13th century. Elizabeth Hudson-Evans does guided walks focusing on Harry Potter; Alice in Wonderland; and a general children’s literature tour that includes Tolkein and CS Lewis. Email email@example.com; £90 for a tour of up to two hours, excluding entrance fees; maximum of 19 people).
In London: It’s easy to see why many film celebrities make Mayfair’s family-run Athenaeum, overlooking Green Park, their ‘home in London’. A quick walk through the park takes you to Buckingham Palace, and you’re close to great shopping and must-see attractions. There’s a Kids’ Concierge who can devise a tailor-made itinerary and even stock up on your children’s favourite books, films and food before you arrive. Check out the BFG Gloriumptious Family Stay and other deals at www.athenaeumhotel.com/offers
In Great Missenden: Said to have inspired The Fantastic Mister Fox (and featured in the movie), 15th-century The Nags Head is 15 minutes from the Roald Dahl museum. It’s newly refurbished, but has kept original features including a large inglenook fireplace and low oak beams. www.nagsheadbucks.com
In Oxfordshire: The Manor at Weston on the Green can trace its history back more than 900 years. It is just 15 minutes from Blenheim Palace and guests stay in the Coach House or country manor. Parents might know that one of its owners in the 16th century, Sir Henry Norreys, was an instrumental figure in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. www.themanorweston.com
A taste for culture
Of course, London is known for its theatre, and there are plenty of brilliant musicals to entice children and encourage a life-long love of stage. Among the musicals playing to rave reviews in the West End that your kids will already know from books and films are Matilda (incredible performances; it’s easy to see why it holds the record for the most Olivier awards won by a musical); The Lion King (now in its 17th year, with the cast having twice had the considerable honour of being part of the Royal Variety Performance); Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (winner of two Olivier awards); and Wicked (the back story of the witches of Oz, and the 10th-longest-running West End show seen by more than 2 million patrons). Tickets can be pricey, ranging from £17.50 to £125 or more, but it’s a family night out you’ll never forget. See www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk for discounts.