Friday, March 16, 2018

Summer in London

In the US, our summer break is typically 10-12 weeks long.  In the UK, our summer break would be 6 weeks long.  We weren't planning any major travel to the continent, but did make quite a "To Do" list for while we stayed in England.  In the order of the list, rather than the order we actually did things, here is a recap of our first summer in London. 

When Grandma & Grandpa visited in August, Kaylee wanted to go to the zoo with them to celebrate her birthday.  They had a special dinosaur exhibit which the kids all really enjoyed. 

Before school ended, I asked around for summer suggestions.  Our friend's the Pymbill family highly recommended these fountains as a free, hot day activity.  It's not far from King's Cross Station.  It was nearly the last day of summer break by the time we got there, but it was a huge hit!  Eating ice cream while drying off and listening to live music played on a boat - also a huge hit.  This will definitely be on our list next summer. 

This brought back wonderful memories of our trips to the Museum of Flight in Seattle.  The kids were excited to find the Boeing label since their adopted Grandpa Billings is a retired Boeing employee.  Danny was fascinated by the different planes, especially the WW2 ones.  And even James and Abby enjoyed having a turn flying some of the toy planes.
Shortly after moving to London, we purchased a Merlin Pass, which gives you access to many different tourist venues from the London Eye to LEGO Land to Warwick Castle.  This was one of the activities we could get into free using our Merlin Pass.  It was fun to do once - animatronics and a silly storyline and wandering through mazes and a lot of familiar Dreamwork's characters (Madagascar, How to Train a Dragon, Trolls) - but I was glad we hadn't paid full price, nor would we do it again. 
It's pretty cool when your dad works close enough to the Tower of London that you can meet him there for lunch.  Also cool, is having Historic Palace passes so you can go to the Tower of London multiple times.  On this day, after having Subway for lunch, we split up.  Danny & Matt wandered through the Fusilier's Museum with historical artifacts while the rest of us viewed the crown jewels.  When Dad went back to work, the kids and I watched part of a historical re-enactment and then climbed the White Tower and found a huge dragon made out of armor.

After Becky Billings arrival, we returned to the Tower of London again.  This time we all saw the crown jewels, did part of a Yeoman Warder tour, and tried out the wall walk, where we learned about the Tower during the World Wars as well as the interesting history of wild animals that had lived at the Tower.  Now there are no more monkeys, lions, or elephants, but it is still home to the Guardians of the Tower - 7 Ravens.

A friend recommended this lesser known museum and we absolutely LOVED it!  It is free, like many museums in London, but it is not as crowded with tourists like the British Museum.  It had many wonderful hands on exhibits and we spent the entire day there.  The kids enjoyed grinding herbs and making scented satchels, like they may have done in Roman times when the city was Londinium.  It was fascinating to learn more of the history of the city we live in from ancient times to the plague to the great fire of the 1600s to the exciting Victorian Era.  There was even some interesting interactive displays about current ideas for future development of London.  We have been back to this museum once already, and will probably return as often as we are able.  Fantastic! 

These cuties are swimming at a splash pool at Priory Park, right around the corner from our house.  This was a wonderful find and I'm looking forward to taking them back next summer.  We were also able to do some swimming as a whole family when we went to Cornwall.  Our campground had an indoor pool with a water slide!  I didn't get any photos there though - too risky to get the phone wet!

Granary Square checked this off our list, as well as playing at a splash park at Lego Land.  I'm glad we got some truly hot summer days that made the splash parks a lot of fun. 

Our friend's invited us to join them for camping in Cornwall.  When Kaylee found out we were going to go to Cornwall, she begged us to go to Mousehole while we were there because they had read The Mousehole Cat  in school and done a few projects with this book.  The actual city (town/village) of Mousehole is TINY.  But charming and adorable.  It was windy and rainy during the 15 minutes we wandered around, but we did manage to find some Cornish Pasties.  During our visit to Cornwall we also saw St. Michael's Mount (an island castle) and Minack Theatre (an incredible outdoor theatre built into a seaside cliff) and hiked along the St. Agnes Heritage Coast.  We drove to Land's End and through Penzance (while listening to the soundtrack from Pirate's of Penzance), but stayed in the car because of the weather.  Cornwall is a place we'd love to return to someday, as there was far more to explore than we had time for.

We made a reservation with our church friends, the Aroujo family, to stay at Perran Sands in Cornwall. We discovered it to be more of a glamping resort than the National Park campgrounds we are accustomed to.  There were caravans (mobile homes), teepees, and cabins for rent along with the tent area.  The tent area was just a huge open field where you were sidled right up next to your neighbor.  We were in a tent with sleeping bags, but it didn't quite feel like camping with no privacy, no big trees, and no campfires.  The resort also had an indoor swimming pool, live entertainment, and a shopping/restaurant area with gift shops, groceries, and even Papa John's pizza.  We did take advantage of the showers and enjoyed the hot pizza delivered to our tent.  Other highlights - beautiful sunsets, giant sand dunes, snuggling in the tent when it was cold & rainy, exploring the beach, swimming with teh Aroujos, looking at the stars with Danny, and scootering around the campground.
Though we had been many times, Kaylee had requested we return to Trafalgar Square.  She liked looking at the chalk drawings on the ground and remembered there was a street vendor making free rings there.  We took Aunt Liz and Hannah during their visit and made time to take a quick trip to Leicester Square and the LEGO store as well.
On the 2 hour drive to Stonehenge we listened to a documentary about the history, science, and theories about Stonehenge.  It is such a mystery still, and it was fun to come up with our own theories.  After a quick dinner near our hotel, Matt tucked the littles into bed while Danny, Kaylee, and I drove the last bit to Stonehenge.  As we rounded a corner, the ancient stones were suddenly in view just as the sun was setting behind it.  I gasped with excitement and awe - Danny thought I might crash the car.  It was absolutely stunning.  We walked on the free trail that surrounds Stonehenge and captured a few more shots before heading back to the hotel.  The next morning, Matt went for an early run and caught Stonehenge at sunrise.  We were so glad we made the effort to see it - incredible! 
After seeing Stonehenge it was off to a full day exploring Bath.  We had a leisurely picnic in Parade Gardens along the River Avon, walked across Pulteney Bridge, wandered to Royal Victoria Park, and toured the Roman Bath.  The weather and day were gorgeous and after a dinner of giant buns at Sally Lunn's (Bath's oldest house built in 1483) we were able to make it home for bedtime. 
Another venue we were able to go to courtesy of our Merlin Pass.  Danny loved the new Ninjago Land.  Kaylee loved the Lego Friends Horse ride.  Abby loved the Scarab Jumpers.  James loved riding in the Lego boats.  I loved the miniature, detailed cities.  Matt loved playing with the family all day.  We enjoyed Legoland so much on our first visit that we went back again at the end of the summer when Grandma and Grandpa Couch were visiting.  It was just as fun and we were able to explore areas and rides we didn't have time for the first time.

This was something Becky wanted to do when she arrived.  It was not high on our list of "London Must Dos," but we were so grateful for the excellent recommendation.  The variety of flowers, giant lily pads, greenhouses, canopy walk . . . there was so much to explore and the gardens exceeded all my expectations.  Fortunately our ticket is good for an entire year, so hopefully we will be able to go again during a different season.

This was underground/tube station advertising at its best.  For months, every time we were riding the tube the kids saw advertisements for Kidzania.  Finally, after lots of prodding and a little research, we made it there.  The older two kids scurried off to participate in grown-up jobs like being a vet, window cleaner, chef, doctor, bank teller, and hotel maid.  They earned KidZoos (play $) and deposited in a bank.  If they earn enough, they can buy prizes (think Chuck E Cheese tickets).  Meanwhile the younger kids and I did the activities available to their age - painting, drawing, stacking, building.  Overall it was a fun day, but the older kids didn't enjoy it quite as much as they thought they would.  It was a bit chaotic & crowded and there was a lot of waiting in line.  I made the mistake of buying annual passes because they had a good deal running, but I'm not sure if we'll make it back.  Anytime we've had a free Saturday, the kids haven't been too keen to go.

And that's our first London Summer.  I didn't get pictures of the Library Reading Challenge, but all 3 older kids did finish that.  We never made it ice skating, but made up for that by going ice skating a few times later in the year.  In addition to our "to do" list there was plenty of time playing in the close and relaxing at home.

A wonderful visit from Grandma and Grandpa Couch for Kaylee's baptism in August completed our summer festivities.
Grandma & Grandpa's visit consisted of many fun projects with the kids.  Guitar, painting, building, art lessons, & playing ball.  They brought Kaylee a special gift for her birthday - an American Girl Doll that looks just like her.  It was so special to have them there for Kaylee's baptism. 
Our 6 week summer flew by and I'd say our first summer in London was an unforgettable success.
A bonus photo from Matt's summer work party. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Quick Pit Stop - Summer Edition

Our turnstile of visitors continued into the summer months last year.  We were always thrilled to see people whether for a meal or a few days.  Who knew we would so many friends and family while living on this side of the Atlantic.

One of Danny's best friends and his family came to London for a few days.  They didn't stay with us, but we were able to meet up with Gabe and his family for a picnic in Hyde Park, playing at Princess Diana Memorial Playground, and wandering around Kensington Gardens.  The two were so happy to be reunited. 

Matt's dad's cousin Betty and her family were in London for a visit.  We had reconnected with Dan & Betty the previous year at a funeral, then a wedding, so it was fun to see them in London as well.  We met up for a quick visit in Hyde Park and wandered around the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain.  And some of us (anyone under 12) decided to take a dip in the fountain. 

My dear friend, and Bellevue running partner for many years, and her family stopped at our house at the beginning of a European adventure.  Though they were busy touring London, they did stay at our house a few nights before heading off on 2+ weeks touring the continent.  Her 3 boys are just a little older than Danny, and our families were all friends in Bellevue.  They moved to California a few years ago so it was fun to reunite in London.
A highlight of Jenn's visit was an early morning run together to celebrate my birthday, just like old times.
Bon Voyage Gutierrez family! 

My Aunt Liz brought my cousin Hannah to England for a high school graduation present.  They were also set to visit Liz's family and friends in other parts of England (she's British), but we were thrilled to have them start their trip with us in London for several days.  We showed Hannah some popular sights downtown, and Liz taught me about conkers and some tricks to properly cooking Cumberland sausages.  The kids absolutely adored Hannah.  And we did manage to get in a few games of Aggravation, a Douthitt family tradition.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Belgium Take 2 with Mary

Our friend Mary came to visit at the end of June 2017.  I was her Young Women leader for many years, and she was always one of our favorite babysitters, but this time she was just coming to visit as a friend.  Well . . . we did get some babysitting out of the deal.  We really wanted her to have the experience of seeing some of the continent, and after doing quite a bit of research we decided our best option was a quick trip to Belgium.  This time we drove directly to Ghent via the Eurotunnel.  This is such an easy way to go!    

We left Saturday morning and arrived in the early afternoon.  Ghent felt a little bit less touristy than Brugge and more like a city where people live and work.  The chocolate and waffles still lived up to expectations though.  

The first day we did a walking tour of the small city.  We stayed outside and enjoyed the architecture.  We found a street market, and Mary and I bought matching pants.  We also found a few different places to try chocolates.  

We toured Gravensteen Castle, which had beautiful glass windows and views, but also actual torture devices with graphic, detailed descriptions of how they were used.  James was thrilled in the castle that I let him scoot around some.  

We also found Graffiti Street.  The kids were excited to find a beagle amongst the images. 

Matt tried to be more authentic with the pom frittes he ordered.  The gravy and mayo drenched fries were not a big hit.  The nutella, strawberry, and whipped cream drenched waffles were. 
While we were exploring, we noticed signs for a race.  Matt, being the runner he is, decided to research it and found out the race was that very night with a 10:00 PM start time.  After we got to the hotel and got the kids settled in bed, he returned to the city center to race a 15k with over 1,000 people.  The Midzomernachtrun was a fun spontaneous adventure for him.
 On Sunday we were able to attend a Belgian ward.  I believe the meeting was conducted in Danish, but they had headsets available for English translation, and it seemed there were also a number of French speakers.  I just remember it being a very multilingual ward.  After church, we ventured back into the city to explore a bit more.  We took turns kayaking in the Ghent River. 

We had pizza hut for lunch, which made everyone happy.  Then Kaylee, Mary, and I went to St. Bavo's Cathedral to view the Ghent Altarpiece, which was truly incredible.  The audio guide to this really made a difference in enjoying the subtleties of the painting. 
This is not St. Bavo's Cathedral, just a nice shot of these two besties.

We opted for a different route home Sunday afternoon.  We drove to Dunkirk and took a ferry across the North Sea.  It is a slower route than taking the Eurotunnel (2 hours vs 35 minutes), but it was also cheaper and gave us a beautiful view of the cliffs of Dover.  The kids enjoyed being out of the car and they had a small play area perfect for James to crawl around on before the final drive from Dover to home.  In general I think the Eurotunnel is a better option for us, but it was fun to try the ferry and it's a good alternative to remember. 

The rest of Mary's visit was equally fun.  As with most visitors, she did some exploring on her own, but the littler two kids and I often joined her during the day while the older two were in school.  She even babysit overnight so Matt and I could get away to Brighton and the South Downs to celebrate his birthday.  It was so much fun having her and we are thrilled she enjoyed her stay enough that she has already made plans to return this summer.      
Delicious bakery.  Tired preschooler. Rockstar friend. 
Come to London.  It will be fun.  I'll make you carry our stroller and help my daughter maneuver the tourist crowds on her scooter. 

Matching Belgian pants in Piccadilly Circus.  Fun times!