Coram Fields, Bloomsbury, London

One unusually sunny spring day, Mama was rather regretting deciding to check out Coram Fields, a mysterious child friendly oasis in Bloomsbury she’s been hearing about for quite some time now.

This was because we were stuck in a traffic jam. Sometimes Mama should really overcome her preference for the bus instead of the tube, and when you have to get across central London of a weekend just after a fire has closed down one of the major road routes is one of them.

Anyway. Coram Fields, Mama thought, was going to have to be very good indeed to make up for having to exhaust all of her travel games and endure our well rested inability to sit still quietly for at least half an hour longer than was absolutely necessary.

The park sounded marvellous, of course. The land was originally part of Captain Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital for abandoned and homeless children. When the hospital was relocated at the beginning of the 20th Century, the area was due to be sold off but instead became this charitably maitained public park, aimed at keeping London’s kids amused and in the outdoors. You can’t even get in, in fact, without a child in tow. I expect that’s why Mama brought us. I sometimes think she only ever brings us so she has an excuse to go to interesting places.

Thus there is a good variety of play equipment spread out in small play areas dotted around the edges of Coram Fields. Big climbing frames, slides and zip wires. Small climbing frames, rocking horses and swings. You can scamper from one to the other for quite some time.

The whole park is not quite as big as the name ‘Fields’ implies, but what’s good about it being only somewhat larger than the other squares which are such a feature of this part of London is that it is relatively easy to keep an eye on your children, even if they should choose to splinter off in different directions. Even better is that there is only one exit, and this is even manned by a security guard intent on keeping out any adults who have turned up unaccompanied by kids.

And there are animals, which practically guarantees success in my Terrific Big Brother’s eyes. Chickens in a large coup, a couple of goats in a pen, some rabbits and a cage full of budgies. Quite enough to provide animaltastic diversion and thrills, especially the chickens, who were obligingly active.

Chicken at Coram Fields

Calling it a city farm, which the Coram Fields website does, is pushing it in Mama’s opinion, though. We’re not *that* urban that we don’t know that a farm means that there has to be a cow and a pig. One of each will do.

Goats at Coram Fields

Best of all in my opinion is the giant sandpit! With just enough working water exuding bits of equipment to make sure there was a socking great puddle in the middle and running water to splash about in. Oh joy! Oh frabulous day! WATER PLAY! LOVE!! IT!!!

Sandpit at Coram Fields

Mama did not say. What she did say is, ‘FOR FUCK’S SAKE’ (in her head).

‘Look’, she mentally continued, ‘yes, children like mucking around in water, of course they do, and in the height, the absolute height of that rare thing, a glorious summer’s day, it’s wonderful to be able to let them run about the parks which double as London’s personal outdoor space, get wet, and then, and this is the crucial bit, dry off quickly in the baking hot sunshine. But,’ and this is where she gets a bit ranty, ‘for about 360 days of the year, what actually happens is your children get sopping wet and then they also get cold and miserable pretty quickly too. London is big. Travel is slow. Nobody has a car in a nearby car park with some spare trousers in the back. Nobody wants to shlepp a change of clothes across the capital. What in GOD’S GOOD NAME possesses the London park designers to think that water play in this climate is a good thing, PARTICULARLY in a public space which must surely have only minimal local residents for whom popping back home for a new jumper is doable?’

So the visit descended a bit of bad tempered wrangling at this point. Well, Mama was bad tempered. We were enjoying ourselves hugely. She made us take off as many clothes as she could without risking hypothermia in what was still, despite the sun, the still slightly chilly spring weather, and then kept shouting from the sidelines every time it looked as though we were about to forget ourselves and dampen the rest of our outfits.

Needless to say, Mama was largely unsuccessful in keeping us in any way dry. But that’s OK. She *likes* carrying round dripping cardigans for the rest of the day and holding us under the blow dryers in the toilets to stop us moaning about being chilly.

In the end Mama decided that the only way to tear us away from the enticing sandpit area was to take us to the café in the corner of Coram Fields. And this certainly restored her good cheer, mainly because it served pancakes, which Mama thinks are an excellent alternative to chips for a meal on a family day out. And there was coffee, of course. That always makes her somewhat more able to face the difficulties childcare throws up.

Mind you, it would also be a great place for a picnic. The large square of open ground in the middle is just begging for blankets and thermoses. If, and this is a crucial point, you do not mind adding them to your overfilling bag along with the changes of clothes.

Coram Fields

Of course, the fact that you almost certainly do not live close to Coram Fields means that it is, for a London park, really rather uncrowded. Don’t get me wrong, there were enough kids there on the weekend we went to make it a cheerful place to rock up and find some new friends. Playgrounds are boring without some other children after all. But considering how rammed some of the parks get on a Saturday and Sunday, Coram Fields is a haven of tranquility.

Yet it is also very close to some interesting tourist attractions. Most notably, it is just up the road from the British Museum, but nearby there are also the very interesting Grant Museum of Zooology and the Petrie Archaeological Museums belonging to University College London, and the Soane Museum and Huntarian and the Operating Theatre museums too. With the exception of the British Museum, these are all smallish and not going to take more than a couple of hours to visit. Coram Fields is exactly the sort of place you want to have up your sleeve to make it worth braving London’s public transport system to see them with kids, which you should really, because they are great.

Mama recommends taking in Coram Fields first. Normally she saves the things we like for last, as a sort of compensation for suffering through cultural appreciation. However, she discovered that a lengthy stint in Coram Fields perfectly softened us up for good humoured tolerance of her desire to show us glass cases full of things. Or perhaps that was the pancakes. Either way, we had a good time.

Just beware of the water.

More information

Coram Fields’ website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about well dressings of the English Peak District.

Address: 93 Guilford Street, London, WC1N 1DN

Opening: 9am to dusk.

Admission: Free, but bring a child or you won’t get in.

By tube: Nearest tubes are Russell Square (Piccadilly), King’s Cross St Pancras (Northern / Victoria / Circle / Hammersmith & City) and Holborn or Chancery Lane (Central).

By train: King’s Cross, St Pancras and Euston are all within walking distance.

By bus: Bus stops are about a 10-minute walk away. Nearest buses are the 17, 45 & 46 at Gray’s In Rd or the 7, 59, 68, 91, 168 & 188 at Russell Square.

By car: No. Just no.

Holland Park, West London

Holland Park is just down the road at the other end of Kensington High Street from Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park and surrounded by many large mansions housing diplomats, bankers, supermarket chain owners and celebs such as the Beckhams, Elton John, Simon Cowell, Robbie Williams, Richard Branson, Brian May and Jimmy Page. Whoever they are. If they aren’t on Cbeebies, they can’t be that famous.

It’s not really on the tourist trail but Mama knows it well as she used to live round the corner herself in a flat that was a lot less glamorous than the address makes it sound. Actually, calling it ‘a flat’ is probably exaggerating things too, she says. But she must have liked the area as she still takes my Awesome Big Brother and me to Holland Park on occasion, which suits us just fine because it’s great.

Formal Gardens and Orangery at Holland Park
Park!

Holland Park occupies the land surrounding the former residence of Charles Fox, an 18th Century politician famous for living it large, a fact that endears the place to Mama from the get go although it had many other interesting owners. The house itself is now in ruins following bombing in World War II. What’s left used to be a youth hostel and is now the very impressive looking backdrop for outdoor opera in the summer. Every year Mama says she really must go one day. Every year she doesn’t. We’ll see what happens this time, now that they are just erecting the awning.

Holland Opera House
Doh ray me fah so la tee doh!

To the south, there is a large playing field, which I never get to run around on because it is pretty much constantly occupied by people playing football, cricket, or other energetic ball games.

In the middle there are some rather splendid formal gardens, seasonal blooms corralled by squares of privet, walls and very well clipped taller hedges. Apparently Mama used to spend whole weekends here with only a book and the people having their personal trainer shout at them as they ran up and down the steps or did push ups on the statue bases for entertainment, a concept I just don’t grasp – Mama allowed to sit down? With a book? Surely not. Next you will be telling me she used to have lie ins.

Formal Gardens at Holland Park
Spring has sprung.

There are some very nice benches there though. I can see why people who enjoy relaxing might like them.

Bench at Holland Park
It’s important to rush Mama past these.

There is also a Japanese garden, complete with elegantly shaped lake, bamboo toys, contorted trees, a nonchalantly sculpted waterfall, and thoughtfully placed stones.

Japenese Garden Decoration at Holland park
Donk. Donk. Donk. Donk. Donk. Donk.

And GIANT koi carp, which at one point even had their own personal guard to make sure that nobody pinched them. Probably my Awesome Big Brother, who would certainly spend the entire weekend on his tummy watching them and trying to get them to eat his finger (they are very obliging about this) if Mama let him.

Koi Carp at Holland Park
Come here little fishy!

The only thing that will tempt him away is going on a peacock hunt.

Yes, there are peacocks. Roaming free! In a park!! In London!!! How cool is that?!!!! Luckily they are very easy to track down, being plentiful and extremely loud. Mama is unsure if introducing children to their cry is a wholly sensible thing, as we quite enjoyed emulating their squawks for whole hours at a time afterwards, but overall this is a small price to pay for the exoticism, I reckon.

When we find them, they mostly spend their time sticking their tails up mockingly at my Awesome Big Brother from behind a fence or perching on top of walls shrieking insults at him, which shows a certain surprising streak of intelligence because at one point he thought chasing birds was even more fun than tickling fish. I just think they’re splendid and can only be tempted away with promises of… well, actually Mama mostly just picks me up and carries me off when it’s time to move on.

Peacock at Holland Park
Pick meeeeeeeeeeee!

Next to the Japanese garden there’s a grassy area which is so ludicrously full of people in the summer that it is actually impossible to pick your way between the picnic blankets without trampling all over them. So we rarely try to avoid it, my Awesome Big Brother and I. Beware.

Then there are the woods. Mama, ever the pseudo nature lover, would spend more time rambling in amongst trees if we hadn’t used up most of it on the fish and the peacocks. It might be easier to tempt us in now that my Awesome Big Brother discovered the pond full, and I do mean full, of frogspawn the last time we were here.

Somewhere in the woods there is a big children’s playground, which has a very good range of equipment mainly focused around climbing, swinging, spinning and leaping around madly, suitable for a range of different ages. It is also arranged so that you can pretty much see the whole of it at once, which is the sort of playground design Mama really approves of.

Playground at Holland Park
This is only a small corner of the playground. But it has a peacock!

There’s also a massive sand pit playground best for the smallest children next to the playing field. It’s a wonderfully fraught place where all the Mamas try to keep track of which little tea leaf has walked of with their bucket and spade this time and usually fail, resulting in the place being littered by a lot of abandoned freebie toys, just adding to the confusion. My Awesome Big Brother loved it when he was little, especially the playing with other people’s stuff part. However, sand is not quite as fabulous as water as far as I am concerned, so these days we very quickly end up in the conveniently nearby café, getting ice cream.

The ice cream is very nice and conveniently in pots, which means my Awesome Big Brother and I are less likely to get covered in it, and their babychinos, a word Mama cannot actually bring herself to say, resulting in tortuous conversations about hot milk for children until she gives in, very reasonable. This makes up for the fact their coffee cups are somewhat on the small side. There’s limited seating inside, but quite a bit more outside, and you can always take your haul into the rest of the park if you aren’t having, I dunno, soup.

Anyway, Holland Park is in many ways really a locals’ park and absolutely rammed full of families on the posher end of the spectrum whenever the sun shines. This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a visit though because it certainly is. One of London’s slightly less well known gems.

More Information

The park on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about burying yourself in sand.

Address: Ilchester Place, London, W8

Admission: Free.

Opening: 7.30 am to 30 minutes before dusk.

By bus: There are a large number of buses that run down either Holland Park Avenue to the north or Kensington High Street to the south.

By tube: Holland Park (Central line) is the closest to the northern entrance. Kensington High Street (Circle and Disctict lines), and Notting Hill Gate (Central, Circle and District lines) and Shephards Bush (Central line) are about 15/20 minutes from the south and north entrances to the park respectively.

By car: What part of ‘it’s in London’ did you not understand?

Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, London

Hyde Park is big. It’s not as big as Richmond ‘the Poo’ Park or, y’know, space, but it is nevertheless big and particularly big for the purposes of this guide as Mama says I should include Kensington Gardens as well. No-one, she insists, really knows where one stops and the other begins anyway, certainly not her. So, Hyde Park (with Kensington Gardens) is very big indeed, a fact which is important for Londoners, most of whom do not have gardens to call their own. At the slightest hint of sun they will therefore head for a park en masse, and since the capital would probably give space a run for its money, it’s good that there is still room to move about in this very central open space despite the very large numbers of people who frequent it, lounging around on the grass; picnicking; playing football; contorting themselves into odd shapes while someone shouts at them; riding bikes; scooting on scooters; rolling on rollerblades; walking on tightropes; walking their dogs; or just wandering aimlessly about. Like us.

Hyde Park/ Kensington Gardens

Mostly our walks begin in the middle of the southern side, hoping for a sight of horses as we cross the sand-covered riding track, which runs right round the park and harks back to its days as the place for the great, the good and the beautiful to display themselves on horseback and in carriages to all and gossips. Horses happen quite often, actually. There are a couple of stables dotted around and, of course, the Horseguard Barracks right next door. We see the mounted soldiers exercising their nags, trotting back from changing the guard or, on really exciting days, practising for some big ceremonial outing. Clearly being in the army must be GREAT! I am thinking of joining, although I don’t see any girls up there. Probably they only bother with the very special occasions. But what with this, the casual trotters and dressage squares on both the north and south sides where you can hang around watching horses dance, all in all, Hyde Park (with Kensington Gardens) is a pretty good hunting ground for small equestrian-obsessed children. Like me!

The Albert Memorial run is the one we do if we are in a hurry. Mama says it was built by a Queen to remember her husband. He must have been very nice because it certainly is a very big sort of statue. I am going to be a Queen when I grow up. I thought about being a Princess because, dresses! Also, pink! Then I realised Kings get to ride more horses. But Queens are clearly the most important, so that’s the best job. The Memorial displays all the restrained taste and subtlety of which the Victorian age is known for (says Mama), and the fact that Albert is covered from head to foot in gold leaf and makes Papa, the Russian, feel right at home.  Public art that stands still for too long in Russia always gets covered by gold leaf. As a result, the Albert Memorial is the only bit of statuary in London Papa approves of.

Gold leaf covered Albert Memorial from behind

Behind the statue is the Flower Walk. It is an excellent route for toddlers, having broad, well-paved pathways, fences to prevent the plant life from getting carried away and savaging us, and a total absence of water features as long as you avoid the giant dog bowl at the bottom end. Also, everybody feeds the squirrels, and often they let us help. Those little guys are really friendly! They’ll come right up and take the nuts out of your hands! It’s a bit confusing because I thought the ‘do not’ on the signs means that it’s not allowed, but I must have been wrong. This language learning business is very hard.

Kensington Gardens

Then there is the Diana Memorial Fountain option. Mama says Diana was a Princess, but that can’t be true because there isn’t any pink. Mama first came across it in its early stages, back when she didn’t have kids and it spent six months cordoned off for not working properly. She was not impressed, and not just because of it being mostly white. Now we are all big fans (except of the colour). Of course, it remains more of a low lying circular cannalette than anything else, and certainly not, in the absence of your actual spurting water, a fountain. But they have fixed whatever the plumbing problems were, and it has become a pretty cool hangout on a nice sunny day. People sit on the wide stone edging, wade round and round the waters, or just picnic on the surrounding grass. There are a lot of kids, most of them wet, but it’s not all families and that is rather nice too. Best of all, up close the stream is interestingly textured with different flow patterns and in places even loud and oddly musical. Mama says that if you absolutely have to have open water for children to fall into in every park in Britain, and it appears to Mama that you do, this is the one she can tolerate, even if it does mean bringing along a spare set of clothes.

She thinks the nearby Serpentine lake, however, is best avoided with two water obsessed offspring. Mama is particularly adamant about this after she had to fish my Incredible Big Brother’s scooter out of the water not once but twice on one particularly tedious trip all the way round. So we generally depart the waterside briskly after hanging over a decently fenced off section admiring the ducklings and goslings and signets, pausing only to see if anyone is braving the waters in the special pool-like area. Mama tells me that you have to be a member of some club to actually get in the water. I think this is just an excuse and plan on testing the theory as soon as I can escape and fling myself in. In the meantime, we usually end up at the playground back up near the east end of the lake, down by the Horseguard baracks. It has a coffee dispensing kiosk right outside, so everyone is happy, at least in the summer months.

At one time, when Mama had all the time in the world and no school runs to do, we used to go up to the Round Pond via one of the Serpentine Gallery buildings. Even through the Gallery sometimes. Everybody likes rooms with large screens showing rather incomprehensible films about a music box.

Back in his dissolute youth, the Round Pond was much beloved of my Incredible Big Brother, who would spend many happy hours herding any water birds which had the temerity to set webbed foot on land back into what he considers to be their only permissible habitat. The tourists who had got lost on their way from Kensington Palace to the Diana Memorial Fountain loved this kind of behaviour and took whole memory sticks full of pictures of a line of grown swans waddling, cowed, in front of a determined small boy. Nowadays, it’s mostly me trying to tree a squirrel they like to film. If anyone reading this has found themselves being shown pictures of extravagantly photogenic children harassing wildlife in Hyde Park (or Kensington Gardens) from a returnee from the Sceptred Isles, Hi from me and my Incredible Big Brother.

If we are up in this North West sort of area now, we would probably be going to the Diana Memorial Playground. In many ways it is an excellent playground, although, again, where is the pink? Don’t they know princess stuff must be smothered in pink? Ditto, frills? Instead there’s a huge sandpit, some really good slides, swings and climbing frames, and best of all a gigantic pirate ship, all divided up into different areas separated by high grassy banks or really big bushes. Of course, Mama likes to be able to keep half an eye on my Incredible Big Brother whilst following me around wherever my whimsy takes me and this is pretty much impossible with the Diana Memorial Playground. Mama is therefore forced to choose between being the helicopter Mama she likes to pretend she isn’t or the momentarily panic of not being able to find one of her children because he is sitting under a bush recruiting the other under tens in a plot to take over the world. Or finding bugs. Whichever you think is more likely. Either way, it’s stressful, and she is almost always forced to fortify herself at the large refreshments booth outside afterwards. I recommend the ice cream. Mama likes the coffee.

Recently we have discovered the Italian gardens, which surprisingly has nothing whatsoever to do with any member of a royal family. As far as Mama knows. They do have square ponds and real fountains with shooty water though. Also, some really big stone cups. This must be where the giants hang. They should take their rubbish with them. I like to scoot round and round and throw leaves in the water, which Mama suspects pleases the people who have to keep the place tidy not at all, so we always end up having a bit of an argument about that. Mama probably feels they have enough to do trying to shift the giant leftovers but I say this is not my problem.

Apparently, there is a famous statue of a small unruly boy around here somewhere. We haven’t found it yet but I think it is unfair. Why are they putting up monuments to my Incredible Big Brother and not me, I would like to know?

Anyway, Hyde Park (with Kensington Gardens). Mama has never actually taken a trip here simply to go to the park, although it is a great park, huge, lots to do, busy but not hopelessly crowded. But it’s near to quite a few of the places your big people might insist on taking you to in London, so if that has all become too much, you can restore yourself by running around and shouting to your hearts content here. If you don’t happen to have a first class park within easy reach, you could easily spend a day here just because. And if it is your local park, lucky old you.

More Information

The Hyde Park website.

The Kensington Gardens website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Diana, Princess of Wales, and the power of myth.

Address: Hyde Park’s postcode is W2 2UH.

Opening: 5am to midnight.

Price: Free.

By tube: Bayswater (District Line), Lancaster Gate (Central Line), Marble Arch (Central Line), Hyde Park Corner (Piccadilly Line), Knightsbridge (Piccadilly Line), High Street Kensington (Circle and District Lines).

By bus: North London: 6, 7, 10, 16, 52, 73, 82, 390, 414. South London: 2, 36, 137, 436. West London: 9, 10, 14, 19, 22, 52, 74, 148, 414. East London: 8, 15, 30, 38, 274.

By car: Actually, Pay and Display parking is available on West Carriage Drive and in car parks at either end of Serpentine Bridge. It’s not ruinously expensive either. But places are limited, and there’s maximum four hours stay Monday-Saturday. You still have to pay on Sundays, but there is no maximum stay.