Family fun: The best of London with teenagers

Soar the summits, slide into the city and make a splash on the Thames

 

I doubt if this is what Anish Kapoor had in mind when he created his 114.5m-high red steel sculpture for the London Olympic Park in 2012. I remember thinking it was ugly at the time, the biggest piece of public art in the country. But now, as I stand at the top of it, about to abseil down, my legs wobbling and my teenage boys wondering if I am capable of taking that big step, I am hoping that there is no such thing as Kapoor karma, and that his divine creation will carry me safely not into Orbit, as the sculpture was originally named, but safely back to earth.

My children’s encouraging grins and the calm expertise of the instructor give me the courage to step out of my comfort zone. And soar slowly, silently, safely and just a little bit smugly back down to earth, taking in some of the most spectacular views of London I have ever seen.

My lads were never really ones for doing the “hands on” sections of museums or galleries in London. They were happier scooting down the riverfront, climbing the Monument to the Great Fire or watching the bevy of buskers on the Southbank. Now both teenagers, although they do finally appreciate the National Gallery or Theatre, I wanted to go in search of a side of London that really appealed to their sense of urban fun. Which is what brings me to the summit of a sculpture.

There are now two ways to descend the ArecelorMitttal Orbit – by giant slide or by abseiling.
There are now two ways to descend the ArecelorMitttal Orbit – by giant slide or by abseiling.

There are now two ways to descend the ArecelorMitttal Orbit as it is called. One by giant slide, the tallest and longest tunnel slide in the world, which is certainly a wheeze and speedy, so not for the fainthearted. But if you want to take on the heights of London in a more athletic way, and the former Olympic Park is certainly the place to do it, then the abseiling certainly wins gold where all of us were concerned.

Abseil down the ArecelorMitttal Orbit for panoramic views of the city.
Abseil down the ArecelorMitttal Orbit for panoramic views of the city.

Elevated experiences

London is going in for a number of elevated experiences at the moment, and so we also decided to take on the climb of the O2 building, known to older Londoners as the Millennium Dome on the Greenwich Peninsula, or that odd-looking tent with lots of spikes coming out of it. A 90-minute experience, it began with an interpretive video which ran us through the main facts. Such as, in order to reflect its proximity to the Greenwich Meridian Line, everything about this crazy construction represents time.

There are 12 yellow support towers, it is 365m in diameter, and is 52m tall. You get the picture. And, after being given quality jackets and safety harnesses, being clipped on to the cable that extends up to the summit, we slowly walked up to the 52m peak. There were very different panoramic views of London this time, focusing more on the great Thames and how it twists and turns its way through London, old and new.

London is forever reinventing the old, and Shoreditch in East London is one of the most recent transformations from inner city to the place to be seen in. If you want hipster shops, cool music venues, street art and Old Spitalfields Market, then it is all going on in Shoreditch. This time round, we were using it mainly as a base, to zoom in and out of between action man (and woman) sessions but in between we were also delighted to ensconce ourselves in our aesthetically cool Qbic Hotel.

Greenest hotel

Claiming to be the greenest hotel in London, the first thing you see when you go in are bikes hanging from the walls and furniture made from recycled wood and hosepipes. No other way to describe them really, but they work. So does the price which, for a London hotel, fits into the hostel bracket but feels much more like a hotel.

The bedrooms at Qbic Hotel are suitably funky to fit in with the area.
The bedrooms at Qbic Hotel are suitably funky to fit in with the area.

The bedrooms at Qbic Hotel are suitably funky to fit in with the area, with a giant photo of a woman in a pink apron towering over the bed. It’s Shoreditch, everything goes. The eco aspects are everywhere though. If you don’t ask for your bed to be changed, you can get a free drink at the bar (check out the local Brick Lane lager), the toiletries are all in refillables, and it has solar panels on the roof.

One of the best aspects of Qbic, however, is the food. I could not tear my lads away from the breakfast spread, with everything from goji berries and yoghurt to pancakes and maple syrup, or lashings of smoked salmon. Between that and the Nordic feel to the place, I wasn’t sure if I was in London, Brooklyn or Copenhagen. Anyway, judging from the amount of Instagramming going on, it was a big teen thumbs-up for Qbic.

Waxworks are for wimps. London is for living

There was no Instagramming going on for our final urban adventure as this was hold-on-to-your-hats time, and put your cameras well away. With the Olympics becoming a recurrent theme now, we all recalled when David Beckham raced down the Thames in a speedboat. Well, with two gorgeous young men on my arms, and the James Bond theme blasting from all sides, I got near as dammit to that feeling, zooming from embankment to Canary Wharf on the Thames Rib Experience.

Experience the Thames by speedboat.
Experience the Thames by speedboat.

As well as being an extremely exhilarating way to experience the heart of London, the skipper and his mate were the best London tour guides I have come across in a long time. No remote control patter, just lots of facts, fun and a genuine love of their home city, as well as a love of revving that engine and showing us the London that I had forgotten existed. The vibrant, cold water in your face, wake up and live sort of London. Not the queuing down Baker Street to see Madame Tussaud’s London. Waxworks are for wimps. London is for living.

Getting there and around

London is easy to book but it is worth checking out which school holidays in Ireland don’t clash with UK ones, as flights will be cheaper. Most UK schools don’t break up until mid-July for the summer holidays, for example.

To save time, look out for bargains with Cityjet (cityjet.com) which takes you into the heart of the Docklands area of London. No long journeys across London or expensive taxis, just get straight on the Docklands Light Railway (Transport for London tfl.gov.uk). A wonderful app for getting around London is Citymapper (citymapper.com). You won’t get lost with this one.

Accommodation

Qbic Hotels prove that green is the new cool in London. Nearest tubes are Whitechapel or Aldgate East. Large ‘Fun’ room, with large double bed and fold-out sofa bed, is from £150 per room. Families of four from £175. qbichotels.com, 42 Adler St, Whitechapel, London E1 1EE, Tel: +44 (0) 203 021 1440.

Within easy access for Brick Lane and Shoreditch, you should also check out my lads’ favourite, East End Thrift Store, Assembly Passage, London E1 4UT. Fill a binbag for a tenner full of vintage clothes (be warned if you are bringing carry-on luggage only – this place is heaven for teenagers). No website available. Too cool for all that.

Activities

ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, managed by wireandsky.co.uk  from £16.50 for adults and £10.50 for children (ages 8-16) for general entry. Family ticket £52. Abseiling £85 per person, over 14 year olds only.

Climbing ‘Up at the O2’ is also managed by wireandsky.co.uk and costs from £30 for adults and children (over 10). Book in advance and check out bargain websites for discount codes, as they are often to be found.

Thames Rib Experience (thamesribexperience.com) is a 50-minute experience at £43 for adults and £30 for children (15 years and under).

Some more urban cool that isn’t Oxford Street

Go swimming at the heated outdoor lido in London Fields, Hackney (better.org.uk) followed by a movie at the nearby and uber cool Institute of Light, where cinema seats are recycled aeroplane seats and the bar is made of overhead lockers, but food is so not airline standard (the-institute-of-light.com).

Check out the summer season at Somerset House for outdoor films and concerts (somersethouse.org.uk) right on the Thames. And when there is nothing on, this stunning courtyard has big bubbling fountains to run through. No one is too old for those.

See London by kayak, by paddling down the Thames, by day or night. Sessions from £39 per person (kayakinglondon.com).

Hire a bike at The London Bicycle Tour Company (londonbicycle.com) and cycle down the Regents Canal, through the newly developed Kings Cross area. Or, for a full day trip, cycle Thames Path to North Greenwich on the south side, put your bike on the cable car to cross over the river (emiratesairline.co.uk) and cycle back up the north side of the Thames Path.

For any legal eagles out there, take a visit to the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court. A fascinating place not only for the cases on trial, but also for its history and traditions. It is open to the public for a tour, which costs £8, but you can also sit in the courtroom galleries, which is free. Note that you need to be over 14, bring ID but no bags or phones. (old-bailey.com)

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