Camping in London in the colder months – you'd have to be mad, right? Well, no - give it a go, and you'll find it's actually quite a fun, cost-canny and convenient option
Street entertainer Andy had been amusing a large crowd at Covent Garden market with his juggling and unicycle antics for half an hour. Now that awful moment when the hat goes around and 90 per cent of the onlookers disappear in a cringe-making exhibition of miserliness was upon us. But Andy, in a rather charming way, was appealing: “Have you enjoyed yourselves?” he asked. “Yes, yes, yes!” came the overwhelming reply. “Well, if you’d gone to the West End to see a show that would’ve been about £100. I’m only asking for a fiver, or maybe a quid - or even a handshake to show your appreciation”.
He certainly had lots of handshakes, but his show was definitely worth much more. It proves my point - and Andy’s too - that London is the place for unusual entertainment, all for perhaps the price of a cup of coffee. On the Embankment, beside the London Eye, we passed, one after the other, superb musicians, living ‘statues’, fire eaters, magicians and escape artists.
Our daughters were delighted. We were too, because though we had come to London expecting to shell out a fair bit on tourist attractions, mostly for their benefit, we also had to keep a budget in mind. That’s why we were camping at the Crystal Palace Caravan Club Site south of the river. Tents are allowed and you don’t have to be club members, though you do pay a supplement if you aren’t.
I still don’t know whether the incredulous looks on my friends’ faces when I told them that we were going to be camping in the capital were because they were surprised that there were year-round facilities to do so or because they thought I was either utterly daft or tight-fisted, or both. In fact, the site was full. Most campers were like us, British families showing their children around. There are heated shower blocks, plenty of modest eateries close by and it’s right on the edge of a beautiful park. Best of all, the frequent number 3 bus stops nearby and takes you right to Piccadilly. An adult day pass for the bus and tube was just over a fiver and under 11s travel free.
All the major museums are free, though this did mean there were crowds, especially to see the immense dinosaur skeletons and reconstructions at the Natural History Museum. One thing that really surprised me was just how clean London’s streets were and how well-oiled and efficient the transport service seemed. It made our getting around so easy.
At London Zoo, we wish we’d arrived much earlier because the gates shut at 4.30pm off-season and there was just so much we didn’t get to see. Perhaps we shouldn’t have lingered so long in the rainforest exhibition, mesmerised as we were by a surprisingly sprightly two-toed sloth. We had also followed the oohs and aahs of other visitors with their noses pressed up against the black marmosets’ enclosure. The object of their admiration was the tiniest of babies on its mum’s back. My tip is to follow the green trail around the zoo so that you don’t miss a thing; arrive early and be prepared to stay all day.
My husband is now a great fan of the London Eye. I’d been told beforehand not to be put off by the long queues, as they moved swiftly. This was indeed true and we soon found ourselves 135m up, with only glass between us and the Thames below. We were so glad that we had picked a clear day. Though we couldn’t see as far as Windsor Castle, as some visitors claim, we could make out the phone mast beside our camp site.
After lunch on the Embankment, serenaded by the buskers, we headed for Marylebone Road and Madame Tussaud’s. The fun here was in the unexpected. A young Japanese woman was poised to click her camera at ‘Brad Pitt’ and ‘Angelina Jolie’, so we, and lots of other visitors, moved politely out of her way. Ten minutes later she was still there. Time for a double-take. Other figures made us exclaim, “They look nothing like them!” (Elvis Presley), yet others made us wonder if they really are that tiny in real life (Jennifer Aniston) or, indeed, that large (Boris Becker, Samuel L Jackson).
But the best bit came deep within the Chamber of Horrors. In fact I didn’t get to see it all as elder daughter Elena got so scared we had to ask to be let out. No wonder; actors take on the roles of unhinged inmates of a maximum-security prison who have been let loose. We were warned before we went in not to touch them and that they wouldn’t touch us. Believe me, it doesn’t stop them coming within millimetres of your face. I didn’t endear myself to the ‘inmates’ by shouting ‘boo’ as one deranged figure leapt out of the darkness at us. It did leave us shaking with relief - and laughter -.though, as we were rather sheepishly ushered out by one of the creatures running ahead of us shouting “no scares, please”.
By no stretch of the imagination could a break in the capital ever be described as relaxing. It was nice to ‘escape’ each night on the number 3 bus back to our little home from home at Crystal Palace. The only drawback - and it was a big one - was in getting to London and home again. It took us two and a half hours just to get across the city from the London Gateway, whilst avoiding the charging zones. Was it worth it? Well, once we’d calmed down, I’d say it was. You might be wiser to take my advice and pack some lightweight camping gear in a rucksack - and get on the train.