Cool for kids
It’s early morning and eight-year-old Freya is heading for the pirate ship, pink tutu aflutter as she dashes ahead of us.
By the time we catch up, she’s already climbed to the top of the mast, feet dangling high above us. Meanwhile, my son Giles scurries off to check out the many slides. And there are many to choose from in this beautifully-appointed, fun-filled space. It’s officially called the Diana Memorial Playground, but it’s often referred to as “the pirate ship playground.” It’s a perennial favorite with local families, and you’ll find it towards the Bayswater Road end of Kensington Gardens, the western extension of the huge Hyde Park.
Having done their own thing for a while, Freya and Giles reunite by the tepee tents for a spot of hide-and-seek. Mia Zackrisson Nye, Freya’s mom, seems to be having as much fun as the children. Nye left her native Sweden two decades ago. She is the head of marketing for a fashion company and lives in west London with her husband Daniel and their two children – Freya and her four-year-old brother Ethan, who’s at a birthday party but will join us later.
For today’s outing, we’ll be exploring the sweet-spot section of green spaces and museums situated in Kensington, a well-to-do area of London that stretches roughly between the Queensway and South Kensington subway stations. One of the best things about this tour is that you can do it all on foot, and you’ll rarely be close to traffic. Both Freya and Giles have a thing for flowers, and there are plenty of them in The Sunken Garden. You can’t step into it, but they’re quite happy to peek at the explosion of pastel-hued tulips from the arched viewpoints.
After a pit stop at one the many cafés dotted around, we wander east through the park for some pre-lunch culture. Our budding naturalists dart from tree to tree, collecting horse chestnut blooms that have fallen to the ground. They’ve gathered enough to open a small shop by the time we reach the Serpentine Gallery. This small but significant art establishment and its nearby sister-act, the Serpentine Sackler (designed by the late Zaha Hadid and opened in 2013), are godsends for parents wanting to lap up a bit of culture during a kid-focused day out. The galleries are also free to enter – as is the freestanding structure known as the Serpentine Pavilion, which is devised each year by a different architect or artist that is invited to create an installation-style building and café rolled into one. You’ll find it outside the Serpentine Gallery from June to early October.
“The Pavilion is a favorite of the whole family,” says Nye. “The designs of these installations are always interesting and they’re created in an open-plan way with a natural connection to the outdoors.”
Back in Hyde Park, Giles squeals in delight when a wood louse crawls from under a stone and onto his open palm while Freya hopes to find another snail.
“I have three pet snails at home in the garden,” she informs us animatedly.
“They’re called Milly, Betty and Molly and I think I might bring them in to ‘pet day’ at school. Last year, someone brought a Shetland pony.”
Having worked up a bit of a sweat, the children scamper off for a splash in a circular water feature by the Serpentine Lake.
“This is a magnet for kids in the summer,” says Nye.
“Technically, it’s a sculpture commemorating Princess Diana, but it has become a beautiful, tactile experience for kids to play in. Some parts are smooth and others rockier. The work is meant to represent the different stages in Diana’s life.”
Freya wants to tell us about her “secret” place – the Serpentine Lido paddling pool.
“It’s by the café. You pay a few pounds to get in and then you can use the paddling pool or if you’re really brave take a dip in the Serpentine Lake itself! I often meet my friends here after school.”
Feet dried off, we’ve left the parks and are heading down pedestrian-friendly Exhibition Road for South Kensington’s famous cluster of museums. Once inside The Natural History Museum, Freya and Giles halt briefly to greet Mr Stegosaurus before leading us into to the bird gallery, stopping at a gorgeous display of hummingbirds. The swarm of tiny birds seems to have a hypnotic effect on the children, if only for a moment.
T. Rex is one of the museum’s biggest celebs and even grown-ups have to admit that its glaring eyes and menacing, life-like moves are quite scary. But there are many other highlights to explore. Freya’s a fan of the upstairs mineral gallery.
“I can study these gems for ages, and you can buy smaller versions in the shop downstairs,” she says excitedly, as she takes Giles by the hand to show him a huge crystal.
Giles has a personal favorite, too, namely the Darwin Centre’s Cocoon, a major project that opened in 2009. As evening falls, it’s time to meet up with the other half of the Nye family. And we soon spot Ethan and his dad, Daniel emerging through the crowds underneath the huge blue whale that is suspended from the grand Hintze Hall.
We’ve promised the children ice cream, so we head for gelato at Oddono’s on Bute Street, a stone’s throw from the South Kensington subway station. There are plenty of flavors to choose from and strangely, it feels like the only decision we’ve had to make all day – which is when we realize it is the kids who have headed this tour from start to finish.
Published: August 2, 2018