London: High tea and things for free

Hello from across the pond!

A few weeks ago, I asked readers to write in with suggestions of things I should do during my upcoming trip to London and Paris. I received dozens of wonderful ideas that I plan to implement during my visit, the majority of which will be spent in London.

I arrived yesterday with my daughters, 6 and 3, and had my first full day out and about today. I planned to spend the morning at Kensington Gardens, but, in a total tourist move, got off at the South Kensington stop thinking it must be the right one. It was not.

It was, however, the stop for the Natural History Museum — which, I would learn, is free! — and several other big-name attractions.

TEXAS TIE: While at the Natural History Museum, I met this Glyptodon, which is an extinct giant relative of the armadillo.

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They weren’t able to roll up into a ball like our state’s beloved(?) critter, but they could tuck their armored heads down into their shells to protect themselves from predators. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough — they died out about 10,000 years ago. (I’m going to try to feature something I find in London each day that has a tie to Texas – stay tuned for more.)

We also stopped by the Sensational Butterflies exhibit hosted by the museum (there is an admission fee for this, but it was worth it) through September. As we walked through the door, the steamy temperatures instantly reminded us of Texas summers as butterflies with wings as colorful as stained-glass windows flitted by.

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The exhibit is great for all ages and includes a variety of fun facts about all stages of the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis. For example, did you know that while humans have 640-850 muscles in their bodies, caterpillars have about 4,000?

Eventually we did make our way to Kensington Gardens (it’s the High Street Kensington stop on the Underground, if you’re wondering), which readers Sara and Tori had recommended for its sprawling, beautiful grounds. And it, too, is free! Note: There is a charge for tours of the inside of Kensington Palace. We were immediately enchanted by its rich history, which includes being the birthplace of Queen Victoria, and charming features including a glittering duck pond and a carousel. The grounds have even been featured in movies including “Finding Neverland” and “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.”

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Our stop there included a long stint for the girls at the Diana Memorial Playground, which was built in honor of the late princess and includes everything from a giant pirate ship to a miniature sandy beach to teepees where you can hide and play. Our friend Amy recommended it and I’m so glad she did. It is one of the most immersive playgrounds I’ve visited and a fitting testament to the child-loving princess.

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We wrapped up our day with high tea at the adjacent Orangery, which was built in the early 1700s and used by Queen Anne for entertaining. Today, it’s a wonderful place to take in tea while admiring emerald-green bushes manicured in the shape of giant light bulbs.

A word about high tea: Where has this been all my life? Taking an hour or more of the day to snack on tiny sandwiches and miniature puddings while sipping hot tea (or champagne) in a beautiful setting? Sign me up. Sure, the clanking of stirring spoons on fine china made by my daughters could have been omitted, but we didn’t break anything, so I consider it a win.

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I’m definitely looking forward to testing out other high teas over the course of our visit.

So far, we’ve found London to be inviting and friendly – people have gone out of their way to offer us advice, assistance and even their seats on the Underground. My 3-year-old has become so fond of the escalators we’ve been riding to get on the train that she’s repeatedly called them her “best friend.” I don’t know what that says about our social life in Austin, but it is yet another interesting connection to this new city.

I’ll be updating about our adventures daily on this blog as well as on Instagram and Twitter at @kristinfinan. I’ve also got a list of suggestions everyone has sent in and I’m looking forward to to crossing off as many as I can. Have more? Feel free to email me at kfinan@statesman.com.


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