Lessons learned: bus tours are not just for tourists, and always bring a change of clothes

Yesterday 365 tickets gave me the great opportunity to take an open-top double-decker bus tour of London with The Original Tour. I have lived near London and worked there for over 10 years now, so I’m hardly the usual target customer for a bus tour. Us seasoned London-goers imagine that everyone on those tours is fresh off the plane from foreign lands, desperate to gaze at the beauty of our city. But even when I was fresh off the plane, I never took one of these tours. However, I know now that I was missing out.

The main reason I was keen to go on the tour is because my 4-year-old son LOVES double-decker buses. And on previous trips to London I had seen him gaze in awe at the “open” ones. “Mummy, can we go on an open bus, pleease?” And I’d always said no because I figured it wasn’t much different from the normal public transport double-decker buses, except that you would be outside and possibly cold! But I was wrong about that too.

So here is the story of our day, which didn’t quite work out the way we planned, but was still an adventure nevertheless.

The best-laid plans…

On a foggy Saturday morning my son and I excitedly jumped on the train to London. Here we are trying out my new selfie stick. It worked brilliantly for this photo! I had many, many bus selfies planned.

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The full plan for the day was to ride the bus from Trafalgar Square, where we picked up our tickets, to Winter Wonderland, where we would stop for lunch and a carnival ride or two. Then we planned to board the bus again to finish the rest of the Yellow Tour. All of the tours are hop-on, hop-off, to enable you to use the buses to get around to see whatever London attractions you’re interested in. You can switch which routes you use over the course of the day depending on where you want to get to. So in theory, you shouldn’t need any other travel ticket the day you take your bus tour.

There are two main sightseeing routes that go past all the major attractions. The Yellow Route is the original tour that covers some key sights. It crosses the river twice and passes the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s Cathedral, London Eye, The Shard, Tower Bridge and Leicester Square, among other things. This one is a bit shorter and has a real human tour guide telling you interesting stories along the way, and helping you know where the right place to “hop off” is if you’re planning a specific stop.

The other major route is the Red Route, also known as The City Sightseeing Tour. This makes a much longer circuit of London and goes past Regent Street and The Strand – a great way to see all of the Christmas lights this time of year. It has an audio guide, which includes a special children’s commentary to keep your kids entertained.

Both routes go past Winter Wonderland and other Christmas markets.

Your ticket also covers a bunch of other bus routes, along with walking tours and a river cruise. They give you discounts on admission to other attractions, and you also get this excellent little book for your child, full of activities and history.

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We decided that the Yellow Route was best for us because it was a bit shorter, and I liked the idea of having a live guide.

An entertaining bus ride

After we picked up our tickets, we waited for a short time near Trafalgar Square to catch our bus. There was a lovely attendant there to help us be sure to get on the right bus.

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We hopped on and went straight to the open-top part of the bus. Even though it was a chilly December day, it wasn’t raining, so we decided we could brave the cold for a bit. However, it wasn’t actually cold at all! The way the bus is designed blocked a lot of the wind from blowing in our faces, so we felt relatively sheltered and comfortable. It was great having a view of the sights unfettered by window glass.

The bus did a nice little circuit of Trafalgar Square where I took this picture of the Christmas tree. The tour guide explained how Norway sends us a tree for Trafalgar Square every year to thank us for helping them out during the Second World War.

Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square

We then went past the Admiralty Arch and a statue of Charles I on a horse.

Admiralty Arch.jpgI rather enjoyed the joke the tour guide made when he explained that Charles I was one of our shortest ever monarchs … and he was a lot shorter when we were finished with him! He was beheaded during the English Civil War – when Cromwell took over. The Guide asked us to consider how the current Queen goes past this statue during all her major parades, and how sobering it must be for her to pass this statue of her ancestor who died in such a grisly way!

The bus proceeded down Pall Mall past St James’s Palace, then down Piccadilly past the Ritz Hotel and Green Park. Another interesting little story from the tour guide that I hadn’t heard before was a legend about why they call it Green Park. Supposedly, Charles II’s wife Catherine caught him picking flowers for his mistress there, and in a fit of jealousy ordered all the flowers to be removed. Therefore, to this day, the park is only grass with no flower beds. I’m not sure how historically accurate that one is, but it was entertaining nevertheless.

And then it all went a bit pear-shaped…

At this stage in the journey I decided it was time for one of my highly anticipated bus selfies. I stuck my phone into my selfie stick and took aim, and then the screen of my phone went black. As I looked closer, it had a picture of an Android and lots of computer code gobbledegook streaming across the screen! Cue quiet panic while I wonder if my phone has some sort of virus and OMG how am I going to get through the rest of the day without a phone for pictures, maps, communication … all the things I constantly need it for?! I mashed the off button repeatedly to get it to restart. Finally, it did. Sigh of relief.

Then the tour guide prompted us to get off the bus for Winter Wonderland. So much for my bus selfie. Oh well, I thought to myself, I’ll get one when we get back on later.

We walked round to the entrance of Winter Wonderland and my son started complaining he was tired and his tummy hurt. I thought he was just hungry, so we made a beeline for the bratwurst stand. My son is normally a great lover of sausages so I thought this would go down a treat. We shared one and I cut it into small pieces for him. After the first bite, he said it was a little bit spicy. But he kept eating … 2nd bite, 3rd bite and then … it all came back up.

That’s right, dear readers, my son puked up his lunch in the middle of the Bavarian Village at Winter Wonderland. I looked around with embarrassment, but it was so crowded that nobody seemed to notice. I furtively cleaned up what I could and made a quick exit from the scene of the crime.

My son’s coat and clothes were covered in sick and I hadn’t brought any spares! Argh! I was supposed to finish reviewing the bus tour! What to do? My mind sailed through possible solutions to the problem. Should I pop back on the bus – or maybe into a cab for swiftness – to the nearest retail outlet to purchase some clean apparel? But what if this puke was only the first of many? Images of my son being sick down the side of an open-top bus – or worse, on some other people – danced in my head.

In despair I dragged my son out of the park and to the nearest Tube station. I decided to just go straight home and not risk exposing other bus riders to the contents of my son’s stomach. Unfortunately, we had to ride the Tube and then the train for quite some way to get back to our house in Surrey. I had to stop at WH Smith to buy a plastic bag to house his smelly coat because I hadn’t even remembered to pack one! Rookie parenting mistake.

Luckily, the train was not crowded so I was mostly able to avoid offending others with our stench. I think I saw a few people twitch their noses though.

The verdict

I have to send my apologies to the lovely PR person and 365 Tickets, who arranged this review opportunity for me! My investigation of The Original Tour was not as thorough as I had planned it to be. But surely it’s understandable that a poorly 4-year-old was in no state to enjoy a prolonged bus ride?

Despite the shortness of my experience with the tour, I can without reservation highly recommend it. As I mentioned earlier, I never thought those tours had anything to offer a “seasoned traveller” like myself, but I actually found it incredibly relaxing to sit on the bus and hear entertaining stories about London’s history and landmarks. It seems like a great way to get around if you are planning a day out enjoying London’s attractions, and even better at Christmas when there are lights and other festive sights to see.

I think the tour is a great way to get your children interested in history, too. My son loved being on the bus and listening to the stories the tour guide was telling. I would also recommend it to any friends visiting London – even if not for the first time – as it’s sure to teach you things you didn’t already know.

I hope to take my son back someday soon to enjoy the full tour. I’ll just avoid stopping for bratwurst halfway through, and remember to bring a change of clothes and a plastic bag.

Disclosure: It’s not a secret! I received a ticket for the bus tour in exchange for the review.

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Christmas Carols: A parenting minefield

One of my favourite bits of the bedtime routine is singing to my children. I always sing at least one song to each of my sons before they go to sleep. My eldest usually chooses a song now that he knows my full repertoire, but during the festive season his only guideline is that I sing Christmas songs.

There aren’t a lot of Christmas songs that I know by heart, and even with those I’m probably getting the lyrics wrong. But either way, I find my inner monologue while singing these songs to my son ever so slightly troubling. I worry about what exactly do these lyrics mean and are they really sending appropriate messages to a 4 year old?

Okay, so it’s not a really serious worry. Certainly not big enough for me to stop singing them. But I thought it might be amusing to take a look at some of the weirdest Christmas song lyrics out there.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake

My son pegged this one the other day. “How does Santa Claus see me when I’m sleeping?” I told him it was “magic”. He seemed to accept it. But how creepy is that? No wonder my children look slightly worried in their Christmas photo, if they think they’re meeting the fat bearded man with odd dress sense who has been watching them all night long – ALL YEAR.

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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Without quoting the lyrics directly, we all know the story of this song. All the mean bully reindeer laughed at poor Rudolph because he had a stupid big red nose. They wouldn’t let him join in their reindeer games (whatever those might be – maybe antler ring toss – Rudolph probs wasn’t missing much).

But then, when suddenly Rudolph gets some extra accolades from the big boss (Santa), and becomes the manager of the Sleigh Guidance Department, all the reindeer “loved” him. The bastard suck ups. I worry that this song is teaching my son that it’s okay to be a shallow arse-licker who bullies people until they want something from them.

Winter Wonderland

My son said the other day that this is his favourite Christmas song. I guess he just likes the tune. I worry about the old-fashioned sentiments.

In the meadow we can build a snowman
Then pretend that he is Parson Brown
He’ll say, “Are you married?”
We’ll say, “No man”
But you can do the job, when you’re in town

What? So this couple is walking around in the snow, they decide to build a snowman, and then they decide to pretend he’s a priest? How random is that? Is it actually both members of the couple, or just one of them trying to propose in an entirely creepy way? “Look, Parson Brown the religious snowman wants us to stop living in sin. What do you say, babes?”

I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas

I’m not actually worried about my son’s reaction to this one. We both know we’re talking about snow. But the whole time I’m singing this, I can’t help but think of racists. I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know. I mean, why don’t you still know white Christmases if you used to have them all the time? Did you move from Finland to Spain? Or are you just a member of the alt-right and speaking in thinly veiled innuendo? It just makes me think of some of the worrisome politics we are facing today, even though that’s obviously not what the song is about.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

This one is pleasant enough, until it gets to the bit about figgy pudding. Bring us some figgy pudding. Please bring some right now! We won’t go until we get some. Bugger off, you spoiled brats. Where are your parents? Get your own figgy pudding.

Silent Night

This one is lovely and soothing. It is definitely one of my favourites. But I have to admit to cringing a bit at the round yon virgin bit. What if the boy asks me, “Mummy, what’s a virgin?” And what do I tell him? Maybe a young, unmarried woman? But that could backfire. He might go around calling people virgins. “My cousin is only 16. She’s a virgin.” But I can’t tell him what it actually means! It’s a minefield. I’ll just mumble the virgin part and hope he doesn’t notice. Round yon mm-mm-mm, mother and child!

What are your favourite Christmas carols? Do any of them have slightly dodgy lyrics?

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