Children are great – the old adage goes – but I couldn’t eat a whole one. Nieces, nephews and godchildren, though, are in a different category to your own offspring and come in very handy when it comes to wanting to see and do things which are really aimed at small people. Like a Frozen sing-along, let’s say.
With nephews, you can take them out to a museum, pump them full of fast food at a burger bar, and then hand them to back to mum and dad, with a wave, your brownie point account full to brimming.
You don’t have to worry about them not going to bed or throwing up/throwing a strop at the end of the day, because a nephew is not your problem. And if there is a wobble on the top deck of the London bus during your day together, you can smile sweetly and say loudly “Now, please behave for Uncle Will”, attracting instant sympathy from those around you. You are a saint. It’s the parents who are responsible for this caterwauling creature, nothing to do with you, guv.
So I was delighted to discover that there is an An Uncle’s Guide to London. It’s a beautifully designed foldable map that slips easily into a pocket or wallet, and lists 29 suggestions of places in the capital an uncle can take a nipper for a top day out, which contain “joyful larks for the carefree young and maximum anxiety for the careworn elders”. Hopefully, not too much of the latter. And even so, it gives confidence to a man would see a full day of childcare looming on the calendar as a trapdoor to terror.
After some negotiation, nine year old Toby was dropped on my doorstep on a rather damp, grey Sunday and we pored over the map together.
There was some disagreement over kite flying on Parliament Hill. For me, this was literally too close to home. I have seen many unsuspecting weekend joggers come dangerously close to being garrotted by an out-of-control kite-flyer. I think this activity may be recommended on a beach in the Outer Hebrides but not in our over-crowded capital. What’s more, it’s especially to be avoided among the well to do of NW3, particularly if we run the risk of entangling a neighbour and I have to face them afterwards in The Stag public house. So it was discounted.
We pondered the guide’s other choices carefully. Not the right season for Tooting Bec Lido. A walk along the South Bank was tempting but perhaps more fun in principle than practice. I’d never heard of Coram’s Fields, a park described as being one where adults are only allowed if accompanied by a minor, and which has the Foundling Museum – London’s first home for abandoned children – in one corner, but we agreed it was not the top choice. The Fryer’s Delight fish & chip shop on Theobald’s Road tempted me. After all, as the guide correctly states, it’s “not uncle’s job to make sure junior gets his five a day”.
However, we settled on number 11 on the list: the Imperial War Museum. I think the last time I was there, I was nine myself. Toby had already been this year, but was dying to go again, especially to see the Horrible Histories Spies exhibition. As it transpired, every family with an SW postcode prefix had the same idea, so it was a bit of a bun fight when we first walked in, under a panoply of bombs and fighter aircraft hanging from the ceiling.
But, after a restorative hot chocolate and cookie from the café – a well-fed child is a happy child; a well fed uncle… – we started by exploring the World War I galleries. They really bring home the horrors of what happened a century ago.
As well as objects such as letters and posters, there are a lot of moving images and film footage from the time which bring the history to life in a way that will engage a youngster and prevent them from getting bored. It has a trench too, which I’m sure couldn’t get anywhere close to recreating the noisy, cold, mud and vermin-infested hell holes that snaked across the western front. But we both lost track of time and neither of us were bored.
Toby, like any good nine year old, wanted to go to the Horrible Histories Spies exhibition again, and since you can’t say no to your nine year old charge on his day out, off we trotted. Being the only person in Britain who hasn’t read the Horrible Histories series (nor Harry Potter come to think of it), I must say, I was impressed. All the information is based on real events and ordinary people who did remarkably brave and selfless things in WWII. It’s aimed at kids but not condescending. As a result I surprised myself by enjoying it almost as much as Toby.
After a few hours we exited through the gift shop, of course. Mum had given strict instructions that he was only allowed a postcard. But since uncle rules apply in such situations, he was given a DVD.
Non-Mum rules continued at McDonalds, Waterloo, a 10-minute walk away. I need not explain myself beyond saying that it’s what we both fancied. “I’ve only ever eaten at McDonalds three times,” said Toby, wide-eyed, as if the next best thing would be to get locked into Hamleys over a bank holiday weekend. “What are you going to have?” I asked. “A burger. A big one. With fries. And a Coke.” Shot back the reply.
“And an apple pie” I added. “You have to have an apple pie.” I mean, what’s not to love about a piping hot blob of sugar wrapped in a greasy crust? We ordered. Silence descended. We stuffed our faces. We bonded over our shared disgust of pickles and a preference for barbecue sauce over ketchup for the fries.
When Toby’s Mum came to pick him up, she got an edited report. Later, I received a text with a run-down on my efforts. “So far I’ve had a ‘that was such fun’ and a ‘when can I do that again?’” Win win.
My nine year old nephew had a top day out, and I had the perfect excuse to scoff a burger and apple pie while earning respect from every angle. I’ll keep the guide in a top drawer and refer to the ideas for inspiration when I am loaned (or lumped with) another child. Or if I am overcome with the desire for a burger, whichever happens sooner.
Horrible Histories: Spies is open until 4 January, adult £6.60, children over 3 from £3.30.@Willhide or go to his website.
Do you know London with kids? What would you do in a day?