Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Baby Guide to London: 10 Things to Do in Camden

Babies in London
Being serenaded on a punt with a baby is a wonderful way to see Regent's Canal
I've been asked by more than one friend to tell them about things to do in London with their baby or toddler.  In addition to this baby calendar, I've decided to start a mini-series baby guide to London by area, concluding with a overall top ten.  

I'll start with the area I know best: Camden.  London, somewhat like New York City, is composed of several bureaus, each of them sub-divided into little villages.  Camden, situated just north of Westminster and the City of London (what most consider central London) is one of the largest, and embraces nineteen little villages.  Here I'll focus on just a few:  Camden Town, Primrose Hill (both the hill and the village), King's Cross, Regent's Park, and Kentish Town.  I'll leave Hampstead for another post.

1. London Zoo.

We lived minutes from the London Zoo, so we maintained a yearly pass - by far one of the best "London" investments we made.  The petting zoo is especially great for children during all seasons, though in the winter I liked to hang out in the tropical zone where it was warm and, if we were lucky, had a monkey drop on our shoulder.  In the summer, I would take G right when the zoo opened for a little splash in the splash pad just outside the petting zoo, hopefully on a Monday to avoid the school crowds.

2. Canal (pictured above).

You can get a canal boat ride from the Zoo on the London Waterbus Company (check the seasonal schedule here) and float peacefully to your next destination, either Little Venice, where you can see a puppet show on a barge (but see the schedule here - the barge spends part of the year in Richmond, but it is well worth the price of admission - more in another post), or Camden Locks.  Another low-cost method that can help get your baby to sleep is to be serenaded by the students running the music punt out of Camden Locks (see picture above).  The world (and London) seem so very different from the water.

3. Primrose Hill

Primrose Hill, our old home, is both a Royal Park and a village, and one of the most baby-friendly at that.  The possibilities here are endless. If you get off the Tube at Camden Town, I would recommend a first stop at Primrose Hill Bakery for a mini and large cupcake for you and your toddler, and then stroll along St. Michael's Crescent (being sure to point out the boats on the canal below and the train on the tracks behind) to Regent's Park road before crossing into the park.  Then head to the large playground on your left to let off some toddler steam.

Then, work off that cupcake by walking up the hill.  I enjoy people and dog watching best here, and have spent countless hours with Gideon trying to find child-friendly dogs he can cajole.  From the top of the hill, you'll be able to enjoy one of the best views of London in the city.

Most tourists stop here, but the best part of the park is in the nether-reaches.  If you have time, allow your little ones to get lost in the grass and paths of the north and western stretches of the park before making your way down to a road just past the village high street (yanks: "main" street) Regent's Park Road, to Rothwell Street. Peer down Chalcot Crescent to the home filmed in Paddington Bear before entering upon one of the most quaint squares in London. The picture-perfect pastel homes of several celebrities and historical poets surround a toddler-safe square.  Inside Chalcot Square is a little play area and a gated play area for the small dwellers of the village.  Be sure to bring sidewalk chalk and scooters so you fit in with the locals, and be prepared to chat up the latest local gossip.    

From Chalcot Square, take Sharples Street past the non-descript but proud community library (half of which is a children's library with great indoor space on a rainy day) to the high street, Regent's Park road.  I believe all of the cafes, including Greenberry (excellent food but so popular make sure you reserve during mealtimes) have toys on hand for little ones and I'm pretty sure I have seen a mother breastfeeding in every single one.  Should you venture into the little grocery store, Sheperd's, you'll be delighted with almost all the delectables offered the Queen at Partridge's in Chelsea.  If you stop in at Ripe Kitchen, your babe will be offered a free babycino (read warm milk with a dash of cocoa on top), but you'll need to pay for it at The Little One, where you must get the Spanish cheese rolls.  The high street also boasts a wonderful bookshop, a fabulous toy shop, and several children's clothes options (see below). From the top of the high street, you can cross the bridge, stay left at the fork, and then turn right to get to Chalk Station Tube.  

4. Regent's Park.

Regent's Park rivals any London park for its beauty, including and especially Hyde Park.  Together with Primrose Hill (which it abuts to the north), it's more of a neighborhood park than other royal parks, and therefore boasts more for children.  It's Open Air Theatre can host children's matinees for its more esoteric thespian productions, complete with watered-down sultry scenes and child-appropriate interpretations of Shakespearean plots.  Queen Mary's and the Avenue Gardens are really something spectacular - and you know what they say about English gardens...The Hub, which doubles as one of Regent Park's many cafes and exercise facility/locker room for adjoining playing fields, has been known to host mummy and me classes (check this schedule for updates).  Finally, there are several dedicated playgrounds in Regent's Park, all of which have separate five-and-under  facilities.  My particular favorite is the playground made from non-playground, more natural materials (fallen, sanded logs as jungle gyms, pipes for slides, etc.) near the bottom of the Avenue Gardens just north of Park Square Gardens.

5. Triyoga

Now here's a treat and completely non-traditional tourist stop.  Although I missed them terribly when they were forced to leave Primrose Hill (as did all the shop owners on our high street!) the new facility for Triyoga in Camden is beautiful, and has even better bare-foot facilities.  Last I was there, it's "mummy and me" (dads welcomed) yoga class was scheduled at the same time as the toddler yoga class, and, had Gideon not been sick the day we were set to go, he could have attended the 2+ toddler class by himself while I did yoga with my non-crawling baby.  They also feature a baby massage class where new borns and non-crawling infants get to do a bit of yoga, too.  Check out the schedule here, but classes for babies and toddlers are invariably in the morning.

triyoga new facilities

G's neck curl was almost what it should have been at six weeks.

6. Shopping!

You can buy designer baby threads for a lot or a little in Camden.  For those who like things new, you can start at Elias & Grace on Regent's Street, which has a fantastic selection of European shoes and clothes from a smattering of designers.  They also reliably carry Petit Bateau onesies (indestructible and hand-downable), girls tights, and grow-grain bows for not too dear prices.  If you want to simply clothe your child rather than selling them off to pay for the designer clothes you buy them, then I recommend stepping across the street to Fara or Mary's Living & Giving.  The former has a much bigger selection of clothes and toys, but the latter is a much better charity (and much nicer owners!), so you can take your pick.  Almost everything my children wore after the hand-me-downs and gifts ran out came from Fara.  It has one other children's shop in Notting Hill, but otherwise draws donations from all of London, and therefore has a fantastic collection of quality designer brands for children: Petit Bateau, Jack & Jill, Tartine et Chocolat, Bon Point, Sarah Louise, Rachel Riley, Jacadi, Mayoral, Pom D'Api, Hunter, and delightful vintage pieces, like that pictured on Esther, below.  (If you aren't into designer clothes for kids, see this post and just think: you can buy them for pennies secondhand *and* they are nice enough to wash well, hand down and resale once it survives the last child, plus your child will look cute no matter how they act!) I find a gold mine each time I go.  

If you must leave Primrose Hill high street and are in the vicinity of Camden Town, there is a thrift store along Parkway (it's actually the name of a street - I know!) called Sue Ryder.  They apparently have a great selection of children's designer clothes and you *must* at least look at their doll houses!

Esther in vintage threads from Fara - I paid 4.50 GBP ($6.50) for this outfit.

The Elias & Grace storefront is pictured on the right

7. Kentish Town - Baby Gym or Indoor Swimming

If you really want to tire out your baby, take them to Kentish Town.  There is a Talacre Sports Centre on Dalby Street underneath the Kentish Town West rail line run through Camden Council with a terrible website (I'd list it, but it's rubbish) and fantastic facilities.  Their three-story soft play tower (9:45 and 10:45 a.m.) and twice-morning baby gym (9:30 and 10:30 a.m., but get there early!) cannot be rivaled for their ability to give my kids the most delicious naps of the week and make them smile for the full session they are playing. Of anything I miss in London, baby gym tops the charts.  They are strict in limiting the session to 30 children, but the tiny ones (your babe must be able to crawl to make it worth it) get a workout on the soft toys, tunnels, and balls, as do the older ones that can play on the bars or jump on the trampoline.  Close good eats include the cafe directly under the train station and the Cake House across the street and down a bit.  If the weather is good, also enjoy the outdoor play area.

Two-story slides are featured in this three-story play tower.

Baby gym was a favorite for Gideon and his mates.
If your bub prefers swimming, the best indoor baby pool around can be found at another Camden-run sports facility just down the street on Dalby Road, Kentish Town Sports Centre.  Based in the old Kentish Town Baths listed building, this recently-renovated facility will sell you swim diapers and provides family changing for its heated, skylight-lit baby pool.  Family free swim times vary, so check the schedule before you go!

8. Owl Bookstore

While you are in Kentish Town on Dalby Street, sneak around the corner onto Kentish Town High Street and visit the Owl Bookstore.  I believe they have the best children's section in all of London, stocked with illustrated classics and a very knowledgeable shopkeeper.  And you shouldn't leave the area before racing across the street to the Middle Eastern bakery there at the Phoenicia and spending less than a pound on fantastic baklava. If you can possibly make it, a trip up the high street to Ruby Violet will make your day unforgettable.  Home made gourmet ice creams there will make your head spin, and they provide baby chairs and activities to keep the little ones at bay.  

9. Baby Cinema

If you have a baby that is under 1, you can enjoy a show on the big screen and not even need to hire a sitter!  Most cinemas in the NorthWest have baby clubs and provide special screenings of popular shows for mothers with babies - often conveniently during nap time!  My favorite is the Everyman Cinema, which also serves cake and a hot drink for mothers.  Because you deserve it!

10. Hire a family cycle

If you want to try to do everything in one day, you'll need a mode of transport.  How 'bout saving on the parking, congestion charge, and petro, and getting a workout all the while?  Hire a family cargo bike from London Greencycles - mention this post and get 10% off.  We rode (and will do again in our rural location in New Hampshire once Spring has sprung) our family tricycle everywhere in London and absolutely loved it.  See if you can hire one that has an electrical life - London has hills, and you should not let that prevent you from riding everywhere!

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