How to experience the London culture scene with a baby in tow

Published by Forbes Travel Guide, 30 January 2017. 

A man with a baby in his arms look at an art work
Crib Notes event for parents and babies at the Whitechapel Gallery

Traveling with a baby might stop you from doing some of the things you used to do on vacation — bar-hopping and fine dining, for example, are trickier with a small person underfoot. That doesn’t mean you have to miss out on all the fun, though. London is well stocked with cultural experiences specifically designed with little ones in mind. Here are our favorites.

Theater
Baby-friendly performances are a new thing on London stages, but it’s a trend that’s gathering momentum, with more and more venues offering one-off showings.

As with movie theaters, plays aren’t necessarily selected with underage audiences in mind, but changes are usually made to ensure that sound and lighting effects and actors’ delivery won’t overwhelm those all-important theatergoers of tomorrow.

Check with theaters such as Park Theatre in Finsbury Park and the Young Vic in Waterloo for specific parent-and-baby shows, and keep your eyes peeled for “relaxed” performances, which are aimed towards anyone who would benefit from a more informal environment, including kiddos.

Classical concerts
Acclaimed pianist Miaomiao Yu founded the classical concert series Bach to Baby after becoming frustrated by the lack of opportunities out there for moms and dads wanting to introduce their kids to high-quality musical performances. The concerts present professional musicians performing in welcoming, family-friendly venues across London and South East England.

An informal atmosphere means that children are free to express themselves during the concerts while, at the same time, learning from their parents (who are asked to refrain from talking) about the behavior expected from them once they’re a bit bigger. Concerts take place in locations like beautiful historic churches and art galleries, making this a lovely way to discover some of the capital’s hidden gems.

Art museums
You’d be hard pressed to find an art museum in London unwilling to admit a baby, but gallery-hopping with an infant can be a nerve-wracking experience all the same. Worrying about your child disturbing others and having concerns over the presence of diaper-changing facilities or places to breastfeed comfortably is no way to spend the day.

Fortunately, the Whitechapel Gallery has thought of everything, offering curator-led tours of its exhibitions for infants and their escorts that take place in the morning before the museum’s regular opening. At the end of the tour, gratis refreshments are available in the museum’s education space, with toys and playmats available to mini visitors needing to blow off steam.

Movies
Many London movie theaters offer weekly parent-and-baby screenings, so there’s no reason to miss out on the latest releases, whether you’re into blockbusters or art-house flicks. Screenings tend to take place in the late morning and, with so many cinemas now serving excellent coffee and snacks, a visit to the movies feels like a real daytime indulgence.

Everyman Cinemas — where you’ll find comfortable sofas as well as more traditional seats — even throws in a complimentary hot drink and cake with every ticket.

Movies on offer are programmed with parents rather than babies in mind, but the atmosphere is sure to keep the small ones comfortable. Most cinemas turn the volume down a bit and leave the light levels in the auditorium higher than usual to ensure that younger moviegoers — and therefore their parents — have the best experience possible.

Children enjoying a piano concert © Alejando Tamagno
A Bach to Baby concert © Alejando Tamagno

Adventure review: Hush-A-Bye, Artsdepot, London

Published by The Stage, 18 December 2017. Hush-A-Bye runs at Artsdepot until 31 December, and will be touring in the new year. The show is for children aged three to five. 

Every aspect of the theatre experience has been carefully considered in Hush-A-Bye, a gently interactive show for children aged three to five (there’s a relaxed version too, and one for babies and toddlers) from veteran company Oily Cart. In director Anna Newell’s capable hands, this ‘woodland wonderland’ is not just a place of fun but of learning and comfort too.

Sitting at a sort of bar, looking into Jens Cole’s bright treetop set, their grownups behind them, the children are each invited to build a nest for some hatching baby birds. It’s a sensory activity, and a fun one at that, but it’s also a neat way of getting the children comfortable in the space and invested in the story. The pace here, as throughout, is leisurely enough that no one is left behind, and there’s plenty of time for the cast to engage with their young patrons one-on-one.

Cole’s design really shines as writer and Oily Cart artistic director Tim Webb’s simple plot – the arrival of some unexpected weather and an even more unexpected visitor – takes off, and lighting designer Jack Knowles deserves a particular nod for the magical moment when the rain starts to fall.

Katherine Grey and Griff Fender as Grandma and Grandpa Bird are reassuringly familiar and grandparental, despite their colourful birdy getups, while participatory stage manager Deanne Jones as Hoppity is childlike enough to identify with. Kadialy Kouyate’s beautiful kora playing and singing provides atmospheric underscoring before bursting into life for several fun song and dance numbers. I didn’t want any of it to end.

Four performers in bright bird costumes, the cast of Oily Cart show Hush-A-Bye, stand in front of a background painted with leaves
Hush-A-Bye by Oily Cart © Suzi Corker

Adventure review: The Ramshackle House, Stratford Circus, London

Published by The Stage, 7 December 2017. The Ramshackle House runs at Stratford Circus until 24 December. The show is for children aged 3 and up and their families.

Telling a story through contemporary circus is a feat attempted by many, but achieved by regrettably few. With The Ramshackle House, Upswing Theatre make it look easy, painting a picture of family life that is emotionally resonant yet sufficiently silly to hold the attention of younger audience members.

Delia Ceruti and Renato Dias begin the show performing alone – she, defying gravity on a tangle of ropes; he, clowning around on the perilously sloping roof of the eponymous abode. They soon come together, to tumble, balance and twist their way into love. It’s not long before a child arrives in their lives, a suitably excitable Matthew Smith, making their family complete.

The circus itself, devised by the company and directed by Upswing artistic director Vicki Amedume, is unshowy, made to serve the narrative thrust of the show, rather than the other way around. Keeping things contained in this way means that there’s room for the handful of moments of proper spectacle to really breathe, as when Dias and Ceruti teeter, impossibly, on a plank of wood balanced on the rung of a ladder.

An accomplished original score by James Atherton – at times plaintive, at times funky – keeps the show motoring along, while Daniella Beattie’s lighting design bathes Becky Minto’s set in a series of beautiful coloured glows, eliciting oohs and aahs at each scene change.

There’s a magic to the fact that all this takes place up on the roof, a harvest moon shining overhead. It’s like normal life – laundry, chairs, books and lampshades all make an appearance – but transported into a different dimension, one where disagreements are solved with handstands and parents can be carried by their children.

4 stars

A man and a woman balance on a plank suspended through a ladder, in front of a theatre set of a moon.
Delia Ceruti and Renato Dias in The Ramshackle House © Mark Robson

 

Adventure review: Ugly Duckling, The Albany, London

Published by The Stage, 6 December 2017. Ugly Duckling runs at The Albany until 31 December, and continues its UK tour in January. The show is for children aged 3 and up and their families.

Tutti Frutti Productions begins its adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story of a baby bird hatched into the wrong nest using puppetry, then switching into live action as the tale takes off.

It’s a good call on Tutti Frutti artistic director Wendy Harris’s part, enabling the company to set the scene for a young audience before adopting a less literal dressing-up box aesthetic that makes for a very stylish piece of children’s theatre.

Catherine Chapman’s inventive design uses sunglasses to suggest beaks, woolly jumpers as feathers, and paper flags to stand in for snow, leaving plenty of room for Mike Redley’s lighting and Tayo Akinbode’s score to help conjure up the urban park where our story takes place.

Danny Childs does an excellent line in gangly awkwardness as the Ugly Duckling, wide-eyed in his dealings with Daniel Naddafy’s Fluffy, the mean older brother who nudges him from the nest.

Also playing some of the characters that Ugly encounters in the wilds of the park gives Naddafy a chance to have fun with different accents and physicalities. Maeve Leahy, meanwhile, keeps the show grounded with her tender portrayal of the mother duck, and reveals a fine singing voice too – it’s a shame that after her sweet song there’s little live music to be heard, replaced by recorded music that jars in both its tone and volume.

Emma Reeves’s script steers clear of excessive tweeness. The message of ‘it’s what you do that matters, not what you look like’ is hardly revelatory but, buffered by a lot of genuinely funny physical comedy and a surprisingly moving piece of dance (props to movement director Holly Irving), Tutti Frutti more than gets away with it.

Two actors jump into the air
Daniel Naddafy as Goose and Danny Child as Ugly Duckling in The Ugly Duckling at The Albany © Brian Slater

Adventure review: Rave-A-Roo, Ministry of Sound

The first time I went to the Ministry of Sound – at the tender age of 16 – someone threw up on my shoes in the queue. On this most recent visit, to check out indoor family festival Rave-A-Roo, the worst that happened was a leaky nappy. I think you could call that progress.

Launched in early 2016, Rave-A-Roo is a brilliant concept: an opportunity for children to dance, play and generally run wild in an environment so stimulating that it takes them all weekend to wind down again, while their parents drink overpriced prosecco and indulge in nostalgia for their clubbing days.

The baby girl isn’t really Rave-A-Roo’s target audience, but babies are welcome, and there are enough exciting things to look at (giant disco ball, anyone?) and different places to sit to make this little adventure worth the trouble.

Clouds of bubbles waft over us as I park the pushchair in an undercover area in the venue’s courtyard, a suitably enthusiastic DJ Cuddles (I’m desperate to know if he uses this stage name for adult gigs too) playing pop tunes in front of tables covered with jewellery-making paraphernalia.

Worried about the volume levels, I bring the baby girl’s ear defenders, but they end up staying in my bag. The main room – headlined by none other than everyone’s favourite ovine film star Shaun the Sheep – would be too loud to go without ear protection for longer than a few minutes, but the baby girl isn’t interested in being in there anyway. Crawling is all she wants to do right now, and the main room isn’t the place for it, so despite the temptation of a flock of inflatable ducks, we leave it to the bigger kids.

We spend most of our time in the Funky Soft Play Room, carving out a corner for ourselves in the midst of dozens of wired toddlers. The soft play isn’t quite as soft as it should be – the only cushioning on the floor of the inflatable that holds the soft play equipment is a few rag rugs – and there’s no one in authority keeping the rowdier children from going rogue. The small pile of baby toys in the corner is welcome, but positioned in such a way that it feels like we’re in constant danger of being stepped on.

The other place we hang out is Chill-A-Roo, aka the Ministry’s VIP area, which overlooks the main bar on one side and the biggest club room on the other. No concessions to the family crowd here apart from a barista serving proper coffees, but the baby girl is happy enough sitting on a banquette and hitting her cup against the table while I drink a hot chocolate.

At £12.10 for early bird tickets (going up to an eye-watering £25 on the door) for adults and children over the age of 18 months, Rave-A-Roo isn’t cheap, but the super friendly vibe, plus nice touches like nappy change supplies in the loos, swings it for me. The baby girl will be too little to really appreciate it for a while yet, but if Rave-A-Roo is still running in two or three years’ time, you can find us in da club.

A baby holds a ball in amongst some soft play equipment.
The baby girl larging it in the Funky Soft Play Room at Rave-A-Roo at Ministry of Sound.

Essential kit, part 2: wireless bone-conducting headphones

Trying to get a baby to sleep can be tedious at the best of times. Throw in an unfamiliar location, early starts, late nights, missed naps, hot weather and jet lag and it’s probable that you’ll be spending more hours than you’d like at the start of your holiday pacing around a dark hotel room with a baby in your arms, or sitting next to a cot soothing a grumpy toddler.

Your child will settle into their new surroundings at their own pace, depending on various factors (stay tuned for posts on how to deal with jet lag and hot weather), but in the meantime, a pair of wireless bone-conducting headphones can provide some relief.

Initially developed for military operations, and now used by some cyclists and runners, these headphones sit just below your temples (see picture) and send the sound through your cheekbones to the inner ear, bypassing the ear drum altogether. With nothing in your ears, you can hear the world around you – including the baby being rocked to sleep in your arms – while keeping your brain occupied listening to podcasts, music or audio books. The fact that they’re wireless means no cord to get tangled up in.

IMG_8014

My partner bought me a pair of these headphones when I was pregnant and I’ve used them practically every day since the baby girl was born. They came in particularly handy those first few months when I was still feeding her frequently at night and needed something to keep me awake (I recommend getting an Audible account too), but these days it’s when we’re travelling that they’re really useful, whether we’re heading off long distance or just around the local area.

It’s possible to push a buggy one-handed while having a conversation on a mobile, but it’s safer and easier to use wireless headphones instead, and bone-conducting ones mean you’re still aware of traffic noise. I don’t generally listen to podcasts when I’m with the baby girl unless she’s sleeping, but there have been a couple of occasions when I’ve broken that rule, like on the four and half hour train journey back to London after a month at the Edinburgh festival, when I hit a wall of tiredness and had to keep my mind occupied so as not to nod off. It was only by listening to BBC World Service documentaries that I was able to stay awake for yet another round of take-things-out-of-all-the-bags-and-hit-them-against-the-table. I stand by my choice.

At around £100 a pop, these headphones aren’t cheap, but they’re definitely worth it.

What’s on your list of essentials for travelling with babies and toddlers?

Museums and galleries

Babies may not seem like ideal companions for gallery-hopping, but with some advance planning, taking a baby to a museum can be a surprisingly fulfilling experience. I’ve actually been on more visits to more museums and galleries with the baby girl than I did in the year leading up to her birth – which is saying something, because, you know, I’m an arts journalist.

The easiest time to take your baby to a museum is before she’s interested in rolling around. Those first few months, it’s just a matter of putting her in a sling and making a note of where the café is so you know where you can sit down and have a rest. You’ll need to bring all the usual baby paraphernalia with you, of course, so I’d recommend taking a pushchair too, or you’ll get pretty tired pretty quickly carrying it all around. Most large museums and galleries will be accessible with a buggy, but if they’re not – or you don’t fancy walking around with it – ask to leave it in the cloakroom. Smaller, quirkier institutions, or those in developing countries, can be less well set up in this regard, so consider packing light and leaving the pushchair at home, in the car, or wherever you’re staying.

Once your baby is of an age where she’s not content to be carried around for extended periods, you need to be pickier about where you’re visiting. Is there an area at the museum you’d like to go to where it would be safe and appropriate to let your baby roll or crawl around on the floor to give her a break from the sling or buggy? Dedicated children’s galleries like the ones at the National Museum of Scotland are ideal, but large foyers like at the Barbican Centre also work, as do immersive installations like Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment at Tate Modern.

Visiting with a small person in tow, you won’t be able to spend hours absorbing every detail of every exhibit in the way that you might if you were there by yourself, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Knowing that you can’t possibly do it all removes the pressure of trying to do so, and the experience can be more enjoyable as a result. That said, if your baby will nap in a sling or buggy, you can probably squeeze in an hour of uninterrupted culture if you time it right.

With toddlers there are a few more things to consider. Lots of museums and galleries run free activity sessions for children and families, so check before you go to see if there’s one that coincides with your visit. Self-guided activity trails can be fun too. If there’s nothing like that on offer, buy a few postcards at the gift shop on your way in, and make a game of finding the object or art work as you go through the museum. Not all toddlers will have the patience for such an activity, but you could try the simpler, DIY version instead: do basic drawings in a notebook of objects that appear – trees, cars, etc – and get your offspring to race around trying to find them.

Child passports

Applying for a passport for a child is very similar to applying for an adult, but as it’s probably been a while since you did that for the first time, here’s a refresher.

You can apply online or with a paper form, which you can pick up at the Post Office. The online form is more convenient, but you’re on your own with it, whereas there’s a ‘check and send’ service available with the paper application, via the Post Office.

As with an adult passport you’ll need to include two identical photographs, though the rules about how children and babies must appear in photos are not as stringent as for adults. Children aged five and under don’t have to have a neutral expression and don’t need to be looking straight at the camera. Babies under 12 months can have their eyes closed.

I had the baby girl’s taken at our local Snappy Snaps, with her lying on a beanbag, photographed from above. This got around the problem of trying to support her sitting up without my hands appearing in the picture (she was only two weeks old at the time).

The photos have to be countersigned by someone who has known you (the adult applying on behalf of the child) for at least two years. That someone has to be ‘a person of good standing in the community’ – which is a bit nebulous – or someone who works in or is retired from a ‘recognised profession’. You can find a list of accepted professions here. They can’t be related to you, or live at the same address, and they must be a British or Irish passport holder who lives in the UK.

I know several people who have been tripped up by the countersignature thing, and have seen their child’s application delayed as a result, so be careful with this bit. Make sure the person who does your countersigning has included contact details – the passport office do check up.

For most applications for first passports, the only other piece of paperwork you need, in addition to the form and countersigned photos, is your child’s birth certificate (particular circumstances require additional documentation, though, so do read the forms carefully).

Child passports currently cost £46, or £55.75 if you use the ‘check and send’ service, and you can pay by card, cash or cheque.

If you’ve filled everything in correctly and sent in the right documents, the passport will be ready in about three weeks. If you need it sooner than that, there is a fast track service to turn around a new passport within a week, for which you have to complete the paper form, attend an appointment in person, and pay a total fee of £87. Note that while adult passports can be processed on the same day, the one-day service isn’t available for child passports.

If you do need to attend an appointment, bear in mind that the passport office in central London has lifts and baby change facilities, but there’s nowhere to sit at the counters where you get your application processed. I’m pleased to report, however, that the guy who did the baby girl’s application for me didn’t blink an eye when I had to undertake a few minutes of emergency stand-up breastfeeding at his desk.

You can find more information on applying for passports for children here.

Welcome to Baby Adventuring

I’m a freelance travel and arts journalist and, as of autumn 2016, mother to a very cheery baby girl. This is a practical blog inspired by my travels with her, that I hope will be practical and inspiring for you. Before I get started though, here’s some context.

My partner and I spent years deliberating starting a family, trying to work out how a baby might slot into our busy freelance lives. Travel has been a passion for both of us, as well as important in our work, for as long as we can remember, so finding a way to continue our adventuring with a small person in tow was something we came back to again and again. Every trip we went on, whether for business or pleasure, the conversation would inevitably turn to how we might manage in such a place with a baby. We knew that travelling as a family would be different to travelling as a couple, and that some compromises would be necessary, but we were committed to approaching these new travel adventures with the same spirit that had informed our plans thus far.

There’s only so much you can game these things out of course, so eventually we decided to go for it. Our daughter was born just over a year ago and has proved remarkably amenable to gallivanting, accompanying us on work trips and holidays including a city break to Santiago de Compostela, Christmas with the in-laws in the ‘burbs, diving in the Red Sea, camping in drizzly Devon, visiting family in California, and to Glastonbury Festival, as well as countless trips into and across London from our home in Hackney.

Not all these adventures were 100 per cent fun, 100 per cent of the time, but I’d do them all again. (Well, I’d do most of them again. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking a four-month-old to Goa for just 10 days; we had a lovely time, but jet lag + heat + baby girl trying to put everything in her mouth = more stress than ideal.)

I’ve learnt a lot this past year and the aim of this blog is to package up some of those lessons to hopefully bolster the confidence of other parents to travel with their babies and toddlers. You don’t need to fly across the globe – baby adventuring is just about continuing to explore the world while your kids are small. For some, that might mean checking out a local arts festival, going camping as a family or taking your baby to the seaside. Others among you will be desperate to pick up where you left off in late pregnancy and whisk your newest family member away to far flung destinations. Most will fall somewhere in between, and this blog will have things in it for all you.

I’ll be asking for your tips too, and inviting you to request topics for me to cover. I hope this can be a space for conversation, an online version of the sort of chat that parents of small children share in WhatsApp groups, in cafes and at the playground. Parenting is largely trial and error, as far as I can tell – but mining your friends and acquaintances for tips certainly increases your chances of success. The same is true for travelling with babies and toddlers – I’d like this blog to be another location for that mining to take place.