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11 Aug 2022

Escape to the capital and discover London’s best-kept secrets for families

Escape to the capital and discover London’s best-kept secrets for families

We all know London makes a brilliant city break for families. You can see the sights, take in a West End show and head to the big museums. But sometimes, it’s nice not to follow the herd.

King’s Cross, if you haven’t visited for a while, is now a very cool part of town. Three billion pounds was spent on its ‘rebirth’ with Coal Drops Yard and the surrounding area becoming a family-friendly cultural hub. Officially a shopping and restaurant district, once you know where to take the kids, you’ll never want to trample along Oxford Street again.

Shop ’til you drop

I’m here with my daughters, Rosie, 13, and Poppy, 10. We’re shopping, but not as we know it. The shops are different, from lifestyle stores where you can learn stuff – candle making at Earl of East (£55), or a terrarium masterclass at Botanical Boys (from £50), to ‘family concept’ Cissy Wears, where you can shop from a curated edit of the world’s most beautiful brands.

The Drops market takes place outdoors every month, showcasing up and coming talent in fashion, homeware and lifestyle products. So, as Rosie tries on a bucket hat made from recycled denim off-cuts, Poppy’s sliding on rings made from recycled metals that minimise waste. There are sustainability lessons being learned at almost every stall.

We also visit the Harry Potter Shop at King’s Cross Station. If you can bear the busyness, it is chock-full of Potterhead paraphernalia, from cosy Hufflepuff hoodies to sickly sweet Butter Beer. But the thing everyone wants is a photo at the infamous sign. Join the (very long) queue to don a scarf, grab a wand and take a snap next to Platform 9 ¾.

Culture vultures

The Other Art Fair is the perfect spot to spark inspiration. “Did a child paint that?” asks Poppy, clocking the price tag, while Rosie’s eyes light up piece by award-winning artist Helga Stenzel’s, who prides herself on finding the ‘magic in the mundane’ – evident in her photography work where animals are created from grocery items, or clothes pegged on a washing line.

Close by, the girls dance under the rainbow ribbons making up renowned artist Sheila Hicks’ installation, Woven Wonders, which is on display until mid-October.

As day turns to night, we take our seats on the giant steps covered in faux grass, pimped up with colourful cushions, in front of the mismatched Eighties parasols, where couples, families and friends sip gin cocktails and lemonade.

The water ripples in the canal in front of the big screen as La La Land starts up. We gobble ice cream, snack on popcorn and snuggle up to keep warm when the sun dips down. Everyman’s Screen on the Canal is a wonderful, free, outdoor TV and film festival, showing oodles of family favourites (Encanto Sing-a-Long, anyone?) as well as live music performances and sporting events.

Feeding time

Start the day as you mean to go on with the best-looking breakfast in London. Sitting under the heated parasols in the courtyard of Granary Square Brasserie is a wonderful way to wake up. We tuck in, watching the world go by, as people sit drinking coffee under the impeccably-groomed trees. Recommendations include avocado Benedict (£8.95) or Rosie’s favourite, the hot buttermilk pancakes (£8.95) which come with tumbling berries and strawberry sauce.

The best doughnuts my kids have ever eaten (and that’s saying something) can be found at Longboys. The handmade, finger-shaped sweet treats (£3.90 each) are made with a lighter brioche base. Try the not-too-sweet triple chocolate brownie, the beautifully blowtorched lemon meringue, or the doughnut equivalent to a hug, apple crumble. We devour one each in less than 60 seconds.

For lunchtime sharers, Lighterman – right in the middle of Granary Square – is a huge two-storey building with glass windows all around. Looking out on to the canal, it’s buzzy, loud and brimming with people.

Hot and bursting with flavour, the roasted cherry tomato flatbread (£10) is gone moments after being settled on our table, washed down with a refreshing rhubarb and cherry spritz (£13). Puddings arrive with a giant dessert spoon and I begrudgingly share my dark chocolate, peanut and caramel slice (£7.50) while the girls opt for homemade frozen mango cream, £2 a scoop.

Happy Face pumps funky house tunes out of brightly-coloured speakers as we sit on high stools, overlooking the open-plan kitchen and circular bar. The pizza is good (£5-£15) but come for the starters and party atmosphere. We drop strings of salty zucchini fritti (deep-fried courgette strips, £6) into our mouths before tucking into soft burratina (£7.50) and their glorious take on focaccia (£5) – garlic butter and fresh rosemary on a pizza base straight from the enormous, domed oven.

And if you need a sweet finish before you depart, join the reassuringly long queues at Ruby Violet for ice cream. Mint choc chip, lavender, and blueberry lemon curd, plus an array of vegan sorbets, are calling our names. Pick a pot or cone, select your scoops and top with sprinkles, mini meringues or a classic Flake.

Best kept secrets

Sometimes, doing less is actually more. And here, rather than traipsing around London, parents sit and watch their little ones jump in and out of the splashy water fountains, the multicoloured jets lighting up the dusky evenings. By day, tiny faces drench themselves waddling through the jets in nappies, while older kids (including Poppy) dodge and dart their way around, attempting to keep dry.

Just a five-minute walk away from the hustle and bustle is Camley Street Natural Park, where last month there were sightings of large red damselflies, wren fledglings and reed warblers.

We sit on a bench opposite the canal listening to the birdsong and rush of water amid the two acres of wild green space. You would never know this was here unless you were looking for it, and it’s a perfect place for families needing to get away from it all.

But the best place you might never have heard of is back in Coal Drops Yard. Samsung KX isn’t a regular shop, it’s a digital playground. Lots of tech, talks and live events take place here, but you can also take your kids in to play on the mind-boggling gadgets.

Rosie and Poppy hang their jackets up in the Airdresser for a free steam clean, while they hop over to act out emotions and turn themselves into GIFs. Rosie climbs into the racing simulator and tries not to crash as she whizzes round the racetrack at 180mph, while Poppy hangs out in the kitchen, inspecting the fridge that tells you when your food’s going out of date. Next, they get arty designing their own phone case – which they get to take home free of charge – and then they clap eyes on the ‘gaming bus’. Giant, curved screens mean you can see everything in your full vision at the same time, which apparently is really important when playing Fortnite.

The level of excitement is unreal as the girls babble erratically, constantly interrupting to ask questions, swiping every touchscreen, watching every ginormous TV, and immersing themselves in tech. It’s a grown-up space that’s made for kids – the only tricky thing is getting them out of it.

How to plan your trip

King’s Cross is hosting an ‘Extraordinary Summer’ this year. Upcoming events include Summer Sounds, a 12-day programme of free music and performance in Coal Drops Yard, from August 10; The Drops market takes place every month; Screen on the Canal will be in place until August 7; and Sheila Hicks’ Woven Wonders installation will be set up until October 16. For more information, visit kingscross.co.uk and coaldropsyard.com.

Stay at cool retro hotel The Standard – just a five-minute walk from King’s Cross St Pancras. Rooms start from £269. Visit standardhotels.com/London.

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