tl;dr – Taking kids to pubs is a good idea (yes, it is) and these are some you can take them to around East London
It seems strange to me that the issue of taking children to pubs is even an issue. That’s not because I am infused with an adamant sense of entitlement in this regard (or, at least, not exclusively), but because the people with whom I regularly interact seem to have absolutely no problem with the idea. Of course, obviously, there’s selection bias here, plus the general reticence of the British public to tell anyone to bugger off and take their squawking brood with them, but it surprises me to see that, for some, this is a pernicious and contentious issue. I’m going to look in to some of the arguments and assertions around children in pubs in a later post, but for now I’m going to assume (as is the wont of almost everyone in this debate, and most debates like it) that you agree unreservedly with me.
One of the biggest impediments, I find, if you are so inclined, is that it’s very hard to ascertain, with a new or unfamiliar pub, exactly how amenable the staff will be to you bringing in your offspring before you actually attempt to do so. Some sort of sign on the door would be nice but, while ‘Family Friendly’ chalkboards do exist, it’s rare, although not unheard of, to see pubs explicitly state their opposition to children, as that sort of thing is really only going to play well to the avowedly misanthropic crowd.
I’ve got no problem with some pubs banning children, incidentally. Sometimes it’s just not appropriate, for the feel of the pub as much as anything, to have kids there. For instance, I once had a bit of time to kill in central London and tried to take the progeny into the Harp, near Covent Garden. As I attempted to wrestle the buggy back out the narrow door after being politely rebuffed by the staff, I wondered what I’d been thinking. It’s hard to elucidate clearly why exactly this would have been a bad idea, but children in a pub like the Harp is an incongruous conjunction, like a rave in a library, not bad in the sense of wrong, or selfish, or unjust, but rather more like an uncomfortable juxtaposition.
As a rough guide, then, what sort of signs and portents should one be looking for when appraising a prospective pub? Obviously, these are extrapolated entirely from my limited experience, greased with a large dose of blind generalisation and exceptions can, and assuredly do, exist but the following are aspects I’ve found to be indicative of at least a grudging acceptance of your tiny non-drinkers.
- Brewery taps
- Notwithstanding the points listed below, brewery taps are almost always a good bet. Except when you physically can’t fit in them, I’ve not visited any that have presented a problem. Particularly good examples include Camden Town, who had a nicely appointed kids corner for their Oktoberfest tank party a few years ago (we couldn’t even get near it this year, despite the rain), Howling Hops and Tap East.
- Beer gardens
- Another semi-certainty, insofar as no one can really complain that you brought kids if they’re not even in the building. If the weather’s not up to that, though, it tends to follow that the pub itself will be amenable to you sheltering the younglings indoors. A classic example that has, if anything, gone far too far the other way is the Royal Inn on the Park, which becomes a writhing mass of underage humanity on pleasant Sunday afternoons. It doesn’t take a lot, thankfully, as we’re not exactly replete with spacious beer gardens round here; even a small paved outdoor area, such as at Mother Kelly’s, is enough to give you some good options.
- To stop the kids running around, eh, amiright!? Although chain pubs in general are more likely to be constrained by an over-arching and, most-likely, ‘family friendly’ policy, this mostly refers to ‘spoons which are, with some exceptions, generally pretty good at letting kids in. Comparatively few in this part of the world, though.
- It almost seems like the provision of food beyond the ‘sandwiches and pickled eggs’ level almost makes a pub beholden to families and, consequentially, children, so their acceptance in such establishments can sometimes veer towards the begrudging but, generally speaking, menus on the table, all other things being equal, are a pretty good sign.
- Wide doorways
- If you can’t physically manhandle your buggy into the premises you sometimes have to wonder if that’s not entirely accidental. Not definitive by any means and, often, the other leaf can be unbolted, but it’s generally worth checking behind the bar; not least because it seems a rather brazen act to wrestle out the massive bolts that generally restrain one half of the door without at least acknowledging the staff. The Lord Tredegar in Bow exemplifies this kind of entry-way embuggerance, and negotiating the bar and tables just inside is equally taxing, but struggling through rewards you with a large open back room and a surprisingly large beer garden.
- Both people and furniture can crowd you out of pubs and, sometimes, it’s worth recognising when it’s simply not worth the aggravation. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in tiny, cosy, dimly lit little pubs is behind you, I’m afraid, and what you want now is a bit of openness. Not, I hurriedly add, to fill with the delightfully vivacious personality of your toddler, but to avoid abutting anyone else’s space too closely. And by ‘you’, I mean ‘me’. And by ‘delightfully vivacious’, I mean ‘talking loudly about who has a penis’.
- Of the pub, rather more than the clientele, although that can be a factor. It’s a tenuous correlation, but the young-modern-trendy pubs (or bars, I suppose) tend to be more complaisant about kids than your old-historical-traditional pubs. Exceptions abound, of course, The Prospect of Whitby is pretty good with kids, as is Spaniards Inn, and there aren’t many older than that.
Moving from the general case to the specific, there are certain pubs and bars around East London that really round off a nice day out with the little ones. When these days work really well, they’ll generally include something interesting for them to do, hopefully something tiring, followed by a nice half somewhere pleasant (which, incidentally, vehemently excludes those ghastly ‘Family’ pubs with sticky tables and terrifying swing/slide combos made from a fibreglass tree). It’s important, for us at least, that it works this way. I’ve no intention of merely dragging the sproglings to a pub and trying to keep them quiet for as long as possible, that’s a scenario primed for conflict. Going to the pub is a nice thing, a mini-treat, and it’s important that we three all see it that way, as something to be looked forward to, a cosy, almost conspiratorial, diversion that ends before it becomes boring, frustrating or stressful for any of us. As a policy, it’s not a universal panacea, of course, and sometimes we may have to beat a hasty retreat when the day is not going our way, but generally we seem to mitigate at least some of the snivelling, whingeing and attention seeking behaviour. And the girls are better behaved, too.
- For someone who professes to abhor vast shopping centres such as Westfield, I appear to spend an inordinate amount of time there. These things aren’t built by morons, and they seem to know that making it kid friendly tends to keep people handing over their disposable. There’s some nice touches in this one; a couple of smallish playgrounds which, while nice, emphatically do not deserve the epithet ‘Playworld’, decent changing facilities, and quiet rooms where you can actually sit down on a comfy sofa to feed the baby. Small touches, perhaps, but welcome. That said, it’s not what I’d call a day out, but Alpha normally professes herself fully satisfied with the trifecta of wandering around, pointing at people and demanding to know where they’re going or where their mummy is, and charging up and down the slide for a bit.
- Nestled incongrously amongst the cold, bright tedium, like a boozy Rivendell, opposite a shop selling New Age nonsense to gullible fools, and next to a mini restaurant dispensing a different world food each time I visit, is the place that makes Westfield worthwhile – Tap East. There’s a small outside space, next to a large traffic free plaza (although they looked to be building a playground there, oh frabjous day!), and a couple of sofa’s and low chairs inside. The rest of the seating is high stools, so not desperately appropriate, but we don’t go when it’s busy anyway. Which is good, because it fair heaves on occasions, particularly if there’s an event on at the stadium/pool/velodrome/other thing. Their own beer is good, an excellent mild springs to mind, and they have quickly rotating guest beers and a fairly impressive bottle range. It’s not that they expressly invite kids, exactly, but we go there a lot, and they’re always pretty good about it.
- I’ve taken to considering the canals in East London our own private, traffic-free highways to cool places and amongst these are undoubtedly the parks and playgrounds around the northern edge of the Olympic park. The Tumbling Bay playground is a brilliant example with sand, water, pumps, diggers, slides, bridges, climbing and building; the opportunities for really messy exploring are extensive. As such, this is very much a Sunny Day playground, as well as being a Change Of Clothes playground and Thorough Rinse When You Get Home playground.
- Mason and Company are pretty new. They’re by the canal, but with enough intervening grass that you can give the elder sprogs a bit of a long leash without having to halfheartedly listen for a splash. The beer list is pretty extensive and carefully thought out, and ranges from good stalwarts to the unusual and esoteric. They sort of do food, as well. In fact they seem to have phagocytosed one of those gourmet food vans, like some vast bacteria, and now a mini-restaurant lives a happy, symbiotic life inside them dispensing delicious Italian/American food. On our visits so far, though, the kids have not just been accepted, but actively welcomed. Staff have actually gone out of their way to their little lives a little bit nicer… it doesn’t take much, a sticker and some colouring pencils, but it’s very much appreciated, and shoots Mason and Company way up my decision-making flowchart.
Howling Hops and Crate
- Astute readers might have noticed that all of these are in or around the Olympic park. Frankly, it’s our favourite place to go at this stage of our lives and this combination is, perhaps, the classic, nay defining, example of the playground/pub combo. Just outside the Olympic stadium is a fountain, one of those ‘jets spraying in the air’ affairs that you can run about in. Alpha, who will fight you tooth and nail to avoid a shower at home, will cheerfully waterboard herself for hours at a time in this fountain. Since activities that involve water will magically make children up to 75% more tired than running-around alone, there’s a strong possibility that, by the time you strap her back in the buggy and cross over the canal, she’ll be soundo.
- Howling Hops and Crate are breweries that occupy a single light industrial site in Hackney Wick. Frankly, I think Howling Hops do better beer and, furthermore, serve it straight from the conditioning tanks. Crate pizzas, on the other hand, are amazing, and you can sit right by the canal if the fancy takes you. Both are pretty good with kids; if you get Howling Hops when it’s not busy there’s a fair bit of room to move around in without getting in anyone’s way, which palliates the ‘stay in your seat’ battles that never end in a win for anyone.
- The Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green is one of life’s nailed-on certainties. Unlike many of the other activities listed here it is weather independent and persistently attractive to kids over time. Every age range is served, from coloured lights and textured surfaces, through play houses, to interesting displays on a wide range of toys, there’s enough here to keep everyone below ‘truculent teenager’ at least mildly diverted. There’s even staff-led crafting sessions on occasion. The ground floor includes a café, for when your karma’s at a decent level, and a gift-shop, for when it isn’t.
- Bethnal Green is replete with excellent bars and pubs but, personally, I wouldn’t attempt most of them with kids. Mother Kelly’s has a nice outdoor area and a beer list that is almost proverbial in nature. Inside is fairly open-plan, very much of the New York post-industrial section of the catalogue, and not too furniture-crowded so it’s worth a go if it’s not too busy. Frankly, this one isn’t perfect for kids but the staggeringly good beer selection makes you want to put in that little extra effort.
- This is the second of our usual options. Our standard day out is either to go up the Lea to Olympic park, or up the Regent’s Canal to Victoria park, and this is the latter. Victoria park is, I’d contend, the best park in London. I normally avoid sticking my neck out on this blog, but I’m prepared to leave it all out there for this one. Not only is it beautifully laid out, with large, pleasantly open spaces, but it has three awesome playgrounds, which we refer to as the Little Playground (so named, because the apparatus there seems more for smaller kids), the Bridge Playground (because, well, there’s a large rope bridge) and the Water Playground, which has recently been redeveloped. We’ve yet to see the latter at it’s full glory, but it works on a similar principle to the Tumbling Logs, sans sand. Pumps and fountains create streams and puddles of water which can be blocked, emptied or diverted by opening and closing gates. The Bridge playground does have sand, as well as old-fashioned hand pumps which, to the children’s amazement, actually work, and allow them to create messy sandy lagoons. There’s also little play-houses, which are Alpha’s current favourites, the eponymous bridge and a few really rather large slides.
- The People’s Park Tavern sits on the northern edge of the park and is almost unique in this part of the world for having a large beer garden. Through a confusing relationship with Laine’s they technically brew on site, although the beer can be a touch hit and miss. On the welcoming children scale, they’ve always seemed to me to be significantly above indifferent, but despite this and the outdoor space, I’ve not seen it overrun with children in the same way as the nearby Royal Inn on the Park. They also get bonus points for setting their stall out clearly. Children welcome till 7pm. Says so right on the gate.
- Every so often we like to go to the beach, as we euphemistically call it. The Thames has actually got really nice over the years, and it’s very pleasant to sit on the pebbles, watch the boats go up and down and poke around looking for shells and bits of pottery, without the possibility of turning up anything repellent. Apparently there are salmon now. Someone told me that. I’ve no idea if it’s true, but the water is generally pretty clear, for a river. Again, this is a walk we can make on almost exclusively traffic free routes and, for a lot of it, you can walk right beside the Thames. Of course, the whim of developers trumps the petty and insignificant habits of mere residents so, quite often, there will just be a huge building blocking the path, you’ll have to go back to the street and walk around it, then rejoin the path for the next 200m before someone’s peremptorily put up a fence. Still, you can get a long way along the Thames Path, with it getting harder towards the west and more open downriver, but we tend to stop at the Prospect of Whitby.
- This is a pub, like many in the Wapping area, that palpably oozes history and, like many, you’re never quite sure how much is true. It’s a delightful place, though, and the balcony overlooking the river makes the whole thing worthwhile on it’s own. In terms of kids, there’s a walled beer garden which is very nice (it allegedly contains Britain’s first fuscia. I’m not sure about this. I don’t really know how long plants live for. I’m also not sure what a fuscia looks like). The garden can be accessed by a side door, so you don’t have to drag the buggy through the pub, which is useful. The Prospect does a rotating range of around three cask ales and slightly-above-average pub food, although it gives the impression that it’s got popular more quickly than it would prefer. The food is sometimes not the best and, often, something will go wrong with the order or delivery, especially when it’s busy. It’s also become something of a running joke that at least one pint in a session will be a touch dodgy, generally on that awkward cusp of ‘not bad enough to send back’ and ‘not good enough to properly enjoy’. Still, these tribulations come and go, yet the pub remains and is definitely worth checking out.
- The National Maritime Museum is another sterling Bad-Weather option. The exhibits are interesting enough for older children and big and shiny enough for the youngers, many are of the hands-on, interactive persuasion and they’ve recently added a nautically themed childrens area-cum-softplay that goes down very well, and is probably worthy of a visit in its own right. It may not be universal, but models of boats seem to have a broad appeal. Saying that, though… Alpha’s not scared of much, but she wouldn’t go near the figureheads for her bodyweight in ice-cream.
- The Old Brewery used to be Meantime’s base before they moved to larger premises up the road. Frankly, it was a bit better before it was acquired by Young’s as it doesn’t really seem to have found its place yet. Still, there’s a very nice beer garden, situated in a very nice park, right next to the river, so who can argue with that?
Laid out bluntly like this, it’s a touch sobering to realise that these small joys… a swing, some sand, a half of mild… represent some of the best days of our short time as a familial unit. As I found myself repeating above, though, it really doesn’t take much. Taking joy in the small things seems to be a trait inherent in toddlers, although as adults we often, perversely, hasten its inevitable waning with BigAmazingExcitingPresentsTripsSurprises. Plenty of time for that later, I don’t doubt.
Still, it makes it awkward when the answer to the question “What have you done all day?” is “Well… we found these stones…”