Falling Back in Love with the City

Head of English and mother of one, Holly Maguire (@hollymagr) describes how she used her maternity leave to explore sites of cultural and historical interest in London, and take advantage of walking tours to improve her subject knowledge and plan trips for students when she returns to work.

School trips. Truly the best and worst of times as a teacher. In my early teaching heyday I found a masochistic joy in running a trip, particularly as my East London secondary school is minutes away from the best culture in the world. Why not take all of Year 9 to The Globe on the tube? Year 12 to the British Museum? Year 7s on an East End walking tour? 

But then came 2020 and the government lockdown, followed by a pregnancy-nausea-and-back-pain-imposed lockdown of my own.

Nearly two years of no trips knocked my confidence, and so I decided to use my maternity leave to focus on this very specific kind of CPD. Every student participates in our school’s annual Cultural Activities Week. I planned to spend my time away from school exploring the cultural experiences London has to offer. I was 

desperate to leave my postcode, and the restrictions of the preceding years meant the demands of a newborn baby felt like relative freedom.

The Plan

My criteria for a baby-friendly London day out included a free or cheap entrance fee, step-free tube access and a nearby park. As a result, most of the list below are within pram distance from Kings Cross, Green Park, Victoria, Earl’s Court, Liverpool St or Stratford. Looking back, I don’t know why I was so scared of asking strangers for help with the pram on the stairs, as I’ve always been offered help on the tube. I found the vulnerability of a pram turned London into a much friendlier city. 

I tried to go somewhere new once or twice a week. I used TFL’s step free access guide as well as Mumderground, a tube app for pram users. The excitement of planning a day out staved off the existential anxiety of new parenting. 

My son got used to the tube early on, enjoying stroking the seats, licking the tube pole and making intense eye contact with the most inebriated person in the carriage. He now seems to have a pretty strong immune system. Coincidence? I don’t think so. 

I tended to go for days out just me and my son, without any parent friends. This was in part due to the faff of coordinating two babies, but also because it made me feel that if he or I weren’t having a good time, we could just give up and go home without it feeling like a big deal. We are a 30 minute tube journey from central London and so in the first six months I would just leg it to the nearest tube whenever I felt he needed a nap. The knowledge that I could leave whenever I wanted meant I felt more able to explore. Sticking on a podcast and jiggling the pram during tube stops made me feel like I’d “done something” with my day. 

I budgeted for tube journeys and a strong caffeinated drink, but otherwise most of the places I went were free entry or free with a National Art Pass (a great maternity leave present to any London teachers). The walks were £10 with a London Walks card (definitely worth it!).

The List

All of the below are free, free with a National Art Pass or under £10. London Zoo and London Aquarium are 2 for the price of 1 with a national rail ticket (c. £15 each).  Under 2s are free. 

  • British Library 
  • British Museum
  • The Foundling Museum
  • The Jewish Museum
  • The Wellcome Collection
  • Guildhall Art Gallery
  • Guildhall Roman Amphitheatre
  • St Paul’s Cathedral 
  • Museum of London
  • The Roof Garden at 120 Fenchurch Street
  • National Gallery
  • National Portrait Gallery
  • Royal Academy
  • Tate Britain
  • Kensington Palace
  • Kenwood House
  • London Zoo
  • London Aquarium
  • Museum of London Docklands
  • Stratford Olympic Park 

 Walking tours: 

However,  the main way I fell back in love with London was through walking tours. I started maternity leave with a walking tour aimed at parents with prams, but later discovered the London Walks company. Their walks are so accessible I didn’t need to do another baby-specific walk. The walks were a form of CPD in themselves: I’ve learnt so much about history, literature, art, religion and architecture. But I also learnt a lot about delivery and explanations from these professional tour guides. The guides have to condense their explanations down as concisely as possible, adapt their talks for people with English as an additional language, and create an element of theatrics appealing to this English teacher. They made me reconsider the power of a scripted lecture-style lesson, including prepared, deliberate explanations, carefully considered analogies and narrative hooks. I’m now building these into next year’s lessons. 

Other tours: 

Two of my particular favourite days out were a tour of the Royal Opera House and St Paul’s Cathedral. Neither of these had previously occurred to me for school trips (too niche) but they both had the necessary drama, flair and history to interest a group of fourteen-year-olds. 

In conclusion 

So in seven months of maternity leave, I’ve scoped out twenty major London attractions, from Guildhall’s Roman Amphitheatre to London Zoo, and taken my baby on ten London walking tours. I’ve fallen back in love with this city, kept my teacher brain alive and exposed my (admittedly, mostly oblivious) son to the finest culture the UK has to offer. 

While I am looking forward to returning to school (my partner has taken over full time parenting for the next five months), I’ve become too accustomed to the quiet weekdays in central London. I’m not ready to return to the crowds of weekends and school holidays. I’m returning to work on 0.8 and plan to use my non-working day to take advantage of the free days out with my son while he’s under two. 

I’m going back to school just in time for this year’s Cultural Activities Week and with some new ideas for next year’s. But mostly I have had a really fun maternity leave – it has been like one long strange European city break, but with worse weather, less sleep and more nappies.