Is the London Dungeons too scary for kids?
On Sunday with a little trepidation and my mother’s warnings ringing in my ears we took the children to the London Dungeons.
Mum had warned me, as only a mum can, that it would be completely unsuitable for a five and seven year old and would give them nightmares. She said there had been “articles in the newspaper” about it
I’d checked out the website and the photos do look pretty gruesome, so I had concerns of my own. But as I was supposed to be reviewing it and had told the organisers the ages of my kids, I kept my fingers crossed and reasoned they would have warned me.
So, we caught the tube to London Bridge and within minutes we were queuing up in the dark, with eerily lit tombstones and clutching the kids hands saying:” You are alright aren’t you. You’re not frightened. You know it’s just pretend.”
“The pavement isn’t real,” pipes up the five year old.
“What do u mean?” I ask, stamping my feet “Seems real enough to me.”
“It’s lino,” says the five year old.
I kneel down and feel the ground. I still have no idea who’s right about this. Maybe it’s displacement.
I wasn’t really trying to convince them that the pavement was pretend – more the ghouls and ghosts which might be waiting around the corner. Anyway they don’t seem to be frightened and soon we are inside, stroking some live rats, and waiting for the tour to begin.
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For this day out is a re-enactment – a tour through the dungeons, and through history, led by scarily dressed actors, who treat us as though we are actually prisoners in the aforementioned dungeon! They’re rather rude and rough and tell you to move along with no pleases or thankyous. It’s disconcerting at first and not the kind of customer service you might expect (visitors from the US must find it particularly bizarre). But it’s quite deliberate and all part of the show.
The actors are elaborately dressed in period costume and convincingly made up with frightening gashes across their cheeks. It’s very dark and the crypt-keeper banging his walking stick on the floor was described by the five year old as “one of the scariest things.” And it would have been a lot scarier had a trio of infuriating 10 years olds not kept making smart alec remarks and reminded us that sadly we were very much in the 21st century and they were very unlikely to be cruelly punished. However, the crypt keeper was clearly used to this kind of behaviour and held his own.
We then headed through the labyrinth of lost souls – a dimly lit mirror maze which gave us a chance to lose the kids, not ours, the annoying 10 years olds, being taken out by their poor grandma. Sadly though, the guides seemed keen to make sure they weren’t left behind and we found ourselves in 1665 , the year of the Great Plague and heard of the full horrors of the times from the lips of a “survivor”. The streets were full of corpses – cleansed the following year by the Great Fire of London and we were treated to a short film (told by “eyewitnesses” in costume of course) explaining how it came about.
The most stomach churning part of the tour for me was the makeshift operating room, where a “surgeon” demonstrates how operations were performed, more to improve the surgeon’s knowledge of human anatomy than to cure the patient! I held the five year old’s hand tightly, but again he seemed fairly unpeturbed – more scared by sudden noises than anything else.
The torture chamber gave our group more pleasure than you might expect, as it appeared word had travelled between the actors leading us round each “moment in time,” and the most annoying of the 10 year olds was grabbed almost as soon as we walked in and (temporarily) locked in a cage while the torturer explained what the various implements were used for.
Audience participation again came into its own in the 18th century court room, where visitors were put in the dock and their crimes read out. We were encouraged to boo and spit! and you got a feel for the barbarity of the justice system without the children or anyone else being actually terrified – though it has to be said an awful lot of offences were punishable by death.
Mary Queen of Scots was also keen on putting her enemies to death – often by burning at the stake and another lucky visitor was chosen to be part of this re-enactment. As if she wasn’t already being punished enough, it was the sweet but helpless grandmother of the terrible 10 year olds that was lead away to the pyre.
The flames were very convincing indeed and we were again encouraged to behave as the crowds of the time would have done by hurling insults at the unfortunate victim. An abiding memory remains of the three terrors yelling: “Burn granny burn,” their eager faces lit by the orange glow of the flames.
The tour includes a boat ride to hell through the underground tunnels which we all enjoyed – though small hands were held very tightly in case they were too scared by the bodies strung up along the way. The bodies of course were not real as we kept explaining ( I think they actually caught on to this quite early on) – but the water, tunnels and boat were certainly real – no dispute with the little ones about that.
However, there are a couple of rides they were deemed too young – or at least too small- to go on. One was called Vengeance where you spin round and round while 3D spirits come out of the wall to grab you. Neither the five nor 8 year old were tall enough for this one, which provoked much crying and near hysterical debates about justice with the 8 year old.
She was however tall enough to go on the aptly named “Drop ride to Doom” where rows of seats are winched up to ceiling height where the occupants meet the hangmen and executioners and are then dropped down. I sat this one out with the five year old, but there was much screaming from the rest of the group – thankfully we were spared the debate about the fairness of it all as the five year old’s cognitive skills don’t work in this way and the 8 year old quickly lost interest in justice and injustice when she was no longer the victim!
The most frightening part for me and I think our group – apart from the relentlessly annoying behaviour of the 10 year olds – came during the Jack the Ripper experience. The explanation of what happened to the victims was quite gory so you might want to employ some distraction techniques with younger kids. But I won’t say why it’s frightening as I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
All in all I would say it is a very good couple of hours entertainment – with a lot of history thrown in, in a way that makes it memorable. It’s obviously aimed at slightly older children – I’d suggest 8 and up – but my five year old seemed to enjoy it and a week on there have been no nightmares.
It’s only moments away from London Bridge mainline and tube station
Like all these attractions it is quite expensive £24 for an adult and £18 for a child – but if you combine it with a ticket for the London Eye or Madam Tussauds it brings down the cost considerably.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon in January, we only waited for about 15 minutes until the start of the tour – but I have been told queues can be a problem so it might be worth booking online where they apparently upgrade your ticket for nothing to give you priority. For more details go to the London Dungeons website
To win a free ticket for a family of four ( two adults and two children) worth £84 all you need to do is
1. Follow me on Networked blogs and/or twitter
2. Leave a comment which includes the answer to these two questions:
1. What day and year did the fire of London start?
2. Why is the house at 50 Berkley Square, London, famous?
The winning entry will be drawn at random and the deadline is midnight on Saturday February 4th, 2012 – so you should receive it in time for half term (February 10-19)!
The ticket is valid until March 31st, 2012, at the London Dungeons, Edinburgh Dungeons, York Dungeons and even the dungeons in Hamburg and Amsterdam!