As the summer holiday season hits its peak, where to visit? I've decided to take inspiration from the tourist leaflet rack just inside the door of my local supermarket, which the vast majority of Bow's shoppers entirely ignore. It's not a great selection of leaflets, mainly because it's provided by a private company, and hasn't been updated since the pandemic started so is wildly out of date. Here then are the dozen tourist attractions flaunting their existence, comparing what they said then to what they're saying now.
London Eye(£24.50) What does the leaflet say? Very little, it's mostly photos because the London Eye essentially sells itself. No times, no prices (which was probably for the best). Is it open yet? No, it reopens on 1st August with "significantly reduced capacity per pod." Despite this, the opening 11am slot still hasn't sold out. What's changed? Since the leaflet was published the London Eye's sponsor has changed from Coca-Cola to lastminute.com. That's ironic because you can't turn up at the last minute any more, you have to pre-book. You should also expect a temperature check, a "new way" of conducting security searches before boarding your pod and the opportunity to buy a themed London Eye facemask for £5.
Sea-Life London(£24) What does the leaflet say? Come to London's flagship aquarium and "Meet Boris" (who's a giant turtle). Also the Polar Adventure is "new for 2019", should an augmented reality predator float your boat. Is it open yet? No. Like the London Eye, also owned by Merlin, it opens on Saturday. What's changed? Pre-booking is essential, saving 20% on the price of an impossible-to-purchase turn-up-on-the-day ticket. Be warned that "some experiences and facilities may be suspended to ensure social distancing", which must mean interactive feeding time is cancelled and the touch pools are out of action.
Bekonscot Model Village & Railway(£12.50) What does the leaflet say? 2020's times and prices are included, along with a rather splendid map which shows clearly how the miniature railway loops through Evenlode, Splashyng, Southpool and Greenhaily. Is it open yet? Yes, it opened three weeks ago after the government added model villages to its list of acceptable tourist attractions. What's changed? Pre-booking is essential, the play area and coin-operated attractions are closed, picnics aren't allowed and the Tearoom isn't able to sell hot meals. But all the important outdoor stuff is fully accessible, and as excellent as ever, so it'd be well worth a return visit.
Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker(£7.50) What does the leaflet say? It does a decent job of showcasing the underground estate, but entirely fails to get across the utter weirdness of the set-up. If you've been you'll know. The fiery mushroom cloud on the cover is a jarring image, particularly at time of global crisis. Is it open yet? Good question. According to the website "It is our intention to fully open on the 4th July", but there's no indication of whether they actually did. This does at least echo the "Secret" in the attraction's title, but I'd think twice before travelling a long distance to visit. What's changed? The admission price has gone up £1.
Old MacDonald's Farm(£16) What does the leaflet say? It strongly suggests a toddler's idyll, complete with animals, soft play and rides (including the Doggy Dog Roller Coaster). Marshall and Skye from Paw Patrol were due to appear last weekend. Fraught parents will find OMF just off M25 J28. Is it open yet? Yes. Wiggle the otter was very pleased to see visitors again a fortnight ago. Peppa Pig alas had to cancel in June, What's changed? The farm is paying the price for forcing entry and exit through its gift shop. This means visitors have to wear face coverings to get in, which can then be removed within the main body of the farm but have to be donned again to get out. Grumpy punters aside, they still sold out on Sunday. Animal petting and soft play remain off limits. Paw Patrol return in August.
Santa Pod Raceway What does the leaflet say? I hold in my hand a full calendar of this year's 70 planned events, plus the option to bring your own car and drive it round the track, plus advice on why believing your satnav may be unwise if arriving via the A6. It's not somewhere your average Bromley-by-Bow Tesco shopper is going to visit. Is it open yet? Yes, a limited programme of events has just kicked off, with a postponed Nostalgia Drag scheduled this weekend. The raceway's accountants must be very pleased. What's changed? Pre-booking and social distancing are the new normal, but if you use the campsite be warned there are no showers.
Leeds Castle(£27) What does the leaflet say? It's essentially an events guide, as if the management find it hard to imagine anyone would turn up just to see a castle. Pride of place goes to The Golden Joust, pencilled in for 23rd to 25th May, which intended to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Alas, all was summarily cancelled. The leaflet is printed on proper lovely paper though. Is it open yet? Yes, for a month now, but only the Adventure Playgrounds, Bird of Prey Centre, Adventure Golf and Gardens. What's changed? The Castle, Maze, Falconry Arena, Punting, Gatehouse Exhibition, Black Swan Ferry, Castle Train and Dog Collar Museum remain closed for now. Ticket prices remain the same, but you can come back as many times as you like for 15 months. I'd wait.
Hever Castle(£18.80) What does the leaflet say? Come to Anne Boleyn's childhood home and enjoy our new multi-lingual multimedia self-guided tours. I don't know why Kent castles have undue prominence in this leaflet rack, but this is the better one. Is it open yet? Yes, both the castle and the gardens, so Hever's doing better than Leeds. The gardens opened as early as 1st June, but the whole shebang's only been up and running since Thursday. What's changed? The Head of Visitor Services now encourages you to watch her 3 minute YouTube video about what to expect before you arrive. Also "toilet facilities will be available but we urge you to go before you leave home."
Wildwood(£13.45) What does the leaflet say? It says we're a conservation charity and if you visit our animal park in Herne Bay you'll be helping to preserve British wildlife. Enclosures include a Red Squirrel Walk Through, a Rat Barn and a Bear Bridge. Is it open yet? Yes, since mid-June. That's a fortnight later than they hoped, but just in time to prevent the trust running out of cash. What's changed? Timed arrival slots, additional evening opening and a one way system. In good news, the Rat Barn has recently been able to reopen.
Sissinghurst Castle Garden(£8) What does the leaflet say? This is the lowliest leaflet and also the most obviously out of date, listing events "this Autumn and Winter" all of which had already happened when lockdown began. It's also yet another attraction in far-flung Kent, so odd to be promoting this in Tower Hamlets. Is it open yet? The garden, yes, since early June. Vita Sackville-West's historic abode, however, no plans. What's changed? Pre-booking is essential, as at many other National Trust properties, with tickets released every Friday (and staff who'll send you packing if you just turn up). The next available slot is on Thursday, but only after 3pm.
Drusillas Park(£19.50) What does the leaflet say? It looks like another zoo with rides, this time with penguins, meerkats and Europe's first Hello Kitty-themed attraction. Tesco shoppers would also have to drive almost all the way to Eastbourne to pay a visit. In appalling timing the new Jurassic Jungle walk-through was due to open at Easter but couldn't. Is it open yet? Yes, since 26th June (after 97 days of incomeless shutdown). Jurassic Jungle has finally seen the light. What's changed? All the usual (which now looks normal but would have been unthinkably restrictive last summer).
Faulty Towers Dining Experience(£70-£90) What does the leaflet say? "The Original Show Entertaining Audiences For Over 21 Years"... in which case this must be entirely to blame for the proliferation of themed immersive middlebrow dining experiences across the country. An Only Fools And Horses option appears on the other side of the leaflet but that only got a four star review whereas Basil got five. Is it open yet? No. A socially distanced roomful of diners encircled in slapstick is currently neither practical nor cost-efficient. They "aim to re-open performances from around August 2020", which if you try booking turns out to be the first Thursday in September. What's changed? No clues, as yet. Most years it's more profitable to be running a staged meal than a children's zoo, but 2020 has very much turned the tables.