The 50 Best Family days out
Stuck for something to keep the children occupied this half term? From adrenaline-filled adventures to historic sights and nature trails. Sarah Barrell finds fun for all budgets... and all weathers
Richard Hammond is founder of greentraveller.co.uk and The Little Green Traveller
Maria Pieri is editor of the family section of ‘National Geographic Traveller’. natgeotraveller.co.uk/family
Kate Calvert is author of Footprint’s ‘Travel with kids’ travel guides, and founder of family-travel.co.uk
Peter Pan, Kensington Gardens
“We love the setting of author JM Barrie’s Peter Pan,” says Maria. “Kensington Gardens is home to the bronze statue of the boy who never grew up, ‘blowing his pipe on the stump of a tree with fairies and mice, squirrels and rabbits all around’. The location was chosen by Barrie, near the Long Water Lake, on the spot where he lands after flying out of the nursery.” The gardens lead into Hyde Park.
“Keeping an eye on prices, Hampstead Heath is totally free,” says Kate. “Assuming you have a kite, there are a myriad of places to fly it – this is the classic place for Londoners, where the kids can watch the big kids wrestle their giant kites.”
Southbank Imagine Children’s Festival
A packed programme will bring a dinosaur petting zoo (with life-size animatronics) and a treasure hunt. Plus: a performance from the National Youth Orchestra; the debut theatre adaptation of hit children’s book, The Queen’s Knickers; yoga and street dance classes; the Red House Children’s Book Award; and appearances from authors David Walliams, Simon Mayo and Cressida Cowell.
February 11-24 (0844 875 0073, southbankcentre.co.uk)
Unsustainable queues and extensions to Network Rail have seen the much-loved Dungeons leave their home of four decades, under London Bridge, to take over a huge Southbank site in the former Greater London Council headquarters. This £20 million transformation adds thrill rides, explosions and a terrifying army of vermin to the Dungeon’s macabre journey through the capital’s history. You have been warned.
The new venue opens on 1 March. Tickets cost from £18.45 per adult, £14.40 per child (thedungeons.com).
Go Ape in Trent Park
“Head out to north London and meet your inner Tarzan,” says Maria. “Set in the middle of a beautiful woodland, just a 10-minute walk from Cockfosters tube, the newest Go Ape site has giant swings, rope bridges and zip wires.”
Trent Park re-opens after the winter break on February 15, in time for half term. £32 for adults, £24 for kids (10-17 years). Suitable for children from 1.4m tall (goape.co.uk).
Harry Potter walking tour
“Why pay for a guided tour when you can magic yourself around London, discovering its Muggle and wizarding history, for free?” asks Maria. “Film locations en route include Gringotts Bank and Leaky Cauldron and there’s a treasure hunt that you can follow as you go. Download maps and information online, and repeat after me: I solemnly swear I am up to no good.”
This ornamental woodland garden, in Richmond Park, is a sight for sore eyes. Intense bursts of colour from the densely planted stands of camellia, magnolia, azalea and rhododendron, plus daffodils and bluebells too.
“The 30-mile Tarka Trail along the old railways of North Devon, is a great place for a family bike ride (particularly the six-mile flat, off-road section from Braunton to Barnstaple),” says Richard. “Stop at the excellent Yarde Café for home-made cakes and pies.”
“The Isle of Wight feels like a step back to simpler times,” says Kate. “Home to the Troll Trail, a traffic-free bike path (part of National Cycle Network route 23) is lined with bridges under which live trolls, or at least giant carvings.”
This well-surfaced arts and nature trail runs between Merstone and Shide on the Isle of Wight (gifttonature.org.uk).
“Wheeldon Off-Road Junior Training Academy offers families an off-road motor biking experience that’s suitable for children of all ages,” says Kate. “The kids have governed bikes and take on a smaller track before graduating.”
From £75 per half-day session, suitable for all levels of rider including novices, from 7+(wheeldontwo.co.uk).
St Michael’s Mount
“Take the small motorboat across to this tiny rock island when the tide is high and explore the beautiful medieval castle and church at its summit,” says Maria. “The paths on the island are steep, cobbled and uneven – so be prepared to carry any small children – but the cake and hot chocolate are a just reward before walking back across to Marazion via the causeway.”
£23 for a family ticket or £7.50 for an adult, £3.75 per child (stmichaelsmount.co.uk).
“The beautifully lit spot will keep children entertained for hours,” Richard says. “There’s the Witch of Wookey stalagmite, life-size dinosaurs and a fairy garden; you can even produce your own paper at the 18th-century paper mill.”
Wookey Hole, Wells, Somerset. Tickets £13.60 per adult, £9.35 per child, including online booking discount (wookey.co.uk).
“Birthplace of King Arthur and home of Merlin the Magician: Tintagel is the stuff of legends… and the kind kids love,” says Maria. “The castle is joined to the mainland by a narrow neck of land, and has spectacular views of the English coastline. Suited to those that can handle lots of stairs.”
£3.40 for kids, £5.70 for adults (english-heritage.org.uk).
“Minibeasts, mice and mole is one of the great weekend courses offered by the British Field Studies Council,” says Richard. This one takes place in Box Hill, Surrey and gives families with children aged four to eight years the chance to get some hands-on natural history experience.
April 12-14; £110 per adult, £85 child (field-studies-council.org).
Brighton treasure trail
“Answers to clues are on monuments and structures, starting at Brighton Pier,” says Maria. “It’s a great way to focus a wander around the city, and also takes in the Artist Quarter, the Fishing Museum, the crumbling West Pier and more.” If you’re beside the seaside February 6 to March 3, call in at the Brighton Science Festival, with hands on events for kids, teens and grown-up geeks.
“Treesurfers is more demanding than Go Ape,” says Kate. “And it’s set in the most fabulous surroundings in Devon’s Tamar Valley.” This 50-foot-high treetops ropes course takes two to three hours.
Tickets cost £25 per adult and £21 a child. Most activities suitable for eight years and up. (treesurfers.co.uk).
River Cottage cookery courses
“A River Cottage cookery day is a somewhat expensive option, but great,” says Kate. “Unlike some more precious operations, children of all ages are welcome, provided they are accompanied. So they too can learn the joys of getting stuck in. And likely come away absolutely stuffed with food, bearing multiple bags of their creations.”
Day courses take place at Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Park Farm, in Devon, starting at £60 (rivercottage.net).
Midlands and East:
“The RSPB reserve at Minsmere, in Suffolk, is one of the most impressive bird-watching centres in the UK, with woodland, wetland and coastal scenery,” says Richard. It re-opened last summer after a £2m makeover.
English Heritage Days
“English Heritage events are brilliant,” says Kate. “Last time, I found out about the history of time-keeping while my son watched blacksmiths at work. We saw jousting and falconry and asked the First World War re-enactment team endless questions. There’s plenty going on nationwide, even in early spring. How about playing roundheads and cavaliers at Bolsover Castle, in Derbyshire?”
£8 per adult, £4.80 (five to 15 years); members free (english-heritage.org.uk).
The Norfolk adventure park that comes with Twiggles and Boggles and enchanted tree houses, is based on a fantastical tale by local children’s author, Tom Blofeld. A wonderful, wood-hewn antidote to the plastic coated theme-park formula.
Tickets from £10.50 (bewilderwood.co.uk).
Off the Tracks
“Celebrating its 25th anniversary, this small and perfectlyformed spring festival is held each year at Castle Donington,” says Maria. “Sign your kids up for eclectic activities – fancy dress, face painting, arts and crafts, circus workshops – while you get grounded in The Orchard, with a yoga, meditation or tai chi class.”
Spring Festival, May 24-26. Adults £60, children £30 (offthetracks.co.uk).
Stratford Shakespeare Festival
The two-day open-air Renaissance street party that celebrates the Bard’s birthday (his 449th this year) makes Shakespeare’s life and works accessible for young readers.
Cycling in Sherwood
“Hire yourself some bikes and take the Family or Adventure Trail through the largest area of woodland in the East Midlands,” says Maria. “Or alternatively, stroll through the 3,300 acres of forest and discover adventure playgrounds, a sand play village and Robin Hood’s hideout en route.”
The Under the Pier Show, in Southwold comes with anarchic amusements by artist, Tim Hunkin. A newly added attraction, standing next to classics like wack the banker and a peeing water clock, is pet or meat, a delightfully gruesome game that reveals the difference between the two.
“Parents will love this beautifully restored Tudor- Jacobean mansion in Leeds,” says Maria. “Birthplace of Lord Darnley, notorious husband of Mary Queen of Scots, the big draw is the superb collection of British decorative arts. Kids will enjoy an amble around the budding green gardens.”
Family tickets from £8.70 (leeds.gov.uk).
York Ghost Walk
“York as a whole makes for a great family day out,” says Kate. “Our lot didn’t get much out of the much-touted Jorvik Viking Centre, but the city’s ghost walks went down very well.” The York Ghost Walk is a 75-minute tour taking in the city’s most infamous haunted sights.
Saturdays at 7pm. Tickets cost £4 per adult, £3 for children under 14 (ghostwalkyork.co.uk)
Daffs and snaps
“The Forest of Bowland’s heather-covered moorland and stone villages may sound remote, but they’re easily accessible by train,” says Richard. “And many local firms are offering activities for children this spring, including a St David’s Day walk around historic Sawley as the daffodils start blooming.”
Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Lancashire, (forestofbowland.com/festivalevents). Suitable for anyone aged nine plus, the 3.5-hour walk costs £16.95 including a two-course lunch. Booking essential (01200 441202).
Surf the north
“My daughter’s surf instructor was an incredibly patient primary-school teacher, and life saver-qualified, which was reassuring given the size of the waves,” says Kate, of Tynemouth Surf Co, set on the beach in Tynemouth, Northumberland. “And she came out of the wet suit toasty warm despite the North Sea temperatures.”
Lessons from £15 (tynemouthsurf.co.uk).
Trekking with llamas
“Llamas make excellent walking companions,” says Richard. “And Nidderdale Llamas has 19 of the furry camelids plus a Pet Village of smaller creatures for younger children to handle. Choose from a 90-minute jaunt to a full-day hike out to Brimham Rocks (with picnic provided).”
Nidderdale is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the Yorkshire Dales. Treks from £20 (nidderdalellamas.org).
“My kids really enjoyed the National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle, with plenty of hands-on activities for younger ones, story-telling sessions from children’s authors, and a really great kid’s bookshop,” says Kate. “It’s set in old industrial Newcastle, in the Ouseburn Valley conservation area.”
“This North Yorkshire adventure nature trail is aimed at primary and pre-school aged children,” says Richard. “Rabbit, Mole and Owl will take you on an adventure, teaching you about the wildlife while you search for clues and hidden treasure.” It is a beautiful place to witness the start of spring.
Studfold opens for the season on March 30. Tickets: £4 per adult, £3 per child; under-threes free (studfoldtrails.co.uk).
Run, skip, walk and jump around 60 giant works of art spread across 500 acres of parkland in West Yorkshire. Home to one of Europe’s largest open-air displays of Henry Moore bronzes, entry is free and highlights include the crystal blue work, Seizure, by Turner Prize-nominee Roger Hiorns.
The Living Museum of the North celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Beamish Tramway (April 4-7), the fleet of pristine old buses, trolleys and trams that navigate this museum’s 300-acre site. Expect bunting, bells and costumed guides revealing the history of these much-loved vintage vehicles. Don’t miss the Victorian sweet shop, set next door to a gruesome dentist surgery.
Beamish fully opens on March 23. Adults £17.50, children £10, under-fives go free (beamish.org.uk).
Beachcombing, Runswick Bay
This gold sand beach, north of Whitby, is where you’ll find a serious stash of washed-up treasure. Runswick Bay is one of Britain’s best beachcombing spots, especially during a spring tide. Ammonite fossils are also plentiful too, so pack a bucket, spade and a keen appetite for excavation.
“Visit this interactive wildlife attraction in Berwick on a weekend in February or March and children aged four to eight can join one of its Mini Makers ‘make-and-do’ sessions,” says Richard.
Courses take place 2-3pm and cost £7.95 for adults, £4.95 for children (seabird.org).
Take off on a flying visit over Scotland’s wonderful west, with bird’s eye views of the Trossachs National Park, the Isle of Bute and Inverary on a spirit-lifting 40-minute flight-seeing tour with Loch Lomond Seaplanes.
Discovery Tours from £99 per person (01436 675030, lochlomondseaplanes.com).
Glasgow Riverside Museum of Transport
This creation by Zaha Hadid looks like somewhere between a child’s drawing of an iceberg and a James Bond villain’s den. Climb aboard vintage public transport, wander along a recreated Victorian street and visit a 1960s garage. A recent purchase is a huge South African locomotive.
Download free treasure hunt apps (glasgowlife.org.uk).
“Explore the 22 galleries that make up the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, for free,” says Maria. “Its vast collection covers everything from paintings and sculptures to European armour and weapons.”
The Scottish Snowdrop Festival (February 2 - March 17) will see 50 castle and country estate gardens show off early spring blooms. The woodland at Cambo Estate in Fife is home to the National Collection of 300 species of flowers and, at night, by power of son et lumiere, Snowdrops by Starlight (February 13-17) makes the landscape look like a fairy garden.
Celebrate Natural Scotland
“One of the best places to celebrate 2013 as the Year of Natural Scotland, is at Crathes Castle, near Aberdeen,” says Richard. “It runs lots of hands on activities for children; the ‘tracks and signs’ ranger walk for five to 12-year-olds (April 9) helps kids identify what’s living in the surrounding forests by following footprints, fur and feathers.”
Explore the landscape behind the creation of Disney animation, Brave. Several Scottish estates were used as a blueprint for the film’s Dun-Broch family castle, among them Eilean Donan Castle in the Highlands and Dunnottar Castle south of Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire.
Jacobite Steam Train
Start at the foot of Ben Nevis in Fort William and settle back for a six-hour round trip aboard a Hogwart’s Express-style steam train. Choose seats to the left of the carriage for the best views and keep your eyes peeled for Glenfinnan Viaduct, seen in the Harry Potter films. The pretty fishing port of Mallaig is the final stop, with views of Skye.
Adult return £33, children £19 (westcoastrailways.co.uk/jacobite).
Wales and Northern Ireland:
Stackpole Pembrokeshire challenge
“Stackpole, in Pembrokeshire, is one of my favourite places in the UK,” says Richard. “Walk past beautiful Bosherton Lily Ponds (look out for otters) on your way to the beach or join the challenge (February 13 or 15) to complete as many of the estate’s ‘50 things to do before you are 11-and-three-quarters’ as possible, from flying kites to pond dipping and snail racing.”
Stackpole Estate, Pembrokeshire (01646 661425, firstname.lastname@example.org).
“Crickhowell has introduced a series of family-friendly routes into its upcoming walking festival (March 1-10),” says Richard. “This includes a stroll from Crickhowell along the River Usk to Glanusk Bridge or, for the more ambitious, a gentle ascent of stunning Sugar Loaf mountain.”
Crickhowell Walking Festival, Brecon Beacons. £5 to register (crickhowellfestival.com/c/32/family-friendly).
This year’s Hay Festival, in the Brecon Beacons, sees the return of the brilliant story competition for children: 500 Words. Open to children under 13, winning entries will be revealed at the festival, also host to family favourites: the Starlight Stage, the Hay Fever Courtyard, and daily crafting classes.
May 23 to June 2. Full line-up to be announced in April. Ticket prices vary (hayfestival.com).
“Steam trains always go down well and recommended for scenery are Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways,” says Kate. “But it’s the stations that really prove to be the biggest source of joy (to small boys, at least).”
Wander through the grounds of Armagh Planetarium to navigate a scale model of the universe. Make your way through the Solar System and the Milky Way – stainless steel scale models of the planets.
Adults £6, children £5 (armaghplanet.com).
“Encourage your family to get some fresh air and exercise by going in search of the 180 geocaching sites across the Brecon Beacons,” says Richard. “Hikers leave treasure in these hidden caches, from crackers toys for kids to Geocoins – there for you to discover on a family hike.”
Take the car ferry from Ballycastle on the Antrim coast across the deep blue Rathlin Sound to visit Ireland’s only populated offshore island. This wild, windswept tower of basalt rock and emerald grass is home to Northern Ireland’s largest seabird colony.
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