Two tweenies (and Mum) go mad in Dorset

Taking young kids on a winter break can present a challenge. Not if there are animals on hand, says Louisa Saunders

If you've ever doubted the existence of "tweenies", the marketing-man-created label for those between 8 and 12, you should take a look at Girl Talk magazine, the preferred reading of my 10-year-old daughter, Elsa. Fashion, pop stars, girlie friendships and - crucially - cute pets. So, a pin-up of Duncan from Blue sits opposite a picture of A Horse. Avril Lavigne is juxtaposed with Some Hamsters. It's brew that is tweenie encapsulated, though in truth the fuzzy-faced pop stars are only there to preserve the reader's dignity; the fluffy animals are the real pin-ups.

If you've ever doubted the existence of "tweenies", the marketing-man-created label for those between 8 and 12, you should take a look at Girl Talk magazine, the preferred reading of my 10-year-old daughter, Elsa. Fashion, pop stars, girlie friendships and - crucially - cute pets. So, a pin-up of Duncan from Blue sits opposite a picture of A Horse. Avril Lavigne is juxtaposed with Some Hamsters. It's brew that is tweenie encapsulated, though in truth the fuzzy-faced pop stars are only there to preserve the reader's dignity; the fluffy animals are the real pin-ups.

To a mother, this deep-down babyishness is comforting. And being the mother also of five-year-old Claudia, it's a useful uniting factor. They'll scrap like any siblings, but cute animals reduce both to a helpless mess of soppy yelps and coos.

So, setting off for a midwinter long weekend to a cottage near the Dorset coast - the weather too cold to take advantage of the region's usual delights - I knew where to look for entertainment. We're headed for the triumphantly named Shitterton Farmhouse (when, if ever, does a child outgrow toilet humour?). Having picked the location quite randomly, we're delighted with the Milly-Molly-Mandy charms of the hamlet of Shitterton, on the edge of the vibrant, friendly village of Bere Regis.

There's been a farm at Shitterton since the Doomsday book. The only pity is that there is not one there now. The owners have a few ducks, and bring in some lambs for the visitors in the spring, but that's it. Not even a dog to befriend.

Still, it's a beautiful spot. Our cosy cottage is part of a barn conversion, with lots of space to run around. There's also a covered area with snooker, table tennis and sand-boxes. This turns out to be entirely weather-proof fun and the girls spend many happy hours bickering there.

So, no animals here, but we can't believe our luck to find ourselves just 10 minutes' drive from Monkeyworld which, unlike most West Country attractions, is open all year. Monkeyworld is an ape rescue centre and home to more than 150 apes, most of them delivered from the miseries of the entertainment industry and other forms of neglect and cruelty.

In the summer, the place must be thronging, but today its 65 acres are all but empty. The apes seem unperturbed by the Dorset winter, and happily climb and swing and forage in their roomy enclosures. But the real excitement comes when they venture indoors: their rooms have large shop windows, and they saunter right up and press their wrinkly faces to the glass, peering and pulling faces at their visitors only inches away.

The girls love reading about the apes' colourful life stories. Lulu the chimp has only one arm, the other having been amputated after her mother bit her (apes, we soon discover, make far from ideal parents). Çarli is a former film star who appeared in The Jungle Book. And Hsiao-Ning is a year-old orang-utan born at the sanctuary, a wide-eyed toddler of heart-rending innocence and a favourite with my soppy daughters. The girls spend some time with the orang-utans, hoping for a glimpse of their famously colourful bottoms, but it is not to be.

The apes are not the only ones who get to climb. Monkeyworld is dotted with ingeniously designed climbing spaces for children, too. There's also a farm corner, with donkeys, rabbits and guinea pigs. We've left our own guinea pigs at home and, disconcertingly, these are probably the girls' favourite animals at Monkeyworld. They opine that they miss Smiffy and Smudgie, and I'm stung for a fluffy guinea toy at the gift shop on the way out.

Somehow, what with the apes and the climbing and feeding grass to the donkeys, we find that we've spent the whole day at Monkeyworld. We slink back to our inviting base as it gets dark.

We need something less punishing the next day. A farm park would go down a treat, but there's a problem. While Dorset is crammed with farm parks, all seem closed until March. There is an exception: Farmer Giles, right over the other side of the county, was such a hit when we visited last summer that we consider making a special journey. This wonderfully low-key attraction has lambs and goats which the children can feed with bottles. Rabbits can be cuddled, which is great for the children, though you suspect an ordeal for the rabbits. Two elderly donkeys wander freely around the farm, and there's a tree house, pony rides and a field of old tractors to play on. Indoors, there's a bouncy castle and - get this - a licensed bar.

But it's a long way from here, and I have another idea. A quick look in the Yellow Pages and we've located a riding stables in Rempstone, down towards Studland. So after a morning's amble up to the village, with a quick game of pooh-sticks at the stream along the way, we set off for an hour's hack through the coastal woods. The girls busily anthropomorphise their mounts, Bobby and Pippin, while I wobble along on Seamus, a bad-tempered grey with whom I never quite manage to form a successful relationship. Elsa, who is cautious by nature but rides at every opportunity a city girl gets, is soon raring to go. Claudie, who has never ridden but has an in-built insouciance that is the bane of her mother's existence, is instantly relaxed. It's a beautiful afternoon, and soon we're all up for some trotting.

There's just time, before the short winter day ends, to dip down to Lulworth Cove and peer into its deserted hotels to size them up for a future summer visit. Then it's back to the cottage.

It's hard to leave the next morning. The sun is as warm as September and the girls run about in t-shirts and have a last go in the games barn. We buy some home-made jam from our hosts in the farmhouse and stop at Bere Regis on the way home. The shopkeepers treat us like regulars. The post office is straight out of Trumpton and there's a flyer in the window advertising a Christmas production of Babes in the Wood at the village hall. If only we could stay. But the guinea pigs beckon.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Where to stay

A week at one of the four properties at Shitterton Farmhouse Cottages (01929 471480; www.shitterton.com) starts at £330 for seven nights' rental. Contact Premier Cottages Direct (01271 336 050; www.premiercottages.com).

What to see

Monkey World (01929 462 537; www.monkeyworld.co.uk) Longthorns, Wareham, Dorset. Open daily 10am-5pm. Admission £8 adults, £6 children aged three to 15 years.

Farmer Giles Farmstead (01722 716 338; www.farmergiles.co.uk), Teffont, Salisbury, Wiltshire. Open daily 10am to dusk, weekends only at Christmas. Admission £4.50 adults, £3.50 children.

Further information

For tourist information go to www.visiteastdorset.co.uk, www.westdorset.com.

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