We take our children on a family trip to an award-winning Christmas light festival
Family festive opportunities are in short supply this year so our trip to Lightopia at Heaton Park in Manchester was eagerly awaited.
Organisers promise a safe and socially distanced event.
We took our children after school for a 5.20pm start, here is our full guide to the Christmas festival.
What is it
The Lightopia Festival – Christmas at Heaton Park – is an award-winning and socially-distanced lantern and light festival.
It takes place around a series of lit art installations and laser beams, which have been set up at the park in Manchester.
When it it
Lightopia at Heaton Park runs from November 20, 2020 to January 3, 2021.
The event is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, except during school holidays and closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Gates Open at 5pm, last entry is 8.30pm and it closes at 10pm.
How much are tickets
Tickets are booked in advance, they are £20 online for adults (or £22 on the day), £13 for children (or £15 on the day) and £60 for families of two adults and two children (£68 on the day). Children under three can go free.
Essential carers of disabled visitors can attend for free, the disabled visitor pays the normal admission fee.
*What we called the Rainbow Tree
Children stand on a circle and their moving feet sends different coloured lights shooting up the tree, creating a beautiful display.
*The laser show on the lake.
Visitors are directed to stand in socially distanced spaces to watch this lovely show towards the end of the trail.
*Food and drink
There are stalls and bars dotted around the trail selling food like hot dogs, carvery baps, chips, donuts, malled wine and hot chocolate.
*Prepare to queue at the start, entry is in 20-minute time slots and we did have to wait when we arrived, but it is organised very well so that you are spaced out from the groups in front and behind.
*It’s quite a spaced out route, you will walk a bit further than some other light shows, so take a buggy if you have young children.
*It is all outdoors so dress for the weather and ensure children are wrapped up warm and wearing sensible footwear. You will always be on a path but look out for the occasional bit of uneven ground as it is dark.
Is everything included in the price?
All the displays are included in the ticket price. There are stalls selling food, drink and those flashing hand-held contraptions that our daughter loves. It was card only for payment.
How long will it take?
It takes about an hour and a half but that depends on how fast you walk and whether you buy food and drink. Take your time walking around, to take it all in, you certainly don’t need to rush.
Where to park
There are car parks on site and it is best to book in advance, then follow the directions on your email confirmation.
There was lots to keep them entertained, here are our top tips for what to do with children on a family boat trip along the canal or a holiday in the area.
The market town of Llangollen is a fabulous day out for children.
When travelling by canal, the part between Trevor Bason and Llangollen town is narrow and not suited to beginners.
If you don’t attempt it, it’s still worth spending time in Llangollen before you collect your boat or after you have finished your canal cruise if you are nearby.
To enjoy the town centre, join families relaxing on the rocks next to the River Dee. There are lots of flat stones to walk acroos on the river and shallow pools in between. Families often pop down there to enjoy an ice cream or fish and chips with a view.
You reach the river stones via the Victorian promenade, which is a lovely walkway raised above the river. Next to it there is a large playground.
Children will also love the spectacular Horseshoe Falls, where the canal and river meet to form a weir, a couple of miles west of the town.
You can see kayakers flying down this part of the River Dee and there are pleasant walks.
There are three meres near to this stretch of canal. You can moor up to walk around Colemere, or stop at Blakemere to admire the view.
If you moor up overnight in Ellesmere there is a walk to the town’s lake through woodland off the towpath near Blackwater Marina.
Blakemere at Ellesmere
It is about a 10-minute walk through a lovely wood to the mere, then you can go to the visitor centre, or head clockwise around to the sculpture trail and wide-open playground.
The town itself is pleasant enough to stroll around with a few takeaways and Vermeulens Delicatessen famed for its pork pies. You can walk back to your boat along the canal next to a giant Tesco, which is handy if you need to stock up.
This wharf in Llangollen is part of a World Heritage site.
Welsh cream teas are served at the Wharf Tea Room, with views out over the town and canal.
You can try a horse drawn boat trip from here – they have been running from the wharf for more than 100 years. Trips are 45 minutes or two hours.
Horse drawn boats from Llangollen Wharf
Llangollen Steam railway
This heritage railway line starts at Llangollen Station and runs alongside the River Dee, travelling through the picturesque Dee Valley.
It has events for families throughout the year such as meeting Thomas the Tank Engine.
There is a small cafe and a couple of lovely walks to view the aqueduct. One walk heads along the Llangollen Canal a short distance, down the original Offa’s Dyke path, through some narrow, steep woodland and out onto a bridge with a great view.
Alternatively, you could head out of the marina towards the aqueduct but before you reach it, turn left onto a public footpath signed Ty Mawr Country Park. Walk along the path and then turn right and head down to the river. It is a lovely spot, with a muddy beach, rocks to climb on and even a paddle in the river on a hot day. You then walk back towards the aqueduct and end up underneath its huge towers. This gives children a chance to appreciate the scale of the 200-year-old structure.
Moor up and explore
The beauty of travellng by boat on the canal is that you can stop almost anywhere. We found lots of lovely country walks this way.
The towpath is usually flat and often gravelled so is fine to cycle or scoot in a lot of places.
If your children are older you can send them off the boat along the towpath and collect them when you catch up with them further ahead.
Here are our pick of the best beaches in and around Dawlish.
This is a flat, sandy beach with shallow waters. It is very family-friendly with lifeguards keeping watch over the summer months.
It is a Blue Flag beach – awarded for high standards of cleanliness and safety.
The large car park is set behind a grassy area which you walk through to reach the beach.
The sand is separated into sections by rows of wooden groynes. There is a high, sloped wall above the sand so only walk down via the regular steps provided and hold on to younger children’s hands as you approach.
There can be big waves on a windy day which makes the beach good for bodyboards and surfing.
But when the weather is calm it is a safe bathing spot too.
Heading from the town to the beach you drive past a large funfair and there is an ice cream shop and cafe opposite.
If you fancy a good walk, the beach travels up to the mouth of the River Exe. It also backs on to a wildlife reserve.
Dogs are not allowed on Dawlish Warren beach.
Address: Dawlish Warren Beach, Beach Rd, Dawlish, EX7 0NF.
The town of Dawlish has a beach which is a short walk from the centre.
It’s quite pebbly and travels all the way to Red Rock at Dawlish Warren.
We went on a windy day and the sight of the big waves bashing the sea wall was spectacular. Although paddling/swimming in the sea was definitely off the agenda.
There’s a railway station next to the beach. The railway line runs alongside the beach and there’s a wide footpath between the line and the sand.
Dawlish is a small but pleasant place for a stroll and there is a car park and on-street parking.
The river runs through a park with ducks and swans. There is mini-golf in the park and plenty of cafes or ice cream shops.
We visited Gaye’s Creamery for their famous ice cream cone with clotted cream on top!
Dogs are allowed on part of the beach.
Address: Dawlish Town Beach, SW Coast Path, Dawlish, EX8 5BT.
We walked right alongside Dawlish beach and found:
This beach is about a 10-minute walk from the centre of Dawlish, if you start at the railway tunnel, you can follow the sea path round to the right (with the sea on your left).
Our childen had a great time here, it’s a sandy/stony beach with a sheltered spot/open cave, good for keeping warm unless there’s an easterly wind.
The curved bay is good for swimming and the dramatic red sandstone cliffs with the railway at the bottom forms a spectacular backdrop.
There are rock pools, a few colourful beach huts (some available for hire), a cafe with ice cream shop and occasional dolphin sightings.
The beach used to be known as Gentleman’s Beach, because in Victorian times only men were allowed to bathe there!
The nearest parking is on the street opposite the railway line. You can cross a footbridge from there to get to the beach or enjoy the view from the coastal path above. There is also a car park and on street parking in Dawlish town centre.
Dogs are not allowed on Coryton Cove beach from May 1 to September 30.
This is one for the adventurous families.
You park in Holcombe village and then walk down the steep Smuggler’s Lane to access the beach.
From there head under the railway line and up onto a sea wall path.
Keep a close eye on little ones as there are steep drops until you reach some steps down onto the beach. And the steps are narrow and open to the beach.
It is a sandy beach with good waves for bodyboarding.
You also get dramatic red sandstone cliffs at each end which you can imagine as ideal cover for smugglers who made use of this remote beach in years gone by.
There is a kiosk at the bottom of Smuggler’s Lane selling drinks and snacks.
This is also an excellent spot for train spotters as you can get really close to the trains heading in both directions along the line.
This narrow, isolated beach is used mainly by locals and there are no lifeguards.
Dogs are allowed on Holcombe beach.
Address: Holcombe Beach, Holcombe, Teignmouth, Devon, EX7 0JL.
We discover if Cofton Holidays is as good as it sounds for a break with children
Cofton Holiday Park/Cofton Holidays
Where is it?
Cofton is at Starcross near Dawlish in south east Devon, 20 minutes from the M5 and Exeter.
What is it?
It’s a five-star holiday park. The 80-acre site is family-run and has won multiple awards and we are very impressed, it’s one of the nicest holiday parks we’ve stayed at.
Is it family friendly?
Yes, very much so, there are lots of facilities for children – indoor and outdoor pools, an arcade and a woodland adventure area.
There are indoor and outdoor play areas for younger children and bookable activities.
It’s a great holiday park for children – our two love it as do we.
There are various options – from camping through to more luxurious options.
Luxury lodges at Coftons
You can take your own tent, caravan or motorhome.
There are static caravans, luxury holiday lodges with hot tubs and holiday cottages and apartments to choose from.
We stay in a static caravan in a great location, next to the centre where reception, the pools and restaurants are based.
Our static caravan
It is warm and cosy with two bedrooms and very comfy beds. The main bedroom has an en-suite, and there’s a separate bathroom with shower.
The double bedroom
The kitchen/diner/lounge is open plan.
The lounge area
It feels modern and clean, very comfortable with everything we need, except maybe a dishwasher!
The kitchen area
Food and drink
Two of the restaurants on site serve from the same good menu.
The Swan pub is on the ground floor and includes an outside patio.
Amelia’s upstairs is bigger and also includes outdoor seating overlooking the pool. There is a soft play area off this restaurant for under-eights.
Evening meals and Sunday carveries are also served in the Warren Retreat – an area which hosts children’s discos, live cabaret and other entertainment. This area is closed when we visit due to Covid restrictions.
There’s also a fish and chip takeaway and a small shop selling essentials including bread and milk.
There’s a lovely heated indoor swimming pool, which we use nearly every day. It is perfectly warm and a real hit with us all.
It is all one depth, there are splash taps and large, clean changing rooms.
There’s also a heated outdoor pool, open over the summer, great for warmer days.
There is an arcade with lots of games. It also has American pool tables and a mini tenpin bowling alley with four lanes.
*Woodland adventure area
At the top of the site and at the base of a forest Is a wooden adventure area complete with zip wire, assault course and climbing nets.
Woodland adventure play area
There is an outdoor play area with swings and climbing frames.
There’s a soft play area for younger children (closed when we were there due to Covid restrictions).
Anglers are well catered for here – there are well-stocked fishing lakes and fishing competitons. Assisted fishing is available for adults and children. All fish caught are put back into the water.
There are activities for children in the day – when we stay, youngsters can learn to fish or try pond dipping. At other times there are children’s discos in the evening and other entertainment.
Learning to fish
The nearest beach is the Blue Flag beach at Dawlish Warren. It’s a 35-minute walk or a seven-minute drive. There’s a big car park next to it which can get busy and a fun fair. Life guards are on duty during the summer months.
The town has a river, sea walk, crazy golf and places to eat plus Dawlish Town Beach.
*Haldon Forest Park
This is 3,500 acres of woodland with three walking trails and four cycling rails (bikes can be hired).
We take our children to Cofton Holiday Park and explore the surrounding beaches and attractions
“This is amazing,” says our son and we all feel the same.
The sheer joy of a family swim makes the months of lockdown seem a distant memory.
This perfectly warm indoor pool is just one of the excellent facilities at Cofton Holiday Park near Dawlish in Devon.
Swim sessions are pre-booked and limited to an hour to ensure the pool isn’t too crowded while Covid precautions are in place.
It is the same with Cofton’s large outdoor pool, which opens over the warmer months.
The pools are at the centre of the sprawling site along with restaurants and arcade and it’s all just a short walk from our static caravan.
We are in a Tamar model and it is a superb place to stay – modern, spotlessly clean, with two smart TVs, fast WiFi, two bathrooms, good kitchen facilities and plenty of space in the well laid out lounge/dining area.
Our static caravan
There are also luxury lodges with hot tubs, holiday cottages or you can bring your own tent, caravan or motorhome.
The lounge area
Children could spend their whole holiday at Cofton – there’s also a woodland adventure park with zip line, small playground, fishing lakes and woods to explore.
It would also be pretty easy to eat here every night with three restaurants (one closed during our visit), serving good family food and drinks at reasonable prices. There is also an excellent fish and chip shop and a small store on site selling essential food and drinks.
The outdoor pool and restaurants
Plus there are children’s activities run by the entertainment team with daily activities like pond dipping, fishing lessons and pirate adventures, when we visit.
With beautiful Devon on our doorsteps we have to get out and about too.
The beaches are our main aim and the nearest is Dawlish Warren. You can walk from the site – up steep woodland, along a footpath to a walk which takes about half an hour.
Alternatively it is a 10-minute drive from Cofton to the beach’s large car park, past a popular funfair.
This child-friendly flat beach stretches along a sand spit at the mouth of the Exe estuary.
It’s good for games and sandcastle building, there are lifeguards patrolling during the summer and a cafe and ice cream shop.
We also spend time at Coryton Cove near Dawlish, a sheltered partly sandy spot with a cafe.
For an adventurous trip out, try Holcombe Beach. You can’t park there but have to leave your car in the village and negotiate the steep Smuggler’s Lane.
Once you walk under the railway line, which hugs the shore, you come out on a high sea wall path (beware, there’s a sheer, high drop) with steep, narrow steps leading down to the sand.
The beach is good for bodyboarding and offers great views with dramatic red sandstone cliffs at both ends. If you love train-spotting then you can stand inches from the main railway line as services whizz past.
For a more sedate pace of life, try Dawlish town with its gentle river running though the park and traditional seaside appeal.
Devon clotted cream ice creams from Gaye’s Creamery, eaten beside the ducks floating along the weirs on the river makes for a relaxing afternoon.
You can also enjoy the crashing waves along the sea wall and games of mini-golf.
Cofton Holdays is only 20 minutes from Exeter and a similar drive to the hills of Dartmoor.
Haldon Forest Park with its range of bike and walking trails is another good option if you want to head inland.
Back at the park
After one hearty dinner at the park’s Amelia’s Cafe, as the evening sun shines over the rolling hills, we set out to explore the area on foot.
We look down to the holiday park laid out before us. “This is amazing,” I say.
We take a trip down memory lane in Exeter and find out if it is family-friendly and good for children
A tatty white door, three overflowing bins and a weed-covered driveway isn’t the normal tourist photo opportunity.
But it’s the outside of this terraced house in Exeter which has inspired our visit.
It’s where my husband lived when he was at university in Devon – and now he’s come back with a wife and two children in tow.
His time as a student hadn’t resulted in much knowledge of whether the city was child-friendly.
But on our short break we discover there is plenty – apart from taking a trip with dad down memory lane – to entertain the little ones.
This is the best place to start – the bustling waterfront has quirky shops, bars, restaurants and wide paths for cycling, scooting and strolling alongside the River Exe and Exeter Canal.
Saddles & Paddles
We take a different mode of transport by hopping into a canoe, hired from Saddles & Paddles on the Quayside. As the name suggests they hire bikes and boats from a waterside store.
After a cheery and comprehensive briefing, the four of us are paddling, occasionally even in unison, along the river and then canal.
Family canoe ride on the River Exe in Exeter
We work as a team to travel the two miles or so to the Double Locks pub where you can moor up and grab a drink in the large garden, which has a playground and plenty of space.
We then turn round and head back to the Quay, returning via a super low bridge which you have to duck under.
The canal is very safe as no motorboats are on it, just canoeists, kayakers and paddleboarders. It is a peaceful and fun way to start our visit.
Where is child-friendly to eat in Exeter?
After working up an appetite, we tuck into giant pizzas at On The Waterfront, which is next to Saddles & Paddles. It has good outside seating and an atmospheric inside in an old customs house.
On the Waterfront restaurant
The children’s pizzas, only £6 each, disappear in a flash and even our large adult portions go down well. This is a good, friendly, relaxed family restaurant.
On the opposite side of the water, in a glass building, sits another excellent eatery.
Lobster at Rockfish
Rockfish is a chain with restaurants around the South West. It’s known for its fresh seafood and changes its dish of the day daily to reflect what’s come out of the waters around Devon.
I have a fabulous lobster and our children tuck into tasty fish and chips.
The children’s menu, well priced at £7.95, includes an ice cream dessert and a great pack of goodies to keep them entertained.
It has a puzzle book, dolphin jigsaw, card games and colouring pencils.
The activities all carry a message about protecting the maritime environment.
Once you’ve headed up the steep streets (Exeter is a fairly hilly city) into the city centre, the cathedral should be your first stop.
The Cathedral Green is a lovely space and inside the large cathedral (entrance £5 adults, children free) you can collect a free children’s activity booklet, guiding you around the building with questions and clues to answer about what’s inside. There is also brass rubbing sheets you can do at a cost of £2.
Exeter is an historic city with links to the Romans, Normans and more. You can wander past Sir Francis Drake’s favourite pub – the half timbered Ship Inn, as you walk from the cathedral to the castle.
It is more castle walls really than traditional fortress but most of the walls sit in Northernhay Gardens, the oldest public open space in Britain, which dates back to the 1600s.
Today the gardens are peaceful, picturesque and a good space for children to run around.
If you exit the gardens via the war memorial and turn left you come to Exeter’s most colourful street, Gandy Street, with coffee shops and bars lining the cobbles. It is a good spot to stop for snack or drink.
The RAMM and Underground Passages
Two of the city’s other top attractions are closed when we visit.
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) reveals the area’s rich history and global connections.
And we were sad to miss the city’s Underground Passages where guided tours have taken place since the 1930s. They were designed to bring clean drinking water from natural springs outside the walled city.
The Underground Passages (pic: Mike Alsford)
Haldon Forest Park
One place which wasn’t closed – and very much open to the elements as we discover on a wet walk – is Haldon Forest Park.
Haldon Forest Park
About four miles outside the city, this large woodland area is packed with walkers, cyclists and Segway riders.
There is a Go Ape course, cafe, playground and lots of different length trails to tackle. As it’s pouring, we take the simple green route, which is a 1.5 mile circular walk with spectacular views out towards the sea.
You could easily spend most of the day at this large park, especially if you brought bikes with you.
There are other attractions on the outskirts of Exeter like Crealy Theme Park and Darts Farm Shopping Village.
The city is only around half an hour from the seaside resorts of Exmouth and Dawlish, as well as the hills of Dartmoor.
If you wanted to you could base yourself in the city and explore all of those areas.
But our time in Exeter is up and we have created plenty of new family memories to add to the student stories from two decades ago.
Mattel Play! will not be reopening following coronavirus closure
It was popular with youngsters who loved children’s favourites Thomas & Friends, Fireman Sam and Bob the Builder.
But now Mattel Play! on the Royal Albert Dock has closed for good.
The adventure play centre at the Albert Dock launched in 2016 and was the first of its kind in Europe.
It was split into three themed areas dedicated to the iconic characters.
The Heritage Great Britain attraction closed in March to prevent the spread of coronavirus but has now revealed that it will not reopen.
Harold the Helicopter’s ball pool
A spokesperson said: “Following five wonderful years at the Albert Dock, we have taken the difficult decision to close Mattel Play! Liverpool.
“As the focus of the Albert Dock continued to be more bars and restaurants, we have therefore, following a discussion with the landlord, agreed to exit our lease earlier than planned.
“We would have very much liked to have remained at the Albert Dock throughout the summer months but the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and the consequences which are likely to be felt for many months, made this ambition untenable.”
This website reviewed Mattel Play! and thought it was great for younger children who were fans of Fireman Sam, Bob the Builder and Thomas.
We share all the details of our 67 foot bond class Anglo Welsh barge
Boat hire company Anglo Welsh has more than 160 narrowboats at 11 bases across England and Wales.
We hired one from its Trevor Basin site in north Wales to take across the famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal into Shropshire.
It was our first canal boat trip and we booked it through Drifters Waterway Holidays.
We had a great time (read our full review) Here we’ll look at the boat in more detail and explain how suitable it is for children.
We hired a 4-6 berth canal boat called Askrigg, a bond class narrowboat, which is one of the most luxurious that Anglo Welsh offers.
Bond class narrowboat, Askrigg
Let’s start with space and there was plenty of it. The length of the boat is 67 feet and it’s nearly 7 feet wide. It doesn’t even feel that narrow.
It’s quite dauntingly long when you take the helm for the first time but it is fabulous for the children to have so much room to move about and play.
Starting at the rear is a bedroom with two small single beds.
There are two small beds in one bedroom
A narrow corridor, which could be a squeeze for some, runs alongside the next three rooms.
There is a bathroom, a bedroom with a double bed followed by a second identical bathroom.
The other bedroom has a small double bed
It opens up into a galley area with kitchen and dining table with sofa-seating which converts into another bed if needed.
At the front of the boat are two leather chairs facing a TV and radio.
Inside the Anglo Welsh narrowboat Askrigg
It’s a great layout and worked well for us – having two bedrooms and two bathrooms is a real bonus.
There are places to sit outside at the front and rear of the boat.
Was it easy to helm?
It is straightforward, once you’ve grasped that turning the tiller right makes the boat go left and vice versa.
As you steer from the rear, take glasses if you need them!
It’s good fun, rewarding but never relaxing when you are at the helm. It’s definitely best to take it in turns if there are two of you, to give each of you a chance to fully enjoy the experience.
What about equipment?
The boat is very well equipped. We found plenty of crockery, pots and pans, cutlery and cooking utensils. It was all in an excellent condition, very clean, and most of it looked new.
There is a gas oven, grill and four-ring hob as well as a microwave (only use the microwave when the engine is running or it will sap all your power). A kettle to boil on the hob is provided as well as a fridge freezer.
Bedding and towels are provided, along with a hairdryer and a couple of folding chairs.
What about gadgets?
There is a small TV with signal dependent on your location – we didn’t get ours to work but it does take DVDs.
There is also a radio and CD player.
In the lounge area are two plug sockets and underneath the television is a cigarette lighter point.
Try to charge mobile phones and other devices while the boat is moving as electricity drops when the engine is turned off.
Is there space to shower?
The bathrooms are a fairly tight squeeze for an adult around the toilet and sink areas but the showers were large, powerful and warmed up instantly.
Don’t forget to pump out the shower using the button at the side of it where you are done. A new bar of soap is supplied in each bathroom.
The chemical toilets are flushed using a lever with your foot.
Canal boat toilets use a sealed holding tank on board which you empty at a pump-out point if and when you need to – we didn’t.
Is there enough water and can you drink it?
There is initially enough water onboard for at least a day.
You can stop at a water point (marked on the map and signposted) and access the tap using a key Anglo Welsh give you.
You connect one end of the boat’s hose pipe to the tap and insert the other end into the hole of the boat’s water tank.
It’s a really simple process once you’ve managed to moor up!
We were told that it’s best to fill up every day, but we were careful with our water usage and managed every other day.
You can apparently drink the water but we took bottled.
How does electricity work on an Anglo Welsh boat?
We never ran out of power. An inverter on the boat converts the power from the onboard batteries.
The amount of power available depends on how long the engine has been running so keep it running for a time when you are moored (but not after 8pm).
It’s recommended to charge mobiles and tablets etc when the engine is running so you don’t drain the batteries.
Was there heating on the boat?
All the company’s boats have gas central heating with radiators and ours was cosy and warm.
There’s also a multi-fuel stove, which we didn’t use.
Are there life jackets/buoyancy aids?
If you request them when you book, you can chose a life jacket to fit when you are at the boatyard before you depart. Both our children had one and were happy to wear them.
Are pets allowed?
Yes, up to two dogs are allowed, one is free to bring, a second costs £25 or £35 depending on the length of stay.
Are bikes allowed?
You can take one or two bikes but they have to be kept outside and you need to be careful when going under bridges or tunnels if you leave them on the roof.
Was it clean and Covid-compliant?
Canal boating is an excellent socially-distanced holiday option as you have self-contained accommodation and you are never too close to other people.
Our boat was very clean and had been thoroughly disinfected beforehand. Anti-bacterial spray and cleaning products were supplied on board.
Do they tell you how to use the boat?
Yes, the handover is very thorough. Ours took an hour as the Anglo Welsh staff member explained every aspect of the boat, how to helm it, all the safety precautions and more.
He also had plenty of time for questions and even headed out of the marina with us for the first few hundred yards of our journey to help with any teething problems and offer tips.
On arrival back, the staff turned our boat round for us and moored it.
We collected our boat from Trevor Basin in north Wales. There is free parking at the boatyard and we were able to park right next to the barge, which was great for loading and unloading.
A great space for children with everything you could need.
Our first boating holiday takes in the famous Pontyscyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal
I have been in charge of an 18-tonne canal boat the length of a lorry for roughly a minute.
Concentrating hard, I navigate on to the Pontyscyllte Aqueduct, the width of our craft Askrigg, trying to ignore the 40-metre sheer drop on one side into the River Dee.
The expert, who has just given us an hour’s worth of thorough instructions, steps off the barge and we are alone crossing the longest aqueduct in Britain and the highest in the world.
As introductions to canal life goes, there’s nothing like being thrown in at the deep end as our two children enjoy the ride and my husband helps direct from the front – almost 70 feet away.
We are on a Drifters waterways holiday and our Anglo Welsh boat has just left Trevor basin near Llangollen in north east Wales.
About to depart from Trevor basin
Our four-day route is along the Llangollen Canal with overnight stops at the border village of Chirk and the Shropshire town of Ellesmere.
I quickly discover that canal boating is simultaneously very relaxing and stressful. Once we cross the aqueduct with its amazing views, there are other boats to dodge, tight turns to master and long tunnels to chug through.
There’s even a swing bridge to lift and our six-year-old gets out, armed with the windlass (the tool to lift canal locks and bridges) and starts helping turn the gauge to raise it high above the canal and allow us to pass through.
At first, bridges and locks may be daunting but they quickly become part of the fun, giving the children some activity and making them feel part of the team.
Luckily, every boater seems friendly and happy to help if you get in a fix.
Helming takes some practice, the boat is steered from the rear with a tiller. You may find yourself gently bumping the sides, glancing off low bridges or getting stuck in shallow water.
Coming out from a tunnel
It is all part of the adventure and steering quickly becomes second nature, even if you can never entirely relax at the helm.
We take it in turns so one of us can be with the children, prepare food or even relax, lazing at the front, enjoying the scenery.
There’s something pretty awesome about travelling along in a floating home but I recommend mooring up as often as possible to explore the towpath and surroundings.
We love stopping where we want, discovering walks through the countryside with just cows for company. This slow pace of travel needs to be embraced.
We also make planned stops at Chirk near to the famous castle, Ellesmere with its mere, playground, sculpture trail and quaint town centre, the small village of St Martin’s and also the base at Trevor, from where you can cross the famous aqueduct, a world heritage site, on foot.
As your confidence dealing with the boat increases, so does your speed carrying out its regular checks, filling with water and tying the ropes.
And the quality of our craft Askrigg really helps make the holiday (read our detailed review of the boat). It is one of Anglo Welsh’s Bond class boats and sleeps up to six (read our full review of it here).
Inside our boat Askrigg
There is lots of space inside, two bedrooms, two bathrooms with showers, a well-equipped kitchen, lounge/dining area, television, radio, central heating and WiFi. It is also extremely clean and Covid compliant.
By the end of our mini-break it has become a home from home so as we head back over the aqueduct four days later, the view was just as stunning but any novice nerves about taking a canal boat holiday have disappeared.
All you need to know when visiting the home of LEGO in Billund, Denmark
Billund in Denmark is the home of Lego.
It is where the very first Lego toy brick was made in 1932. And where the first Legoland Park opened on June 7, 1968, next to the original Lego factory.
Legoland Billund is smaller, flatter and easier to get around than Legoland Windsor. Plus it’s just a 90-minute flight from the UK so makes a great alternative for Lego fans.
If you are planning a visit to Legoland Billund, make sure you read our 14 top tips below first and then our review.
1. How to get to Legoland Billund in Denmark
Legoland Billund is across the road from Billund Airport. You can fly there from Manchester, Heathrow and Stansted Airports. Ryanair fly from Stansted and Sun-Air, a British Airways partner, goes from Heathrow and Manchester.
We flew direct from Manchester with Sun-Air (which works in partnership with BA) on a tiny plane. The flight took 90 minutes.
2. Where to stay
It is expensive but you can stay stay at the park – at Legoland Hotel or Legoland Castle Hotel, a stay which can include park tickets, parking and early park access.
There is also Legoland Holiday Village, 450 metres from the entrance to Legoland.
But we stayed over the road at Lalandia Billund – an amazing water park resort, so got the best of both worlds. We stayed in a fantastic two-bedroomed lodge.
3. Best time to go to Legoland Billund
The busiest days at Legoland Billund are Tuesdays and Wednesdays while Saturdays are the quietest.
If you want to go over the summer, go as late as you can as Danish children usually go back to school towards the end of August so it will be quieter.
We found queues manageable despite visiting during the Easter holidays – there are lots of rides and plenty of space.
4. How to avoid the queues
Most people enter the park and start going on rides as soon as they see them so head straight to the back to avoid the crowds.
The longest queues when we went were in the Ninjago area which did mean a wait for Lloyd’s Laser Maze and the Ninjago Ride.
The Ninjago Ride
If you have Ninjago fans you could head there as soon as the gates open. Alternatively, the most popular rides are often quieter in the last 30 minutes before the park closes, although you may miss out altogether if you leave it too late.
To really save time queuing, splash out on the Q-Bot Reserve and Ride system. Instead of waiting in a queue at each attraction, you spend the waiting time elsewhere in the park. An Express pass reduces your waiting time by 50 per cent and an Ultimate pass means almost no waits in queues on your chosen rides, which can be a game changer when you have young children.
The Miniland area is at its heart with recreations of everything from old Amsterdam to Star Wars, made out of Lego, which everyone will enjoy.
This park uses 65 million of the little bricks to build its displays.
There is a Duplo Land, Imagination Zone, Pirate Land, Knights’ Kingdom, Polar Land and Legoredo Town.
Lego Ninjago World and Adventure Land are really popular.
Our favourite ride was the competitive Falck Fire Engine in Adventure Land. You work with your family to use a pump to move a fire engine and then spray out ‘fires’ while racing against other visitors on their fire engines.
Falck Fire Engine ride
The farthest end of the park is the quietest and we found a nice picnic spot by the penguin enclosure where we could watch them swimming while we ate.
6. Age appropriate
Unlike some theme parks, there is lots for little ones including Duplo Land for toddlers and Imagination Zone.
There are also enough rollercoasters to keep teenagers happy – so this suits all ages from two to 16.
There’s plenty for older children
Don’t forget to be aware of height and age restrictions, so children aren’t left disappointed on the day.
7. Food and drink
There are food and drink outfits but the options can be pricey. Plus they get very busy after 12.30pm so take your own food and drinks where possible, to enjoy in one of the picnic areas.
This is obviously a Danish theme park but some of the 4D films are in English – check the times for these in advance.
It’s a nice flat theme park and not overly huge but if little one’s legs get tired, there are pushchairs to hire.
If the weather is bad or you want a break from the rides then there is a good aquarium in the Imagination Zone called Atlantis by Sea Life.
Atlantis by Sea Life
It takes you on an expedition under the sea with a few bricks to find along the way. It doesn’t take very long but is a good spot to dry off or warm up and includes a tunnel under the water.
11. Special needs
The park is flat and all roads and paths are paved so wheelchairs users can go everywhere.
Those with a hidden disability such as anxiety, autism or ADHD can collect a ’show consideration’ wristband.
Disabled and ’show consideration’ access to rides is via the exits or sometimes through the Q-bot entrance.
12. Buying tickets
Buy online to save money and to save time queuing for tickets and download the free, official app to plan your trip.
13. Don’t miss the new Lego House
If you are after another Lego experience – try the big Lego House, which has opened in Billund and is within walking distance of Legoland.
This 12,000-square-metre house is filled with 25 million Lego bricks.
Here, children learn through play with Lego. The house also includes three restaurants and a Lego store.
14. The history
You can go to other Legoland parks, but only one place is the home of Lego.
Almost every visitor stops for an iconic photo outside the main entrance sign. Save time getting in by doing this at the end of the day not the beginning, when the shot will be more clear of people.
This park is not huge but it is historic and has enough to keep you entertained for a full day or a couple of days.
Advance entry starts from around 300DKK – about £30 – per person. For tickets and information visit the Legoland Billund website.
A new roller coaster aimed at pre-school children has opened at one of England’s most popular theme parks
The world’s first DUPLO rollercoaster has opened at LEGOLAND Windsor Resort.
The DUPLO Dino Coaster, for children aged around two to five, is part of the attraction’s bigger improved DUPLO Valley area.
The ride has dino-themed carriages which soar around supersized DUPLO dinosaur models, 18 times bigger than if you were to build them at home.
Legoland staff think it will be the perfect first rollercoaster experience for little ones, who need to be 0.9 metres or over to ride it.
The area has also has a new show and new supersized DUPLO models, great for family selfies, plus its own official character, Dexter the Dog.
Outdoor play area Brickville has become DUPLO Playtown with a new rocket play structure for budding astronauts and there is a new puppet show at the DUPLO Puppet Theatre.
DUPLO Valley Airport has a new look with with three coloured helicopters for little pilots to choose from.
Existing family rides at DUPLO Valley include the riverboat Fairy Tale Brook ride and the DUPLO train.
Duplo Valley, Legoland Windsor
The area also hosts the resort’s outdoor water play areas – Splash Safari and Drench Towers.
Meanwhile the park has launched a new adult and toddler annual pass to be used while older children are at school.
For £49, a toddler (classed as under 0.9 metres) and adult can visit the theme park as often as they like during term time (Monday to Friday), with 20 per cent off at restaurants and a 10 per cent discount in the shops.
Children under 0.9 metres get free entry anyway to the LEGOLAND Windsor Resort all year round.
Day tickets are from £29 per person when booked online in advance.
A 70-acre unique woodland attraction is soon to open in South Cheshire
A family day out full of fun, imagination and adventure is set to open in time for May half-term.
BeWILDerwood Cheshire – A Curious Treehouse Adventure – is throwing open its wonky wooden gates on Saturday, May 23, 2020.
It is in a forest setting where children can ‘run wild’ and promises ‘no noisy rides, no technology and no junk food’.
It’s the second Bewilderwood site in the country – the first in Norfolk, has won a host of awards.
The sites are based on the magical children’s BeWILDerwood book series by Tom Blofeld, bringing to life a cast of captivating characters.
BeWILDerwood author and creator Tom Blofeld
The Cheshire site, which has been in development for three years, will feature Curious Treehouses, Wobbly Wires (zip wires), Slippery Slopes and a variety of giant wooden play structures to navigate such as a Broken Bridge.
There will also be aerial ropewalks, climbing walls, balancing logs and mazes.
Face painting and activities like interactive storytelling shows and crafting sessions are included in the ticket price and parking is free.
It is aimed at children aged two to 2 but teenagers and adults can enjoy the equipment too as the focus is on family fun.
Fun for all the family
Toddlers and children who are too small to go on the bigger bits have their own areas, Toddlewood on the Hill and Tiptoe Valley.
Food can be bought at the Cosy Cabin and Munch Bar and picnics are welcome.
Tickets are based on height rather than ages and can be bought online.
Books from the BeWILDerwood series including A Boggle at BeWILDerwood, The BeWILDerbats and A BeWILDermuddle are also available to buy online.
We take our children in search of the actual Hunter Street house in the Netherlands
Hunter Street is a popular Nickelodeon/TeenNick children’s television series, set in Amsterdam.
The first series started in March, 2017 when a boy called Max joins the Hunter family.
When he and the four other children Anika, Sal, Tess, and Daniel, wake up the next morning, they discover that their foster parents Erik and Kate have disappeared.
They turn detectives to try to find out what happened to them while keeping up appearances that everything is fine.
It’s a family adventure following clues, boat racing through canals, exploring tunnels and finding lost treasure while fighting off bad guys.
Their grand home also houses a museum, which the family run.
In real life though, the Hunter House exterior is a real home.
Our two children love this comedy/drama so when we visited Amsterdam they were keen to find this actual Hunter House.
The address is Singel 140-142, a small canalside road just outside the heart of the city.
We got there via a tram to Nieuwezijds Kolk stop and it was then about a five-minute walk, through some side streets and over a canal.
It’s a big, tall building on the canal. Our children were excited to see it and enjoyed having their picture taken outside but did complain the black door in the series had been painted dark green!
The house is private property so you won’t be able to go in and see inside.
Plus you won’t spot any of the stars as the actual show is filmed elsewhere in the Netherlands, in Aalsmeer.
Hunter Street stars Stony Blyden, Mae Mae Renfrow, Kyra Smith, Thomas Jansen, and Daan Creyghton. Wilson Radjou-Pujalte and Kate Bensdorp join the cast in the second season, and Eliyha Altena and Sarah Nauta join in the third season.
It is produced in the Netherlands by Blooming Media and was co-developed with the Nickelodeon Netherlands television series De Ludwigs.
We take our children to the Hilton Bracknell after visiting Lapland UK
Hilton Bracknell, Hilton Hotels & Resorts
Where is it?
On the outskirts of Bracknell near the main A322 road, next to a Sainsbury’s supermarket and petrol station.
It’s just 10 minutes from Lapland UK (review here), around 15 minutes from Legoland Windsor (review here) and half an hour from Thorpe Park.
What is it?
A large hotel with a swimming pool and leisure centre. It has plenty of free parking on site.
Is it family friendly?
Yes, this is a popular family option in the area offering easy access to Windsor, Lapland UK and Ascot.
Children receive a welcome pack on arrival, breakfast caters for them well and there is a swimming pool to enjoy.
There were lots of children at the hotel when we stayed there and they are made to feel welcome.
We stayed in a two double bed deluxe and it was an excellent size for a family of four.
There were two comfy double beds, a large TV, good-sized bathroom with bath and shower, free bottles of water, a kettle and a useful mini-fridge. The room was spotlessly clean.
Food and drink
Breakfast was nearly all self-service with a good selection of six cereals, including cornflakes and coco pops.
There were lovely warm pastries plus all the usual hot options if you want a cooked breakfast.
Breakfast is served in a lovely, bright and spacious restaurant area. Even though the hotel was busy it was a pleasant environment to eat in. The staff were friendly and helpful throughout.
If you want to eat an evening meal then under-fives eat free with a paying adult. Children aged between six and 12 can dine from the children’s menu for £11.50. We ate elsewhere for dinner so can’t comment on how good it is!
*The swimming pool – a real bonus here are the leisure facilities. These are free for hotel users and the decent-sized pool is split into two halves with a rope. One half is for adult swimmers and the other for children and their families. It wasn’t too busy when we visited on a Saturday morning and really made our stay.
There is also a jacuzzi which children are allowed in, plus a steam room and sauna for adults.
You can collect fresh towels from the leisure centre and the changing facilities are good.
We also spotted a good-sized gym.
*Welcome pack – the small bag given to children at reception kept them entertained in our room. There were crayons, stickers to colour in, puzzles and a crossword.
Children’s welcome pack
*The staff – everyone we met from reception, housekeeping and at breakfast were very friendly. They went out of their way to help and make sure we had a pleasant stay.
*Parking – the hotel’s large car park is free and stretches around the front and side of the building. Even on a busy Friday evening there was space to park.
A busy dual carriageway is the main view from the hotel but it is handily placed next to a large Sainsbury’s supermarket and petrol station.
Coral Reef Waterworld, The Look Out Discovery Centre and Go Ape Bracknell are all less than a mile away.
There are lots of family favourites within a few miles including Lapland UK, Windsor Castle, Legoland Windsor and Thorpe Park.
The city of Winchester is known as England’s Christmas capital and its market was recently voted one of the best in Europe.
So we take a December trip to the home of Alfred the Great to find out what its Christmas appeal is for children, plus see our video below.
The Winchester Cathedral Christmas Markets
The centrepiece of the city’s festive fun is this beautiful market which runs for 34 days around Christmas.
There are 110 stalls around Cathedral Close. You enter via the side of the building through some arches and onto the market which has dozens of stalls selling Christmas gifts, arts and crafts.
The main food and drink section of the market is at the far side. There are the usual selection of German sausages, Gluhwein and more. Our two enjoyed testing the pancakes from an excellent crepes stall, which was reasonably priced and properly cooked by two ladies from France. There was also a man toasting marshmallows and another roasting nuts.
There is also a British Crafts Village section, which you enter via a small platform, with a nativity scene at the end.
The market is very popular with 350,000 visitors each year and it was busy when we went which means you need to keep a close eye on your children. Also, there are no toilets in the market itself, the nearest ones are at the Cathedral Visitors Centre.
The ice rink
In the centre of the markets is a covered ice rink. It offers one-hour skating slots through the day from 10am with the final one starting at 8pm.
The busiest times are in the late afternoon but numbers are limited so even in a full session the ice isn’t too busy.
A family skating ticket for two adults and two children costs £37.95. it also costs £5 to hire a Penguin skating aid, which is essential if your children are new to skating and makes for a more fun experience on the ice for beginners.
The rink has a large Christmas tree in the centre and viewing areas at either end for family and friends to watch.
You can collect your skates in the waiting area up to half a hour before your allocated time slot. All children’s sizes are catered for and there is a £1 charge to leave bags in a locker.
It is a great festive atmosphere with lights and music on the ice adding to the fun. There is also an ice bar and cafe next to the rink for hot and cold food.
Across the city
Winchester takes Christmas very seriously and even away from the cathedral there was a large market along the High Street when we visited. There were plenty of local stalls and food outlets at that market as well.
The two nearest Christmas activities near Winchester are at Marwell Zoo, which we reviewed earlier in the year, read about it here. The zoo has a special Christmas at Marwell experience which can be booked as either a daytime or evening visit. Only the daytime experience includes a visit to the zoo itself.
The Watercress Line has a Santa Special train running until December 24. Children receive an activity pack and gingerbread on board while adults can enjoy white wine and mince pies. Tickets are available by advanced booking only.
Also, in Winchester there is a Meet Father Christmas event running at the Great Hall. From December 21 to 23, you can meet Santa in one of the city’s grandest buildings. Tickets include that all-important meeting plus a festive gift and Christmas-themed crafts.
Where do I park?
Parking is difficult but there are three park and ride options. If you are coming from the East, you can use either Barfield or St Catherine’s Park & Ride. Visitors from the south can use South Winchester.
If you want to try and get closer to the city centre, then the Chesil multi-storey car park is your best bet. We parked here and it was about a 10-minute walk to the cathedral.
For more information go to visitwinchester.co.uk
(We were given free entry to the ice rink for the purpose of this review. All opinions are our own).
We take our children to ‘Lapland’ in the UK for a full family festive experience
It is one of the country’s most popular Christmas days out for families who want to experience Lapland without the cost of travelling to Finland.
So here is all you need to know about Lapland UK, plus our top tips for visiting and please watch our video below!
What is it?
A full Christmas experience for children which tells the story of Father Christmas, complete with elves, snow, a personalized Santa visit, toy making, gingerbread decorating, ice skating and more.
Where is it?
In ‘Lapland’ accessed by magic from Lapland UK, in Whitmoor Forest near Ascot in Berkshire.
How it works
1. Children get a special invitation each to visit ‘Lapland’ through the post telling them they have been chosen to help Santa make toys. There is a special app you can use so that two of the elves you will meet, appear on your invitation through your phone to talk and build the excitement.
2. When you get there and check in, each child is given an Elf Passport to have stamped at various points. You can also buy Jingles here – elf money that the children can spend there – £1 is one Elf Jingle.
A pouch of Jingles
3. The tour starts in a round room where elves tell the Father Christmas story, teach elf rhymes and the elf wave and build up the excitement for the children (Little Folk) and adults (Big Folk) until finally opening the doors to ‘Lapland’.
The doors to Lapland
4. You walk past snow-topped cabins to the toy workshop. Here, as in other places around the site, children have the option of entering through much smaller doors than the adults, which is a nice touch.
5. Inside the workshop, they are entertained by more elves and then each child helps to make a toy (a soft snowman our year, which they stuffed and added buttons to and a nose and scarf etc), which they hand over to be wrapped for Santa to deliver to children on Christmas Eve.
6. Then it’s through one of several magical tree tunnels to the next area, a kitchen where Mother Christmas is waiting, she talks to the children, they decorate gingerbread biscuits then listen to a story.
Mother Christmas tells a story
7. After that it is on to the Elf Village where you have an hour-and-a-half free time to ice skate on the outdoor rink, visit husky dogs and spend your Jingles in the toy and sweet shops, food and drink outlets. There is even a special post office where children can write a letter to Santa, have it sealed and post it themselves.
8. Then it’s on to the main event – visiting Father Christmas. You walk through a magical forest, past elf homes and past the reindeer to a waiting area.
Elves come and out and call each family group through using just the children’s names. Then you are taken down a winding path to visit Santa in a log cabin, who amazes the children by knowing special details about them. He gives them a present (soft husky toy dogs when we went) and they find their names in his good book. They have a photograph taken by an elf.
Are they in his good book?
9. In the next area, you collect your free photograph and are slipped a toy like the one your child made earlier so that Santa can deliver it on Christmas Eve. Then it’s out through a gift shop where there are lots of accessories you can buy for your husky! And then it’s out the door and back into the car park in ‘England’.
What is included in the price at Lapland UK?
*An elf passport.
*Making a toy activity.
*A version of the toy they made in the toy factory to take away secretly to give them on Christmas day.
*The gingerbread that the children decorate.
*Ice skating and hire of skates.
*Meeting Father Christmas.
*A gift from Santa – soft toy husky dogs our year.
*A printed family picture from the Santa visit.
What costs extra at Lapland UK?
*Food and drink.
*Extra pictures from the Santa visit.
What did we think?
This is a magical Christmas day out for young children and very well organized. The staff are all fantastic, taking on the role of elves and reindeer and the children loved it. It is a fabulous four hours of festive entertainment.
Is Lapland UK worth the cost?
This is a staggeringly expensive Christmas experience. It is a shame this costs so much money as it just isn’t possible for many people, particularly bigger families.
For the four of us it was over £450 on a weekday – which works out at over £100 an hour. We were lucky enough to be treated to it for a special family birthday. I don’t think we would be able to justify doing it again another year.
If you can afford it and want to splash out, make sure your children are the right ages to appreciate it, I would say, no younger than three and of an age where they still believe in the magic of Christmas.
Top tips for Lapland UK
*Do take advantage of the app to make your child’s invitation come to life, it is a magical start to the experience.
*Get there half an hour before your time slot to park, walk to the start, check in etc. You can not start the experience until your time slot so there is no point getting there any earlier.
*Buy Jingles at the start – £1 is 1 Elf Jingle, they come in a red velvet pouch. Children can use them to pay for things in the Elf Village and you can cash in those you don’t use at the end. We bought ours £5 worth each and it was enough (a lead for the toy husky from Santa was just £3 in the gift shop at the end, but beware there are lots of toys which cost a lot more)!
*Personalise your visit online. Make sure Santa has all the details he needs to show your child that he knows all about them. But don’t worry if you don’t get chance to do this as you can tell them at the desk when you are waiting to see the Big Man (just make sure little ears can’t hear you)!
*Ice rink – children can have skates which go over their shoes and are easier to balance on instead of proper ones. There are also support penguins for young children to hold on to or stand on.
*Consider taking a change of clothes in case children fall over on the ice rink. It was raining when we went and there is no cover so the surface was wet even though staff were frantically trying to keep the water off it.
*You could spend a lot of money in the Elfen Village if you aren’t careful as a lot of it is shops and food and drink outlets so take your time doing the ice rink and the Santa letter writing!
Our five-year-old’s verdict
“We saw Father Christmas and he gave us some huskies. And we went in the Enchanted Forest. It was fantastic! I liked seeing Santa Claus best.”
The National Trust property in Cheshire hosts its popular illumination display for the third year
Thousands of visitors will be heading to Dunham Massey over the festive period to enjoy the magical light trail around the park and garden.
And we’ve had sneak preview of this fabulous Christmas display, so here is our review, top tips and all you need to know, plus watch our video below.
What is it?
Dunham Massey – a National Trust property with deer park and gardens – is hosting its third annual Christmas Light Trail.
Thousands will head to the Cheshire site for the fabulous experience, which is perfect for families.
It features dazzling light displays, music, fairground rides, food and drink.
When is it?
The illuminations run from November 22 to December 30, 2019.
Ticket start times run every 20 minutes between 4.30pm and 8pm.
How much are tickets?
Tickets are prices from £17.50 for adults, £11 for children aged three to 16 and under-threes are free. A family ticket is £54.00.
*Before you go into the formal gardens, the house itself is lit up at the front with a fabulous laser display.
There is also a light display when you reach the back of the house, along with rings of fire.
*There are lots of memorable features as you go around including huge glittering reindeer near the start – apt for a park which is home to lots of deer, firework lights in the trees, a laser walk and lots more.
*The large lawn area inside the gardens is lit up in a sea of lights, changing pattern, in front of a tunnel of glittering lights.
*You can toast marshmallows in fire pits in the rose garden. These can be bought at a stand in the corner of the garden – £1.50 for a large marshmallow on a stick – there are several flavours including gingerbread and caramel.
*There is different music as you go around including songs from Christmassy films – a Frozen song at the start thrilled our daughter.
*There are a few fairground rides in the Stables Courtyard for younger children – a carousel, helter skelter, merry-go-round and swing boats.
*There are food and drink stalls selling mulled wine, hot chocolate, hot dogs, chips, pizza, churros etc.
*You are not supposed to take your own food and drink but I did see several people with their own marshmallows (and sticks) to toast.
*Wrap up warm – it is all outdoors.
*Book a parking space in advance – even if you are a National Trust member with free parking.
*Father Christmas appears on the trail as part of a small show. There is no grotto or individual meeting.
Is everything included in the price?
Fair rides, food and drink are extra. You buy ride tokens – £2.50 each or £10 for five if bought in advance when you book your tickets.
Some stalls accepted payment by card. There is no cash machine.
How long will it take?
The route keeps to the paths and ensures you don’t miss anything. It is around a mile long and takes around an hour and a half but you can stay as long as you like until it closes. It is wheelchair and buggy-friendly but is dimly-lit in places and can get busy.
Can you catch a glimpse of the lights if you happen to be already at Dunham Massey when it gets dark?
If you are there just before the gardens close at 3.30pm, you may see some of the lights as it starts to get dark but you will not get anywhere near the full effect.
Do National Trust members need to pay?
National Trust members pay full price, there is no discount. Parking is free for NT members, but you still have to reserve a space ahead of time as the car park gets busy.
National Trust Dunham Massey, Altrincham, WA14 4SJ
For more information and to book go to the website.
We try out family-friendly activities around the lake and take a trip to Verona
We are holidaying in the beautiful Lakes – but for once it’s not our beloved English Lake District.
The waters are a clearer turquoise, there isn’t a walking boot in sight and ice creams are in greater supply.
We are in the fashionable Italian Lakes for a slightly chilly October half-term break and I am feeling cosy but a little out of place in my ‘school run coat’.
We are staying on the southern end of Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda, loved by families and affluent travellers.
And home for the trip is also a family favourite with a great lakefront location.
Bella Italia – a five-star campsite – is a 15-minute lakeside walk from the town of Peschiera Del Garda.
It has four pools (sadly closed at this time of year), the same number of restaurants with well-priced tasty food, playgrounds, a children’s club, ice cream parlour, bouncy castles, fairground rides and more.
Our three-bedroom mobile home, a Girasole Suite, is smaller than similar holiday homes we have stayed in but is an ideal base to explore the area.
And we start out on the pebbly beach in front of the holiday park before getting on to the water itself – the quickest way to get around the lake’s beautiful towns and villages is by ferry.
You can hop on and off, visiting several spots in a day. Among our favourites were the enchanting village of Lazise with its castle and playground and tourist magnet Sirmione – the most picturesque yet busiest spot on the lake.
Another busy spot is Italy’s biggest theme park, Gardaland, just 15 minutes away.
There are plenty of rollercoasters for older children but younger children are well-catered for too – there’s even a small Peppa Pig Land.
And a Sea Life aquarium next door is a good rainy day option – you can buy one ticket covering a visit to both on the same or consecutive days.
Just a short drive away lies a more relaxing day out. Parco Natura Viva is a zoo and safari park with hippos, giraffes, rhinos and bears among a lovely site.
Parco Giardino Sigurta
Another attraction worth a visit is Parco Giardino Sigurta. This 600-acre garden has a maze, small animal farm and plenty of space to run around in beautiful gardens. We explore on foot then hire a golf cart for 18 euros to get around the whole site.
Further afield, but still only half an hour away, is Verona.
Our children love the huge Roman amphitheatre, the 2,000-year-old Arena.
Others head to this city of Romeo and Juliet to leave love notes at Juliet’s balcony, linked to the fictional star-crossed lovers.
But it isn’t the most child friendly spot with a cramped courtyard full of selfie hunters taking photos at Juliet’s statue and balcony.
You are better off exploring Verona’s pedestrianised centre, the square around the Arena and its riverside walks. It is a compact city and in a day you can see historic churches, castles, museums or stop by one of countless gelato outlets.
To keep younger ones really happy, the city’s new Children’s Museum is a fantastic hands-on place where they can learn about light, water, power and science through play. It is well worth a couple of hours of your time.
Children’s Museum, Verona
We throw ourselves into the Verona experience with an authentic Veronese feast prepared for us at Locanda Ristori – one of the city’s traditional eateries.
Our full guide on where to take children on a family holiday to Lake Garda in Italy
Tourists flock every year to stunning Lake Garda (Lago di Garda) in northern Italy.
It’s a fabulous destination for a family holiday as we discovered on a recent trip.
Here’s our full guide to the best activities for children in and around this, Italy’s biggest lake, with its beautiful turquoise waters.
1. Visit a lakeside town
Spend time exploring the lovely towns and villages around the lake and enjoying an ice cream or two, such as:
A pretty village on the eastern side of the lake dominated by a 14th century castle and walls.
The centre has a ferry stop, small harbour and plenty of ice cream shops and restaurants.
It is mostly pedestrianised with car parking around the outskirts which means it feels safer to walk around with children.
Near the centre next to the castle is a small playground.
The town which gave the lake its name has a nice lakefront walk along its harbour, cobbled streets to explore and a busy market every Friday.
Our children were interested in a fun bridge on the lake shore where couples from around the world have left padlocks proclaiming their enduring passion!
This is the area’s tourist trap. Sirmione gets busy quickly, its narrow streets full of tourists, ice cream shops and restaurants.
It’s a stunning spot, the castle entrance is spectacular and worth a walk around (children enter for free, adults 6 euros).
On the other side of the town’s streets are thermal baths and at the top of its peninsula the remains of a Roman villa, Grotte di Catulla. It is incredible but a long walk for children so only for the most dedicated walkers.
Everything in Sirmione is more expensive than elsewhere in the area. The ice creams here are massive but at least double the price of other places.
There are plenty of lovely spots to sit and play away from the main thoroughfare, a few stony beach areas and nice park towards the Roman remains.
This town is made by the stunning blue waters of the river Mincio as it meets the lake. Its centre isn’t as pretty as some as Peschiera is also a working town.
However there are plenty of restaurants around the streets near the ferry port.
We walked into the town a few times from our holiday park Campeggio Bella Italia (see our review of it here here), which was a pleasant 15-minute stroll along a tree lined lake shore promenade.
2. Get around by ferry
The most fun and often the fastest way to see Lake Garda’s towns and villages is by ferry.
Every major place has a ferry stop and in high season there will be a boat roughly every hour between 8 and 6pm.
You must buy tickets before you board which are priced based on the distance you are travelling, from around 10 euros for a short return journey to 35 euros for a whole lake pass for a day. Children’s tickets cost around half an adult’s price.
The ferries are large, accommodating 500 people, boarding is efficient, there are toilets on board and a food and drink service in high season.
It is a smooth journey but because the lake is 50 miles long it takes at least three hours to get from top to bottom.
You can pick up ferry timetables from every ticket office where the boat docks or follow this link.
3. Parco Naturo Viva
This large zoo and safari park was set up by a husband and wife in 1969 and has expanded over a huge site.
The ticket price includes both the zoo and safari drive and you must do both to see all the animals – giraffes and zebras for example are only on the safari.
The safari takes around half an hour and is safe to do in your hire car. There are no dangerous monkey enclosures to threaten your windscreen wipers!
The main zoo is a large parkland which is steep in places.
It is divided into continents with the Africa section near the start featuring lions, rhinos and hippos. The Asian area has tigers and snow leopards with the Americas section including bears and colourful macaws.
Their latest attraction is a giants of the world indoor enclosure which has a Komodo dragon, anaconda, piranhas and giant otters.
There is also a dinosaur area with full size scale models of a T-Rex, stegosaurus and triceratops.
Picnics are allowed and there are several reasonably priced restaurants across the site.
The site is beautiful and makes for a pleasant walk – it will take you at least four hours to get round.
Signs are in Italian, German and English except for the dinosaur section.
Parking costs 2 euros on top of the ticket price.
This is Italy’s biggest theme park. There are lots of rides (and lots of queues) and you can easily spend a whole day here.
For smaller children there are four main sections, including a Peppa Pig Land.
This is smaller than the UK equivalent with only four major rides – a balloon ride, small train, circular boat trip and Peppa Pig’s house, which is frankly just a room where you can find pretend strawberries and pancakes.
It won’t take more than 90 minutes to do this part of the park but will still be a thrill for Peppa fans. All the music and songs are in Italian but the signs are also in English.
Near the entrance is a large carousel and other rides for younger children. And it’s only a short walk to Fantasy Land which has a plane ride and farmyard tractor ride.
Our two children loved an area for under 7s at the far end of the park with two gentle rollercoasters, a relaxing monorail, teacups ride and a dizzying Peter Pan ride.
Tweens and teens are more than catered for in the rest of the park with rides including spectacular rollercoasters.
Daily shows take place in two on-site theatres and there are themed events through the year at times like Halloween and Christmas.
There are lots of food options from candy floss stalls through to a la carte restaurants and everything in between.
Car parking costs six euros on top of your ticket.
5. Sea Life Aquarium
At Gardaland – on the other side of the car park – is the Sea Life Aquarium. You can buy joint tickets to Gardaland and Sea Life and visit them on the same day or consecutive days.
It doesn’t take that long to go round but is interesting and a good option for a rainy day. Children can do a quiz on the way round, in English, with the answers to each question on the information boards.
There is also a cafe at the end of the route around the aquarium.
6. Movie World
This is a smaller theme park just up the road from Gardaland based on films and special effects.
It has live shows and themed restaurants. We didn’t have time to visit on our trip.
7. Parco Giardino Sigurta
For a relaxing day out, the huge gardens of Parco Sigurta are a 15 minute drive south of the lake, on the banks of the river Mincio.
This 600 acre park is vast with a small animal farm, beautiful gardens, a fun maze and other trails like a zig zag path through woodland.
The park would take hours to get around on foot but you can see it all in an hour if you hire a golf cart or take the train which circles it.
Our children enjoyed walking around first, despite wet weather and then taking a golf buggy (you need a driving licence to hire one) to explore the far flung parts. It has a screen with an interactive map and English commentary.
There are food kiosks and toilets around the park plus a restaurant on site.
8. On and in the water
The lake is clear and inviting – most towns have places where children can swim and some offer water activities like pedalo boats and windsurfing.
The beaches are pebbly so take beach shoes for paddling.
We stay in a mobile home at this campsite in Peschiera del Garda
Campeggio Bella Italia.
Where is it?
On the shores of Lake Garda, at the bottom right of the lake, in Peschiera del Garda. Lake Garda (Lago di Garda), the largest lake in Italy, is in the north of Italy between Venice and Milan.
What is it?
It is a large holiday park with mobile homes, apartments, bungalows and camping pitches.
Is it family friendly?
There are little playgrounds/play parks, swimming pools and slides (not open out of season), a children’s club for 4-12 year-olds, as well as evening entertainment like mini-discos.
The site is good for riding bikes, walking and backs on to the lake which you can swim in during warmer weather.
Sport-wise, you can play tennis, football, basketball, beach volleyball and table tennis. And during the summer, guests can do water activities on the lake.
There are four types of mobile home here – we stayed in a Girasole Suite.
It slept six, with three small bedrooms, a kitchen/diner and bathroom with good-sized shower.
The kitchen had a hob (no oven), microwave and fridge/freezer. Towels and bedding are provided in the Girasole Suite properties only.
There was a sofa bench on one side of the dining table and a TV (no English channels on ours). Outside the mobile home, there was a decked area with table and chairs plus parking space for a car.
It also had a heater/air conditioning unit and the warmth from it was very welcome when we stayed.
Food and drink
There are four restaurants on site and the prices are very reasonable. We ate twice at Le Terrazze, overlooking the lake.
There is also Corte Riga, which has an almost identical menu to Le Terrazze but offers a takeaway option, Trattoria Bella Italia and a diner and takeaway cafe offering fish and chips and burgers which has an ice cream parlour attached.
*The lake – the site is on the southern banks of Lake Garda. There are exits on to the shallow pebbly beach and a small pier where you can walk down steps into the lake for a swim.
*It’s a 15-minute walk along the lake to the town, Peschiera del Garda, where you can shop, eat or catch a ferry.
*Gardaland theme park is a 10-minute drive.
*Verona is less than half an hour a way and we had hired a car so visited this city which was the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. For our top tips on what to do with children in Verona, read our guide: What to do with children in Verona
*There are other lovely towns around the lake you can visit by car or ferry – we tried Sirmione, Lazise and Garda.
*Supermarkets – there is an Aldi and Lidl nearby, handy if you have a car and want to stock up.
*The park was lovely and quiet as we visited at October half-term in the last week before the site closed for the winter.
*The ice cream parlour – we sampled a LOT of ice cream in different towns on this trip and the ice cream from here was our favourite. Great to walk to for a leisurely dessert after a meal too.
*The park’s position next to the beautiful lake.
*The children’s areas which open in the evening – a little fair and another part with a bouncy castle and bouncy slide.
Combined with evening entertainment and mini-discos, there is a lot to do after dark.
There is also a games room/arcade.
*The choice of restaurants and good-priced range of food.
We ate at Le Terrazze where a child’s pizza was only 4 euros and a plate of adult pasta around 8 euros.
*The swimming pools and water slides here look amazing. We sadly didn’t get to experience them as we visited out of season and they were closed.
*There are sports facilities like tennis courts and beach volleyball courts plus you can hire bikes.
*The distance from Verona airport – about a 25-minute drive.
*You can do water activities at the park’s Waterski Centre between May and mid-September. For an extra fee you can try parasailing, paraflying, a banana boat and more.
*You pay extra for wi-fi.
*You pay extra for bedding and towels.
*If your children will be going in the lake, take beach shoes as it is pebbly.
Campeggio Bella Italia, Via Bell Italia 2, Peschiera del Garda 37019
For more information visit the Campeggio Bella Italia website.
Disclaimer: We were provided with complimentary accommodation for the purposes of this review. All opinions are out honestly held views.
Our top tips for activities on a family holiday to Verona in Italy
How do you take in this beautiful, historic Italian city while keeping both adults and children happy? Read our guide for the best ideas of what to do and where to go.
This Roman amphitheatre is right in the centre of the city in Piazza Bra square and makes a good starting point for exploring.
It dates back to the first century and is second only to Rome’s Colosseum in terms of its size and history.
You can explore inside, climb to the top, walk inside the walls and across the stage area where Roman gladiators once fought and our children really enjoyed it.
The Arena is really well preserved and is still used today – it is a world-famous music venue and hosts big operatic shows.
Piazza Bra (also called the Bra)
Verona’s main square, next to the Arena in the centre of the city, is one of the largest in Europe.
There are plenty of places to sit and eat with restaurants and cafes along one side.
There are historic buildings around it and a small park in the middle with a fountain. It is mostly car free.
Romeo and Juliet’s Balcony
A ten-minute walk from the Arena, through a pedestrianised shopping area, is ‘Juliet’s House’, Casa de Giulietta.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet may have been fictional but this house is linked to the star-crossed lovers as it was once inhabited by the Cappello family, a surname similar to Juliet’s, Capulet.
Tourists enter the courtyard and queue up for photos with Juliet’s bronze statue (and rub her right breast for luck in love).
People also take pictures of the balcony where they like to imagine Juliet was wooed by Romeo (although the balcony was actually added at a much later date) so keep a hold of your children as it gets busy here.
Inside the house is a small museum.
There isn’t much for children once they have seen the balcony and statue but the walls outside scrawled with love letters and graffiti are interesting to see.
And it is near Piazza Erbe with plenty of ice cream parlours and a market.
Torre Dei Lamberti
Just around the corner from the famous balcony is the best viewpoint of Verona – from the top of an 84-metre-tall tower.
But there is a lift for an extra euro which takes you almost to the top of the first viewing platform.
And from there you get 360 degree views of Verona.
The view of Verona from Torre Dei Lamberti
A ticket for the tower also gives access to the an art gallery next to the tower, the Gallery of Modern Art.
Verona Children’s Museum
This bright museum opened in 2019 and offers lots of hands-on fun for children.
Situated on the edge of the city, it is essentially one big space of science and learning, disguised as fun.
Before you go in, everyone must remove shoes and leave coats and bags behind, so you automatically feel more carefree.
Tickets are for allocated 90-minute slots through the day to make sure it never gets too crowded. Then the staff tidy up again so that everything is neat and clean ready for the next group.
It is designed and created for children – you can build your own mini-houses, milk a pretend cow, learn about light and shadows and play in a ball pit and climbing area.
There’s a also a water section where you can use water to create music, put balls into a whirlpool and more.
The staff are really friendly and helpful. If you have children under 10 they will love it here as ours did.
It also makes a good rainy day activity as it is all indoors.
This large Veronese building on the banks of the Adige river is part museum part castle.
There is a lot of 16th century religious artwork here which didn’t hold much appeal for our children. But some of the exhibits had old swords and armour.
And the walk around the castle was good fun. You get a good view across the river to Ponte Scaligero which was rebuilt after being blown up by the Germans in World War Two. And you can walk along the castle walls and into raised courtyards.
Visitors have to leave backpacks in lockers at the entrance.
Have a traditional Veronese meal
The Veronese take food very seriously. There are restaurants at every turn and they welcome children.
Almost all will serve you a plate of tomato pasta or a pizza, if that is what you are after.
For a real authentic experience, we tried Locanda Ristori, a traditional Veronese restaurant just outside the touristy centre near Castelvecchio.
The restaurant was mostly full of locals when we visited on a Sunday lunchtime, which is always a good sign and staff are warm and attentive.
The lovely owner Lia, a former ballet dancer across Europe, is very friendly and passionate about the food, explaining it all to us.
The menu includes a mix of pasta and meat dishes.
The Veronese tradition is a big plate of up to eight mixed meats including tongue, which my husband tucked into. It was served with mashed potato, vegetables and a broth which takes four hours to cook.
Lia serves a Veronese speciality
My children just fancied a plain tomato pasta (pasta pomodoro), not on the menu, but Lia was more than happy to make them some and they loved it.
There is also a good selection of desserts, including ice cream and we grown-ups sampled some fabulous wine.
Get a Verona card
The quickest and cheapest way to get into the main sites is with a Verona card, which costs 20 euros for a day and 25 euros for 48 hours.
If you are going to visit the Arena and at least two other sites then you will save money with the card.
It includes free entry to all the attractions above (except the Children’s Museum), all the largest churches and city centre museums.
You can pick up the card at the tourist information office in a corner of Piazza Bra.
Our children were also given a couple of city centre trails to do while we wandered around.
Disclaimer: We were provided with a Verona Card and a complimentary meal for the purposes of this article. All views are our own.
*Have you taken children to Verona? Where did you go? Tell us below!
We explore the family-friendly attractions in the city of St Albans and eat at the oldest pub in Britain
As we climb up and up, twist after twist, turn after turn, the staircase gets narrower and narrower.
The top of the Clock Tower is a particularly tight squeeze, its 600-year-old roof can only take a few visitors at a time – but the view at the summit of the 93 steps is well worth it.
Stretching in front of us is St Albans – a city where the ancient and the modern sit side-by-side.
For example, the Clock Tower was built in 1405, but on the street below, people queue up outside Darlish, the UK’s first Persian ice cream parlour, whose speciality is a deliciously sweet baklava ice cream sandwich.
The city’s park contains both a modern splash pool and Roman remains. And pubs which played host to Oliver Cromwell now serve the latest culinary trends.
And that theme of ancient and modern is clear at our first stop, St Albans Museum and Gallery.
St Albans Museum and Gallery
St Albans Museum and Gallery
Refurbished in 2018, the city’s main museum contains 2,000 years of history over three floors. Children are given an activity pack and trail to follow around.
You can visit the underground cells which used to be the city’s prison and then climb up into the former courtroom.
While your little ones pretend to be a judge or a villain in the dock, pensioners merrily sip away at cups of tea and tuck into slices of cake.
Our little magistrate sentences her big brother to life imprisonment
Upstairs there are more displays of the city’s history and on site is a tasty cafe. You can eat in the old courtroom or on the market square as we did, tucking into large sandwiches, varied salads and a wide range of excellent cakes.
Information: St Albans Museum and Gallery, Town Hall, St Peter’s St, St Albans AL1 3DH, open daily 10am to 5pm, 11am to 5pm on Sundays. Entry free.
St Albans Market
It is worth visiting on market day – Wednesdays and Saturdays between 8.30am and 4.30pm – if you can. There has apparently been a market in the city since the 9th century. 1,100 years on and the stalls are packed, stretching along the high street. You can buy everything from toys, to handbags, to Pakistani or Indonesian street food. It is a vibrant, colourful sight with more than 160 stalls.
Market day in St Albans, our view from the Clock Tower
At the bottom end of the market and high street is the Clock Tower. The stairs to the top do get very narrow but it is fun to climb and you are rewarded with views across Hertfordshire and even London on a clear day. The friendly volunteers at the bottom of the tower let children help ring the city’s 600-year-old bell, which has been clanging away since the Wars of the Roses.
The Clock Tower
Information: Clock Tower, High St, St Albans AL3 4EL. opening times vary. Entry £1 adults, children free. This is the only surviving medieval town belfry in England.
St Albans Cathedral
Even older than the clock tower is the building which dominates this city. St Albans Cathedral, known locally as The Abbey, is named after Alban, Britain’s first saint.
St Albans Cathedral
It is a huge building and entry is free. Children can get an activity pack from the new welcome centre, which has a shop, cafe and toilets. The pack contains 12 questions taking you around the cathedral, encouraging youngsters to explore the whole site.
The quiz also explains to them some of the history of this building and the story of how Alban became St Alban and met a grizzly end at the hands of the Romans.
There are also tree trails to explore the cathedral’s gardens, which takes around 45 minutes to complete.
On certain heritage open days there are also graffiti trails where children can hunt for clues on the various etchings visitors have drawn into the stone around the cathedral.
All the trails cost £2 per child and include a badge when successfully completed.
Some churches can feel a little stuffy and unwelcoming to children but this felt like a site where little ones were actively welcomed.
A short walk down the hill from the cathedral brings you to Verulamium Park, a former Roman site.
It is named after the Roman city of Verulamium on which it stands. And there are Roman remains dotted around its 100 acres. It was full of families when we visited, there is lots of space to run around, you can stroll by the lake, feed the ducks and climb trees. There is also a playground, fairly new splash park open during the summer, football goals, cafe and indoor swimming pool.
Verulamium Museum next to the park grounds has artefacts, which explore everyday life in Roman Britain.
St Albans has a wealth of options for eating out with almost every conceivable chain restaurant having an outlet around the city centre. We took a chance on something slightly different. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is officially Britain’s oldest pub, the octagonal building dates back to the 11th century.
Britain’s oldest pub
It is well situated near the entrance to Verulamium Park and has a beer garden. Inside, the low ceilings and timber beams make the pub feel medieval. Fortunately, the food is most definitely modern. There are four children’s options (£8 each) including pasta, burgers and sausages. The quality was high, as were the adult meals.
The pub becomes less family-friendly the later into the evening it gets so I would suggest trying it for lunch or an early dinner.
As we stroll back from the pub where Oliver Cromwell once stayed the night, the beautiful cathedral is lit up and it’s easy to see why this is a city is a great place to introduce children to our country’s history.
Where we stayed – St Michael’s Manor
St Michael’s Manor
Our hotel, St Michael’s Manor, is next to the park and has a lovely garden of its own – five acres to explore and its own lake.
The hotel’s original building dates from 1500, which practically makes it a modern development in St Albans.
This luxury hotel has excellent family rooms – our suite had two televisions and a huge bathroom.
Our hotel room, Sycamore
Breakfast is in a beautiful orangery-style restaurant.