DESTINATIONS / UK

Hotel review: Hilton Bracknell near to Lapland UK

Hotel review: Hilton Bracknell near to Lapland UK

We take our children to the Hilton Bracknell after visiting Lapland UK

Name

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.

Hilton Bracknell Hotel exterior

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.

The rooms

We stayed in a two double bed deluxe and it was an excellent size for a family of four.

Our room at the Hilton Bracknell

Our room

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.

The bathroom of our room at the Hilton Bracknell

The bathroom

Food and drink

Breakfast was nearly all self-service with a good selection of six cereals, including cornflakes and coco pops.

Breakfast cereal at the Hilton Bracknell

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.

The breakfast room at the Hilton Bracknell

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!

Our highlights

*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 at the Hilton Bracknell

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.

Nearby

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.

Address

Hilton Bracknell, Baghsot Road, Bracknell, RG12 0QJ

How to book

For the best rates book direct at the Hilton website.

Disclaimer: We received a reduced rate on our stay for the purposes of this review. All opinions are our honestly held views.

We visit the ‘Christmas capital of England’ whose festive market is hailed the best in Europe

We visit the ‘Christmas capital of England’ whose festive market is hailed the best in Europe

We take a festive family trip to Winchester

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.

Buying mulled wine at Winchester Cathedral Christmas Market

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.

Further afield

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).

Lapland UK 2019 – our full guide, top tips and review of this popular Christmas day out for families

Lapland UK 2019 – our full guide, top tips and review of this popular Christmas day out for families

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

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

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.

Making toys at the Toy Factory at Lapland UK

Making toys

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 at Lapland UK

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.

The ice rink at Lapland UK

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.

Children look to see if they are in Santa's good book at Lapland UK

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?

*Parking.

*An elf passport.

*Elf newspaper.

*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.

*Reindeer food.

*Shop purchases.

*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.”

Address

Whitmoor Forest, Swinley Rd, Winkfield Row, Ascot SL5 8BD

Where to stay

We stayed at the Hilton Bracknell Hotel 10 minutes away, which has a fantastic swimming pool, read our review here.

Website

https://www.laplanduk.co.uk

Have you been? What did you think? We would love to hear from you.

 

 

 

 

 

Dunham Massey Christmas Lights 2019 – our review and guide

Dunham Massey Christmas Lights 2019 – our review and guide

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.

Our highlights

*Before you go into the formal gardens, the house itself is lit up at the front with a fabulous laser display.

Dunham Massey Christmas Lights house

There is also a light display when you reach the back of the house, along with rings of fire.

Dunham Massey Christmas Lights house

*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.

Toasting marshmallows at Dunham Massey Christmas Lights

*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.

Top tips

*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.

Other questions

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.

Address

National Trust Dunham Massey, Altrincham, WA14 4SJ

For more information and to book go to the website.

A family break in St Albans with our children proves a great mixture of old and new

A family break in St Albans with our children proves a great mixture of old and new

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

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

Market day in St Albans, our view from the Clock Tower

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.

St Albans Clock Tower

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 Alban's Cathedral

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.

Information: St Albans Cathedral, St Albans AL1 1B, open daily, entry free.

Verulamium Park

Verulamium Park in St Albans

Verulamium Park

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.

Information: Verulamium Park, St Peter’s Street, St Albans, UK.

Eating Out

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.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is officially Britain’s oldest pub

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.

Information: Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, 16 Abbey Mill Ln, St Albans, AL3 4HE.

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 hotel in St Albans

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 at St Michael's Mount

Our hotel room, Sycamore

Breakfast is in a beautiful orangery-style restaurant.

It’s well-situated with lots of parking spaces, so we could walk to and from the city centre, read our full hotel review with pictures and video here: Review: St Michael’s Manor Hotel in St Albans

This was also the perfect base from which to visit Harry Potter Studios the next day – read our review of that here: The full guide to Harry Potter Studio Tour London with must-read tips and family review

Information: St Michael’s Manor Hotel, Fishpool Street, St Albans, AL3 4RY.

Breakfast at Lakeside Restaurant

Breakfast St Michael’s Manor

Disclaimer – Our hotel, food and attractions were provided to us in exchange for this review. All views are our own.

Review: St Michael’s Manor Hotel in St Albans

Review: St Michael’s Manor Hotel in St Albans

We stay at St Michael’s Manor Hotel with our children to visit the Harry Potter Studios and explore St Albans

Name

St Michael’s Manor Hotel.

Where is it?

A 10-minute walk from St Albans city centre, which is just north of London near the M1 and M25 motorways. The building, converted into a hotel in 1965, is on Fishpool Street bordering the city’s large Verulamium Park.

What is it?

An historic 500-year-old building which is now a lovely four-star upmarket hotel in five acres of fabulous grounds, which include a lake. The hotel has 30 bedrooms, a bar and restaurant.

Is it family friendly?

Families are probably not the hotel’s main market (it is a popular wedding and fine dining venue) but they are well catered for here.

The main attraction for visitors with children is the large grounds, nice for children to run around and explore. There’s a pool with a fountain and big fish. Inside, family rooms are an excellent size and breakfast has plenty of child-friendly options.

The lake at St Michael's Mount hotel in St Alban's

The rooms

The hotel’s suites are the rooms suitable for families of four. We stayed in Sycamore and it was a very good size with a king-size bed and a sofa bed for the children tucked around the corner so it almost felt like having two rooms.

Our hotel room at St Michael's Mount

Our hotel room, Sycamore

There were two TVs, one opposite each bed, a massive bathroom with large bath and separate shower.

The bathroom at our room at St Michael's Mount

There was also a desk, large wardrobes with plenty of storage, kettle, ironing board, coffee maker, biscuits and bottled water.

Food and drink

Breakfast was all self-service with a good selection of six cereals, including Weetabix, Cornflakes, Rice Krispies and Coco Pops. There were also pastries, fresh fruit, yoghurt and a full cooked breakfast offering.

Breakfast is served in the bright and spacious Lake Restaurant, which has views over the gardens and, as you might have guessed, the lake.

Breakfast at Lakeside Restaurant

Breakfast at Lakeside Restaurant

The restaurant also serves afternoon teas, which you can eat on the large terrace or in the gardens on a nice day. The evening meal menu is upmarket fine dining so may not be ideal for children – we ate in the city centre instead.

Nearby

The large Verulamium Park is a three-minute walk away. It has a playground, splash pool, football goals, Roman museum and plenty of space to run around.

The main attractions of the city centre, like the huge cathedral, market and museums are around a 10-minute walk.

St Alban's Cathedral

St Alban’s Cathedral

We combined our visit with a trip to Warner Bros. Studios Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter, which is a 20-minute drive from St Albans.

Our highlights

*The grounds – a fantastic space to explore, although be careful with young ones around the lake. The five acres are flat and inviting to burn off energy. In the corners of the garden there are trees and bushes to play in. It could do with a swing or slide in a quiet corner, but apart from that it is a wonderful space.

*The room/suite – we all felt comfortable straight away, a lovely room with plenty of space and everything we could need.

*The bathroom – one of the best family bathrooms we have seen in a hotel – big with a large bath and separate shower, bath robes and fluffy towels.

*Breakfast – a good selection of food for children in a sunny and bright orangery-style restaurant, with great views over the garden.

*Parking – sounds a bit dull but parking is very tricky in St Albans so this is a godsend. The hotel’s large car park is free and stretches around the side and back of the property. It is close enough to the city centre to leave your car for your entire stay. You can stroll through the park to reach the attractions, or take the slightly quicker route along Fishpool Street to the Cathedral area.

Our son’s review!

It’s great, the rooms are named after trees.

It has a delicious breakfast, a fountain, a pond, a garden, deck chairs and a car park.

Address

St Michael’s Manor Hotel, Fishpool St, St Albans AL3 4RY.

For more information go to the website.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our full review of our family break in St Albans here: A family break in St Albans with our children proves a great mixture of old and new

RELATED CONTENT: We went to the amazing Harry Potter Studio Tour from this hotel, read our report here: The full guide to Harry Potter Studio Tour London with must-read tips and family review

The hall at St Michael's Manor

The hall at St Michael’s Manor

(We received free accommodation for the purpose of this review, all views are our own).

Harry Potter Studio Tour London – our full guide, review and must-read tips

Harry Potter Studio Tour London – our full guide, review and must-read tips

We take our children on a family trip to Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter

What is it:

The Harry Potter Studio Tour is a magical long look behind the scenes of the famous wizarding films.

It is at the actual Warner Bros. studios near London where a lot of the filming for the eight Harry Potter movies took place.

This is nothing at all like a theme park – there are no rides.

Instead, fans can explore the sets, see the thousands of props and costumes and have their pictures taken with iconic memorabilia and backdrops.

It has won lots of travel awards hailing it the best UK attraction and best family day out.

What did we think?

Harry Potter fans will adore this attraction. There’s absolutely LOADS to see. It’s a four-hour (or so) look at how the films were made.

It makes you appreciate how much work, talent and creativity goes into making films like these.

It’s a really memorable day out – our oldest child is a fan but our youngest – who is too young for the books or film yet – also enjoyed it.

Our highlights

*When you first enter the main lobby before the tour, a huge dragon hanging from the ceiling gives the wow factor. (Apparently it’s Ironbelly from Deathly Hallows Part One, but we haven’t watched that far yet)!

*The tour starts in a room where people in ‘pictures’ on the the walls are talking to you – fans, actors such as James and Oliver Phelps (who play Fred and George Weasley) and Harry Potter writer JK Rowling. Then you go into a small cinema and watch a short film with Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson talking about making the movies. At the end, the screen lifts up revealing the door to the Great Hall.

*The Great Hall – the iconic heart of Hogwarts Castle is the perfect area in which to start the experience. The space in the middle is clear for visitors but tables are laid for dinner along the sides. Sadly we didn’t get to enjoy a great feast!

The Great Hall at Harry Potter Studio Tour in London

The Great Hall

Models of the characters wear some of the costumes. It’s great to see the size of Hagrid at the front, next to the other teachers. The ceiling is arched but not enchanted (this was created afterwards with special effects). A guide comes in to the hall with you, pointing out areas of interest, you are free to explore on your own from then on.

Gringotts Wizarding Bank at Harry Potter Studio Tour in London

Gringotts

*Gringotts Wizarding Bank. Although this part is a reproduction of the actual set, this room takes your breath away as you walk in – it’s vast. And sparkly! With marble columns, huge chandeliers and goblin bankers sitting at their desks.

A goblin banker at Gringotts at Harry Potter Studios in London

*Diagon Alley – you don’t get to go in the shops, but can peep in at the famous store fronts like Flourish and Blotts, Mr Mulpepper’s Apothecary and Ollivanders wand shop. One shop even has a broomstick floating in the window.

Diagon Alley at the Harry Potter Studios in London

Diagon Alley

*The Hogwarts Express. You see the train at platform 9¾ and can climb on board, walking along the narrow corridor but not going in any of the small carriages. This train was the one used on location for exterior shots only.

A boy pushes his trolley through the wall on platform 9 3/4 at Harry Potter Studios in London

But you do get the chance to sit with your family in a carriage nearby with a green screen for a window. You have your picture taken (to buy if you want afterwards) and are given emotions to act, which is great fun. A video then plays on the screen/window to simulate the train moving through different landscapes, but be warned – Dementors appear at the ‘window’ at one point which can be scary so sit younger children nearer the camera.

*Wand training – our children loved being taught how to use a wand. Participants stand in front of mirrors and follow a demonstration video, learning wand moves, with help from a guide.

*The guides – they are fabulous. They are spaced around the attraction, are friendly, approachable and very knowledgable. They know loads of fascinating facts so make sure to talk to them.

*Green screen photo areas. You are put in Hogwarts robes, in the house of your choice, unless you have your own. You can pose for a ‘Have you seen this Wizard’ poster picture, ride a broomstick over London and buy the resulting pictures and video.

*Dobby the house elf interactive motion capture experience – stand in front of three different stages of the CGI process and watch Dobby reflect your movements – my daughter loved this bit and didn’t want to leave.

A girl uses the Dobby interactive motion screen at Harry Potter Studio in London

*Seeing the animatronic versions of creatures like Buckbeak the Hippogridd and how they were made.

*The props – there are so, so many amazing with such attention to details. For example in Snape’s Potions Classroom there are more than 950 potion jars with weird and wonderful props inside.

*The tour ends with a stunning model of Hogwarts Castle. There are interactive screens here showing how it was built (in 40 days) and how it was used in the films.

*The shop at the end is huge with lots of quality (expensive) merchandise.

Top tips:

*DO NOT turn up to the Harry Potter Studio Tour without pre-booking a ticket. Buy one in advance from the website.

*Book tickets as far ahead as you can as, even though 6,000 people a day take the tour, they sell out quickly.

*Tickets are timed entry, to control the amount of visitors entering. You can take as long as you want going round so it can get busier throughout the day. We booked our tickets for the first time slot of the day (9-9.30am the day we went) and didn’t have any crowds or queues to face – even half an hour behind us, people were queuing for things we hadn’t.

*Opt to have your tickets posted then you can go straight in on arrival, otherwise you have to collect them from a ticket window and there might be a queue.

*Arrive at least 20 minutes early to park and get through the security checks – bags are checked and people are scanned with metal detector wands.

*After the security checks you enter a room where you can collect a handheld digital guide for £4.95. These enhance the tour for adults and some children, they give extra details and facts for visitors as they walk around.

*Also in this first room you can collect a free children’s ‘passport’. They can be stamped around the tour and make for a nice memento. They also give clues for spotting the golden snitch.

*When leaving the door with the talking pictures to enter the cinema, go through the door on the left and then you can sit on the front row of the theatre and be first into the Great Hall. If it’s your birthday you may even get to open the doors.

*A couple of parts can be frightening –

The Forbidden Forest – it’s only a short walk through, but it is dark, there is fake mist rising and eerie sounds and movements.

Buckbeak in the Forbidden Forest at the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London

Buckbeak in the Forbidden Forest

If your children would be scared by big spiders – take the first turning on the right inside the forest to miss a part complete with a big Aragog and family.

If you have children who don’t want to enter the forest at all, ask a member of staff and they will take you another way round. Once through the forest, you come out at Platform 9¾ and see the Hogwarts Express – if you tell them this it might get them through!

The other frightening part for some children is at the end of the fabulous Gringotts section where a dragon appears to run at you breathing fire.

You can hear the roar from the room before, which causes the walls to ‘shake’. When you look in, it’s a set of a destroyed Gringotts made to look deeper than it is with a clever screen. A digital but very realistic Ukrainian Ironbelly moves towards you, setting the bank on fire. It’s a short sequence on repeat and anyone who doesn’t want to see it has about 10 seconds to run through this room before it starts again. Our children were worried so a heroic member of staff brandishing a sword to ‘defend them’, led them through.

Wands for sale at the shop at the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London

Wands for sale at the shop

*Be prepared to spend money once inside – we are normally careful but here we ended up paying for two green screen pictures and two green screen videos (£50), food in the café as we were away so couldn’t make a packed lunch, plus a little gift in the shop at the end, totaling £90 on top of already expensive tickets.

*For more tips and answers to all your Harry Potter Studios questions, go to Harry Potter Studio Tour London – EVERYTHING you need to know

Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter information

Food

There are a couple of cafes at the entrance/exit (Chocolate Frog Cafe and Hub Cafe) along with a food hall.

Half way around the tour is the Backlot Café with seating inside and out. Staff will supply hot water for heating up bottles here. This is also where to buy butterbeer and butterbeer ice cream. You can queue separately for this.

You can take a picnic, but you must eat it at the Backlot Café half way round.

Opening hours: vary throughout the year, check here.

Cost:

2019: Adult £45, child aged 5-15 £37, family (2 adults and 2 children or 1 adult and 3 children) £148,

2020: Adult £47, child aged 5-15 £38, family (2 adults and 2 children or 1 adult and 3 children) £150.

Children aged 0 to 4 are free but still need a ticket. Carers are also free.

You can also buy a complete studio tour package which includes a studio tour ticket, digital guide and souvenir guidebook. An adult package costs £54.95 for 2019 and £56.95 for 2020. A child package costs £46.95 for 2019 and £47.95 for 2020. These give a saving of £4.95.

There are also deluxe tickets including studio tour entry with a two-hour guided tour, reserve parking, a souvenir guidebook, a butterbeer, four free photographs and a video at one of the photo opportunities and a hot meal and drink.

The Deluxe ticket includes entry to the Studio Tour with a complimentary two hour guided tour, reserved parking, a souvenir guidebook, a Butterbeer, four free photographs and a video at one of our photo opportunities and a choice of hot meal and drink. They cost £225.

Best for: Harry Potter fans aged eight and above and equally interesting for adults!

Time needed: Around four hours but you can stay as long as you like.

Access and restrictions: Most of the studio tour is suitable for wheelchairs but some areas are difficult including the cobbled streets of Diagon Alley. It is also suitable for buggies/pushchairs/prams or these can be left in the cloakroom.

Address: Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, Studio Tour Drive, Leavesden, WD25 7LR

NOW READ: Harry Potter Studio Tour London – EVERYTHING you need to know

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Harry Potter Studio Tour London – EVERYTHING you need to know

Harry Potter Studio Tour London – EVERYTHING you need to know

We answer ALL your questions about Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter

The Warner Bros. studios in Leavesden near London were home to the hugely popular Harry Potter films for over 10 years.

And now fans can go ‘backstage’ at the Harry Potter studios where the magic was made.

Here we answer all your questions about Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter.

Also, don’t miss our full review and all our top tips here and watch our exclusive video of our day out at the studio tour below:

Is there a Harry Potter World or theme park in England?

No, there is the Harry Potter Studio Tour – a multi-award winning UK attraction near London.

What is the Harry Potter Studio Tour?

It’s a huge self-led back stage tour at the studio where a lot of the filming for the Harry Potter movies took place. You can see real sets from the films, costumes, props and creatures, plus take part in some interactive green screen fun.

Is this one of the best Harry Potter experiences?

Yes, the Harry Potter Studio Tour is great for adults and children because it is authentic. Many of the sets, costumes, props and creatures you see here were used in the Harry Potter films. They show the work and craftsmanship that went into the films.

Where is it?

It’s at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden, where much of the film series was shot, home to the movies for over 10 years. Leavesden is 20 miles from London, near Watford, England. The full address is: Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, Studio Tour Drive, Leavesden, WD25 7LR.

How to get there

You can drive by car and park in the car park directly outside or take a return bus tour from London or other parts of the country. You can also get a train to Watford Junction and then a shuttle bus, run by the attraction.

When did Harry Potter Studios open?

The studio tour opened on March 31, 2012. Unusually, the crew had saved a lot of the sets, props, animatronic creatures and costumes in case they were needed again for future films. They are now on show for the attraction, next to the working film studios where all eight films were made in Leavesden.

What can you see on the tour?

There’s far too much to mention but it includes The Great Hall, The Forbidden Forest, Gringotts banking hall, the Griffindor common room and boys’ dormitory, Snape’s Potions Classroom, Dumbledore’s Tower, the Weasleys’ Burrow, Hagrid’s Hut, the portrait of the Fat Lady, the Mirror of Erised, and the giant clock pendulum.

Dumbledore's office at the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London

Dumbledore’s office

There is also Malfoy’s Manor, Dolores Umbridge’s pink office, the Hogwarts Express, The Knight Bus, Privet Drive, the Hogwarts Bridge, Godric’s Hollow House, the Ford Anglia, Diagon Alley, Buckbeak, Aragog, the scaled model of Hogwarts Castle used in the films. Plus thousands more animatronics, props and costumes.

Children get on the Knight Bus at the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London

Trying out the Knight Bus

LEGOLAND Windsor to open a new ride for young children

LEGOLAND Windsor to open a new ride for young children

Roller coaster coming to one of England’s most popular theme parks

A new roller coaster aimed at pre-school children will open next year at Legoland Windsor.

The theme park is expanding its Duplo Valley area with the Duplo Dream Coaster, especially for visitors aged between two and five.

The roller coaster will open in March 2020 and is part of improvements to Duplo Valley, including work on Duplo Valley Airport and the outdoor play area Brickville.

The new Duplo roller coaster ride at Legoland Windsor

A LEGOLAND Windsor spokesperson said: “The new ride will take children on a journey, exploring their wildest dreams and igniting their imagination.

“Swooping through a topsy turvy wonderland full of colour and a sprinkle of magic, they can be sure they will meet all sorts of cool creatures along the way.”

We’ve got lots of lovely LEGOLAND content for you to enjoy:

LEGOLAND Windsor Resort – read our review and top tips here review and top tips

LEGOLAND Windsor – our 10 top tips to get the most out of your visit

How to beat the queues at LEGOLAND Windsor Resort with the Q-Bot Ride Reservation System

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A family holiday in the Cotswolds – read about our stay at a fabulous farm cottage and the attractions we visited with our children

A family holiday in the Cotswolds – read about our stay at a fabulous farm cottage and the attractions we visited with our children

We stay in an idyllic spot near Chipping Norton and visit Cotswolds Wildlife Park, Blenheim Palace and a crocodile zoo.

Violet is an enthusiastic tour guide. Energetically sprinting down woodland paths, she throws herself on to a trampoline and encourages our children to do the same. Violet is five. One of three generations who live and host visitors to Heath Farm Holiday Cottages.

A girl jumps on a trampoline at Heath Farm Cottages

Our daughter tries out the trampoline

Our children are wowed as she carefully points out the farm’s facilities, views over golden fields and the honey-coloured cottage which will be our home from home.

Heath Farm has five cottages on a 70-acre site on the eastern edge of the Cotswolds, near Chipping Norton. The views and atmosphere make you feel like you could be in the Tuscan countryside rather than the heart of England.

The Barbour family converted the site 25 years ago and still play a hands-on role welcoming visitors – owners Nena and David are there to answer questions and give tips on exploring the area.

Our children love doing their own exploring of the farm’s trails, trying croquet on the lawn and enjoying the pool and table tennis tables in the games room.

Cobnut cottage at Heath Farm Holiday Cottages in the Cotswolds

Cobnut cottage

Our cottage, Cobnut, is traditional yet modern – wood furnishings mixed with modern appliances. There are two good-sized bedrooms with en suites, a dining room with spectacular views overlooking the farm’s pond and an outside table looking on to a colourful floral courtyard. We feel happy and comfortable there straight away. Read our full review of the accommodation plus see pictures and a video here.

We are hungry and we’ve brought our own supplies but you only need to travel a mile to find a good pub. The Boxing Hare is a modern restaurant with large garden for outside dining. There’s a good selection of freshly cooked children’s meals and the friendly staff make our two feel welcome with colouring books and pens. Plus the food is delicious.

 

The Boxing Hair in Swerford

The next day it is time to head out further into the surrounding area. First stop, Cotswolds Wildlife Park and Gardens.

The sun is shining as we wander the beautiful grounds, spotting rhinos, lions and wolves. It is a large site, which takes the best part of a day to get around. Highlights for us include the adventure playground, the train which tours the park giving weary legs a rest and the clever fencing design which makes you feel close to the animals as you walk around. Read our full review and tips here.

A giraffe at Cotswolds Wildlife Park and Gardens

Cotswolds Wildlife Park and Gardens

Later in the day, at Crocodiles of the World, we get close to a three-metre slithering saltwater reptile. The UK’s only crocodile zoo has 160 different types of crocs, alligators and caimans to see. The enthusiastic staff talks are worth catching as they explain all you need to know about these rarely seen creatures. See here for our full review and tips.

A crocodile at Crocodiles of the World in the Cotswolds

Crocodiles of the World

Unfortunately, the Tuscan-style weather doesn’t last for our visit to Blenheim Palace the next day. One of the country’s finest stately homes, even on a rainy day there was more than just ancient artefacts to entertain our children.

Blenheim Palace exterior

Blenheim Palace

This was the birthplace and home of Winston Churchill and for the first time, we tried our two with audio guides. They are aimed at adults and the commentary is detailed. But they loved wearing the headphones and operating the guides, which kept them interested in the stories of paintings, pictures and life of the Churchill family as we walked around.

Once you have explored the palace and magnificent grounds you can hop on a small train (50p per person each way) to the family pleasure gardens. This area has a butterfly house, maze, playground and small model village. Read our full review and tips on Blenheim Palace here.

Then we couldn’t wait to get back to Heath Farm. Our children urgently seeking out their on-site guide.

As they and Violet took turns on the swings hanging from trees, we couldn’t help but wish that every holiday home came with a fantastic five-year-old expert.

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Blenheim Palace in the Cotswolds – our family day out review and top tips

Blenheim Palace in the Cotswolds – our family day out review and top tips

We take our children for a day out at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire

What is it?

Blenheim Palace is a grand historic house and gardens. This World Heritage Site was the birthplace and home of World War Two Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.

It has over 300 years of history and is now home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough.

Where is it?

On the edge of the town of Woodstock in Blenheim, Oxfordshire, eight miles from Oxford.

The Great Courtyard at Blenheim Palace

The Great Courtyard

What did we think?

This is a grand venue and our two were excited to be visiting a ‘palace’. It is set in spectacular grounds with a large lake.

Our Highlights

*Our two really enjoyed having audio guides, which surprised us. There was no separate children’s commentary but we spent much longer inside the palace as a result of these devices, they enjoyed looking out for the portraits that were being shown and talked about on their handheld devices.

A ceiling inside Blenheim Palace

*You can walk or catch a little train from the car park to the Family Pleasure Gardens. Sadly, it was pouring with rain when we visited but on a dry day, we would have spent longer in this area which included swings, puzzles on the floor and a maze.

As it was raining we made a beeline for the butterfly house. It warmed us up and the children enjoyed being surrounded by butterflies.

*A 300-year-old cedar tree there, the ‘Harry Potter Tree’, was in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – Snape was dangling from it in a flashback.

Top Tips

If it is raining, take a towel to dry the train seats and swings etc. And, try to do the inside areas when it is forecast rain – the palace, the butterfly house, the shops/cafes.

Blenheim Palace information

Food: There is a restaurant and three cafes including a pizza café next to the Family Pleasure Gardens. Picnics are also allowed.

Opening hours: The palace is open every day from 10.30am to 5.30pm, park open daily 9am to 6pm.

Cost: Adults £27, children aged five to 16 £16, children under five free, family ticket (two adults, two children), £67.50. The price includes the audio guide.

Best for: Ages six and above.

Time needed: Four hours.

Access and restrictions: The site is largely accessible for wheelchair users and for buggies.

Address: Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, OX201UL.

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(We were given complimentary tickets for the purpose of this review, all views are our own).

Pictures © Blenheim Palace 2019

Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens – our review, tips and all the information you will need to visit

Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens – our review, tips and all the information you will need to visit

We take our children to Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens for a family day out

What is it?

Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens has 260 species of animals around 160 acres of beautiful parkland. This zoo has lots of rare and endangered animals.

Where is it?

The wildlife park is two miles south of Burford on the A361 on the southern edge of the Cotswolds, in Oxfordshire.

What did we think?

It is a cross between a traditional zoo and a visit to a National Trust-style stately home and gardens. There are lots of interesting animals for children to see, but adults can also enjoy strolling around the lovely gardens.

Watch our video below before reading our highlights, top tips and essential information!

Our Highlights

*There are good views of the animals, even for little ones thanks to cleverly designed fences and slopes.

*You can get face-to-face with the giraffes as there is a high viewing point called the Giraffe Walkway.

Two giraffe faces at Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens

*The adventure playground and skymaze is a fantastic play area for children, even those older and more daring.

The adventure playground

The adventure playground

*The fabulous gardens – beautiful to walk through on the sunny day we were there.

*The range of animals include red pandas, giraffes, rhinos, penguins, lions, wolves, tropical birds, meercats, zebras, tapirs, camels, otters, lemurs, monkeys, snakes and crocodiles. In case you have an elephant-lover, note that there are no elephants at this zoo.

A parrot at Cotsold Wildlife Park and Gardens

*There is a farmyard section where you can pet goats in an open field.

A girl pets a goat at CotsolA girl pets a goat at Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardensd Wildlife Park and Gardens

Our top tips

*We asked a member of staff for the best route to walk around the park and as we had arrived first thing she recommended we visit the walled garden first of all. See the penguin feeding at 11am and the lemurs feeding at 12pm in the Madagascar area, then head around the park either clockwise or anti-clockwise. That brings you into the grounds in time for a picnic.

A meerkat relaxes at Cotswold Wildlife Park

A meerkat relaxes

*There is a little train which takes you around the park and which is worth doing to rest tired legs at only £1 per person (under 3s are free). It runs from April to October, weather permitting. There isn’t an organised queuing system though so make sure you don’t miss your turn to get on board. The train ride lasts around 10 minutes and departs from near the walled garden and playground. There is a place to leave pushchairs and wheelchairs next to the platform and there is room for two wheelchairs on the train.

*The lemur collection in the Madagascan Walkthrough, is only open for part of the day so check opening times if you are keen to do this.

*A guide book and map costs £2.50. If you just need a map there are boards around the site. Just snap one on your phone and take it round with you! Or click here for an online map.

*Dogs can be taken here as long as they are kept on a lead. There are some areas with free ranging animals that they aren’t allowed into including the Bat Belfry, Reptile House, Children’s Farmyard.

Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens information

Food: Picnics are allowed and there are plenty of nice spots and benches to eat them.

There is a restaurant – the Oak Tree Restaurant – behind the manor house. And seasonal (only open on busy days) kiosks selling hot drinks, ice creams and snacks.

Opening hours: Daily 10am to 6pm April to October, 10am to 5pm November to March. Last admission two hours before closing time.

Cost: Adults £16.00, children aged three to 16 £10.50, under 3s free. E-tickets booked online in advance are £14.00 and £9.50.

There are no disabled concessions but there is a discount for groups of six or more disabled people and their carers.

Best for: All ages but it is a large site so under 5s might get tired without a buggy.

Time needed: At least three hours, potentially all day if you take your time.

Access and restrictions: This is a flat site with good paths throughout so great for wheelchairs prams and buggies. There are disabled toilets in every toilet block as well as a Changing Places toilet near to the gift shop with a bed, ceiling hoist and shower (ask in the gift shop for the security code to get in).

There are wheelchairs available to hire for free. Mobility scooters can be hired for a charge and must be booked in advance.

Address: Cotswold Wildlife Park, Bradwell Grove, Burford, OX18 4JP

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(We were given complimentary tickets for the purpose of this review, all views are our own).

Crocodiles of the World – we visit the UK’s only crocodile zoo with our children

Crocodiles of the World – we visit the UK’s only crocodile zoo with our children

We review Crocodiles of the World in the Cotswolds and give our tips for visiting families

What is it?

This is the UK’s only crocodile zoo with 150 crocodiles and alligators plus other reptiles like Komodo dragons and giant tortoises. It was opened in 2011 by crocodile conservationist Shaun Foggett.

Two giant tortoises get fed at World of Crocodiles

The centre wants visitors to learn about crocodiles and see them closely but safely, to boost awareness and conservation.

Where is it?

Crocodiles of the World is at the bottom of the Cotswolds, a mile off the main A40 to Oxford not far from Burford, in Oxfordshire.

What did we think?

There are lots of types of crocodiles, caimans and alligators – creatures you don’t often see in zoos, so it was great to get up close to some of the bigger ones! It is fairly small, the site is a little ramshackle in places and some parts are very humid to keep the crocodiles feeling at home.

Highlights

*The zoo is split into four sections, the largest creatures are in the Crocodile House, smaller ones in the main zoo, there are also two outside areas including an education zone housing otters and meerkats.

*There are lots of talks through the day with something every half an hour between 10.30am and 4pm. The Croc Talk we attended was really interesting, relaxed and well delivered. We learnt plenty, including the difference between a crocodile and alligator (crocodiles have their bottom teeth visible when their mouth is closed, alligators don’t).

A man talks about crocodiles

The croc talk

*The Komodo dragon is an interesting sight and has a reasonable-sized enclosure next to the picnic and play area. A good place to sit, eat and relax outside.

*There is a small playground with modern equipment outside, which is handy as the main zoo and crocodile house are both very hot and humid so the creatures can feel at home. You need a blast of fresh air so the playground is handy. There is a small slide for under 5s and some good monkey bars in a climbing area.

Watch our video below before continuing to our top tips to read before you visit.

Our top tips

*The biggest and most dramatic crocodiles and alligators are in the Crocodile House. It isn’t that well marked and we nearly left without seeing this area altogether!

*It is EXTREMELY hot and humid in the Crocodile House and can be close to unbearable for young children so head straight to the top section with the huge saltwater and Nile crocodiles then work back down. That way you see the best creatures before you get too hot and sweaty. Our son lasted less than a minute before he needed to go outside so missed this part.

A girl sits on a pretend crocodile

This one is not real!

*The talks are good and well-spaced out through the day, try and combine one Croc Talk and a feeding session too to get the most out of your visit. The site isn’t huge so without doing the talks it won’t take long to get around everything.

Crocodiles of the World information

Food: There’s a small cafe – Croc Cafe – which serves hot and cold food, drinks and ice creams. Picnics are allowed with tables outside near the playground.

Opening hours: Open every day, 10am to 5pm.

Cost: Adults £8.95, children aged three to 16 £6.50, under 3s free. Family tickets (2 adults, 2 children) £27.00.

Best for: Children aged four upwards.

Time needed: 90 minutes, a bit longer if you want to hear more talks.

Access and restrictions: The site is flat and wheelchair friendly, especially the main croc house. There are a couple of steps in other sections. There are disabled changing facilities.

Address: Burford Rd, Brize Norton, Carterton OX18 3NX.

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(We were given complimentary tickets for the purpose of this review, all views are our own).

 

 

Heath Farm Holiday Cottages set in 70 acres in the beautiful Cotswolds – our review and tips

Heath Farm Holiday Cottages set in 70 acres in the beautiful Cotswolds – our review and tips

We find a winning location for a family break near Chipping Norton in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds

Name

Heath Farm Holiday Cottages

Where is it?

Heath Farm is near the village of Swerford on the eastern edge of the Cotswolds, just a few miles from Chipping Norton, within easy reach of the M40 motorway at Banbury.

What is it?

Five holiday cottages around a pretty courtyard set in 70 acres of gardens, woodland and farmland which guests can play in and explore. The cottages are four and five star and are converted from stone farm buildings. Two of them sleep four people, the other three are for two people.

Is it family friendly?

Children are welcome with plenty of games, activities and lots of wonderful woodland to explore. Outside is a big green lawn with swings from the trees, a trampoline, football net, croquet and other sports games available. There is also an indoor games room with toys for younger children, a pool table, table tennis table and loads of games and dvds.

The cottage

Our cottage, Cobnut, is beautifully done out with traditional Cotswold stone walls, wooden flooring, and has great views over the surrounding countryside. It has modern facilities including TV and DVD, WiFi, Bosch dishwasher and Neff oven.

Cobnut cottage at Heath Farm Holiday Cottages in the Cotswolds

Cobnut cottage

Downstairs is an open-plan lounge and dining room with wonderful views and a compact kitchen with granite worktops. The kitchen has all the equipment you could need plus free dishwasher tablets, tea towels and washing up liquid. There was also a carton of milk provided and a delicious cake from Cotswold Baking, which has a premises on the site.

Upstairs there are two lovely bedrooms both en-suite. Both bedrooms can be converted into two single beds, or one king size double. The front bedroom has an en-suite shower room, the rear bedroom has a bath and shower.

There is a handy porch for storing wet boots and outside there is a dining table which looks over the lovely courtyard.

Food and drink

The cottages are self-catering.

The nearest place to eat is The Boxing Hare, an upmarket pub/restaurant.

The Boxing Hair in SwerfordThis was family-friendly when we visited, with a large garden with ten tables outside. Inside the recently renovated pub welcomed children with colouring books and pens. The children’s menu had classic dishes like fish and chips, burger and chips, macaroni cheese and sausage and mash. Our meals were very high quality, large portions, cooked quickly and with very attentive service.

Nearby

The nearest large village is Great Tew, a picture postcard part of the Costwolds. You can stroll past thatched roofed cottages, enjoy walks in rambling countryside and indulge at the local pub the Farndale Arms or the tasty Bakergirl cafe and takeaway.

Great Tew

Great Tew

A few miles past Wigginton is a small children’s farm and playground. The site is a little rundown and overgrown but has a good selection of ducks and farm animals. The staff are happy for you to take time holding rabbits, guinea pigs and gerbils. You can easily pass an hour or two here.

Further afield you have the famous sites of the Costwolds including Chipping Norton, Stow-on-the-Wold and Bourton-on-the-Water.

Family attractions within half an hour of Heath Farm which we visited and have reviewed for you include Blenheim Palace, Cotswolds Wildlife Park and Crocodiles of the World. Our articles include tips for visiting them all with children.

Blenheim Palace exterior

Blenheim Palace

Our highlights

*The gardens – 70 acres to explore is a child’s paradise. A safe, wide lawned area with swings, trampoline and croquet lawn is a good place to start. Then there are woodland trails and paths to explore. Most of the site is safe but watch children by some steep drops, particularly near the pond area.

Heath Farm has woodland walks

Heath Farm has woodland walks

*The friendly hosts – you’re greeted by potentially three generations of the Barbour family. Five-year-old Violet showed us around, enthusiastically revealing hidden trails in the woods and picking raspberries from the fruit and vegetable garden.

Her grandparents Nena and David Barbour own the farm and renovated the holiday cottages – welcoming their first guests in 1992. They are on hand to help with questions, offer advice on the surrounding area and, if you are lucky, give away some homegrown fruit and veg.

Nena and David Barbour

Nena and David Barbour

*The quality of the cottage – traditional yet modern, the finish is of a high standard, it was extremely clean and tastefully decorated. We felt relaxed and comfortable straightaway.

*The games facilities – there are lots of games and activities to do. There is a large trampoline, croquet lawn, games shed full of golf, cricket, bowls and football equipment. Next to the courtyard is a giant chess and draughts board. If it rains there is an indoor games room.

A girl jumps on a trampoline at Heath Farm Cottages

More information

*Towels and bedding are provided

*Our cottage had a washing machine/dryer. Guests also have access to a shared laundry room.

*If staying with young children note that the pretty courtyard which the cottages surround has a water feature and shallow pond.

*The farm produces walnuts and hazelnuts.

*Picnic baskets are provided so you can pack one to take out with you.

Address:

Heath Farm Holiday Cottages, Swerford, Chipping Norton, Oxford, OX7 4BN.

Read our full review of our holiday to the Cotswolds here.

RELATED CONTENT: Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens – our review, tips and all the information you will need to visit

RELATED CONTENT: Blenheim Palace in the Cotswolds – our family day out review and top tips

RELATED CONTENTCrocodiles of the World – we visit the UK’s only crocodile zoo with our children

 

The Forbidden Corner in Yorkshire – a magical and mysterious family attraction with surprises around every corner – our review and top tips

The Forbidden Corner in Yorkshire – a magical and mysterious family attraction with surprises around every corner – our review and top tips

We take our children to the Forbidden Corner in the Yorkshire Dales to see if it lives up to the hype

What is it?

The Forbidden Corner is a weird and wonderful family attraction, billed as the strangest place in the world.

This four-acre garden is a maze of paths, mysterious tunnels, doors, steps and underground chambers. Plus, quirky statues, strange noises and jets of water catching people unawares.

It was first created for private use and later opened to the public.

Where is it?

It is in Leyburn in North Yorkshire, in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales.

What did we think?

This is a unique family attraction, unlike anywhere else we have been. Our children were quite scared in parts but came away saying they had loved it.

Watch our exclusive video before reading our highlights and top tips below!

Highlights

*The ‘map’ you are given upon entry is not a map. There is no route, it shows you pictures of all the things you need to find in the garden, in no particular order, so take a pen to tick them off. There is no way to tell how big the site is or where anything is, it is a labyrinth with endless nooks and crannies to explore.

A big eye hole at Forbidden Corner

*We got there when it opened (11am the day we went) and there were only a few people waiting to get in, plus it never felt too busy as they limit numbers via booked entry times. You can stay as long as you want so I understand it may get much busier later on.

*There are several parts where you may get wet. Your movement triggers water sprays that will catch you if you stop. These bits are fun for children to run through, once they have built up the courage.

*When you think you must have seen everything, you find a whole new section or more paths to try.

*The carved wooden play area is beautiful.

The play area at the Forbidden Corner

The play area

*The cafe is reasonably priced with good options for children.

The cafe at the Forbidden Corner

The cafe

Top tips

*Don’t just turn up, you are unlikely to get in, you must book in advance and they limit numbers to prevent overcrowding. Book via the website.

*The first surprise you come to is a giant square head (main picture) – you make your way through its large mouth and it makes a loud burping noise as you pass its throat – if your children are scared of this as ours were, there are small paths each side to bypass it. They can maybe try it later if they’re feeling braver (our son later did it twice).

*There are other parts that can be frightening to some younger children or anyone who might be claustrophobic or frighten easily – in fact the whole experience is equivalent to a mildly scary haunted house at a theme park. It is free to children aged three and under because of this. There are underground parts that you can avoid – including the ‘mausoleum’ which has warnings outside and is not for the faint-hearted – our children didn’t do this bit.

A boy looks up at a giant woodcutter statue at the Forbidden Corner

*There is a word hunt where you look for brass letters and make rubbings of them, which adds excitement.

*To find everything, you have to explore every path and every option and some lead to dead ends. Check all the doors even if they look like they won’t open. Some parts are easy to miss like the play area or the little garden off it with a fountain which has a ‘show’ every 15 minutes.

*Make sure everyone goes to the toilet before entering the garden! There is apparently a toilet in the garden, but we never found it. There is one toilet in the play area, others where you queue to get in and outside by the car park.

*Try to stay together as it would be easy to lose each other and there is patchy phone signal. Keep hold of toddlers particularly as there can be steep steps around a corner or various paths to navigate and you won’t know which they have taken.

*If you need accommodation, there are apartments and barn conversions next to the entrance to Forbidden Corner. This was fully booked when we looked and we ended up staying at a youth hostel 25 minutes away, with stunning surroundings, see here for our review.

*You exit through a gift shop but the prices are reasonable.

*Forbidden Corner has special ‘blue days’ where you get four tickets for the price of three.

Forbidden corner information

Food: There are tables in the garden but picnics are restricted to a spot near to the car park. There’s a nice, reasonably priced cafe with children’s meals like pizza and chips and spaghetti bolognese (£3.45), plus jacket potatoes, paninis, pies (£2.10) and sandwiches. And cakes (special mention for the divine caramel and chocolate cake I devoured).

The children's menu at Forbidden Corner

There is also a restaurant next to the car park.

Opening hours: Open every day for around seven months of the year. Opening hours vary and you will be given an entry time when you book online (don’t just turn up). If you want to book on the day, call 01969 640638.

Cost: Adults £13, children (four to 15) £11, children three and under free, family ticket (two adults and two children) £46.

Best for: Ages seven to 12.

Time needed: At least three hours.

Access and restrictions: You can not take a pushchair or pram around, there are steps and narrow paths. It is also not suitable for wheelchairs. Dogs are not allowed at Forbidden Corner, only guide dogs.

Address: The Forbidden Corner, Tupgill Park Estate, Coverham, Middleham, Leyburn, North Yorkshire. Use the postcode DL8 4TQ for sat navs.

Have you been to the Forbidden Corner? What did you think? We’d love to hear from you.

We were given free entry for the purpose of this review, all views are our own.

Tittesworth Water/Reservoir, near Leek in Staffordshire – our review and tips

Tittesworth Water/Reservoir, near Leek in Staffordshire – our review and tips

We take our children for a picnic, walk and play at Tittesworth Water in the Peak District National Park.

What is it?

This family day out is around a water storage reservoir with walks, a good outdoor play area and cafe/restaurant.

The reservoir, fed by the River Churnet, is run by Sever Trent Water and was built in 1858.

The water from it can supply up to 45 million litres a day to homes and businesses.

The reservoir

The reservoir

Where is it?

It’s in the village of Meerbrook in the Peak District National Park, just off the A53, three miles north of Leek.

What did we think?

A wooden seat at Tittesworth Reservoir

This was a lovely day out, with a good mixture of walking and fun for the children in the play area. It was a sunny day and we took a picnic. We also had a snack later at the café, where you can sit inside or out.

The café/restaurant

The café/restaurant

Our highlights

*The walk – there are two main, signed routes – a red one of 1.5 miles or a yellow one of five miles, they both start out the same so you can decide further into the walk.

A stream at Tittesworth Reservoir

We did the red route – it’s not a circular route around the lake, the first part (which you also travel back along) is open and the second part through woodland. The longer, yellow walk is said to  have wonderful views and is hilly but the red is billed as wheelchair and buggy-friendly, but is narrower and certainly not flat in places.

The toddler play area at Tittesworth Reservoir

*The play area – a good size with some exciting equipment for different ages and a sand pit.

The play area at Tittesworth Reservoir

The play area

Top tips

*Some navigation systems (including Google Maps when we visited) take you to a farm. Helpfully they’ve put a sign up explaining it is not the reservoir.

*You can’t swim in the water but if you want to get on to it, go to Tittesworth Water Sports and Activity Centre. From there you can try sailing, kayaking, raft building and paddle boarding. For more information see this link.

*If you want to plan a walking route before you get there you can download a map of the site here.

Tittesworth Reservoir information

Food: There are plenty of areas for picnics (barbecues are not allowed). There is a nice cafe/restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. It has a lunchtime children’s menu, with meals like pasta or sausages for around £4.25 or a child’s lunchbox, available all day, for £4.35. There are baby’s food and bottle warming facilities in the restaurant too. You can also buy ice creams from a kiosk in the corner of the play area.

Opening hours: Open every day except Christmas Day. Visitor centre opening hours are: April to September 10am to 6pm. February, March and October, 10am to 5pm. November, December and January 10am to 4pm.

Cost: Entry is free, car park is £3 for two hours and £5 for all day.

Best for: All ages.

Time needed: As much as you want depending on the child’s age, you could easily fill three hours.

Access and restrictions:

*The red route is signposted as suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs.

*Dogs are welcome but must be kept on a lead.

*There are toilets around the site, including those with disabled and baby changing facilities.

Address: Tittesworth Reervoir, Meerbrook, Leek, Staffordshire, ST13 8SW.

All you need to know before visiting Stirling Castle – our family review and top tips

All you need to know before visiting Stirling Castle – our family review and top tips

We review Stirling Castle in central Scotland to discover if it is a good day out for children

What is it?

Stirling Castle is one of Scotland’s biggest and most famous castles. It was once home to Mary Queen of Scots and generations of royals.

Where is it?

In the centre of Stirling in central Scotland – midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh – it sits high on a hilltop, a steep walk from the city centre.

What did we think? 

This is a huge site with lots of nooks and crannies for children to explore.

Our children loved the castle walls, the various cannon battlements and exploring down staircases into random dungeons.

It is good for exploring but there are several formal sections which are great for children too.

Our highlights

*The Castle Exhibition – a good interactive section telling the history of Scottish kings and showing how skeletons discovered in the grounds were identified.

*The Palace Vaults – a series of rooms with animated games and hands-on fun. You can try on medieval clothes, learn about jester’s jokes and play ancient musical instruments. This section is very child-friendly.

*The Queen Anne Garden – a lovely formal garden with space to run around and sit, which has great views of the area.

*The Great Kitchens – discover the life of a cook and servant in the castle’s old kitchens. This is an entertaining area with a video and a recreation of the food on offer in the 16th century.

*The other areas are more adult-focussed but with huge historical value such as the Great Hall completed for King James IV in 1503.

Stirling Castle

In conclusion

This is a large, sprawling castle where children can really explore and embrace their imagination. 

Top tips

*There is an explorer quiz available for children to take round, which can keep them occupied even in the more adult-orientated areas

*There is a children’s tour every Saturday at 2pm for youngsters aged five to 12.

The view from Stirling Castle

The view from Stirling Castle

*Watch little ones closely around the castle walls, they are well signposted and fun to explore but there are some steep drops.

Stirling Castle information

Food: The Unicorn Cafe has a range of snacks and hot food with children’s portions. Children’s pick and mix boxes are also available. There is a lovely garden next door to eat outside.

Opening hours: 9.30am to 5pm in winter, 9.30am to 6pm in summer.

Cost: Adult £15, child (five to 15) £9, Under-fives free. Historic Scotland and English Heritage members free.

Best for: Ages four to 10

Time needed: Two to three hours

Access and restrictions: Free admission for carers, mobility vehicles available on site. Some areas not suitable for wheelchairs. The Access Gallery near the entrance allows those with mobility problems to discover the inaccessible parts of the castle.

Address: Castle Esplanade, Stirling FK8 1EJ

Have fun if you are visiting and let us know what you thought!

Review: A day out at Blackpool Zoo with our two children

Review: A day out at Blackpool Zoo with our two children

Advice and all the information you will need for a family visit to Blackpool Zoo

What is it ?

Blackpool Zoo is a medium-sized zoo which has been open since 1972, with animals to see including elephants, tigers, lions, orangutans and live sea lion shows.

Where is it?

The zoo is set in lovely, green woodland on an old airfield in Blackpool, near the town’s large Stanley Park.

What did we think?

The zoo isn’t too big and the route is flat and well-signposted meaning it is relaxing and simple to get around.

There were really good live shows, a well-done dinosaur safari set around a lake and a large selection of animals.

Highlights

*As you go in, the Elephant Base Camp and impressive Dinosaur Safari are a great way to start. The elephants have a new indoor enclosure and plenty of outdoor space to enjoy.

*The Dinosaur Safari features replicas of around 20 dinosaurs lurking around a lovely lake. Our children loved this area and we went round it twice.

A boy looks at a dinosaur at Blackpool Zoo

*The live shows. The Sea Lion Pool and Arena is very well done and we enjoyed a fun 15-minute show with tricks and information about these amazing animals.

*The Bird of Prey Show is also worth seeing in the Display Arena with flying macaws and owls.

*The entertainment at the children’s farm is also good fun for younger ones – they can see and touch donkeys, pigs, sheep and goats.

*At Lemur Wood, you can get close to these lovable creatures in a short walkway. This area isn’t huge but is very cute.

*An unusual species to see, our children loved the Wolf Ridge area with particularly creative signage and information as you walk up a gentle slope to where the wolves have lots of land to roam.

Our top tips

*Bring £2.50 in cash for the car park with you. The machines don’t take cards and you have to go to the reception, get a ticket and go back to your car if you don’t bring the cash with you.

*On busy days, go around in an anti-clockwise direction doing the dinosaur and elephant areas last as these seemed to be the busiest places. Alternatively see these areas first thing in the morning or late afternoon.

*Follow the show and feeding times closely. We found the shows were well spaced out and you had time to get around to all of them if you wanted.

*Get in early for the Sea Lion Show – it was full when we went – plus they shut the doors a few minutes before it starts.

Blackpool Zoo information

Food: The Nawala Street Food area near the Dinosaur Safari was the most interesting food outlet with curries, samosas as well as the usual chips and burgers. There is also the large Lake View Cafe. Alternatively, there are plenty of picnic areas in pleasant surroundings.

Opening hours: From 10am daily except Christmas Day. Closing varies depending on the season from 3.45pm in winter to 5.45pm in summer.

Cost:  Family ticket (two adults, two children) £59.99. Adults £18.99, children (from 3-15) £14.50. Discounts available for pre-booking online.

Best for: Ages two to 10

Time needed: three hours.

Access and restrictions: Excellent flat site for wheelchairs and buggies. Wheelchairs available to hire. Entry discounts for disabled children and carers. 

Address: East Park Drive, Blackpool, FY3 8PP. Parking on site for £2.50 per day.

Note: We were given complimentary tickets for the purposes of this review. All opinions are our own.

The Ffestiniog Railway in North Wales – our review and top tips

The Ffestiniog Railway in North Wales – our review and top tips

We take our children on the Ffestiniog Railway which runs through Snowdonia National Park

What is it?

The Ffestiniog Railway is a vintage railway which has been running for nearly 200 years through the beautiful Snowdonia National Park.

Where is it?

It runs between Porthmadog’s harbourside and the former slate mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog – 13 and a half miles away.

What did we think?

This is one of the country’s best preserved vintage railways with wonderful scenery and child-friendly stops en route.

Highlights

*The steam engine. Harry Potter fans can imagine they are on the Hogwarts Express as the train starts off. The noise, smell and sensation of a steam engine is unique for children.

*Its history. The Ffestiniog Railway is the world’s oldest narrow gauge railway. This line was originally built to take slate from Snowdonia’s quarries to the harbour at Porthmadog from where it was shipped around the world.

*The carriages are original but despite their age are fairly comfortable and reasonably spacious.

A carriage on the A child points at the Ffestiniog Railway

*Table service. Attentive staff regularly come round offering drinks, snacks or guide books. They serve homemade cakes and a selection of alcoholic and soft drinks.

*The views. The journey starts along the water at Porthmadog harbour before chugging up into the mountains. It is a narrow route with some houses right by the railway. As you climb, the railway goes past rocky walls and woodland but it barely goes a few minutes without a great view of Snowdonia’s mountains, streams and valleys.

*Tan-y-Blwch walk. Getting off at Tan-y-Blwch is the best option with children. You have over an hour before the train comes back for the return journey. That is enough time to walk the 1/4 mile down through woodland to Llyn Mair and wander around the lake, possibly with a picnic, before heading back to the station.

*Tan-y-Blwch station. The station has a small but fun playground, cafe and hut showing some of the railway’s history. There is also a bridge over the railway where you can get a good view of the steam trains arriving and departing.

Our top tips

*Sit on the right hand side of the train on the way out of Porthmadog and the left on the way back for the best views.

The Ffestiniog Railway travels through the beautiful landscape

*The toilet is in the middle of the train so if you have little ones who might need to pay a visit, sit near that carriage.

*With younger children, consider riding to Tan-y-Bwlch rather than all the way to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The journey is 45 minutes each way instead of 1 hour 15 minutes. There is a playground and walk at Tan-y-Bwlch.

Ffestiniog Railway information

Food: Drinks and snacks menu served on-board. Cafes at Porthmadog and Tan-y-Blwch stations on the route serving cakes, ice creams and cooked meals.

Opening hours: For most of the season there are four trains per day. The first train leaves Porthmadog at 10.05am. Other departures are 11.25am, 1.35pm and 3.50pm with the last one getting back at 6.30pm. In the summer holidays there is also an 8.50am departure.

Cost: Adult all-day ticket £25.60, half way return to or from Tan-y-Blwch £16.50. One child free with every paying adult. All under-threes travel free.

Best for: Ages three upwards

Time needed: three hours

Access and restrictions: There are accessible toilets and baby changing facilities at all the main stations. The train itself has a toilet but it is small.

Address: Porthmadog Harbour Station, Glaslyn Bridge, LL49 9NF.

There is a small car park at Porthmadog which costs £2 per day.

Have you been, let us know what you thought?

We visit Bournemouth – home to ‘Britain’s best beach’ – for a family stay with our children

We visit Bournemouth – home to ‘Britain’s best beach’ – for a family stay with our children

Bournemouth Beach has been voted Britain’s best for two years running by TripAdvisor so we take our children on a trip to Dorset to see it for ourselves

Children start digging their first sandcastles, surfers ride the morning waves and a little land train sounds its horn as it heads along the promenade.

Bournemouth Beach is gearing up for another day doing what this resort does better than most.

And despite its large green spaces, genteel buildings and bustling town centre, it is the beach which remains the big draw here, a beach officially recognised by TripAdvisor, as Britain’s best, in both 2018 and 2019.

You can see why – soft sand, gentle waves and family-friendly activities stretch along the seafront.

The best way to get a feel for the area is to head for its pier. There you can ride the Observation Wheel to get your bearings, enjoy some traditional amusement arcades and set foot on the sand.

The pier itself is home to zip wires, climbing walls and other action-packed activities, which is another example of how this resort is modernising its appeal to families.

The popular land train pootles up and down the promenade, a Red Arrows simulator is available for those who like to move a little quicker and deck chairs to hire are luring those who prefer a leisurely pace.

The seafront runs for miles from surf haven Boscombe at one end to the millionaires’ mansions of Sandbanks at the other.

But what if it is raining? As it was for part of our visit.

We took cover at Bournemouth Oceanarium, next to the pier.

Exterior GV of Oceanarium the Aquarium in Bournemouth

It’s a busy aquarium complete with shark tunnel, penguin enclosure and a small children’s play area. There is enough to pass a pleasant hour or two especially if you visit when one of the fish-feeding sessions and talks are on. See our full review of Bournemouth Oceanarium here.

When it does dry up, we head for the beach. It is perfect for young children because the sand is soft, there are no hills or dunes, the tide doesn’t go out too far and the sea suits a paddle. Wild and rugged it isn’t but safe and secure it most certainly is.

Bournemouth Pier and beach

Bournemouth Pier

It is well worth heading to Boscombe’s seafront too. A couple of miles along from the centre of Bournemouth, they have just as good a stretch of beach here as well as a pier with mini-golf and a musical trail.

Boscombe also has surf schools and volleyball courts on the sand. And it is home to the superb family-friendly restaurant Urban Reef.

Urban Reef restaurant

Urban Reef restaurant

We ate here during our stay and it has a perfect blend of an informal seaside feel matched with fine food for the adults. Plus, a fabulous sea view.

Urban Reef exterior by the beach and sea

Urban Reef’s beach setting

There’s a restaurant upstairs and café downstairs and there’s plenty for children – the kids’ menu is designed by eight-year-old chefs, there are books to read, quizzes to do and menus to colour in.

Head to the other end of Bournemouth’s 10 miles of beach and you come to somewhere with a different feel entirely – Sandbanks.

This peninsula has its own pleasant beach but people and property watching is almost as much fun. You can take one of the ferries to Poole Harbour or Brownsea Island to get a glimpse of some of the mansions with their own jetties.

Homes in Sandbanks, view from Poole Harbour

Homes in Sandbanks, view from our ferry

Alternatively, just take a stroll around the streets of Sandbanks, home to the likes of footballer manager and I’m a Celebrity winner Harry Redknapp.

Hotel

We had our own taste of luxury with an overnight stay at Bournemouth’s Orchid Hotel.

The Orchid Hotel in Bournemouth

The Orchid Hotel in Bournemouth

This stylish venue has 31 rooms and is set just a few streets back from the beach between Bournemouth and Boscombe.

We had the choice of family rooms or two interconnecting rooms. We enjoyed the latter along with its comfortable beds, quality furnishings and a tasty breakfast with lots of good options for small children. (Read our full review of the hotel here).

And filled up with a hearty breakfast it was time to explore again.

Our Famous Five adventure

As this area has three resorts – Bournemouth, Boscombe and Sandbanks – on the same stretch of beach – it was hard to leave.

But we were off on a fabulous Famous Five adventure elsewhere in Dorset – read all about it here.

*Bournemouth was hailed TripAdvisor’s best beach for 2019, is your favourite among the top 10?

  1. Bournemouth Beach, Bournemouth, Dorset
  2. Luskentyre, Isle of Harris, Scotland
  3. St. Brelade’s Bay Beach, St Brelade, Jersey
  4. Woolacombe Beach, Woolacombe, Devon
  5. Barafundle Beach, Stackpole, Wales
  6. Filey Beach, Yorkshire
  7. Rhossili Bay, Rhossili, Wales
  8. Gorleston Beach, Norfolk
  9. Perranporth Beach, Perranporth, Cornwall
  10. Newborough Beach, Dwyran, Anglesey, Wales

(Our hotel, restaurant meal and aquarium access were supplied by Bournemouth Tourism and Tourism South East for the purposes of this review. All opinions are our own).

Oceanarium, the Bournemouth Aquarium – review and tips

Oceanarium, the Bournemouth Aquarium – review and tips

What is it?

Oceanarium is an aquarium in Bournemouth featuring a shark tunnel, penguin enclosure and cafe plus hundreds of types of fish, birds and mammals.

Where is it?

Oceanarium is in a prime location right on Bournemouth beach next to the town’s main pier. You can step straight off the sand and into the aquarium.

What did we think?

A compact aquarium in a great location and perfect when you need a bit of time indoors if the weather is bad or too hot. It is a bit narrow in places so may be a bit of a squash at busy times. We weren’t overly impressed with the café, it was a bit chaotic, but perhaps we were there at a bad time.

Looking at a fish in a tank at Oceanarium aquarium in Bournemouth

Highlights

*The Great Barrier Reef – an underwater tunnel you can view from above and then head down the stairs and walk through to see sharks and turtles.

*Kids play zone – this little bonus hidden in the far corner of the site is a small indoor play area and a kiosk selling ice creams. Mainly for children aged two to eight, the equipment gives parents a chance to sit down while their offspring burn off some energy.

*Penguin beach encounter – this is a dry weather activity ideally as it is mostly outdoors although there is a small viewing area undercover. You can see the penguins above ground and view them underwater downstairs in the aquarium.

Our top tips

*The most popular talks are on the hour with shark feeding time at 2pm when we visited, so try and visit then if you can.

*The site emptied at about 3pm when we visited so if you want a bit more space to explore then leave your visit until later in the day.

*If you eat in the Offshore Cafe, be aware that to use the toilet you have to key in a code from your receipt to get in and the keys are hard to press. The cafe was very busy and chaotic when we visited.

Exterior GV of Oceanarium the Aquarium in Bournemouth

Oceanarium, the Bournemouth Aquarium information

Food:

*Offshore Cafe serving sandwiches, jacket potatoes and simple children’s meals like cheese on toast plus cakes, snacks, fruit and drinks.

*Bay View Terrace cafe, with views of Bournemouth beach (closed in the winter).

*There’s also an ice cream kiosk at the play area.

Opening hours: open daily from 10am

Cost: Adult £12.50, child £8.50, under 3s free. Family ticket for four £29.95.

Best for: Ages three to eight

Time needed: one hour plus

Access and restrictions: There are lifts available for the two floors. It is narrow in places so wheelchair users would struggle at busy periods although the site is accessible.

Address: Oceanarium, Pier Approach, West Beach, Bournemouth, BH2 5AA.

For a full review of our trip to Bournemouth, click here and see our video below!

 

The Orchid Hotel in Bournemouth – Family Holiday Guide Review

The Orchid Hotel in Bournemouth – Family Holiday Guide Review

We stay at the chic Orchid Hotel in Bournemouth with our two children – read the review and see the exclusive video from our family stay.

What is it?

This is a stylish but relaxed boutique hotel in Bournemouth with 31 rooms, all with en suites. It opened in 2004 but has recently had a complete refurbishment.

Where is it?

The Orchid Hotel is near the centre of Bournemouth on Gervis Road, a few minutes’ walk from the town’s main beach and pier.

Is it family-friendly?

It is modern, quiet and welcoming with friendly staff. We felt completely at ease with our children there. There are some nice child-friendly touches like boiled egg and soldiers on the breakfast menu.

The rooms

There are different style rooms to choose from for a range of prices.

One of our interconnecting rooms

One of our interconnecting rooms

We had two interconnecting rooms. These are located either side of an entrance hall behind one shared front door. The two inner doors are heavy and could not initially be left open. This would have disappointingly giving us two separate rooms (not much use unless we split up with one adult and one child in each room. But we checked at reception and were given two door stops. Once the doors were propped open, it gave us a luxurious two-bedroom suite.

The other interconnecting room with single beds

The other interconnecting room with single beds

One room had a king-sized bed and bathroom, the other had twin beds and a smaller bathroom. Both had televisions and each had chairs to sit at in the window.

One of the en-suites

One of the en-suites

Food and drink

We enjoyed a good quality breakfast with a choice of cereals, fruit, yoghurt and all the hot food needed for a full English. Guests can eat outside in the garden on sunny days.
We were tempted by the restaurant (called No. 39 and run by a Michelin-starred head chef) for our evening meal. But we decided to go for a safer option with our two and found Urban Reef on the sea front in nearby Boscombe. It was fabulous – read more about it and our full review of Bournemouth here.

Nearby

The Orchid Hotel is near to the town centre and a 12-minute walk from East Cliff beaches, Bournemouth Pier and Bournemouth aquarium Oceanarium. Bournemouth Gardens are a 13-minute walk and Bournemouth Railway Station is a 14-minute walk away. See our full review and video of Bournemouth here.

Our highlights

*The size – not too big, not too small with a cosy, relaxed feel.
*The decor – tasteful and modern, especially the main areas.

The bar area

The bar area

*The location – not in the busy heart of Bournemouth but close enough.
*Free parking with several spaces in front and a car park behind.
*There is also free Wi-Fi.

Address

The Orchid Hotel, 34 Gervis Road, Bournemouth, Dorset, BH1 3DH

How to book

For more information see The Orchid Hotel website.

Our exclusive video showing you around the hotel

We stayed as guests of The Orchid, all views are our own.

Knowsley Safari Park – our review and top tips on this popular day out for families near Liverpool

Knowsley Safari Park – our review and top tips on this popular day out for families near Liverpool

Knowsley Safari Park in Merseyside has been entertaining and educating children since it opened in 1971

What is it?

Knowsley Safari Park has the longest animal safari drive in the country. Visitors drive five miles through animal enclosures which house over 750 animals.

There’s also a walk-around zoo, animal shows and talks, a bird of prey centre and a small fairground.

Where is it?

It is in Knowsley, just off the M62 motorway on the outskirts of Liverpool in Merseyside.

What did we think?

We thought there was a great mix of activities here and different elements to enjoy, making a busy day out for children and families. We stayed five hours and could easily have filled the whole day.

A meerkat at Knowsley Safari Park

A meerkat

Highlights

*The safari drive – we saw camels, lions, deers, baboons and more in the various zones and the animals have more space to roam than traditional zoo enclosures. When we went it was raining, so we perhaps saw fewer animals than usual and no monkeys jumped on our car – to my disappointment and my husband’s relief! There are two lanes so you can overtake or pause to look as you please.

*Timetabled animal talks during weekends and school holidays with the giraffes, meerkats, bushdogs, tigers and wolves. Check the timetable at the start of the day so you don’t miss any you want to see (they don’t give you a timetable with your ticket and map at the entrance).

Two giraffes at Knowsley Safari Park

*Timed flying displays at the bird of prey centre and fabulous sea lion shows in a large arena.

Two sea lions at the sea lion show at Knowsley Safari Park

*The Amur Tiger Trail – a spacious new area with great tiger viewing opportunities.

Two children at the tiger viewing area at Knowsley Safari Park

Tiger viewing area

*Our children loved the training camp section, where you could pit yourself against the jumping and running abilities of a tiger.

*The wolf patrol – a nice little walk next to the lake, with information on how to track wolves.

Our top tips

Safari top tips

*You will obviously need your own vehicle for the safari drive unless you book a place on the baboon bus. This is a 16 or 33-seat minibus which you catch at the information centre at weekends or in the school holidays. This is great for anyone who doesn’t want to drive or arrives by public transport plus those who don’t want to risk their car being damaged.

*You can’t get out of the car during the safari drive-through, so make sure nobody needs the toilet or feels sick! There are toilets you can park at before or after you come out. There are two lanes going round so you can exit more quickly if you do need to leave and you can return as often as you like within your visit.

*If it’s raining, you will obviously stay dry on the drive-through however visibility won’t be as good for little ones in the back as you can’t clear the windows. Plus, some of the animals may be sheltering.

*The right-hand/driver’s side of our car seemed to have the best viewing on our trip, to our daughter’s disappointment on the left.

*The safari park takes no responsibility for damage caused by animals – if you don’t want to risk it, use the car-friendly route which avoids the baboons or book the baboon bus.

*Soft top cars/vehicles are not allowed through the lion or baboon areas.

*Don’t feed the animals! Staff are all around the route and are very vigilant about this.

*There is a number you can call if you break down – or you can just blow your horn.

*You can drive around as many times as you like.

Tips for the rest of the park

*Prams and buggies are not allowed in some areas including the bird of prey centre, the bat cave and the sea lion auditorium.

*Fair rides cost extra – you need to buy a £10 wristband or individual tickets for £2 each, from a kiosk. Rides are aimed at younger children and there are some height restrictions. Adults are allowed to ride for free with smaller children on most rides.

A mum and daughter on a car at the fairground at Knowlsey Safari Park

*There is a little train which costs an extra £2 per person. It doesn’t take you any where, it finishes where it starts.

*There are baby changing facilities and staff can warm bottles or baby food for families in the cafe.

*Don’t be put off by the long queue to see the sea lion show – there is loads of room to sit inside.

The sea lion show at Knowsley Safari Park

Sea lion show

Knowsley Safari Park information

Food: Picnics are welcome and there are lots of tables and benches dotted around. At the park is a restaurant, an outdoor grill over the summer, an ice cream parlour and a coffee house which serves cakes.

Opening hours: 10am to 5pm. Last entry to safari drive at 4pm.
Cost (on the gate – 10 per cent off online) adults £17.50, children three and over (and 60+): £13.50, children under three: free. Family of two adults and two children: £59, family of two adults and three children: £72.50. Membership deals are available.

Best for: Ages three to eight.

Time needed: Four to six hours

Access and restrictions: The walk around area is on one level with ramped kerb-access.

There are adult changing rooms with hoist facilities.

All viewing areas are accessible by wheelchairs and pushchairs, except the  giraffe platform.

There is a separate carriage for wheelchair users on the train. The Baboon Bus can be converted for one wheelchair, if given 48 hours’ notice.

Address: For sat navs, use postcode L344AN.

Have you been? Let us know what you liked best. If you are planning to visit, feel free to ask us any questions below.

Four holiday in Dorset: Following in the footsteps of the Famous Five

Four holiday in Dorset: Following in the footsteps of the Famous Five

We spend a day exploring the spiritual home of the Famous Five in Enid Blyton’s beloved Dorset

“Dick,” shout my children, calling to their dad as we climb the hill to ‘Kirrin Castle’.

“DIIIIICK, come here!”

I fare best when our children ask us to pretend we are the Famous Five for I get to be feisty cousin George (Georgina).

My son is Julian, my daughter, Anne and Timmy is our imaginary dog.

Today’s game feels far more real, as we are playing at the very locations in Dorset which inspired the Famous Five stories.

I devoured Enid Blyton as a child. Night after night I’d stay awake until all hours reading book after book, series after series.

So, it’s been magical to revisit childhood favourites with my own children from The Magic Faraway Tree through to the Adventures series.

The Famous Five stories may be old fashioned with some outdated ideas (I take the opportunity to explain this as I read). But with more than 100 million copies sold they remain as popular today.

The daring children have remarkably grown-up free adventures, finding treasure and smugglers and, it strikes me these days, never needing the toilet!

All amidst a rural backdrop of blue skies, sea and countryside, bicycle rides and lots of deliciously described picnics.

Today we are exploring the Dorset Enid Blyton loved and visited with her family for over 40 years, on the Isle of Purbeck, (which is more a peninsula than an isle).

The first three Famous Five Books

Kirrin Castle

The first Famous Five book, Five on a Treasure Island, was published over 75 years ago, in 1942.

In it, we are introduced to Kirrin Castle, on Kirrin Island, which belongs to George, near her home in Kirrin Bay.

“It had been built of big white stones. Broken archways, tumbledown towers, ruined walls – that was all that was left of a once beautiful castle, proud and strong.”

The inspiration for Kirrin Castle is said to have been Corfe Castle in Purbeck, so this becomes our first stop.

It is not on an island but our children are thrilled as we near the fabulous ruins which loom over the surrounding area.

Corfe Castle, the inspiration for Kirrin Castle

Corfe Castle, the inspiration for Kirrin Castle

They race up the grassy slope to explore the 1,000-year-old castle, which survived the English Civil War when it was partly demolished by Cromwell’s troops and now belongs to the National Trust.

We explore all the hidden nooks and crannies and remember the adventures the Five had here, such as finding lost gold.

Even without the Blyton connection, we would have had a great time.

(Tip: If it is a school holiday get there early as parking in the small village of Corfe can be difficult. The small car park opposite the castle fills up quickly and the other option through the narrow village is a five to 10 minute walk away and was almost full when we visited).

Steam train

Enid Blyton first saw Corfe Castle when she arrived by steam train.

The steam train at Corfe Castle

The steam train at Corfe

And this is something you can still do today – Swanage Railway runs steam trains between Swanage and Norden. There is a picturesque stop at Corfe Castle so you could arrive or depart from here on your Famous Five adventure.

Of course, the Famous Five often travelled by steam train – particularly to return from their boarding schools ready for the holidays and more adventures.

Bathing – Swanage Pier

Next stop is the pretty seaside town of Swanage where Enid Blyton enjoyed swimming around the pier with her husband.

It was too cold for a swim when we went but we enjoyed a picnic, sadly no hard-boiled eggs, lashings of ginger beer or lemonade for us though.

Swanage

Swanage

On quiet days – if you are in the car – you can park on the seafront, alternatively there are large car parks a short walk from the beach.

Island adventure

Brownsea Island, in Poole Harbour, is said to have been the inspiration for Whispering Island, described by Enid Blyton as Keep Away Island in Five Have a Mystery to Solve.

In Enid Blyton’s day, visitors were not allowed – but now it’s owned by the National Trust.

The ferry to Brownsea island

The ferry to Brownsea island

We caught a ferry over from Sandbanks to explore. Brownsea Island Ferries run regular services from Sandbanks and from Poole Quay to the island. Greenslade Pleasure Boats also run a ferry service from Poole. Departures are about every 30 minutes with the last boat leaving at 5pm.

Once you have landed on the island there is lots to explore, the wildlife there includes rare red squirrels and we were lucky enough to spot three.

A red squirrel we spotted on Brownsea Island

A red squirrel we spotted on Brownsea Island

There are also clifftop walks, which lead down to rocky beaches. If you explore the far end of the island you can see where the first Scout camp was held by Baden-Powell in 1907.

Exploring Brownsea Island

Exploring Brownsea Island

A trip to an island, always led to an adventure for the Famous Five and we wished we had longer here. But our only adventure was nearly missing the last boat back!

In conclusion

This is a fabulous way for Enid Blyton fans to spend their ‘hols’ with lashings of fun.

You can base yourself in the Isle of Purbeck but it is only a 25-minute drive to family-friendly Bournemouth which has more accommodation and activities for children if you want to make your Famous Five day into a mini-break in Dorset.