We take our children on a family trip to an award-winning Christmas light festival
Family festive opportunities are in short supply this year so our trip to Lightopia at Heaton Park in Manchester was eagerly awaited.
Organisers promise a safe and socially distanced event.
We took our children after school for a 5.20pm start, here is our full guide to the Christmas festival.
What is it
The Lightopia Festival – Christmas at Heaton Park – is an award-winning and socially-distanced lantern and light festival.
It takes place around a series of lit art installations and laser beams, which have been set up at the park in Manchester.
When it it
Lightopia at Heaton Park runs from November 20, 2020 to January 3, 2021.
The event is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, except during school holidays and closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Gates Open at 5pm, last entry is 8.30pm and it closes at 10pm.
How much are tickets
Tickets are booked in advance, they are £20 online for adults (or £22 on the day), £13 for children (or £15 on the day) and £60 for families of two adults and two children (£68 on the day). Children under three can go free.
Essential carers of disabled visitors can attend for free, the disabled visitor pays the normal admission fee.
*What we called the Rainbow Tree
Children stand on a circle and their moving feet sends different coloured lights shooting up the tree, creating a beautiful display.
*The laser show on the lake.
Visitors are directed to stand in socially distanced spaces to watch this lovely show towards the end of the trail.
*Food and drink
There are stalls and bars dotted around the trail selling food like hot dogs, carvery baps, chips, donuts, malled wine and hot chocolate.
*Prepare to queue at the start, entry is in 20-minute time slots and we did have to wait when we arrived, but it is organised very well so that you are spaced out from the groups in front and behind.
*It’s quite a spaced out route, you will walk a bit further than some other light shows, so take a buggy if you have young children.
*It is all outdoors so dress for the weather and ensure children are wrapped up warm and wearing sensible footwear. You will always be on a path but look out for the occasional bit of uneven ground as it is dark.
Is everything included in the price?
All the displays are included in the ticket price. There are stalls selling food, drink and those flashing hand-held contraptions that our daughter loves. It was card only for payment.
How long will it take?
It takes about an hour and a half but that depends on how fast you walk and whether you buy food and drink. Take your time walking around, to take it all in, you certainly don’t need to rush.
Where to park
There are car parks on site and it is best to book in advance, then follow the directions on your email confirmation.
There was lots to keep them entertained, here are our top tips for what to do with children on a family boat trip along the canal or a holiday in the area.
The market town of Llangollen is a fabulous day out for children.
When travelling by canal, the part between Trevor Bason and Llangollen town is narrow and not suited to beginners.
If you don’t attempt it, it’s still worth spending time in Llangollen before you collect your boat or after you have finished your canal cruise if you are nearby.
To enjoy the town centre, join families relaxing on the rocks next to the River Dee. There are lots of flat stones to walk acroos on the river and shallow pools in between. Families often pop down there to enjoy an ice cream or fish and chips with a view.
You reach the river stones via the Victorian promenade, which is a lovely walkway raised above the river. Next to it there is a large playground.
Children will also love the spectacular Horseshoe Falls, where the canal and river meet to form a weir, a couple of miles west of the town.
You can see kayakers flying down this part of the River Dee and there are pleasant walks.
There are three meres near to this stretch of canal. You can moor up to walk around Colemere, or stop at Blakemere to admire the view.
If you moor up overnight in Ellesmere there is a walk to the town’s lake through woodland off the towpath near Blackwater Marina.
Blakemere at Ellesmere
It is about a 10-minute walk through a lovely wood to the mere, then you can go to the visitor centre, or head clockwise around to the sculpture trail and wide-open playground.
The town itself is pleasant enough to stroll around with a few takeaways and Vermeulens Delicatessen famed for its pork pies. You can walk back to your boat along the canal next to a giant Tesco, which is handy if you need to stock up.
This wharf in Llangollen is part of a World Heritage site.
Welsh cream teas are served at the Wharf Tea Room, with views out over the town and canal.
You can try a horse drawn boat trip from here – they have been running from the wharf for more than 100 years. Trips are 45 minutes or two hours.
Horse drawn boats from Llangollen Wharf
Llangollen Steam railway
This heritage railway line starts at Llangollen Station and runs alongside the River Dee, travelling through the picturesque Dee Valley.
It has events for families throughout the year such as meeting Thomas the Tank Engine.
There is a small cafe and a couple of lovely walks to view the aqueduct. One walk heads along the Llangollen Canal a short distance, down the original Offa’s Dyke path, through some narrow, steep woodland and out onto a bridge with a great view.
Alternatively, you could head out of the marina towards the aqueduct but before you reach it, turn left onto a public footpath signed Ty Mawr Country Park. Walk along the path and then turn right and head down to the river. It is a lovely spot, with a muddy beach, rocks to climb on and even a paddle in the river on a hot day. You then walk back towards the aqueduct and end up underneath its huge towers. This gives children a chance to appreciate the scale of the 200-year-old structure.
Moor up and explore
The beauty of travellng by boat on the canal is that you can stop almost anywhere. We found lots of lovely country walks this way.
The towpath is usually flat and often gravelled so is fine to cycle or scoot in a lot of places.
If your children are older you can send them off the boat along the towpath and collect them when you catch up with them further ahead.
Here are our pick of the best beaches in and around Dawlish.
This is a flat, sandy beach with shallow waters. It is very family-friendly with lifeguards keeping watch over the summer months.
It is a Blue Flag beach – awarded for high standards of cleanliness and safety.
The large car park is set behind a grassy area which you walk through to reach the beach.
The sand is separated into sections by rows of wooden groynes. There is a high, sloped wall above the sand so only walk down via the regular steps provided and hold on to younger children’s hands as you approach.
There can be big waves on a windy day which makes the beach good for bodyboards and surfing.
But when the weather is calm it is a safe bathing spot too.
Heading from the town to the beach you drive past a large funfair and there is an ice cream shop and cafe opposite.
If you fancy a good walk, the beach travels up to the mouth of the River Exe. It also backs on to a wildlife reserve.
Dogs are not allowed on Dawlish Warren beach.
Address: Dawlish Warren Beach, Beach Rd, Dawlish, EX7 0NF.
The town of Dawlish has a beach which is a short walk from the centre.
It’s quite pebbly and travels all the way to Red Rock at Dawlish Warren.
We went on a windy day and the sight of the big waves bashing the sea wall was spectacular. Although paddling/swimming in the sea was definitely off the agenda.
There’s a railway station next to the beach. The railway line runs alongside the beach and there’s a wide footpath between the line and the sand.
Dawlish is a small but pleasant place for a stroll and there is a car park and on-street parking.
The river runs through a park with ducks and swans. There is mini-golf in the park and plenty of cafes or ice cream shops.
We visited Gaye’s Creamery for their famous ice cream cone with clotted cream on top!
Dogs are allowed on part of the beach.
Address: Dawlish Town Beach, SW Coast Path, Dawlish, EX8 5BT.
We walked right alongside Dawlish beach and found:
This beach is about a 10-minute walk from the centre of Dawlish, if you start at the railway tunnel, you can follow the sea path round to the right (with the sea on your left).
Our childen had a great time here, it’s a sandy/stony beach with a sheltered spot/open cave, good for keeping warm unless there’s an easterly wind.
The curved bay is good for swimming and the dramatic red sandstone cliffs with the railway at the bottom forms a spectacular backdrop.
There are rock pools, a few colourful beach huts (some available for hire), a cafe with ice cream shop and occasional dolphin sightings.
The beach used to be known as Gentleman’s Beach, because in Victorian times only men were allowed to bathe there!
The nearest parking is on the street opposite the railway line. You can cross a footbridge from there to get to the beach or enjoy the view from the coastal path above. There is also a car park and on street parking in Dawlish town centre.
Dogs are not allowed on Coryton Cove beach from May 1 to September 30.
This is one for the adventurous families.
You park in Holcombe village and then walk down the steep Smuggler’s Lane to access the beach.
From there head under the railway line and up onto a sea wall path.
Keep a close eye on little ones as there are steep drops until you reach some steps down onto the beach. And the steps are narrow and open to the beach.
It is a sandy beach with good waves for bodyboarding.
You also get dramatic red sandstone cliffs at each end which you can imagine as ideal cover for smugglers who made use of this remote beach in years gone by.
There is a kiosk at the bottom of Smuggler’s Lane selling drinks and snacks.
This is also an excellent spot for train spotters as you can get really close to the trains heading in both directions along the line.
This narrow, isolated beach is used mainly by locals and there are no lifeguards.
Dogs are allowed on Holcombe beach.
Address: Holcombe Beach, Holcombe, Teignmouth, Devon, EX7 0JL.
We discover if Cofton Holidays is as good as it sounds for a break with children
Cofton Holiday Park/Cofton Holidays
Where is it?
Cofton is at Starcross near Dawlish in south east Devon, 20 minutes from the M5 and Exeter.
What is it?
It’s a five-star holiday park. The 80-acre site is family-run and has won multiple awards and we are very impressed, it’s one of the nicest holiday parks we’ve stayed at.
Is it family friendly?
Yes, very much so, there are lots of facilities for children – indoor and outdoor pools, an arcade and a woodland adventure area.
There are indoor and outdoor play areas for younger children and bookable activities.
It’s a great holiday park for children – our two love it as do we.
There are various options – from camping through to more luxurious options.
Luxury lodges at Coftons
You can take your own tent, caravan or motorhome.
There are static caravans, luxury holiday lodges with hot tubs and holiday cottages and apartments to choose from.
We stay in a static caravan in a great location, next to the centre where reception, the pools and restaurants are based.
Our static caravan
It is warm and cosy with two bedrooms and very comfy beds. The main bedroom has an en-suite, and there’s a separate bathroom with shower.
The double bedroom
The kitchen/diner/lounge is open plan.
The lounge area
It feels modern and clean, very comfortable with everything we need, except maybe a dishwasher!
The kitchen area
Food and drink
Two of the restaurants on site serve from the same good menu.
The Swan pub is on the ground floor and includes an outside patio.
Amelia’s upstairs is bigger and also includes outdoor seating overlooking the pool. There is a soft play area off this restaurant for under-eights.
Evening meals and Sunday carveries are also served in the Warren Retreat – an area which hosts children’s discos, live cabaret and other entertainment. This area is closed when we visit due to Covid restrictions.
There’s also a fish and chip takeaway and a small shop selling essentials including bread and milk.
There’s a lovely heated indoor swimming pool, which we use nearly every day. It is perfectly warm and a real hit with us all.
It is all one depth, there are splash taps and large, clean changing rooms.
There’s also a heated outdoor pool, open over the summer, great for warmer days.
There is an arcade with lots of games. It also has American pool tables and a mini tenpin bowling alley with four lanes.
*Woodland adventure area
At the top of the site and at the base of a forest Is a wooden adventure area complete with zip wire, assault course and climbing nets.
Woodland adventure play area
There is an outdoor play area with swings and climbing frames.
There’s a soft play area for younger children (closed when we were there due to Covid restrictions).
Anglers are well catered for here – there are well-stocked fishing lakes and fishing competitons. Assisted fishing is available for adults and children. All fish caught are put back into the water.
There are activities for children in the day – when we stay, youngsters can learn to fish or try pond dipping. At other times there are children’s discos in the evening and other entertainment.
Learning to fish
The nearest beach is the Blue Flag beach at Dawlish Warren. It’s a 35-minute walk or a seven-minute drive. There’s a big car park next to it which can get busy and a fun fair. Life guards are on duty during the summer months.
The town has a river, sea walk, crazy golf and places to eat plus Dawlish Town Beach.
*Haldon Forest Park
This is 3,500 acres of woodland with three walking trails and four cycling rails (bikes can be hired).
We take our children to Cofton Holiday Park and explore the surrounding beaches and attractions
“This is amazing,” says our son and we all feel the same.
The sheer joy of a family swim makes the months of lockdown seem a distant memory.
This perfectly warm indoor pool is just one of the excellent facilities at Cofton Holiday Park near Dawlish in Devon.
Swim sessions are pre-booked and limited to an hour to ensure the pool isn’t too crowded while Covid precautions are in place.
It is the same with Cofton’s large outdoor pool, which opens over the warmer months.
The pools are at the centre of the sprawling site along with restaurants and arcade and it’s all just a short walk from our static caravan.
We are in a Tamar model and it is a superb place to stay – modern, spotlessly clean, with two smart TVs, fast WiFi, two bathrooms, good kitchen facilities and plenty of space in the well laid out lounge/dining area.
Our static caravan
There are also luxury lodges with hot tubs, holiday cottages or you can bring your own tent, caravan or motorhome.
The lounge area
Children could spend their whole holiday at Cofton – there’s also a woodland adventure park with zip line, small playground, fishing lakes and woods to explore.
It would also be pretty easy to eat here every night with three restaurants (one closed during our visit), serving good family food and drinks at reasonable prices. There is also an excellent fish and chip shop and a small store on site selling essential food and drinks.
The outdoor pool and restaurants
Plus there are children’s activities run by the entertainment team with daily activities like pond dipping, fishing lessons and pirate adventures, when we visit.
With beautiful Devon on our doorsteps we have to get out and about too.
The beaches are our main aim and the nearest is Dawlish Warren. You can walk from the site – up steep woodland, along a footpath to a walk which takes about half an hour.
Alternatively it is a 10-minute drive from Cofton to the beach’s large car park, past a popular funfair.
This child-friendly flat beach stretches along a sand spit at the mouth of the Exe estuary.
It’s good for games and sandcastle building, there are lifeguards patrolling during the summer and a cafe and ice cream shop.
We also spend time at Coryton Cove near Dawlish, a sheltered partly sandy spot with a cafe.
For an adventurous trip out, try Holcombe Beach. You can’t park there but have to leave your car in the village and negotiate the steep Smuggler’s Lane.
Once you walk under the railway line, which hugs the shore, you come out on a high sea wall path (beware, there’s a sheer, high drop) with steep, narrow steps leading down to the sand.
The beach is good for bodyboarding and offers great views with dramatic red sandstone cliffs at both ends. If you love train-spotting then you can stand inches from the main railway line as services whizz past.
For a more sedate pace of life, try Dawlish town with its gentle river running though the park and traditional seaside appeal.
Devon clotted cream ice creams from Gaye’s Creamery, eaten beside the ducks floating along the weirs on the river makes for a relaxing afternoon.
You can also enjoy the crashing waves along the sea wall and games of mini-golf.
Cofton Holdays is only 20 minutes from Exeter and a similar drive to the hills of Dartmoor.
Haldon Forest Park with its range of bike and walking trails is another good option if you want to head inland.
Back at the park
After one hearty dinner at the park’s Amelia’s Cafe, as the evening sun shines over the rolling hills, we set out to explore the area on foot.
We look down to the holiday park laid out before us. “This is amazing,” I say.
We take a trip down memory lane in Exeter and find out if it is family-friendly and good for children
A tatty white door, three overflowing bins and a weed-covered driveway isn’t the normal tourist photo opportunity.
But it’s the outside of this terraced house in Exeter which has inspired our visit.
It’s where my husband lived when he was at university in Devon – and now he’s come back with a wife and two children in tow.
His time as a student hadn’t resulted in much knowledge of whether the city was child-friendly.
But on our short break we discover there is plenty – apart from taking a trip with dad down memory lane – to entertain the little ones.
This is the best place to start – the bustling waterfront has quirky shops, bars, restaurants and wide paths for cycling, scooting and strolling alongside the River Exe and Exeter Canal.
Saddles & Paddles
We take a different mode of transport by hopping into a canoe, hired from Saddles & Paddles on the Quayside. As the name suggests they hire bikes and boats from a waterside store.
After a cheery and comprehensive briefing, the four of us are paddling, occasionally even in unison, along the river and then canal.
Family canoe ride on the River Exe in Exeter
We work as a team to travel the two miles or so to the Double Locks pub where you can moor up and grab a drink in the large garden, which has a playground and plenty of space.
We then turn round and head back to the Quay, returning via a super low bridge which you have to duck under.
The canal is very safe as no motorboats are on it, just canoeists, kayakers and paddleboarders. It is a peaceful and fun way to start our visit.
Where is child-friendly to eat in Exeter?
After working up an appetite, we tuck into giant pizzas at On The Waterfront, which is next to Saddles & Paddles. It has good outside seating and an atmospheric inside in an old customs house.
On the Waterfront restaurant
The children’s pizzas, only £6 each, disappear in a flash and even our large adult portions go down well. This is a good, friendly, relaxed family restaurant.
On the opposite side of the water, in a glass building, sits another excellent eatery.
Lobster at Rockfish
Rockfish is a chain with restaurants around the South West. It’s known for its fresh seafood and changes its dish of the day daily to reflect what’s come out of the waters around Devon.
I have a fabulous lobster and our children tuck into tasty fish and chips.
The children’s menu, well priced at £7.95, includes an ice cream dessert and a great pack of goodies to keep them entertained.
It has a puzzle book, dolphin jigsaw, card games and colouring pencils.
The activities all carry a message about protecting the maritime environment.
Once you’ve headed up the steep streets (Exeter is a fairly hilly city) into the city centre, the cathedral should be your first stop.
The Cathedral Green is a lovely space and inside the large cathedral (entrance £5 adults, children free) you can collect a free children’s activity booklet, guiding you around the building with questions and clues to answer about what’s inside. There is also brass rubbing sheets you can do at a cost of £2.
Exeter is an historic city with links to the Romans, Normans and more. You can wander past Sir Francis Drake’s favourite pub – the half timbered Ship Inn, as you walk from the cathedral to the castle.
It is more castle walls really than traditional fortress but most of the walls sit in Northernhay Gardens, the oldest public open space in Britain, which dates back to the 1600s.
Today the gardens are peaceful, picturesque and a good space for children to run around.
If you exit the gardens via the war memorial and turn left you come to Exeter’s most colourful street, Gandy Street, with coffee shops and bars lining the cobbles. It is a good spot to stop for snack or drink.
The RAMM and Underground Passages
Two of the city’s other top attractions are closed when we visit.
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) reveals the area’s rich history and global connections.
And we were sad to miss the city’s Underground Passages where guided tours have taken place since the 1930s. They were designed to bring clean drinking water from natural springs outside the walled city.
The Underground Passages (pic: Mike Alsford)
Haldon Forest Park
One place which wasn’t closed – and very much open to the elements as we discover on a wet walk – is Haldon Forest Park.
Haldon Forest Park
About four miles outside the city, this large woodland area is packed with walkers, cyclists and Segway riders.
There is a Go Ape course, cafe, playground and lots of different length trails to tackle. As it’s pouring, we take the simple green route, which is a 1.5 mile circular walk with spectacular views out towards the sea.
You could easily spend most of the day at this large park, especially if you brought bikes with you.
There are other attractions on the outskirts of Exeter like Crealy Theme Park and Darts Farm Shopping Village.
The city is only around half an hour from the seaside resorts of Exmouth and Dawlish, as well as the hills of Dartmoor.
If you wanted to you could base yourself in the city and explore all of those areas.
But our time in Exeter is up and we have created plenty of new family memories to add to the student stories from two decades ago.
Mattel Play! will not be reopening following coronavirus closure
It was popular with youngsters who loved children’s favourites Thomas & Friends, Fireman Sam and Bob the Builder.
But now Mattel Play! on the Royal Albert Dock has closed for good.
The adventure play centre at the Albert Dock launched in 2016 and was the first of its kind in Europe.
It was split into three themed areas dedicated to the iconic characters.
The Heritage Great Britain attraction closed in March to prevent the spread of coronavirus but has now revealed that it will not reopen.
Harold the Helicopter’s ball pool
A spokesperson said: “Following five wonderful years at the Albert Dock, we have taken the difficult decision to close Mattel Play! Liverpool.
“As the focus of the Albert Dock continued to be more bars and restaurants, we have therefore, following a discussion with the landlord, agreed to exit our lease earlier than planned.
“We would have very much liked to have remained at the Albert Dock throughout the summer months but the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and the consequences which are likely to be felt for many months, made this ambition untenable.”
This website reviewed Mattel Play! and thought it was great for younger children who were fans of Fireman Sam, Bob the Builder and Thomas.
We share all the details of our 67 foot bond class Anglo Welsh barge
Boat hire company Anglo Welsh has more than 160 narrowboats at 11 bases across England and Wales.
We hired one from its Trevor Basin site in north Wales to take across the famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal into Shropshire.
It was our first canal boat trip and we booked it through Drifters Waterway Holidays.
We had a great time (read our full review) Here we’ll look at the boat in more detail and explain how suitable it is for children.
We hired a 4-6 berth canal boat called Askrigg, a bond class narrowboat, which is one of the most luxurious that Anglo Welsh offers.
Bond class narrowboat, Askrigg
Let’s start with space and there was plenty of it. The length of the boat is 67 feet and it’s nearly 7 feet wide. It doesn’t even feel that narrow.
It’s quite dauntingly long when you take the helm for the first time but it is fabulous for the children to have so much room to move about and play.
Starting at the rear is a bedroom with two small single beds.
There are two small beds in one bedroom
A narrow corridor, which could be a squeeze for some, runs alongside the next three rooms.
There is a bathroom, a bedroom with a double bed followed by a second identical bathroom.
The other bedroom has a small double bed
It opens up into a galley area with kitchen and dining table with sofa-seating which converts into another bed if needed.
At the front of the boat are two leather chairs facing a TV and radio.
Inside the Anglo Welsh narrowboat Askrigg
It’s a great layout and worked well for us – having two bedrooms and two bathrooms is a real bonus.
There are places to sit outside at the front and rear of the boat.
Was it easy to helm?
It is straightforward, once you’ve grasped that turning the tiller right makes the boat go left and vice versa.
As you steer from the rear, take glasses if you need them!
It’s good fun, rewarding but never relaxing when you are at the helm. It’s definitely best to take it in turns if there are two of you, to give each of you a chance to fully enjoy the experience.
What about equipment?
The boat is very well equipped. We found plenty of crockery, pots and pans, cutlery and cooking utensils. It was all in an excellent condition, very clean, and most of it looked new.
There is a gas oven, grill and four-ring hob as well as a microwave (only use the microwave when the engine is running or it will sap all your power). A kettle to boil on the hob is provided as well as a fridge freezer.
Bedding and towels are provided, along with a hairdryer and a couple of folding chairs.
What about gadgets?
There is a small TV with signal dependent on your location – we didn’t get ours to work but it does take DVDs.
There is also a radio and CD player.
In the lounge area are two plug sockets and underneath the television is a cigarette lighter point.
Try to charge mobile phones and other devices while the boat is moving as electricity drops when the engine is turned off.
Is there space to shower?
The bathrooms are a fairly tight squeeze for an adult around the toilet and sink areas but the showers were large, powerful and warmed up instantly.
Don’t forget to pump out the shower using the button at the side of it where you are done. A new bar of soap is supplied in each bathroom.
The chemical toilets are flushed using a lever with your foot.
Canal boat toilets use a sealed holding tank on board which you empty at a pump-out point if and when you need to – we didn’t.
Is there enough water and can you drink it?
There is initially enough water onboard for at least a day.
You can stop at a water point (marked on the map and signposted) and access the tap using a key Anglo Welsh give you.
You connect one end of the boat’s hose pipe to the tap and insert the other end into the hole of the boat’s water tank.
It’s a really simple process once you’ve managed to moor up!
We were told that it’s best to fill up every day, but we were careful with our water usage and managed every other day.
You can apparently drink the water but we took bottled.
How does electricity work on an Anglo Welsh boat?
We never ran out of power. An inverter on the boat converts the power from the onboard batteries.
The amount of power available depends on how long the engine has been running so keep it running for a time when you are moored (but not after 8pm).
It’s recommended to charge mobiles and tablets etc when the engine is running so you don’t drain the batteries.
Was there heating on the boat?
All the company’s boats have gas central heating with radiators and ours was cosy and warm.
There’s also a multi-fuel stove, which we didn’t use.
Are there life jackets/buoyancy aids?
If you request them when you book, you can chose a life jacket to fit when you are at the boatyard before you depart. Both our children had one and were happy to wear them.
Are pets allowed?
Yes, up to two dogs are allowed, one is free to bring, a second costs £25 or £35 depending on the length of stay.
Are bikes allowed?
You can take one or two bikes but they have to be kept outside and you need to be careful when going under bridges or tunnels if you leave them on the roof.
Was it clean and Covid-compliant?
Canal boating is an excellent socially-distanced holiday option as you have self-contained accommodation and you are never too close to other people.
Our boat was very clean and had been thoroughly disinfected beforehand. Anti-bacterial spray and cleaning products were supplied on board.
Do they tell you how to use the boat?
Yes, the handover is very thorough. Ours took an hour as the Anglo Welsh staff member explained every aspect of the boat, how to helm it, all the safety precautions and more.
He also had plenty of time for questions and even headed out of the marina with us for the first few hundred yards of our journey to help with any teething problems and offer tips.
On arrival back, the staff turned our boat round for us and moored it.
We collected our boat from Trevor Basin in north Wales. There is free parking at the boatyard and we were able to park right next to the barge, which was great for loading and unloading.
A great space for children with everything you could need.
Our first boating holiday takes in the famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal
I have been in charge of an 18-tonne canal boat the length of a lorry for roughly a minute.
Concentrating hard, I navigate on to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the width of our craft Askrigg, trying to ignore the 40-metre sheer drop on one side into the River Dee.
The expert, who has just given us an hour’s worth of thorough instructions, steps off the barge and we are alone crossing the longest aqueduct in Britain and the highest in the world.
As introductions to canal life goes, there’s nothing like being thrown in at the deep end as our two children enjoy the ride and my husband helps direct from the front – almost 70 feet away.
We are on a Drifters waterways holiday and our Anglo Welsh boat has just left Trevor basin near Llangollen in north east Wales.
About to depart from Trevor basin
Our four-day route is along the Llangollen Canal with overnight stops at the border village of Chirk and the Shropshire town of Ellesmere.
I quickly discover that canal boating is simultaneously very relaxing and stressful. Once we cross the aqueduct with its amazing views, there are other boats to dodge, tight turns to master and long tunnels to chug through.
There’s even a swing bridge to lift and our six-year-old gets out, armed with the windlass (the tool to lift canal locks and bridges) and starts helping turn the gauge to raise it high above the canal and allow us to pass through.
At first, bridges and locks may be daunting but they quickly become part of the fun, giving the children some activity and making them feel part of the team.
Luckily, every boater seems friendly and happy to help if you get in a fix.
Helming takes some practice, the boat is steered from the rear with a tiller. You may find yourself gently bumping the sides, glancing off low bridges or getting stuck in shallow water.
Coming out from a tunnel
It is all part of the adventure and steering quickly becomes second nature, even if you can never entirely relax at the helm.
We take it in turns so one of us can be with the children, prepare food or even relax, lazing at the front, enjoying the scenery.
There’s something pretty awesome about travelling along in a floating home but I recommend mooring up as often as possible to explore the towpath and surroundings.
We love stopping where we want, discovering walks through the countryside with just cows for company. This slow pace of travel needs to be embraced.
We also make planned stops at Chirk near to the famous castle, Ellesmere with its mere, playground, sculpture trail and quaint town centre, the small village of St Martin’s and also the base at Trevor, from where you can cross the famous aqueduct, a world heritage site, on foot.
As your confidence dealing with the boat increases, so does your speed carrying out its regular checks, filling with water and tying the ropes.
And the quality of our craft Askrigg really helps make the holiday (read our detailed review of the boat). It is one of Anglo Welsh’s Bond class boats and sleeps up to six (read our full review of it here).
Inside our boat Askrigg
There is lots of space inside, two bedrooms, two bathrooms with showers, a well-equipped kitchen, lounge/dining area, television, radio, central heating and WiFi. It is also extremely clean and Covid compliant.
By the end of our mini-break it has become a home from home so as we head back over the aqueduct four days later, the view was just as stunning but any novice nerves about taking a canal boat holiday have disappeared.
A new roller coaster aimed at pre-school children has opened at one of England’s most popular theme parks
The world’s first DUPLO rollercoaster has opened at LEGOLAND Windsor Resort.
The DUPLO Dino Coaster, for children aged around two to five, is part of the attraction’s bigger improved DUPLO Valley area.
The ride has dino-themed carriages which soar around supersized DUPLO dinosaur models, 18 times bigger than if you were to build them at home.
Legoland staff think it will be the perfect first rollercoaster experience for little ones, who need to be 0.9 metres or over to ride it.
The area has also has a new show and new supersized DUPLO models, great for family selfies, plus its own official character, Dexter the Dog.
Outdoor play area Brickville has become DUPLO Playtown with a new rocket play structure for budding astronauts and there is a new puppet show at the DUPLO Puppet Theatre.
DUPLO Valley Airport has a new look with with three coloured helicopters for little pilots to choose from.
Existing family rides at DUPLO Valley include the riverboat Fairy Tale Brook ride and the DUPLO train.
Duplo Valley, Legoland Windsor
The area also hosts the resort’s outdoor water play areas – Splash Safari and Drench Towers.
Meanwhile the park has launched a new adult and toddler annual pass to be used while older children are at school.
For £49, a toddler (classed as under 0.9 metres) and adult can visit the theme park as often as they like during term time (Monday to Friday), with 20 per cent off at restaurants and a 10 per cent discount in the shops.
Children under 0.9 metres get free entry anyway to the LEGOLAND Windsor Resort all year round.
Day tickets are from £29 per person when booked online in advance.
We take our children to the Hilton Bracknell after visiting Lapland UK
Hilton Bracknell, Hilton Hotels & Resorts
Where is it?
On the outskirts of Bracknell near the main A322 road, next to a Sainsbury’s supermarket and petrol station.
It’s just 10 minutes from Lapland UK (review here), around 15 minutes from Legoland Windsor (review here) and half an hour from Thorpe Park.
What is it?
A large hotel with a swimming pool and leisure centre. It has plenty of free parking on site.
Is it family friendly?
Yes, this is a popular family option in the area offering easy access to Windsor, Lapland UK and Ascot.
Children receive a welcome pack on arrival, breakfast caters for them well and there is a swimming pool to enjoy.
There were lots of children at the hotel when we stayed there and they are made to feel welcome.
We stayed in a two double bed deluxe and it was an excellent size for a family of four.
There were two comfy double beds, a large TV, good-sized bathroom with bath and shower, free bottles of water, a kettle and a useful mini-fridge. The room was spotlessly clean.
Food and drink
Breakfast was nearly all self-service with a good selection of six cereals, including cornflakes and coco pops.
There were lovely warm pastries plus all the usual hot options if you want a cooked breakfast.
Breakfast is served in a lovely, bright and spacious restaurant area. Even though the hotel was busy it was a pleasant environment to eat in. The staff were friendly and helpful throughout.
If you want to eat an evening meal then under-fives eat free with a paying adult. Children aged between six and 12 can dine from the children’s menu for £11.50. We ate elsewhere for dinner so can’t comment on how good it is!
*The swimming pool – a real bonus here are the leisure facilities. These are free for hotel users and the decent-sized pool is split into two halves with a rope. One half is for adult swimmers and the other for children and their families. It wasn’t too busy when we visited on a Saturday morning and really made our stay.
There is also a jacuzzi which children are allowed in, plus a steam room and sauna for adults.
You can collect fresh towels from the leisure centre and the changing facilities are good.
We also spotted a good-sized gym.
*Welcome pack – the small bag given to children at reception kept them entertained in our room. There were crayons, stickers to colour in, puzzles and a crossword.
Children’s welcome pack
*The staff – everyone we met from reception, housekeeping and at breakfast were very friendly. They went out of their way to help and make sure we had a pleasant stay.
*Parking – the hotel’s large car park is free and stretches around the front and side of the building. Even on a busy Friday evening there was space to park.
A busy dual carriageway is the main view from the hotel but it is handily placed next to a large Sainsbury’s supermarket and petrol station.
Coral Reef Waterworld, The Look Out Discovery Centre and Go Ape Bracknell are all less than a mile away.
There are lots of family favourites within a few miles including Lapland UK, Windsor Castle, Legoland Windsor and Thorpe Park.
The city of Winchester is known as England’s Christmas capital and its market was recently voted one of the best in Europe.
So we take a December trip to the home of Alfred the Great to find out what its Christmas appeal is for children, plus see our video below.
The Winchester Cathedral Christmas Markets
The centrepiece of the city’s festive fun is this beautiful market which runs for 34 days around Christmas.
There are 110 stalls around Cathedral Close. You enter via the side of the building through some arches and onto the market which has dozens of stalls selling Christmas gifts, arts and crafts.
The main food and drink section of the market is at the far side. There are the usual selection of German sausages, Gluhwein and more. Our two enjoyed testing the pancakes from an excellent crepes stall, which was reasonably priced and properly cooked by two ladies from France. There was also a man toasting marshmallows and another roasting nuts.
There is also a British Crafts Village section, which you enter via a small platform, with a nativity scene at the end.
The market is very popular with 350,000 visitors each year and it was busy when we went which means you need to keep a close eye on your children. Also, there are no toilets in the market itself, the nearest ones are at the Cathedral Visitors Centre.
The ice rink
In the centre of the markets is a covered ice rink. It offers one-hour skating slots through the day from 10am with the final one starting at 8pm.
The busiest times are in the late afternoon but numbers are limited so even in a full session the ice isn’t too busy.
A family skating ticket for two adults and two children costs £37.95. it also costs £5 to hire a Penguin skating aid, which is essential if your children are new to skating and makes for a more fun experience on the ice for beginners.
The rink has a large Christmas tree in the centre and viewing areas at either end for family and friends to watch.
You can collect your skates in the waiting area up to half a hour before your allocated time slot. All children’s sizes are catered for and there is a £1 charge to leave bags in a locker.
It is a great festive atmosphere with lights and music on the ice adding to the fun. There is also an ice bar and cafe next to the rink for hot and cold food.
Across the city
Winchester takes Christmas very seriously and even away from the cathedral there was a large market along the High Street when we visited. There were plenty of local stalls and food outlets at that market as well.
The two nearest Christmas activities near Winchester are at Marwell Zoo, which we reviewed earlier in the year, read about it here. The zoo has a special Christmas at Marwell experience which can be booked as either a daytime or evening visit. Only the daytime experience includes a visit to the zoo itself.
The Watercress Line has a Santa Special train running until December 24. Children receive an activity pack and gingerbread on board while adults can enjoy white wine and mince pies. Tickets are available by advanced booking only.
Also, in Winchester there is a Meet Father Christmas event running at the Great Hall. From December 21 to 23, you can meet Santa in one of the city’s grandest buildings. Tickets include that all-important meeting plus a festive gift and Christmas-themed crafts.
Where do I park?
Parking is difficult but there are three park and ride options. If you are coming from the East, you can use either Barfield or St Catherine’s Park & Ride. Visitors from the south can use South Winchester.
If you want to try and get closer to the city centre, then the Chesil multi-storey car park is your best bet. We parked here and it was about a 10-minute walk to the cathedral.
For more information go to visitwinchester.co.uk
(We were given free entry to the ice rink for the purpose of this review. All opinions are our own).
We take our children to ‘Lapland’ in the UK for a full family festive experience
It is one of the country’s most popular Christmas days out for families who want to experience Lapland without the cost of travelling to Finland.
So here is all you need to know about Lapland UK, plus our top tips for visiting and please watch our video below!
What is it?
A full Christmas experience for children which tells the story of Father Christmas, complete with elves, snow, a personalized Santa visit, toy making, gingerbread decorating, ice skating and more.
Where is it?
In ‘Lapland’ accessed by magic from Lapland UK, in Whitmoor Forest near Ascot in Berkshire.
How it works
1. Children get a special invitation each to visit ‘Lapland’ through the post telling them they have been chosen to help Santa make toys. There is a special app you can use so that two of the elves you will meet, appear on your invitation through your phone to talk and build the excitement.
2. When you get there and check in, each child is given an Elf Passport to have stamped at various points. You can also buy Jingles here – elf money that the children can spend there – £1 is one Elf Jingle.
A pouch of Jingles
3. The tour starts in a round room where elves tell the Father Christmas story, teach elf rhymes and the elf wave and build up the excitement for the children (Little Folk) and adults (Big Folk) until finally opening the doors to ‘Lapland’.
The doors to Lapland
4. You walk past snow-topped cabins to the toy workshop. Here, as in other places around the site, children have the option of entering through much smaller doors than the adults, which is a nice touch.
5. Inside the workshop, they are entertained by more elves and then each child helps to make a toy (a soft snowman our year, which they stuffed and added buttons to and a nose and scarf etc), which they hand over to be wrapped for Santa to deliver to children on Christmas Eve.
6. Then it’s through one of several magical tree tunnels to the next area, a kitchen where Mother Christmas is waiting, she talks to the children, they decorate gingerbread biscuits then listen to a story.
Mother Christmas tells a story
7. After that it is on to the Elf Village where you have an hour-and-a-half free time to ice skate on the outdoor rink, visit husky dogs and spend your Jingles in the toy and sweet shops, food and drink outlets. There is even a special post office where children can write a letter to Santa, have it sealed and post it themselves.
8. Then it’s on to the main event – visiting Father Christmas. You walk through a magical forest, past elf homes and past the reindeer to a waiting area.
Elves come and out and call each family group through using just the children’s names. Then you are taken down a winding path to visit Santa in a log cabin, who amazes the children by knowing special details about them. He gives them a present (soft husky toy dogs when we went) and they find their names in his good book. They have a photograph taken by an elf.
Are they in his good book?
9. In the next area, you collect your free photograph and are slipped a toy like the one your child made earlier so that Santa can deliver it on Christmas Eve. Then it’s out through a gift shop where there are lots of accessories you can buy for your husky! And then it’s out the door and back into the car park in ‘England’.
What is included in the price at Lapland UK?
*An elf passport.
*Making a toy activity.
*A version of the toy they made in the toy factory to take away secretly to give them on Christmas day.
*The gingerbread that the children decorate.
*Ice skating and hire of skates.
*Meeting Father Christmas.
*A gift from Santa – soft toy husky dogs our year.
*A printed family picture from the Santa visit.
What costs extra at Lapland UK?
*Food and drink.
*Extra pictures from the Santa visit.
What did we think?
This is a magical Christmas day out for young children and very well organized. The staff are all fantastic, taking on the role of elves and reindeer and the children loved it. It is a fabulous four hours of festive entertainment.
Is Lapland UK worth the cost?
This is a staggeringly expensive Christmas experience. It is a shame this costs so much money as it just isn’t possible for many people, particularly bigger families.
For the four of us it was over £450 on a weekday – which works out at over £100 an hour. We were lucky enough to be treated to it for a special family birthday. I don’t think we would be able to justify doing it again another year.
If you can afford it and want to splash out, make sure your children are the right ages to appreciate it, I would say, no younger than three and of an age where they still believe in the magic of Christmas.
Top tips for Lapland UK
*Do take advantage of the app to make your child’s invitation come to life, it is a magical start to the experience.
*Get there half an hour before your time slot to park, walk to the start, check in etc. You can not start the experience until your time slot so there is no point getting there any earlier.
*Buy Jingles at the start – £1 is 1 Elf Jingle, they come in a red velvet pouch. Children can use them to pay for things in the Elf Village and you can cash in those you don’t use at the end. We bought ours £5 worth each and it was enough (a lead for the toy husky from Santa was just £3 in the gift shop at the end, but beware there are lots of toys which cost a lot more)!
*Personalise your visit online. Make sure Santa has all the details he needs to show your child that he knows all about them. But don’t worry if you don’t get chance to do this as you can tell them at the desk when you are waiting to see the Big Man (just make sure little ears can’t hear you)!
*Ice rink – children can have skates which go over their shoes and are easier to balance on instead of proper ones. There are also support penguins for young children to hold on to or stand on.
*Consider taking a change of clothes in case children fall over on the ice rink. It was raining when we went and there is no cover so the surface was wet even though staff were frantically trying to keep the water off it.
*You could spend a lot of money in the Elfen Village if you aren’t careful as a lot of it is shops and food and drink outlets so take your time doing the ice rink and the Santa letter writing!
Our five-year-old’s verdict
“We saw Father Christmas and he gave us some huskies. And we went in the Enchanted Forest. It was fantastic! I liked seeing Santa Claus best.”
The National Trust property in Cheshire hosts its popular illumination display for the third year
Thousands of visitors will be heading to Dunham Massey over the festive period to enjoy the magical light trail around the park and garden.
And we’ve had sneak preview of this fabulous Christmas display, so here is our review, top tips and all you need to know, plus watch our video below.
What is it?
Dunham Massey – a National Trust property with deer park and gardens – is hosting its third annual Christmas Light Trail.
Thousands will head to the Cheshire site for the fabulous experience, which is perfect for families.
It features dazzling light displays, music, fairground rides, food and drink.
When is it?
The illuminations run from November 22 to December 30, 2019.
Ticket start times run every 20 minutes between 4.30pm and 8pm.
How much are tickets?
Tickets are prices from £17.50 for adults, £11 for children aged three to 16 and under-threes are free. A family ticket is £54.00.
*Before you go into the formal gardens, the house itself is lit up at the front with a fabulous laser display.
There is also a light display when you reach the back of the house, along with rings of fire.
*There are lots of memorable features as you go around including huge glittering reindeer near the start – apt for a park which is home to lots of deer, firework lights in the trees, a laser walk and lots more.
*The large lawn area inside the gardens is lit up in a sea of lights, changing pattern, in front of a tunnel of glittering lights.
*You can toast marshmallows in fire pits in the rose garden. These can be bought at a stand in the corner of the garden – £1.50 for a large marshmallow on a stick – there are several flavours including gingerbread and caramel.
*There is different music as you go around including songs from Christmassy films – a Frozen song at the start thrilled our daughter.
*There are a few fairground rides in the Stables Courtyard for younger children – a carousel, helter skelter, merry-go-round and swing boats.
*There are food and drink stalls selling mulled wine, hot chocolate, hot dogs, chips, pizza, churros etc.
*You are not supposed to take your own food and drink but I did see several people with their own marshmallows (and sticks) to toast.
*Wrap up warm – it is all outdoors.
*Book a parking space in advance – even if you are a National Trust member with free parking.
*Father Christmas appears on the trail as part of a small show. There is no grotto or individual meeting.
Is everything included in the price?
Fair rides, food and drink are extra. You buy ride tokens – £2.50 each or £10 for five if bought in advance when you book your tickets.
Some stalls accepted payment by card. There is no cash machine.
How long will it take?
The route keeps to the paths and ensures you don’t miss anything. It is around a mile long and takes around an hour and a half but you can stay as long as you like until it closes. It is wheelchair and buggy-friendly but is dimly-lit in places and can get busy.
Can you catch a glimpse of the lights if you happen to be already at Dunham Massey when it gets dark?
If you are there just before the gardens close at 3.30pm, you may see some of the lights as it starts to get dark but you will not get anywhere near the full effect.
Do National Trust members need to pay?
National Trust members pay full price, there is no discount. Parking is free for NT members, but you still have to reserve a space ahead of time as the car park gets busy.
National Trust Dunham Massey, Altrincham, WA14 4SJ
For more information and to book go to the website.
We explore the family-friendly attractions in the city of St Albans and eat at the oldest pub in Britain
As we climb up and up, twist after twist, turn after turn, the staircase gets narrower and narrower.
The top of the Clock Tower is a particularly tight squeeze, its 600-year-old roof can only take a few visitors at a time – but the view at the summit of the 93 steps is well worth it.
Stretching in front of us is St Albans – a city where the ancient and the modern sit side-by-side.
For example, the Clock Tower was built in 1405, but on the street below, people queue up outside Darlish, the UK’s first Persian ice cream parlour, whose speciality is a deliciously sweet baklava ice cream sandwich.
The city’s park contains both a modern splash pool and Roman remains. And pubs which played host to Oliver Cromwell now serve the latest culinary trends.
And that theme of ancient and modern is clear at our first stop, St Albans Museum and Gallery.
St Albans Museum and Gallery
St Albans Museum and Gallery
Refurbished in 2018, the city’s main museum contains 2,000 years of history over three floors. Children are given an activity pack and trail to follow around.
You can visit the underground cells which used to be the city’s prison and then climb up into the former courtroom.
While your little ones pretend to be a judge or a villain in the dock, pensioners merrily sip away at cups of tea and tuck into slices of cake.
Our little magistrate sentences her big brother to life imprisonment
Upstairs there are more displays of the city’s history and on site is a tasty cafe. You can eat in the old courtroom or on the market square as we did, tucking into large sandwiches, varied salads and a wide range of excellent cakes.
Information: St Albans Museum and Gallery, Town Hall, St Peter’s St, St Albans AL1 3DH, open daily 10am to 5pm, 11am to 5pm on Sundays. Entry free.
St Albans Market
It is worth visiting on market day – Wednesdays and Saturdays between 8.30am and 4.30pm – if you can. There has apparently been a market in the city since the 9th century. 1,100 years on and the stalls are packed, stretching along the high street. You can buy everything from toys, to handbags, to Pakistani or Indonesian street food. It is a vibrant, colourful sight with more than 160 stalls.
Market day in St Albans, our view from the Clock Tower
At the bottom end of the market and high street is the Clock Tower. The stairs to the top do get very narrow but it is fun to climb and you are rewarded with views across Hertfordshire and even London on a clear day. The friendly volunteers at the bottom of the tower let children help ring the city’s 600-year-old bell, which has been clanging away since the Wars of the Roses.
The Clock Tower
Information: Clock Tower, High St, St Albans AL3 4EL. opening times vary. Entry £1 adults, children free. This is the only surviving medieval town belfry in England.
St Albans Cathedral
Even older than the clock tower is the building which dominates this city. St Albans Cathedral, known locally as The Abbey, is named after Alban, Britain’s first saint.
St Albans Cathedral
It is a huge building and entry is free. Children can get an activity pack from the new welcome centre, which has a shop, cafe and toilets. The pack contains 12 questions taking you around the cathedral, encouraging youngsters to explore the whole site.
The quiz also explains to them some of the history of this building and the story of how Alban became St Alban and met a grizzly end at the hands of the Romans.
There are also tree trails to explore the cathedral’s gardens, which takes around 45 minutes to complete.
On certain heritage open days there are also graffiti trails where children can hunt for clues on the various etchings visitors have drawn into the stone around the cathedral.
All the trails cost £2 per child and include a badge when successfully completed.
Some churches can feel a little stuffy and unwelcoming to children but this felt like a site where little ones were actively welcomed.
A short walk down the hill from the cathedral brings you to Verulamium Park, a former Roman site.
It is named after the Roman city of Verulamium on which it stands. And there are Roman remains dotted around its 100 acres. It was full of families when we visited, there is lots of space to run around, you can stroll by the lake, feed the ducks and climb trees. There is also a playground, fairly new splash park open during the summer, football goals, cafe and indoor swimming pool.
Verulamium Museum next to the park grounds has artefacts, which explore everyday life in Roman Britain.
St Albans has a wealth of options for eating out with almost every conceivable chain restaurant having an outlet around the city centre. We took a chance on something slightly different. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is officially Britain’s oldest pub, the octagonal building dates back to the 11th century.
Britain’s oldest pub
It is well situated near the entrance to Verulamium Park and has a beer garden. Inside, the low ceilings and timber beams make the pub feel medieval. Fortunately, the food is most definitely modern. There are four children’s options (£8 each) including pasta, burgers and sausages. The quality was high, as were the adult meals.
The pub becomes less family-friendly the later into the evening it gets so I would suggest trying it for lunch or an early dinner.
As we stroll back from the pub where Oliver Cromwell once stayed the night, the beautiful cathedral is lit up and it’s easy to see why this is a city is a great place to introduce children to our country’s history.
Where we stayed – St Michael’s Manor
St Michael’s Manor
Our hotel, St Michael’s Manor, is next to the park and has a lovely garden of its own – five acres to explore and its own lake.
The hotel’s original building dates from 1500, which practically makes it a modern development in St Albans.
This luxury hotel has excellent family rooms – our suite had two televisions and a huge bathroom.
Our hotel room, Sycamore
Breakfast is in a beautiful orangery-style restaurant.
We stay at St Michael’s Manor Hotel with our children to visit the Harry Potter Studios and explore St Albans
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 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, Sycamore
There were two TVs, one opposite each bed, a massive bathroom with large bath and separate shower.
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
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.
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
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.
*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.
St Michael’s Manor Hotel, Fishpool St, St Albans AL3 4RY.
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.
*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
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. 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.
*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.
*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.
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.
*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.
*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
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
*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.
Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter information
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.
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
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.
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.
Trying out the Knight Bus
Are there any rides at Harry Potter studios?
No but there are interactive features including wand lessons, green screen picture and video areas where you get to ride a broom over London and a Dobby motion capture experience where the house elf reflects your actions and more.
How long is the tour/ how long do you need to spend at Harry Potter Studios?
*There is no time limit – you can stay as long as you want – unless you have a ticket for later in the day and it is closing time! You’ll need at least three hours. If you take your time and look carefully at everything, you could easily spend four or five hours here.
Can I just turn up on the day?
No, you will not get in. You must pre-book a ticket. You will be given a time slot to arrive. We chose the earliest slot and were pleased with the lack of queues at that time as crowds had not built up.
When should you arrive?
They recommend arriving at least 20 minutes before your time slot to go through security checks.
Can you arrive earlier than your time slot?
Yes you can, you can look around the lobby or eat or drink at one of the cafes, before your tour starts. You may also be able to get on to an earlier tour.
What happens when you arrive?
You collect your tickets (if they were not posted to you), show your tickets, go through security (bags are checked and people are scanned with a hand held metal detector wand), then you go into the first area where you can collect a digital audio guide if wanted. Here you can pick up free ‘passports’ for children too, which are easy to miss. Youngsters can then stamp them as they go round the attraction and search for the golden snitch.
Is the tour guided?
Only the start is guided (unless you pay for a deluxe tour). The guide takes the group into a room with talking pictures on the wall – fans, actors and Harry Potter author JK Rowling, then through to the cinema room where you see a short film with Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson telling of their life making the films. The guide then takes you into the Great Hall and explains more to you before leaving you to take the rest of the experience at your own pace.
The Great Hall
What is a deluxe tour?
Deluxe tours are more expensive. They include a guided tour, photo package, meal, butterbeer, guidebook and special parking.
Are there staff around during the tour?
*Yes there are guides dotted around. They are really lovely, don’t hesitate to talk to them, they know a lot and it will enhance your experience.
Who would enjoy the tour?
Mainly Harry Potter fans old and young but also people interested in the process of film making, sets, costumes and props. Children aged eight and over would get the most out of it. Teenagers seemed to be really enjoying it when we went.
Can you take pictures and videos?
Yes, everywhere except the cinema and green screen areas, which is great as there are lots of great photo opportunities. Pretend to push your trolley through the wall at platform 9 3/4, ride in the flying Ford Anglia, hold the Sword of Griffindor, pose in Diagon Alley, the Great Hall and much more.
Do people dress up in Harry Potter outfits?
If your children want to dress up, definitely let them. We saw some people dressed up, most were in normal clothes, or Harry Potter tops etc. Staff provide cloaks for the green screen pictures but we took our children’s own outfits to save time and they ended up wearing them for the rest of the tour which was great for our pictures.
Are there restaurants or cafes?
*There are a couple of cafes at the entrance/exit – Chocolate Frog Cafe and Hub Cafe – along with a big 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.
Where can you buy Butterbeer?
This sweet non-alcoholic drink can only be bought at the Backlot Cafe, midway through the tour. It is not suitable for vegans or people with a dairy allergy as it contains some dairy but is suitable for those with gluten, wheat and nut allergies. It can be bought in a souvenir tankard which you can rinse and take home.
You can also buy Butterbeer ice cream here, available in a souvenir sundae dish to take home or a cone.
Can you take a picnic/packed lunch to Harry Potter studios?
Yes, you can take your own food but it must be eaten at the Backlot Cafe halfway round the tour.
Do you pay for parking?
No, parking is free. We were on the first tour of the day and were able to park right outside the doors. Have your tickets or booking confirmation ready to show them before you park.
Can you be dropped off?
Yes, you can be dropped off right outside.
Are there any frightening parts?
The two main scary bits are The Forbidden Forest and a fire-breathing dragon at the end of the Gringotts section. The forest is dark and eerie, inform staff if your children want to miss this part, and they will take you another way. When you enter the forest take the right turning to miss the bit with Aragog and big spiders.
Some of Aragog’s family
Staff can also help get through the room with the Ukrainian Ironbelly Gringotts dragon – there are 10 seconds between the sequence, which is on repeat, to run through.
Can I see Hogwarts Castle?
The tour ends with a stunning model of the castle. There are interactive screens there showing how it was built and used in the films.
What if it is raining or snowing?
This is a great attraction if the weather is rubbish as most of the tour is inside. Apart from one area – the backlot – where the exterior sets are – the Knight Bus, Privet Drive and Hogwarts Bridge.
4 Privet Drive
What is included in the ticket price?
The tour and experiences such as a wand skills mini-workshop, making a wand jump up to your hand by saying ‘up’ and picture opportunities with the sets and props including the Hogwarts Express and pushing a trolley through the wall at Platfrom 9 ¾.
What is not included in the ticket price?
Pictures and videos made from the green screen attractions.
Obviously also allow for food, drinks and purchases from the shop, it can get very expensive.
What age is this for?
Older fans will get the most out of it – with the patience to stop and look properly at everything. Children from aged eight are likely to enjoy it the most.
Where is the shop?
You will be lucky to escape without having to buy something here and the items in the shops are great quality, but pricey. There are a couple of smaller shops on your way around and one huge store at the end (you can also look in here at the start).
The studio has an online shop too, if you want to have a look before you go or order something afterwards that you wished you had bought.
Is there any provision for visitors with autism?
There is a sensory room within the studio tour to give a calming environment for people with autism and other additional needs.
Are there any disabled toilets?
There are accessible toilets throughout the tour. There’s also a Changing Place facility in the lobby, accessed using a RADAR key, with a hoist (take your own slings), height adjustable changing bench, toilet and washbasin. It is big enough for a wheelchair user and two carers.
Is there a cloakroom?
Yes, there is a cloakroom where you can leave coats and bags free of charge as well as buggies, pushchairs and prams.
Where are the baby changing facilities?
There are baby changing facilities in every toilet block.
Is there a parent and baby room?
Yes, there is an area for parents to feed with a nursing chair and changing tables next to the Backlot Café.
Any interesting facts to end on?
Yes – over the ten years, an incredible 588 sets were created at Leavesden Studios.
Also, Daniel Radcliffe went through 160 pairs of glasses and 70 wands during filming for the Harry Potter film series!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
*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.
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.