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 review Solent Hotel & Spa in Fareham
Where is it?
The Solent Hotel & Spa is in Fareham, south east Hampshire.
It’s in a good location, near the M27, between Portsmouth and Southampton.
What is it?
The hotel is part of the House of Daniel Thwaites company.
It’s a four-star business and leisure hotel and spa with a swimming pool, AA Rosette restaurant, tennis court, gym and neighbouring pub owned by the same company.
Is it family friendly?
Yes, very much so, this hotel was a real find and very popular with all four of us. Our children are really keen to go back.
*There is a children’s room filled with a PlayStation, table tennis table, pool table, board games and more.
*The indoor swimming pool was large, with a separate, shallow baby pool and comfortable seating around it. Three times a week, there is a special splash time with floats and toys.
The changing rooms are lovely. Getting the children showered and changed after swimming feels easier, with extras such as a costume dryer and plastic bags for wet things.
*There are woods behind the hotel to explore which our children enjoyed.
We had a signature family double – it was nicely decorated with a comfortable double bed and a sofa bed which our son and daughter shared. The sofa bed was great for our two but would be too small for a couple of teenagers.
The children were thrilled with little welcome packs for them on their bed, full of activities and treats. And two little dressing gowns (two bigger ones for us were in the wardrobe).
Our room at the Solent Hotel & Spa
Room amenities are good – a fridge held complimentary water and milk, plus there were biscuits, teas and coffee, a kettle and a desk.
If pushed to find anything to change I would say a step in our room next to the children’s sofa bed looked nice but could be a trip hazard at night.
Food and drink
The restaurant feels really nice to sit in, pleasingly designed and decorated. It has a choice of seating areas including a conservatory, an outdoor terrace and booths.
Breakfast was delicious with the most attentive, lovely staff, who specially made me pancakes one day when they found out how much I wanted some.
A sweet baked waffle special was lovely and brought to the table along with hot drinks.
Staff help you to a cooked breakfast while you help yourself to pastries, cereal, fruit, yoghurt etc, more than enough to keep everyone happy.
At night you can also eat at the hotel.
We ate at the Parson’s Collar pub next door, run by the same company, and also finished nicely with televisions and an ice cream bar. The menu was great and portions are generous.
The hotel is close to Whiteley shopping centre and leisure complex so there are plenty of places to eat.
It is about 15 minutes drive from the nearest beach, Lee-on-Solent.
It is also 20 minutes from Peppa Pig World and Paultons Park.
*The hotel is beautifully designed and our room was also nicely decorated.
*The fabulous breakfast and attentive breakfast staff.
*The games room and woodland are great extra entertainment.
*The swimming pool and changing rooms.
*There is lots of parking.
*Staff on reception were very helpful providing something I’d forgotten to pack.
We take our children to explore this big zoo in the south of England
What is it?
Marwell Zoo is a 140-acre zoo with more than 1,200 animals from 135 species. It opened in 1972 and is owned by conservation charity Marwell Wildlife.
Where is it?
It is in Owslebury, just eight miles from Winchester in Hampshire, signposted from the M3 and M27.
It is also 10 miles from Southampton, 16 miles from the New Forest, 19 miles from Portsmouth and 40 miles from Bournemouth.
What did we think?
This is a lovely zoo with great staff interaction and talks. It is really spread out over a large area so if you have young children and are wondering whether to take a buggy or pushchair, don’t hesitate – it is a lot of walking for little legs.
*There is a good view of the animals, including giraffes, penguins, tigers, meerkat, rhinos and snow leopards.
The train at Marwell Zoo
*The train is fun but don’t miss it, there is only one station near the entrance, next to the gift shop. Expect a long wait to get going while they sort out tickets etc as the system isn’t a fast one but feels authentic with a proper ticket inspector.
*There is also a free land train which stops at several points.
*The hippo – you don’t get to see these as often as other animals so it is exciting to see one here.
*Staff are friendly with lots of useful information to impart as you move around the sections.
*My son loved interactive screens in places like the Tropical House.
*There are great adventure play areas for the children – in fact we found it hard to get them away from these to see the animals
A play area at Marwell Zoo
*As it is spacious, a busy August day when we visited didn’t feel too crowded.
* Most of the animals seem to be in nice big enclosures.
Our top tips
*Buy tickets online to save time
*The land train is free and stops at different destinations to give tired legs a rest. The little rail train only stops at one station near the entrance. It is £2.50 for a 15-minute ride and fun.
*Take a picnic if you can. There are loads of picnic areas but the queue at the cafe we visited was long.
*The information cabin has all the times for the animal talks.
Marwell Zoo information
Food: There are cafes, kiosks and picnic areas.
Opening hours: Open daily from 10am apart from Christmas day and Boxing day.
Cost: Children aged two and under are free. Peak times including a donation – child £17, adults £21, family £72. Includes optional donation.
Best for: All ages.
Time needed: At least four or five hours, preferably a whole day or until children get too tired.
Access and restrictions: Accessibility good. One free carer admitted with each guest with accessibility needs. Some free wheelchairs available to hire.
Museums, ships and a boat ride make this a must for sea lovers or young history fans.
What is it?
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is a huge tourist site where families and other visitors can explore the UK’s naval past.
It includes museums and some of the most famous ships in British history including the star attraction HMS Victory.
It is part of the Royal Naval Dockyard and is run by the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
Where is it?
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is on the waterfront in the centre of Portsmouth, Hampshire.
What did we think?
It is massive! To get around everything is more than a full day out and it has some of the most important living history in the country.
*HMS Victory – stand in the spot where Nelson fell on the top deck of this famous warship during the successful Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
The plaque showing where Nelson fell
The ship he sailed is beautifully restored with a simple, clever route through the different decks. She has sat in a dry dock on the site since 1922. There is a free audio guide to carry around.
We also enjoyed seeing how the 800 sailors on board lived.
A word of warning though, there are steep steps and low ceilings throughout so keep a close eye on children.
*Harbour tour – a 45-minute ride on the Solent Cat boat – it takes you around Portsmouth’s waters with an on-board commentary, seeing existing navy warships and getting a sense of the scale of the dockyard. It is also a good chance to sit down after walking around the large site.
*Action Stations – an entire building with hands-on activities for children including rope courses, the tallest indoor climbing wall in the UK and a helicopter simulator. There is also a Laser Quest (for an extra charge).
*Other highlights include HMS Warrior, Mary Rose and the Royal Navy Museum.
Our top tips
*Cut down on walking by doing the harbour tour last and jumping off at Gunwharf Quays for food, shopping or the Spinnaker Tower (read more about the tower here).
*Tackle HMS Victory either early or late in the day, especially with younger children, so it isn’t too crowded walking around the narrow decks.
*Consider paying for a Full Navy ticket giving repeat entry for up to a year as there is enough to occupy a few separate visits if you want to do more than see just the Victory.
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard information
Food: There are four different options. Boathouse 7 offers full meals, Boathouse 4 sells sandwiches, snacks and a children’s menu, the Copper Kettle serves cake and coffee or there is a Costa Coffee as well. The site has three picnic areas too.
Opening hours: Daily 10am to 5.30pm in summer, 10am to 5pm in winter.
Cost: A ‘Full Navy’ ticket costs £31 per adult with children free in the summer holidays and allows a year’s access to all the naval attractions at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – except for the Mary Rose, Mini Ports and Laser Quest.
You can also buy single attraction tickets for £18 per adult for one attraction, £25 for two attractions and £32 for three. Again children go free in the holidays.
Best for: Ages 5-10
Time needed: All day to see everything. Allow at least one hour per attraction.
Access and restrictions: There is a Special Access Route around the site with ramps for wheelchairs and buggies. There is also wheelchair access to the lower decks of HMS Victory.
For amazing views of Portsmouth, take your children to the top of the Emirates Spinnaker Tower
What is it?
The 170-metre tall Emirates Spinnaker Tower offers panoramic views around Portsmouth harbour, The Solent and the Isle of Wight.
It’s the city’s most prominent landscape and can be seen from 23 miles away.
The tower was a millennium project but wasn’t opened until 2005. Portsmouth residents voted for the design – the Spinnaker sail shape reflecting the city’s maritime heritage.
Where is it?
The Spinnaker Tower is on the waterfront in Portsmouth, in the middle of the Gunwharf Quays shopping and leisure complex. You can’t miss it!
What did we think?
This gives spectacular views and is a great experience for children. It’s only a quick trip but there is an animated video and quiz sheet to keep youngsters entertained, as well as two cafes.
What exactly is there to do?
*An animated video at the start.
*A lift which takes you up 100 metres to the main viewing level in 30 seconds – travelling at 4 metres per second.
*The main viewing platform has a 350 degree view out of the windows. There is a Sky Walk on this level – a glass floor section in the middle of the room to walk over, which is good fun for those who don’t mind heights.
The glass floor
*Also on the main level, for £4 per person you can have a go at a virtual reality game called Altitude for aged nine and over, which makes you feel like you are navigating your way around the outside of the tower with the harbour below.
*On the next floor up there is a small cafe called The Clouds, with a great view, which serves cakes and drinks.
*Above that, on the top floor, is the Sky Garden – this level is open to the elements and has deck chairs and a green artificial grass floor.
*There is another bigger cafe on the ground floor with much more choice.
Also available for the adventurous:
*Abseiling 100 metres down the side of the tower.
*The Drop – jump from a platform 25 metres high (weekends only).
Our top tips
*Don’t skip the animated video before the lift as it is good for children and tells the story of Portsmouth.
*If your child is upset by the height, there isn’t much need to take them up the stairs to levels 2 and 3. The main level is bigger and the stairs can get busy.
*Book in advance for cheaper entry and also check out special events during the school holidays such as character visits.
If you want to see some of Britain’s best known ships up close then it’s a short walk from the tower to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
This huge site, which is still home to the Royal Navy, has enough attractions to occupy an entire day.
Out first stop was HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship from the Battle of Trafalgar.
It is amazingly well preserved with a well thought-through route that takes you right down into the bowels of the boat.
Where they slept on HMS Victory
You can follow in Nelson’s footsteps and also experience life below deck where the sailors had to eat, sleep and be treated for war wounds.
Also at the dockyard we sampled the Action Stations hanger which has a climbing wall, rope course and a helicopter simulator giving children the chance to act like Royal Marines.
The site also has HMS Warrior, the biggest ship in the world when it was built in 1860, Henry VIII’s famous Mary Rose and plenty more.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate its scale is to go on the museum’s 45-minute harbour tour. This takes you around the Royal Navy’s current warships and onto The Solent. You can hop on and off at Gunwharf Quays near the Spinnaker Tower to cut down on walking (and enjoy a shop if you have time).
We review a family holiday to St Malo in Brittany and try out Brittany Ferries for the first time
I can’t spell it. I can’t even pronounce it, but the Breton delicacy Kouign Amann may just be the best thing I have ever eaten – it’s buttery, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth heaven.
I buy a whole cake, warm from the oven and it quickly diminishes as I sit on the harbour-side in Port du Crouesty – on the southern tip of Brittany.
Getting to this lesser visited area of the region was part of our adventure as we crossed the Channel by ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo.
The Brittany Ferries ship feels huge, with lots to see and do. Once you’ve stood on deck and waved goodbye to England, there are children’s discos and shows, a small soft play area, games room, restaurants and even a cinema.
It’s like a mini-cruise and we make the most of everything on our way back but the outward journey was overnight. So after a magic show we were all excited to get to our cabin and sleep onboard.
The disco onboard
The nine-hour crossing soon passed and we woke up ready for Brittany. (For a detailed review of our crossing with Brittany Ferries click here).
Many people know and love this most westerly corner of France, returning year after year.
We were stopping on the Rhuys peninsular between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Morbihan. This is French holiday country – there’s barely an English accent.
And not many speak much English so I was glad my husband’s French is better than mine.
Port du Crouesty is a modern harbour development. We stayed at Pierre & Vacances resort, which is in a winning location.
Sandwiched between a busy marina and pretty beach, there are two outdoor swimming pools and plenty of good restaurants at the harbour, all within walking distance of our apartment.
Playing on the beach at our resort
If you are feeling active, you can hire bikes and there is also a sailing club.
Depending on when you stay, there’s also a children’s club and activities.
Our one-bedroom apartment had two comfortable sofa beds in the lounge. It was on the small side for the four of us but the view over the marina from the balcony made up for it.
The apartment overlooked the marina
Other rooms look over a great grassy area and lovely playground. For a more detailed review of Port du Crouesty, click here.
If the weather is good you don’t need to go far but we made the most of our wheels to explore the area.
We drove 20 miles to the historic walled town of Vannes. After getting stuck into its bustling market – and more French food – we headed for Vannes Aquarium.
The highlights were some of the biggest turtles we’ve ever seen and a crocodile which seemed to have been found after it ended up in the Paris sewer system.
More four-legged creatures delighted Josh and Jess on another day out, to Branféré Animal park.
This is more of a lovely parkland stroll with added wildlife than a traditional zoo. Wallabies wander freely around, giraffes and rhinos enjoy huge enclosures and birds of all shapes and sizes fly overhead.
In the middle of it all was a series of amazing nets placed among the treetops to run across. A high-level walkway with more than 17,000 square metres of netting. Great fun all round. If you don’t look down.
The Parcabout high-level walkway in the trees
The Rhuys peninsular is blessed with beaches. We visited four in all.
Our favourite was one we had all to ourselves – Plage du Goh Velin was a five-minute drive from our apartment.
Armed with nets and buckets, we looked for crabs, collected shells, climbed rocks and even found a cave.
A day at Plage du Goh Velin
And every day we sampled more of the area’s amazing food – delicious sweet and savoury crêpes, baguettes, cheeses, pastries and seafood.
Our trip was during half-term but outside French holidays, which really made a difference, everywhere was quiet.
As we left St Malo in glorious sunshine on the aptly named ship Bretagne, we were lucky there was plenty of fun on the ferry to keep the holiday spirit going.
The ferry Bretagne leaving St Malo
And there was one more surprise to remind us of the region. The chunk of Kouign Amann that I’d sneaked home.
The icing on the cake of our trip to beautiful Brittany.
Accommodation: We stayed as guests of Pierre & Vacances resort in Port du Crouesty, Brittany, France for the purposes of this review. All opinions are our own. For a more detailed review of the accommodation click here.
Travel: We travelled courtesy of Brittany Ferries. See our detailed review of Brittany Ferries here.
Read our report on a Brittany Ferries trip to France
A ferry can be a great way to travel with children – it breaks up a long journey, is (fairly) relaxing, you get to keep your own car on holiday plus you can pack loads into it.
The four of us have used ferries to cross the Channel for holidays to France and Denmark.
Here we review a crossing with Brittany Ferries, which operates between the UK and France, the UK and Spain and Ireland and France. We travelled between Portsmouth and St Malo.
Boarding was smooth and quick at both ports. Yes there are a lot of cars on board – our ship, the Bretagne holds 2,000 passengers and 580 cars – but it didn’t take more than 20 minutes to disembark in a well drilled operation.
One word or warning, there can be a lot of steps to climb up from the car park to the higher decks if you have small children.
A four-berth cabin on board Brittany Ferries
We booked a four-berth club cabin and our children loved it, it was a real adventure for them.
There were bunk beds on either side (the top one folds back when not in use to give more space), a small television on the wall and an en-suite with shower and toilet.
We found it cosy and very well soundproofed and both children slept well.
Cabins are not just for night times though, it is also worth booking a cabin for a day trip if you have small children. It is good to have a base and somewhere to relax (for parents as well if you have been chasing them around the ferry). Plus they are great if your child still naps.
There was plenty of choice for all budgets. There is an à la carte restaurant, self-service restaurant, cafe, and a bar.
We ate at the self-service La Baule – breakfast on the outward leg and a dinner coming home to England.
The price is reasonable and drinks at the bar aren’t bad value either.
The ferry has children’s entertainment
Early evening shows for children kept ours entertained. There was a children’s entertainer with a good line in balloon animals, a mini disco and in high season they put on a panto.
There are also two cinema screens showing family films. The screens aren’t full size but it’s a nice way to while away a couple of hours.
There is also a video games room and soft play area.
We were fortunate to enjoy good weather in both directions and it was fantastic to go out on the sundeck and watch Portsmouth harbour disappearing into the distance.
Our children loved seeing the wake caused by the huge engines, spotting the Channel Islands as we motored past and walking around the outside of the ferry.
The whole trip felt like an adventure for them and a memorable part of the holiday.