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 take our children to review GreenWood Forest Park near Caernarfon in North Wales
What is it?
GreenWood Forest Park is a family adventure park which has been voted the best family day out in North Wales for seven years.
Where is it?
It is between Caernarfon and Bangor near Snowdonia National Park.
What did we think?
It’s a fantastic family day out for younger children, especially those aged three to 10.
We visited on a grey, drizzly day and still had a wonderful time. The wet weather meant it wasn’t busy, plus, although it was our school holidays, local children were back at school.
Great Green Run
An exhilarating 70-metre sledge run loved by our three and seven-year-old children and we parents alike. It is the longest sledge run in Wales.
The Great Green Run
And little ones don’t need to miss out on the fun. Next to it is the Little Green Run for toddlers to enjoy.
The Little Green Run
Green Dragon Roller Coaster
This is the world’s only people-powered roller coaster.
The Green Dragon Roller coaster
You walk up a hill, get into a people carrier which travels down an incline, pulling the cars up to the station. You then walk up another hill and get on the ride which is gravity driven.
It’s not a ‘scary’ roller coaster, no loop the loops. Perfect for children, although you have to be 97cm. Our three-year-old loved it.
There were two shows at 1pm and 3pm (same entertainer, different show) and we went to both. He really made the children chuckle.
You have to work as a family to navigate the canal using one paddle and ropes to propel you along.
This is the first solar-powered ride in the UK and is for braver visitors to the park. You climb up a 12 metre tower and take an inflatable boat down one of two wave shoots or a spiral tube.
There’s also a barefoot trail, den building, a crocodile maze, Tree Top Towers tree house with slides, zip wires, Moon Karts, crafts, archery and a soft play area for under-threes.
Tree Top Towers tree house
And there is a bigger soft play area with a great cafe/restaurant where I was thrilled to find a wood burner to sit next to, to warm up at the end with a cake and a cup of tea!
We all leave with a smile on our faces feeling like we’ve had a thoroughly lovely day.
Our top tips
*If it is wet, the magic show is undercover and the soft play areas will be open. Also if it is raining it would be handy to have a towel or cloth to wipe seats/sledges etc so little ones don’t get too wet and uncomfortable.
*Dogs on leads are allowed.
*Be warned, the exit is via the shop!
*Some of the rides don’t open at certain times of year or in certain weather so check first.
GreenWood Forest Park information
Food: Picnics are welcome. There is a restaurant and snack bars.
Opening hours: 10am to 5.30pm.
Cost: It is cheaper in low or mid-season, rising at peak season to £16.20 for adults and children, seniors and students. Free for children under three. It is cheaper to book online.
Best for: Ages three to 10.
Time needed: At least three to four hours or a whole day.
Access and restrictions: It has partial disabled access but some areas and rides are difficult or impossible to access for disabled visitors. There are height and age restrictions on some rides.
Address: GreenWood, Y Felinheli, Gwynedd. (For sat nav use the postcode LL55 3AD).
What to see and do with children at the National Trust’s Dunham Massey near Manchester
What is it?
A stately home with gardens, a large deer park, good walks and cafes, run by the National Trust.
Where is it?
Dunham Massey is near Altrincham in Cheshire, just a few miles from the main A556 dual carriageway.
What did we think?
This is one of the best places to take children, the grounds are safe and large, there are good facilities, regular special family trails, shows and events.
There is enough to keep you interested at Dunham Massey for at least half a day.
The large deer park has long paved stretches for scooters and bikes (child bikes only allowed), plus lots of areas to build dens, play hide and seek, explore fallen trees and small ponds.
There are lots of deer in the park and they are fairly tame so you can get quite close – sometimes they even hang around by the house and cafe area. It is a very safe, flat and expansive park to play in.
The deer are regular visitors to busy areas
You have to pay extra to enter the gardens (free to National Trust members). There are paths throughout with flowers all year round. It claims to be one of Britain’s biggest winter gardens.
There are regular children’s trails to pick up at the entrance and follow, especially at Christmas and Easter.
The rose garden and bridge over the lake are fun parts for children. It is a lovely area to explore and enjoy.
Dunham Massey’s gardens are colourful and host regular family trails
Pretty much your traditional National Trust old house, of interest to lots of adults but a bit dark and gloomy for children, without a great deal to keep them amused.
However, it does have regular exhibitions and events – it was turned into a World War One hospital recently which was an interesting experience for our little ones. It costs extra to enter the house (free to National Trust members).
The house at Dunham Massey from above
A newish visitor centre has a shop, cafe and toilets at the entrance. Remember to get your garden or house tickets from there before you go any further – even NT members need a ticket.
The cafe at the visitor centre has a nice outside seating area but it gets busy.
We prefer the restaurant in the park, which is large with family seating area, but this also gets busy and peak times. There is an ice cream shop in this area too and toilets and it is nearer the gardens and house entrance.
Dunham Massey is a great place to take scooters or bikes and explore the parkland, the gardens are also worth a visit although you can probably give the house a miss.
Our Top Tips
*You need tickets for the house and garden even if you are National Trust members. Get them at the main entrance before you go any further – you can’t buy them anywhere else.
*It gets very busy at weekends in good weather – and you often have to queue for the car park so try and go very early or later in the day.
Dunham Massey information
Food: There are two nice places to eat, a cafe in the visitor centre at the entrance and the other,our favourite of the two, a restaurant off the courtyard, with hot food and delicious cakes. It is big but very popular and can get very busy. There is also an ice cream parlour in this part. Picnics are also welcome in the park but not the gardens.
Opening hours: Open every day in school holidays from 10am to 5pm. During term time, it is open Tuesday to Sunday and closed on Mondays.
Cost: Car parking £7, includes entry to the park (free for NT members). Family entry to house and gardens £36.25, garden only £25. National Trust members free.
Best for: ages three to eight.
Time needed: Can easily fill half a day or just pop to the park for an hour or so.
Access and restrictions: There is free disabled parking. The ramp running from the car park to the Visitor Centre is accessible by wheelchair and mobility scooter, but is quite steep. Wheelchairs and personal mobility vehicles (PMVs) are available to borrow from reception. Book in advance to ensure availability on 0161 941 1025.
We stay in a Thomas-themed hotel room before trying out Thomas Land at Drayton Manor Theme Park in Staffordshire
I wake to find a giant Thomas the Tank Engine staring at me.
Then my son’s excited face pops up over the top.
What a wonderful way for a boy to wake up on his birthday – in the top bunk of a Thomas bed.
We are at Drayton Manor Hotel near Tamworth in Staffordshire. It is on the same site as Drayton Manor Theme Park and our stay-and-play package includes breakfast and tickets to the park.
Our Thomas-themed room has no less than four television screens and a railway line printed on the floor which continues into some of the corridor.
We choo choo our way along it and make our way down to breakfast before skipping into the park.
A Thomas-themed room at Drayton Manor hotel
First stop – and our main reason for the visit – is Thomas Land. Having heard tales of long queues over the holidays, on this term-time day, the place is blissfully quiet.
James and the Red Balloon Ride
And with the sun shining, we go quickly from ride to ride, enjoying such delights as Cranky’s Drop Tower and Jeremy’s Flying Academy. And the quite exhilarating Troublesome Trucks Runaway Coaster is clearly enjoyed by us adults as much as the children.
The rest of the park
Then we climb aboard a Thomas the Tank train at “Knapford Station” and ride to another part of the park. Here, our two children enjoy all the birds and animals at the zoo and take the Dino Trail where there are model dinosaurs.
We then try out the handful of bigger rides suitable for younger children in the rest of the park, like the big wheel and the water rapids, which I scream my way through, much to everyone’s amusement.
Daringly, we board the very fast (I think) Accelerator (formerly known as The Ben 10 Ultimate Mission Coaster), suitable from aged four.
We alight full of happy laughter.
And it is this, not just Thomas, which is the theme of our stay.
Drayton Manor is also home to the stand-up roller coaster Shockwave
Accommodation: We stayed as guests at Drayton Manor Hotel for the purposes of this review. All views are our own.