Friday, 19 September 2014

Wray Castle, Windermere

If you've ever taken your small child to any stately home and lived in fear of them touching or breaking something, Wray Castle is the place for you. It is a mock gothic castle, built in the 1840s and owned by the National Trust.  After years being rented to different organisations as offices, it was opened to the public in 2012.

To get into the castle, you need to pay, but I think you could enjoy the grounds and gardens for free. There is a car park charge. You could also take a minibus from other local NT properties or do what we did and take a boat from Ambleside and make the 5 minute walk from the jetty to the castle.

Once we were in the castle every room had something fun for kids to do, including building castles from large foam blocks, craft activities, a microscope room and dressing up costumes (for adults as well as children!) There was a full sized pool table in 1 bedroom and a table tennis table in another.  One room even gave us chance to write the name of our favourite books on the wall.  None of the furniture was original or precious, and there are no valuable ornaments.

Outside there is a large adventure playground with tunnels and dens, and you can also take the path down to the lake side and paddle your toes. When we were there a local archery club also had targets set up in the walled garden, and we had a go for a small extra charge.

There is a pop up cafe in the castle, serving drinks, snacks and sandwiches which are prepared by a local pub. We took our lunch to one of the picnic benches at the front of the castle and enjoyed a sandwich with a view.

We spent about 4 hours there and could have spent longer. We didn't try the croquet on the front lawn or the children's trail, and it wasn't quite warm enough to paddle. But I'm sure we will be back.

Round up
Cafe latte price: not available, but £2.25 for a cappuccino
Favourite cake: scone, cream and jam (this is the National Trust after all) £2.95. Tray bakes also looked very good.
Child friendly highlights: Every room has something different, adventure playground and access to the lake. And try the baby change in one of the towers - very posh!
Buggy friendly: a sturdy buggy would be fine.
Parking: there is a charge, but we came by boat.

We had a great day out, and liked the very relaxed approach. Every stately home should have a table tennis table!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Rowntree Park, York

This is a lovely park near the river close to the centre of York. Set on land donated to the city by the chocolate company, it has plenty of space for bikes and scooters and playground equipment for a range of ages. There are several climbing frames, swings, slides and a long balance course.

Elsewhere in the park there is a mini golf course, skate park and there was a bouncy castle when we were there (extra charge). There are flocks of ducks and geese on a small lake and a more formal garden.

So far, so good. But the real point of difference in this park is the lovely community cafe, which hosts a small public library. It's an arts and crafts inspired building and has a balcony which overlooks the park. As a cafe it is cosy and welcoming, with magazines alongside the library books. The selection of books has been chosen by the Friends of Rowntree Park, a group which seems to be very active in support of the park and should be commended. When we were there the cafe was busy, and plenty of people were reading, to themselves and to their children. I suspect it had more visitors than many libraries on a Saturday afternoon.

At a time when local authority budgets are being squeezed, I think public services need to be innovative. This partnership of local authority, community group and cafe is working well and delivering a really attractive offering.

Round up
Café latte price: £2.50 for a large one
Favourite cake: £2.50 for a huge piece of Victoria sponge
Child friendly highlights: Great playground, babyccino for £1
Buggy friendly: yes
Parking: £2.40 for up to 2 hours

A public library in a (lovely) cafe, in a (pretty good) public park. What's not to like? A lesson to local authorities everywhere.


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

National Railway Museum, York

Sooner or later every small child seems to have a phase of being obsessed by trains. I assume this happens to little girls too. When it does, you can do worse than get yourselves to the National Railway Museum in York. It is free to get in, although there are lots of opportunities to spend money once you are in.

The highlights include many large steam engines, including the record breaking Mallard, a replica of the Rocket, a Eurostar, bullet train and various royal trains. There are also some impressive model railway layouts, which my son was very excited by. You can go on a Mallard simulator, which recreates the 1930s record breaking speed attempt, for an extra charge. You can buy a children's guide and spend lots of time in the large shop full of train related goodies.

Outside there is a large play area for 3-8 year olds and a ride on model train (extra charge). There are inside and outside picnic benches, and during the school holidays there are a series of hands on activities to take part in, some of which also have an extra charge.

There is plenty of in house catering to choose from. We sampled the Mallard cafe which provides surprisingly good quality drinks, snacks and lunches in the middle of the Great Hall, surrounded by steam engines.

Round up
Cafe latte price: £2.75 for a large one in the Mallard Cafe
Favourite cake: Choc peanut butter brownie for £2.95
Child friendly highlights: Big trains, small trains, trains in the playground, kids lunch boxes in the cafe
Buggy friendy: Yes
Parking: Come by train or park and ride

Although free to get in, the extras can mount up quickly, but this can be a full day out for train enthusiasts of all ages.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Markeaton Park, Derby

Deciding whether to include this Derby City Council run park on this blog was a real dilemma.  It’s a great place for small kids.  One of the highlights is a huge paddling pool, which is open in the summer, and has several fountains for added splashy fun.

The playground area is also huge, with signs of extensive recent investment.  My son had a great time in the pirate ship area, and the big slides set into the bank.  Toddlers get swings and a fire engine climbing frame and older children can play on big rope climbing frames.
There are plenty of picnic benches if you’ve brought your own lunch.

Most of this is provided for free.  Additional charges apply for hiring canoes on the boating lake, and the light railway, but these are reasonable, and you can have a good time in the park without doing either.

So far so good.  But this blog is about coffee and cake.  The only coffee I could find was at a takeaway kiosk where it came out of an instant coffee jar, topped up with boiling water.  Add your own milk and sugar, for £1.20.

I’ve since looked at the website, and there is apparently a café. We missed it completely, and even if it is there, it seems to be missing a trick to have it so far away from the children’s play area.

Round up
Café latte price: £1.20 for an instant coffee
Favourite cake: those my friend packed in the picnic
Child friendly highlights: Great paddling pool, huge playground, miniature train
Buggy friendly: Yes, very
Parking: £1.50 for up to 2 hours, £2.80 for up to 4 hours, £3.70 for over 4 hours
The park is great, and full marks for the investment. But my plea to Markeaton Park: invest in a cappuccino machine in your kiosk, add some homemade cake to the chocolate and ice cream selection, and this would be a perfect family destination.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Cannock Chase: Birches Valley

I've written about Cannock Chase before but this review is for another location.  And to be honest I found Birches Valley a better family destination than the Marquis Drive visitors centre.  Maintained by the Forestry Commission it is the place to go for mountain bike paths and Go Ape and if you are accompanied by under 5s it provides plenty of scope for a family outing.

The playground in the forest is vast with a range of swings, climbing frames and walls, cargo nets and slides. The paths are good for small cyclists, and my small son was surprisingly interested in the fairy grotto. When we were there there was a Gruffalo trail which we didn't follow but looked like fun.  There are lots of good picnic sites if you want to bring your own.

The cafe is also a lot better than the one on Marquis Drive.  We went in the school Easter holiday so the cafe was busy and I queued for a while but the service was still good. We enjoyed coffee and apricot muffins, which were delicious, but we could have had freshly made baguettes, soup or jacket potatoes. There is also an ice cream kiosk which was doing a great trade.

 Overall on a fine day this is a lovely spot for family play and exploration.

Round up
Cafe latte price: £2.70 for a large one
Favourite cake: super fruity apricot muffins £1.60
Child friendly highlights: Great playground, lots of biking paths, gruffalo trail, fairy grotto, baby changing
Buggy friendly: Yes in parts, but it would need to be a sturdy one to cope with forest paths

Car parking: £3 all day
Birches Valley is a great outdoor playing spot in a beautiful location and makes for a good value family destination.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Kingsbury Water Park, nr Tamworth

Kingsbury Water Park is a large country park with 15 lakes, owned and run by Warwickshire County Council. 

It is a great place for outdoor play.  The Lake View playground and the Far Leys adventure playground cater for children of all ages with multiple climbing frames, tunnels and swings.  There are plenty of reasonably flat paths suitable for bikes and scooters and picnic benches at both playgrounds. 

A real highlight for my son is the Echills Wood miniature railway which runs from the playground near the car park, to the playground at Far Leys.  There is an extra charge for this, although if you have a big group, or plan to come again, it can work out well to buy a book of 8 tickets.

The Old Barn café is close to the car park, and serves a good range of drinks, snacks, and ice cream. There is indoor and outdoor seating. The coffee is not a highlight, but if you have spent a couple of hours exploring with children they serve it hot and wet and accompanied by cake.

You pay to park, and you will need £3.50 in change to feed the barrier as you arrive.

The site includes a children's farm, which we haven't explored yet, and is also home to a model boat club, jet bikes and power boats.  But despite all that, it is a surprisingly relaxing destination.

Round up
Café Latte price: I don't think they do it - have a mug of coffee at £1.80 or cappuccino at £2.10
Favourite cake: Tea cake for £1.90, or the coffee and walnut at £2.20
Child friendly highlights: Playgrounds, bike friendly paths, model trains
Buggy friendly: The site is fairly flat and easy for buggies, some on paths some on grass
Car parking: £3.50 pay on arrival

Kingsbury has lots of space for playing and biking and is a firm family favourite on a fine day.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Hanbury Hall, nr Droitwich, Worcs

This blog usually focusses on those place which are free to get in, or where there is a small charge for car parking only. Hanbury Hall is an exception. If you aren't a National Trust member, it's quite expensive to get in. In the winter it costs £10.65 for a family ticket to the park and gardens (more if you want to go in the house as well, and more if you gift aid it).

But once you are in, there is a huge area of gardens and park to enjoy. We've been coming here as a family for years, and highlights for the small members include a great outdoor playground, a tunnel (brilliant for train-mad toddlers) and the walled garden with hens and bantams. Add to that lots of space for running around and picnics, and beautiful gardens, and I suspect it will continue to be a destination.

Coffee and cake is well up to the National Trust's usual standards. They aim to use produce from the garden in their baking, and the eggs are from their own hens. Try the cake of the month (recipe on the website) or just tuck into a great big scone - you know you want to! 

Round up
Café Latte price: £2.35
Favourite cake: Coffee and walnut or Victoria sponge, don't make me decide.  £2.35 each.

Child friendly highlights: The playground, the tunnel, the lawn in front of the orangery for ball games and general letting off steam. 

Buggy friendly: Car park is gravelled and very hard work. Some steps in the garden and cattle grids on the drive.
Car parking: No extra charge


If you are a National Trust member, this is a lovely place for a family afternoon out on a dry day.